Social Welfare Code.

Ceisteanna (28, 29, 30, 31, 32)

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Ceist:

99 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the consideration which has been given to a proposal (details supplied) that an amnesty be made towards citizens of EU accession states who are here already; and the social welfare cost implications of such an amnesty. [7924/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joe Costello

Ceist:

104 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has held discussions with the EU Commission on the restrictions to social welfare entitlement aimed at persons from other EU states after 1 May 2004; if she has sought or received advice from the Commission regarding the legality of the proposals under EU law; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7803/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

107 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will reverse her decision to refuse welfare support for immigrants who have been in the State for less than two years. [7892/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

127 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her proposed restrictions on citizens from the accession countries, in respect of qualification for means tested social welfare payments, is in accord with EU law; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7859/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Ceist:

129 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the view of the acting Social Affairs Commissioner, Ms Margot Wallstrom, regarding the ability to issue restrictions on social welfare payments. [7925/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 99, 104, 107, 127 and 129 together.

The Government has decided to put in place measures to restrict access to certain social welfare payments by introducing a habitual residence test as an additional condition to be satisfied by a person claiming a social assistance payment or child benefit. The new condition is designed to safeguard our social welfare system from abuse by restricting access to social assistance and child benefit payments for people from other countries who have little or no connection with Ireland. People who claim welfare payments but do not satisfy the habitual residency test will be assisted to return home.

These measures are being introduced to ensure our social welfare system does not become over burdened. It is a prudent and sensible measure. Up to now, non-nationals residing here could claim social assistance payments without satisfying a residency test. All other countries in the European Union impose residency restrictions on entitlement to social welfare benefits. The imposition of such a condition is not prohibited by EU law and, indeed, the concept of habitual residence features in EU regulations on social security for migrant workers. The term has also been clarified in EU court judgments. It conveys a degree of permanence in the person's residence and factors such as the duration and continuity of residence, employment prospects and future intentions would be important in determining whether the condition is fulfilled.

Each case will be examined on the facts and the person's degree of permanence in the State and no single factor will be conclusive. The new arrangements will apply to claims for payments after the date of operation and claims already in payment on the date will not be affected.

I have not formally discussed these new arrangements with the Commission, as such is not required. Commissioner Wallstrom has asked member states to inform the Commission of the measures being imposed with regard to access to labour markets and social welfare systems and I have arranged for this to be done. The Commissioner has stated on several occasions that in order to make accession a success we must respect both the EU treaty and the accession treaty and I wholeheartedly agree with her in this regard. I am satisfied that the new measures I am introducing, which will apply to all applicants for social assistance payments, are in line with EU law.

Under EU Regulation 1408/71 it is possible for an unemployed person under certain conditions to "export" their unemployment benefit for up to three months while seeking work in another member state. The regulations also allow people to exercise their right to free movement within the EU and to have their social insurance based entitlements, such as contributory pensions, exported to another member state. These arrangements are not affected by the habitual residence condition.

Free movement of persons is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Community law and includes the right to live and work in another member state. Under the accession treaties, the EU has put in place a transitional measure, by which existing member states can exercise discretion as to the extent of access of persons from the new member states to their respective labour markets. Unlike other member states, however, Ireland is not imposing any restrictions on the numbers of people from the new member states who wish to come here and work. This Government gave a commitment that EU citizens who want to come and work here from 1 May are welcome to do so and we will honour that commitment.

Question No. 100 answered with QuestionNo. 98.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39)

Martin Ferris

Ceist:

101 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the creation of an all-Ireland free travel scheme for pensioners. [7895/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

103 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position regarding the implementation of an all-Ireland free travel scheme for pensioners; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7810/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Billy Timmins

Ceist:

120 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to put in place an all-Ireland travel scheme for pensioners resident in all parts of this island. [7867/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

124 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will consider extending free travel here for British based Irish senior citizens, especially in view of the significant economic contribution that many of these made to this country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7825/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jim O'Keeffe

Ceist:

135 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position regarding proposals for reciprocal arrangements for free or concessionary travel for pensioners throughout this island and the European Union. [7745/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Arthur Morgan

Ceist:

159 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position regarding the implementation of an all-Ireland free travel scheme for pensioners; and the progress made in bringing this about. [7894/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 101, 103, 120, 124, 135 and 159 together.

My Department's free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over. It is also available to carers and to people with disabilities who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments. The scheme mainly applies to travel within the State but was extended from 1995 so that free travel pass holders who reside on both sides of the Border could undertake cross-Border journeys by bus or rail free of charge.

The Government intends to introduce a system of all-Ireland free travel for pensioners and other eligible social welfare customer categories. This would involve a further extension of the existing scheme so as to enable travel pass holders in the South make point to point journeys within Northern Ireland. It would also mean that northern pass holders could undertake similar journeys in the South. Officials from my Department have held initial discussions on this proposal with their counterparts in the Department for Regional Development for Northern Ireland. There are a number of policy and operational issues to be developed, including resourcing the scheme and the options for joint funding. Among the technical matters involved is the question of using some form of card based pass system, as already operates on Translink services in the North but which is only in the initial stages of development in the South.

My Department will continue to progress this matter with the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland. However, it is likely to take some time to sort out the various technical issues, agree transport operator contracts and finalise budgetary arrangements for the scheme between the two Departments.

I have no plans at present to extend arrangements for free or concessionary travel for pensioners to other European Union countries. At EU level a report commissioned by the European Commission in 1997 recommended that member states should establish a senior euro pass card which would entitle older people to concessions on various services, including travel, cultural and social activities. No proposals have been put forward by the Commission on foot of that report.

Trevor Sargent

Ceist:

102 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of invalidity claims in the most recently available year that have been overturned after recommendations of her Department’s own doctors against the original advice of general practitioners. [7930/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Invalidity pension is payable to persons who satisfy certain PRSI contribution conditions and are regarded as permanently incapable of work. A person is regarded as being permanently incapable of work if he or she has been continuously incapable of work for a period of one year before the date of claim and is likely to continue to be incapable of work for at least a further year. Alternatively, a person is regarded as being permanently incapable of work if he or she has been incapable of work and the nature of the illness is such that the likelihood is that the person will be incapable of work for life.

In 2003, a total of 6,782 invalidity claims were decided and 12% or 861 of these claims were refused by deciding officers on the grounds that the medical eligibility criteria were not satisfied. The claimant's own doctor does not provide a recommendation or an opinion regarding the claimant's possible entitlement to invalidity pension. They provide a diagnostic report regarding the person's medical condition. In the context of determining a person's entitlement to invalidity pension, medical assessors of my Department provide a second opinion to that of the claimant's own doctor for the guidance of the Department's deciding officers who ultimately make the decision in these cases. All medical assessors are fully qualified and experienced medical practitioners with registration in accordance with Medical Council criteria.

At a medical examination, the medical assessor will have available to him or her the initial medical diagnosis, supplemented, where applicable, by relevant specialist and other reports. The primary task of the medical assessor is to evaluate the overall medical condition of the claimant having regard to the prescribed medical criteria for entitlement to the particular illness related scheme. In the course of this evaluation all relevant and available medical information is taken into account.

Where a person is dissatisfied with the decision of a deciding officer, they may appeal this decision to the social welfare appeals office. Accordingly, all decisions in invalidity claims are made by deciding officers and appeals officers who are statutorily appointed for that purpose. The reports of medical assessors represent an important part of the evidence on which determinations are made.

Question No. 103 answered with QuestionNo. 101.
Question No. 104 answered with QuestionNo. 99.

Family Support Services.

Ceisteanna (40, 41)

Breeda Moynihan-Cronin

Ceist:

105 Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons in receipt of family income supplement at the latest date for which figures are available; if she has satisfied herself that all those eligible for FIS have had their attention drawn to their entitlement; if she has plans to promote greater awareness of FIS; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7816/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

123 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of families which have benefited from the family income supplement in each of the past five years. [7875/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 105 and 123 together.

Family income supplement is designed to provide cash support for employees on low earnings with families. This preserves the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if he or she were claiming other social welfare payments. The number of persons in receipt of family income supplement at 5 March 2004 is 12,060, with an average weekly payment of €87.06. I am arranging to have the numbers in receipt of the supplement at 31 December for each of the last five years circulated in a separate table.

This year I provided for further increases in the FIS income limits with effect from January 2004. These increases raised the weekly limit by €28 at each point, adding an extra €16.80 to the payments of most existing FIS recipients. I also raised the minimum weekly payment by €7 to €20.

My Department undertakes a number of proactive measures to ensure people are aware of possible entitlement to FIS, which include advising all newly awarded one-parent family payment recipients, advising all employers annually in PRSI mailshots and examining entitlement in all awarded back to work allowance cases. Information on FIS is contained in all child benefit books and can be accessed on the Department's website. In addition, the scheme has previously been extensively advertised through local and national media outlets, including newspapers and radio, as well as through poster campaigns and targeted mailshots. These methods of information provision will continue to be used to promote the scheme.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (42, 43, 44, 45, 46)

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

106 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if time restrictions on the use of free travel passes in Dublin and Cork can and are being addressed. [7928/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Pádraic McCormack

Ceist:

111 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the estimates for allowing a widow or widower under 60 years of age to qualify for free schemes on the death of their spouse. [7874/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

229 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will undertake a review of the free schemes with a view to extending the availability of free travel; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8034/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

234 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has proposals to provide the equivalent of free travel to areas or regions currently deficient in public transport; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8039/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

235 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will consider reducing the age for qualification for free schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8040/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 106, 111, 229, 234 and 235 together.

The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over, to all carers in receipt of carer's allowance and to carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative's allowance. It is also available to certain people with disabilities and people who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. The scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. These include road, rail and ferry services provided by companies such as Bus Átha Cliath, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann, as well as services provided by over 80 private transport operators. The vast majority of these private contractors operate in rural areas. The underlying feature of the scheme is the use of spare capacity on these transport services.

I am always willing to consider applications from licensed private transport operators who may wish to participate in the free travel scheme. However, while my Department pays transport providers to operate the free travel scheme, it is not in a position to provide transport services where none exist. The issue of access to public transport in rural areas is being addressed at present through the rural transport initiative, which is being managed by Area Development Management, ADM, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport. Time restrictions have been a feature of the free travel scheme since its inception. The central issue in regard to time restrictions is that of capacity constraints and the pressure on the transport system from commuters travelling to and from work and school in the morning and evening.

Time restrictions, however, do not apply in the case of people with learning disabilities, people attending long-term rehabilitation courses or certain work experience programmes and certain other disabled or blind people. These people are issued with an unrestricted free travel pass which enables them to travel during the normally restricted travel times. Also, there are no peak time travel restrictions on DART, suburban rail services and on services provided by private transport operators in other parts of the country. A general lifting of the time restrictions could cause capacity problems for transport operators. In exceptional or extenuating circumstances, however, where hospital appointments cannot be arranged out of peak travel time, my Department can issue a temporary unrestricted free travel pass. Requests for such passes can, however, only be considered on a case by case basis and passes are only granted in exceptional circumstances.

With regard to the household benefits package, which comprises the electricity/gas allowance, telephone allowance and television licence schemes, this is generally available to people living permanently in the State, aged 66 years or over, who are in receipt of a social welfare type payment or who fulfil a means test. The package is also available to carers and people with disabilities under the age of 66 years who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. People aged over 70 years of age can qualify regardless of their income or household composition. Widows and widowers aged from 60 to 65 years whose late spouses had been in receipt of the household benefit package retain that entitlement to ensure that households do not suffer a loss of entitlements following the death of a spouse.

The free schemes share a common set of objectives in the area of social inclusion as follows: to provide assistance to those living alone by targeting them with specific benefits providing both income and social inclusion gains; to support older people and people with disabilities in their wish to remain in the community as opposed to institutional care; to support Government policy which seeks to acknowledge the value of older people in society. Data from census 2002 indicate that there are 27,600 widows and widowers under 60 years of age. The full year cost of extending the free schemes to this group would be in the region of €23 million. This estimate assumes that all of this group would qualify, which may not be the case, but does not take account of the additional cost in respect of widowed people in the 60-65 year age group, some of whom would not be currently in receipt of the free schemes.

A range of proposals have been made to extend the free schemes to other groups, including widows and widowers. These are kept under review in the context of the objectives set out above and budgetary resources.

Question No. 107 answered with QuestionNo. 99.

Pension Provisions.

Ceisteanna (47)

Seán Ryan

Ceist:

108 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when it is intended to implement the commitment given in An Agreed Programme for Government to establish a group to report on options for lower income groups to ensure that they can have an earnings related pension when they retire; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7824/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Research by the Central Statistics Office on pensions coverage indicated that just over 50% of workers have supplementary pensions cover. The Government aims to increase this to 70% in accordance with the targets suggested in the national pensions policy initiative. The overall objective of the Government's pension policy is that all citizens will have an adequate income on retirement — the main components being the social welfare pension and supplementary pensions.

In this regard the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002 provided for the introduction of personal retirement savings accounts, PRSAs, which became available to the public in 2003. The PRSA is a low cost, flexible pensions product which is the main instrument employed in furtherance of Government policy to increase supplementary pensions coverage. Take up of the new accounts is being monitored closely and I am encouraged by the latest figures which show that over 19,000 accounts were opened in the period up to the end of December 2003. This is a significant improvement on the position at the end of September 2003 when a total of 6,707 accounts were in existence.

The Government is required, under the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002, to review progress on the level of pension coverage within three years and this will include an examination of pension options for lower income groups.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (48, 49, 50, 51, 52)

David Stanton

Ceist:

109 Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the overall interim supplementary welfare allowance payments made while persons awaited payment from her Department for the past three years. [7876/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Supplementary welfare allowance may be paid to a person awaiting a decision on an application for any benefit, assistance or allowance from my Department or who is waiting for similar benefits to be transferred from another state and who has insufficient means to meet his/her immediate basic needs. Expenditure on interim supplementary welfare allowance payments amounted to €37.4 million in 2001, €49.3 million in 2002 and €54.7 million in 2003. The number of recipients at the end of those years was 14,282, 15,372 and 14,901 respectively.

Where a health board has paid supplementary welfare allowance to a person who is subsequently granted another benefit, assistance or allowance, the amount so paid is recoverable from any arrears due. In addition, if the amount of supplementary welfare allowance is in excess of what would have been paid to the person if he or she had been in receipt of the other benefit, assistance or allowance, such excess sum is recoverable during the relevant continuous period of entitlement to the other benefit, assistance or allowance. My Department endeavours to pay people their entitlements at the earliest date possible and thus minimise the need for interim supplementary welfare allowance payments.

Martin Ferris

Ceist:

110 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she plans to eliminate the means test for carers, as part of the development of the range of supports available to carers. [7896/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jimmy Deenihan

Ceist:

151 Mr. Deenihan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the estimates for the cost of abolishing the means test for the carer’s allowance. [7869/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Kehoe

Ceist:

162 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if there will be a review of the policy on means testing the carer’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7863/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

228 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her proposals to extend carer’s allowance to a wider group having particular regard to the total number of carers now providing care; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8033/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I propose to take Questions Nos. 110, 151, 162 and 228 together.

The Central Statistics Office, CSO, included a question in the 2002 census to identify the number of persons providing unpaid personal care for a friend or family member with a long-term illness, health problem or disability. The analysis of this section of the census found that: 40,500 people provide 43 hours or more unpaid personal help per week or over six hours per day; 23,400 people provide 15-42 hours unpaid personal help per week or between two and six hours per day; 84,900 people provide 1-14 hours unpaid personal help per week or up to two hours per day.

There are currently approximately 22,000 carers in receipt of carer's allowance or carer's benefit. This means that over 50% of the 40,500 carers, as estimated by the CSO to be caring for more than six hours per day, are in receipt of a specific carer's payment from my Department. People providing lower levels of care would not necessarily meet the qualifying conditions for receipt of a payment. As with all other social assistance schemes, a means test applies, under which the income of the applicant and his or her spouse is assessable. This ensures that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need.

Provision has been made in successive budgets for substantial increases in the income disregards. From April 2004 the weekly income disregards will increase to €250 for a single carer and to €500 for a couple. The effect of this increase will ensure that a couple with two children, earning a joint income of up to €29,328, can qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance while the same couple, if they had an income of €46,384, could still qualify for the minimum carer's allowance, the free schemes and the respite care grant. The carer's allowance means test is one of the more flexible tests in terms of the assessment of household incomes. It is estimated that abolition of the means test could cost in the region of €180 million per annum. It is debatable whether abolition of the means test would constitute the best use of the resources available for the support of carers. However, the operation of the means test will be kept under review.

With regard to the continued development of supports for carers, I launched a study on the future financing of long-term care in June 2003. As there are significant issues discussed in the study, including those relating to benefit design, cost and financing of long-term care, my officials are currently preparing a consultation document to accompany the study. This document will focus all interested parties on the specific issues we need to address. I expect this document will be ready for circulation shortly. On completion of this consultation process, a working group, which will include all relevant parties, will examine the strategic policy, cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. The proposals will be examined further in this context.

Question No. 111 answered with QuestionNo. 106.

Social Welfare Code.

Ceisteanna (53)

Seán Ryan

Ceist:

112 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when it is intended to implement the commitment given in An Agreed Programme for Government to remove the requirement whereby a person reaching 65 years must first retire for a period before being able to work and retain a portion of their pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7823/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

In addition to satisfying the relevant contribution conditions, those applying for retirement pension at age 65 must be retired from employment or self employment. Retirement is defined as not having earnings from employment of more than €38 per week or earnings from self employment of more than €3,174 per annum.

The retirement pension was introduced in 1970 and was intended to bridge the gap between retirement at 65 years and the pension age for social welfare purposes, which at the time was 70 years of age. The qualifying age for old age pension was subsequently reduced over time to 66 years of age. There is no retirement condition associated with old age contributory or non-contributory pensions, which are both payable at 66 years of age.

The Government is committed, as part of the programme for Government, to removing the requirement to retire at 65 years to receive a retirement pension. Progress in this regard will be made as soon as possible, having regard to the availability of resources and the priority attaching to other elements of the Government programme.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62)

Joan Burton

Ceist:

113 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the plans she has to monitor the changes that were introduced in the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, particularly to the rent supplement, and to assess their impact on recipients; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7799/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Trevor Sargent

Ceist:

119 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of refusals to date for supplementary welfare allowance for failure to meet criteria introduced by her Department with regard to accommodation needs. [7931/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

149 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the degree of discretion which remains with community welfare officers in making assessments of housing needs subsequent to the introduction of changes in the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, particularly in the rent supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7801/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ciarán Cuffe

Ceist:

154 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of refusals to date for supplementary welfare allowance for failure to meet new criteria introduced by her with regard to accommodation needs. [7923/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jim O'Keeffe

Ceist:

160 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on whether the changes introduced in rent supplements will cause real hardship for many applicants; and if she has proposals to deal with this. [7744/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

227 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will reverse the rent allowance restrictions imposed in the budget and thereby alleviate hardship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8032/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 113, 119, 149, 154, 160 and 227 together.

Rent supplements are paid under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards. The main objective of the measures recently introduced is to refocus the rent supplement scheme on its original objective, which is to meet immediate short-term income maintenance needs as opposed to long-term housing needs. People applying for rent supplement will, in future, have their housing needs assessed by the local authorities in a systematic manner and this should increase their chances of getting social housing, where appropriate.

With certain important exceptions, it is no longer possible for a person to become a tenant in the private rented sector with the support of rent supplement unless the local authority is satisfied that the person has a housing need. However, if a person is assessed by a housing authority as having a housing need, they will qualify for rent supplement regardless of how long they have been renting, subject to the normal means and other qualifying criteria.

The impact of this and the other measures was fully assessed and the manner of their implementation was carefully designed to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, the elderly and disabled, are fully protected. The six months prior renting requirement, for example, does not apply in their case. My Department has been in regular contact with the community welfare staff of the health boards and has held two meetings with senior officials of the boards since the introduction of the measures in January at which the operation of the new measures was discussed. My Department has not been made aware of any cases of hardship arising from the application of the new measures.

Details of the number of refusals since 31 January on grounds of failure to meet the new criteria are not available. However, there have been some cases where applicants were initially refused rent supplement on the basis of not having been in rented accommodation for six months but who were subsequently granted rent supplement after having been assessed by the housing authority as having a housing need. Furthermore, the health boards have indicated that housing authorities are responding to requests for housing assessments without undue delay.

Nobody who was in receipt of a rent supplement at the end of January is affected by the rule requiring that people have been renting for six months before they can qualify for rent supplement. The only people who no longer qualify for rent supplement because of the six month rule are new applicants who, in the opinion of the housing authority, do not have a housing need. While it is the responsibility of the housing authorities to assess a person's housing needs, none of the measures which I have introduced affects the discretion of a health board to make a payment in cases where a board considers that the circumstances of the case so warrant.

In addition to the ongoing contacts between my Department and the health boards, I am setting up a working group under the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, to facilitate engagement with the social partners about monitoring the impact of the recent changes to the scheme. Arrangements for the setting up of this group are currently under way.

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

114 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of cold alert cards distributed to the elderly or those on disability benefits in regard to her recent announcement; the current amount of the fuel allowance; when the allowance was last increased; if she has plans to extend the period during which the allowance is awarded, in view of the fact that low temperatures can be experienced outside of the October to March period; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7818/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul McGrath

Ceist:

143 Mr. P. McGrath asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has plans to remove the means test for the national fuel scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7862/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Dan Neville

Ceist:

152 Mr. Neville asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will review the fuel allowance (details supplied); and if she will increase the duration of the fuel season. [7870/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I propose to take Questions Nos. 114, 143 and 152 together.

The temperature card initiative was undertaken by the Donegal Energy Action Team which is part of the community culture and enterprise division of Donegal County Council. I allocated funding of €10,000 towards the project. It is also being funded by Donegal County Council, €11,000, and the North Western Health Board, €1,500. The temperature cards were made available through a variety of outlets across the county. Donegal County Council does not have statistics regarding the number of temperature cards that have been obtained by people from these outlets.

The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist householders who are in receipt of long-term social welfare or health board payments and who are unable to provide fully for their heating needs. The smokeless fuel allowance was introduced in October 1990 to assist people with the additional costs arising from the ban on the sale of bituminous coal in certain designated areas. At present, a fuel allowance payment of €9 per week is paid to eligible households while an additional €3.90 per week is paid in smokeless zones, bringing the total amount in those areas to €12.90 per week.

The fuel allowances represent a contribution towards a person's normal heating and lighting expenses. In addition, many households also qualify for electricity and gas allowances. There is also a facility available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs. The fuel allowance scheme has been improved in recent years. The means test has been eased and the duration of payment was increased from 26 weeks to 29 weeks. The most recent increase in the rate of fuel allowance was in January 2002.

The question of further improvements in the fuel allowance schemes, including changes to the means test and an extension of the period of payment, would have to be considered in a budgetary context. The significant increases in recent budgets in primary social welfare payment rates, such as the old age pension, have also improved the income position for people dependent on the social welfare system. Primary payment rates are payable for the full 52 weeks of the year and increases in these rates benefit a wider range of recipients.

Family Policy.

Ceisteanna (63, 64, 65)

John Gormley

Ceist:

115 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recently issued report, Families and Family Life in Ireland: Challenges for the Future. [7927/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

122 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date in her review of Government policy towards the family; when she expects the review to be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7807/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Gilmore

Ceist:

153 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recently published report, Families and Family Life in Ireland: Challenges for the Future, a thematic study of the issues that arose during the public consultative fora held in 2003; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7806/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 115, 122 and 153 together.

Families and family life are undergoing profound and rapid changes in Ireland. The main reasons include the increasing participation of women in employment, difficulties in reconciling work and family life, growing incidence of marital breakdown and lone parenthood generally, ageing of the population and the likely growth in the numbers of dependent elderly. It is against this background that I began, in May 2003, five years after publication of the report of the commission on the family, a nationwide consultation on the future development of family policy. The fora provided my officials and me with an opportunity to hear the views of a cross section of family members from different regions of the country and those who work with them, including public representatives. Their views were sought on the main challenges that confront families today, the effectiveness of Government policies and programmes in supporting families to meet these challenges and on what the priorities should be for strengthening families. The fora were a great success with almost 700 people participating in the discussions and workshops.

