2007 Output Statement for Department of Social and Family Affairs.

Acting Chairman

This meeting has been convened for the purpose of the consideration by the committee of the Revised Estimates for 2007, Vote 38 - Social and Family Affairs, which was referred by the Dáil to the committee. I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Seamus Brennan, and his officials. In line with the expanded budgetary process, an output statement has been provided and circulated to members, along with a briefing from the Department.

Members will be aware that the Minster for Finance announced a number of reforms to the Estimates and budget process in budget 2006. As part of those reforms, Departments will submit an annual output statement from this year, 2007, to select committees to facilitate consideration of the Estimates. This important initiative is intended to facilitate greater parliamentary involvement in the budget and Estimates process. 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.

As always, I thank you and the select committee for the invitation to appear before the committee to discuss my Department's Estimates and the output statement. I thank the committee for its work on this important area. It is my third occasion as Minister to appear before the committee in regard to the annual Estimates.

As the Acting Chairman said, there is an important new element this year in our discussions. I refer particularly to the annual output statement. That is a new feature regarding reforms to the budget and the Estimates process which was announced by the Minister for Finance in the 2006 budget. The primary purpose of the output statement is to enhance accountability and try to give us clearer evidence of the results of public spending. It is an attempt to link key outputs with important and strategic inputs, being largely in the form of finance and staffing resources. The document supplied to members is an important one that will make our work a good deal easier.

This statement will link the financial allocations of the Estimates with the annual output targets, and they are linked to the high level goals in the Department's statement of strategy. In that way we get a more integrated, joined up process.

Each Department's output statement is being presented to the relevant committee at the same time as the annual Estimates, which is the purpose of this meeting. Following this process, the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service will co-ordinate the preparation of a report to the Dáil on the deliberations. That output statement will also be published in each Department's annual report. This is an important reform and breakthrough and it should make the work of all committees and the budgetary and financial processes much more transparent.

It is worth emphasising, in particular, that the new process is very much a work in progress both for Departments and officials as well as for the members of select committees, who have been used to dealing with the Estimates. This will be the first occasion on which they will be able to examine inputs and compare them to outputs. This marks an important beginning in this process.

The statement before members sets out the financial allocations and output targets for 2007 only. Next year the statement will report on performance against these targets as well as setting out targets for the year ahead. I made those opening comments on the output statement as it is a new feature and one I wanted to highlight. I wish the process well as we are in the early days of it and I believe it will make a fine contribution to the quality of our financial management.

The Estimates before us show that total spending on social welfare by the Department has increased by €1.8 billion, which represents an increase of 13% on expenditure in 2006, from €13.5 billion in 2006 to reach its highest ever level of €15.3 billion this year. This corresponds to 29% of total gross current Government spending and more than 9.5% of gross national product. Expenditure of this level is very significant, involves very large sums and provides a lifeline for many people. Each week, payments are made to approximately 980,000 persons, while more than 563,000 families receive child benefit every month.

As members will have heard me say in my previous appearances before the select committee, I do not see the role of my Department as merely to spend money. I have made this point time and again, as often as not to remind myself of it because it is an important direction. The role of the Department is not only to spend money in a focused and targeted way but to have real regard for the social policy objectives that lie behind the spending and whether we can develop those social policies, social programmes in a more reasonable way. Whether it affects carers, elderly people, children, lone parents, people with disabilities or others, these are important sums of money which are before us for consideration.

The budget was another important step in this direction. I had a number of priorities in putting the provisions together with the Minister for Finance. One was to improve the position of our older people, to recognise their valuable contribution and to make sure they could live their later years in dignity and security without the threat of poverty or isolation. I wanted to take a decisive step towards the elimination of poverty, especially continuing to confront the unacceptable remaining levels of child poverty. I also wanted to further improve income supports to carers and to strongly recognise their valuable service to the community and to society as a whole. I further wanted to ensure that this budget reflected, and underpinned with substantial financial supports, a social welfare system that is an active one rather than a passive-reactive one. The decisions taken underline that.

In attempting to deliver on these objectives in the budget we secured an additional €1.4 billion, which allowed me to substantially increase the levels of pensions and welfare payments. As in the case of all budgets, we set out to reduce the gap between those at the bottom of the ladder and those who are more fortunate. This Department is very much a safety net and it is important that it fulfils that duty as well.

I wanted to examine the challenges that face social policy in the 21st century. In particular, I introduced a range of innovative measures for women, pensioners and carers, among others, as well as a number of important initiatives to reward work and encourage education and training. The following are some of the main achievements. The State non-contributory pension increased by €18 per week to €200 per week, while the contributory pensions increased to €209.30 per week. Considerable progress was made in bringing the level of qualified adult allowance for pensioner spouses to the level of the State non-contributory pension. It now stands at €173 per week which is more than 86% of the non-contributory pension. We are committed to closing that gap completely. Furthermore, from September next, the payment for a qualified adult will be paid directly to the qualified adult for the duration of entitlement of a State pensioner. I regard that as an important change, particularly in recognition of the role of women in the welfare system. The net effect of both these measures is that, for the first time, enhanced pension entitlements will be paid directly to qualified adults who are mainly women. These measures will make the welfare system fairer and more accessible.

