Wednesday, 21 March 2007
Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007: Report and Final Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the implications of abolishing the means test for carer's allowance.".
I will not delay on this because I have harrowed this ground often. The Minister, the public and the 150,000 carers involved in looking after people in their homes know where the Labour Party stands and that its stance is unambiguous and unequivocal. We believe in the people who provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. We acknowledge the work the Minister has done and the fact that the respite care grant has been increased. The Minister has taken on board some of the key recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, including the half-payment now, which broke the barrier or obstacle in the Department whereby a person could not get a second social welfare payment. This provision was strongly advocated by the committee, which did not depend on consultants or flashy photograph opportunities to achieve its objectives.
The committee's hard work was done in the bunker and was not covered by the media which lacks interest in the issue. We were interested as we believe our job is to articulate and advocate the needs of this group. We did that well. The Labour Party believes that abolition of the means test is the next step and over the lifetime of any government in which it will participate it will insist on this as a fundamental policy. Our leader made that one of his five priorities at our party conference. As far as we are concerned we have a contract with the Irish people to abolish the means test for carers who provide a few hours excellent work every day and save the State at least €2 billion a year. It is not a total loss because a means test is administratively expensive, bureaucratic and discretionary. What may be assessed as means for one person may not be means in the eyes of another.
This provision would obviate the need for a means test. We hold this principle dear. On a cost benefit analysis it would be positive. The State wants to get value for money although this Government is not good at that. These people do not have contracts and do not receive holiday pay. That is why we insist on this as a small recognition of their work. Carers have clamoured for and asked us to fight for this on their behalf. It is the way forward.
The Minister may not be in a position to accept the amendment because it involves €140 million but we put it down to ensure it remains at the top of the political agenda where the Labour Party has placed it from the start. As spokesman on social policy I am proud of the party's stand on this.
Some people do not believe that the principle should apply universally but those who are well off will not apply for carer's allowance. They have the financial resources and back-up to disregard the payment. It is probably only buttons to them. For others it is important because it enables them to purchase additional respite care which gives them a few hours off. Often the health of the carer can become worse than that of the person cared for. They get worn down providing the necessary loving and tender care within their homes. All the studies in this area show that one is better off in one's home environment. This provision would help to ensure that people will be able to keep their loved ones at home. It is a worthy objective which the State should achieve because carers save it a great deal of money.
In support of Deputy Penrose it is important that we review this area as soon as possible. The Minister speaks of having a limited amount of money but we believe this needs to be addressed urgently. Every week 150,000 carers work 3.5 million hours and each year they contribute over €2.1 billion to the State. Fewer than one in six carers qualify for carer's allowance. I commend the Carers Association for providing a loud and strong voice for the tens of thousands of full-time and many part-time carers, which has moved the issue up on the political agenda.
Last week I received a telephone call from a distraught family whose mother was caring for her husband who has Alzheimer's disease. The mother had a heart attack and the family have no doubt that the stress she experienced contributed to this. They wonder what will happen their father and who can look after him. It is difficult for them too because their mother will take months or more to recover from her heart attack and may not be able to care for herself, let alone her loved one.
Carers must be recognised and valued for the work they do, from a human point of view. Behind each carer is a story about the difficulties he or she encounters. I know the Minister will say he will consider this sympathetically but unfortunately that is no use to the families in this situation. We need to keep our eye on this issue. I cannot understand why, in an economy that is so successful and has so much money, we cannot address this issue or give more support to carers. The amendment is simple and the means test for the carer's allowance needs to be abolished. I hope this or some other Minister will review this issue in a few months because it needs to be highlighted and requires a political response. I hope the Minister will support this amendment.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 17 which goes 98% of the way to matching the Labour Party amendment which calls for the complete abolition of the means test. One can see the logic in that because the means test costs a certain amount to administer, involving staff, time and effort. While a carers' strategy is being brought forward, it is a shame this was not done and completed within the lifetime of this Dáil. I hope the strategy will involve the idea that people are best cared for in their own homes, for as long as possible. Everyone in the House agrees that people are happier in their home environment.