The report of the fora, Families and Family Life in Ireland: Challenges for the Future, puts on record and provides an analysis of the outcome of these discussions. It provides me with an invaluable cross section of views from every region of the country and greatly facilitates my consideration of the further development of the Government's strategy for strengthening families. It is particularly timely as this year we celebrate the United Nations 10th anniversary of the International Year of the Family, which will be marked by a worldwide focus on the challenges facing families in rapidly changing societies.

A key dimension of the year will be comparing experiences of family change in other countries and how they are meeting the challenges these changes pose. To facilitate exchanges on such experiences between EU member states, I have arranged for the Irish Presidency, with the support of the EU Commission, to host an international conference on 13 and 14 May entitled "Families, Change and European Social Policy". This conference will bring the latest research findings, ideas and policy developments on family issues to policy makers and other key personnel throughout the enlarged European Union.

The fora provided an opportunity to consult family members in every region of the country, who are the real experts on families and family life. I was determined to ensure that the fruits of these discussions and exchanges were professionally recorded and published and this has been achieved in the thematic report and the individual reports on each forum session. The thematic report is not just an important resource for drawing up the strategy, it is also a resource for wider consultation on the issues it addresses. It is my hope that public representatives, the social partners, NGOs, family resource centres, other Government Departments and interested parties and family members generally will use this report as a basis for further reflection on the challenges facing families in the period ahead and on how these challenges can be met.

Although the fora were held nationwide this report shows how many of the same themes were recurring. This includes, in particular, practical support for parents, increased quality child care places, supports for families caring for the elderly and other dependent persons and the increased provision of quality, affordable family counselling services. Public opinion, as it was voiced at the fora, seems to consider that future family policy should consist of at least two layers. The first is a general layer of support and assistance that would be available to all families, especially at critical junctures such as the birth of the first child. The second layer is more specialist in that it would address the added needs of particular families.

Drawing on the views and analysis emerging from this wide ranging consultation process, it is my intention, in consultation with all the relevant Departments and agencies, to have a clear, coherent and comprehensive strategy for family policy prepared by end 2004. This will be designed to address the profound changes for families and family life taking place and to identify priorities for strengthening families in the key contribution they make to the well being of their individual members and society as a whole.

Decentralisation Programme.

Ceisteanna (66, 67, 68)

Joe Costello

Ceist:

116 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her Department has yet carried out a risk assessment of the decentralisation plans announced by the Minister for Finance on budget day 2003, in so far as they may impact, either directly or indirectly, on her Department or on any agency or body operating under the aegis of her Department; when she expects to receive the risk assessment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7813/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Liz McManus

Ceist:

121 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if, in regard to proposals for decentralisation, a survey has been undertaken to establish the number of persons employed in her Department and in boards or agencies operating under the aegis of her Department who are willing to move to the new locations announced by the Minister for Finance in his budget speech; the results of such a survey; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7812/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Liz McManus

Ceist:

144 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the decentralisation plans for her Department following the announcement in the December budget 2003 by the Minister for Finance of the relocation of certain sections of her Department to Drogheda, Buncrana, Donegal, Carrick-on-Shannon, Sligo, Monaghan and Carrickmacross; the timescale in which she hopes the decentralisation plan for her Department will be complete; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7811/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Question Nos. 116, 121 and 144 together.

Under the Government decentralisation programme announced recently by my colleague, the Minister for Finance, all sections of my Department currently located in Dublin will move to decentralised locations. The senior management and headquarters of the Department will move to Drogheda and other sections will relocate to Buncrana — 120, Donegal town — 230, Carrick-on-Shannon — 225 and Sligo — 100. The Department's information systems division will also be relocated, although the location has yet to be determined. In addition, the Combat Poverty Agency and Comhairle, agencies under the aegis of my Department, will be relocated to Monaghan and Carrickmacross respectively.

My Department has experience of the issues associated with decentralisation, having previously relocated functions and staff out of Dublin to Sligo, Letterkenny, Longford, Waterford and Dundalk. The new programme of decentralisation will involve major change and a key objective will be to ensure that it is implemented in a planned way and with due regard to the effects on staff and the maintenance of high standards of service. My Department has established a project management structure to manage the decentralisation programme within the organisation.

The structure will support the two phases of the decentralisation programme, that is, the development of an overall departmental strategy and the development and implementation of plans for decentralising individual sections. A detailed project plan covering all aspects of the decentralisation process involved is currently being prepared. This plan will set out: the sequence of each relocation; staff placement and training plans; the estimated resources required to complete the project; the risks associated with the project and the contingency plans to deal with those risks.

In addition to the preparation of this plan, the Office of Public Works is currently in the process of securing suitable accommodation in each of the seven locations. A final date for the completion of the decentralisation programme will not be known until all accommodation and staff recruitment issues are concluded. However, it is expected that the programme will be substantially completed by the end of 2006.

In developing the programme my Department will identify the risks associated with the decentralisation programme under various headings and will incorporate approaches to address these in the plans. As an input to the planning process, a survey of all staff in my Department was conducted to establish initial indications of interest in the new locations. There were 3,046 responses to the survey, which represents 64% of the 4,770 staff in the organisation. The position as regards expressions of interest is: Drogheda — 120 staff; Buncrana — 15 staff; Donegal town — 51 staff; Carrick-on-Shannon — 149 staff; Sligo — 24 staff; Monaghan — four staff and Carrickmacross — 16 staff. In all, 379 indicated a wish to move from their existing location to one of this Department's new decentralised offices and a further 586 wish to move to a decentralised venue in another Department. While the survey provides a useful initial indication of staff preferences, it is recognised that the decisions which people make are likely to change as the implementation of the programme proceeds. To date, staff surveys have not been carried out in either the Combat Poverty Agency or Comhairle.

Plans for all the Departments involved willbe considered by the decentralisation implementation committee which is due to submit an initial report by end March 2004. My Department will report progress on the plan on a regular basis to the implementation committee, which will report in turn to the special Cabinet sub-committee which is overseeing the programme.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Ceisteanna (69)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

117 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the frequency with which inspectors dealing with oral hearings on social welfare appeals meet; the number of such inspectors dealing with oral hearing appeals; the number of days per week they work; the length of time in advance their schedules of work are laid out; if they remain in the one area until all pending appeals are dealt with; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7861/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I assume the Deputy's question relates to the work of social welfare appeals officers. The chief appeals officer from time to time convenes meetings of appeals officers for the purpose of discussing matters relating to the discharge of their functions, particularly consistency in the application of the statutory provisions. In addition, frequent informal meetings are held to discuss issues arising from appeals and appreciation of the requirements and implications of changing legislation.

There are 18 appeals officers serving in the appeals office and one vacancy arising from a recent retirement. When allowance is made for work sharing, this represents a full-time equivalent of 16.5 officers. Normally, all appeals officers are assigned to oral hearings once their training period is completed.

The full-time officers work normal Civil Service hours over a five day week while the work sharers vary between 50% and 80% of the full-time norm. Their work involves the vetting of cases to determine which can be decided summarily and which should be referred for oral hearings, presiding at oral hearings, the completion of reports on appeals recently determined and preparation for hearings scheduled to take place on their next circuit. An appeals officer normally spends one week out of every three hearing appeals on one of the eight circuits encompassing some 70 locations outside the Dublin area. When an officer returns from a week on circuit the cases for his or her next week will normally have been selected. In any given week there are approximately six appeals officers assigned to circuit work. While not on circuit appeals, officers are either holding hearings in Dublin or carrying out the other duties referred to previously.

The selection of the circuits to be visited in any given week is based on the numbers of appeals on hand. In general, those who are waiting longest can expect to be scheduled for hearing when next an appeals officer is in the area. A small number of cases are given special priority where exceptional circumstances arise. However, some cases of long standing may not be in a position to proceed because, for example, the proposed date does not suit the appellant or his or her representative. It would seldom be possible for an appeals officer to dispose of all appeals listed for hearing in the course of a visit to a region.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (70)

Paul Kehoe

Ceist:

118 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will increase the rate of disability allowance to allow for the fact that people with disabilities may have a higher cost of living due to their disability. [7873/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

People with disabilities represent a diverse group with differing needs. Disability can have different consequences for individuals depending on the nature of the disability, the person's age, social circumstances and so forth. The additional costs associated with disability are not incurred to the same degree by all people with disabilities and I do not consider that increasing the level of income maintenance payments, such as disability allowance, is necessarily the most appropriate method of addressing the additional costs of disability.

Additional costs associated with disability can arise regardless of whether a person is in employment or claiming a social welfare payment. Indeed, these costs can be greater where the person is working. If support towards the additional costs of disability were to be incorporated into payments such as the disability allowance, this support would be withdrawn on taking up employment, thereby creating a significant disincentive to move from welfare dependency into work. For these reasons, the costs of disability might best be met in ways that are less dependent on the person's labour force status, if people with disabilities are to be given the opportunity to participate in the workforce. This approach is in line with the views of the commission on the status of people with disabilities, which recommended that the additional costs of disability should be met separately from income maintenance needs.

The complex issues involved in addressing how best to meet the additional costs of disability are currently being examined by a working group on the feasibility of a cost of disability payment, which comprises representatives of relevant Departments and agencies, including my Department. The outcome of this group will be important in informing future policy in this area.

The rate of disability allowance has been increased by €10 to €134.80 per week from the beginning of this year. Since 1997, social welfare payments have been increased substantially in real terms. During that period the rate of disability allowance has increased by 57% compared with an increase of 28% in the cost of living — a real increase of 23%. Following a review of the national anti-poverty strategy, the Government set a target of achieving by 2007 a rate of €150 per week, in 2002 terms, for the lowest rates of social welfare payments. The achievement of this target will significantly increase the value of payments to persons on low incomes and at risk of poverty, including those on disability allowance.

Question No. 119 answered with QuestionNo. 113.
Question No. 120 answered with QuestionNo. 101.
Question No. 121 answered with QuestionNo. 116.
Question No. 122 answered with QuestionNo. 115.
Question No. 123 answered with QuestionNo. 105.
Question No. 124 answered with QuestionNo. 101.

Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

Ceisteanna (71)

Eamon Gilmore

Ceist:

125 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the total number of persons receiving assistance from the money advice and budgeting service in respect of the latest date for which figures are available; the number who were in receipt of the supplement payable to persons on social welfare allowance; if her attention has been drawn to concerns that many persons may be pushed into the hands of moneylenders; if her attention has further been drawn to the fact that this merits a reconsideration of her decision to abolish the supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7805/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

My Department has overall responsibility for the money advice and budgeting service, MABS, which provides assistance to people experiencing difficulty in meeting repayments on borrowings. There are 52 independent companies nationwide operating the service. The MABS programme provides money advice to individuals and families who have problems with debt and who are on low income or in receipt of social welfare payments. The MABS does not provide financial assistance to its customers. The service places an emphasis on practical budget based measures that help people to move permanently from dependence on moneylenders and to access alternative sources of low cost credit.

In 2003, I provided €9.9 million for the operation of the MABS and an additional €1.01 million was allocated for 2004 in the last budget. The latest information available from the companies providing the service shows that 12,000 people are currently availing of the service. MABS supplement payments paid under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme were made by the health boards because the people concerned had entered into repayment arrangements that were so onerous they did not have enough income left to meet their basic needs. Some 317 people were in receipt of these supplements at the end of February, representing less than 3% of MABS customers.

At the time the decision was taken to discontinue the MABS supplement, over 50% of the MABS supplements in payment had been in payment for more than a year and nearly 25% of recipients had been in receipt of the supplement for more than two years. The duration of these payments confirms that the supplement had become a long-term arrangement which is effectively a subsidy for creditors. These supplements have not been used in three health board regions and were rarely used in the largest health board region. The good practice established in these areas, which cover the majority of the State's population, will now be put in place throughout the State. The MABS supplements currently in payment will not be withdrawn. Payment of the supplement in these cases will continue for the duration of their current term of agreement.

It is with the support and expertise of the MABS companies throughout the country that people can be best assisted in sorting out their debts. These companies will continue to provide their services to people who need it. In the circumstances I am satisfied that the decision to discontinue the MABS supplement is reasonable and will require creditors to take a more realistic approach to the repayment arrangements a debtor can afford to make. Health boards may still deal with emergency or exceptional cases at any time of the year by way of exceptional needs payments or urgent needs payments.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (72)

Breeda Moynihan-Cronin

Ceist:

126 Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the terms of reference of the proposed review of income support arrangements for lone parents; when it is expected that the review will be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7815/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

One of the objectives of the one-parent family payment is to encourage lone parents to consider employment as an alternative to welfare dependency while at the same time supporting them to remain in the home if they so wish. It is generally accepted that one of the most effective routes out of poverty for people in the active age groups is through paid employment. Income support for lone parents is designed to assist them in overcoming the particular obstacles they may face in taking up employment or training opportunities and to encourage them to return to employment instead of remaining dependent on social welfare payments.

Ireland has among the highest percentage of lone parent families in the EU, with over 11% of households headed by a lone parent, a relatively low proportion of which are in employment, compared to other countries. Figures from the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion in 2001 show that 42.9% of lone parents in Ireland had a level of income which put them in the category of at risk of poverty. It is important that this issue is addressed.

That is the reason I have given a commitment in my Department's statement of strategy to review the operation of income support arrangements for lone parents. This will take account of recent reports and emerging analysis in this area, such as the review of the one-parent family payment published by my Department and a recent OECD study, entitled "Babies and Bosses", published in November 2003. As a first step, my Department will chair an interdepartmental committee later this year that will bring together the Departments that have a role in the creation of policy around the issue of parenting alone. This committee will establish terms of reference for the review. Furthermore, it will serve to facilitate debate on the issue of parenting alone, enable networking at a policy level and analyse and detail the progress needed to address gaps in current policy and programmes.

The intention is to have the overall review completed in time for consideration in the context of the next phase of the strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion, beginning in 2006.

Question No. 127 answered with QuestionNo. 99.

Pension Provisions.

Ceisteanna (73, 74)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

128 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to concerns expressed by construction workers that construction firms have been cheating their employees out of up to €80 million per year in unpaid pension contributions; if she has satisfied herself that there are sufficient legal protections in place to ensure proper monitoring of such pension payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7820/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The construction federation operatives pension scheme, CFOPS, was founded in 1965 by employers who were registered with the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, to provide pension and mortality benefit for workers in the construction industry. The terms of the registered employment agreement for the construction industry, relating to pensions, life assurance and sick pay, were registered with the Labour Court on 7 March 1969 under the Industrial Relations Acts 1946-69. As a result of this agreement it became compulsory for all employers in the construction industry to provide pension and mortality benefit for all manual workers.

Generally, the enforcement of the registered employment agreement is a matter for the Labour Court under the Industrial Relations Acts. Any changes in this regard would be a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Pensions Board only has a role with regard to the CFOPS where breaches of the Pensions Act are involved. It is an offence under the Pensions Act for an employer not to remit contributions deducted from employees to a pension scheme. In this regard, in September 2003 the Pensions Board received a complaint from the trustees of the CFOPS that a large number of employers were considered to be in arrears with regard to the remittance of employee contributions. These cases are at present being followed up in consultation with the trustees. It is also open to beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries of the CFOPS, who consider that they have sustained losses because of maladministration by the administrators of the scheme, or an employer to make a complaint to the pensions ombudsman.

I am satisfied that there are sufficient powers available to the Pensions Board and the pensions ombudsman under the Pensions Act to deal with employers who may be withholding employee contributions to the CFOPS. I understand that the board is in contact with other regulatory bodies with an interest in this area to ensure that all powers and avenues are used to the fullest extent possible to address the current problems. If gaps in the current overall regulatory process emerge, these will be brought to the attention of the relevant Minister by the board.

Question No. 129 answered with QuestionNo. 99.

Kathleen Lynch

Ceist:

130 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons in receipt of a State pension; her Department’s assessment of the numbers of persons likely to be in receipt of it over the next decade and the provisions that are being made in that regard; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7814/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

At the end of December 2003 there were 200,479 people receiving an old age contributory or retirement pension and 86,733 receiving an old age non-contributory pension. An actuarial review of the social insurance fund, undertaken on behalf of my Department in 2002, projected that the number of recipients of the old age contributory and retirement pensions will increase to 255,000 by 2011 and 321,000 by 2016. To some extent the increase will be balanced by a reduction in the number of people receiving an old age non-contributory pension. The numbers receiving this pension have declined by over 20% in the past decade and reflects improved social insurance coverage and increased labour force participation, particularly amongst women.

In common with other European countries, the population of Ireland is ageing as a result of a combination of increasing life expectancy and a declining birth rate. The decline in the birth rate is relatively recent and, coupled with the effects of high emigration for much of the period up to the 1990s, has resulted in Ireland having the lowest proportion of older people in the EU at 11.2% aged 65 and over. The current EU average of 16.1%.

The proportion of older people in Ireland will remain at broadly the same level for the next ten years after which it is projected to increase rapidly to 15% in 2021, 19% in 2031 and 28% in 2056. A similar situation exists for the number of pensioners relative to the numbers at work.

Ageing presents the same challenge to Ireland in meeting growing pension costs as to other countries except that we have a longer period to prepare for its full impact. The population projections suggest that no special measures are required in the timescale envisaged by the Deputy. The Government is making preparations through the national pensions reserve fund to part fund State pensions costs from 2025 onwards.

Pensions have been an important issue at EU level in recent years. This is not surprising given that the challenges facing pensions systems are more immediate for other member states. The EU has assessed national pensions systems under agreed objectives in the area of adequacy, financial sustainability and modernisation. A joint EU Commission and Council report was published in 2003. It found that Ireland has made good progress in ensuring the financial sustainability and adequacy of our pensions system.

The report concluded that our system appears to be, in broad terms, financially sustainable despite projected major increases in future pensions expenditure. The matter will be kept under review.

Poverty Levels.

Ceisteanna (75)

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

131 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if persistent poverty rates are a useful indicator and should be included in comparison reports produced by her Department. [7929/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The persistent at risk of poverty rate is one of the common indicators of poverty and social exclusion endorsed at EU level. It will be reported on in the forthcoming joint report on social inclusion that will be presented to the spring European Council at the end of the month. It is defined as the share of persons falling below the at risk of poverty threshold, 60% of equalised median income, in the current year and in at least two of the preceding three years. The longer people are at an income level that puts them at risk of poverty, the greater the likelihood that they will experience basic poverty and deprivation. This indicator helps to identify the overall proportion of people suffering like this and is broken down by age group and gender.

The current tables show that 13% of people here were classified as being in persistent poverty in 2001. The data is broken down in age group only. It shows that by far the highest proportion of people in the category are over 65 years of age, of whom the highest proportion are women. This data may, in part, demonstrate that social insurance was progressively extended to all workers in recent years. Up to one third of social welfare pensioners in 2001 received old age pensions under means tested social assistance and up to 60% or 50,000 were women. A further 14,000 received widowed persons' pensions under social assistance. The Government gave a commitment to significantly increase pension rates for older people and hopes to reach the target of €200 per week by 2007.

The persistent poverty indicator only takes account of income, not the value of home ownership. Compared to international standards a high proportion of people here, especially older people, are in the enviable position of being homeowners. Therefore, overall standards of living are higher than the indicator suggests.

To arrive at the proportion experiencing basic poverty and deprivation Ireland's national anti-poverty strategy employs an indicator that measures consistent poverty. It identifies the proportion of people with less than 60% of equalised median income who are also experiencing basic deprivation of goods and services regarded as essential for a basic standard of living in Ireland.

The success of Government policies in tackling consistent poverty is reflected in the sharp decreases observed in recent years. The problem has been reduced from 15% in 1994 to 5.2% in 2001.

Pension Provisions.

Ceisteanna (76, 77)

Dan Boyle

Ceist:

132 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the measures she will put in place to encourage a greater take up of private pensions. [7921/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

138 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons that had a personal retirement savings account by the end of January; if she is satisfied with the level of interest in same; her plans to promote awareness of them; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7809/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 132 and 138 together.

Information on accounts opened is received by the Pensions Board from providers of personal retirement savings accounts at the end of each quarter. The latest figures available for the period from the end of December 2003 show that 19,022 accounts have been opened with a total asset value of €41 million. This is a significant improvement since the end of September 2003 when a total of 6,707 accounts were in existence.

The increase in the number of new accounts opened since September 2003 is encouraging. I look forward to seeing continued growth in the numbers taking out accounts in the months ahead. We are at an early stage in our programme to increase overall pensions coverage but it is clear that progress is being made. It has always been acknowledged that, given the nature of pensions, achievement in this area could be slow.

In 2003 the Pensions Board ran a successful pensions awareness campaign on my behalf to supplement the publicity effort being made by PRSA providers. There was a high level of awareness amongst the public of pensions issues at the end of the year. We must translate this awareness into increased supplementary pensions coverage. I have provided further resources this year to continue the awareness campaign. Last week I launched an information booklet on pensions options for women. A number of regional seminars on pensions in areas with low pension coverage are planned for the end of the month. More initiatives, including media advertising, are being planned by the Pensions Board.

Question No. 133 answered with QuestionNo. 96.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (78)

Paul McGrath

Ceist:

134 Mr. P. McGrath asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will give consideration to increasing child dependant allowances; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7872/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Since 1994 successive Governments have held the rate of child dependant allowances constant while concentrating resources for child income support on the child benefit scheme. Over that period the combined CB or CDA payment was increased by more than double the rate of inflation.

Child benefit is neutralvis-à-vis the employment status of the child’s parents and does not contribute to poverty traps. The loss of child dependant allowances by social welfare recipients on taking up employment can act as a disincentive to availing of work opportunities. Child benefit is a universal payment that is not taxed or assessed as means for other secondary benefits. It is more effective than child dependant allowances as a child income support mechanism when account is taken of the incentive issues.

The Government's commitment to the policy is reflected in the substantial resources invested in the scheme since it entered office. There will be an additional expenditure of €1.27 billion on child benefit when the current programme of multi-annual increases is complete. We will then have moved from a position in 1994 where 70% of child income support for a family claiming social welfare payments was in the form of child dependant allowances to child dependant allowances accounting for less than 33%. The increased investment in the child benefit scheme by the Government has benefited families. It is an effective use of the resources available for child income support.

In the partnership agreement Sustaining Progress the importance of child income support arrangements is recognised. A commitment was given to examine the effectiveness of current arrangements in tackling child poverty. A further rationalisation of child dependant increases will be a matter for consideration in a budgetary context and priorities generally.

Question No. 135 answered with QuestionNo. 101.

Proposed Legislation.

Ceisteanna (79)

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

136 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the legislative priority she has set for the Irish Presidency for the adoption by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament of the proposals to simplify and modernise EU regulations on social security of migrant workers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7797/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The EU Regulation 1408/71 co-ordinates the social security systems of the member states. It ensures that migrant workers, or members of their families, are not penalised in terms of social security when they exercise their right to free movement.

The regulation was amended on many occasions to keep up with developments arising from European Court of Justice case law, various enlargements of the Union and legislative developments in member states. For these reasons the Commission submitted a proposal to reform and simplify the regulation to Council in December 1998 and its consideration commenced in 1999 during the German Presidency.

Last December, following detailed and complicated discussions, the Council of Ministers reached political agreement on the proposed regulation. In order to maintain the momentum generated I made it a priority for the Irish Presidency of the Council to secure agreement with the European Parliament, in accordance with the co-decision procedure, before its term expires in May.

On 26 January the process began with the presentation of a common position to the European Parliament. It was then transferred to the employment and social affairs committee where it was first considered on 16 February. The committee will discuss and vote on a report on the common position by 5 April and before the final vote of the plenary session of parliament on 22 April. Securing agreement with parliament on April 22 is a priority for the Presidency. Informal contacts are being maintained with various MEPs, especially those closely involved with the proposal on the employment and social affairs committee. I hope that a formal adoption of the new regulation can be secured during the Irish Presidency.

Family Mediation Service.

Ceisteanna (80)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

137 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will make a statement on the work to date of the Family Mediation Service. [7819/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The service is free, professional and confidential. It enables couples who have decided to separate to reach agreement on all their separation issues. It assists couples to make decisions on issues such as post-separation living arrangements, finances and parenting arrangements to enable children to have an ongoing relationship with each parent. Increasingly family mediation is being recognised worldwide as a non-adversarial approach to resolving the issues that arise on separation.

