Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

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


5:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute, albeit briefly, on this wide-ranging Bill which will provide for the implementation of improvements in social welfare payments announced in budget 2007 and introduce the excellent proposal in respect of a special rate of carer's allowance to be paid to those in receipt of other social welfare payments. It is a ground-breaking initiative taken by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and will be of great assistance to many carers.

Included in the Bill are a number of positive changes to the social welfare system which I will touch on later. The package of measures introduced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, however, in the December budget, including the large increase in the State pension already agreed by this House, taken together with the provisions of this Bill, demonstrate the Government's strong commitment to the less well off in society. I welcome very much the measure introduced in the child benefit scheme allowing greater flexibility in payment arrangements by removing the presumption that a qualifying child should reside only with one parent. In modern society it is a common occurrence that children live with each parent at different times.

The increased rates of child benefit over a number of budgets coupled with the radical move in the 2006 budget to introduce the special payment of €1,000 for children under six, has meant families have been given real and substantial support in caring for their children. Among the changes proposed in this Bill is a provision which will help those in receipt of illness benefit who return to work. Should such a person find he or she is unable to continue, the Bill will now allow for him or her to re-apply for a restoration of benefit without the requirement of serving waiting days. This is a very welcome benefit as many people who have suffered from long-term illness may be apprehensive about returning to work lest they be penalised for doing so if they are unable to continue. This measure will see a net benefit to the Exchequer in the long-run, following its implementation.

A number of welcome technical changes are proposed in the areas of maternity and adoptive benefit, invalidity pension and job seekers' allowance among others. Possibly the most important change contained in the Bill, however, refers to the introduction of a new means-tested payment of up to half the carer's allowance rate, which will be payable to carers who may simultaneously be in receipt of another social welfare payment. It will be a great boost to the many carers for whom this change will have a positive effect. The work carried out by so many people in our society in caring for loved ones had been largely unnoticed and unrewarded until the carer's allowance was introduced by Fianna Fáil in Government. This measure, along with a number of other initiatives introduced by this Minister, gives real and substantial recognition, at last, to their vital role in society. Without the selfless sacrifices made by carers the State would, in every respect, have to fill this very large void at enormous cost to the taxpayer. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on this crucial initiative. In this regard I want to refer to comments by Deputy Cuffe earlier when he talked about the Government perhaps having a grudging attitude to the poor, the less well off and those in need of support. This Government has demonstrated considerable conviction, determination and focus in its work to combat marginalisation and disadvantage and no one more than the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, who has been enormously effective since taking over this brief.

The change being introduced in respect of supplementary rent allowance was referred to by Deputy Catherine Murphy. This is another very positive measure in the Bill. Over the years, we as working public representatives have been constantly aware of poverty traps and disincentives built into the system. This alteration in the Bill will go some way towards removing one of those poverty traps by allowing a person to retain rent supplement on taking up full time employment. In many instances people have been forced to remain on social welfare rather than take up an offer of employment for fear of losing rent supplement. I very much welcome the Minister's initiative in this regard.

The extension of the household budgeting scheme to include telecommunications services is another positive measure in the Bill. The household budgeting scheme has played an enormous role in preventing social welfare recipients from incurring rent arrears and this extension of the scheme will be of great benefit. The Minister has seen fit to introduce a number of amendments to the Pensions Act 1990. I welcome, in particular, the proposal to bring the trust retirement annuity contracts under the remit of the provisions of the Pensions Act.

There is no doubt the Government has put enormous resources into the welfare and pensions sector over the last ten years, and rightly so. One only has to compare the rates applicable now to those in receipt of State pensions, child benefit, carer's allowance and all those others dependent in part or wholly on the social welfare system to those that were in place in 1997 to get a picture of the radical changes and real improvements in all of these areas. This only tells part of the story, however, as all across the system new and imaginative schemes and payments have been introduced, with more included in this Bill. Others, such as the improved carer's packages and enhanced carer's and child benefit payments were included in earlier budget packages. Taken in the round, this Minister and his predecessors have much to be proud of in terms of their achievements.

I am therefore very pleased to note the Government's commitment to enhanced social inclusion in the National Development Plan 2007-2013. The emphasis in the plan is targeted at encouragement and support for those on social welfare in making that vital transition from welfare payments to active participation in the workforce. The social inclusion chapter of the national development plan contains funding of almost €50 billion earmarked for tackling the outstanding areas of poverty through targeted action and early intervention. This enormous investment is based on the approach agreed with the social partners in Towards 2016 and will be co-ordinated in a ten-year national action plan for social inclusion. I am convinced the approach will see an overall integrated and targeted approach, which I welcome. The aim of the plan is to create an environment where those currently in receipt of social welfare payments will be encouraged, supported and assisted in every way towards seeking employment. It is intended that 20% of those on long-term welfare payments will move to employment during the lifetime of the plan. This ambitious plan will, hopefully, bear fruit and go on to enhance the lives of the many currently dependent on State welfare payments.

The best way out of poverty is to get a job. As well as the positive impact such a step has on a person's quality of life and social wellbeing, it brings real benefits to the family and to the community at large. The national development plan will also see enormous investment in the back to work programme, the main element of which is the allowance scheme that encourages the long-term unemployed to take up work opportunities by allowing them to retain a reducing proportion of their social welfare payment plus secondary benefits over three or four years. This scheme has been highly successful in getting people back into the workforce and I welcome the enormous investment pledged under the national development plan to continue this excellent initiative. It is an indication of the ongoing commitment that is reflected into today's social welfare Bill.

Some €590 million is committed to the back to education allowance, designed to help people in receipt of social welfare to enhance their employment prospects by improving their education and qualifications. Again, this programme has proven very successful in lifting many welfare recipients and their families out of poverty and I welcome the Government's continued commitment in this area. I am sure there is not a Member of the House who is not conscious of the work being done in all our constituencies, in particular by vocational educational committees through their Youthreach and VTOS programmes and indeed by FÁS in many other locations, where it is actively involved in reaching out to long-term unemployed people who are marginalised in local communities, giving them the prospect and dignity of work.

As a result of the policies pursued by this Government, 250,000 people have already been lifted out of poverty, including 100,000 children. However, despite this success the challenge remains to make the extra push that will finally end the scourge of poverty and social exclusion once and for all. The national development plan has placed the objective of tacking poverty and social exclusion among its primary aims. This commitment from Government through the national development plan, working with the social partners under the provisions of Towards 2016 has ensured a wide-ranging and targeted programme, without doubt the strongest ever assembled, to fully confront and tackle the remaining poverty and social exclusion that exist in society.

The national development plan will focus large resources also on the provision of programmes and services for people with disabilities, while €12.6 billion is earmarked for enhanced child care provisions, with a further €9.7 billion set aside for programmes supporting older people. This massive investment is well justified and badly needed and I have no doubt the drive and commitment shown by the Minister to date in this area will be transferred into ensuring the plan is implemented in full.

I want to refer to two areas, to which some Members alluded, with which the Minister might deal when replying. There is widespread interest and concern about the plight of the declining number of women who had to give up employment due to the marriage bar. As a society we need to do something positive by way of providing pensions for women in that category.

I welcome the provisions for free travel and acknowledge the work done over many years to provide a free travel facility for people. However, I wish to highlight the need for a greater degree of flexibility in applying the criteria for the granting of a companion travel pass. Many people would have been able to avail of free travel had they been granted a companion pass. I urge the Minister to consider that suggestion. I commend the Bill to the House.


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