Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 October 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Pre-Budget Submissions: Discussion
I welcome our guests. The purpose of the meeting is to hear submissions on budget 2015 from Age Action, the Disability Federation of Ireland and the Senior Citizens' Parliament. I ask the witnesses to turn off their mobile telephones or put them on safe or flight mode, otherwise they interfere with the broadcasting equipment.
I wish to draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence.
They are directed that only evidence connected to the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice which I have just outlined.
The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the budget for 2015. We have these meetings annually and bring in different groups each year. We will not bring in the same groups we brought in for the past couple of years. This is to ensure we have a broad spread and are not meeting the same groups all the time. I welcome Mr. Eamon Timmins and Ms Naomi Feely of Age Action, Mr. John Dolan and Dr. Joanne McCarthy, who are representing the Disability Federation of Ireland, and Ms Máiread Hayes and Mr. John Walsh representing the Irish Senior Citizens' Parliament.
Mr. Eamon Timmins:
I thank the Chairman and committee members for inviting Age Action here to address them. It is apt that we are here on the UN international day of older people. I wish everybody a happy UN international day. Age Action is a charity which promotes positive ageing and better policies and services for older people. We work with and on behalf of older people with the aim of making Ireland the best place in the world in which to grow older. In this context, the reality and lived experience of older people in Ireland is a foundation of our policy and advocacy work and we frame our analysis of policy very much from this perspective.
With this in mind, earlier this year, we consulted a nationwide consultation with our members. This included four regional meetings and a survey of our members through our monthly newsletter, Ageing Matters. The aim of the consultation was not to set out Age Action’s position on policy issues but to listen and understand the impact recent budgets have had on older people and what services, benefits and payments were most important to them and what aspect of their daily lives would benefit most from additional funding, should it be available. Our information service also provides a valuable insight into the lived experience of ageing. In 2013, our information officers responded to over 2,000 queries. The service works closely with the policy team to highlight the impact that policy changes have on older people. We also receive correspondence, both in writing and by telephone, regarding specific policy issues.
Ms Naomi Feely:
I will speak about what we found out when we consulted with our members. It is evident from this interaction that the notion that older people have been unaffected by austerity is not borne out in reality. The opposite is the case for many older people. While the core rate of the pension has remained unchanged since January 2009, price increases, the decimation of the household benefits package and other secondary income supports, the introduction of charges such as the property tax and prescription charge, and the forthcoming water charges have caused many older people to struggle to make ends meet. Cuts to medical cards and health service budgets have had a disproportionate effect on the sickest and frailest older people. More than 18,000 older people have lost their medical cards in the past 12 months. The HSE aims to provide 1.7 million fewer hours of home help this year than in 2010, despite our ageing population and the 4% per annum increase in the population aged over 65.
The choices older people are making in order to keep their heads above water are unacceptable and paint a stark picture of what it is like to grow old in Ireland. During our consultation, members told us they were reducing their home heating. One member said, "Home heating has had to be reduced to save fuel so my wife who is ill now stays in her bed most of the time". A second member said, "I have had to cut back big time on grocery shopping. We need to adapt the house now to our needs as we are both over 70 years of age ... that has to wait". Another member said, "We only turn on lighting in some rooms and do everything we can to save on heat. I put on extra clothing and stay in bed late and go to bed early. We rarely use the phone". While supports such as the housing adaptation grant provide funding to help older people remain in their homes for longer, changes in the criteria earlier this year have meant for many dipping into their savings in order to live more comfortably. One member told us, "I had to use money put aside for my funeral, to pay for replacement of bathroom fittings".
Those living alone in particular struggle to heat homes that were once occupied by more than one person and were supported by more than one State pension.
The contribution of the living-alone allowance to tackle the disparity in expenditure is grossly inadequate. One member explained: "Since my husband died it is much harder to live on your own and more expensive".
Even those who have been able to save or put money aside have been penalised. For instance, consideration of savings in the criteria for medical cards has meant that many older people have lost access to vital services and can only now access a GP-visit card. One member told us:
I have lost my medical card. I now have a doctor only card. My pension has not changed but I have some interest on money I saved for a rainy day and this brought my income over the rate. I realise now I was foolish to save any money.
Mr. Eamon Timmins:
It is clear from our interaction with older people that budget 2015 must address the difficulties encountered by older people in making ends meet. Given continued media and political speculation regarding cuts to income tax, we asked our members, many of whom would not benefit from such a measure, if the Government was to provide additional funding in one area, the area that would have the most impact in their lives. In their response our members most frequently mentioned additional resources for income and health supports.
In recent budget submissions we have not sought increases in key income supports. Given the state of the country's finances, we had sought to protect existing payment rates. However, having asked people about the reality of their lives, and knowing what we know of the reality of growing older in Ireland, it would be morally wrong of us not to demand increases in key support payments in budget 2015. Therefore we are calling for the following: an increase the weekly rate of the State pension by €5 per week; restoration of the Christmas bonus which was lost in 2009; an increase the living alone allowance by €3.80 per week in order to restore some value to its purchasing power - that has not been increased since 1996; and reversal of the fuel payment cuts and changes made in recent budgets to the household benefits package.
These are among the 36 recommendations in our pre-budget submission, which we have sent to all members. They are also accessible on our website. We encourage members to read it in full. Our policy team is always available to answer any questions they have. I thank members for their time and attention.
Mr. John Dolan:
I am pleased to have got the invitation to be here today. I thank all the members of committee for their interest in this.