Over the past number of years the service has radically expanded to meet growing needs. It is now available in 14 centres. Last year new centres in Sligo and Waterford city were opened.

Last year I hosted a series of regional fora on the family. One of the key issues raised by participants were the benefits of the service for families and the need for additional centres. In response I made additional funds available to the Family Support Agency in budget 2004 to allow for a further two new family mediation offices to be opened this year. One office will be located in the north west region and will expand the service already available in the region. Another office will be located in the midlands.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of couples seeking mediation as its benefits become known. From 1986 to the end of 1997, before the service was expanded, only 250 couples used the service. Last year it helped over 1,403 couples. I pay tribute to the professionalism and hard work of the family mediators who have made a significant contribution to the promotion of the service over the years.

Last May I developed the service further by establishing the Family Support Agency. It will provide a solid and secure base from which the family service can grow and develop in the future. The agency brings together the programmes and family support services formerly operated under the aegis of my Department. They include services to support families in times of difficulties, including the Family Mediation Service, support for voluntary organisations providing counselling and other family supports and a family resource centre programme that supports and develops local communities. This year the agency has a budget of over €20 million for the provision and development of its services.

Question No. 138 answered with QuestionNo. 132.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Ceisteanna (81)

John Gormley

Ceist:

139 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recent value for money report issued by the Comptroller and Auditor General on social welfare overpayments. [7926/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Control of fraud, abuse and error is an essential part of the my Department's work. Fraud and abuse of the social welfare system represents a misuse of taxpayers money. My Department's efforts are directed at ensuring that social welfare funds go only to those who are entitled to them.

The report examined the extent to which my Department's existing control activity is related to an assessment of the risks of fraud and error attaching to different schemes. It also looked at the effectiveness of performance in the control area generally. One of the main lessons to emerge from it is the need for a control activity to be based on a risk assessment and risk management approach. My Department will progress this area in the period ahead. This approach was also recommended in the report of a working group on the accountability of secretaries general and accounting officers published in 2003.

The Comptroller and Auditor General's report acknowledges the emphasis the new control strategy places on the undertaking of risk analysis of schemes to identify and prioritise those where there is the highest risk of fraud and abuse. My Department is putting the strategy in place. The risk analysis process commenced in late 2003 and action plans are currently being prepared in the light of the findings.

As part of the review, and in consultation with the Comptroller and Auditor General's office, my Department carried out a survey of the unemployment and one-parent family payment schemes to assess the underlying levels of fraud and error. Surveys will become part of the overall control strategy and three surveys are planned for this year. The report also includes an examination of detected overpayments. It found that fraud accounted for 48% of all overpayments detected.

The report emphasised that an analysis of detected overpayments gives a useful insight into the main causes of overpayments. It is a valuable pointer to areas where action needs to be taken either by implementing new controls or modifying existing procedures to reduce the level and value of overpayments.

At present my Department is setting up a new central overpayments and debt management system. When fully operational it will provide a facility to enhance the targeting of control work and make overpayment recovery more effective. It will also provide better and more up to date information on the main types of fraud and error occurring within schemes.

The report also emphasised the use of prosecutions as a deterrent against fraud. My Department considers all cases of fraud and abuse for prosecution and revised prosecution guidelines were issued to staff in February 2003. In 2003 as many as 482 cases were sent to my Department's central prosecutions service and 405 of them were referred for prosecution.

The report also suggests that it may be worth considering a greater array of sanctions such as administrative penalties. My Department has already done some work in this area and is in consultation with the Attorney General's office in the matter.

Overall the Comptroller and Auditor General's report is a worthwhile examination of control activity in my Department. It raised a number of issues that will be taken on board in the context of implementing a control strategy. In 2003 my Department realised total savings of €306.18 million in combating fraud and abuse involving 320,000 claim reviews and 7,600 employer inspections.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (82)

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

140 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the average time taken to process claims in each of the social welfare schemes; the time it takes for schemes to grant payments once a decision is made; and the average time taken for arrears to issue. [7865/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Applications are processed and entitlements issued as quickly as possible having regard to the eligibility conditions which apply. Various conditions apply to schemes. They may include establishment of the customer's social insurance record, an assessment of means where appropriate or an examination to ensure that medical conditions are fulfilled.

On average it takes between two and three weeks to award claims for disability benefit, the unemployment schemes, child benefit and family income supplement. Claims for old age, widowed and invalidity pensions take between six and eight weeks to process. At present cases where the conditions of entitlement are more complex, such as payments for carers, one parent families and disability allowance cases require between ten and 17 weeks to finalise. Details of the average clearance times for new claims for the month of February 2004, and year to date including February, will be circulated at a later date.

Once a claim is decided payment is normally made within one week. In 2003 the average time to issue pension arrears was 2.4 weeks. From 1 January 2004 to date the average time to issue pension arrears is 1.5 weeks.

The over-riding consideration in processing claims is to ensure that customers receive their correct entitlement. Decisions are not taken until all appropriate information is available. Improving customer service is a priority for my Department. Challenging performance targets have been set for all of the main schemes and are published and reported on.

My Department has also commenced the introduction of new arrangements to improve customer service using the most up to date technology and business models to focus on meeting customer needs. The programme will also facilitate integration of services and greater efficiency that will have beneficial effects on the processing of other claims.

In November 2002 the first phase of this system was implemented for child benefit. It enabled a radical re-organisation of the child benefit application process by dovetailing with the computerised birth registration data flowing from the new civil registration service. As a result of these changes child benefit will be awarded and put into payment automatically for second and subsequent children born to child benefit recipients. Partially completed claim forms will be issued automatically in other cases for signature and for instructions on how payment will be made. The service delivery modernisation programme will be extended to other schemes on a progressive basis.

It will be some years before the benefits of the programme are realised. I want to ensure that service levels are maintained and improved where possible in the meantime. My Department is engaged in an ongoing process to ensure that existing resources are prioritised to the greatest extent possible on front line service delivery areas.

Equality Issues.

Ceisteanna (83)

Marian Harkin

Ceist:

141 Ms Harkin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason the Government has failed to recognise and value women’s work (details supplied) in the context of equality. [6397/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Under social welfare legislation, the social insurance status of spouses assisting in a farm or family business can vary according to particular circumstances. Social insurance cover is determined by the precise nature of the circumstances and not on gender grounds.

Spouses of either gender engaged in a business partnership are regarded as self employed individuals for social insurance purposes. They can establish an insurance record in their own right. Alternatively, where a family business is incorporated as a limited company, spouses of either gender involved in the business pay PRSI contributions either as employees or as self employed contributors depending on whether a contract of service exists. In other circumstances a person employed directly by his or her spouse does not pay the expected PRSI contributions under social welfare legislation.

The exceptions apply to men and women in family employments and recognise the practical difficulties in establishing a formal employment relationship in such circumstances. Legislation provides the scope necessary to allow parties to enter into formal arrangements for a contract of employment or self employment whereby PRSI contributions will be payable as outlined above.

Any person who wishes to seek a decision as to whether an employment or self employment is insurable for social insurance purposes can apply to my Department. Where a person is dissatisfied with the relevant decision, there is a right of appeal to the social welfare appeals office.

Poverty Levels.

Ceisteanna (84)

Kathleen Lynch

Ceist:

142 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the report published by the Economic and Social Research Institute, entitled Monitoring Poverty Trends in Ireland: Results from the 2001 Living in Ireland Survey, and that it indicates an increasing risk of relative poverty for people who are ill, older, disabled, and some single mothers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7804/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The analysis of the results of the 2001 living in Ireland survey, recently published by the ESRI, provides us with a valuable source of information on poverty trends.

The analysis indicates that the at risk of poverty rate, or the number of people with an income below 60% of equalised median income, has increased overall from 19.8% in 1998 to 21.9% in 2001. It also indicates that the risk of falling below that income threshold has increased appreciably for people who are ill or disabled, for the elderly and for people on home duties.

A number of factors have contributed to it. During periods of high economic growth increases in household income can outstrip substantial increases in the incomes of households with relatively low earnings or on social welfare. This is precisely what happened in Ireland in recent years. There were particular circumstances in the period from the mid-1990s when a combination of increased female participation in the workforce, reduced unemployment generally, tax reform and, crucially, high earnings growth caused a large increase in household income. Despite virtually unprecedented improvements in employment and social provision across the board in the period household incomes were substantially higher than increases in individual earnings and social welfare incomes.

Income is just one indicator of poverty. Other factors, not least employment rates and levels of home ownership, all of which are positive for Ireland, also have a major bearing on a person's standard of living.

The analysis of the poverty indicator provides us with valuable information on the proportion of our population at risk. However, it is necessary to define the numbers that are experiencing poverty in terms of being consistently deprived of goods and services regarded as essential for living in Ireland today. The ESRI report also analysed the trends in consistent poverty that capture the position of those who are on low incomes and experiencing enforced basic deprivation.

The success of Government policies in tackling consistent poverty is reflected in the sharp decreases observed by the indicator in recent years — down from 15% in 1994 to 5.2% in 2001. We have set a target in the national anti-poverty strategy of reducing consistent poverty to below 2% by 2007 and ideally eliminating it altogether.

My Department has commissioned separate research from the ESRI that is near completion. I want to develop a greater level of understanding of the various causal factors that influence the levels of relative income poverty here as compared with other member states.

Question No. 143 answered with QuestionNo. 114.
Question No. 144 answered with QuestionNo. 116.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (85)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

145 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will undertake an evaluation of child benefit levels and bring them into line with current child care costs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7858/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

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 at the lower rate and €115.78 at the higher rate, increases of 246% and 234% respectively, compared with inflation of 26.9%. The increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government's objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents.

The 2004 budget provided 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 increase, or 5.1%, in the rate payable in respect of the third and subsequent children.

Child benefit is not intended primarily to meet child care costs but to provide assistance generally to parents in the cost of raising children. It 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 and it assists those on low incomes more in relative terms. Child benefit helps to contribute to the cost of raising children, regardless of the household's income or employment status. It does not distort parental choice in respect of labour force participation and contributes towards alleviating child poverty. The concentration of additional resources in child benefit avoids the employment disincentives associated with increased child dependant allowances and has underpinned the policy of successive Governments since 1994.

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

Social Welfare Appeals.

Ceisteanna (86)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

146 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason a care recipient is not brought into the oral hearing to progress a carer’s allowance appeal; and the way in which a judgment can be made on the allowance when the carer is brought to the oral hearing and not the care recipient. [7860/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

In applications for carer's allowance the basic qualifying conditions, apart from a means test, are that the person receiving care must be so incapacitated as to require full-time care and attention. The carer is the applicant and is invariably the appellant against a decision disallowing payment.

Appeals against the refusal of claims for carer's allowance normally require an oral hearing in order to determine the appeal. The carer, as the appellant, attends the hearing but it is not usual for the person being cared for to attend. In most instances an application for a carer's allowance will have been investigated by an inspector of the Department who will have given the general background to the application and afforded the applicant the opportunity to set out the basis for their claim.

This is available to the appeals officer and will usually be gone through at the hearing. The medical evidence offered by both the care recipient's doctor and the opinions of the Department's medical assessors are taken into consideration by an appeals officer. The case will usually revolve around aspects of the medical evidence and the extent and type of care provided. All these matters are established by reference to the inspector's report, the carer's statements and the medical evidence.

In many instances the person who is being cared for is not able to attend a hearing. Many are, by definition, too elderly or frail and are rarely summoned. Their absence should not mean that their situation cannot be adequately represented at the hearing. The presence of the care recipient at the hearing is not essential. They may attend where the carer wishes. The care recipient may be examined by my Department's medical assessor where this is likely to be helpful. Their doctor must indicate that they are able to attend the examination.

Testimony by the care recipient could be helpful in certain cases. The chief appeals officer issues an annual report and in his 2001 report he alluded to the issue raised by the Deputy. He stated that they could provide valuable, first hand testimony in some cases. Ultimately, the question of who should attend an oral hearing is one for an appeals officer. In general, care recipients who attend with a view to testifying in support of the carer's appeal are readily facilitated.

Pension Provisions.

Ceisteanna (87)

Pat Breen

Ceist:

147 Mr. P. Breen asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons who have their State pension reduced due to their British pension; the way it is calculated; and the exchange rate formula used as compared with the average exchange rate for a given period. [7868/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Last October I answered a similar question on the subject by way of a written reply. In general, there has been little change in the situation since then.

Over 102,000 people receive an Irish non-contributory old age or widowed person's pension. Some 10,900 people, or 10%, also receive a British retirement pension. British pension rates in these cases are less than the maximum rate of non-contributory pension payable here. As a result the people concerned have an entitlement to a reduced rate of old age pension to, in effect, top up their British pension to the level of Irish non-contributory pension.

The rate paid in respect of Irish non-contributory pension to people with British pensions must be adjusted periodically to take account of changes in the rate of their British pension. There is a legal obligation on pensioners to notify my Department in the event of changes in their means for whatever reason.

My Department has an ongoing claim review and control programme in place for all social welfare schemes, including pensions. Each year around 300 pensioners with British retirement pensions have their non-contributory pensions reduced as a consequence of increases in their British pensions. The overall income position of these pensioners is maintained. Their Irish pension reductions arise directly as a result of corresponding increases in their other means. It is open to pensioners to seek a pension review at any time if they consider that their means have changed. Each year my Department processes many hundreds of such requests.

Normally, change in the exchange rate does not lead to the initiation of claim reviews by my Department. Nonetheless, exchange rates must be taken into account when a case is being reviewed. For non-EMU European states, including the UK, my Department continues to use the conversion mechanism provided for under Article 107 of Council Regulation (EEC) No. 574/72 on social security for migrant workers. The conversion rate used for pensions purposes is derived from the average of the daily exchange rates in the first month of a quarter. It is then used in all conversions during the course of the succeeding quarter. Alternatively, the conversion rate applicable to the next succeeding quarter is used if it is more beneficial to the pensioner.

The weekly value of the British pension income, expressed in euro, is included in a revised assessment of means from this and other sources. Where the revised assessment of means affects the rate of pension entitlement under the legislation, a revised decision on entitlement is given by a deciding officer. Pensioners are notified of the new decision and of their right of appeal to the social welfare appeals office if they are unhappy with the decision.

EU Presidency.

Ceisteanna (88)

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

148 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the aims and objectives of the planned conference her Department will be hosting under the EU Presidency, Reconciling Mobility and Social Inclusion; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7802/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

My Department is organising the conference to allow an exchange of views and experiences on various aspects of the process of social inclusion of immigrants. We want to know how exchanges between member states could be encouraged and facilitated on an ongoing basis. The EU Commission's directorate general for employment and social affairs supports the conference.

The conference will examine how migrants can best be supported by employment and social policies in achieving social inclusion in the countries to which they move. Migrants, for the purposes of the conference, will include those moving between current EU member states, those moving within the enlarged Union and from outside the EU.

The conference will be attended by members of the EU employment and social protection committees, members of the administrative commission on social security for migrant workers, heads of public employment services, social partners, relevant NGOs and academics from existing member states, accession countries and EFTA states. This House will be represented by members of the Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs.

The conference will be structured around two broad pillars: European labour mobility and skills, and the social inclusion of migrant workers. The first pillar will centre around the role of geographical mobility and migration to help solve skills bottlenecks on the European labour market and to support individual rights to freedom of movement. On the social inclusion side, migrant workers are often confronted with many obstacles in achieving social inclusion and the conference will focus on social protection and other social services to support migrant workers in overcoming these obstacles. During the conference, contributions will be made on the main challenges facing migrant workers in the social and employment fields and how employment and social policies and programmes need to be and are being adapted to meet the special needs of this group. At present there is a focus on immigration into Ireland but there is still a high proportion of Irish people living abroad.

The task force on emigration welcomed the initiative being taken by the Irish Presidency and the possibilities it would provide to encourage and facilitate greater co-operation between host countries, countries of origin and NGOs in promoting the welfare of emigrants. I have arranged for representatives of Irish emigrant organisations in the UK and the USA to attend the conference as observers. They can learn about the measures being taken and planned to assist emigrants.

Question No. 149 answered with QuestionNo. 113.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (89, 90, 91)

Dan Boyle

Ceist:

150 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of Irish citizens that have applied for unemployment benefits in other EU countries; the countries involved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7920/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Dan Boyle

Ceist:

222 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of Irish citizens that have applied for social welfare benefits in other EU countries; the countries involved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8028/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Question Nos. 150 and 222 together.

The facility whereby persons receiving unemployment and other social welfare benefits in Ireland can transfer those payments to another member state is provided by Regulation 1408/71. It deals with the application of member states' social security systems to persons moving within the EU.

One of its basic principles is that where an insured person is in receipt of a social security benefit they must be allowed to export that benefit to another member state. There are a number of conditions attached to the export of unemployment benefit. First, a person must satisfy all national legislative requirements for entitlement to that benefit, such as being available for and genuinely seeking employment. Where, after being in receipt of unemployment benefit for four weeks, a person decides to go abroad, they can apply at their local office to have their benefit exported.

After arriving in their destination state the unemployed person must immediately register with the employment services of that state and be subject to whatever control procedures are in place there. Entitlement to Irish unemployment benefit in that state will then continue for a maximum period of three months, unless the unemployed person finds employment.

It is not possible to tell how many people exporting their unemployment benefit from Ireland are Irish citizens. Under Regulation 1408/71 any person, not just an Irish citizen, in receipt of the benefit can export it to another member state. During 2003 a total of 346 people availed of this provision. The countries to which they exported their unemployment benefit were as follows:

Country

Number

Luxembourg

1

Denmark

1

Portugal

2

Greece

2

Norway

3

Austria

4

Finland

9

Belgium

10

Italy

11

Netherlands

22

Germany

28

France

46

Spain

85

UK

112

Question No. 151 answered with QuestionNo. 110.
Question No. 152 answered with QuestionNo. 114.
Question No. 153 answered with QuestionNo. 115.
Question No. 154 answered with QuestionNo. 113.

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

155 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has satisfied herself that all persons entitled to social welfare payments have their attention drawn to their entitlements; if she has plans for additional promotional or information campaigns to ensure that persons have their attention drawn to their entitlements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7817/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

An essential element of the delivery of social welfare services is the provision of comprehensive information in a clear and simple manner. The objective of my Department's information policy is to ensure that all citizens are made aware of their entitlements across all social welfare schemes and supports and are kept informed of changes and improvements as they occur. I am satisfied that objective is being met.

My Department directs information to citizens on new schemes and services through advertising, using an appropriate mix of national and provincial media, and through information leaflets, fact sheets, posters and direct mailshots. All our schemes and services are publicised on our website atwww.welfare.ie. Selective use is also made of freephone telephone services to provide information on new schemes and services and at particular times of the year, such as budget time.

With regard to information products, my Department produces a comprehensive range of information booklets covering each social welfare payment. These are widely available from the network of 130 social welfare local offices and branch offices throughout the country as well as from citizen's information centres and many local organisations. Information is also available from information officers located in SWLOs who give talks to many groups and organisations and attend exhibitions and seminars.

My Department also works closely with voluntary and community organisations involved in an information giving role. A number of such organisations receive funding on an annual basis towards the cost of providing welfare rights and information services for their target groups.

Consultation with our customers is another route towards understanding their needs and expectations. We use a range of methods such as customer panels, customer surveys and comment cards. The findings of our customer surveys are, in the main, positive and show a high overall satisfaction rating with the services provided, including information provision. My Department is planning an information campaign for later this year which will promote the role of our SWLOs, particularly the information officers, as a key information contact point in disseminating information on social welfare entitlements across all age groups.

Comhairle is the national information agency operating under the aegis of my Department. It supports the provision of independent information, advice and other supports to all citizens, including those with disabilities. The organisation supports a network of 85 citizen's information centres whose role is to provide information to members of the public on all social services.

Social Welfare Funding.

Ceisteanna (18, 19, 20)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

91 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if the new restrictions in social welfare payments and EU enlargement undermine the stated commitment to the free movement of labour between EU member states; if the new restrictions are legally sound; if these restrictions affect the Irish emigrants who have lived abroad for a number of years returning here; if these restrictions will affect the children of Irish emigrants; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7966/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Dan Boyle

Ceist:

93 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if a prior investigation was undertaken by her Department with her counterpart Departments in the Governments of the EU accession states, regarding the likely number of their citizens who would avail of the right to transfer their social welfare payments after 1 May 2004. [8027/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (28 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 91 and 93 together.

Free movement of persons is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Community law and includes the right to live and work in another member state. The right of free movement does not only concern workers, but other categories of people such as students, pensioners and EU citizens in general.

While the EU treaties provide for full freedom for citizens of the accession states to move freely through the enlarged EU they do not provide for automatic access to labour markets. Under the accession treaties, the EU has put in place a transitional measure by which existing member states will be able to exercise discretion as to the extent of access of persons from the new members states to their respective labour markets.

Unlike other member states, Ireland is not imposing any restrictions on the numbers of people from the new member states who wish to come here and work. I emphasise that this Government gave a commitment that EU citizens who wish to come and work here from 1 May are very welcome to do so and we will honour that commitment.

The Government has decided to put in place a number of measures which will restrict access to qualification for certain social welfare payments by introducing a habitual residence test which will act as an additional condition to be satisfied by a person claiming a social assistance payment or child benefit. The new condition is designed to safeguard our social welfare system from abuse by restricting access to social assistance and child benefit payments for people from other countries who have little or no connection with Ireland.

The new condition will require a claimant for social assistance to be habitually resident in the State or the rest of the common travel area which is the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, for a substantial continuous period. If they have been present in the State for less than the two year period it shall be presumed that they are not habitually resident. The onus will be on persons to prove otherwise. Even if a person is more than two years in the State, he or she will still be required to satisfy the general requirements relating to habitual residence. People who claim welfare payments but do not satisfy the habitual residency test will be assisted to return home and the necessary arrangements will be made in co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I emphasise that these measures are being introduced to ensure our social welfare system does not become overburdened which is a prudent and sensible measure. All other countries in the European Union impose residency restrictions on entitlement to social welfare benefits. The new residence condition will apply to social assistance payments and child benefit. However, it will not apply to social insurance-based payments such as disability benefit, retirement pensions and where entitlement is gained by the payment of social insurance contributions.

A person must establish a degree of permanence to be considered habitually resident in the State. The term "habitual residence" is well known in other jurisdictions and in EU legislation and has been clarified in EU court judgments. It is intended to convey a degree of permanence in the person's residence, clearly the duration and continuity of their residence would be important factors and also their intentions. The factors, as set down by EU case law, to be considered in determining whether a person satisfies the habitual residence test would include: length and continuity of residence; employment prospects; reasons for coming to Ireland; future intentions; centre of interest, for example, family and home connections. People who have resided in the common travel area, the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, will be regarded as habitually resident for the purpose of the new test. Each case will be examined on the facts and the person's degree of permanence in the State and no single factor will be conclusive.

With regard to Irish emigrants returning from abroad, it is expected that the vast majority will be able to prove habitual residence without difficulty because of, for example, their strong family ties with this country, previous residence in the State, etc. It is also possible that such emigrants will qualify for social insurance-based entitlements.

My Department has not been in contact with the competent institutions in the new member states regarding the likely numbers who may wish to avail of their rights to transfer their social welfare payments after 1 May 2004. However, under EU Regulation 1408/71 it is possible for an unemployed person under certain conditions to "export" their unemployment benefit for up to three months while seeking work in another member state. The regulations also allow people to exercise their right to free movement within the EU and to have their social insurance-based entitlements such as contributory pensions exported to another member state. These arrangements are not affected by the habitual residence condition.

Will the Minister assure the House that her proposals and those of the Government are in line with EU legislation? Will she assure the House that the social welfare payments of Irish emigrants who have been working abroad who return to live here will not be affected nor will their child benefit payments be affected? On the question of free movement of labour in and out of Europe, does the Government propose any other restrictions? The Minister comes from a county like mine where there has been a great deal of emigration over the years. Mayo and Donegal are like many other parts of Ireland in that regard. We were glad that other countries took our people in and assisted them in any way they could. Many Irish emigrants suffered abroad in jobs with bad pay. Many of them worked on the lump system which meant they did not pay for a stamp and are now suffering when they reach pension age.