I do not know whether the Minister is aware that the Danes stopped building nursing homes in 1997. Most people in Denmark die at home because the home supports and care are so good. We need a paradigm shift in our view of carers which has developed in an ad hoc way. That is why I welcome the idea of a carers' strategy. One could regard it as a green paper on carers because this is such an important area.
I acknowledge what the Minister and the Department have done for carers in recent years, increasing the thresholds and the amount of money, and introducing the respite care grant and so on. There is a further step required, however, to ask what the carer's allowance is for. The Minister will say that it is not a payment but a support. It encourages carers and we need to encourage more people to become carers. We need to focus on carers to ensure they have pensions, get training, recognition and certification and that they are cared for too. Most important, we need to ensure there is an adequate number of carers. I worry that, because the means test takes into account the income of one's spouse or partner, thereby disqualifying one from the benefit, many might not bother to become carers in the view that they will get no support or recognition. If we can encourage more individuals to become carers, the benefits that will accrue to those receiving care will be enormous. Less important, but important nevertheless, the cost to the State will be reduced dramatically. Nursing home charges can vary from €800 to €1,000 per week in some instance whereas carers can do the same work for a fraction of this amount.
This matter needs to be examined. The Minister intends to rattle off points he has made previously and he might spare us from hearing them again. He will talk about the carers' strategy, which we acknowledge is on the way——
——and he will say he has an open mind. That is fair enough but we need a bit more. We would like to see the strategy published so we can debate it. It is disappointing that has not happened.
I acknowledge all the work the Minister has done. When he came into office he co-operated with us when we were fighting the 16 savage cut-backs and he rolled most of them back. He made advances but there was so much money in the coffers in any case that it would have been hard not to do so. However, we need further advances and to stress the importance of the role of the carer, and that is why we have tabled these amendments. We may need to do even more than we are doing. Perhaps it is not enough to support carers and take it for granted that they will be available to do their work in the view that it is their obligation. Perhaps we should also consider the role of the carer in a more professional manner. I rest my case.
I agree it is timely to consider fundamentally the role of the carer, and the strategy will provide this opportunity. Preliminary work has been commenced thereon and we hope to have a gathering of carers in the coming weeks to kick off the strategy and commence the process. The strategy presents an opportunity to consider the role of carers, who are valuable and valued in society. All sides of the House have made it clear consistently that they value them. The strategy will be developed in the course of this year and there will be full consultations with the social partners and others in its preparation.
I suspect I will not have the opportunity to debate carers again in the immediate future and I will therefore proceed at the risk of repeating myself. I have an open mind on the means test, as I have made clear. The benefit incurs a cost of €140 million at present. I am impressed by Deputy Penrose's constant campaign in this regard. He, Deputy Stanton and others made some progress when we introduced the half-rate carer's allowance. I have no doubt that, in the fullness of time, the campaign to remove the means test will be fruitful. It is only a matter of timing and no great principle is at stake once one redefines the carer's allowance as not constituting an income support. Once one considers a carer as an individual doing a job that the State would have to do otherwise, thus keeping people in their own homes, one will realise carers' work should be supported for its own sake as opposed to considering the income of the carer.
The system is being developed according to these considerations. I recall the Minister for Health and Children saying it costs four times as much to keep somebody in a residential institution than to keep him in his own home. If one does the sums in this regard, one will find that removing the means test would prove cheap. As with everything else, developments must proceed at their own pace.
The carer's allowance was originally €70 and now amounts to well over €200. We then added courses and the free travel pass, which was extended to all recipients a year later. We extended eligibility for the telephone allowance and a year later the residence requirements were relaxed. A year thereafter, the back to education allowance was extended to all carers whose caring responsibilities had ceased. A few months later, the electricity, gas and free television allowance was extended to those in receipt of carer's allowance and carers of people in receipt of prescribed relative or constant attendant allowances.
When the carer's benefit was introduced in 2001, the relevant duration was increased from 15 months to 24 months. The rate of payment of this benefit increased to €200, with effect from 2007. The respite care grant has increased very substantially over a couple of years. It was extended to all carers, irrespective of their means. The definition of "full-time care and attention" was relaxed five to seven years ago and was then extended to include care of up to 15 hours per week. The half-rate payment was permitted this year.