Approximately 26,000 pensioners on reduced rates of payment will benefit from the changes in the general means disregard for the State non-contributory pension. The employment earnings disregard was increased from €100 to €200 per week. As I discussed with members of the select committee previously, this measure is to try to incentivise older people, if they wish, to re-enter the workforce and to allow them to retain their pension. They can now earn up to €200 per week without it having any effect on their non-contributory pension.

The budget also provided for an increase of €20 per week in the personal rate payment to recipients of the various social welfare schemes for persons of working age. This brought the level of the lowest rate of payment to €185.80 per week. This was a commitment given in the national action plan on social inclusion and Towards 2016.

Members will also be aware that the minimum rates of maternity and adoptive benefits were increased by €25.20 per week to €207.80 per week, while the period of paid maternity leave was extended by a further four weeks to 26 weeks. That took effect on 1 March.

A number of entitlements announced in budget 2007 were designed to facilitate re-entry into the workforce. We also introduced a number of measures aimed at eliminating unnecessary complexities in the system across the schemes. We made changes to the upper income threshold for one-parent families, particularly the limit of €400 per week, which one-parent families are now permitted to earn without affecting their lone parent allowance. That was particularly important in the context of the reforms in respect of lone parents.

We also devoted special attention to carers this year. Every member of this select committee admires the work of carers. In particular, I was pleased that from September next we will be able to introduce a new additional means-tested payment, equivalent to up to half of the carer's allowance. That will be introduced for people who have another social welfare benefit. I take this opportunity to thank the members of the select committee who unanimously recommended this change to me and I was pleased to be able to respond to their request. I salute the members for that innovative proposal which is now under way. This figure is tentative but it will enable approximately 18,000 social welfare recipients, who are engaged in full-time caring, to retain entitlement to their primary payment and receive half the maximum rate of carer's allowance. I stress that figure is tentative because there are various issues involved, but approximately 18,000 recipients will benefit from that change. The select committee can be proud of itself in that regard.

We made some changes in regard to the disability allowance. As and from June 2007, the capital disregard for disability allowance will be increased by €30,000, which has increased from €20,000 to €50,000. That is a gesture but an important one in terms of permitting those seeking a disability allowance to have capital of that amount.

As members will be aware, we increased child benefit rates, which will take effect next week. All three qualified child allowance rates were standardised to a single rate of €22 per week, family income supplement thresholds were changed to €185 per week and the rate of payment of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance was significantly increased, with the allowances doubled in some cases over a two year period.

We have made substantial progress. A contributory pensioner couple gained €2,180 per annum or 11.6%. A lone parent who earns €16,000 per annum with one child under six years gained €1,347 per annum or 12.8%. A couple in receipt of family income supplement and earning €30,000 per annum, with three children under 12 years, gained €3,288 per annum or an increase of nearly 26%. These are significant increases.

One can take comfort from the commentary of the ESRI on these changes. It described the last budget as:

One of the most progressive budget packages over the past decade and a half ... Poorer families gained substantially more in percentage terms than those at the middle and top of income distribution. On average, the poorest one-fifth of families gained close to 5 per cent from Budget 2007.

It has endorsed the emphasis of the budget on poorer families gaining substantially more than those at the top or middle of income distribution. That was the clear intention of this and previous budgets.

I thank the committee for its work and look forward to its consideration of the Estimates for 2007.

Acting Chairman

We will now deal with subheads A1 to A11, inclusive.

I welcome the Minister and his officials. I recall the Minister's former colleague, Mr. McCreevy, arriving to the committee with a group of hard working officials and telling us that he was accompanied by a cast of thousands. The Minister is here with a cast of thousands and they are most welcome. Deputies and Senators have found the officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs particularly helpful. We always take the opportunity to acknowledge this, especially in the Minister's presence, because if there were difficulties, it would be said.

Subhead A3 refers to incidental expenses regarding advertising, cleaning, conferences and so forth. There is a substantial increase from €5.7 million to €17.1 million. As much of this is for advertising, perhaps the Minister will outline what advertising will be covered. Various companies will get the advertising contracts and tenders will be involved. The Minister could give us an overview of how that is done.

Subhead A6 relates to office premises expenses. Will the Minister take this opportunity to outline what progress has been made on decentralisation? How many premises does the Department own? Rent is not covered in the subhead. Is the Department renting premises? With regard to the latest directive about moving to renewable energy sources, energy saving light bulbs and so forth, there is a 25% increase in the Estimate in respect of heat, light and fuel. Is there any way of curbing this?

Subhead A7 relates to consultancy services, on which there is an increase of 157% in the spend since 2006. The core functions programme refers to organisational change strategies relating to the transfer of certain services and schemes between the HSE and the Department. Does that involve the transfer of the community welfare service? Will the Minister elaborate on what else is involved? What is the breakdown of the costing in respect of consultancy fees? There is also talk of an actuarial review of the social insurance fund, which is an interesting project. Has it started or what is the position on it? I am also interested in the equality review of the social welfare code. What is happening with it?

