Wednesday, 12 December 2007
Social Welfare Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed).
Chris Andrews (Dublin South East, Fianna Fail)
I fully support the changes being introduced by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, in the Social Welfare Bill 2007. The increase of €900 million in next year's social welfare support package will benefit more than 1.5 million people — one third of the population of the State — and will bring total social welfare expenditure to a record €17 billion in 2008. I am proud to live in a country with a Government that places such importance on social welfare and equality. It is a great time to be Irish because the Government is ensuring that the weakest and most vulnerable people in society are protected.
Critics of Fianna Fáil sometimes suggest that it does not prioritise welfare and justice. They argue that it is more interested in economics than in people. Anyone who examines the provisions of budget 2008 will see that the hallmark of this Fianna Fáil-led Government is its willingness to protect the incomes of vulnerable people and support ordinary working people. Approximately 76% of the money allocated under the recent budget will be spent on health, social welfare and education. The provision of public goods in such a manner will be of direct benefit to lower-income families. This budget clearly puts people first. It makes significant improvements in the supports given to pensioners, carers, families, children and people with disabilities, all within the overall framework of the programme for Government, Towards 2016 and the national action plan for social inclusion, which sets out a long-term strategic vision and a road map for the future.
A generous €336 million package is to be put in place to support older people. The contributory pension will increase by €14 per week and the non-contributory pension will increase by €12 per week. Almost 420,000 pensioners will benefit from those pension increases. The increases being made in this Bill represent the first step towards achieving the target, set in the programme for Government, of increasing the old age pension to €300 per week by 2012. As Deputy Brady said, older people deserve to be treated well and with respect and dignity. It is important that we protect the status of older people in society by ensuring they receive decent pensions. A more generous pension system will also ensure a higher standard of living. At a time when loneliness and social exclusion are constant threats, of which we always have to be vigilant, we must continue to ensure that older people receive recognition for what they have already contributed to society.
I support the work of the National Council on Ageing and Older People. I welcome the appointment by the Government of Deputy Hoctor as Minister of State with special responsibility for services for older people. The Minister of State has demonstrated her commitment to working in that role to help older people. There is a vibrant community of active retirement groups in my constituency of Dublin South-East. For example, the Ringsend active retirement group does endless work to build on the supports which are provided by the Government. This Bill will extend the duration of the €18 fuel allowance season by one week, to 30 weeks, which will benefit older people and those who are less mobile or housebound. The extension of the fuel allowance season is welcome at a time when we are experiencing a more unpredictable climate. As the percentage of the population over the age of 65 will increase rapidly over the next two decades, it will be more and more vital to continue to protect older people.
As Deputy Cyprian Brady said, this year's budget recognises the importance of the input of carers, who contribute a great deal to society in a quiet and understated way. They work hard in difficult circumstances without always receiving the recognition they deserve. I am pleased to welcome the increase of up to €14 per week in the rate of payment for all carers. The earnings threshold for carer's benefit will increase by €12.50 per week, to €332.50, which is to be welcomed. Carers are critical for the support of older people, persons with disabilities and those with long-term illnesses. The recent improvements in the carer's schemes mean that 34,000 carers will receive carer's benefit or carer's allowance.
The respite care grant is to be increased to €1,700 from next June. The recognition of carers is a priority for the Government. It can be emotionally and financially difficult to care for someone who needs long-term care. It is vital that carers are given as much support and recognition as possible. Many areas and groups deserve extra financial support. It is not always possible to achieve all our targets immediately. The Government will have to make difficult choices when it prioritises key areas in the medium and long terms. Significant resources will be used to protect the weakest and most vulnerable people in society under the recent budget and this legislation. As an aunt of mine says, a good start is half the work. This Bill represents a good start in implementing a five-year strategy. It will ensure that our recent economic growth is used in a sustainable and socially responsible manner.