In the budget for this year, an extra €107 million was allocated for a special carer's package. There has been steady, solid and good progress in recognising carers. However, given the emphasis on ageing and its management, and the strategies and policies concerning long-term care, the time has come to re-examine the role of the carer, as Deputy Stanton has advocated. The carers strategy should constitute the framework in which this can be achieved. We should seek to make some important decisions in the context of that strategy.
One can see how progress has been made over the years and the strategy will allow us to consider the role of the carer afresh and determine how the carer can best be supported in keeping recipients of care in their own homes, thereby keeping the pressure off the system. Policy in general has moved, or is moving, in this direction, despite the fact that some would not see it that way.
I agree it is time to redefine the role of the carer. The importance of carers is self-evident. The contribution the redefinition of the role of the carer will make to relieving pressure on nursing homes and reducing costs will certainly be significant. The Minister has had abundant resources and is in a position to do something genuine for carers, who deserve anything they can get, and more. He has certainly recognised carers in some of his proposals and that is why I will withdraw my amendment.
On amendment No. 17, why is the Minister proceeding with the major meeting on carers in the coming weeks when we are so close to an election? Would he not be better to wait until after the election? The last thing we want to do is raise people's hopes. We all agree that the meeting is needed and is a good idea, but I wonder about the timing. We do not want to accuse the Minister of cynically using carers for electioneering purposes. There is consensus in the House on what needs to be done and I hope whoever is in power after the election can pick up the ball and run with it in the same direction.
On home care packages and caring in general, it has been brought to my attention that carers often find it very hard to obtain the supports they need. This may not be the Minister's direct area of responsibility as it pertains more to the Minister for Health and Children. If a carer needs help, it should come quickly. The system should ask the carer what it can do to help, it should not try to stop any assistance.
In fairness, the Minister's Department does that, with officials asking how they can help. The mindset of officialdom must reflect this outlook, where we see what we can do to assist the carer. I welcome the Minister's comments on redefining the role of the carer, paying for the work that is being done, meaning the spouse's earnings are not taken into account, which encourages people to perform a caring role.
Training and certification will also lead to professional carers performing this vital function while saving the State money in the long term and helping people to stay in their own homes. Older people and those with a disability who can stay among their own things are happier and live longer.
The Minister mentioned the carers' strategy being ready for the end of 2007. Perhaps as part of the discussion, a report could be published within the three month period, unless the Minister is totally opposed to the idea. The overall strategy covers comprehensive services and supports for family carers, enhancing and supporting carers' health and well-being, education and training for carers. Would a report on the implication of the abolition of the means test, as requested in amendment No. 1, be possible in the three months, even though there will be an election before then?
Work has commenced on the strategy and will go on at official level while the election campaign is going on. I will consider Deputy Stanton's point about the advisability of continuing with meetings in an election atmosphere. I do not want to do that and it is not my intention. We decided on this months ago but in view of the fact that it was mentioned in the House, I will consider it and see what the best thing is to do. The general point about being proactive and assisting carers instead of being bureaucratic is well made.
The amendment asking for a report is a technical request given the nature of the Bill. Deputy Crowe will agree that not many other subjects are discussed as regularly in the House as carers. No Minister would have any difficulty with presenting a report to the House on carers. I assure him that the work will go on and there will be plenty of opportunities to report to the House as the strategy develops and I look forward to the strategy being worked on, with a fundamental look at where carers will go in the 21st century and their role. We are making positive decisions from our examination of the area.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister shall, within 6 months from after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on increasing the living alone allowance.".
Deputy Crowe is asking for another report within three months. The election will put that to bed but we are tabling the amendment as a parliamentary device to ensure the topic is discussed properly on Report Stage.
It costs more to live alone because of economies of scale. There have been substantial increases in costs in the past 12 to 15 months, particularly in the fuel area, and fuel poverty is endemic in Ireland. People who live alone must buy everything, there is no sharing and, therefore, the process costs more. For those in isolated rural areas, transport, electricity or heating are all additional costs. The living alone allowance, however, has not been increased for many years.