Subhead A8 refers to agency services. What is the status of the contract with An Post, about which there has been much disquiet during the years.

Subhead A10 deals with value for money reviews. This is relatively new and will cost €620,000. It appears to be a great deal of money to assess if there is value for money but it could be worthwhile in the overall scheme of things. Perhaps the Minister will outline what is happening with it. The review of the disability allowance scheme was to conclude by the end of the year. Is that still on target? The number on disability allowance has increased substantially.

Subhead A11 deals with e-government related projects. Can the Minister give us more details on the projects involved?

The questions I had intended to ask have been asked by Deputy Stanton. Rather than delay the meeting, I will allow the Minister to respond.

Subhead A3 shows a provisional outturn of €5.7 million in 2006 and an Estimate of €17 million for 2007, an increase of €11 million or 199%. This subhead provides for the Department's needs with regard to advertising, cleaning services, carriage of goods, conferences and other miscellaneous expenses. The most significant items are cleaning, advertising, security costs, waste disposal, carriage of goods and compensation. The advertising provision has been increased to €1.8 million, an increase of €863,000 on the 2006 provisional outturn. That allocation is divided into a general advertising budget and an entitlements awareness campaign budget of €1.26 million. The information service received requests from various sections of the Department to undertake an entitlements awareness campaign in the course of the year. We undertook one about the family income supplement and are considering developing one on the all-Ireland free travel pass and the need for people to apply for it. A significant portion of the increase is for advertising entitlements to a greater extent than heretofore.

With regard to value for money, the Estimate in subhead A10 is €620,000. The new subhead caters for the estimated administrative costs associated with the reviews. It covers salary costs and a small amount for consultancy fees. In previous years these costs were spread over the relevant administrative subheads. For the first time, the sum involved is the estimated administrative cost associated with the review. Obviously, it is not the substantive review itself.

The review of the supplementary welfare allowance, the application of unemployment benefit, and assistance schemes' conditions for workers who are not employed on a full-time basis were completed in 2006. In these reviews for 2007-08, the Department has undertaken a value for money review of aspects of disability allowances and information services, including services provided by the Citizens Information Board. The Estimate also includes provision for €50,000 in respect of the Department's contribution towards the OECD sickness and disability policy review in which Ireland is participating. That heading concerns the administrative costs of carrying out these reviews.

The Deputy also asked me about e-government projects. The Estimate is for €11.5 million from a provisional outturn of €1.093 million. That is an increase of €10.407 million. The subhead provides for three e-government related projects, all of which have a general public sector-wide impact. It therefore affects all Departments, not just mine.

The standard authorisation framework environment programme's Estimate for 2007 is €4.5 million. That is a substantial increase of over €4 million. This programme was established to progress the development of a standard public service card. During 2007, work will include progress on the development of a unified registration service, production and issuance of the new public service card in the form of a free travel pass. A large proportion of that increase arises from that programme. The production of the card accounts, for example, for €3.7 million.

The public service identity service is another aspect of this e-government programme. The Estimate for that is €3 million for next year against a provisional outturn last year of €460,000 - an increase of €2.5 million. The Department has a broad public service-wide role in supporting the use of the PPS number. The first phase in this has already been developed and is available via automated link to each public service broker. A second phase of development is now under way. The funding provided is required to complete the second phase, undertake a third phase and engage third-party technical support for the production of further work on PPS numbers.

There is an increase of €2.5 million in the 2006 outturn due to the next phase of technical support, including €2.6 million for hardware and software. There are a number of other items under that heading but I will not deal with them unless the Deputy particularly wants me to do so.

The Deputy asked about decentralisation. My Department is arguably the most decentralised of all, with something like 60% of our entire staff based outside the greater Dublin area. The most recent development is the completion of the extension to the social welfare office in Sligo. The information customer service comprising 36 staff, together with the internal audit unit comprising 11 staff, were relocated to Sligo in February 2007. In addition, the supplementary welfare section was fast-tracked to Sligo in July 2005 with 15 staff. I viewed those developments in Sligo recently.

Construction of the new building in Carrick-on-Shannon has been completed and is due to open in April. I had the pleasure of visiting that building in recent weeks and I highly recommend people to view it. It is a magnificent piece of work.

The decentralisation programme includes the transfer of all Dublin-based headquarters staff, including the Combat Poverty Agency and the Citizens Information Board, to the following locations: Drogheda, including the CIB, 300; Buncrana, 120; Donegal, 230; Carrick-on-Shannon, 225; Sligo, 100; Monaghan, Combat Poverty Agency, 25; and Carrickmacross, 85. That provides a total complement of 1,085. We are making solid progress towards these targets. We will be able to meet the targets with full co-operation. Obviously, the entire programme is being undertaken on a voluntary basis.