Disability is a societal, it is not an issue for people with disabilities and their families. That is a core thing we want to say. Almost 600,000 Irish citizens have a disability and if that is doubled to reflect the other people who are also deeply affected, that is 25% of the population. People out of work due to illness or disability are five times more likely to be at risk of poverty. Families where the head of the household is not at work due to illness or disability experienced an 11.3% drop in their disposable income in the period 2010 to 2012. Therefore there is a need for the Government and the Departments involved here today to use this budget to deliver on their pre-election commitment to protect people with disabilities from the worst effects of this recession. Both the education and social protection sides can play a key role in protecting people and improving their situation.
When we talk about the disabled we should be clear. They are in some cases ourselves, our parents, children, partners and neighbours. Disability is very much bound up in everything that goes on in the community. The odds are stacked against a person with an illness or disability in Ireland. People not at work due to illness or disability have the highest levels of consistent poverty at almost 18%, as against a national rate of just under 8%. Some 48% are at risk of deprivation, whereas the national rate is still too high at 27%. A third of young adults between 25 and 29 with a disability left school before completing second level compared with one in six of young people with no disability. Some 21% of people with disabilities aged 15 and over are in employment compared with 50% of the general population in the same age.
We are stating very clearly and boldly that to date the Government has failed to protect people with disabilities from the worst effects of the recession.
While this coming budget may not necessarily be the last budget of this Administration, it will be the last budget for which there will be a full year in which actions can be implemented that will stand to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
I will make a few points in respect of the income side. In 2011, 45% of people with disabilities experienced income poverty and 36% of people with a disability experienced basic deprivation. The protection of basic payments, which the Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, acknowledges has been done, does not equate with the protection of the basic and necessary income people need when one takes it in the round. Recent work by the ESRI has estimated that approximately €1,000 per annum is needed to deal with the additional cost that people with a disability face. That is an average figure, which could be higher or lower. Even if this estimate exceeds the true figure by a further 100%, it is still massive and this is a major issue. There has been a chipping away at disability-specific and mainstreaming supports and we suggest there is a strong lack of understanding of the challenges faced every day by people with disabilities and their families. Many things have happened that are specifically outside the remit of these two Departments. While the details are included in the submission and I will not go into them, they all add to the load people must carry. The point is that it adds to increased costs of living and a reduction in autonomy and of opportunity. As an emergency or interim measure, the federation is calling for an increase of €20 to the disability allowance to try specifically to do something tangible about the real risk of and issue about poverty. There are other issues, including the household benefits package, the domiciliary care allowance, the free travel scheme, and so forth.
I will move on briefly to education and to the subject of education as a gateway to participation in employment. Disability is one of the least visible but most potent factors in educational disadvantage. The ESRI commissioned a report, entitled A Social Portrait of People with Disabilities in Ireland, which shows that a reciprocal relationship exists between disability and educational disadvantage. In a nutshell, one is talking about young people in the main and what that means is if one goes off the tracks at that stage, one will be off the tracks for the next 50 to 60 years. Consequently, the fallout from not having it right early on is massive. Access to education at all levels is critical to ensuring people's full participation. While there are issues regarding special needs assistants and the National Educational Psychological Service, I will not go into them in detail here and members can come back to them if they wish. The forthcoming budget must attack the educational marginalisation of people with disabilities in order that they can participate. While one could put that in fancy language about their human rights and all the rest of it, it is just to enable them to get on and have the chance of having a life.
As for access for people with disabilities who wish to seek employment services, there are issues with regard to how the Intreo offices are operating, on the Youth Guarantee as well as on access to JobBridge and Momentum. These are all issues, and in some cases, people with disabilities are debarred from participating in these programmes, which means one never gets to the starting line. I will state clearly that people with disabilities are not going back into special schools. They and their families believe and expect that they will have a good education to prepare them for work. This is what is up for grabs in this regard and this is why people are and will be quite tenacious, bothered and upset about the present position.
In May of this year, the current Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, stated: "We have concentrated on economic repair up to now. Now is time for an equal emphasis on social repair." I believe that is key. Two thirds of the heavy lifting in terms of the adjustment was money taken out of services of all kinds with one third on the tax side. This side needs building back up. The demographics are rising; thankfully people are living longer. Patching up responses - without disrespect to the people trying to do it - have left huge pent-up and unmet needs. That will come back to haunt us if we do not address it, putting it straight up to the Oireachtas. In the past two weeks, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, has said that there have been pressure points that have built up, which is true. I do not see a better area than the area covering disability, mental health and chronic illness to focus on, and this goes right across the life cycle from children to older people. We could have an impact with the little bit of spare money that will be available next year. If that is not done, it will be more of a squandering rather than having a strong impact.
Ms Máiread Hayes:
I thank the Chairman and members for inviting us here. The Irish Senior Citizens Parliament is a representative umbrella organisation of older people in Ireland. It is an open, democratic organisation where all officers are elected by the members. It is a non-party political and not for profit, and it works to improve the quality of life of older people and to ensure that the views of older people in policy development and decision-making are made known to Government and the wider civic society. It has over 330 affiliated organisations and has a genuine mandate to be the voice of older people.
We are pleased to note that at last there appears to be a light at the end of a very long period of austerity. Hopefully sometime soon we can decently bury austerity and we look forward to that. Older people are tired, weary and miserable living under its tyranny in so many areas of their lives. As we prepare for our ninth budget since austerity, older people are ever hopeful that some of their concerns will be listened to, heeded and followed by appropriate actions in budget 2015. I could continue about the suffering but I might skip some of that.
We welcome that the level of State pension was maintained during austerity. However, the myth that older people have not been affected by the recession and the austerity measures is just not true. All our citizens and families have felt the brunt of ongoing austerity. In response to our meetings and questionnaires, older people have told us they cannot take any more cuts, additional charges, taxes, levies or any measure to further reduce their income or cut their services.