The Minister will say there was a policy choice to increase the basic rate of pension and there was not the necessary wherewithal to deal with this payment. It is an important issue, it is like the child dependent allowance that has not been increased in more than a decade. We were reminded why it was not touched, with the Minister making a strong case. It is hard, however, to justify why the living alone allowance has not been increased.
The allowance was brought in for a specific purpose and recognised the circumstances of people living alone. Many things must be purchased and the overall household bill is increased for a person living alone as opposed to two people sharing. That stands up to financial scrutiny. I doubt we will make progress but we want to put the issue before the Dáil so that those living alone are not forgotten and we can send out a message that where resources permit, we will ensure they will be recognised in a forthcoming budget. They have not been remembered in some time.
I agree with Deputy Penrose, it is more costly to live alone and the living alone allowance has not been increased since 1996. We all know prices have increased in the meantime, with the prices of food, fuel, electricity, heating, clothes, shoes, transport and accommodation seeing massive increases while the allowance has remained the same.
The allowance was established because it was recognised that it cost extra to live alone. A person on his or her own uses the same electricity cooking for himself or herself as a person cooking for two people. There are all those added costs but for whatever reason it has not been adjusted. I reiterate what I said about the success of the economy. Who is that economy for if it is not for people who are in need and those who are suffering in this wealthy society? The living alone allowance makes a huge difference, particularly to the elderly and people living in isolation. There is little difference between the three months and the six months proposed by Deputy Penrose and me but it is an issue that must be addressed.
Will the Minister tell us when replying the number of people currently in receipt of the living alone allowance? The Minister said on Committee Stage that he was not increasing the allowance because it would discourage people — he can correct me if I am wrong — from moving in with families if they needed to do that because they would lose it. Will he clarify if that is his sole reason for not increasing it? I acknowledge State pensions have been increased but as my colleagues said earlier, it costs more to live alone.
There is a need to consider the needs of older people living alone. Older men in particular appear to find it more difficult to get accommodation on their own. Often they do not need a great deal other than a flat or a small house with two bedrooms. In that regard, local authorities should bear in mind the needs of older people living on their own, especially if they request a transfer from one type of accommodation to another. The living alone allowance can help with their additional costs because proportionately it costs more to live alone than to live with someone else. Two people can live cheaper than one person. The other side of the social welfare code is the limitation rule. In one respect the Minister is limiting what he is giving people but in the other he will not increase the allowance because he wants to encourage people to live with others. There is a contradiction in that regard.
The living alone allowance is a small amount but it gives people a bit of a lift. It is amazing the number of people who value it when they get it. We must also remember that someone living on their own might be bereaved and quite lonely having lost a spouse. The living alone allowance recognises the fact that they are now on their own and may be lonely. It is a small amount but it is amazing how people value it. The fact that it has not been increased in the past few years is having an impact and should be examined.
The Deputy has paraphrased my views on this issue. The reality is that the allowance has not been changed since 1996, which means that successive Ministers took a social policy view of this matter. It is not a matter of money but trying to develop a social policy that permits people to move in directions in which they would wish to move and not fall into any traps in the system that prevent them from doing that. The allowance is only €7.70 per week. The number of people in receipt of it is 151,000. We have endeavoured to substantially increase the pension over the years to ensure they get direct income, irrespective of their living arrangements. We also doubled the fuel allowance from €9 to €18 per week over a two year period. This year I virtually doubled the income threshold for eligibility for the fuel allowance from €51 to €100. I would argue that the money they would have got from increases in the living alone allowance has been made available to them directly through the pension and energy improvements.
The main downside to having a substantial allowance is that if older people needed to have somebody living with them they would face losing their living alone allowance because they would not be living alone. They may need that person living in the house. Successive Ministers have taken a social policy view and the Deputies will be aware — I am like a long-playing record on this issue — that for nearly three years I have been consistent in claiming that whatever changes we make must have a social policy objective to them. They must seek to help people move to better places, give them better choices, remove the sharp drops in the system and put in slopes rather than cliffs, so to speak. This is one of those areas where we might not necessarily be helping people were we to dramatically increase the allowance and continue to increase it, and where not to live alone becomes a financial disincentive. Those arguments were accepted by predecessors of mine. For better or worse I accepted them and I predict that future Ministers will take a social policy view of this issue and seek to ensure the income of the person, whether they live alone or with others, is decent and increasing and that is what we have tried to do with pensions.