The Deputy asked me about the actuarial review. It is a statutory requirement which is done every five years. It must be laid before the House during 2007, and is well under way. It is being carried out by Mercer which is examining social insurance fund income and expenditure, and looking at how it is likely to shape up over the next 50 years. As regards pension provision, it is important to look at the years ahead and how solidly the fund is based. That work is nearly finished but we are unlikely to make an announcement on it in the near future as some work remains to be done. Nonetheless, it is making good, solid progress. It is a statutory requirement and an important fund.

The Deputy asked me if the Department rents premises, and we do. The OPW normally carries the cost of that in its own Vote, rather than in my Department's Vote.

I think I have covered most of the Deputy's points, but I can revert to any matters later if he wishes me to do so.

Just to be clear, the Estimate for 2007 is money to be spent this year, while the outturn for 2006 is what was spent last year. Subhead A3 deals with advertising, cleaning and other services, which increased by 199%. The Department has plans to spend money, so it is not money that has been spent in the past, like the FIS project. With respect, can the Minister enlighten us as to what future projects he intends to spend money on advertising for the remainder of this year, rather than telling us what he spent money on last year, which we know about?

It is almost April and some of the funds have already been dispersed since January, so there could be some overlap. The 199% applies to the amount of money being spent from January, not from today. The family income supplement promotion and other such promotions, in so far as they took place since 1 January, would be included in the figure. It is not only what is going forward, but also what dates back to last January.

I mentioned that the main entitlements promotion concerns free travel. Some 600,000 people are entitled to free travel passes in regard to Northern Ireland. The Deputy will be aware that from next week, persons over 66 who are qualified in our jurisdiction will be entitled to travel free around Northern Ireland. By the same token, approximately 200,000 qualified persons in the North will be entitled to travel free around the Republic. We will have to promote that scheme because we need people to apply for it.

Another issue is the half-rate carer's allowance. The Deputy pointed out that it involves a major task because so many people on different welfare allowances may seek that allowance. There will be a lot of movement in and out of the lists, so it is important to provide solid information on people's entitlements to that allowance. I have asked the Citizens Information Board to ensure that people know about their entitlements. The answer to the Deputy's question therefore is that the two main awareness campaigns concern the half-rate carer's allowance and the free all-island travel scheme.

Acting Chairman

We now move on to subhead B2 - social assistance.

Does Deputy Seán Ryan wish to start?

Acting Chairman

It is nice to see Deputy Stanton co-operating with the junior partner.

As this is the last Estimate debate I will attend as a Member of the Oireachtas, I want to compliment the staff of the Department who have been so helpful and co-operative, not only to myself but to every public representative. They set a fantastic standard. It would be fantastic if the staff in other Departments gave such co-operation.

Given that the Minister, Deputy Brennan, has been laid low since Saturday night last, he looks extremely well. I wish him all the best.

Quite the contrary, Deputy Ryan has just been hanging out in different places.

On subhead N, last week in the context of the Bill we discussed the changes that have taken place in the supplementary welfare allowance and the rent supplement scheme. There is still a problem in the case of the working poor. Earlier this week I came across a lone parent, for example, who had to work part time because she could not continue to work full time and look after her family. The Minister needs to go further.

Given that for different reasons there is an unprecedented number of people on the housing list and the lack of available local authority housing, it is likely that the rent supplement scheme will continue to be the main access point for people on the housing lists. Is there any way that we could amend that provision further in future years? On the €75 disregard, can the Minister confirm that rather than being based on the original provision, whereby anyone who worked over 30 hours per week was no longer eligible, it is all now based on income?

I am concerned about the number of landlords who are not registered under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. There are complaints about poor quality housing conditions and, at present, all of the power is in the hands of the landlords in that they are not obliged to accept tenants on rent supplement. Is there any way in which the Minister could pull those two matters together and provide for greater co-operation between the local authority and the community welfare officers on the issues of standards and landlords being obliged to be registered under the aforementioned Act?

Sitting suspended at 2.45 p.m. and resumed at 3.05 p.m.

On rent supplement, will the Minister elaborate on the rental accommodation scheme and how it operates at present? There is a capital disregard in respect of rent supplement and mortgage interest supplement. Is it proposed to increase these supplements? I saw a document recently in which it was stated that the figure would be increased from €520 to — this was obviously wrong — €5,000. Will the Minister outline the position in this regard?

I received representations to the effect that there is a need to amend the Equal Status Act to prevent discrimination on the basis of sources of income and socio-economic status. Certain landlords are still not prepared to take on tenants who are in receipt of rent supplement. This matter must be examined. As stated previously, those affected are the working poor. I accept that some measures were taken in the rental accommodation scheme. It is wrong that people who cannot obtain housing accommodation and who are not earning enough to afford mortgages are obliged to give up work and go on welfare payments to ensure they will have a roof over their heads. I am concerned about this problem and I accept that it will not be easy to resolve it.

Under subhead N3, there are three categories, namely, rent, mortgage interest and other. To what does the latter category refer?

On subhead B, the State non-contributory pension, I understand there is an income disregard involved. However, that might relate to people in insurable employment. In any event, the take-up rate is quite small. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. Will he indicate whether the trend in respect of people in receipt of the non-contributory pension is going up or down? I understand that it may go down over time.