An examination of the position shows very clearly that while the basic rates have been maintained, the value and buying power of the older person, and in particular older people living alone, have been very much reduced. In this budget, we are again making a plea for their position to be considered as well as those of the older old. That is very clear through all of what we are requesting.
Older people provide vital services to their families and others through their roles as volunteers, carers, grandparents and childminders. In addition, older people continue to assist adult children and grandchildren by sharing what assets they have with them and in many cases providing a home to adult children and grandchildren who otherwise might be homeless.
During their working lives, pensioners were encouraged to save and provide for old age through investments, property and private pensions. For those who could not afford or were not given the opportunity to do this, they placed their faith and trust in the PRSI system to provide them with a pension when they came to need it. Most of them had the expectation that they would get a State pension at age 65.
Increasingly, we note a concern that the prices of goods, services and houses in some areas are getting out of control, and unless there is close and vigilant monitoring by the Government, this could be a problem in the future. We have done some monitoring with some of our groups and we see increases in prices of some hotels, restaurants and food of approximately 8%. We hope the Government will monitor this and it is very important that one Government Department examines it closely.
We look forward to the day when we can finally find out what happened in Ireland because we are discovering from courts abroad how people transferred huge sums of money out of Ireland. We eagerly await the results and verdicts from those jurisdictions to tell us what happened here because it is too slow. Regarding the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill (No 2) 2013, pensioners were amazed and aghast at the speed with which scheme trustees moved to reduce the amounts paid to pensioners. There are many examples of groups that are going through section 50 in this regard.
Income and access to services are the two most important areas for older people as they age. In our survey, older people told us the loss of the household benefits package was a priority issue, particularly the loss of the telephone allowance. We were astonished at the number of people who marked this as their No. 1 issue. While we recognise that it cannot all happen immediately, we ask that in this budget a start be made on the restoration of a number of these benefits. Giving people money is not the best way to go. Instead services should be provided. We are afraid that money does not provide the service and it can leave older people open to financial abuse, which we are concerned about. Electricity charges in Ireland are higher than in most European countries. One of the reasons the household benefits package was abolished in some of its formats was that the Government was not able to bulk buy and this should be examined in more detail.
In the budget we seek the restoration of the telephone allowance, the return to a system of utilities payments based on units rather than cash payment and discussions to commence to frame an agreed timetable for the return of the remaining benefits. We are also concerned about the loss of the transition pension and in respect of this we ask that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, push the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, to put in place the necessary legislation to allow older people who so wish to continue to work until they are aged 66, so they can work until they get the State pension. This is very important. In view of the special position of some workers, their jobseeker's benefit should be increased by €5 per week to €193 for the year during which they wait. Similarly, we ask that an additional €5 per week be given to unemployed people aged 65 because they receive only €188. The universal pensions for all and the women in pensions position is covered in our submission.
We are making a special plea for people living alone. We receive many calls from survivors who find that two can live nearly as cheaply as one. Examples of this are the prescription charges cap which is per household irrespective of whether it is for one or two people, making a difference between €25 and €12.50, and the drug refund scheme, for which the difference is between €144 and €72.
That is the difference between €25 and €12.50 and €1.44 and 72 cent.
There should be a €5 increase in the living alone allowance. We also wish to have the prescription charge limit and the drugs refund limit examined. Similarly, on the age allowance, many people are living longer. Any savings they might have are spent and gone by the time they are 80 years of age. The fuel allowance - which is a life saver for many older people - should be extended for two weeks and there should be a commitment to examining the possibility of restoring its duration to 32 weeks and to agreeing a payment based on a particular drop in temperature in a particular year. At the moment, the weather is not severe and that is to be welcomed. We welcome the Minister's assurance that the travel scheme is going to be maintained in its current format. We are very pleased to hear that.
I thank the various groups for coming in and for their submissions. I apologise on behalf of the committee for the fact that they were kept waiting. It was not intentional.
I have read the submissions and it would be very difficult to argue against any of the requirements. We can be sure they will all not be granted in this budget. I can ascertain the priorities from reading the submissions and the Opposition will do its very best to have as many as possible met. As Mr. Dolan has stated, it is time to redress the balance. There has been a very traumatic adjustment over the last number of years and many very respected organisations - some of which are State organisations - have concluded that the adjustment has been borne very disproportionately by the poorer sections of society which include, of course, the elderly poor and people with disabilities.
Turning to a few specific aspects of the submissions, we all know the effect of the medical card rule changes. In the AV room at a meeting with some senior officials from the HSE about four months ago we were told that any outstanding discretionary medical cards would be returned to people within three weeks. I do not know what is happening elsewhere but I do know that in my own area there are still a number of people waiting for a decision on their discretionary medical cards to be returned to them.
The free telephone rental allowance is very high on the priority list. Is there any evidence of how many people - what proportion of people - have abandoned their security system because they could no longer afford the telephone rental charges? We were also assured at the time of the removal of the free telephone rental allowance that technology was available to make this system work with mobile telephones. I do not think that is the case and if so are there any examples of it?
On water charges, there will, as I understand it from the information we have so far, be a waiver of approximately €100 per annum for eligible people. It will be confined to those receiving the household benefits package, as far as I can see. Elderly people who are in receipt of social welfare, who might for instance have a son, daughter or grandchild living with them, will not qualify. It means a person on Jobseeker's Allowance under the age of 66 will not qualify.
The request for a fortnight's extension on the fuel allowance is very reasonable. I also agree that there should be some flexibility when the weather is particularly harsh. On the bereavement grant, are there any examples of how the abolition of the grant is working out in practice? We were told when the grant was abolished that people could apply for the burial grant. This continues to be available. Unfortunately, the budget out of which the burial grant is paid has also been reduced. In this regard how has the circle has been squared?
