Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

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


5:00 pm

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)

I will return to the issue of the farm assist scheme. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill and thank the Minister for the significant increases which were given in many areas. We are all big and realistic enough to welcome them.

Many elderly people gave a great deal of service to the country. They deserve and need the increases. I also welcome the increases for dependent children. For many years nothing happened in this area. Child poverty is still a major issue and the change made this year is welcome.

The speech made by the Tánaiste last weekend was frightening. He clearly stated that during the next five years if he is in Government he will create inflation to such an extent we will need another €100 in the pension to cover it. In this context, one must worry about what the situation will be like for jobs. The single best way to solve many social welfare problems, particularly for those who are unemployed, is to create and maintain jobs. Unfortunately, this is an area in which we are in serious crisis. If it were not for the construction and building industries it is hard to know where the country would be. Companies such as Motorola and Pfizer are clearly indicating that the cost of production is too high in this country and they want to move somewhere else. That gives some idea of the crisis we are facing.

I have a keen interest in non-contributory pensions and I tabled questions in the past asking how many people are now in receipt of such pensions. This would give some idea of whether we need or can justify the hassle associated with it. What worries me most is the Minister's change of attitude towards those on non-contributory pensions and their line of business.

If they are prepared to take up, or are already in, a PAYE scheme, people can earn up to €200 a week while still receiving the full non-contributory pension. If a person is self-employed — a farmer or small shopkeeper, for example — he or she can only earn €30 per week or it will be taken from the pension. I feel strongly about this issue and believe it is immoral and unjust to treat self-employed people in this way. I ask the Minister to seriously consider the matter.

It is not justified. A small shopkeeper could be under severe pressure from Tesco, Super Valu or any of the others but might still want to hold on to the business. It could be giving a service in a small village or rural area. If the shopkeeper holds on to the shop or business, whatever little is earned will be taken off the non-contributory pension. Another person could work at a petrol station as an attendant for a few hours a day, five days a week, earning money. It does not seem correct.

I have heard some of the Minister's colleagues mention another issue which has been raised with me on occasion, the qualifying adult support. I welcome the increases in that over the past few years, and it has been raised somewhat. There is a serious problem for those who were forced out of employment due to the rules of the State. For example, some of those in Civil Service jobs, Telecom Éireann and other places had to retire when they got married. These people are not entitled to any pension in their own right and feel very aggrieved that they have to depend on their spouse. In most cases those spouses are extremely good but some spouses are not so minded as a result of alcohol or other factors. This issue should be considered.

In the same context, some farmers' wives and those who were self-employed were never advised when the PRSI contribution was introduced in 1998 that they would have to pay it. These people took it for granted that they were covered under the self-employment scenario but found, when they were 66, that they were only entitled to be treated as an adult dependant. These people would have worked hard over their life, behind a shop counter, on a farm or elsewhere, but are not entitled to anything in their own right.

The issue of non-contributory pensions was raised by one of my colleagues at a meeting last week. The number of old age non-contributory pensioners put through reviews is alarming. Such a process is scaring the wits out of people, who worry more about these issues than is justified. I know that and the Minister knows it. If a person lives in a rural isolated area and depends on a pension, and is afraid of unforeseen circumstances, I ask that there be a bit more sympathy and courtesy.

With all due respect, some people are very good in this regard but, unfortunately, others are not the same way inclined. I have stated many times that I get nothing but the height of courtesy from personnel in the Department of Social and Family Affairs in general, but, unfortunately, it is not always the same at ground level.

I welcome any change in the carer's allowance. Colleagues and the Minister know that I have exerted pressure, through the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, to have recognition given to widows and widowers especially and people in similar situations who found themselves on a pension but were prevented from getting the carer's allowance. I welcome the change brought about by the Minister, which the joint committee unanimously asked for a number of years ago. With the election approaching, it is a good time to get it.

I cannot understand how it has been extended for another nine months. All the main social welfare increases were given on 1 January but carers, who are to get half a carer's pension along with the relevant social welfare income, will not get it until 1 September. I ask the Minister to consider it again at this late stage and, if possible, to pay it from 1 January.

Only last week a major EU Bill came before the House and we were asked to make it retrospective. In this case, the amount of money involved would be very small and perhaps the Minister could specify it when summing up. It would be an appropriate gesture to provide the money.

I listened with interest to Deputy Keaveney on cross-Border issues and I will not discuss them in the same detail. I welcome the introduction of cross-Border travel. There are some extraordinary anomalies, however. I live in County Monaghan and we do not have a full-time social welfare office, although there several social welfare offices around the county. As a public representative, I did not realise until today the technicalities of how they are named and recognised.