This legislation worries me. I believe there will be a legal challenge to the Government either through the Irish courts or through the European Court. I ask the Minister to assure the House that there will not be a legal challenge and that the Government is operating within the law? Britain is in contravention of EU legislation. When the British legislation was introduced it was decided that it would apply only to the ten accession states. The Minister now states that any EU citizen who comes to Ireland and has not been in residence for two years, will not qualify for social welfare payments. There is no evidence that thousands upon thousands of people will come here. If a single person came here he or she would get €134 and the child dependant would get €19. One would not live well on that. I want the Minister to give me an assurance with regard to the questions I have asked.

No more than the Deputy, I cannot give a guarantee that a legal action will not be taken on anything. I am not able therefore to answer that question.

I will not be as lucky as some down at the tribunals.

The proposal is within EU law.

Changes in social welfare qualification regulations can be made as long as they are applicable to all EU members. That is what I have done, unlike the British Government. For the first time we are introducing an habitual residency requirement. This is a permanent change. It is not a transitional matter and is not part of the accession treaties. There has been no change in the Government's view about the free movement of labour. It is important to emphasise that. People are more than welcome and are entitled to come here to seek work and to participate in our work force. We have been glad to have 47,000 people here on work permits. Equally, we will welcome new EU members to our shores to participate in the labour force.

With regard to the impact of the changes on Irish immigrants who return home, as I indicated in my reply, this will be examined on a case by case basis. The issue of habitual residence is not a conclusive decision. People could be here for less than two years and could prove to be habitually resident under the guidelines which I have outlined to Members. In normal circumstances, those who go abroad to work bring their contributions with them if they have participated in the work force within the EU, or where there are applicable bilateral agreements. If they have not and they are waiting for an assistance scheme they can apply. With the residency test, those who are returning home will satisfy that test if they are coming back to reside, for example, if a family decides to come and puts their children into school. An indication of permanency for those returning home will in itself be a determination of habitual residence. Everyone has to satisfy the normal parameters and criteria for application to any of the assistance schemes. This is a new criteria to be introduced. The measures are prudent and capable of being realised.

I am not sure whether somebody will take an action against the Government. The Attorney General has advised me he is satisfied that this works within the parameters of EU law.

With regard to the changes in Britain, I had the opportunity to meet the Minister and I discussed the changes with him. We have agreed that any changes will not extend outside the habitual residence requirement in the common travel area and the reciprocity that we have between ourselves and the British, which is a special agreement between the British and Irish Governments. On the issue of whether the British changes are within the parameters of EU law, I am not a lawyer and I would not wish to comment on the floor of the House on those issues.

It is discrimination.

I had the opportunity to meet the new Commissioner. We discussed these issues casually, not formally. The Commission does not have to be notified of any changes although from an information point of view the commissioner considers it prudent to bring together all the changes within the EU for the benefit of those who wish to come.

I am disappointed the Minister has chosen to take these two questions together because they are two separate areas, one dealing with the nature of the policy she is making and my question which asks how she has informed herself in reaching that policy decision. Nothing in her reply indicates to me that she has spoken to any of her counterparts in the social welfare departments of the Governments of the EU accession states. At the very least, if we are anticipating the danger of thousands coming here to use our social welfare system, there must be a mirror-like image in each of the EU accession states of the numbers likely to leave their shores and consequently save a social welfare payment in their own countries. That the Minister has not asked and that the information does not appear to exist indicates to me that this is a problem that does not exist and is not likely to occur. Figures have been given in debates here which indicate that less than 2% in the EU live and work in countries other than their national countries. The report from the EU indicates that within five years of their coming into the EU, the likely movement of people from the new EU accession states will be 1% of their total population. On these grounds there was no need to make this decision. Neither the Minister nor her officials have done anything to inform themselves of the likely problem that exists in this area, when there is none.

This has proved to be a convenient smokescreen on the part of the Minister in that she can seem to be resolute in regard to a problem that does not exist while real problems for her Department are manifesting themselves in the cuts she announced in November and December about which we hear daily on our national radio.

If the Deputy was present he would have heard my reply, which was that I did not and did not need to——

I heard the answer.

There are a couple of issues here. An interdepartmental committee isin situ, discussing the implications of accession on a number of issues, one of which has been the impact on benefits and free access of labour. The question asked the likely number of their citizens who would avail of the right to transfer their social welfare payments after 1 May 2004. I cannot answer that, on the basis that I do not know how many people will transfer, nor does anybody else——

Did the Minister speak to her British counterpart?

——know how many people will transfer their entitlements.

The time has expired for dealing with these questions.

The likely number?

No one knows that. I cannot even tell the French Government how many people here will travel to France and export their entitlements because I do not know.

Less than 2%.

I am sorry, I cannot see into people's minds. We have not been able to get an estimate. Some 1% appears to be the likely number who will transfer within the EU. It would be wrong, illogical and inconsiderate not to have imposed certain changes given that Ireland is the only country in the EU that has not protected its social welfare system. If nothing happens, nothing happens.

The time has expired for dealing with these questions. We must move on to the next question.

If there was an overburdening on our social welfare system, I am sure the Deputy would do his duty by advising the Minister she had not done her job and had not prepared.

The Minister will have to conclude.

I have prepared fairly.

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

92 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the severe difficulties created for persons in seasonal, term or limited contract employment, such as school wardens, as a result of the decision of her Department not to pay unemployment benefit award for any period in which they are laid off, such as Easter or Christmas or periods in the summer; if there are holiday days accrued; the steps she intends to take to deal with this anomaly in view of the hardship it can create for persons on low incomes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7965/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Social welfare legislation provides for the payment of unemployment benefit in respect of days of unemployment. Any day on which a person either receives or has an entitlement to holiday pay is not regarded as a day of unemployment and a person has no entitlement to unemployment benefit in respect of that day.

With the exception of people in school-related employment, people in seasonal, term or limited contract employment who claimed unemployment benefit have always had to supply details of all holiday pay entitlements due during each temporary lay-off period. Unemployment benefit is not paid in respect of any day for which there is an entitlement to holiday pay.

These long~standing arrangements were extended to people in school related employment in 2003 following the application of the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001 in their case. The new procedures are designed to ensure that all persons on temporary lay-off from their employment are treated in a similar manner. Full details of holiday pay entitlements must be provided in respect of each school vacation period, so that the level of entitlement, if any, can be determined.

A person can only have an entitlement to unemployment benefit for any day of unemployment which forms part of a period of interruption of employment, that is, where he or she is fully unemployed for a period of at least three days in any period of six consecutive days. In addition, payment of unemployment benefit is not made for the first three days of unemployment which are known as waiting days. However, where a person had a recent claim in respect of certain schemes, payment may be made from the first day of the claim.

The position is that unemployment benefit is payable to those who are laid off from school-related employment, on the same basis that applies to those in all other seasonal, term or limited contract employment. I do not accept that there is any anomaly in this.

January is normally a cold month for the citizens of the State. This January was savage, bitter and sour for a large number in receipt of unemployment benefit and social assistance, not least the widows, who were affected by the savage 16 cuts which we highlighted here, who were to lose disability and unemployment benefit. Was this not another memo which emanated from the Minister's Department on 15 January 2004 to all its offices? Paragraph 3.1 stated that unemployment benefit is not paid in respect of any day for which there is an entitlement to holiday pay, and that this applies to school wardens and people in seasonal, term or limited contract employment. This was nothing more or less than a circular intended to implement another sneaky cut.

Is the Minister aware how difficult it is to get personnel to take up work as school wardens and of the importance of their work in terms of ensuring the safety of young school children? Surely, she is not blind to that reality. Some local authorities and school wardens have made agreements that accumulated holiday pay for three weeks per annum will be paid in full in June when the school year ends, as they are entitled to do under sections 19(3) and 20(3) of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.

Why was this decision taken? The Minister should be aware that this is vital and systematic part-time work. School wardens are not free to take up other offers of employment as they must be available to schools. Moreover, the Minister has made an important error and has been wrongly advised. Despite school wardens being classified by the Department of Social and Family Affairs as being in school-related employment, they are employed by county councils and local authorities, not by the schools or the Department of Education and Science — an interesting point. On behalf of the many thousands of school wardens providing valuable work, I ask the Minister to reverse this decision. Is holiday pay not a statutory entitlement?

Why should school wardens be penalised throughout school terms when they are not receiving accrued holiday pay at that time? It is wrong. The Minister should tear up this circular and put it on a bonfire with the rest of the circulars which have been implemented as part of a savage 17 cuts. How many more cuts are there that we know nothing about? People in all parts of the country are complaining about the cuts and that must be reflected in this House. There will be a campaign to eliminate this cut because, otherwise, we will not have the personnel to carry out this vital work.

The Minister should answer that.

I will. The Deputy was a teacher and values school wardens, as we all do. However, this measure comes under particular legislation. Perhaps it should have been raised in the context of the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Workers) Act 2001. The situation is that if one is entitled to holiday pay, one is not entitled to unemployment benefit. The Deputy is correct that agreements are locally made with local authorities for particular reasons, often personal, where school wardens accrue their holiday pay. The problem is that we cannot deal with accrued holiday pay on the basis that people had entitlements to certain days. In the main, if wardens were paid their holiday pay at Easter, Christmas and in the summer, they would not be entitled to unemployment benefit. However, when becoming unemployed, as a consequence, they would be entitled to unemployment benefit.

Local decisions between local authorities and school wardens are in some way skewing the imposition of the eligibility criteria for unemployment benefit. The situation concerns accrued holiday pay entitlements which are often paid in a lump sum at the end of the school year instead of at each temporary lay-off period, and I must implement the measure according to the legislation. This seems to be what school wardens often want to do. If they were advised that if they took their holiday pay at the time at which they were entitled to it, perhaps they would not find themselves in this situation. This does not concern every school warden as a number of them do not have agreements with local authorities. It would be a matter for local authorities to advise their school wardens of the implications of accruing lump sums of money.

Question No. 93 answered with QuestionNo. 91.

Social Welfare Code.

Ceisteanna (18, 19, 20)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

91 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if the new restrictions in social welfare payments and EU enlargement undermine the stated commitment to the free movement of labour between EU member states; if the new restrictions are legally sound; if these restrictions affect the Irish emigrants who have lived abroad for a number of years returning here; if these restrictions will affect the children of Irish emigrants; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7966/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Dan Boyle

Ceist:

93 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if a prior investigation was undertaken by her Department with her counterpart Departments in the Governments of the EU accession states, regarding the likely number of their citizens who would avail of the right to transfer their social welfare payments after 1 May 2004. [8027/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (28 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 91 and 93 together.

Free movement of persons is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Community law and includes the right to live and work in another member state. The right of free movement does not only concern workers, but other categories of people such as students, pensioners and EU citizens in general.

While the EU treaties provide for full freedom for citizens of the accession states to move freely through the enlarged EU they do not provide for automatic access to labour markets. Under the accession treaties, the EU has put in place a transitional measure by which existing member states will be able to exercise discretion as to the extent of access of persons from the new members states to their respective labour markets.

Unlike other member states, Ireland is not imposing any restrictions on the numbers of people from the new member states who wish to come here and work. I emphasise that this Government gave a commitment that EU citizens who wish to come and work here from 1 May are very welcome to do so and we will honour that commitment.

The Government has decided to put in place a number of measures which will restrict access to qualification for certain social welfare payments by introducing a habitual residence test which will act as an additional condition to be satisfied by a person claiming a social assistance payment or child benefit. The new condition is designed to safeguard our social welfare system from abuse by restricting access to social assistance and child benefit payments for people from other countries who have little or no connection with Ireland.

The new condition will require a claimant for social assistance to be habitually resident in the State or the rest of the common travel area which is the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, for a substantial continuous period. If they have been present in the State for less than the two year period it shall be presumed that they are not habitually resident. The onus will be on persons to prove otherwise. Even if a person is more than two years in the State, he or she will still be required to satisfy the general requirements relating to habitual residence. People who claim welfare payments but do not satisfy the habitual residency test will be assisted to return home and the necessary arrangements will be made in co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I emphasise that these measures are being introduced to ensure our social welfare system does not become overburdened which is a prudent and sensible measure. All other countries in the European Union impose residency restrictions on entitlement to social welfare benefits. The new residence condition will apply to social assistance payments and child benefit. However, it will not apply to social insurance-based payments such as disability benefit, retirement pensions and where entitlement is gained by the payment of social insurance contributions.

A person must establish a degree of permanence to be considered habitually resident in the State. The term "habitual residence" is well known in other jurisdictions and in EU legislation and has been clarified in EU court judgments. It is intended to convey a degree of permanence in the person's residence, clearly the duration and continuity of their residence would be important factors and also their intentions. The factors, as set down by EU case law, to be considered in determining whether a person satisfies the habitual residence test would include: length and continuity of residence; employment prospects; reasons for coming to Ireland; future intentions; centre of interest, for example, family and home connections. People who have resided in the common travel area, the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, will be regarded as habitually resident for the purpose of the new test. Each case will be examined on the facts and the person's degree of permanence in the State and no single factor will be conclusive.

With regard to Irish emigrants returning from abroad, it is expected that the vast majority will be able to prove habitual residence without difficulty because of, for example, their strong family ties with this country, previous residence in the State, etc. It is also possible that such emigrants will qualify for social insurance-based entitlements.

My Department has not been in contact with the competent institutions in the new member states regarding the likely numbers who may wish to avail of their rights to transfer their social welfare payments after 1 May 2004. However, under EU Regulation 1408/71 it is possible for an unemployed person under certain conditions to "export" their unemployment benefit for up to three months while seeking work in another member state. The regulations also allow people to exercise their right to free movement within the EU and to have their social insurance-based entitlements such as contributory pensions exported to another member state. These arrangements are not affected by the habitual residence condition.

Will the Minister assure the House that her proposals and those of the Government are in line with EU legislation? Will she assure the House that the social welfare payments of Irish emigrants who have been working abroad who return to live here will not be affected nor will their child benefit payments be affected? On the question of free movement of labour in and out of Europe, does the Government propose any other restrictions? The Minister comes from a county like mine where there has been a great deal of emigration over the years. Mayo and Donegal are like many other parts of Ireland in that regard. We were glad that other countries took our people in and assisted them in any way they could. Many Irish emigrants suffered abroad in jobs with bad pay. Many of them worked on the lump system which meant they did not pay for a stamp and are now suffering when they reach pension age.

This legislation worries me. I believe there will be a legal challenge to the Government either through the Irish courts or through the European Court. I ask the Minister to assure the House that there will not be a legal challenge and that the Government is operating within the law? Britain is in contravention of EU legislation. When the British legislation was introduced it was decided that it would apply only to the ten accession states. The Minister now states that any EU citizen who comes to Ireland and has not been in residence for two years, will not qualify for social welfare payments. There is no evidence that thousands upon thousands of people will come here. If a single person came here he or she would get €134 and the child dependant would get €19. One would not live well on that. I want the Minister to give me an assurance with regard to the questions I have asked.

No more than the Deputy, I cannot give a guarantee that a legal action will not be taken on anything. I am not able therefore to answer that question.

I will not be as lucky as some down at the tribunals.

The proposal is within EU law.

Changes in social welfare qualification regulations can be made as long as they are applicable to all EU members. That is what I have done, unlike the British Government. For the first time we are introducing an habitual residency requirement. This is a permanent change. It is not a transitional matter and is not part of the accession treaties. There has been no change in the Government's view about the free movement of labour. It is important to emphasise that. People are more than welcome and are entitled to come here to seek work and to participate in our work force. We have been glad to have 47,000 people here on work permits. Equally, we will welcome new EU members to our shores to participate in the labour force.

With regard to the impact of the changes on Irish immigrants who return home, as I indicated in my reply, this will be examined on a case by case basis. The issue of habitual residence is not a conclusive decision. People could be here for less than two years and could prove to be habitually resident under the guidelines which I have outlined to Members. In normal circumstances, those who go abroad to work bring their contributions with them if they have participated in the work force within the EU, or where there are applicable bilateral agreements. If they have not and they are waiting for an assistance scheme they can apply. With the residency test, those who are returning home will satisfy that test if they are coming back to reside, for example, if a family decides to come and puts their children into school. An indication of permanency for those returning home will in itself be a determination of habitual residence. Everyone has to satisfy the normal parameters and criteria for application to any of the assistance schemes. This is a new criteria to be introduced. The measures are prudent and capable of being realised.

I am not sure whether somebody will take an action against the Government. The Attorney General has advised me he is satisfied that this works within the parameters of EU law.

With regard to the changes in Britain, I had the opportunity to meet the Minister and I discussed the changes with him. We have agreed that any changes will not extend outside the habitual residence requirement in the common travel area and the reciprocity that we have between ourselves and the British, which is a special agreement between the British and Irish Governments. On the issue of whether the British changes are within the parameters of EU law, I am not a lawyer and I would not wish to comment on the floor of the House on those issues.

It is discrimination.

I had the opportunity to meet the new Commissioner. We discussed these issues casually, not formally. The Commission does not have to be notified of any changes although from an information point of view the commissioner considers it prudent to bring together all the changes within the EU for the benefit of those who wish to come.

I am disappointed the Minister has chosen to take these two questions together because they are two separate areas, one dealing with the nature of the policy she is making and my question which asks how she has informed herself in reaching that policy decision. Nothing in her reply indicates to me that she has spoken to any of her counterparts in the social welfare departments of the Governments of the EU accession states. At the very least, if we are anticipating the danger of thousands coming here to use our social welfare system, there must be a mirror-like image in each of the EU accession states of the numbers likely to leave their shores and consequently save a social welfare payment in their own countries. That the Minister has not asked and that the information does not appear to exist indicates to me that this is a problem that does not exist and is not likely to occur. Figures have been given in debates here which indicate that less than 2% in the EU live and work in countries other than their national countries. The report from the EU indicates that within five years of their coming into the EU, the likely movement of people from the new EU accession states will be 1% of their total population. On these grounds there was no need to make this decision. Neither the Minister nor her officials have done anything to inform themselves of the likely problem that exists in this area, when there is none.

This has proved to be a convenient smokescreen on the part of the Minister in that she can seem to be resolute in regard to a problem that does not exist while real problems for her Department are manifesting themselves in the cuts she announced in November and December about which we hear daily on our national radio.

If the Deputy was present he would have heard my reply, which was that I did not and did not need to——

I heard the answer.

There are a couple of issues here. An interdepartmental committee isin situ, discussing the implications of accession on a number of issues, one of which has been the impact on benefits and free access of labour. The question asked the likely number of their citizens who would avail of the right to transfer their social welfare payments after 1 May 2004. I cannot answer that, on the basis that I do not know how many people will transfer, nor does anybody else——

Did the Minister speak to her British counterpart?

——know how many people will transfer their entitlements.

The time has expired for dealing with these questions.

The likely number?

No one knows that. I cannot even tell the French Government how many people here will travel to France and export their entitlements because I do not know.

Less than 2%.

I am sorry, I cannot see into people's minds. We have not been able to get an estimate. Some 1% appears to be the likely number who will transfer within the EU. It would be wrong, illogical and inconsiderate not to have imposed certain changes given that Ireland is the only country in the EU that has not protected its social welfare system. If nothing happens, nothing happens.

The time has expired for dealing with these questions. We must move on to the next question.

If there was an overburdening on our social welfare system, I am sure the Deputy would do his duty by advising the Minister she had not done her job and had not prepared.

The Minister will have to conclude.

I have prepared fairly.

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

92 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the severe difficulties created for persons in seasonal, term or limited contract employment, such as school wardens, as a result of the decision of her Department not to pay unemployment benefit award for any period in which they are laid off, such as Easter or Christmas or periods in the summer; if there are holiday days accrued; the steps she intends to take to deal with this anomaly in view of the hardship it can create for persons on low incomes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7965/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Social welfare legislation provides for the payment of unemployment benefit in respect of days of unemployment. Any day on which a person either receives or has an entitlement to holiday pay is not regarded as a day of unemployment and a person has no entitlement to unemployment benefit in respect of that day.

With the exception of people in school-related employment, people in seasonal, term or limited contract employment who claimed unemployment benefit have always had to supply details of all holiday pay entitlements due during each temporary lay-off period. Unemployment benefit is not paid in respect of any day for which there is an entitlement to holiday pay.

These long~standing arrangements were extended to people in school related employment in 2003 following the application of the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001 in their case. The new procedures are designed to ensure that all persons on temporary lay-off from their employment are treated in a similar manner. Full details of holiday pay entitlements must be provided in respect of each school vacation period, so that the level of entitlement, if any, can be determined.

A person can only have an entitlement to unemployment benefit for any day of unemployment which forms part of a period of interruption of employment, that is, where he or she is fully unemployed for a period of at least three days in any period of six consecutive days. In addition, payment of unemployment benefit is not made for the first three days of unemployment which are known as waiting days. However, where a person had a recent claim in respect of certain schemes, payment may be made from the first day of the claim.

The position is that unemployment benefit is payable to those who are laid off from school-related employment, on the same basis that applies to those in all other seasonal, term or limited contract employment. I do not accept that there is any anomaly in this.

January is normally a cold month for the citizens of the State. This January was savage, bitter and sour for a large number in receipt of unemployment benefit and social assistance, not least the widows, who were affected by the savage 16 cuts which we highlighted here, who were to lose disability and unemployment benefit. Was this not another memo which emanated from the Minister's Department on 15 January 2004 to all its offices? Paragraph 3.1 stated that unemployment benefit is not paid in respect of any day for which there is an entitlement to holiday pay, and that this applies to school wardens and people in seasonal, term or limited contract employment. This was nothing more or less than a circular intended to implement another sneaky cut.

Is the Minister aware how difficult it is to get personnel to take up work as school wardens and of the importance of their work in terms of ensuring the safety of young school children? Surely, she is not blind to that reality. Some local authorities and school wardens have made agreements that accumulated holiday pay for three weeks per annum will be paid in full in June when the school year ends, as they are entitled to do under sections 19(3) and 20(3) of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.

Why was this decision taken? The Minister should be aware that this is vital and systematic part-time work. School wardens are not free to take up other offers of employment as they must be available to schools. Moreover, the Minister has made an important error and has been wrongly advised. Despite school wardens being classified by the Department of Social and Family Affairs as being in school-related employment, they are employed by county councils and local authorities, not by the schools or the Department of Education and Science — an interesting point. On behalf of the many thousands of school wardens providing valuable work, I ask the Minister to reverse this decision. Is holiday pay not a statutory entitlement?

Why should school wardens be penalised throughout school terms when they are not receiving accrued holiday pay at that time? It is wrong. The Minister should tear up this circular and put it on a bonfire with the rest of the circulars which have been implemented as part of a savage 17 cuts. How many more cuts are there that we know nothing about? People in all parts of the country are complaining about the cuts and that must be reflected in this House. There will be a campaign to eliminate this cut because, otherwise, we will not have the personnel to carry out this vital work.

The Minister should answer that.

I will. The Deputy was a teacher and values school wardens, as we all do. However, this measure comes under particular legislation. Perhaps it should have been raised in the context of the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Workers) Act 2001. The situation is that if one is entitled to holiday pay, one is not entitled to unemployment benefit. The Deputy is correct that agreements are locally made with local authorities for particular reasons, often personal, where school wardens accrue their holiday pay. The problem is that we cannot deal with accrued holiday pay on the basis that people had entitlements to certain days. In the main, if wardens were paid their holiday pay at Easter, Christmas and in the summer, they would not be entitled to unemployment benefit. However, when becoming unemployed, as a consequence, they would be entitled to unemployment benefit.

Local decisions between local authorities and school wardens are in some way skewing the imposition of the eligibility criteria for unemployment benefit. The situation concerns accrued holiday pay entitlements which are often paid in a lump sum at the end of the school year instead of at each temporary lay-off period, and I must implement the measure according to the legislation. This seems to be what school wardens often want to do. If they were advised that if they took their holiday pay at the time at which they were entitled to it, perhaps they would not find themselves in this situation. This does not concern every school warden as a number of them do not have agreements with local authorities. It would be a matter for local authorities to advise their school wardens of the implications of accruing lump sums of money.

Question No. 93 answered with QuestionNo. 91.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (21)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

94 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the fact that according to a recent report by the Combat Poverty Agency, fuel poverty could be a factor in as many as 2,000 deaths per year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7967/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The report to which the Deputy refers is Fuel Poverty and Policy in Ireland and the European Union, which was published in 2003 by the policy institute at Trinity College, Dublin, and the Combat Poverty Agency. The aim of the research was to analyse key policy issues regarding fuel poverty in Ireland and across the European Union. The data used in the report refer to the period 1994-97.

