Thursday, 1 December 2005
My Department has a pivotal role to play in ensuring that the fruits of our economic growth benefit all, particularly those who are most vulnerable and in need of vital support. I am determined that the resources available to my Department will be targeted at delivering 21st century welfare supports which are characterised by recognition, compassion, activation and service throughout the range of allowances and benefits. I am actively pursuing a new social reform agenda that has at its core the ambition of reaching behind the welfare payments and addressing the social issues involved. My social policy reform agenda includes addressing issues such as child poverty, pensions, lone parents, job seekers and carers.
Child poverty is clearly a complex area requiring coordinated action across a range of services and income support payments. The development of income supports which can make the most effective contribution to alleviating child poverty lies within my Department's responsibilities and a series of budgets have increased considerably in real terms. The National Economic and Social Council has, during 2005, spent considerable time and effort in analysing this area.
The Government has made a number of commitments on pensions and significant progress has already been made. Overall pensions have increased by up to 81% since 1997 against a CPI increase of just under 31% in the same period. Significant increases in qualified adult allowances have also been given in recent years. I am examining the operation of our pension schemes with particular reference to the means test associated with the old age non-contributory pension. My aim is to provide choices to people in how they spend their later years and to ensure that the rules of our welfare schemes do not impinge on the choices people might want to make. I recently received the national pensions review on occupational pensions from the pensions board. This is before the Government and we will publish it shortly.
I intend to bring forward proposals to support and encourage thousands of lone parents in achieving a better standard of living. We are committed to ensuring that the long term unemployed and other welfare recipients have the opportunities they need to return to work. Supporting carers in our society has been a priority of the Government since 1997. The improvements we have made across the board provide the Government with a strong social policy reform agenda.
The Minister makes many statements on what he intends to do. What are his specific proposals on the issues he has just outlined? I know he will not be able to go into them in detail in just two minutes. However, it is important in the year that is left before the election that he set out clear parameters for himself and his Department. What plans does he have to bring in the two tier payment about which he has been talking for some time? What plans does he have to change the cohabitation rules so that single parents are not caught in a trap? He has many announcements on this issue as well. What are his plans for child care? What changes will he make in the qualified adult allowance? If he cannot give a response here, will he consider setting out targets and timetables for these issues in the next few weeks? We have seen many pictures of the Minister on the front pages of the Sunday newspapers, outlining his thoughts for the week, but we have yet to see concrete targeted proposals that are costed and clear.
The last budget began these reforms. We brought in special allowances for carers to recognise their work. We made substantial improvements in child benefit which started the reform process on child poverty. We moved income disregards for pensioners so that they could have much more income before they kicked into a pension. I refute the suggestion that the social agenda I have been laying out has not been pursued. It began in last year's budget and continued in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2005 and in my preparations for next week's budget. I have been guided by these social reform measures.
The NESC provided me with a report on the two tier payment and I am having discussions with colleagues on the progress we can make in up-coming legislation and in up-coming budgets. I have brought a paper on the cohabitation rule to the Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion and I have got broad agreement to make the amendment. I will go back to the Cabinet soon on that issue. I am very keen to replace it with a family friendly allowance. I have been too long in politics to give the Deputy deadlines by which I will have reformed Ireland's social problems. They will be around long after I leave office. What I can do is to lay out clearly my priorities. These include child poverty, pensions, the liberation of lone parents and elderly people on pensions who want to do other things, as well as recognising our carers. In our budgets and Social Welfare Bills, I want to make sure that we give effect to those policy objectives. That is an on-going process and will not be completed in the lifetime of this Dáil.