I learned today that a person looking for a free travel pass in the Monaghan social welfare office on Plantation Road would have to travel to Dundalk. Imagine an old-age pensioner, a disabled person or others having to travel to Dundalk to get a free travel pass. Will the Minister consider such scenarios and use a bit of common sense? He should ensure that people, be they in Cavan, Monaghan or elsewhere, can go to not just one place within their counties but a number of places to get such a service.

Those with ability can tax cars, as well as other things, on-line. Meanwhile, the oldest of our people are forced to present themselves in another county, a distance of 40 miles, 50 miles or 70 miles away depending on where they live, to get a free travel pass. The Minister should use his influence to rectify this situation.

Free travel is a great advantage to those who can use it. In that context, I welcome the initiatives taken by bodies such as the Latton Development Association which runs the BALTI bus service in parts of County Monaghan, as well as other groups elsewhere which collect elderly persons, including those with hospital appointments and so forth. We must be more forward thinking and find ways to determine how people in rural areas can use their bus passes. Several people I know are no longer provided with travel allowances by the Health Service Executive, irrespective of whether they suffer from depression and so on. They must use some of their limited social welfare payments. While the payments may look good to those who have houses and friends with whom they can live, if one lives alone and must pay taxi fares to take care of one's health, social welfare payments can disappear quickly. Will the Minister re-examine the matter and provide a subsidy to cover taxi fares?

Diet supplement was mentioned by other speakers. It is an important matter because people with long-term illnesses need proper diets, but often find themselves paying extra costs such as travel. If they do not have proper diets, the cost to the State will be greater. We must examine this matter seriously. There was a cut-back and, while some relief is provided now, it is of limited benefit.

I support the position on the family as we understand it, namely, the status of marriage and so on, but one cannot ignore the issue of co-habitation and all of the related problems. I bring this matter to the Minister's attention in the light of a couple of tragic cases I have encountered. In one case a partner passed away following a serious illness, but his partner had no legal right because there was no marriage bond. This has major implications for her and her children. In another case a young man who was killed in an accident left behind a partner and five children, but she has no rights. Given the significant number in this category, we cannot ignore the issue. If people have a family together and commitments to each other, we must find a realistic approach.

Recently a number of young people in receipt of dole payments for a few weeks or months contacted me. They are being put under tremendous pressure. I do not disagree with every effort being made to encourage them to find work, but some of the tactics being used are over the top. When people do not have money to put bread on the table, one must ask major questions. For better or worse, there are many eastern European workers in Ireland. I welcome them in the main, but some of the employment opportunities in factories and part-time jobs that used to be available to get young people started are no longer available. Businesses can get people to work longer hours at relatively cheap rates without obeying the rules.

I ask the Minister to be aware of the fact that the young people in question have lives and needs and that they need to be looked after. I say this in the context of the case of an individual with whom I was friendly. It is beyond question that he had a drink problem, but he was forced into a situation where he took his own life. This is not a joke; it is fact. I sat beside his bed with his father, with whom I spoke about the drink issue. A few days beforehand the man concerned visited my office and those of others, but our hands were tied. We must allow a degree of discretion at community welfare officer level to ensure people are not pushed over the top. To that end, I wish to remark on the matter of the transfer of community welfare officers from the HSE to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I will not get stuck on what should be done, as there may be good reasons for the move, but it is causing much anxiety. Will the Minister examine all of the issues involved to ensure a sympathetic attitude? Community welfare officers have provided a significant service and, for many, are the last resort. We want to ensure the regulations governing their new roles offer freedom and common sense because theirs is an important service.

I wish to conclude on the issue of separated people. When canvassing in recent days, I met someone who needed to leave home owing to alcoholism. The support available to alcoholics is a major issue, but the HSE is not prepared to play a significant role. The accommodation in which I saw the person concerned would make the Minister's skin creep. In this day and age, living in a house with water running down the walls and sewage coming up through a lavatory adjacent to a kitchen is unacceptable. During the next five years whoever is in government must ensure sufficient accommodation is available for separated persons. Breaking up is traumatic for families. In most cases men leave home, but sometimes women leave. Leaving what is in many cases a respectable home and finding oneself in the squalor I witnessed is unacceptable in a country that is, according to the Tánaiste, rolling in money and able to throw it away. It must be used to ensure accommodation is available for those without a home and who find themselves in a difficult situation.

In general, I welcome the Bill and the Minister's efforts to improve parts of it. I hope he will take account of the issues raised by me and others in considering where further improvements can be made.


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