Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed)


3:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. I acknowledge the positive measures proposed in the Bill and I compliment the Minister on the progress being made. As other speakers have said, progress is required in a number of areas. More than in any other area I would hope to see a move to getting people out of consistent poverty which has not been progressed in the way we would have hoped, considering the ten years of affluence of the current Government. I note from today's newspapers that the Minister will launch a ten-year social inclusion plan to eliminate consistent poverty within a decade. I do not know whether the Minister has already launched the plan or if he will do so later in the day or whether somebody else will launch it on behalf of the Government.

The ten-year anti-poverty strategy launched in 1997 aimed to reduce the level of consistent poverty to 2% by 2007 but latest figures show that 7% or almost 300,000 people are ranked as living in consistent poverty this year. My concern is that we are not progressing quickly enough in this area. This is not solely a matter for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs but that Department would be a central part of it. I welcome the plans being announced today which aim by 2016 to reduce by 20% the number of people whose total income is derived from long-term social welfare payments. It is good to have targets but it is important to achieve them. I hope the Minister has genuine strategies to achieve these targets.

Other speakers referred to the elimination of the poverty traps for lone parents and others, particularly those who are on rent allowance. I welcome the progress being made in this regard. I ask the Minister to clarify when the changes proposed in the Bill with regard to a disallowance for a certain amount of earnings and money from community employment schemes when awarding rent allowance will be implemented. RAS is not fully up and running in several local authority areas and many people in private rented accommodation are not even aware of the existence of this scheme. Is this linked to those in RAS or does it apply to people who are on rent allowance but who for one reason or another are not yet in RAS or perhaps do not qualify or their landlord is not willing to become involved?

I share the concerns expressed by Deputy Curran and others regarding the limits for rent allowance. It is a reality that for people in certain places — mostly in cities but my colleague, Deputy Moynihan-Cronin stated that it also applies in her part of the country — the limits mean that sometimes people are unable to get accommodation. As Deputy Curran said, it is not desirable but it is the case that people hand over money to the landlord outside of the official rent and this puts them in danger of not having enough money for other bills. I support calls to have the proposal reconsidered.

Deputy Boyle and other Members raised the matter of adult dependants.

On the concept of dependency, Members on all sides of the House have at various times expressed the strong view that in a modern, civilised world adults should not be treated as the dependants of others. We need to move towards a system under which a person automatically receives a separate payment rather than having to ask for it. No adult should have to be treated as a dependant. In that context, there is much unfairness in the system, in the balance between the tax and social welfare codes and in the different ways in which people are treated.

An e-mail I received yesterday reads:

I was shocked to recently discover a blatant unfairness in the system and I wondered what is being done to address this. I learned that if you are living with a person as "married" as far as the social welfare services are concerned, you are means-tested as a married couple. This is particularly tough for a couple where one is on disability and due to the working person's income is then told they will no longer qualify because of some mysterious magic that occurs where you are assessed as having half the working person's income as means. It does not allow for the fact that the working partner, while happy to share his or her life, is not necessarily interested in supporting a dependent who cannot work. They will also lose the medical card, from what I understand. So a person who may be on a good wage for a single suddenly has a massive burden to bear. To not live together reduces the ill person's chance of living in a situation where they can be assisted, and not living with strangers to struggle alone.

So let us say the Department have a right to force these presumptions upon people, which they clearly don't. If a couple want to be married, they will get married. They should be allowed to decide their status. But the real discrimination kicks in when the exact definition of the couple according to one arm of the State doesn't apply to the other arm. So the man or woman who now suddenly supports a person who cannot work or financially contribute to the household in any way, and also has added medical expenses, is now told that, equally magically, they are not married when they step into Revenue buildings. The working person who took on the financial burden of the one on disability is now not allowed claim a cent in relation to this State-imposed predicament. This is totally unfair.

I cannot believe that there isn't an urgent reaction to put this right. You cannot have two parallel universes in Government where people are messed around like this.

The Minister can understand that this person feels very strongly on the issue, rightly so. Why should a person be treated in one way by the tax code and in another by the social welfare code, when in each case the person is disadvantaged in those circumstances? This issue needs to be seriously addressed.

As my party's spokesperson on education, I wish to address some of the issues in the Minister's brief which relate to education, particularly school meals. I note that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's in its pre-budget submission suggested there should be one body with overall responsibility in this area. The issue falls between a number of stools, including social welfare, health, education and community affairs, given that many of the school meal schemes are operated by community organisations. There is a strong argument that we need to co-ordinate the school meals service. In the context of child poverty, if children are missing out or falling between the cracks, they often go to school hungry and cannot do justice to their educational opportunities. I accept much progress has been made with school meals and a huge effort has been made by a variety of organisations. There is probably a school meals scheme in most disadvantaged areas. However, there are children who do not have the opportunity to avail of a school meals system. I support the proposal that it be co-ordinated in some way to ensure we will not have anybody falling through the gaps.

The other recommendation the Society of St. Vincent de Paul made was that there should be adequate capital provision to ensure school facilities would be available to allow food to be offered to pupils in appropriate ways. Again, strictly speaking, this is not the responsibility of the Minister, but his Department, or the Department of Education and Science, might take the initiative in ensuring we have a comprehensive school meals system in order that children will not go to school hungry.

Also with regard to education, I welcome the increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Unfortunately, the increase falls short of the cost to families, particularly when children are making the transition to post-primary school, when there are many extra costs to be met. I urge a continuation of progress in this area.

As with other Deputies, there are many other issues I could have raised. I hope the Minister will respond to the points I have made.


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