In general, the number who die in winter in western countries is higher than during the rest of the year. Much of the difference is attributed to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. It is not possible to disaggregate definitively the contribution made by fuel povertyper se. The report does not show that 2,000 people die each year in Ireland because they cannot afford to adequately heat their homes during the winter months. Indeed, the claim of inability to afford adequate heat in the home was the category which attracted the lowest percentage of responsibility for fuel poverty in the course of the study. However, I recognise the importance of ensuring that people on low incomes can afford adequate fuel and I accept this is an important aspect of countering fuel poverty.

The extent to which people on social welfare can afford fuel is kept under review in my Department. The objective of social welfare provision in this regard is to ensure that the combined value of weekly social welfare payments and fuel allowances rises in real terms, after compensating people for inflation, including fuel price inflation. Giving people a real increase in their primary payment for 52 weeks of the year is a more expensive option than increasing the fuel allowance payment rate for part of the year. However, I believe it is the correct approach to take as it gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs. That, coupled with programmes to improve the fuel efficiency of the housing stock, will bring about the reduction in poverty levels, including fuel poverty levels, that I am working to achieve.

The report does not call for improvements in fuel allowances. It states that fuel allowances are not a sufficient measure to combat fuel poverty in Ireland. Improvements in energy efficiency in dwelling houses are also necessary. The report contends that the eradication of fuel poverty requires investment in capital stock and the introduction of energy efficiency programmes. The report recommends that the State should introduce a programme targeted at certain groups with the aim of eradicating fuel poverty through domestic energy-efficiency improvements. As the Deputy will appreciate, responsibility for such a programme does not come solely within my remit.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House

My Department is currently in discussion with Sustainable Energy Ireland with a view to planning a fuel poverty project. It is proposed to carry out an action research project in designated geographical areas where eligible persons will have an energy audit carried out in their homes. The audit will include energy advice to the household as well as minor remedial work such as the installation of roof space insulation, draft proofing, fitting of hot water cylinder lagging jackets and energy efficient light bulbs. The project proposes to target persons over 65 years and long-term disabled persons, who are in receipt of a fuel allowance from my Department. The project will evaluate the effects of the measures undertaken from the point of view of comfort levels, health effects as well as changes in fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions.

This report and its suggestion of 2,000 deaths per year because of fuel poverty is damning of the Government and society in general in that we cannot look after our pensioners. It is daft to have a fuel allowance for 29 weeks as there are 52 weeks in a year. The climate of this country means that the poor and old in poor accommodation need a fire every day of the year. There were not many days last summer when people did not need a fire. The Government has suggested it will introduce a carbon energy tax in the next budget. Has the Department of Social and Family Affairs made a submission to the Minister for Finance to protect those on low incomes? What proposals or recommendations has the Minister or her Department made? This proposal will create further fuel poverty, particularly for those on low incomes. The Minister should extend the fuel scheme for the full 52 weeks of the year. This would not cost a fortune and would go a long way towards helping those in fuel poverty.

I agree with the report that this issue is not simply concerned with giving people money to buy coal, gas or otherwise. Much of the problem is in regard to the condition of housing. The Minister should draw up a scheme for the elderly in conjunction with the health boards, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and her officials. This scheme would be to educate the elderly about the energy deficiencies in their homes, which is a big problem, and to allow health boards to assist those on low incomes to improve their homes. Elderly people always ask for safety and heat in their homes. The Minister should look into that.

It is very eye-catching to say 2,000 people died. That is factually incorrect.

I did not say it. It is in the report.

It is not. I went to the bother of reading the report because it was part-funded by my Department through the Combat Poverty Agency. There are 270,000 people receiving fuel allowance and I spent €83.7 million last year.

That is €9 per week.

It is €83.7 million.

It is means-tested.

I did not have the chance to read the entire answer but I can do so now. I am engaged in a fuel poverty project with Sustainable Energy Ireland which covers the issues raised by the Deputy. We are looking at energy advice to the householder as well as minor remedial works such as roof space insulation, draft-proofing, fitting hot water cylinder lagging jackets, energy efficient light bulbs and so on. Deputy Ring and I both agree those issues are important.

We are looking at targeting those over 65 years of age and the long-term disabled. We are participating in a fuel energy project with Sustainable Energy Ireland, which has been excellent in supporting people at a local, voluntary level. We are also looking at comfort levels and health effects as well as fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions. We have set up a project, we are carrying out an audit and we are looking at the best way to spend any resources we will have.

The Deputy will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt a Government decision on carbon tax, but I have been in consultation with my colleagues about discussions which are taking place at present.

Family Policy.

Ceisteanna (22)

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

95 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the steps she intends to take to implement the 15 recommendations contained in the November 2003 report, The Position of Full-Time Carers, from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, specifically the recommendation for the abolition of the means test for the carer’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7798/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The provision of support to carers has been a priority Government objective since 1997. Since then we have significantly improved the position of carers through improvements each year in the scheme, and this will continue to be a priority. The long-term care agenda is an important aspect of social policy with major financial and other implications, and I am also determined to progress this agenda by developing a framework for the future of long-term care in this country.

The report of the joint committee, which I welcome, makes a range of recommendations, many of which relate to my Department and a number of which concern the Department of Health and Children. I am always prepared to consider changes in existing arrangements where these are for the benefit of recipients and financially sustainable within the resources available to me. The abolition of the means test for the carer's allowance could cost in the region of €180 million. This is not feasible in present circumstances and, in any event, it is questionable whether it would be the best use of such resources in the light of other competing demands.

The joint committee also proposed in respect of carer's benefit, which is a social insurance payment for persons who leave employment to care for another person and which lasts for up to 15 months, that the 15 months limit should be waived where the person continues to provide care. The present arrangements include the provision of job-protected leave of absence for up to 15 months with employers being obliged to maintain the employee's employment rights for this period. Any extension of carer's benefit would, in addition to the direct cost implications, have implications for carer's leave as well.

I consider 15 months to be a reasonable period of leave in the circumstances. If there is an ongoing care requirement, a person may be entitled to carer's allowance. The joint committee also recommended payment of partial carer's allowance where a carer is in receipt of another payment. As a general rule, however, only one social welfare payment is payable at any one time and persons qualifying for two payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled.

The joint committee made a number of specific recommendations on the respite care grant which will be considered in light of future improvements in the scheme in a budgetary context. The joint committee also made proposals for the administration of the scheme and, in particular, the provision of improved information to carers, which I am having examined.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Regarding the long-term care agenda, I note that the joint committee has examined the study I launched last year on the future financing of long-term care. My Department is preparing a consultation document which will aim to focus interested parties on the specific complex issues we need to address which include benefit design, delivery, cost and financing which are discussed at length in the report. I intend to issue the consultation document to all interested parties shortly.

A consultation process on the financing of long-term care will then take place. I envisage that the feedback from this process will be the starting point for meeting the commitment in Sustaining Progress on examining the strategic policy, cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. I hope that the working group to conduct this examination could be established in mid-2004.

Is it not the case that we have approximately 150,000 carers, depending on the definition of carers, and that, of that number, only 23,000 or so receive any sort of carer's allowance and only 16,000 to 17,000 receive the full carer's allowance? Is it not the case that, as a nation, we have got away with caring for our elderly and disabled on the cheap? We have behaved disgracefully by failing to recognise the work and role of carers, some of whom receive approximately 80 cent per hour. That is the height of it for the work they are doing.

This is not about money. It is about recognition. Many people accept it might be difficult to abolish the means test, although our party is committed to that. An array of forms is needed for this scheme and more money is spent on the administration of the scheme than is allocated to recipients. That is why we will abolish the means test. If I am ever in Government, there will be no ifs, buts or maybes. It will be out with the means test which is only a way of making sure people do not avail of the scheme.

If a person becomes a widow or widower at 40 or 42 years and must look after a child who is disabled or handicapped from then until the age of 65, surely we could give such people half the rate of carer's allowance, which is approximately €70. That would not buy a person a treat but surely we could give such people the respite care allowance. Those are little matters.

I know there are difficulties with the carer's allowance. I am not so pigheaded that I cannot appreciate difficulties but I am pigheaded about the fact that we have let down the people who have cared for the elderly. They are not in it for money. If they were, they would throw the carer's allowance back at the Minister because it is an insult to the work those people have done. The money gives recognition but 130,000 people receive no recognition. I applaud the Carers' Association and the others involved in this work over the years.

In the upcoming review will the Minister take cognisance of some of the 15 recommendations of the joint committee's report? I compliment Deputies Dan Wallace, Ring and the others who worked very hard on this matter. It meant a great deal to them and, on their behalf, I ask the Minister to incorporate some of the recommendations at the next available opportunity, which is next year.

We are awash with cash and the Minister for Finance will have to find more racecourses to which he can give money. We are talking about €180 million out of €430 million. Let us give that to the people. Let us put humans top of the agenda and leave the horseflesh for another day.

The Minister for Finance will be in Cheltenham next week.

We will stick to the subject here, which is not horses. I am not the Minister with responsibility for sport, although sometimes there are blood sports in the House.

I can give the Deputy a simple answer. I will take into consideration many of the recommendations. At the end of the day we want to see carers and those they care for being looked after. I agree that, if one took an economic perspective on the investment of human capital by carers, one would see a huge imbalance between institutional care and care in the home. That is why I and the Minister for Health and Children want to look seriously at long-term care issues, as we have 20 years to address this before we have an ageing population.

It is almost the unanimous view of Members that home care should be progressed. On that basis I am actively considering future possibilities and, in the next budget, I will consider what I can do, within the budget that will be made available for me, to ensure carers receive that additionality. We increased the respite care grant again last year and we also increased the disregards. They are now up to €500 for a couple and €250 for a single person. We are working on this issue and, for the first time, we have real statistics from the Central Statistics Office on the numbers of carers. All that information and the good work of the joint committee will be evaluated and considered.

I remind Members that supplementary questions and replies are limited to one minute on each question.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (23, 24)

Arthur Morgan

Ceist:

96 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the figure that there are 2,000 premature deaths every year as a result of fuel poverty. [7893/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

133 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her proposals to tackle fuel poverty in this State. [7891/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 96 and 133 together.

A report entitled, Fuel Poverty and Policy in Ireland and the European Union, was published in 2003 by the policy institute at Trinity College Dublin and the Combat Poverty Agency. The data used in the report refer to the period 1994 to 1997. The report suggests that as many as 2,000 excess winter deaths in Ireland are associated with fuel poverty and domestic energy inefficiency.

In general, the number of people who die in winter in western countries is significantly higher than during the rest of the year. Much of the difference is attributed to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. It is not possible to disaggregate definitively the contribution made by what is known as fuel poverty.

As I stated earlier, the report does not show that 2,000 people die each year in Ireland because they cannot afford to adequately heat their homes during winter months. The claim of inability to afford adequate heat in the home was the category which attracted the lowest percentage of responsibility for fuel poverty in the course of the study. I recognise the importance of ensuring that people on low incomes can afford fuel and I accept that this is an important aspect of countering fuel poverty. The fuel allowance scheme is important in that regard.

However, giving people a real increase in their primary payment for 52 weeks of the year is a more expensive option than increasing the fuel allowance payment rate for part of the year. That is the correct approach to take as it gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs. That, coupled with programmes to improve the fuel efficiency of the housing stock, will bring about the reduction in poverty levels, including fuel poverty, that I am working to achieve.

The report recommends that the State should introduce a programme targeted at certain groups with the aim of eradicating fuel poverty through domestic energy efficiency improvements. The report does not call for improvements in fuel allowances. In fact, the report states that fuel allowances are not a sufficient measure to combat fuel poverty in Ireland. Improvements in energy efficiency in dwelling houses are necessary as well.

My Department is planning a fuel poverty project to be carried out in conjunction with Sustainable Energy Ireland. It is proposed to carry out an action research project in designated geographical areas where eligible persons will have an energy audit carried out in their homes and will receive energy advice and have minor remedial work carried out.

As far as social welfare provision is concerned, the commitments which the Government has given to increases in social welfare payments will further protect the position of vulnerable groups and improve their income situation in a substantial way.

Is the Minister aware fuel poverty most adversely affects people belonging to the lower socio-economic classes and that this State's record on the matter is one of the worst in Europe? Almost one in four employed persons, one in five tenants and one in five lone parents suffers from fuel poverty. The Minister referred to discussions between her Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the issue of sustainable energy and so on. About how many people is the Minister talking? Is there a timescale for the implementation of this work for people who are over 65? In what areas will this be implemented?

Is the Minister aware that, in 1985, the fuel allowance was £5, or €6.35? It has increased by €3 since. The price of fuel, ESB and everything else has also increased over those 20 years. I accept parties on all sides of the House have been in Government during that time. The situation has worsened and people on the fringes of society and who are most disadvantaged are suffering. The Minister said she is looking at the situation of those over 65, but there does not seem to be a plan. We have talked about joined-up Government.

New houses have heating but many houses in which people live are sub-standard and they are literally dying of the cold in their own homes. We have all gone into houses which are freezing and in which people experience poverty. Unfortunately, the days of people throwing the coat over the bed have not gone away and people still live in freezing conditions. We do not seem to have a plan to try to deal with it. The Minister spoke about the current response, which is timely, but is there a timescale for implementation? Are there figures?

I hope to finalise this shortly. We have been working with Sustainable Energy Ireland which has a track record. When we thought of this idea, we had to look at the best way to implement it. A number of other agencies should be involved such as the Combat Poverty Agency, the Economic and Social Research Institute, the money advice and budgeting service and the Institute of Public Health as well as the Department and Sustainable Energy Ireland. A few minor details need to be ironed out so that we can reach an agreement between both agencies. We discussed this recently and there are some modifications which are acceptable to my Department. We will be able to reach an agreement shortly.

The target group at which we are looking are those over 65 and people on long-term disability allowance as they are seen as the people who are most vulnerable. Housing aid for the elderly, the essential repairs grant and the disabled person's grant do not deal with the small important matters such as draught exclusion. They are not part of any of the other grant aid schemes. We will look at the energy efficiencies to fill in the gaps in those schemes.

I take the Minister's point about the 2,000 deaths referred to in the study. It is sober reading. Even if there were only one death, it would be an indictment on us as a society that we are wealthy in so many ways but so poor and bereft of compassion for others that somebody would die because he or she did not have enough money to heat his or her home.

The unemployed form the largest socio-economic group at risk of fuel poverty and are followed by tenants, lone parents, as referred to by Deputy Crowe, the separated, those living in large multi-unit dwellings and the elderly living alone. Are they not the people hardest hit by the savage 16 cuts? Those are the people who bore the brunt of some of those cuts.

The Minister introduced a pilot scheme and cold alert cards so that older people would know when their homes were too cold. That, however, misses the point. Realising one's home is too cold is not the problem; it is not having enough money to heat one's home sufficiently. That is the critical question. We can hold rhetoric. The provision of sufficient funds to ensure adequate heating is a basic right and must be treated as such by the Government. Will the Minister ensure the fuel allowance is increased and over an extended period as Deputy Ring has said? That is the way to combat this problem.

As the Minister knows, this is the only one of the free schemes that is means-tested. People who worked for the county council or for a semi-State company would have a small pension but are debarred from the fuel scheme because they exceed the income limit. That is something the Minister should examine. The fuel scheme should be given to pensioners even if they have a pension from the county council, the health board or State agency and for which they have paid. They may get €60 or €70 extra per week but they find they lose that as a result of not getting the free fuel. Will the Minister examine that when producing her report?

Has the Minister had any discussions with the Minister for Finance on his proposal in last year's budget on the introduction of a carbon tax? Is she aware of the proposals of the Economic and Social Research Institute that if, or when, such a tax is introduced, most of the money should be recycled into greatly increased social welfare payments and not into the Exchequer? Has she made any moves to make sure the Minister for Finance does not act other than in that direction?

On the review of the fuel allowance, what measures are being put in place to make sure the most effective use of the money can be made by the recipient? Solid and fossil fuel is largely used and most of the heat provided goes up chimney stacks rather than into the rooms where it is needed. Some houses are poorly insulated, damp and not well-designed. Surely capital expenditure is what is needed to make sure the fuel allowance has the greatest effect.

It is my intention that, not only will we provide advice, we will also provide for some capital remedial works. I agree with Deputy Boyle in this regard. The fuel card was initiated in County Mayo and seemed to be popular. The county development board worked under the social inclusion measures in which the county councils are not involved. That will link into the sustainable energy project. A project is taking place through some of the voluntary agencies, the partnerships and the Leader programmes. There are small programmes but we need to encompass them fairly rigorously within a proper fuel poverty initiative. I am getting a lot of co-operation on the matter, which I see as fundamental in addressing the issues of fuel poverty and fuel efficiencies.

With respect to the disregards and the means test, I did change the situation slightly this year. We would hope to change it every year and, in particular, we changed the disregards for fuel allowances under the income and capital disregard. Every year these are examined fully. We will examine the possibility of changing the eligibility criteria for a number of the schemes, but it is a means-tested scheme.

The other issue raised was whether I should increase the fuel allowance or whether it would be better to give a full €10 to pensioners. I considered that the €10 for pensioners was the best option because that is available to them 52 weeks per year, whereas the fuel allowance is specifically a winter scheme. It is an exciting proposal and a good initiative. I agree it is not solely a monetary issue, but also a minor capital works issue. As I told Deputy Crowe, I anticipate that we will have a roll-out fairly quickly on this matter.

What about the carbon tax?

I have had discussions about that matter. As the Deputy will appreciate, when the draft memorandum was circulated, Ministers forwarded their observations to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Finance. I assume I will have to battle for the other issue on my own. I can tell the Deputy that I will be doing my best on that one.

Departmental Statistics.

Ceisteanna (25)

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

97 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the estimated additional cost to her Department of increases in telephone charges for pensioners and welfare recipients; when the telephone rental allowance will apply to mobile phones which qualifying applicants hold; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7808/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (15 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

My Department introduced a significant change to the telephone allowance scheme in October 2003. The structure of the allowance was changed to make it a cash credit on bills, not attributable to any particular component of the bill. This change makes it easier for additional service providers to participate in the scheme by applying a standardised allowance amount to bills irrespective of the tariff components.

In conjunction with this change, a special bundle rate — the Eircom social benefits scheme — was negotiated with Eircom, which provided telephone allowance customers with line and equipment rental, plus an enhanced call credit of up to €5.35 worth of free calls per two-month billing period. The cost of the bundle, which is €20.41 plus VAT per month, was at a substantial discount to the previous cost of these services.

The Commission for Telecommunications Regulation, ComReg, recently approved a price increase application from Eircom of 7.5% in line rental, effective from 4 February 2004. A lesser percentage increase is also being applied to telephone instrument rental where applicable. It is my understanding that these increases will be offset by reductions in call costs in order to limit the average private customer bill increase to the consumer price index rate.

Following detailed discussions between officials of my Department and Eircom, it was agreed that the increase in the Eircom social benefits scheme would be limited to the rate of the CPI, which is 1.9%. Some technical restructuring of the social benefits scheme was also agreed which removed some additional call unit value. To offset this, Eircom offered to give low-use customers up to €10 worth of free calls per two-month bill, by offering them its separate vulnerable users scheme, in addition to the social benefit scheme.

The revised package results in an increase to the social welfare customer of €0.94, including VAT, per two-month bill. The other revisions to call costs by Eircom should be broadly beneficial to social welfare customers.

There has not been a significant demand to date from social welfare customers to have the allowance transferred to mobile phones. This may be due to the fact that most customers who have a mobile phone also have a land line. I am committed, however, to the development of the telephone allowance scheme to respond to the expanding telecommunications market and to facilitate greater client choice of telephone services.

My Department has had discussions with the communications regulator, ComReg, to develop the necessary technical and administrative arrangements for mobile phone services. These arrangements are necessary to ensure that the allowance will be applied accurately to individual customer accounts through any licensed service provider interested in participating in the scheme. My Department and ComReg have identified suitable mechanisms to enable this for mobile phone services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

On this basis, I announced in December last that my Department was willing to discuss arrangements with any interested mobile phone service provider. Since then, my Department has had initial discussions with one licensed company and has preliminary contact from two others. In the new environment telephone allowance customers would be entitled to select the participating telephone service provider of their choice to suit their particular circumstances. Allowance customers would be entitled to switch between provider companies within a reasonable period if they so wished. It would be up to the provider companies concerned to design suitable marketing packages to attract and retain these clients, as with any other group.

If the initial interest now being expressed by mobile telephone provider companies develops into active participation, then I would expect that the necessary technical arrangements could be finalised between my Department, the individual companies concerned and ComReg. On that basis, I would expect that the option of applying the telephone allowance to mobile telephone bills could be made available to social welfare customers before the end of this year.

What was the reaction of the mobile telephone network's licence providers to the Minister's attempts to ensure that they would accommodate this request? The problem with many of the schemes in many Departments, including the Minister's, is that they are not brought to public attention as widely as possible. I realise that some Ministers may be criticised for having their photographs taken, but it is important to propagate the news that the rental allowance will be available for mobile telephones. It is essential for that to be done because mobile telephones are of great value to elderly people who will be using them for their own safety. In addition, if they fall ill they can easily summon help without having to leave home.

Eircom seems to be making some concessions but, in view of the many elderly people who lost a lot of money after the company's flotation, I suggest that those poor unfortunate people should receive ten years' free rental for every telephone they have.

Double or nothing.

It would be some way of paying compensation and it would not be charity.

Exactly. It would be compensation.

It is what people deserve. I notice many people are now making money out of it, but the poor are not.

The Minister promoted this matter over the Christmas period and I have also been following it on Committee Stage of the Social Welfare Bill. It is a natural scheme to introduce because everybody has mobile telephones now. I presume that people will not be able to have both, so that the allowance will be either for a mobile or a fixed-line telephone?

Yes, that is right.

I received a query about the free schemes arising from an article in a newspaper last week. Is the Department currently reviewing the free schemes? People are worried that, given all the cutbacks, some of the free schemes will be lost. I received a telephone call from somebody in Dublin this morning asking me if the Department was getting rid of the free schemes. I replied: "No, not that I know of but I suppose we will be the last to be told."

Absolutely. It never changes.

It will probably be announced in the newspapers first and we will hear about it afterwards. Will the Minister confirm that her Department is reviewing the free schemes? Are they facing any danger?

I want to reassure people about that, because when there is a media frenzy, people start going off at a tangent and they pick up things incorrectly. There will be no change to the free schemes.

That is good.

Other than improvements.

Exactly. I agree with the Deputy that was the reason we wanted to include mobile telephones in the allowance scheme. Many people buy them for their parents who find them very handy. They provide security apart from being useful for normal calls. My Department has been in contact with one mobile provider and is meeting two other providers this week to negotiate with them. One of the issues arising from the opening up of the telecommunications market is that we must provide choice. We have always had an agreement with Eircom but ComReg has instructed my Department to invest in providing choice. Arising from that provision of choice for land line telephones, we will now be in a position to provide choice for mobile telephones also. When agreement has been reached on this matter, Members of the House will be informed of the decision.

Foreign Direct Investment.

Ceisteanna (26, 27)

Ruairí Quinn

Ceist:

98 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when it is intended to commence publishing annual reports of progress towards the achievement of anti-poverty indicators; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7822/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ruairí Quinn

Ceist:

100 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date with regard to achieving the target set in An Agreed Programme for Government of reducing consistent poverty to below 2%; the percentage in consistent poverty at the latest date for which figures are available; if the results of the national survey carried out in 2003 are available; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7821/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 98 and 100 together.

The most recent data on the levels of consistent poverty is contained in a report published recently by the Economic and Social Research Institute, entitled Monitoring Poverty Trends in Ireland: Results from the 2001 Living in Ireland Survey. The report shows that the steady downward trend in consistent poverty has been sustained with a rate of 5.2% being recorded in 2001 compared to 15% in 1994. Accordingly, we are continuing to make steady progress towards the achievement of the target set out in the revised national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, of reducing the level of consistent poverty to below 2% by 2007 and, ideally, eliminating it altogether.

