Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

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


4:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)

I welcome the broad sweep of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007. A phenomenal amount of money is being directed towards those who most need it such as people without jobs or on low incomes and those who helped to create the Celtic tiger and now deserve a return on their investment.

During a previous debate on social welfare legislation I noted that the Minister had changed the rules on the back to education allowance in order to allow flexibility when people were made redundant. At the time people I knew were preparing to return to education the following September and I asked whether the provision would apply to them. On behalf of this small but appreciative group, I thank the Minister for ensuring they would be able to benefit because it would have been unfair if they had missed out just because the budget had been introduced after the start of the college term.

On cross-Border co-operation, I welcome the changes to the free travel scheme which will take effect from 2 April. I must declare my interest in the matter, as I already have an application form to give to my mother. With two relations living in the Six Counties, I am sure she will want to avail of the opportunity to travel there. I often avail of the Enterprise train service and hear people tell each other about the imminent introduction of free travel. That people can travel throughout the island without having to worry about cost is one of best aspects of all-Ireland co-operation, particularly given that many of those concerned have leisure time or are trying to escape their grandchildren in order to enjoy some peace. The Minister will be remembered for opening the Border to the elderly.

I wish to speak about the challenges faced by people who in the past had to find employment in Northern Ireland, or the Six Counties as we know it, after losing their job in County Donegal. For the people concerned, it is not a matter of referring to Northern Ireland or the Six Counties because when they lose their job, they go to Derry. I am aware of a number of people who paid stamps in the Republic but had to move owing to factors beyond their control. If they get sick, they will not be able to prove residency in the Six Counties, yet they will be means-tested if they apply for support in their home region.

The issue concerns EU Regulation Nos. 1408/71 and 574/72, which constitute binding rules whereby a person cannot elect to be attached to a member state's social security scheme to claim benefit from a state of his or her choice and pertain to the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons. However, I make my point in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, all-island economies, the increasing importance of all-Ireland education and the north-west region. The scenario whereby people pay stamps in this jurisdiction for 25 years, work in the other jurisdiction for another two or three years and then fall ill but are unable to draw down any supports would constitute a barrier to cross-Border working. As I have just commended breaking down such cross-Border barriers, I ask the Minister to consider this issue.

In respect of the diet supplement scheme, I ask the Minister to forward to me a guideline that outlines the changes. I have in mind the example of a pensioner who was told that she was eligible to receive €6.30 before she became a pensioner. However, on reaching pensionable age, her entitlement fell to €1.30. She is unable to understand why her need for a diet supplement decreased as she became older. Usually people become more needy as they age. This may have been a one-off problem and I will forward the details of the case to the Minister.

Regarding the transfer of the community welfare service, I accept the Minister's comments. I note the Minister mentioned that he has carried out much consultation in this respect and that he desires the maintenance of a responsible and flexible service. Community welfare officers, CWOs, play a particular role and have a wide geographic spread. They operate in places where no one else goes and provide a service that probably exceeds that which is specified in their rule book. Elderly people can bare their souls to them.

While this is hard to explain without getting the CWOs into trouble, they have been flexible, responsive and more, as well as being highly knowledgeable about the people with whom they deal. As they work in very small communities they know the people and can discern when someone tells them a long story. Similarly, they can recognise genuine cases. The transfer between Departments should not bring about a more centralised focus to this facility because this would remove visiting professionals from a region and would minimise the potential for flexibility and responsiveness. While I accept the Minister's comments, I enter the caveat that I would be concerned were any of the existing flexibility to be removed.

I chair the Joint Committee on Art, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which held a meeting with the Arts Council today. While I may be stealing Deputy Michael Higgins's thunder, artists can have very low regular incomes. Moreover, they constitute another group whose entitlement to a pension will be extremely hard to define in many cases. The Minister's officials, with the Arts Council, could consider the concept of a pension for artists. One might ask why artists should be treated as a special case. They are special in that they contribute to Ireland's culture and without them, Ireland would not be as attractive to tourists and would not enjoy such worldwide renown. While this may be a quirky request, it is as relevant as any other.

I have been informed that although the increases in the old age pension are welcome, the difference between non-contributory and contributory pensions is becoming increasingly narrow. Moreover, I understand the unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance rates are the same at present. In this context, I suggest that some people might consider they should enjoy greater entitlements having worked all their lives.

I commend the Minister in respect of his work in respect of carers, as significant moves have been made. The increase of €300 in the respite care allowance is extremely important. This is one of the best schemes available and its means test should be reduced continually until the point at which it can be removed is reached. I believe that means are irrelevant to people who are sufficiently big-spirited to look after someone they love in their home. Perhaps extremely wealthy people who were in a position to be able to do whatever they wish without worrying about finances would put a person into a home, whereas other people might chug along and keep the person in their homes. People should stay at home for as long as possible. It has been proven that people live longer and happier lives when remaining as close to home as possible.

Carers may now work for up to 15 hours a week. Why was the limit not raised to 20 hours? Giving a couple of hours each day to someone would be a positive move. The Minister should continue his important work in respect of the carer's allowance, which is progressing well.

People who are over 80 continually ask me why they have not been removed from the tax code. While I presume there are plenty of simple answers, I mention it as a query I receive regularly.

I accept the cost of fuel is rising and I trust the Minister will continue to keep that in mind. While I accept he has done much regarding the provision of additional electricity units, one must continue to focus on this issue.

Although I would like to raise many other issues, I am short of time. Essentially, I commend the Minister on the work that is under way. He spoke of paying child benefit into either the bank or the post office and I was glad to note he still included the latter, as I wish to keep rural post offices alive.


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