Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

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


4:00 pm

Paudge Connolly (Cavan-Monaghan, Independent)

I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill which gives effect to the changes announced in the Budget Statement last year. In spite of some of my previous contributions on Social Welfare Bills in recent years, I must concede that the latest social welfare package is one of the more welcome aspects of this year's budget. Normally social welfare changes are calculated to ease the pain and make life a little more bearable for the socially deprived. One must consider how the changes measure up in bridging the gap between the most disadvantaged and most privileged. Straightaway the gap has been widened by the 1% reduction in the higher rate of income tax which for the most part benefits the better-off.

The non-contributory old age pension payment has hit the €200 barrier for the first time. This raised a chorus of war whoops from the Government benches when the budget was announced but it is still €3.50 below the poverty line. We should look after the elderly but sometimes neglect to do so. At times we lead ourselves to believe we were the creators of the Celtic tiger; rather, the elderly were its creators and we who are merely benefactors should not leave them behind at this stage.

The contributory old age pension of €209.30 is just short of €6 above the poverty level. This clearly shows we have a long way to go before we eradicate poverty. One yardstick by which to measure the ongoing and cumulative effects of successive budgets on the lives of the poor is the figures quoted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The number of calls to the society has quadrupled in recent years and it spends €750,000 each week addressing poverty. This is a substantial sum to be required by the less well-off. The annual spend of over €39 million somewhat dampens the Celtic tiger's roar. Many of those who found it necessary to contact the society for help were in poorly paid jobs, but in employment nevertheless. Their levels of income, although low, rendered them ineligible to qualify for social welfare benefits.

Pensioners have always been playing catch-up, particularly in the past three years. The budgets for these years were coming from a very low base. It is somewhat disturbing to note that the Irish old age pension is at the bottom of the EU league and that Ireland is fifth from bottom on the list of OECD countries. To increase the old age pension to a level acceptable to the European Union and remove pensioners from the poverty trap, one would need to increase the rate by at least €50 per week. Promises were made that it would be increased by €100 per week but we will wait and see.

The increases in pension rates will come under pressure from increases in the price of food, gas, electricity and medicines, as mentioned by Deputy Catherine Murphy. It is expensive for pensioners merely to stay warm and alive. Affordable heating systems are the one factor pensioners worry about and it presents a major difficulty for them.

We are told the country has been awash with cash in the past two or three years. It is mystifying, therefore, to consider why pensions and other State payments have not been adjusted to a more realistic level before now. Noises are being made in this regard because a general election is due. The pension rate will move towards the €300 barrier which pensioners well deserve.

Lone parents comprise a key group likely to be caught in the poverty trap. The child dependant allowance targeted at children in poverty has not increased in 12 years.

Overall, the social welfare package is to be given a guarded welcome but to state it tackles poverty is somewhat more than wide of the mark. A couple of years ago the ESRI stated an 11% rise in income tax would be required to make any dent in relative income poverty. Although we have a high level of employment and average income has risen dramatically in recent years, the number whose income is below 50% of average income is still well above the EU average. The ESRI stated a successful anti-poverty policy would require an improved education system, further employment opportunities and better income supports. Budget 2007 could have adopted a greater and more targeted approach to those in need of help, particularly families on social welfare and the lower paid.

Childhood food poverty needs to be tackled, with a particular focus on inequality. Dietary habits and poverty are intrinsically linked. We know families on low incomes consume less fresh fruit and vegetables than those on higher incomes. The former tend to consume more foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, thereby putting themselves at risk of having a poor diet. Children are the most vulnerable in this regard and always seem to suffer. Parents are not to blame since diets are strongly influenced by social and environmental circumstances. Low income is a major factor in this mix. Parents play a key role in determining their children's diet and it is important that they be supported through social welfare initiatives that increase the availability of healthy and affordable food and improve access thereto.

There is growing awareness of food poverty as a structural constraint on food consumption and dietary intake, particularly among low income groups. Food poverty has multifaceted consequences for health, education and social participation and there is considerable scope for Government support to overcome it.

The Government's commitment to end homelessness by 2010 sounds a little like a pipedream. It is somewhat reminiscent of the old boast by the former Soviet Union that it abolished poverty, even though people were begging for food outside the Orthodox churches. The €20 increase in social welfare rates is to be welcomed but it provides cold comfort for those on the streets without a roof over their heads.


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