The 2001 Living in Ireland survey was the final such survey undertaken as part of the European Community household panel or ECHP. This statistical instrument is now being replaced with a new instrument, which is known as EU-SILC — the European survey of income and living conditions. The Central Statistics Office is responsible for EU-SILC, as it has a statutory basis in EU statistical law. The earlier ECHP had no formal legal basis. I understand that the Central Statistics Office expects to be in a position to publish the initial results from the 2003 survey by the end of this year, and that the latest information on consistent poverty will be included in these initial results.

The office for social inclusion within my Department has overall responsibility for monitoring progress towards the implementation of the targets set out in NAPS and in the national action plans against poverty and social exclusion. The current NAPS/inclusion covers the period from 2003 to 2005 and was submitted to the EU Commission on 31 July 2003. The plan provides for the following: an assessment of the major trends and challenges in the area of social inclusion; reviews the progress achieved in the previous two-year period; sets out the strategic approach to meeting the challenges; identifies the key targets and the measures in place to achieve those targets; sets out the institutional framework in place to address the issues of poverty and social exclusion; and identifies a number of examples of best practice.

The plan, together with similar plans submitted by the other member states, also provides the basis for a joint inclusion report which will be discussed at the forthcoming spring European Council. The joint inclusion report includes a synthesis report on the challenges facing all member states in tackling poverty and social exclusion, as well as a critique of the individual plans of each member state.

In order to provide continuity in the process, it is planned to publish the first annual report of the office for social inclusion in autumn 2004, covering the year to end July 2004. It is envisaged that this report will provide an analysis of progress towards the achievement of the targets set out in the NAPS and NAPS/inclusion. It will also provide an update on the range of other activities being undertaken by the office.

Is it not the case that amid all the wealth there is deep seated poverty, that a huge cohort of young and elderly people have been left behind by the Celtic tiger and have been forgotten? Is it not a fact that approximately 300,000 children live in relative poverty? This is not just a figure thought out by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul when they mentioned this in November. This is the figure of the Combat Poverty Agency who had to take issue with the Taoiseach regarding the figure because he did not seem to understand it.

Is the agency incorrect that 300,000 children live in relative poverty? Relative poverty is defined as a household where the income is less than 60% of the average industrial wage. Approximately, 70,000 children live in consistent poverty, which means they do not get basics such as a hot meal daily or necessary clothes. Is that not the position? Why do organisations say 25% of such children live in households with an income of less than €138 per week? Is that sustainable? Is that poverty?

Why does the National Economic and Social Council say child poverty is not being addressed? The Minister will argue but the NESC says poverty in the early years leads to low levels of educational attainment, no skills, vulnerable employment, low levels of participation in the work force and high dependence on the State. Is it not only morally right but economically right to intervene and invest adequate resources in this area? The benefit of such investment would permeate all stratas of society in the longer term. Has there been discussions with the social partners on Sustaining Progress? What has happened in regard to the other national agreements? Are they real, radical or redundant in terms of achieving the elimination of poverty, which must be the aim of everybody in this House?

There is no denying there is poverty. Nobody would be silly enough to fail to recognise that. Poverty trends have changed significantly and consistent poverty has reduced significantly, for example. Much of this can be attributed to the increase in social welfare rates and the provision of other health and education supports. I agree child poverty is a most disturbing issue. That is why a special initiative was agreed under Sustaining Progress. I hope to meet the social partners shortly, if I ever get away from debates in the Dáil and Seanad, to discuss the implementation of the initiative because I am interested in addressing that issue. That is why child benefit has been examined. The interaction of CDAs with FIS and how child poverty can be addressed properly is a hot potato.

A number of Government initiatives deserve great credit. The national anti-poverty strategy provides a holistic approach to tackling poverty, as it encompasses housing, education, health and income supports. None of those areas is exclusive of the other because a holistic, inclusive approach must be taken to address poverty.

Astronomical resources have been provided to my Department. It has been allocated €11.3 billion, which is the highest allocation to a Department. We will strive to address the issue of consistent poverty on an ongoing basis. I wish to eliminate such poverty and to at least, attain the targets outlined in NAPS. The Department has been commended by the European Commission on a number of its initiatives, such as the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, which is unique.

It is difficult to compare like with like. Ireland provides for pensioners, for example, whereas the British Government does not provide the same income support for pensioners. The Department provides income support and free schemes and these must be taken into consideration when comparing statistics within the EU.

Groups are often criticised for not being independent in their advisory roles.

That is good.

The Combat Poverty Agency, the ESRI and the NESC do their job and that is important. I meet the CPA on a regular basis to discuss these issues.

The Minister will be aware that more than 300,000 children live in households with a weekly income of less than €175. Is she concerned by the recent report by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that, over the past year, it has been inundated with requests from people in difficulty, many of whom are on low incomes? The Minister says she have provided welfare increases with one hand but the trouble is the Government takes them back with two hands. The cost of electricity has increased three times in the past year. The minute local authority tenants received their welfare increases on 1 January, the local authorities sent them income queries and part of the increase was taken away immediately. The councils have also introduced stealth taxes such as increases in refuse removal charges.

The Minister increased child benefit by €2 per week. It would not buy a loaf of bread in Mullingar or Navan. There is no point pretending——

We give good value.

Is the Minister worried about the increase in the number of people contacting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the increase in poverty? That is sad given that the racing industry gets away without paying a penny in tax. A total of €300 million goes out of the economy on a yearly basis in stud fees and so on while poor people on social welfare are targeted by the Government.

Over the past fortnight, one would think there was not a shortage of money in the State because the local elections are coming up in June. The Minister threw out €1 million yesterday. We should wait until the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs gets his hand on the slush fund relating to dormant accounts. All that money should be programmed and invested in people on low incomes who are suffering, particularly those with children who are experiencing difficulties because their social welfare payments do not sustain them.

The Minister and I regularly disagree about the value of consistent poverty as an indicator and the greater value of relative poverty. However, the ESRI has developed a third indicator, persistent poverty, which measures those who have lived in relative poverty for more than three years. The Minister must accept anyone who lives in such a household is living in poverty. The most recent ESRI report highlighted that the number of people experiencing persistent poverty had increased. The Government parties have been in power for seven years and the increasing disparity between wealth and disadvantage has been brought about largely by policies they have introduced. The Minister has a thankless job running, uphill backwards trying to counteract the effect of policies introduced by the Minister of Finance, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other right-wing ideologues in the Cabinet.

I am delighted I am getting such great support from the Opposition benches.

We are doing our best.

I am running up hills at this stage.

I would like to run some of the right wingers out.

If only we had the opportunity to run up and down any hill, it would be good exercise for us.

Deputy Boyle and I are not going to agree on the issue between consistent and relative poverty. I agree that if relative poverty persists, one has to deal with it. Why is there relative poverty? During the past five year many people have taken up employment, which is very important when we had vulnerable people on unemployment assistance or benefit trying to seek work. I am not the only one to hold the view that being employed and having access to work and supporting people in work and upskilling is very important to the economic well-being of people. It not only gives people an income but it develops self-esteem. The issue of employment is very important in counteracting the issue of poverty. From an academic and policy of view, if relative poverty continues over a long period, it becomes an issue of persistent poverty. What we are dealing with is a consistent poverty level, that is where people are actually in poverty. In spite of all the indicators, my view is that one has to deal with those people first.

The Minister should see what the European indicators say.

Yes, the European indicators are for those at risk of poverty, but we are not comparing like with like. We are not comparing our taxation systems or the additionality within our income supports. They are not being taken into consideration. Many other issues are totally different. The Deputy is right. I have been very much involved in European issues and the "at risk" which is equivalent to "relative" poverty indicator would show that we are very low. That does not take into consideration the policy framework at this time in addressing the issue of consistent poverty, that is people who are in poverty. The "at risk" group may or may not find themselves in poverty. There are other issues in addressing the issue of "at risk" in trying to ensure that people do not fall into poverty and ensuring that people go beyond the level of "at risk" and move into an income median that supports families.

Deputy Boyle is right. Over the seven budgets Deputy McCreevy introduced, he allocated 6.3 times more resources to the top 30% in society than to the bottom 30 %. One does not have to be Einstein or a mathematical genius to realise that this widens the gap between the rich and the poor, between those who have plenty and those who are at the bottom and do not have enough. In that bottom group, we have 300,000 children who are stuck in a level of consistent poverty. The Minister may argue that consistent poverty has fallen. That is a point. However, as the Human Rights Commission and NESC show, child poverty is not being addressed. Resources are needed to deal with child poverty. We are not investing adequate resources and we will reap the whirlwind of our failure to do so in the not too distant future.

It is easy to have a go at the Minister for Finance and that is done in every parliament. If it changes, something will be wrong. Major investment has been made in supporting rates and changes in the social welfare benefit scheme

Including widows.

Members agree that the changes have been tremendous in providing additionality. We have established a number of schemes that have been expanded many times over. It is incumbent on us that we expand the schemes. The Government decided that a child poverty initiative was very important and that is why we are working with the social partners, the community groups and the NGOs to ensure that we address the issue of child poverty. The issue of indictors is irrelevant to the people we represent. They do not care what indicators are about.

They care if they are poor.

They care if the Minister has taken money out of their pockets.

Exactly. It is on that basis that we are supporting people who are in consistent poverty. We are trying to address their social needs and not only their income-related needs. We will continue that investment over the next number of years. The Minister for Finance, who is present, agrees with me.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.

Work Permits.

Ceisteanna (99, 100)

Pat Breen

Ceist:

166 Mr. P. Breen asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment when a work permit will issue to a person (details supplied) in County Clare; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7981/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Enterprise)

I am informed that there is no record of a valid work permit application in this case. Work permit applications which are incorrect or incomplete are not regarded as valid applications and are returned to the employer for completion.

Seán Power

Ceist:

167 Mr. S. Power asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment when a decision will be made on an application for a work permit by a person (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7984/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I am informed that a work permit application was received on 27 February 2004 for the individual concerned. Assuming the application is complete and is otherwise in order, it will take between four and six weeks to process.

Beef Sector.

Ceisteanna (101)

Johnny Brady

Ceist:

168 Mr. J. Brady asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the total beef output here for 2003; the total domestic consumption; the total beef exports and their destination; the total beef imports and their country of origin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7969/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Agriculture and Food)

The information requested by the Deputy is set out in the table below.

Irish Beef Market 2003 — Statistics

Summary

Exports

Production tonnes

Domestic Consumption

EU

Third Countries

Imports tonnes

560,000

60,000

415,000

85,000

13,000

Breakdown of Exports

Exports tonnes

UK

France

Italy

Holland

Scandinavia

Other EU

Russia

Other Third Countries

500,000

265,000

24,000

35,000

32,000

35,000

24,000

75,000

10,000

Total beef production in Ireland in 2003 was 560,000 tonnes. Of this, 60,000 tonnes were consumed on the domestic market and 500,000 tonnes were exported. This is the highest level of exports since 1999 and is 12% higher than 2002. The value of these beef exports was €1.28 billion.

The United Kingdom remained the principal market for Irish beef, accounting for more than half of total exports at 265,000 tonnes. Sales to continental EU markets represented 150,000 tonnes. Third country markets accounted for 85,000 tonnes.

The focus of the beef industry has been to broaden and expand its market reach at EU retail level, shifting its orientation away from international commodity markets and into the higher priced internal EU marketplace. This contrasts sharply with the position which prevailed throughout the 1990s when the industry exported 50% of its products into non-EU markets. Last year, this share dropped to just 17% while the EU share increased proportionately. These increased sales into continental Europe coincide with the emergence of an EU market deficit in beef for the first time in 25 years, together with falling production levels aligned with a strong recovery in consumption.

Ireland is now well placed to consolidate this position, having demonstrated the quality and safety of Irish beef through its broad appeal to EU consumers. A targeted approach based on quality production represents the best and most profitable way forward to the Irish industry. This in turn highlights the importance of good breeding policies, payment related to quality and modern techniques which mechanical grading will provide.

According to CSO statistics, some 13,088 tonnes of beef was imported into Ireland last year, 60% of which originated within the EU. It should be noted that imports may include the re-import of Irish product originally exported from this country. Imports from other member states may include imports of meat product already in free circulation in the EU but which originated in third countries through various GATT agreements. I emphasise that imports overall represented slightly more than 2% of total beef production in Ireland, whereas exports represent some 89%.

Afforestation Programme.

Ceisteanna (102)

Johnny Brady

Ceist:

169 Mr. J. Brady asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the volume of applications for new forestry plantings; the volume approved to date; if he has satisfied himself that the target of 10,000 to 12,000 hectares will be achieved; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7970/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Agriculture and Food)

To date, applications for planting approval have been received in respect of some 17,000 hectares in the current planting season. Approvals have issued for the bulk of these, with the remaining applications at various stages of processing. I am confident that planting levels of at least 10,000 hectares can be achieved in 2004.

Grant Payments.

Ceisteanna (103)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

170 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food when a person (details supplied) in County Kildare will be issued with a replacement REP scheme cheque; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7971/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Agriculture and Food)

A replacement payable order issued at the end of last week.

On-farm Investment Schemes.

Ceisteanna (104)

Gerard Murphy

Ceist:

171 Mr. Murphy asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if he intends to introduce grants for road tunnels, from a safety point of view, as well as for helping farmers consolidate their existing holding or expand into neighbouring holdings. [7983/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Agriculture and Food)

My Department operates a range of support schemes for on-farm investment including the farm waste management scheme, the dairy hygiene scheme and the alternative enterprise scheme. I have no plans to introduce grants along the lines suggested.

Mayo Landslide.

Ceisteanna (105)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

172 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the reason Parliamentary Question No. 187 of 3 March 2004 was not replied to; and if he will give a full and detailed reply to the original question. [7988/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Agriculture and Food)

The position is that following the meeting with the landslide committee on 23 January arrangements were made to have a survey of the affected area carried out. When the results of that survey become available the matter will be further reviewed.

Tax Allowances.

Ceisteanna (106)

Ned O'Keeffe

Ceist:

173 Mr. N. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Finance the tax credits to which a person (details supplied) in County Cork is entitled. [8049/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Finance)

I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that the precise tax credits to which a person is entitled can only be determined when relevant details of that person's circumstances are available to them. A form 12 tax return for the year 2003 has been issued by Revenue for completion by the person concerned. When the completed form is received by the Revenue Commissioners the matter will be progressed and the person will be advised of her tax credits.

Departmental Expenditure.

Ceisteanna (107)

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

174 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Finance the total underspend in the BMW region to date under the NDP; the specific headings under which there has been an underspend; the figure involved in each case; the plans he has to address the underspend under each heading; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8050/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Finance)

The National Development Plan 2000-2006, NDP, includes an indicative resource profile for each operational programme for both the Border, midland and western, BMW, and southern and eastern regions for each year from 2000 to 2006. These profiles were set in 2000 when the operational programmes were prepared. Roughly one third of the resources profiled in the NDP were allocated to the BMW region and the balance to the south and east region. As the NDP is rolled out, the actual levels of resources allocated annually are determined by public expenditure ceilings set by Government, taking account of the wider budgetary considerations and the requirements of economic stability.

The following table shows the expenditure reported for the BMW region to the monitoring committee for each operational programme by its respective managing authority at end June 2003 — the latest period for which completed reports are available. The managing authorities are completing the end December 2003 expenditure position for the monitoring committees which will meet at the end of April.

In overall NDP terms, 80% of the resources originally profiled to be spent to the middle of 2003 in the BMW region have been expended. In the case of measures funded by Structural Funds, expenditure has been profiled for each year from 2000 to 2006, even though spending on these will continue to the end of 2008 in the BMW region. My expectation is that there will be sufficient expenditure in the BMW region to draw down its full allocation of Structural Funds.

As stated, the original profiled NDP expenditure was indicative. Over the period of a seven year plan, circumstances will impact on the actual realisation of these indicative provisions. I have previously acknowledged that expenditure in the BMW region is behind the indicative target set out in the plan. This reflects a range of issues and the fact that the infrastructure gridlock and bottle necks are most severe in the south and east region, especially in the greater Dublin area and that priority has had to be accorded to major projects to address this.

As regards individual operational programmes. expenditure in the BMW region under the economic and social infrastructure operational programme, while below the indicative profile, has nonetheless been substantial. I expect expenditure in this operational programme to show a marked increase in the BMW region over the remaining years of the NDP and that this will be reflected in the final out-turn figure for the plan post-2006.

Expenditure in the BMW region and the south and east region has been significantly behind expectation in the productive sector operational programme, reflecting some initial over estimation and difficult economic circumstances, which have reduced the level of private sector investment available to match Exchequer and EU grants. In addition, the ability of the BMW region to absorb funding on research and development type activities is hampered by the lack of institutional capacity and the relatively small size of enterprises in the region compared with the south and east region.

Progress for the employment and human resources development operational programme is ahead of the profiled expenditure for the period to the middle of 2003 and expectations are that this progress was maintained for the remainder of the 2003.

The BMW regional operational programme has reported improved levels of progress as measures which were previously delayed came on stream. There have been significant delays on actions to support broadband, tourism, agriculture and rural development due to factors such as obtaining state aids agreement and foot and mouth. On the other hand, significant levels of expenditure, above that previously profiled, have been incurred in the areas of non-national roads, micro-enterprise support and child care.

As the Deputy will appreciate, responsibility for the precise allocation of the global programme amounts agreed by Government is a matter for the relevant individual Minister taking account of overall Government policy, including the NDP. I expect that the individual Ministers will take account of the plan commitments in the BMW region in this regard.

Border Midland and West Region1

Operational Programme

Indicative Profile 2000 — June 20032

Reported Expenditure 2000-June 2003

Indicative Profile versus Reported Expenditure

€m

€m

%

Economic & Social Infrastructure

3,007.9

2,624.3

87

Employment & Human Resources

1,967.6

2,123.3

108

Productive Sector

1,095.3

358.4

33

Border Midland & West

1,759.0

1,188.6

68

PEACE

93.1

20.1

22

Technical Assistance

2.4

1.6

68

Total

7,925.2

6,316.3

80

1 The figures refer to all NDP sources of funding: Exchequer, EU, Other Public and Private.

2 The 2003 Expenditure Profile has been adjust to a mid-2003 value for each OP to reflect expenditure patterns.

EU Funding.

Ceisteanna (108)

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

175 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Finance the discussions to date he has had with his EU counterparts on transition arrangements for the Objective One region after the current NDP programme is completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8051/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Finance)

The Commission's communication on its proposals for the future financing of the EU, for the period 2007 to 2013, published on 10 February last, will require close examination by all member states, including the new member states joining on 1 May. The same will apply to the third cohesion report, which was published on 18 February last, and which sets out the Commission's views on how cohesion or structural policy should evolve after 2006.

The negotiations on the Agenda 2000 agreement, which provided the framework for financing of the EU for the period, 2000 to 2006, took some two years to negotiate. We can expect a similarly lengthy negotiation on the Commission's current proposals.

The Government is conscious of its responsibilities in its role as President of the EU in ensuring an effective and even handed conduct of the negotiations. The main priority for the Irish Presidency is to initiate a process, or road map, for the future negotiations, rather than to enter into detailed negotiations at this early point.

The Commission has not yet published its detailed legislative proposals for giving effect to its proposals in the third cohesion report. It is expected to do so about mid-year. The report proposes that regions like the BMW would benefit from transitional support when, because of strong economic growth in the region, they graduate from Objective One status in 2007. This would see the BMW region moving from Objective One status to eligibility for assistance from those programmes assisting competitiveness and employment in the more developed parts of the EU. The south and west region would also be able to avail of assistance from these programmes.

The Government will seek to ensure that the final agreement to be negotiated is in the best interests both of the EU as a whole and of Ireland in particular. The Government will seek in these negotiations the best possible arrangements for Ireland's regions within the framework of the EU's overall cohesion policy. The Government in this respect is particularly conscious of the ongoing development needs of the BMW region, especially in the area of infrastructure.

The Minister of State at my Department, Deputy Parlon, hosted a meeting of EU regional Ministers in Portlaoise on 27 February 2004. The main discussions at the meeting centred on how the EU will focus cohesion funding to best effect, how cohesion policy can best be dovetailed with other policies aimed at strengthening the EU economy and generating more jobs, and howthe procedures for implementing regional programmes can be simplified.

Even though just over a week had passed since the publication of the third cohesion report, the debate was a comprehensive and wide ranging one, allowing delegations the opportunity to exchange views. However, this meeting was only the first of what will be many more over the next year or so.

Human Rights Issues.

Ceisteanna (109, 110, 111)

Joe Higgins

Ceist:

176 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if, in accordance with the European Parliament’s vote, he will argue for the suspension of the preferential trading terms of the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with Israel, due to the violation of its human rights provision by the Israeli state; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7985/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Foreign)

The Government has on many occasions expressed its deep concern at the impact of actions taken by the Israeli Government on the human rights of Palestinians. The European Union has also regularly conveyed its concerns to the Israeli authorities at the human rights implications of its security policies. Together with our partners in the Union, we will continue to press the Israeli Government to respect fully its obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the fourth Geneva Convention, and under Article 2 of the EU-Israel Association Agreement. The Union once again conveyed its views to the Israeli authorities in a clear and firm manner at a meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council on 17-18 November last year.

Notwithstanding our ongoing concerns, the Government is of the view that the suspension of the trade preferences contained in the association agreement would not be the most effective means of inducing a change in Israeli practices. The Government continues to believe that the appropriate approach is through dialogue with the Israeli authorities and by encouraging negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, there is no likelihood under present circumstances that a proposal to suspend the trade preferences would achieve the necessary support from EU member states.

Joe Higgins

Ceist:

177 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the Amnesty International report, Human Rights Begin at Home; the steps he intends taking during the Presidency of the EU to promote the recommendations of this report on human rights accountability within the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7991/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joe Higgins

Ceist:

178 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has plans during the Irish Presidency of the EU to ensure that Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty on European Union operate as a framework, whereby there will be EU level accountability for serious breaches of human rights that occur within a member state. [7992/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I propose to takes Questions Nos. 177 and 178 together.

The European Union is a community of shared values, founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. These principles come from the constitutional traditions and international obligations common to the member states of the Union. Arising from these principles, the EU seeks to respect and promote universal human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the subsequent international covenants on civil and political rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966. Besides these and other UN human rights instruments, the human rights policy and positions of the EU are also based on regional human rights instruments, primarily the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.

The protection and the promotion of human rights not only constitute defining principles of the EU, but also form part of Community legislation. They were explicitly incorporated into and stated as common European objectives in the Treaty on European Union, which entered into force in November 1993. This step represented a significant strengthening of human rights as a priority issue for the EU in its internal and external policies.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which was proclaimed by the EU institutions — the Council, the Commission and the Parliament — in December 2000, is aimed at further strengthening the protection of fundamental rights in light of changes in society, social progress and technological developments by making the rights more visible in an EU instrument.

Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union introduces a mechanism designed to punish serious and persistent violations of human rights by member states of the European Union in the form of a suspension of rights enshrined in the treaty. In October last the Commission circulated a communication regarding Article 7 of the treaty. Consideration of the communication is at an early stage in the institutions. However we are examining ways in which the Council can take forward work on the Commission's communication.

In this context, I have received a copy of the Amnesty International report, Human Rights Begins at Home. As the Deputy is aware, the Government values the contribution that Amnesty International makes to furthering the cause of promoting and protecting human rights internationally and will give appropriate weight to the recommendations contained in the report.

Post-Leaving Certificate Courses.

Ceisteanna (112)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

179 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science if he will reconsider the decision to freeze the number of enrolments allowed to individual schools and colleges on post-leaving certificate courses in view of the flexibility of the PLC sector in responding to the needs of industry and commerce and the demand for places; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7951/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

There is a range of course options available in the further and higher education sectors for young people who wish to continue their studies after second level, or in the case of adults, who wish to return to education. PLCs represent one such option. PLCs provide integrated general education, vocational training and work experience for young people and adults alike who wish to bridge the gap between school and work or return to education to obtain a qualification. The primary purpose of PLCs is to enhance the prospects of students to gain employment. PLCs also provide an alternative route to entry to higher education in the institutes of technology through the NCVA-FETAC links scheme.

