Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

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


5:00 pm

Photo of Beverley FlynnBeverley Flynn (Mayo, Independent)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The Minister has been receptive to some of the ideas put forward in recent years. He has brought them to bear in this Bill, albeit not to the full extent I would like, which I will mention shortly. Nevertheless, he has been progressive. I welcome the general thrust of the Bill. I recognise this is a generous package, coupled with the announcements in the budget, and that the total expenditure on social welfare this year will be €15.3 billion, which is a huge investment in our community.

The Minister mentioned three specific areas — child poverty, carers and the status of women. The status of women and the changes he made in that respect together with provision for carers are issues on which I have focused in recent years. I spoke to the Minister about a number of provisions I would like introduced in these areas and I am glad he took some of them on board.

I recognise the increase in the qualified adult allowance, which is now 86.5% of the State non-contributory pension rate. While it is welcome, it is a double edged sword in that I am disappointed the objective in the programme for Government that it would be 100% of the non-contributory pension rate has not been achieved. The Minister went on to specify that it will take three more years before this objective is achieved. In the interests of equality, it is discriminatory that this allowance is not 100% of the State non-contributory pension rate. I urge the Minister to move forward on that target of three years and to try to fulfil the objective stated in the programme for Government in 2002.

However, I welcome that for new cases from September direct payments to qualified adults will be made in pension benefits. Section 14 of the Bill provides that direct payment of the increase for a qualified adult is payable with the State pension directly to a qualified adult for the duration of the period of the entitlement of the State pensioner. It also states that this will be applicable to the contributory State pension, the transition State pension and the non-contributory State pension, and that it will come into effect in September.

I welcome this measure but will the qualified adult portion be paid automatically? For those people who prefer the original option of having it paid jointly to the main recipient, is that something one will have to request? Otherwise it will be presumed that the qualified adult portion will be paid directly to the qualified adult. I would like that clarified and for it not to be the case that one must request that the qualified adult portion be paid to the qualified adult. If that is automatic, I welcome that change.

The Minister of State is nodding, indicating that is the case. That is hugely important. If that were not the case, this measure would be of no benefit because the reality is that, unfortunately, some women do not have an income of their own. I feel strongly about that aspect. Every woman in the State is entitled to an income of her own, even if that is by way of as a qualified adult where her husband is the main recipient. Some 95% of qualified adults are women. That is an important improvement and a matter about which I have spoken to the Minister. I am delighted he has taken this on board. It is a major leap forward in social welfare legislation.

I ask that this measure be extended to other areas over and above what is outlined in section 14. Is it possible for it to be extended to invalidity, disability and unemployment benefits? I would welcome the views of the Minister on this issue. This measure is definitely a step in the right direction and recognises the important role women play in society and that their contribution must be recognised.

One of the most dramatic changes in the budget has been the provision for carers. Since 1997, major improvements has been made in this area with the qualifying conditions for the allowance having been eased. The scheme has been extended. The carer's benefit and the respite grant have been introduced, which are welcome. These benefits improve the lot of a substantial number of carers and that must be welcomed.

Up to now a recipient could only receive one social welfare payment. A recipient of another benefit was not eligible for the carer's allowance. I welcome that a recipient can now be means tested and can receive half of the carer's allowance in addition to a social welfare payment. This change greatly benefits a large number of people. The Minister stated: "From September, people in receipt of certain other social welfare payments, who are also providing full-time care and attention to a person, will be able to retain their main welfare payment and receive another payment, subject to their means, up to half the rate of carer's allowance". What are those certain other welfare payments? Are recipients of lone parents, invalidity, disability and old age pension benefits included? It would be helpful if the Minister clarified that point. It is a significant breakthrough.

I also welcome the increase of €300 in the respite grant to €1,500 from June 2007. That has eased the plight of many carers and people who are not entitled to carer's allowance but avail of the respite grant. I know from people who call to my constituency office that it has eased the plight of many carers. It is important as a society that we recognise the great deal of work carers do in our community.

A motion dealing with the elderly in my name is listed on the Order Paper for the past two or three months. It proposes that a full Cabinet Minister be appointed to deal specifically with the elderly, given the large number of issues surrounding our elderly population and the fact that we have an ageing population. Despite the significant increases in pension benefit in the budget and in recent years, prior to the budget increases, the pension benefit was 34% of the average industrial wage. That has now increased but, compared to other OECD countries, we are way below the pension benefit paid as a percentage of an industrial wage. While we can clap ourselves on the back for the huge advances that have been made in recent years, the reality is that the cost of living is a significant issue, particularly for elderly people.

I have attended many public meetings organised by Age Action Ireland, community groups and elderly groups and cost of living expenses is the number one issue that has been raised. It is difficult for an older person today to complain about not being able to afford to live. This issue was raised by people in my town who do not have their own means of transport. They could not afford to get a taxi to the local supermarket, as the return journey would cost €20. Making that trip three times a week would cost €60, which would not leave a person in receipt of the State pension much money to spend on himself or herself. It is not trendy and certainly not cool in the affluent society we live in today to complain about the cost of living and poverty, but it is a real issue for those people. I ask that it be borne in mind and that perhaps even further advances in increasing the State pension could be made as that would be a more realistic way to address this issue.

I ask the Minister to bear in mind a proposal that the fuel allowance be paid all year round and index linked to fuel inflation. This is one of the issues raised by the elderly. If we do not listen to the issues they tell us are important to them, we are not in touch with reality.

I wish to deal with an issue mentioned by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl that I strongly support. We must find a way to recognise the years of service given by older women in the community to home duties. This should be taken into account in calculating pension entitlements. This might be a little radical, but we must find a mechanism. The Minister believes the qualified adult payment recognises that women are entitled to an income of their own. However, this is for a finite number of women. Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has mentioned that the marriage ban excluded many women from employment. We need to do something radical for a finite number of women to make sure they will have a decent pension of their own, in recognition of the child-rearing work they have done during the years.


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