On subhead D, child benefit, I wish to raise one issue, namely, whether the Minister considered removing the habitual residence condition in light of the small number of children - approximately 2,000 - who are affected. These are the children of asylum seekers in the centres. We have received further representations on this matter since the last occasion on which we discussed it with the Minister. There is concern that they are under pressure. Overall, the amount involved could be quite small.

Subhead F relates to the farm assist scheme. I understand there are concerns about the poor take-up rates in the scheme. There appears to have been a decrease in the numbers involved. Is the Minister in a position to explain why? Should advertising of the scheme be increased? Are people aware of its existence or has the rural support scheme impacted on it in some way?

There is an increase in respect of employment support services. Will the Minister indicate whether people with disabilities and lone parents are included on the national employment action plan, NEAP?

On subhead I, a substantial amount is being paid out in respect of one-parent families. The Minister has proposed a new assistance payment for low-income families for quite some time. Perhaps he will indicate whether progress has been made in this regard. The Estimate indicates that an average of 83,550 people are receiving the one-parent family payment at present. That number is increasing. How many are on the maximum payment rate? How many are in employment, education and training?

What is the position with regard to assistance, advice and facilitation in seeking a job? We are all agreed that would be a great help. Child care costs is one of the main impediments in this regard. Significant money and numbers of people are involved and, therefore, the Minister might comment on that.

I refer to the family income supplement under subhead L. The allocation is €27 million, an increase of €7.98 million, which has resulted from budget increases and the advertising campaign earlier this year. Is the Minister concerned that more people are depending on FIS, even with the increases? I appreciate a catch-22 is involved and the Minister might say the payment was increased and because more people have taken it up, he cannot win. However, more families are depending on it. Whatever Government is returned, this issue of the working poor will have to be examined. CORI and others have raised it as a serious concern recently. Is there a plan to further advertise FIS? How stands the proposal to link up with Revenue? When will we see results from that?

The carer's allowance comes under subhead N and under it the allocation has been increased by 20%, which will provide for an average of 31,800 recipients. Is this increase the result of a half rate payment of the allowance to some social welfare recipients? Has the Minister done anything about the position of young carers? I stress that I am not seeking additional money for them but they need support and recognition, which is not the case currently.

The rental accommodation scheme has only housed 3,000 long-term supplementary welfare allowance recipients since it commenced. Is the Minister satisfied with this, given that take-up appears to be slow? A sum of €43 million has been allocated for the RAS with only €8 million spent thus far. What is happening with the remaining €35 million? Is the scheme operated by all local authorities?

A total of 85,500 people are in receipt of the disability allowance. What is the average time a person is in receipt of the allowance? If the Minister does not have the information, he might forward it later. When was the allowance introduced? According to recent parliamentary questions, it appears to be in place for the past 16 years. What was in its place prior to that? The number in receipt of the allowance has steadily increased over the years. Has the Department examined why this is happening? Approximately 43,000 people claimed the allowance in 1997 and this number increased by 5,000 annually reaching 83,000 in 2006, despite the number of terminations increasing from 3,000 to 6,000 annually during the same period. I do not suggest the Department should be tougher regarding medical assessments and so on but it is curious that the number continues to increase. Perhaps there is another reason for this about which I am not aware.

Under subhead R, when will the Minister publish legislation to put MABS on a statutory footing? It will probably not happen before the Dáil dissolves but how far away is publication? The allocation for the service has increased from €13.5 million to €17.6 million. What will the allocation cover? The grant to the Family Support Agency has also increased. How many family support centres are in place? Has the target of 100 been reached? Will the Minister elaborate on the EU community action programme?

Under subhead U, what is the status of personal advocacy services introduced under the Citizens Information Act 2007?

I compliment the Minister on the great work he has done since taking up office to take people out of poverty. The way he has approached this is to permit them to earn more from employment while retaining their social welfare entitlements. This is the way to go and more people will escape the poverty trap if he continues in this direction. Up to two years ago widows who earned even a euro had it deducted from their pension. At least they can now earn €200 per week before a deduction and this provision also applies to pensioners. I am delighted with this because people aged 66 and over are no longer old, given that generally we live longer. These people have only lived two thirds of their life by then and many of them would like to continue working.

We have fought for a long time for a half rate carer's allowance to be paid to widows and I am pleased the Minister has acceded to this. This acknowledges the caring role of widows. The income disregard, which amounts to €640 for a couple where one is caring, is substantial. My wife cared for my elderly mother in the years before I was elected to the Dáil but, because I was earning more than €100 per week farming, she received nothing. Many people attending our clinics are entitled to the carer's allowance now and I am pleased that is the case because they should be recognised.

The changes to the family income supplement have made it attractive for low income families. However, people with disabilities who have undertaken numerous educational and training courses cannot find employment because there is no link to ensure employers understand they are well trained and can do the work involved. It is probably too easy for many employers to hire non-nationals rather than people with disabilities. While the Minister is not directly responsible for this, more should be done to highlight this issue and to provide employers with an incentive to take on people with disabilities because they are good workers.