The number of students participating on PLC courses has increased incrementally over time, as illustrated in the following table:

Year

No. of Students

1997-98

21,278

1998-99

23,810

1999-00

24,453

2000-01

25,519

2001-02

26,722

2002-03

28,656

The number of PLC places approved in 2003-04 is approximately 29,000. It is expected that this level of provision will be consistent with the demand for places in the sector.

Third Level Fees.

Ceisteanna (113)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

180 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science the way in which third level registration fees are spent; if all fees are retained by the colleges in respect of their registered students; the precise headings that are delineated on the use of the fees within colleges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7952/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

The charge referred to by the Deputy is levied by third level institutions to defray the costs of examinations, registration and student services. My Department does not have the institutional details on how this funding is allocated. It should be remembered that students who are eligible for means tested student support will, in addition to any grant to which they are entitled, have the charge paid on their behalf, either directly by my Department or through the local authorities and vocational education committees. This means that 34% of students in universities and 47% of students in institutes of technology will not have to pay the charge.

In January 1998 the Higher Education Authority issued to the publicly funded third level institutions a framework of good practice for the provision of student services within the charge. Particular reference was made to the principles of transparency and accountability. The framework consists of guidelines to establish an appropriate system of consultation with students in the allocation of funding from the charge and in the determination of student services to be funded from this source. With regard to transparency, the framework recommended that each institution should provide information as to the allocation of the charge towards examination, registration and student services on an annual basis.

In 1999, the Higher Education Authority reviewed the consultative and decision making procedures in place in the third level institutions relating to the charge and is satisfied that all third level institutions have endeavoured to put in place arrangements that they considered to be appropriate.

School Closures.

Ceisteanna (114)

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

181 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Science if, in view of the fact that due to depleting numbers and financial difficulties, the Catholic Church is withdrawing from education and closing some of its schools in Dublin’s inner city, his Department has a strategy in place to fill the vacuum that has been left by the church’s withdrawal from education; and if not, if his Department is compiling a strategy. [7953/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

The Deputy will appreciate that voluntary secondary schools are privately owned and managed institutions and a decision to close such schools is a matter for the trustees. My main concern in a school closure is to ensure that the best interests of the pupils are looked after in the period up to the closure and that there will be sufficient pupils places in existing schools in the general area for pupils who would have normally enrolled in the closing school. This process involves consultation with all affected parties.

Special Educational Needs.

Ceisteanna (115)

Mary Upton

Ceist:

182 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Education and Science if a special needs teacher will be appointed for a person (details supplied) in Dublin 12 to ensure that they receive the education they need. [7954/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

The issue referred to by the Deputy is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children.

School Transport.

Ceisteanna (116)

John Cregan

Ceist:

183 Mr. Cregan asked the Minister for Education and Science the outcome of an appeal by a person (details supplied) in County Carlow to the school transport appeals board regarding transport for their child to a particular school. [7972/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

The case referred to by the Deputy in the details supplied is among a number of cases to be considered by the school transport appeals board at its next meeting which is scheduled for Thursday, 11 March 2004.

Special Educational Needs.

Ceisteanna (117)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

184 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Science if a person (details supplied) in County Kildare will receive a full-time care assistant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7973/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

My Department has no record of having received an application for special needs assistant support for the pupil referred to by the Deputy. I understand that the pupil in question is due to commence school in September 2004. My officials have been in contact with the school authorities who have confirmed that they are in the process of making an application for special educational resources for the pupil in question.

Special needs assistants may be approved to support a pupil who has a significant medical need for such assistance, a significant impairment of physical or sensory function or where his or her behaviour is such that he or she is a danger to himself or herself or other pupils. Any application received will be considered in the context of the criteria set out in the relevant departmental circulars and the existing level of SER provision in the school.

School Transport.

Ceisteanna (118)

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

185 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Education and Science if his attention has been drawn to the widespread dissatisfaction at the condition of the existing school transport fleet, that three students usually have to share two seats, and the absence of safety belts in most cases; his plans to replace the fleet; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7974/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

My Department is not aware of any widespread dissatisfaction with the condition of the school transport fleet. There are approximately 2,900 vehicles used in the school transport fleet. Around 2,300 of these are provided by private contractors and the balance by Bus Éireann. All vehicles operating under the school transport scheme are required to meet the statutory regulations as laid down by the Department of Transport. Where vehicles have more than eight adult seats and are more than one year old, they are required to pass that Department's annual road worthiness test.

Contractors employed by Bus Éireann to provide services under the school transport scheme must satisfy strict criteria and must hold a road passenger operator's licence, where their vehicle has more than eight adult seats. Vehicles nominated for use under the scheme must be suitable for the conveyance of school children and must have complete and current documentation in respect of both buses and drivers as required by law.

The vehicles have to be kept and maintained in a safe and roadworthy condition and to comply in all respects with the Road Traffic Acts. The loading on all school buses is determined by the relevant sections of the road traffic regulations — construction, equipment and use of vehicles, which are laid down by the Department of Transport. Under public service vehicle regulations, the licensed carrying capacity of all vehicles engaged in school transport is based on a ratio of three pupils for every two adult seats. Under existing regulations, the wearing of passenger seat belts is not compulsory in buses, including those operated under the school transport scheme.

Bus Éireann, which operates the service on behalf of my Department places special emphasis on safety and, to this end, has a wide range of checking procedures in place to ensure a safe and reliable service. These are reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure that standards are maintained.

Bus Éireann's policy of continuous fleet replacement facilitates improvement in the quality of vehicles used in the operation of the school transport scheme. Almost 300 more modern buses have replaced older buses in the past three years, producing an improvement in the age profile and quality of the school bus fleet as a result.

Schools Building Projects.

Ceisteanna (119)

Cecilia Keaveney

Ceist:

186 Cecilia Keaveney asked the Minister for Education and Science the reason a school (details supplied) in County Donegal did not qualify under the summer works scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7975/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

Each unsuccessful applicant under the summer works scheme will receive a letter from my Department outlining the reason works were not approved. These letters will issue to schools as quickly as possible.

Benchmarking Awards.

Ceisteanna (120)

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

187 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Education and Science if school caretakers and school attendants will benefit under benchmarking; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7989/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

School caretakers are linked for pay purposes to the general operative grade in local authorities. A parallel benchmarking process has recently been concluded for the general operative grade in local authorities which provides for an increase of €70.09 per week subject to increased flexibility and mobility measures. Payment will be made on a phased basis and will be subject to approval by the appropriate performance verification group.

The application of the increase to caretakers employed in vocational schools, community and comprehensive schools and certain primary schools is the subject of discussions between officials from my Department, representatives of the appropriate managerial authorities of schools and the relevant trade unions. The discussions are focused on securing increased flexibility and change measures which, when agreed, will release the first quarter of the increase due with effect from 1 December 2001.

In the case of secondary schools and the majority of primary schools, the arrangements are that each school receives a grant from my Department for the provision of caretaking and other ancillary services. It is a matter for each school to determine how best to meet its caretaking requirements. My Department has no direct role in the pay and conditions of service of caretakers employed directly by schools under these arrangements.

Schools Refurbishment.

Ceisteanna (121)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

188 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Science if he will increase the capacity of the physical education area at the Maynooth girls national school, County Kildare, in line with the extent to which the original number of school places have been increased to meet the demand; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8084/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

A GP-PE room of 200 sq. m. is provided for in the proposed extension to this school. However, my Department has no objection to the school increasing the size of the proposed GP-PE room, provided the additional costs are funded locally.

General Medical Services Scheme.

Ceisteanna (122, 123)

Jack Wall

Ceist:

189 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Health and Children the position regarding the appointment of a GMS doctor in Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare, in view of the fact that there have been conflicting reports about the appointment of a doctor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8240/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jack Wall

Ceist:

192 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Health and Children further to Parliamentary Question No. 231 of 4 March 2004 about the appointment of a GMS doctor in Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare, the position on this matter, in view of the fact that there have been conflicting reports about the appointment of a doctor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7996/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 189 and 192 together.

Arrangements for the provision of services for medical card holders, including the selection and recruitment process for general practitioners in the GMS scheme, are matters for the chief executive officer of the local health board-authority. Accordingly, the Deputy's questions have been referred to the regional chief executive of the Eastern Regional Health Authority for investigation and direct reply.

Hospital Services.

Ceisteanna (124)

Richard Bruton

Ceist:

190 Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Health and Children if all of the beds promised for Dublin’s north side hospitals, to be opened during the course of 2002, are now fully open and operational and devoting at least 80% of their bed capacity to public patients; and if there are remaining difficulties in making these fully integrated into the public hospital system. [7986/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

The provision of services at hospitals on the north side of Dublin is a matter for the Eastern Regional Health Authority in the first instance. My Department has, therefore, asked the chief executive officer of the authority to investigate the matters raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

My Department carried out a review of acute hospital bed capacity which identified a requirement for an additional 3,000 acute beds in acute hospitals by 2011. This requirement is reflected in the Government's health strategy, Quality and Fairness — A Health System for You. I have provided funding of €118 million for the provision of an additional 709 beds in hospitals throughout the country. Some 568 of these have been commissioned to date, of which 253 are in the Eastern Regional Health Authority area. The remaining beds are due to come on stream during this year.

Pension Provisions.

Ceisteanna (125)

James Breen

Ceist:

191 Mr. J. Breen asked the Minister for Health and Children the reason for the anomaly in the health service, whereby a person who retires from the Eastern Health Board and returns to work in a temporary capacity can work 16 hours without his or her pension entitlements being affected; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7995/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

Responsibility for the application in the health boards of the abatement of pension provisions as set out in the local government superannuation scheme which applies in this instance is a matter for each health board. My Department has therefore asked the regional chief executive of the Eastern Regional Health Authority to investigate the matter raised by the Deputy and to reply to him directly.

Question No. 192 answered with QuestionNo. 189.

Hospital Services.

Ceisteanna (126, 127)

Pat Breen

Ceist:

193 Mr. P. Breen asked the Minister for Health and Children when a person (details supplied) in County Clare will be called for hip surgery in view of the circumstances of the case; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8018/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

The provision of hospital services for people living in County Clare is a matter for the Mid-Western Health Board. My Department has, therefore, asked the chief executive officer of the board to reply directly to the Deputy about the matter raised.

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

194 Mr. B. Smith asked the Minister for Health and Children if additional resources will be provided for Cavan General Hospital in view of the recent report on the surgery department at same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8044/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Under the clinical indemnity scheme, all health care organisations are required to have in place systems to collect information on clinical incidents. Nationally, almost 26,000 incidents were reported in 2003. In the North Eastern Health Board 2,500 incidents were reported in the Louth-Meath hospital group, and 750 were reported in the Cavan-Monaghan hospital group. Of these 750 incidents, the board's risk adviser recommended that the views of a consultant be obtained on 15 cases treated in the department of surgery in Cavan General Hospital. Accordingly, the board's medical adviser was requested to carry out a review in this regard.

On 4 March last, the board published the medical adviser's report which contained a number of recommendations with regard to surgical services at the hospital. I am informed that the medical adviser met the relevant staff at the hospital to discuss his recommendations, as well as those made by the director of surgical affairs at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, who has been advising the board on the configuration of surgical services at the hospital. Arising from these discussions, I understand that agreement has been reached on a number of key issues, including the implementation of Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland proposals relating to general and surgical audit. This will involve regular audit meetings held by the department of surgery and a monthly review of the process, involving the medical adviser.

I met yesterday the chief executive officer of the board and the board's medical adviser to discuss the position at Cavan General Hospital and in particular the findings and recommendations in the medical adviser's recent report. The issues raised in the medical adviser's report are being addressed as a priority by the board, with a view to ensuring the provision of a comprehensive and safe range of services across the Cavan-Monaghan hospital group.

I indicated to the board that I would be supportive of any plans put forward by the board to increase the volume of appropriate elective surgery within the Cavan-Monaghan hospital group, consistent with the implementation of the recommendations put forward by the medical adviser and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. I was assured by the board that all necessary steps are being taken to ensure the provision of a high quality, accessible and safe service to the people of Cavan and Monaghan. I was assured of the board's confidence that, as a result of the implementation of these recommendations at the hospital, emergency on call surgical services will continue to be provided at Cavan General Hospital.

The board held interviews yesterday for the recruitment of a fourth surgeon at Cavan, and is confident that an early appointment will be made to augment the existing surgical complement at the hospital. The board is committed to ensuring that there is a joint approach to the provision of hospital services across the Cavan-Monaghan group, and is actively working to ensuring agreement on this issue on both sites. I fully support this approach, and will continue to liaise with the board on the implementation of the various recommendations to effect the delivery of an appropriate range of services on a group basis to the population of Cavan and Monaghan.

General Medical Services Scheme.

Ceisteanna (128)

Paul Kehoe

Ceist:

195 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Health and Children the number of persons under 70 years of age on medical cards at 1 January 2004 in County Carlow; and the number at the same date in 2001, 2002 and 2003. [8045/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

The information sought by the Deputy is not routinely held in the format requested. In this case information on persons covered by the general medical services scheme in Carlow is collected by the South Eastern Health Board. The board will be requested to provide the information and a reply will issue to the Deputy under separate cover.

Nursing Home Subventions.

Ceisteanna (129)

Paul Connaughton

Ceist:

196 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Health and Children the position regarding an application for increased subvention for a person (details supplied) in County Galway; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8046/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

As the Deputy will be aware, the provision of health services in the Galway area is, in the first instance, the responsibility of the Western Health Board. My Department has, therefore, asked the chief executive of the board to investigate the matter raised by the Deputy and reply direct to him as a matter of urgency.

National Treatment Purchase Fund.

Ceisteanna (130)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

197 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Health and Children , further to Parliamentary Question No. 779 of 27 January 2004 and subsequent letter received by this Deputy’s office in March 2004 setting out that 660 people have been treated under the NTPF scheme outside the jurisdiction, if he will set out the total cost of treatments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8088/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

The information requested by the Deputy is not routinely collected by my Department. Therefore, my Department has asked the chief executive of the national treatment purchase fund to communicate directly with the Deputy in the matter.

Mental Health Services.

Ceisteanna (131, 132)

Richard Bruton

Ceist:

198 Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Health and Children the time which has elapsed since the passing of the Mental Health Act 2001; the reason for the delay in appointing the Mental Health Commission; the reason for the delay in establishing tribunals to review cases in which patients have been committed to care; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8106/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

The Mental Health Commission was established in April 2002 under the provisions of the Mental Health Act 2001. The commission's primary function is to promote and foster high standards and good practices in the delivery of mental health services and to ensure that the interests of detained patients are protected.

The detailed work programme of the commission is a matter for itself to determine, in accordance with its statutory functions under the Mental Health Act 2001. However, I understand that one of the priorities for the commission is to put in place the structures required for the operation of mental health tribunals, as provided for in Part 2 of the Act. This year, additional funding of €3 million is available to the commission for this purpose.

The commission is involved in discussions with my Department, the health boards and other organisations to ensure that all elements of the organisational and support systems required are in place prior to the commencement of Part 2 of the Mental Health Act 2001.

Richard Bruton

Ceist:

199 Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Health and Children if he will outline the powers of the Inspector of Mental Health Services regarding the complaint by a person (details supplied) in Dublin 9 about the management of the care of their child who is a patient; and if the inspector is in a position to assess the case of this person. [8107/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

The Mental Health Commission has appointed Dr. Teresa Carey to the new position of Inspector of Mental Health Services. The office replaces that of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals. Dr. Carey has indicated that she intends to begin a programme of inspection of mental health facilities later this year. The inspector will be required to visit and inspect all approved centres at least once a year.

Any person dissatisfied with the level of care and treatment received by themselves or others while in the care of the mental health services may contact the Inspector of Mental Health Services at the Mental Health Commission, St. Martin's House, Waterloo Road, Dublin 4.

Health Board Services.

Ceisteanna (23, 24)

Arthur Morgan

Ceist:

96 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the figure that there are 2,000 premature deaths every year as a result of fuel poverty. [7893/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

133 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her proposals to tackle fuel poverty in this State. [7891/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 96 and 133 together.

A report entitled, Fuel Poverty and Policy in Ireland and the European Union, was published in 2003 by the policy institute at Trinity College Dublin and the Combat Poverty Agency. The data used in the report refer to the period 1994 to 1997. The report suggests that as many as 2,000 excess winter deaths in Ireland are associated with fuel poverty and domestic energy inefficiency.

In general, the number of people who die in winter in western countries is significantly higher than during the rest of the year. Much of the difference is attributed to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. It is not possible to disaggregate definitively the contribution made by what is known as fuel poverty.

As I stated earlier, the report does not show that 2,000 people die each year in Ireland because they cannot afford to adequately heat their homes during winter months. The claim of inability to afford adequate heat in the home was the category which attracted the lowest percentage of responsibility for fuel poverty in the course of the study. I recognise the importance of ensuring that people on low incomes can afford fuel and I accept that this is an important aspect of countering fuel poverty. The fuel allowance scheme is important in that regard.

However, giving people a real increase in their primary payment for 52 weeks of the year is a more expensive option than increasing the fuel allowance payment rate for part of the year. That is the correct approach to take as it gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs. That, coupled with programmes to improve the fuel efficiency of the housing stock, will bring about the reduction in poverty levels, including fuel poverty, that I am working to achieve.

The report recommends that the State should introduce a programme targeted at certain groups with the aim of eradicating fuel poverty through domestic energy efficiency improvements. The report does not call for improvements in fuel allowances. In fact, the report states that fuel allowances are not a sufficient measure to combat fuel poverty in Ireland. Improvements in energy efficiency in dwelling houses are necessary as well.

My Department is planning a fuel poverty project to be carried out in conjunction with Sustainable Energy Ireland. It is proposed to carry out an action research project in designated geographical areas where eligible persons will have an energy audit carried out in their homes and will receive energy advice and have minor remedial work carried out.

As far as social welfare provision is concerned, the commitments which the Government has given to increases in social welfare payments will further protect the position of vulnerable groups and improve their income situation in a substantial way.

Is the Minister aware fuel poverty most adversely affects people belonging to the lower socio-economic classes and that this State's record on the matter is one of the worst in Europe? Almost one in four employed persons, one in five tenants and one in five lone parents suffers from fuel poverty. The Minister referred to discussions between her Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the issue of sustainable energy and so on. About how many people is the Minister talking? Is there a timescale for the implementation of this work for people who are over 65? In what areas will this be implemented?

Is the Minister aware that, in 1985, the fuel allowance was £5, or €6.35? It has increased by €3 since. The price of fuel, ESB and everything else has also increased over those 20 years. I accept parties on all sides of the House have been in Government during that time. The situation has worsened and people on the fringes of society and who are most disadvantaged are suffering. The Minister said she is looking at the situation of those over 65, but there does not seem to be a plan. We have talked about joined-up Government.

New houses have heating but many houses in which people live are sub-standard and they are literally dying of the cold in their own homes. We have all gone into houses which are freezing and in which people experience poverty. Unfortunately, the days of people throwing the coat over the bed have not gone away and people still live in freezing conditions. We do not seem to have a plan to try to deal with it. The Minister spoke about the current response, which is timely, but is there a timescale for implementation? Are there figures?

I hope to finalise this shortly. We have been working with Sustainable Energy Ireland which has a track record. When we thought of this idea, we had to look at the best way to implement it. A number of other agencies should be involved such as the Combat Poverty Agency, the Economic and Social Research Institute, the money advice and budgeting service and the Institute of Public Health as well as the Department and Sustainable Energy Ireland. A few minor details need to be ironed out so that we can reach an agreement between both agencies. We discussed this recently and there are some modifications which are acceptable to my Department. We will be able to reach an agreement shortly.

The target group at which we are looking are those over 65 and people on long-term disability allowance as they are seen as the people who are most vulnerable. Housing aid for the elderly, the essential repairs grant and the disabled person's grant do not deal with the small important matters such as draught exclusion. They are not part of any of the other grant aid schemes. We will look at the energy efficiencies to fill in the gaps in those schemes.

I take the Minister's point about the 2,000 deaths referred to in the study. It is sober reading. Even if there were only one death, it would be an indictment on us as a society that we are wealthy in so many ways but so poor and bereft of compassion for others that somebody would die because he or she did not have enough money to heat his or her home.

The unemployed form the largest socio-economic group at risk of fuel poverty and are followed by tenants, lone parents, as referred to by Deputy Crowe, the separated, those living in large multi-unit dwellings and the elderly living alone. Are they not the people hardest hit by the savage 16 cuts? Those are the people who bore the brunt of some of those cuts.

The Minister introduced a pilot scheme and cold alert cards so that older people would know when their homes were too cold. That, however, misses the point. Realising one's home is too cold is not the problem; it is not having enough money to heat one's home sufficiently. That is the critical question. We can hold rhetoric. The provision of sufficient funds to ensure adequate heating is a basic right and must be treated as such by the Government. Will the Minister ensure the fuel allowance is increased and over an extended period as Deputy Ring has said? That is the way to combat this problem.

As the Minister knows, this is the only one of the free schemes that is means-tested. People who worked for the county council or for a semi-State company would have a small pension but are debarred from the fuel scheme because they exceed the income limit. That is something the Minister should examine. The fuel scheme should be given to pensioners even if they have a pension from the county council, the health board or State agency and for which they have paid. They may get €60 or €70 extra per week but they find they lose that as a result of not getting the free fuel. Will the Minister examine that when producing her report?

Has the Minister had any discussions with the Minister for Finance on his proposal in last year's budget on the introduction of a carbon tax? Is she aware of the proposals of the Economic and Social Research Institute that if, or when, such a tax is introduced, most of the money should be recycled into greatly increased social welfare payments and not into the Exchequer? Has she made any moves to make sure the Minister for Finance does not act other than in that direction?

On the review of the fuel allowance, what measures are being put in place to make sure the most effective use of the money can be made by the recipient? Solid and fossil fuel is largely used and most of the heat provided goes up chimney stacks rather than into the rooms where it is needed. Some houses are poorly insulated, damp and not well-designed. Surely capital expenditure is what is needed to make sure the fuel allowance has the greatest effect.

It is my intention that, not only will we provide advice, we will also provide for some capital remedial works. I agree with Deputy Boyle in this regard. The fuel card was initiated in County Mayo and seemed to be popular. The county development board worked under the social inclusion measures in which the county councils are not involved. That will link into the sustainable energy project. A project is taking place through some of the voluntary agencies, the partnerships and the Leader programmes. There are small programmes but we need to encompass them fairly rigorously within a proper fuel poverty initiative. I am getting a lot of co-operation on the matter, which I see as fundamental in addressing the issues of fuel poverty and fuel efficiencies.

With respect to the disregards and the means test, I did change the situation slightly this year. We would hope to change it every year and, in particular, we changed the disregards for fuel allowances under the income and capital disregard. Every year these are examined fully. We will examine the possibility of changing the eligibility criteria for a number of the schemes, but it is a means-tested scheme.

The other issue raised was whether I should increase the fuel allowance or whether it would be better to give a full €10 to pensioners. I considered that the €10 for pensioners was the best option because that is available to them 52 weeks per year, whereas the fuel allowance is specifically a winter scheme. It is an exciting proposal and a good initiative. I agree it is not solely a monetary issue, but also a minor capital works issue. As I told Deputy Crowe, I anticipate that we will have a roll-out fairly quickly on this matter.

What about the carbon tax?

I have had discussions about that matter. As the Deputy will appreciate, when the draft memorandum was circulated, Ministers forwarded their observations to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Finance. I assume I will have to battle for the other issue on my own. I can tell the Deputy that I will be doing my best on that one.

Public Transport.

Ceisteanna (134)

John Bruton

Ceist:

201 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for Transport the position in regard to his announced plans for a new authority to govern land use and transport in the greater Dublin area; the effect that these plans will have for Dáil Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8381/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Transport)

The Government consultation paper, New Institutional Arrangements for Land-Use and Transport in the Greater Dublin Area, was published jointly by the Departments of the Environment and Local Government and Public Enterprise in April 2001. The paper proposed the establishment of a new strategic land use and transportation planning authority for the greater Dublin area. Developments since the publication of this consultation document have caused me to review its proposals.

The regional authorities are currently finalising regional planning guidelines under the provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000. These will provide effective regional land use strategies consistent with the national spatial strategy. The Dublin and mid-east regional authorities are collaborating to produce a single set of guidelines for the greater Dublin area. With regard to transport planning, the DTO is continuing to carry out effective strategic transport planning for the greater Dublin area. Also, I have concluded that the establishment of an independent national public transport procurement and regulatory body is the most effective way of implementing regulatory reform.