On allowances for people with disabilities, we must also ascertain when the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant, which have ceased to operate since the decision of the Ombudsman some time ago, will be reinstated. The delay has been quite extraordinary.
I will not go over the ground Deputy O'Dea has already covered. On the last point about the motorised transport grant and the mobility allowance, we are as much in the dark about when the new scheme will appear as the witnesses and we have raised it both at this committee and at the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, which I sit on. It has also been raised in the Joint Committee on Health and Children, so hopefully we will see some movement on that soon.
I have come across the issue of the adaptation grant quite often recently. This seems to be having a very severe effect on the elderly and those with disabilities in that they must find someone in the family who can foot some of the bill because if they do not apply early enough in the year, the local authority will not be able to give them the full amount as their budget will have run out. It is hard luck if one ends up with a disability in the middle of a year. One's house will not be adapted in many ways unless the council can juggle budgets. I wanted to find out whether these reductions in the money available in the adaptation grants from the local authority happen in areas other than my own, as I am in the city.
I was interested in what Mr. Dolan said about the Intreo offices. The Minister has come before this committee and if Mr. Dolan lets us know about other similar issues, we will raise them with the Minister directly because there has been much fanfare about these offices. I have welcomed them, I have attended the openings of them and if there are problems with access, etc., as was presented in Mr. Dolan's statement, let us know and the committee will put it to the officials and to the Ministers.
I wish to thank the organisations, most of whose representatives I have met on and off over the last few years, for their forbearance and for presenting well the harshness of the cuts and their effects on those the witnesses represent because I do not think it can be easy to do that dispassionately. I know the witnesses are not dispassionate, but it can sometimes be difficult to put across the scale of the hurt in many ways. We can probably all give examples of constituents who have suffered the effects of cuts, particularly the elderly and those with disabilities, who are on a fixed income and do not have the ability to increase their funding in any way. They are limited in mobility, which means that they are often more greatly affected if there is a cold spell and that is why the issue of fuel poverty among these groups, which is thankfully being looked at by various organisations, is very significant. I endorse Ms Hayes's call for a two week extension, but I would have asked for a full reversal. I would also ask for the more rapid roll-out of the retrofitting of people's houses to ensure that the insulation that is now available relatively cheaply in comparison with the past is rolled out for people who are living alone or living in houses which are not suitable for this day and age.
I thank the witnesses for their reports and congratulate them on the campaign in defence of the travel pass, which was very effective. We are getting conflicting reports; on one hand we hear that austerity may be over and that there will be tax cuts and then, on the other, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and others say that we must continue with austerity, mentioning the troika, the European Commission and the rest.
It is very hard to know exactly what is going to come down the tracks on budget day. At a minimum services have to be protected and built on because they are the crucial areas where people can access a small amount of money. They have to be put back into place. There are other small things that could be highlighted. Particularly with the income reduction from €700 to €500 for over 70s, we have found a huge swathe of people who are having their medical cards docked. These are mainly people who have a contributory pension, a small work pension for example, that is just bringing them over the threshold. We had a man who got an increase of €10 when he turned 80, and that brought him over the income threshold for the medical card. He lost out hugely from that, and that is an example of a bureaucracy being an incredible morass. Agencies cannot be flexible. This man was requesting that the €10 be taken back off him so that they could give him back his medical card. He was given a GP card. We are also dealing with a 92 year-old woman in a nursing home at the moment, who has Alzheimer's disease. She is €20 over and her medical card has been stopped. I do not understand this.
This madness should be the first thing to be stopped and then we can look where we can build. As was stated earlier, undoing the cuts in disability allowance, household packages, home helps, SNAs and so on has to be prioritised. We should be looking for the Government to set out a plan for what we are going to do this time, what we are going to do next time if we have any more money, and allocate that money to try and protect those services and build on them.
Another issue that was raised with me is that the local property tax is not levied on hospitals or nursing homes. Surely the homes of people who are carers are considered as a medical type area or safe place that should not be included for the local property tax, because they are specifically medical places of care.
Have the witnesses found that many people are not getting that next step from the domiciliary care allowance to the disability allowance when they reach 16 years of age? Is there feedback of instances where people are having difficulty with this?
A large number of elderly people have used up all their savings now because they have been supporting their families. Many of them went guarantor for mortgages that were way above what they should have been, leading to mortgage arrears. There are also many elderly people who support family members who are in mortgage arrears, paying that as well. My own mother does it. All those savings are being eaten away. The vulnerability that leaves people in is terrible. They have always been told to be frugal and to put their money aside and save. That has to be part of the debate.
I could not disagree with most of what has been said here today because we all know that every man, woman and child has been affected over the last few years, people with disabilities and people without them. I appreciate that Mr. Dolan and Dr. McCarthy have done a huge amount of work for people with disabilities. At every opportunity Mr. Dolan is advocating for people with disabilities. We spoke about the mobility allowance and the transport grant. I made a detailed submission into the working group. I do not know if any other members did so.
My concern is that the payment will be taken away and a transport scheme put in its place. While that might sound well to someone living in the heart of Dublin, Galway or Cork city, it is no good for someone coming from a rural area like I do in Kerry or from the Iveragh Peninsula. For a young person there, transport might not be available to take them home. If they have a few bob in their pocket, because of the grant, then they can hire a taxi. While the payment is still in place, new applicants cannot apply. I would like to have more changes to the payment but, unfortunately, the Ombudsman, has ruled on it.
Mr. John Dolan and Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh referred to problems with access to Intreo offices for those with disabilities, which is very serious. There is the supported employment service in place for people with disabilities through the Intreo offices. There should be no reason why people with disabilities would not be helped in the Intreo offices to get back into employment, as well as grants and assistance for employers to take on people with disabilities. If Mr. John Dolan’s members are encountering problems, he should bring them to the fore and highlight them so they can be rectified.