I endorse Deputy Callanan's comments regarding the Minister's work. He has responded and, as someone who represents a constituency where there have been social welfare challenges in the past, it is good to be able to acknowledge that. On different occasions in my role as secretary of the Fianna Fáil social and family affairs policy group, I have raised issues with the Minister and he has been very responsive. I attended a function in An Cosán in Tallaght earlier this week where a young mother's initiative was launched. A booklet was produced with the assistance of the Minister. There is a lovely photograph of him in the Tallaght Echo today, which I must forward to him. This represents a good use of public moneys.

This is a time when we are looking abroad for people to come here to work. Many of our emigrants are returning because they see how good things are here and how well the country is run. However, people have contacted me to tell me there are difficulties and challenges for those returning. People who return to live here having been away for long or short periods find the bureaucracy challenging. I know the Department has to do its job in this regard, but we should welcome people who return, particularly our own emigrants who have come back to respond to the job needs of the country. I get a sense from them that there are difficulties in this regard and would like the assurance of the Minister that he is looking at the matter. I do not ask him to be easy on the regulations, but to take a look at the position. I have been told there are difficulties as returned emigrants have to provide proof for all sorts of things. There is an issue and the Minister should look at it. In general, he has done a great job. Long may it continue.

I will try to deal with all the questions asked as quickly as I can, but if I leave something out, Deputies can raise it at the end.

Deputy Ryan referred to the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and related issues. He began by saying this might be his last session discussing the Estimates. In that regard, I pay tribute to his work in the Dáil and at this committee and his passion for the underprivileged. I salute the work he does. That said, none of us is sure we will be back, but at least Deputy Ryan knows he will not. As a colleague, we wish him well.

The disability allowance which was introduced in 1996 was formerly administered by the health boards as the disabled person's maintenance allowance. The increase in the number on the allowance is a cause of concern and the position is being examined to establish the source of the the increased number. It is particularly worrying that so many young people are in receipt of the allowance. We are looking closely at the causes underlying this trend. We are anxious that as many as possible find their way off the allowance back to an occupation of their choice and will help them to achieve this.

On State pensions, some 96,500 are in receipt of a non-contributory pension. In 2006 the figure was 87,630. The increase in the number is the result of an artificial jump because people over 66 years in other schemes move to this pension. The overall trend in the number of non-contributory pensioners is as follows: 94,000 in 1999; 91,000 in 2000; 89,000 in 2001; 87,000 in 2003; and 85,000 in 2004. Despite the artificial jump, the underlying trend is downward and this will continue.

Deputy Ryan asked about employment and rent supplement, a matter about which one of the officials may have spoken to him. Employment over 30 hours qualifies if the applicant has been approved for the rental accommodation scheme. This change was made in the recent budget. In other words, a person is not permitted to work over 30 hours, unless he or she is officially on the rental accommodation scheme list. Those who have been transferred onto the list qualify. If people are not approved for the RAS, the old limit still applies, based on an assessment of earnings. This was amended to ensure there would be no disincentive to return to the workforce.

A question was asked about the capital disregard for the rental allowance scheme. We have increased the figure from €520 to €5,000 in the Bill. The reason for this is that the figure of €520 was probably an insult and far from what it should have been. Owing to the level of SSIAs, savings accounts and increased earnings, a capital disregard of €5,000 is more sensible.

Is the Minister saying that in assessing rent supplement the first €5,000 is disregarded?

Yes, we made the change in the budget because up until then a person could have had capital of €520 before getting into difficulty with rent allowance. We changed the figure to €5,000 because it is more practical. Although the change did not receive much attention, it is an important one.

The Minister can work on that one.

I thank the Deputy for the tip. I will dig out a photograph. He also asked about waiting lists. We will send him some graphs which he can study when he has the opportunity, perhaps during his retirement.

Deputy Stanton asked about the non-contributory State pension. The income disregard has changed from €100 to €200, but disappointingly only approximately 400 people benefit. I would like to see a greater uptake. We need to bring the change to people's attention. The low uptake may be as much a cultural matter as anything else. As Deputy Callanan said, we must try to get the message to those in receipt of a non-contributory State pension that they can earn up to €200 per week without their pension being affected. It is deeply ingrained in their psyche that if they earn anything, their pension will be affected. They are afraid of their lives to earn anything in case it affects their pension. We must try to get the message across and help the over 66s to be more relaxed about the fact that choosing to do some work may not affect their pensions. We must all try to reassure them of this.

Without starting a big debate on the issue, there is great scope in this area. Those in receipt of a contributory pension can earn what they wish. I have a strong view, which is why I started this process, that we should get to a stage where those in receipt of a non-contributory pension could also earn what they like. I have started the process by moving to a figure of €200. I would recommend to whoever holds office in the future that he or she continue to increase this figure, to a point where, irrespective of the additional amount a person can bring home for his or her family, he or she will be able to hold onto the pension without the State clawing it back. If I have anything to do with it, that policy direction will be developed.