I accept the Minister's point that it is a social policy area but our job is to ensure we alert people to the issue. We believe we have done that and ventilated the views as best we can. In light of what the Minister said I will withdraw the amendment.
The living alone allowance is only one aspect in terms of what could be lost if somebody moved in with someone living alone. For example, they could lose their entitlement to local authority waiver schemes and some of the free schemes. The Minister is taking the social policy view but it is a wider issue than the payment that is made. I am not convinced it is a solid argument when we consider what could be lost, nor am I convinced that increasing the allowance would be a disincentive to having somebody live with the person living alone. The waiver and other free schemes are probably a greater disincentive if the Minister is making that argument. I am not arguing that people should not have those payments or be entitled to a waiver but the Minister's argument does not stand up.
I take the Deputy's point but I have to start somewhere in dealing with the living alone allowance, and we took a view on that. I take Deputy Stanton's point in particular. We have a responsibility to help people who find themselves living alone and to devise and amend our systems to ensure they get whatever extra support is possible without it becoming a disincentive. That is the way we are trying to design the system.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
1. The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the exclusion of social welfare recipients from eligibility for rent supplement in areas designated for urban regeneration.
We discussed this provision on Second Stage. Deputy Shortall, who represents the Ballymun area, made a substantial contribution on Committee Stage and gave the benefit of her experience of its operation and the work being done. The Minister is trying to introduce into legislation a change to something that is apparently working but fell foul of the Attorney General's advice. Deputy Shortall requested the Minister to introduce a Report Stage amendment to restore the original flexibility. The provision has brought adverse comment from a significant body of people. Some people see it as a form of social engineering. The Minister has now provided that people moving from social welfare to employment may avail of a reduced rate of rent supplement. However, for the most part this provision will affect social welfare recipients whose eligibility will be removed as they live in areas designated for urban regeneration, mainly in Ballymun, but it may also include some areas in Cork.
The Minister's argument is that those areas have already received substantial tax designation leading to their regeneration and that therefore some people availing of rent supplement, which now amounts to €400 million annually, would be gaining on the double. However, people should be entitled to live where they want to live. Some people would like to improve themselves and move into those areas. It is important that they have the opportunity to do so. While the Minister has made a strong argument, I have deep concerns over the matter. What would happen to somebody living outside the area with a brother or other family member living in the area subject to urban regeneration? Why can they not live in the area? Very often family members like to live near each other. Having members of families, particularly from large families, living in close proximity allows them to help each other out and is beneficial in addressing the various costs they must incur. I would not like this provision to become embedded in legislation. I understand various groups have contacted the Minister in this regard and in the past 48 hours I was contacted by a person in Cork who was deeply disturbed by this trend and hoped it would not be a harbinger of further legislative moves to impose a form of class or social engineering, to which we would not subscribe.
I know that Deputy Shortall asked the Minister to introduce an amendment to allow flexibility in certain situations that might arise. She backed up what she said with comprehensive detail. However, the Minister appears to have no proposals for dealing with the matter. I ask him to withdraw the provision until he has had an opportunity to reconsider it. I understand the provision may have originated in another Department and the Minister inserted it to give it a legislative basis. Be that as it may, it causes us considerable concern and should be revisited.
There are two issues involved in these amendments and I am unclear as to why they are being taken together. Deputy Penrose has comprehensively addressed the first issue, regarding, if one likes, a form of social engineering. The Deputy outlined the matter well. As I understand it those in receipt of rent supplement will be barred from living in areas designated for urban regeneration. Why did the Minister decide to pick on people in receipt of rent supplement? It will preclude in law existing welfare-dependent families and individuals in areas designated for urban regeneration from claiming rent supplement. What is so special about areas of regeneration that those in receipt of rent supplement cannot live there? The provision would allow a legal basis to refuse rent supplement to new applicants in designated areas of regeneration and provides a basis to discriminate between categories of people who may require assistance towards the cost of their rent. I wonder whether the provision is even constitutional. Perhaps Deputy Penrose, wearing his other hat, might advise us in that regard. It appears highly discriminatory and would mean that a person in a designated area of regeneration who is already dependent on social welfare and wishes to apply for rent supplement would be denied assistance while a person who is working and becomes unemployed may receive rent supplement to live in the same area. It does not make sense.
