Wednesday, 12 December 2007
Social Welfare Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed).
Leo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
I would like to make a few points on the Social Welfare Bill 2007. Like all other parties, Fine Gael will not oppose social welfare increases. It is reasonable to acknowledge that the increases sanctioned by the Government in recent years, particularly in the pensions sector, have certainly kept pace with inflation and have probably kept pace with wage growth. However, rather than tackling the opportunity presented by this Bill to bring about real reform, the Government has chosen the soft option of more of the same, just as it did in the budget. In previous years, social welfare legislation was used to make real changes — I refer to the introduction of the early child care supplement, for example — but there are no innovations in this Bill. It provides for the same old system, with a couple of euro more in certain areas.
Some aspects of our welfare system need to be reformed, obviously. The social welfare budget now stands at €17 billion, which is a huge amount of money. It is becoming increasingly financially unsustainable, outmoded and, in some cases, socially regressive. I consider the family income supplement scheme, which works very well, to be an exception in that regard. Not everyone who should claim the supplement does so, unfortunately. That our welfare system is becoming financially unsustainable is clear when one considers that 49% of this year's increase in the Government's current spending will be accounted for by social welfare. Such a considerable share of the increase in current spending will not be sustainable in the long term, when we will need to find resources for education, justice and health, etc. The social welfare system accounts for one third of our current expenditure at a time when we have virtually full employment and a relatively young population. Serious issues will have to be considered as we move away from full employment and the population gets older. Will we be able to keep the system as it is, with 40% or 50% of current expenditure in this area?
When one compares our welfare system to the social welfare models which exist in places like Israel, Singapore and the Nordic countries, it is clear that it is becoming outmoded. The systems we use are old-fashioned and socially regressive, with exceptions like the family income supplement scheme. Our social welfare system condemns many people to a life of welfare dependence and poverty. The Government and the social partners are happy to give people in certain groups €210 per week and to forget about them after that. We should not tolerate such an approach to welfare. It is about time we had a grown-up and reasoned debate on this matter. I hope the Deputies opposite are willing to have such a debate about the crying need for real welfare reform. That debate was initiated to an extent when the Green Paper on Pensions was published. However, I have little confidence that we will see any real pension reform during the lifetime of this Government.
We need to pay particular attention to the needs of jobseekers and those on unemployment allowance. We have a hard core of long-term unemployed people. No effort seems to be made to address who they are, the reason they are long-term unemployed and what is to be done about it. I make a comparison with many of the Nordic countries which have a much higher percentage of labour force participation than Ireland. It is not only because they have more women in the workforce but also they do not wash their hands of the long-term unemployed but rather do something about them. This is an area where we in Ireland are doing very little.
FÁS needs to be radically reformed. Most of its budget is currently expended on community employment schemes which are essentially a form of sheltered employment. We should accept them as such and call them what they are and fund them in that way. FÁS should be moved towards supplying more valid training so that it becomes an organisation that brings people from unemployment into work and from welfare into work which it does not do now, even though it costs €800 million.
The area of disability benefit should be examined. I do not think anyone would argue that the Irish race is less healthy than any other race yet we have a very high proportion of people on disability benefits and the reason for this must be questioned. I refer to Denmark where rather than condemning people on disability benefits to a life of relative poverty, they train them for jobs for which they are fit and help them to enter the economy and become workers in their own right. This is not the practice in Ireland. We decide that people are disabled and they are given €200 a week for the rest of their lives and they are forgotten about. This is the wrong attitude.
Benefits for one-parent families need to be examined. I note that 32,000 one-parent families do not have any children under seven years. Whereas the one-parent family benefit is very justifiable where there are young children, there are questions to be asked when they are aged eight, nine, 13 and 16 years old. I respect the fact that in 60% of one-parent families the single parent is in the workforce. A lot more could be done to support women participating part-time in the workforce by offering child care assistance and so on.
On another day I might talk about sick pay issues and long-term sick pay which again in Ireland is really out of control. I hope we will follow the Dutch model in that regard. Another time I will talk about the Singaporean personal pension and provident fund which should be emulated by Ireland in terms of welfare reform. I will also speak at another time about the large-scale social welfare fraud being committed by a small number of foreign nationals in particular. That is a bigger debate for another day and it should be discussed at some stage.