Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (159, 160, 161, 162, 163, 164)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

230 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the extent to which she can expedite the process of investigation of entitlements arising from combined contributions in two or more jurisdictions having particular regard to the inordinate delays experienced currently; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8035/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

My Department is responsible for the administration of social security matters with other EU member states as well as a number of countries where appropriate bilateral arrangements are in place. In the case of bilateral agreements, entitlements are usually restricted to long-term payments such as retirement and old age pensions, survivor's benefit and invalidity pensions. The EU regulations similarly provides for long-term benefits and also a range of short-term benefits such as unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, maternity benefits and so forth.

In the case of short-term benefits, the majority of applications can be processed and entitlement determined on the basis of current or recent information, namely, details of employment contributions recorded in the relevant countries within the last few years. While some time can elapse in acquiring information from other countries, short-term applications are normally cleared without undue delay.

Pension applications, where entitlement is based on a combination of Irish insurance contributions and contributions from another EU member state or a country with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement, can take longer than normal to process for a variety of reasons. The cases are complex and involve checking insurance records from various sources. In cases where employment contributions have been made outside of EU countries, entitlement may have to be tested under more than one agreement. In all cases the over-riding consideration is to ensure that customers receive their correct entitlement. Decisions cannot be taken until all appropriate information is received. Last year, some 10,500 applications forpro rata old age contributory and retirement pensions were received. This represents an increase of 23% over the number received in 2002.

The position regarding these claims will continue to be monitored and resources will be deployed as circumstances and demands on other fronts allow. Delays in processing applications do not result in any ultimate loss of payment to pensioners as those who qualify for payment will have their claims backdated in accordance with the normal provisions. In the majority of cases, the applicants are entitled to and in receipt of a basic pension from the other relevant state while the broader EU aspects of their entitlement are being examined.

The vast majority of applications are from people who have worked in both Ireland and the UK. A number of meetings have taken place between officials from my Department and their UK counterparts to discuss issues of common concern and to identify ways in which the exchange of social insurance information can be streamlined in the future. These discussions will continue with a view to minimising delays in the future.

There is work at EU level to monitor and initiate projects aimed at simplifying administrative procedures to improve arrangements for the acquisition of rights and the award and payment of social security benefits. Officials from my Department are currently involved in a working group to draw up a plan of action for telematic data exchanges, identifying concrete ways to EU wide progress in this area. It is expected that the plan of action will be presented at the end of 2005.

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

231 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on whether child benefit is the most suitable vehicle to direct a payment to families where the parent or parents are in the workforce and require child minding facilities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8036/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

My Department provides financial assistance to families with children in a number of ways. Most recipients of primary payments receive child dependant allowance increases, CDIs, if they have dependent children. My Department also provides a family income support, FIS, payment to families where earnings from employment are low and the payment increases with the number of children in the family. Furthermore, my Department also provides child benefit in respect of all children irrespective of family income or the employment status of the children.

Support to families with children seeks to make a positive contribution to the cost of raising children and to a reduction in child poverty levels. Each of the three instruments identified above has a number of features which can determine its effectiveness in reaching these objectives. While CDIs target resources on families who for the most part rely on social welfare incomes, it is withdrawn where employment is taken up or where earnings rise. In this way, persons can be dissuaded from taking up employment even though this is one of the best avenues out of child poverty. In particular, the loss of CDIs can represent a barrier to employment for a person with a large family.

Family income supplement is designed to provide cash support for employees on low earnings who have families. It preserves the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if s/he were claiming other social welfare payments. Family income supplement can allow parents to effectively combine earnings from parental employment with support for children and, over the years, a number of measures have been taken to make it more attractive to families.

Child benefit, CB, delivers a standard rate of payment in respect of all children in a family regardless of income levels or employment status. It supports all children but delivers proportionately more assistance to those on low incomes and with larger families. It does not distort parental choice in respect of labour force participation and contributes towards alleviating child poverty. Child benefit is not intended primarily to meet child care costs. However, the substantial increases in CB in recent years can make a substantial contribution to meeting those costs.

Budget 2004 provided for a €6 per month increase, or 4.8%, in the rate of child benefit payable in respect of each of the first two children and €8 per month, or 5.1%, increase in the rate payable in respect of the third and subsequent children. Over the period since 1997, the monthly rates of child benefit have increased by €93.51 at the lower rate and €115.78 at the higher rate, increases of 246% and 234% respectively, compared with inflation of 26.9%. This level of increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government's objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents.

The concentration of additional resources in child benefit has underpinned the policy of successive Governments since 1994. Nonetheless, as with all aspects of social welfare spending, it is kept under review to ensure that its objectives continue to be met. Under the partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, a special initiative on ending child poverty includes a commitment to examine the importance of child income support arrangements, including the question of merging the child dependant allowance with the family income supplement. The outcome of that initiative will be taken on board in the context of future policy development in this area.

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

232 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will carry out a further examination of family income supplement with a view to identifying necessary improvements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8037/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Family income supplement, FIS, is designed to provide cash support for employees with families on low earnings and thereby preserve the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if s/he were claiming other social welfare payments.

The range of improvements to the family income supplement scheme instituted in recent years, including the assessment of FIS on the basis of net rather than gross income and the progressive increases in the income limits, have made it easier for lower income households to qualify under the scheme. In this year's budget, I provided for further increases in the FIS income limits with effect from January 2004. These increases raised the weekly income limits by €28 at each point, adding an extra €16.80 to the payments of most existing FIS recipients. I also increased the minimum FIS weekly payment by €7, from €13 to €20. The average weekly payment now stands at €87.06 per week, with a total of 12,060 families receiving a supplement under the scheme.

The question of further improvements to the income thresholds is a matter for consideration in a budgetary context, having regard to available resources and Government commitments.

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

233 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the extent to which child benefit was increased in the most recent budget; her views on the necessity for an early and further increase in this area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8038/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

The 2004 budget provided for a €6 per month increase, 4.8%, in the rate of child benefit payable in respect of each of the first two children and €8 per month, 5.1%, increase in the rate payable in respect of the third and subsequent children.

Over the period since 1997, the value of all social welfare payments has increased in real terms. In particular, the monthly rates of child benefit has increased by €93.51, lower rate, and €115.78, higher rate, increases of 246% and234%, respectively, compared with inflation of 26.9%. This level of increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government's objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents.

Looking ahead, my priorities include making further progress on our child benefit strategy along with all the other commitments to social welfare contained in Sustaining Progress, the national anti-poverty strategy and the programme for Government. The question of further increases in child benefit will be a matter for consideration in a budgetary context and in the context of priorities generally.

Question No. 234 answered with QuestionNo. 106.
Question No. 235 answered with QuestionNo. 106.

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

236 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the rate of mortgage assistance currently paid to a person (details supplied) in County Kildare; if same can be reviewed, in view of the fact that they currently receive disability allowance payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8087/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

The South Western Area Health Board was contacted on behalf of the person concerned and has advised that she has been in receipt of the appropriate amount of mortgage interest supplement for her circumstances. In addition, she has received additional payments from the board as an exceptional measure.

The board has further advised that this case is currently under review. In this regard, the person concerned has been requested to contact her community welfare officer.

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

237 Mr. Haughey asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will process an application for unemployment assistance for a person (details supplied) in Dublin 5 as soon as possible in view of the fact that this family are in difficult financial circumstances; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8105/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

The person concerned made an application for unemployment assistance on 1 March 2004. An inspector called to his address on 8 March 2004 to carry out an investigation of his means. The person concerned was advised to forward a copy of his P45 to the inspector. The claim will be decided without delay on receipt of this document.