Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

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


4:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)

I certainly agree with the sentiments of the two previous speakers. They have pointed to several of the difficulties highlighted by the Bill. While the Green Party welcomes many of the measures included in it, I cannot help but believe there is a certain begrudging attitude on the part of the Government towards the less well-off. Given that 80% of the population are doing very well, there is surely an onus on us to reach out a little more to those who are not benefiting from the largesse of the Celtic tiger and who need a hand up into a world in which they will have afforded to them the opportunities enjoyed for many years by everyone else who has benefited from the Celtic tiger. The Bill could have done more for the less well-off.

Maternity and paternity benefits for parents of young children could be extended further. It is important that we afford parents as many choices as possible in their children's early years. It is crucial to get it right in those early years but I am not convinced the Minister is going as far as in many other European countries. He could certainly go further in the matter of paternity benefits for fathers who want to spend time with their young children during the crucial formative years and he could increase the period of leave because, at a time when the economy is doing well, it is important that we give parents the choice of returning to work or remaining at home.

I welcome the €10 increase in child benefit as a step in the right direction, although my party proposes we should go further. Parents are paying up to €1,000 per month for child care, which places a significant financial burden on those who return to work. The Minister and his Government colleagues should go further in providing community-based child care services. In Denmark and Germany beautiful kindergarten and child care facilities are provided in local parks or beside green areas but that is not the case in Ireland. This morning I visited a gaelscoil where the students have been housed in prefabs for the past ten years. There is an onus on the Minister to provide more for children in their early years rather than reducing them to sitting in prefabs or making their parents pay exorbitant fees for child care.

I have yet to be convinced that the Minister's proposal to move community welfare officers from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs will not create a conflict of interest. It is crucial that community welfare officers consider first and foremost the health needs of claimants rather than the financial aspects of cases. I am concerned about the transfer of staff between Departments and urge the Minister to reconsider the issue.

The Minister should also reconsider the antiquated and anachronistic language that runs through the Bill. The phrase "deserted wife" is Victorian in origin. I hope the Minister will devise a more appropriate and modern term which would better describe the difficulties encountered by parents. Other Ministers have proposed new wording when making changes to primary legislation.

I suggest a clear code of conduct be put in place for means-testing because it can be very invasive for claimants to have someone sit at their kitchen table to determine their sources of income. Improvements have been made in recent years but it is important that individual claimants are made aware of their rights. The means-testing interview can be heartbreaking. Therefore, it would be of some benefit if there was more clarity in the questions which may be asked.

I welcome some of the changes made regarding disclosure of information. While we must be careful when we allow information to be shared between Departments, it makes sense to allow for greater sharing with the Department of Finance. This is particularly the case in respect of the building industry which, by its nature, involves a very abrupt process and requires better checks and balances.

I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to the needs of cohabiting couples. The parents of more than one third of the children born in Ireland today are unwed. We have to ensure social welfare codes catch up with the reality of modern Irish life. It is time social welfare provisions reflected the many variants of the nuclear family.


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