Deputy Ryan asked about landlords who refused to take on rent supplement tenants. This is a difficult issue and we need to obtain clear legal advice in such cases. Under existing legislation, grounds were laid down. Under equality legislation, there are nine grounds prohibiting discrimination: gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, race, disability and membership of the Traveller community. Prima facie, refusing a person on the basis that he or she is a rent allowance recipient seems illegal. I am not a legal person but it would appear to me to be illegal, on the basis that a particular type of recipient is being picked out to whom an owner will not rent out the premises. It is a complicated legal area and clear legal advice will be required. My comment is therefore based on my own reading of the situation. A total of 59,000 are in receipt of rent supplement and this suggests that the practice is not that problematic, given that so many people are in receipt. I do not have any great evidence of complaints from claimants to the Department or to the HSE about the practice.

Landlords are much cuter these days and they are unlikely to say to a person they will not rent the applicant the apartment because he or she is in receipt of rent supplement; they will ferret out the information and then find some other reason for refusing. For that reason it is a difficult legal area to enforce. Lest there be any misinterpretation, landlords should not refuse anybody on the basis that he or she is a recipient of rent allowance. They should be pleased to have the tenants and the source of the tenant's income should not be the concern of a landlord.

What action can the tenant take if that is the only reason given for refusal of tenancy?

If that is the reason specifically given the tenant could challenge it in the courts under the Equality Act. I presume a tenant could also refer to the Equality Tribunal. I suspect very few landlords will specifically give this as a reason. I wish to discourage landlords from taking this attitude. People in rent supplement are well able to pay their rent as it is being provided to them and landlords should not discriminate against them.

The rental assistance arrangements are now operational in all local authority areas. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has indicated that at the end of January 2007 more than 3,000 tenants have been accommodated under the rental accommodation scheme and a further 2,300 persons accommodated in social housing. I remind colleagues it is projected that by the end of 2007 up to 10,000 tenants will have transferred from rent supplement to accommodation provided by local authorities, either through the RAS or by some other type of social housing. I confirm to the committee that the overall target is that in excess of 30,000 tenants who have been in receipt of rent supplement for 18 months or more will have been accommodated by local authorities by the end of 2008 and this is the current target. My Department has transferred funds this year of €25 million to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as its contribution towards the cost of funding RAS, the rental accommodation scheme. They are ambitious targets and we are confident the 10,000 will be reached by the end of this year.

With regard to the farm assist scheme, there are currently 7,483 farm assist recipients and the average weekly payment is €178. The level of take-up since the farm assist scheme was first introduced in April 1999 significantly reversed the ongoing downward trend in numbers under the smallholders' assistance scheme which preceded it, reaching its highest level at approximately 8,500 prior to the introduction of the rural social scheme by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in May 2004. Participants have decreased since then, due to the transfer of farmers to the rural social scheme. In addition, take-up would have been affected by the increase in off-farm employment. Farm assist has been widely promoted in various ways over the years with a major media campaign and prime time spots on radio.

Deputy Callanan asked about the family income supplement. I thank him for his comments, in particular his support for older people whom he constantly champions both in my party's rooms and in the Dáil. His knowledge of the welfare system is legendary in the halls. I have to look up the answers to most of his questions. I appreciate his great knowledge of the system.

The Department has promoted the family income supplement and is determined to continue so that more people are included. The family income supplement is a lifeline for many people on low incomes and the Department intends to expand the scheme. The thresholds have been raised this year so that more people can qualify. When the different welfare benefits for families on low incomes are added in, the add-on amount is quite significant.

I thank Deputy O'Connor for his kind comments and for noticing my photograph here and there. On the question of returned immigrants, we all have a special responsibility in that regard. They should be treated with great respect and dignity because of their contribution to Ireland. It is a compliment to the country that they have returned. More than 1,000 new jobs are being created every year and this is attracting back many of our own people. It is truly wonderful to see them coming home to Ireland - even if it is a generation later in many cases - to take up good employment and to seek to rebuild their lives in Ireland. We should do everything possible to make them feel very welcome in their own land. This is a good news story because it means our own people are showing confidence in the country by coming back to work. The day this does not happen will be the day to worry about the country. We are delighted they are giving a vote of confidence to the country.

Deputy Callanan had a question about the courses for those with a disability. The Department is starting a pilot scheme this year to seek to help people with disabilities seek ESF funding. In 2006 I introduced better disregards for earnings. The help has included access to ESF, the disregard, the pilot scheme and the review I spoke about earlier. I have expressed concern about the growing number of people in receipt of disability allowance. These measures will offer more support for those on disability allowance to help them find employment and training. I share the Deputy's concern and I am pleased he has raised the matter.

I have dozens of statistics and facts and figures which I hope I have included.

It is probably an indication of the success and the increased numbers availing of the family income supplement but it has been brought to my attention that there could be a waiting period of more than three months for processing new applications. Is there anything the Minister or his staff can do to expedite the process?