Ms Hayes said there were increases in prices of some hotels, restaurants and food outlets of approximately 8%. There should be a decrease of 8% as the Government has reduced the VAT rate to 9% in the hospitality trade. I found prices in my area on menus went down once the reduced VAT rate was introduced.
The requests made by the delegations are reasonable. However, we know that in the real world everything cannot be restored in one budget. There are several issues which have been raised that I will bring to the attention of the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Education and Skills. Mr. John Dolan was in the Seanad Chamber last week when we moved a motion on access to education for people with disabilities. I am seeking to have the age cap on special schools abolished. As it stands, children with special needs cannot continue their education in special schools when they reach a certain age but have to go into the Health Service Executive, HSE, which does not have the same structured education programmes.
I must point out to the delegations that these cuts were not introduced by this Government alone but by successive Governments. I have to take up the point made on cuts to special needs assistants, SNAs. There have been no cuts to SNAs. Between 2010 and 2011, there were 10,328 SNAs; between 2011 and 2012, 10,487; and between 2013 and 2013, 10,656. So far this year, 10,900 SNAs are in place. Their numbers have increased every year. I accept there may be growing demand for SNAs which means some children may not get access to them. However, there have been no cuts to the numbers. It is the same with resource and learning supports. They now stand at the highest level they have even been. People with disabilities, thankfully, are living longer due to better care. This means demands on disability services are increasing.
I will put the issues raised to the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection. However, not everything can be delivered in one go and there is no point in pretending they can. I will ask her to prioritise some of these requests.
I thank the three groups for their powerful presentations which made strong cases for those they represent and their hopes for the forthcoming budget. Hopefully, a start can be made to rectify previous cuts with this budget. Backbench Deputies will make the case for this but, ultimately, decisions are made at Cabinet.
Mr. John Dolan referred to the ratio of the adjustment being two thirds cuts versus one third taxation. The two parties in Government have different perspectives on how this can be done. Before the last election, the Labour Party presented a case for a 50:50 ratio while Fine Gael presented a 75:25 ratio. It ended up at a 60:40 ratio. This is the agreement which drives the series of bugets but we will continue to make the case for fewer cuts, along with the restoration of some services and grants that were previously cut.
The delegations have presented a long list of requests, particularly regarding senior citizens. It might be helpful if these were prioritised for us to present to the relevant Ministers later.
Mr. Eamon Timmins:
We have not come across too many cases of older people abandoning their landline telephones but there is the occasional case of people no longer using them. There is the option of using a mobile telephone pendant alarm system but it is not suitable for everyone as it depends on location. I have spoken to the company running this service and it assures me it will check the mobile telephone signal at a person’s home three times. Our concern, however, is that part of a person's property could have signal shadows. If that is where someone has a fall, then the pendant alarm might not work. It is not such a straightforward switch to a mobile system.
Before the change to the home adaptation grant in January, our problem was the scheme was never sufficiently funded. As the waiting lists were so long, several local authorities stopped taking applications as there was no point allowing people continue to join a queue which was not moving. In our pre-budget submission, we call for substantial investment in the home adaptation scheme. If we cannot allow people to live independently in their homes by simply adapting them to meet their changing needs through lack of funding, the problem then is the knock-on effect this has with increased and more costly demands on the health services in areas such as home help, nursing homes and acute bed use.
Ms Máiread Hayes:
We are finding that many older people agonise over continuing with their landline but when they come to cancel it, some providers give them better deals with reductions from €90 for two months to €58.
That is what we are getting.
I shall address the question of our list of priorities. It is a bit like the points made by the Deputies because if I identify a priority then some of our constituent members will say it is not the biggest one. Our priority is the people who we have identified as being worse off - the older old and so on. As my colleague mentioned, the Christmas bonus might be a way of helping everybody because everybody would know they are getting it. I am reluctant to say it will arrive before the water bills in January but at least people would know it was coming and could do something.
Let me return to Deputy O'Dea's questions. There are a lot of questions about medical cards but we keep being told there is no such thing as a discretionary medical card. I would very much like it if one of the members would sort the matter out for us. We keep being told that there is no such thing as a discretionary medical card and there are two types, means tested or an over-70s card. I have read all about the matter. All of the members have referred to medical cards and I have outlined what we have been told.
Mr. Timmins has answered the question on mobile telephones. Let me answer the question on household benefits and who can be deemed to be in a household. The issue has come to our attention and did so again yesterday.
In terms of the bereavement grant, we understand people are going to the community welfare officer but, unfortunately, we have not been able to get a figure. I have only had one case. A family was unable to provide the full cost to cover the burial of their loved one and so went to the CWO. The family is also pursuing whether the UK will pay some of the money because the deceased had a UK pension. The issue is a bit involved and we would appreciate if members could give us some answers.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh asked about six weeks provision. We would love to get the six weeks provision back for people because it is one of the big areas of concern. I do not know whether I have answered all of the questions.
Dr. Joanne McCarthy:
While none of the members raised the same issues, I apologise if I acknowledge one person and not somebody else.
With regard to the house adaptation grant, we have experienced the same as everyone else. It has been an issue for a long time and well before the onset of the recession. I know and remember, anecdotally, one area being told, before it even got the allocation for the following year, that funding had been totally eaten up by waiting lists. The problem has been prevalent for some time and I am sure research is available. If anybody is interested in the research please let me know and I will get it as I do not have it to hand.
