Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

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


4:00 pm

Photo of John CartyJohn Carty (Mayo, Fianna Fail)

I compliment the Minister on his budget and the fair way in which he distributed the finances across the board for social welfare recipients. I have little doubt that the progress he has made in the couple of years since he took office as Minister for Social and Family Affairs will increase greatly in his next five years in office.

The Bill provides for the implementation of certain social improvements announced in budget 2007. These include increases in child benefit, the one-parent family payment income limit and the respite care grant. It also provides for enhancements to illness benefit, maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and supplementary welfare allowance schemes. It further provides for the introduction of a special rate of carer's allowance which will, in specified circumstances, be payable simultaneously with certain other social welfare payments.

Supporting and recognising carers in our society is and has been a priority of the Government since 1997. Over that period weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended, and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced and extended.

In line with other social assistance schemes, a means test is applied to carer's allowance to ensure limited resources are directed to those in greatest need. This means test has been eased significantly during the years, most notably with the introduction of the spouse's earnings disregard. Following budget 2006, since April of that year the earnings disregard for a couple has been set at €580 per week which is equivalent to gross average industrial earnings. As a result of further improvements which the Minister announced in budget 2007, this disregard will increase to €640 per week for a couple from April. When this increase is in place, a couple with two children will be able to earn up to €36,240 and still qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, as well as the associated free travel and household benefits. This measure surpasses the commitment in Towards 2016 to ensure those on average industrial earnings can continue to qualify for a full carer's allowance. Complete abolition of the means test for carer's allowance would cost in the region of over €140 million in a full year.

From June 2005 the annual respite care grant was extended to all carers providing full-time care for a person who needs such care, regardless of their income. Those persons in receipt of other social welfare payments, excluding jobseeker's assistance and benefit, are entitled to this payment, subject to meeting the full-time care condition. In budget 2007 the level of the grant was increased by €300 to €1,500 from June.

The primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support. As a general rule, only one weekly social welfare payment is payable to an individual. Persons qualifying for two social welfare payments receive the higher payment to which they are entitled. We are all aware that this has been a cause of particular concern to people in receipt of a social welfare payment when they become carers. For that reason, I was delighted the Minister undertook to introduce fundamental structural reforms in this area in budget 2007.

From September 2007, people in receipt of another social welfare payment who also provide full-time care and attention to a person will be able to retain their main welfare payment and receive a carer's payment depending on their means, the maximum of which will be equivalent to a half rate carer's allowance. It is estimated that approximately 18,000 carers will benefit from this measure at a cost of €56.72 million in a full year. The precise details as to how the new arrangements will operate are being examined and will be set out in legislation shortly.

The improvements for carers which were announced in budget 2007 will cost over €107 million for a full year. As a result of the improvements expenditure on weekly payments to carers will be in the region of €357 million in 2007. A further €64.5 million will be provided to carers in the form of respite care grants. In addition, as a consequence of the new arrangements with regard to receipt of another welfare payment while caring, 18,000 carers will also benefit from expenditure on other non-caring schemes to the tune of approximately €57 million in a full year and nearly €14 million in 2007.

We are committed to working for and with carers to deliver increased benefits, supports and services for them and their families. The improvements for carers which were announced in budget 2007 and being enacted through this Bill are further evidence of this commitment.

There has been substantial progress made in reducing child poverty. A range of measures across a number of Departments and agencies over recent years has resulted in more than 250,000 people being lifted out of consistent poverty, including an estimated 100,000 children. However, an unacceptable number of children remain in consistent poverty and we must remain focused on a further substantial reduction of child poverty. The level of commitment in this area was prominent in budget 2007, in which a range of targeted measures and supports specifically to benefit children in low income families and families on welfare was announced at a cost of over €240 million. The significantly improved and targeted measures announced in the budget represent a substantial move in that direction. This is the reason the decision was taken to deliberately focus the increased child supports in the areas where we know child poverty exists.

The measures in budget 2007 include, for the first time in over a decade, reform of the qualified child allowance, QCA, formerly child dependant allowance, which is seen as an important welfare weapon in tackling child poverty levels. The three existing rates of QCA have been combined into a new single high rate of €22 per week that will benefit over 340,000 children of families on welfare.

The rate of child benefit has been increased by €10, bringing new rates to €160 and €195 per month. The child benefit increases will apply to all children, benefiting over 560,000 families in respect of approximately 1.1 million children. The monthly rate for the first and second child in 1997 was €38. In 2007 it will be more than four times higher. If we include the new early child care supplement, when measures in budget 2007 take effect, a family with three children under six will receive direct financial support of €9,180 per annum. This is an increase of approximately €7,670 since 1997. I congratulate the Minister on the Bill.


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