A total of 27,000 people are in receipt of family income supplement. As a result of the media promotion and the strong increases, there has been quite an uptake in the numbers of people claiming the allowance and this has caused some pressure on the system. Additional staff has been assigned to improve the service and the Department has relocated staff from other duties to work in the family income supplement, FIS, area. Staffing levels were progressively increased by almost one third between the beginning of last year and the present. There are now more than 40 staff working full time on the claims. We have increased funding for overtime - the amount of overtime worked has increased by two thirds in many cases. We have reviewed the procedures and practices. As a result of these actions, the number of decisions made on FIS has increased dramatically, by 35%. Last September, when it peaked, we had 7,000 claims in hand awaiting finalisation. Today we have just over 3,000 claims on hand and 2,400 renewals of existing cases awaiting finalisation, giving a total of 5,400. We will get through these as quickly as we can. At present it takes eight to ten weeks to decide new family income supplement claims. We have tackled the issue and we are getting there. We will continue to try to reach decisions even more quickly by keeping the pressure on those resources.

Has the research project on the low uptake of FIS, which the Minister mentioned, started?

While we have not started it yet, we hope to do so shortly.

What is the average time people spend on disability allowance? Some people are in receipt of it for their entire lives. I tabled a parliamentary question recently asking the numbers of people and the length of time they had been in receipt of the allowance. The reply did not indicate anybody in receipt of the allowance for more than 16 years. Why is this the case? Was it introduced 16 years ago or do we not have statistics going further back? The figures indicate a steady increase in recipients of disability allowance over the years, an issue that may need to be reviewed. It would be strange for a person to be in receipt of it for his or her entire life. At a certain point we should recognise that the person will not work again and will move to another benefit.

While I do not know the average number of years, the time people spend in receipt of disability allowance is high. It can be a number of years. We are concerned about the number of young people starting to receive it. We need to do some further work in that regard.

When was it introduced?

In 1996. It came from the Department of Health in 1996.

Sitting suspended at 3.45 p.m. and resumed at 4.20 p.m.

Acting Chairman

I propose that we move on to deal with the social insurance fund. Deputy Stanton can ask some questions before the Minister replies.

On the fund, there is considerable concern about future pension entitlements and the Minister - probably correctly - has been in the vanguard in voicing this concern. He has indicated an actuarial study is being carried out of the future of the fund. What are the projections for it? Last week the Minister urged the Opposition to exercise prudence in its expenditure plans. How does he respond to his party's proposal to raid the social insurance fund in the future? Would it have an impact on its solvency? What are the projected figures for future years?

In advance of completion of the actuarial review I must be careful about making projections about the social insurance fund's surplus or otherwise. The estimated total income from PRSI and other sources this year will be €7.7 billion. Expenditure from the fund by way of benefits and administration amounts to €7 billion, leaving an excess of income over expenditure of €648 million approximately. The provisional figure for the fund surplus at the end of December is approximately €3 billion. This would mean a projected fund surplus at 31 December of €3.718 billion. Beyond providing these figures, I need to be circumspect. The fund has been self-financing since 1997 and does not require finance from the Exchequer. It appears as an appendix to the Vote in the Estimates volume. Prior to 1997 the fund had a shortfall each year which had to be met by subventions from the Exchequer. This is a reflection of the strong level of PRSI income. For example, income from PRSI this year is projected to be €679 million in excess of the figure for 2006.

I have one or two other brief supplementary questions. How many receive pre-1953pro rata and half pensions? Has the Minister received the famous Green Paper on pensions which is related to the social insurance fund? He indicated it would be published at the end of this month. When will he receive it and when will we have sight of it?

We should be in a position to publish the Green Paper by mid-April.

I also asked about the number in receipt of pre-1953pro rata and half pensions.

Approximately 20,000 are in receipt of pre-1953 pensions. Obviously, the figure is declining as people pass away. If the precise figure is substantially different from the estimate, I will get back to the Deputy.

Acting Chairman

I invite the Minister to make brief concluding comments on the Revised Estimate.

I thank members of the select committee for their professional consideration of the Estimate. I thank the Acting Chairman for his expeditious chairing of the meeting. I thank the clerk and staff associated with the select committee for doing such fine work over a long period. I thank Opposition members, in particular, Deputy Stanton who has given me a good run for my money in the past couple of years. I have enormous respect for the work he does, as he will be aware. A special word of thanks goes to my officials. Their strength of numbers today is due to the fact that a number of them wanted to observe the workings of the select committee and gain some experience. This is extraordinarily complicated and detailed work for which I am grateful to them. I know from first-hand experience that their work goes beyond the call of duty.

I join the Minister in complimenting the officials on the work they do, which is appreciated by Deputies and members of the public. I thank the staff of the select committee and the Acting Chairman for their work. I also thank the Minister for his courtesy, graciousness and assistance to Opposition Members since his appointment. It has been a pleasure working with him. He engages with Opposition members and does not dodge issues. While we do not always agree, he has met us on several occasions and taken on proposals and suggestions. It would be better if more Ministers adopted this approach. I am not casting aspersions on the Minister's colleagues but it is good to have engagement. We should not always take a party political position or dodge and weave on issues but engage and address them. I do not know if the Minister and I will engage further before the flag goes up for the general election but I wish him well.

Acting Chairman

I thank the Minister and his officials for attending the meeting.