In the light of these developments I believe that the policy objectives of effective land use and transport planning can, for the present, be successfully addressed within these existing structures. I do not, therefore, believe that it is a priority to establish a strategic land use and transportation authority for the greater Dublin area. I do not consider that the proposals for a strategic land use and transportation authority for the greater Dublin area would have any impact on the role of Dáil Éireann.

Airport Development Projects.

Ceisteanna (135)

Seán Ryan

Ceist:

202 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Transport his position in respect of the proposed second runway at Dublin Airport. [7963/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Transport)

Aer Rianta currently has statutory responsibility to manage, operate and develop the three State airports, including Dublin Airport, and to provide such facilities and services as it considers necessary for aircraft and passengers. The board designate for the new independent Dublin Airport Authority, which I announced earlier this week, will take over this responsibility once the necessary amending legislation is enacted by the Oireachtas.

Aer Rianta informs me that the proposed second parallel runway at Dublin Airport has been in all airport plans since the late 1960s and was first incorporated into the county development plan in 1972. Aer Rianta forecasts that by the year 2020, passenger throughput at Dublin Airport will grow to approximately 30 million passengers per annum compared to 15.9 million passengers in 2003. The company's ongoing programme of capital works to ensure that the airport has adequate capacity to cater for this growth includes the provision of a second parallel runway before the end of this decade.

The proposed new runway will of course be subject to planning permission being obtained from Fingal County Council. That planning process will provide a forum for all interested parties, including local communities, to have their views and any concerns heard and taken into account by the planning authorities. In due course I will also consider this runway proposal from the aviation policy and shareholder perspective.

Taxi Hardship Panel.

Ceisteanna (136, 137, 138)

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

203 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Transport if his attention has been drawn to requests from the Oireachtas Committee on Transport for clarification on issues by the taxi hardship panel that have not been answered. [7978/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Transport)

I am not aware of any requests to me or my Department from the Oireachtas Committee on Transport for clarification on issues by the taxi hardship panel that have not been answered.

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

204 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Transport the persons the taxi hardship panel met with in the course of preparing its report. [7979/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

205 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Transport the number of individuals the taxi hardship panel met with in the course of preparing its report. [7980/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I propose to take Questions Nos. 204 and 205 together.

The taxi hardship panel was established as an independent body to report in general terms on the nature and extent of extreme personal financial hardship which may have been experienced by individual taxi licence holders arising from loss of income as a direct result of the liberalisation of entry to the taxi industry on 21 November 2000. My Department was not a party to the deliberations of the panel.

The panel's report indicates that it met on a number of occasions with taxi representative groups and that some 2,000 submissions were received. In addition to examining these submissions, the panel invited a number of affected individuals to meet it and present their cases.

Road Traffic Offences.

Ceisteanna (139)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

206 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, further to Parliamentary Question No. 372 of 2 March 2004 concerning speed fines, if these details are held on a computerised database; and if so, the reason the details initially requested are not readily available. [7993/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

I have been informed by the Garda authorities that details concerning the detection of speeding offences and the payment of fixed charges in respect of such detections are not currently held on a computerised database by the Garda Síochána. The penalty points system is currently operating on a semi-manual basis and, as I stated on 2 March last, I am informed that the compilation of the information requested by the Deputy would involve a disproportionate amount of staff time and resources which could not be justified in the circumstances.

Deportation Orders.

Ceisteanna (140)

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

207 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will reconsider the deportation of a person (details supplied). [8047/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

The asylum application of the person referred to in the question was refused on appeal in November 2000. His case was then examined for deportation under section 3 (6) of the Immigration Act 1999, as amended, and section 5 of the Refugee Act 1996, as amended. All representations received both from the applicant and on his behalf, were taken into consideration, including his intention to marry at the time.

On 19 February 2002 a deportation order was made in respect of this person and he was subsequently deported on 13 March 2002. This Department's records show that, although this person had indicated an intention to marry, he was not married at the time of his deportation. I understand that his Irish fiancée subsequently travelled to Nigeria and married him there in the knowledge of his deportation. He was later refused residency in Ireland as the couple were not living together as husband and wife. The effect of a deportation order is that a person must leave the State and remain thereafter outside of it. I do not intend to revoke the deportation order.

Garda Stations.

Ceisteanna (141, 142)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

208 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will consider establishing a Garda station in the Raheen/Dooradoyle area of Limerick in view of the rapidly expanding population in that area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8101/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

I have been informed by the Garda authorities who are responsible for the detailed allocation of resources, including personnel, that there are currently no plans to locate a Garda station in the Raheen/Dooradoyle area. The Raheen/Dooradoyle areas of Limerick are policed by Roxboro Road Garda station and local Garda management is satisfied that the resources currently in place there are adequate to meet the present policing needs of the area.

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

209 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the situation with regard to the commitment to replace Mary Street Garda station, Limerick, which is operating from a small pre-fab with a newly built station; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8102/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I am aware of the accommodation facilities currently in use by the Garda at Mary Street. In that regard, I am informed by the Garda authorities that they are currently considering their requirements for the area and that they will be in touch with my Department as soon as they have completed their deliberations.

Irish Prison Service.

Ceisteanna (143)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

210 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will give details of the presentation by private prison companies Group 4 and Securicor at the headquarters of the Irish Prison Service in March 2002, including the date on which the presentation was made; if this presentation was initiated by the Irish Prison Service and/or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; if the presentation was attended by the director general of the Prison Service and/or his designated representative; if the presentation was attended by the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and/or his designated representative; if a written record or other report of the information gathered by this information gathering exercise was submitted to the director general of the Prison Service or to the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform following the presentation; and if such written record or report was made, if the current Minister has seen it or been briefed on its contents.. [8103/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

As outlined in my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 218 of 19 February 2004, the two companies mentioned by the Deputy made presentations to officials of the Irish Prison Service, in March 2002, concerning the range of services they provided to the criminal justice system in the UK. One further company called Custodial Services Limited also made a presentation at that time about its capability to provide transport services to the Irish Prison Service. The presentations were requested by the Irish Prison Service and were made to two senior officials and one middle ranking official of the Prison Service on 25 March 2002. The director general of the Prison Service did not attend. There were no other attendees apart from the Prison Service officials and the companies themselves. No report was compiled by any of the three officials following the presentations.

I am informed that this was purely a routine commercial presentation to the Irish Prison Service aimed at assessing the kind of transport and security services available on the market place, and that there was no follow up of any kind.

Water Services.

Ceisteanna (144)

Billy Timmins

Ceist:

211 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position of schools which have received bills for water rates; the way the amount is calculated; if schools are exempt from this payment; if not, in view of the fact that most schools have to fundraise to keep going, a waiver can be granted for this levy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8074/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

The national water pricing policy framework requires local authorities to recover the cost of providing water services from the users of these services, with the exception of households using the services for domestic purposes. In this regard the policy framework provides for the metering of all non-domestic users by 2006. This is in accordance with an appropriate application of the polluter pays principle and the requirements of Article 9 of the EU water framework directive. It builds on the already widespread practice of charging for water services.

The framework does not provide for the exemption of any non-domestic users, including those engaged in the provision of educational services, from the charging policy. While my Department does not collect information on the calculation of individual charges, the policy framework provides only for the recovery of actual costs and charges should be determined having regard to this principle.

Local Authority Staff.

Ceisteanna (145)

Michael Ring

Ceist:

212 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government , further to Parliamentary Questions Nos. 409 and 410 of 2 March 2004, the details of all payments to managers, assistants managers and directors of services of local authorities from May 2001 to 31 December 2003; and if these details can be given as soon as available. [7990/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

As indicated in my reply to Questions Nos. 409 and 410 of 2 March 2004, no payments have been made to date under the scheme of performance related awards for managers, assistant managers and directors of services. My Department does not have information regarding other payments to these officials beyond their approved salaries for the period in question.

Planning Issues.

Ceisteanna (146)

Eamon Gilmore

Ceist:

213 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he has received representations concerning the local area plan for Dunleer, County Louth; if he has communicated with Louth County Council concerning the matter; the nature of such communications; if he intends to refuse approval for the plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7994/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

My Department received a number of representations from public representatives and private individuals about the Dunleer local area plan. While there is no requirement that copies of local area plans be sent to my Department, a copy of the local area plan for Dunleer was sent to my Department by Louth County Council in May 2002. No formal response issued from the Department, but there were informal contacts on a number of subsequent occasions between the Department and the local authority about legal and procedural matters.

During 2003 my Department was also given notice, as required under the relevant legislation, of a proposed variation to the Louth county development plan which was intended to facilitate the Dunleer local area plan. My Department concluded, in considering this proposed variation, that additional development in Dunleer on a relatively modest scale and in an orderly manner would generally be in line with the national spatial strategy, particularly given the fact that the scale of development envisaged in Dunleer was not of the same order as for Dundalk or Drogheda. It was also noted that the rail line runs through Dunleer, and although the station is not operational, there might in time be a possibility of reopening the station and thereby facilitating public transport access. As the Department was raising no formal objection to the variation, it was decided not to enter into correspondence with the local authority in the matter.

The preparation of a local area plan for any particular area within its functional area is a matter for the relevant planning authority, in accordance with the provisions of the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2002 and does not require the approval of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am advised by Louth County Council that the Dunleer local area plan was adopted on 15 September 2003.

Social and Affordable Housing.

Ceisteanna (147)

Tony Gregory

Ceist:

214 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if, further to Parliamentary Question No. 263 of 3 March 2004, it is permissible within the social housing scheme for the approved housing body to add on management charges to the rent, in view of the fact that this is creating hardship for many tenants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8048/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Under the terms of the capital loan and subsidy scheme, management and maintenance costs are met from the rental income generated by the project as well as an annual management and maintenance subsidy allowance which is paid to approved housing bodies in respect of each dwelling funded under the scheme. The application of the rent formula as set out in the scheme may be modified, at the discretion of the approved housing body, in particular respects where they consider this appropriate.

Rent payable under the scheme to an approved housing body, by a tenant, is based on household and subsidiary income in the previous tax year. Where this would result in hardship arising from a fall in income due to loss of employment, disability and so forth, the rent may be adjusted accordingly.

Planning Issues.

Ceisteanna (148)

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

215 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the plans he has to review the regional authority boundaries in view of the publication of the national spatial strategy; his views on whether the NSS and the regional boundaries would be more effective if they were revised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8052/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I have no plans to alter the boundaries of the regional authorities in view of the publication of the national spatial strategy, NSS. As part of the overall process of NSS implementation, draft regional planning guidelines have been prepared by all regional authorities, with a view to having such guidelines adopted in all regions following the relevant periods of public consultation. Having regard to the particular circumstances of the greater Dublin area, the Dublin and mid-east regional authorities have jointly reviewed the existing strategic planning guidelines and have prepared draft regional planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area. I have made regulations to provide that regional authorities in making regional planning guidelines shall take account of the NSS. Regional planning guidelines will create a link between national policy as expressed in the NSS and local authority development plans.

Section 27(4) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 provides that following the making of regional planning guidelines, planning authorities in the region shall review their existing development plans and consider whether any variation of the development plan is necessary to achieve the objectives of the regional planning guidelines.

Waste Management.

Ceisteanna (149)

Ned O'Keeffe

Ceist:

216 Mr. N. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his views on the development of a project (details supplied) in County Cork, which was recently approved by an Bord Pleanála; and his overall views on incineration and the way in which this will affect the countryside. [8053/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Government policy on waste management is set out in the policy documents, Changing our Ways and Preventing and Recycling Waste: Delivering Change. The Government's approach is based on the internationally recognised waste management hierarchy of prevention/minimisation, significantly increased levels of recycling, energy recovery and, finally, utilising landfill as the last resort for residual waste that cannot otherwise be recovered.

Local authorities were asked to identify and fully assess the various issues involved, with a view to identifying the nature, scale and mix of facilities which, at a regional level, appear to offer the best balance between maximised recovery of materials or energy and minimised environmental emissions, at reasonable cost. In addition, the EPA's national hazardous waste management plan which is also based on the application of the waste hierarchy calls for the provision of thermal treatment and landfill capacity to treat this particular waste stream.

With regard to the perceived impact of thermal treatment, the EPA's inventory of dioxin and furan emissions to air, land and water in Ireland for 2000 and 2010 was published in December 2002 and it provides a useful indication of the relative significance of various emission sources for dioxins. In relation to the nine hazardous waste incinerators in operation in the year 2000, the report estimated these to have contributed a fraction of 1% of national dioxin emissions to air — tables 1 and 4.2 of the report refer. By comparison, dioxin emissions from the transport sector and from uncontrolled burning processes were estimated to be over 140 times higher and some 3,800 times higher, respectively.

Even assuming that 1 million tonnes of municipal waste might be managed by way of incineration in 2010, the report projects that dioxin emissions from waste incineration would account for less than 2% of total dioxin emissions to air at that time, less than half the emissions attributable to the transport sector and some 46 times less than those emissions attributable to uncontrolled burning processes. A paper published by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in 2003 concluded that properly managed incineration facilities will not contribute to dioxin levels in the food supply to any significant extent and will not affect food quality or safety.

Regarding the proposed development of a thermal treatment facility at Ringaskiddy, neither my Department nor the relevant local authorities are involved in the procurement of the facility. As with any such development, the proposed project is subject to the requirements of the planning and waste licensing codes. As Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, I am specifically precluded from exercising any power or control in the performance by the planning and environmental licensing authorities of these functions in particular circumstances.

Local Authority Housing.

Ceisteanna (150)

Tony Gregory

Ceist:

217 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if Dublin City Council has sought permission to borrow funds to install central heating in tenancy houses; and if this matter can be dealt with urgently. [8123/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

No application is currently before my Department from Dublin City Council seeking approval to borrowing to provide central heating in its housing stock. However, my Department approved proposals by the council in 2002 and 2003 involving borrowing totalling €13.419 million for this purpose.

Dormant Accounts Fund.

Ceisteanna (151, 152)

Tony Gregory

Ceist:

218 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if his Department has received an application from the Markets Area Community Resource Organisation for funding under the dormant accounts fund to set up a community business scheme in this RAPID designated area (details supplied); and if full consideration will be given to the needs of the local community when making a decision. [7950/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

The Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board has engaged Area Development Management Ltd., ADM, to administer the initial round of funding on its behalf which will involve the disbursement of up to €30 million in 2004 from the dormant accounts fund.

I understand that an application from the group concerned has recently been received by ADM. All applications received will be evaluated by ADM against the criteria set out in the published guidelines and recommendations made to the dormant accounts board for decision. The group concerned will be advised of the outcome in due course.

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

219 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the reason the Government is taking over the responsibility of making all final decisions regarding the disbursement of dormant fund accounts moneys; the reason he believes that the dormant fund accounts board is no longer competent to carry out this task; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7741/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Decisions on disbursement of funds from dormant accounts moneys are currently a matter for the dormant accounts disbursement board. This is an independent body established under the Dormant Accounts Acts. The board is currently deciding on the disbursement of funds up to €30 million and, to date, it has approved 18 projects for funding totalling approximately €1.7 million.

With regard to the proposed changes relating to dormant accounts, the position is that, having regard to the emerging size of the fund, existing legislative provision is simply not adequate. Shortcomings are evident on a number of fronts, namely, organisational structure — there is no explicit provision for a properly developed organisational structure to support the board and current arrangements, which involve a handful of seconded civil servants in a secretariat role, are not designed to support disbursements on the scale now emerging; accountability — existing provision requires that a part-time chairman would be wholly accountable for spend running into hundreds of millions of euro, which is clearly not sustainable; public policy — existing arrangements do not adequately support the focusing of spend by the dormant accounts board with policy priorities debated in this House and approved by Government and if we are serious about tackling disadvantage, we must target resources; and expertise — there is a considerable wealth of expertise and practical experience residing in public bodies which routinely deal with areas of disadvantage and disability. Current arrangements do not adequately allow this key resource to be drawn upon in informing decisions on spend from the fund. Therefore, in December 2003, the Government reviewed arrangements for dormant accounts.

In view of these issues, it was apparent that there were two possible routes that could be followed. One was the setting up of an independent agency with a large staff, CEO, offices and so forth to administer the fund and the other was to use the existing mechanisms of State and accounting procedures, including accounting officers of different Departments, to support clear criteria, a transparent application process and rigorous evaluation of projects. The first approach would have led to an inordinate amount of the funds being dissipated on administration. Implicit in the second route, using existing agencies, was the requirement that Departments or their agencies would support and inform the disbursement of funds.

The advantage of using the existing infrastructure of State to carry out the above work is that it means that much less of the money than otherwise would be the case will be spent on overheads and administration and that the benefit or the expertise of the State system will be available for the evaluation of projects. In this situation, legal responsibility for decisions would ultimately lie with the relevant Minister and accounting responsibility with the relevant accounting officers.

The objectives of the disbursements scheme, as set out in the board's first disbursement plan, will remain unchanged, that is, funding to assist programmes or projects targeting three broad categories of persons — those affected by economic and social disadvantage; those affected by educational disadvantage, and persons with a disability. As regards the integrity of the proposed future system for disbursement, it is important to note that the Government decision of December 2003 provides that decisions in this area would be taken following a transparent application and evaluation process.

With regard to the board itself, the Government proposes key roles for it, with particular regard to the following: advising on priority areas to be considered annually for funding and preparation of the disbursement plan. Furthermore, the board will critically assess the additionality and impact of spend on a regular basis. This is of critical importance and arrangements will be put in place to ensure that spending under the dormant accounts board will be kept separate from the normal Estimates process, so that additionality can be verified.

Draft legislation is to be brought forward this year with a view to giving effect to these decisions. I expect the draft legislation will be published over the coming months.

Harbours and Piers.

Ceisteanna (153)

James Breen

Ceist:

220 Mr. J. Breen asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when the funding allocated by his Department will be spent dredging and improving Doolin pier; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8019/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

No funding has been allocated to dredge and improve Doolin pier. This matter is being considered at present and a decision will be made in due course.

Grant Payments.

Ceisteanna (154)

Paul Kehoe

Ceist:

221 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if his Department makes grants available to community halls. [8055/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

My Department administers a scheme in Gaeltacht areas and on the islands whereby a grant of up to 80% of the approved cost is available to local committees for the construction and renovation of community centres and for the provision of furniture and equipment therein. Applications are assessed on the basis of criteria related to: the necessity for the work; the strength of the Irish language in the area — this criterion applies only in the Gaeltacht; other facilities available in the area; the general effectiveness of the committee, including its future plans for strengthening and maintaining Irish in the district — Gaeltacht areas only; the local population; the level of finance raised locally for the project; the level of finance available in my Department's Vote for the scheme and of other demands on hands; and the recommendations made by my Department's inspectorate in each case.

A top up grant is available in mainland CLÁR areas in the Gaeltacht under this scheme. This is calculated on the basis of 20% of the approved Gaeltacht grant, subject to an overall maximum between the grant and the top up of 80% of the project cost.

Community halls are also eligible for funding from my Department via the grants scheme for locally based community and voluntary organisations. The scheme for 2004 will be advertised within the next month. Under the terms of this scheme, a grant of up to 90% of costs, subject to a maximum of up to €40,000, may be available to cover the costs of repairs or refurbishment of community halls. Priority is given under this scheme to disadvantaged communities.

Question No. 222 answered with QuestionNo. 150.

International Agreements.

Ceisteanna (155)

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

223 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the proposals she has to enter into a reciprocal social welfare agreement with Japan; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7960/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

There are currently no proposals to enter into a reciprocal social welfare agreement with Japan. Reciprocal agreements with non-EU countries have been negotiated where there are a significant number of Irish emigrants to those countries, for example, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Such agreements provide protection to persons who would otherwise have an insufficient Irish contribution record to qualify for old age contributory pension, widows and orphans contributory pensions or invalidity pension.

In view of the small number of Irish emigrants in Japan the pursuit of a reciprocal agreement at this time is not considered warranted. No approach has been made by the Japanese authorities for consideration of such an agreement.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Ceisteanna (156, 157)

Jerry Cowley

Ceist:

224 Dr. Cowley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the situation regarding the older Irish born emigrants, some of whom have been away from Ireland for 30, 40 and 50 years, who now seek to return here via the safe home programme and are likely to require top up to the income they will be receiving from social funds; if these returning emigrants will be affected by the recently announced changes in the social welfare system designed to impede welfare tourism from the ten new accession countries; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7961/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

My Department provides an annual grant to the Safe Home programme to publish a monthly newsletter to our emigrants in Britain keeping them up to date on all available social services in Ireland. I have also increased the funding available for emigrant advice and information from €127,000 to €427,000 in 2003. The "Returning to Ireland" booklet published in partnership with the voluntary agency Emigrant Advice is one such initiative. This increased funding is in line with the recommendations of the task force on emigration policy published in 2002 and has gone into direct information services to our emigrants.

The new measures which the Government has decided to put in place will restrict access to certain social welfare payments by introducing a habitual residence test which will act as an additional condition to be satisfied by a person claiming a social assistance payment or child benefit. A person will have to establish a degree of permanence to be considered habitually resident in the State. The term "habitual residence" is well known in other jurisdictions and in EU legislation and has been clarified in EU court judgments. It is intended to convey a degree of permanence in the person's residence. Clearly the duration and continuity of their residence would be important factors and also their intentions.

The factors, as set down by EU case law, to be considered in determining whether a person satisfies the habitual residence test would include: length and continuity of residence; employment prospects; reasons for coming to Ireland; future intentions; centre of interest, for example, family, home, connections. People who have resided in the common travel area, that is, the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, will be regarded as habitually resident for the purpose of the new test.

With regard to Irish emigrants returning from abroad, it is expected that the vast majority will be able to prove habitual residence without difficulty because of, for example, their strong family ties with this country, previous residence in the State and so forth. It is quite possible that in other cases people in this situation will qualify for social insurance based entitlements, for example, contributory pensions, if they have been working in another EU member state or in a country with which Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement.

Mary Upton

Ceist:

225 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will review the practice of awarding reduced rates of increases in the budget to contributory pensioners who are not on full rate pensions. [7962/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

In order to qualify for the maximum rate of the old age contributory pension a person must, among other qualifying conditions, achieve a yearly average of at least 48 contributions paid or credited on their social insurance record. Reduced pensions are paid to those with yearly averages as low as ten contributions and arrangements are also in place for the payment ofpro rata pensions to those with mixed rate insurance records or contributions from different countries.

Reduced rate or pro rata pensions are paid at a fixed percentage of the full rate payment and to ensure that the differential between the various rates is maintained, budget increases are also applied on a pro rata basis. A person receiving a payment of 50% of the maximum rate, for example, receives 50% of any budget increase applied to the full rate pension.

Applying the full budgetary increase to those with reduced payments would erode the differentials which exist and which are intended to reflect the level of contribution which a person has made to the social insurance fund. It would also mean that those on reduced rate pensions would, on an ongoing basis, benefit disproportionately from budget increases. There are no plans to change existing arrangements in this regard.

Social Welfare Code.

Ceisteanna (158)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

226 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the plans she has to reverse the cuts announced by her Department in the budget; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8031/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

The Revised Estimates volume published in February provided a total allocation for social welfare spending in 2004 of €11.32 billion. This represents an increase of €830 million over the 2003 out-turn.

In the interests of prudent management of the public finances and to remain within guidelines for spending growth agreed by the Government, my Department reviews spending programmes on an ongoing basis to ensure that programme objectives are still valid and are still being met in the most efficient and effective way. A number of measures to control spending were included in the 2004 Abridged Estimates, announced last November. The combined saving from these measures is estimated at €55.8 million or one half of 1% of the total value of social welfare spending.

The objective in implementing these measures is that social welfare spending might be better focused and that the available resources are used to benefit those most in need. The measures were chosen to ensure that they would not lead to hardship among social welfare recipients. I am keeping the outcome of those measures under review but I believe that, when taken together with the significant increase in social welfare spending announced in the budget, the level of social protection for vulnerable groups in society has been more than maintained and, in important respects, significantly improved.

Question No. 227 answered with QuestionNo. 113.
Question No. 228 answered with QuestionNo. 110.
Question No. 229 answered with QuestionNo. 106.

Social Welfare Benefits.

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.