A number of Members raised an issue about Intreo offices. It is an issue and is not confined to one particular area. There is a sense that when people present with a disability they are referred to just two disability employment specialists. People with disabilities come from different groups. Some people are more job ready than others and, therefore, it is more appropriate for them to go to Intreo offices. However, we have been told that Intreo offices are saying they do not feel they have the specialism to respond to people with disabilities. There are teething problems that we are trying to address. We sought funding to carry out research and begin to look at how one could upskill or work with Intreo offices thus leaving them feeling they have the skills to work with people who are more job ready, and then work with specialist organisations to support them.
Dr. Joanne McCarthy:
This has become an issue and is blocking people. However, the extent of it is anecdotal at the moment. We have sought funding to do some work to uncover the real situation but we will look into the matter. We would appreciate any member using any avenue to raise the issue and shed some more light on the matter.
In terms of special needs, the Deputy was right that we do refer to it in one area. As was said, the big issue is the availability of special needs assistants and the increase in need. Mainstreaming has taken hold. It happens more successfully in education where people more frequently enter into mainstream education either through mainstream school or in a supported environment in a mainstream school.
This increased rate of entrance is not being balanced with the number of special needs assistants. In our submission, the Disability Federation of Ireland states that in light of this development, it is time to review the purpose of the SNA and we are asking for a dual approach.
To revert to Deputy Joan Collins, while listening to her, a concept the DFI has been seeking for a while came into my head, namely, that of having a commitment in which we begin to look at developing a comprehensive plan for redeveloping social infrastructure. I think members are hearing different bits of it from everyone in attendance today. We need a commitment in this budget or we need to see that this budget offers us the beginning of a commitment to the redevelopment of a comprehensive social infrastructure. In this regard, Mr. John Dolan has uncovered some interesting statistics recently. For example, one in eight people will acquire a disability, 120 babies will be born next year with Down's syndrome, and a further 120 will be born with a significant need. Similarly, 250 of us will develop multiple sclerosis next year, 4,000 will develop Alzheimer's, and the list goes on. Disability will hit us all as we all are getting older. We need to know that services are in place and are being planned for. It is known that our demographics will help us and we seek budgets to use this information to begin to plan for much more responsive services that will lessen the impact on individuals and families. This is what our submission and I am sure those of others are trying to do here today. I do not know whether I have answered everyone's questions.
Mr. John Dolan:
In a nutshell, and picking up on themes that came from members, whom I thank for the attention they gave to the submissions, people with disabilities and their families seek a real sign of hope. It is clear that all the members on both sides of the House are making the point that it cannot all be done next year. Each one of us knows that, but I refer to clarity about a sign that something tangible is happening and that, on the economic side, we have pulled more out of the services than the tax side or whatever but we are now reversing engines in some way. That is what people need: a boost to their morale. Deputy Collins made the point about families and people having used up all their slack. We all do that. We grin and bear it and get on with it. The slack is used up, however, and it is not there any more.
On the more particular issues, Deputy Ó Snodaigh spoke of our forbearance and I should tell him that as far as I am concerned, I have almost run out of it at this point, although I will do my best to be respectful. When I listen to people and families, however, and I acknowledge members also do this and that we are not the only ones, it is difficult to keep going. The point is there must be a clear signal and while it cannot be huge, it must be real and meaningful. Members should remember that no one negotiated with any of the people in this room about what was going to happen. Negotiations were held with public service workers. I do not suggest there should not have been but there was no negotiation with the people at the sharp end of the services. It was the chemistry of a coalition Government that came up with a figure that split the calf in some way or other, so to speak. What does that say to people who, in a sense, have come out at the wrong side-----
Mr. John Dolan:
The Chairman is correct and there was more to it than what I said. The core point, which obviously I made awkwardly, is there has been no systematic engagement. While that might have been difficult to do, there must be some turning around now.
I am not looking to spend three years talking about stuff. That is not what I am looking for.
Medical cards are a major issue, and this is about forbearance as well. The head of Government apologised in respect of the issue, describing it as something like a serious inconvenience. If my 8.30 bus does not turn up three mornings in a row at 8.30 and I need to get to work or child care, I consider that a serious inconvenience. People are at a point where we are feeling this so strongly that the niceties are almost gone. There is no doubt damage was done before this Administration came into office. The public dealt with decisions it made.
The fascinating thing about the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant is the Department knew officially since February 2009 that this issue was coming down the line. Measures could have been taken. That is not this Administration. Those are the dates.
Mr. John Dolan:
The mobility allowance was introduced in or around 1970. It was money paid directly to a person. The money followed the person and the person was given some choice. That is an example of the irony. We are talking about changing services and money following the person. We had a real old-fashioned scheme doing that for quite some time. It ran into this problem. It is still in no man's land. It is as the Chair has described it.
Mr. Eamon Timmins:
There was one question which we missed and has not been picked up on since. Deputy O'Dea spoke about water charges. This is the first day of chargeable water. We lobbied quite vigorously to protect pensioners living alone. Looking at the prices and the structure that came out yesterday, people living alone will be largely protected. We are talking maybe less than a euro - 50 cent - or one euro extra a week to pay, which coming out of a tight pension is enough. For a couple, it will be about €3.50 per week. When we say to the committee we are looking for a €5 increase in the State pension, €3.50 of that is gone already. The State will tell us it cannot afford it and ask from where the money is to come. Another €3.50 for couples who have not had an increase in their pensions since 2009 is gone. We welcome the measures put in place, including the 30,000 litre allowance every household will get and the sum of €100, which equates to about 20,000 litres based on the prices we saw yesterday. That will protect pensioners living alone. It will not be enough for a couple, if we are working off an average figure of €278, minus €100, making €178 for a couple. This works out at about €3.42 per week. That is quite a lot for people who are struggling already. We have spoken about fuel, heat, and prescription charges. Now they are also paying for the water. We need this €3.50 to be put into the mix when we are looking for an increase in core payments for the first time in a number of years.
We are frustrated ourselves with the medical card office. The biggest mistake ever made was its centralisation. It is a nightmare to deal with it. I put that on public record. Any journalist or newspaper can take it because I will stand over it. It has been a disaster. As stated, some people are still waiting. Last week, after threatening to go to the Ombudsman, I got the office to issue a discretionary card to a person who had been waiting since last February. The minute I said I thought he was being unfairly treated and I was reporting the matter to the Ombudsman, the card was issued with a validity until June of next year, which is a very short time. Centralising the office has not worked because the discretion of the community welfare officer to grant a medical card has been removed.
One applies to the office in Dublin and as soon as one does so, one gets a number. That is all one is now. At least when it was done locally one was regarded as a person. The CWO could say: “I know Johnny is getting a good wage but he is leaving it in the bar and the family do not have money.” The CWOs could use their discretion but that does not happen now. It is not working. I would like to see it go back to the old way but I suppose that would be too big a step.
John FitzGerald was responsible for a recent report by the ESRI which found that, over the course of the recession, successive Government policies, including those of the previous Government, had contributed to the fact that Ireland and Portugal were unique in reducing income inequality over the course of this recession. One of the contributory factors was that both Governments had maintained social welfare payments at a fairly high level. That was not the policy in Spain, Britain or Greece.
Patrick Honohan, Governor of the Central Bank, said in a speech that the group most detrimentally affected by the recession was people aged between 30 and mid to late 40s who bought houses with high mortgages at the top of the market. The Central Statistics Office has found that the people most at risk of poverty are families with young children and lone parents. The main group hit by social welfare cuts in recent years were jobseekers. One cannot get jobseeker's benefit for as long as previously. A jobseeker, like one in my constituency, getting €188 a week, with a mortgage, might live next door to a pensioner on €230 a week who has no mortgage. This is a sensitive issue but it needs to be said.
There was an op-ed in The Sunday Timeson 15 September – I remember the date because it was when the Labour Party had its think-in – by an economist who said that the elderly are among the most vocal groups about cuts in recent years but they have been the least hit. What is Mr. Timmins’ view of that?
Age Action has asked for an extra bit in the pension, restoration of the fuel allowance, increased living allowance, and so on. Is that not just the shopping list for ways to put money into people’s pockets at the expense of services? Would it not be better not to look for any of these things but to put the money into services instead in order that we do not make the mistakes we made in the past?
Mr. Eamon Timmins:
Today, the UN International Day of Older Persons, a global ageing index has been published by HelpAge International. Ireland has fallen from 12th to 17th place. Unlike some of the economic analyses, which examine income, this index considers a more cultural mix, including employment, education, health and equality within society. Britain is at No. 11. People always compare us with Britain. Norway is at the top and Afghanistan is at No. 96, at the bottom of the index. It takes an holistic approach. We are doing well but we did better last year.
We all have to heat our homes but older people have a greater health need for heat, and those with a disability an even greater one. The cost is greater for an older person living alone. It is very difficult to compare an older person with somebody in his or her 20s or 40s. Their needs are different.
It would be better to give the person an extra hour of home help than an extra fiver, if we could be sure of it, but we cannot be.
When people say to put the money into services instead, we do not see that. In fact we have seen the very opposite when it comes to home helps. There are 1.7 million fewer hours this year than 2010.
Mr. Eamonn Timmins:
If we could be guaranteed the services, if people's needs were met by the services, it would take away the need for people to buy them privately. It is a chicken and egg situation. If I am in good health but on a low income, the income is more important to me. If I am on a low income and in poor health, if I could be guaranteed another hour of home help it would make a huge difference to my life, but am I going to get that? Certainly from an older person's perspective, what we hear about is the anxiety of what is going to be lost next. People who have reached a stage of their life where they are dependent on the State for certain services and income supports find they are in doubt and in question. That is the big issue - this constant anxiety as to what is going to go next. What can I actually depend on to live with a bit of dignity?
Ms Máiread Hayes:
One of the things that we would say has been good about austerity is that we have managed to preserve inter-generational solidarity. We have managed not to fracture it. That is a credit to older and younger people and is something we should all give ourselves a clap on the back for. What I am seeing are the social transfers that older people are giving. One of the people in the Visitors Gallery was telling me about what he was giving last week. He left a meeting that we had because he had to take somebody some place as part of the family. While he was doing that, he got a telephone call to say one grandchild had cracked her head at school and had to be collected. Believe it or not, he was only just telling me this, I did not know the issue would come up today. He then got a call to say another grandchild had fainted at school and he had to go again. I do not know how one would value that or what price one would put on it. That is what older people have stepped up to do in the crisis.
Mr. Timmins has handled the anxiety factor. One of the difficulties is that people cannot be assured that a service is available for them. We are more in touch with the pulse of what is happening now in 2014. A lot of the research and statistics are from 2012. We have members who are 55 years of age and are on jobseeker's payments. They cannot get work. We were selling tickets to raise funds in Dún Laoghaire shopping centre, because we are all experiencing no funds into our organisations. A lady told me that she was made redundant eight years ago at age 55. She said she had an option to take a pension but she decided she would get another job but eight years later she has not got a job. She lives in an apartment where she has to pay €1,500 for charges and the local property tax. She has €20 for left for food every week. I asked her if she had fuel allowance and she said she would not like to claim it. I told her she was entitled to it and should claim it. I mentioned to her about the community welfare officer but she did not know what that was.
We are very conscious that there are people who are classed in the UN and EU as being older, over 50, who are unemployed and who are getting €188. That is why we have asked for the older people who are not on the State pension to get an extra €5. When the question was raised by the newly-appointed Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar about whether it was better to have €5 or better services, a large number of people told us they would like the €5. Age Action and ourselves were at a session in the Aviva stadium where the new Minister for Health was speaking to the public when this issue was raised.
The Minister of State with responsibility for disability, older people, equality and mental health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch said that a new scheme was adapted in Cork where people were assured that when they needed the service they would get it, rather than booking for the service.
They now know that they will get the service when they want it, but what is currently happening is that everybody fears that they will not get the service.
I also want to say, in answer to some of the questions that were raised earlier, that we do not want to continue doing things the same way. We see situations affecting how older people are living now due to bad planning and we would be very upset if some of the new legislation that is to be introduced does not take account of aging and increasing frailty and disabilities. We do not want to see any places for older people, or for younger people, being built that do not take account of accessibility for showering, etc. Many people do not have to adapt their house if they can use a chair lift, as one of my colleagues in the audience does. I asked her whether she had to adapt the ground floor of her house and she said that she did not because she had a toilet downstairs already and she could use a chair lift. The measures taken do not, therefore, have to be expensive, but we must agree as a society what they are. When the Government talks to us seriously about that, we can look at the options.
Mr. John Dolan:
Ms Hayes raised an important issue, but there are very difficult choices to be made. I will not say that the need of a young jobseeker for experience and money is not a big deal. It is a big deal. However, the jobseeker has a hope. Although it is the ambition of Government to be back to full employment by 2020, that is never-never land for someone who is currently unemployed. The disabled person is, leaving aside the payments for younger jobseekers, on the same contingency level of payment as a jobseeker. However, their situation is not a contingency, it is permanent. That is a problem. We have issues with Intreo and others, where young people with disabilities cannot get into programmes to start doing their training and development. This contrasts with other jobseekers, who do hopefully get those opportunities in general, so it is quite complex.
Middle-aged heads of households do not know which way to turn. They have children on one hand and ageing parents at the other end of the spectrum, so they are under pressure. Some of them might also have disability in the family; Dr. McCarthy gave some statistics there. Some of those people will have a child born to them next year with a disability, some will hear that their mum or dad has Alzheimer's disease. All these pressures come in on top of each other. It is complex because they are not separate issues. Mr. Timmins referred to older people and disability and while not every older person is disabled there is a lot of it around.
This question of funding services versus having a few bob in your pocket is very tempting and colleagues have been very clear about that. People with disabilities cannot bypass the fact that they need certain services. One cannot buy the services of a personal assistant for an hour or half an hour with a fiver a week. The reality is that the public services are in poor shape although people are doing their best to keep them going. People do not have confidence in them either. That is why we need to give a practical sign that we are trying to turn that around.
I very much appreciate the attendance at this meeting. There has been a particularly strong attendance from the Labour Party members today, who are part of the Government, and that is appreciated and understood.
Mr. John Walsh:
I have not much to say in regard to the cuts but I would like to point out that Christmas is just around the corner. Hopefully we will all have an enjoyable Christmas, but unfortunately, for some older people that I know and that I live near, it will not be a very pleasant one.
Deputies asked for the restoration of the Christmas bonus as a priority. Ms Hayes responded to the issue. I live in a rural area and I have seen the effects of the cuts. I have seen cuts people have had to make personally because of the non-availability of money. People depend solely on their State pension. The Christmas bonus would be of enormous value to those people. In a lot of cases it would mean they would have proper meals over Christmas. This year is an example in that from January onwards people did not feed themselves as they should. That is a cut people made.
At a meeting with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, I indicated that a neighbour had hidden a lot of things from us. He was given a loan by the bank to buy a house at an age where he should not have bought a house but the banks were throwing money at him. He bought a house but it was badly in need of repair. The storms early in the year caused further damage to his house and he had to borrow again from a credit union to fix the roof. He is in constant fear as he cannot afford to pay the mortgage and for the damage to the roof. He only confided in us after we put pressure on him. We asked what had happened to his dog. He had put the dog down because he could not afford to keep him. The dog was in need of medical attention and he could not afford to pay for that either. That was unfortunate. The same person has additional problems in his old age. He was recently diagnosed with diabetes. He confided in me that he would be better off gone. We have to keep a constant eye on him. He is not the only one in a similar situation. Anyone depending on the State pension would find himself or herself in that position. If those people could have a meal over Christmas it might be some sort of a happy Christmas for them. The restoration of the Christmas bonus would be of enormous value.
For the past 30 years I have been delivering meals-on-wheels to the elderly and disabled in my area in Killarney. It was always a free service from the HSE. A decision was taken that had nothing to do with the downturn in the economy, in that it was decided to bring in a small charge of €2 per day for a meal. A surprising number of people dropped out of the service because of the €2 charge, despite the fact that they were getting a substantial hot meal and dessert every day, which guaranteed at least one good meal a day. Sometimes people make bad choices. Those people now have to cook at home which costs them more but their decision not to pay was based on the fact that a charge had been introduced for something that had cost nothing.
In terms of who asked questions, they were from the Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil members. At the beginning of the meeting members from other parties were present. In terms of questions raised, Mr. Dolan is correct in his assessment of the situation but what can we do?
Ms Máiread Hayes:
Will the committee make a recommendation to the Minister based on the issues highlighted or what power does it have? I look forward to the day when we have an open and transparent budget system so that we are aware of the priorities and how we can all be totally intergenerational and open about what is being spent.
We are moving towards that as a committee. Ms Hayes is right. We need much more of that. We accept the difficulties faced by the people represented by the delegates and we will bring the issues highlighted to the committee to the attention of the Ministers and the officials. The meeting has been very helpful in bringing these issues to our attention and explaining and clarifying them.