We all agree that social integration is a positive objective. What is proposed here would serve to deprive the most vulnerable in our society from essential income support and the right to chose to live in certain areas. If the section is enacted a person who needs support with rental costs will be required first to find affordable accommodation and will then need to obtain a map of the areas of regeneration from which they are excluded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. If they want to live in such areas they will be unable to apply for rent supplement, which is bizarre.
On the second issue addressed in this group of amendments, amendment No. 23 proposes in page 23, to delete line 52. This would amend the principal Act as indicated in Schedule 1. Essentially it would delete Schedule 1. That highly controversial schedule provides for the transfer of the community welfare service from the HSE to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I know the Minister will argue that this has been proposed by many groups for some time. However, the people who are central to this issue, the community welfare officers, have not been adequately consulted. They provide a very personal service that has developed over time. I am sure that the Minister will claim that nothing will change following the move. However, why does it need to be rushed?
I accept the Minister is good at having what he calls big meetings and talking with people. Why would he not sit down with the community welfare officers and the superintendents of the service, thrash out the requirements with them, reach an agreement and then proceed with the change? The Minister is proposing to introduce this so-called enabling legislation, and then to sit down and talk with them. If those discussions identify a problem and a change is required, we would need to return here to change primary legislation. It would be far more sensible to hold the meetings first, reach an agreement and then if it is to happen introduce the legislation. The community welfare officers are quite worried about the matter and feel very strongly about not having been consulted. There are approximately 1,000 people working there and 100,000 or more are in receipt of supplementary welfare allowance. Perhaps the Minister would clarify that figure. Those using the service provided directly by the HSE, including domiciliary care allowance, are affected. The Government's justification for transferring the functions involved in an organisational arrangement allowing the HSE to focus on co-responsibilities may be right but why rush it now? Why not consult, reach agreement and then do it? We would all be happy moving forward together. Often those who are or should be helped by community welfare officers are under considerable pressure and the assistance they receive is a safety net. There is a concern that this issue might change. It may be that the whole service needs to be looked at and there may be areas that require to be changed. There may be other functions that community welfare officers should perform. There is no need to do this right now and the issue has raised concerns among the excellent community welfare officers around the country.
Welfare officers often build important relationships with welfare recipients. It is crucial to acknowledge, as I said on Committee Stage, that this issue is not just a question of money. They offer personal support by listening. They are more like councillors or advocates in some areas. They go to the client rather than the other way round. They link in with other services in the health sector such as the psychiatric, psychological, public health nurse services and fear that link could be broken if responsibility is transferred from the HSE to the Department and that the officers will become mere financial administrators. Their role is much greater than this and community welfare officers believe the proposed move reflects a lack of understanding of the type of service they offer. They believe a transfer would have a profound adverse affect on the service and would ultimately undermine the quality and range of services they provide to the detriment of some of the most vulnerable citizens.
The first time their union was given an opportunity to debate this matter was last June in the committee. There has been no public debate on the issue and community welfare officers have not been properly consulted by Departments to date. The officers fear the Department will not continue to resource the functions for which it is not ultimately responsible. They believe their ability to make discretionary payments will be undermined. We should enhance their power to make such payments.
We have all come across cases where this is useful. Many Deputies must telephone the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to obtain help for constituents because there is no other body that can help. Community welfare officers should fulfil this role to a greater extent. Their role is important and has developed over the years. They are worried and have asked us to bring their concerns to the floor of the House. We have done that on Committee Stage and again today on Report Stage. I ask the Minister to put this issue on the back burner until he has debated it with the people on the ground. It may well be that they will agree to move forward but I do not understand why this has not happened to date.
My amendment seeks to delete the section and my view is shared by Deputy Penrose. It is clear the section comes from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It goes against the view articulated previously by the Minister and his Department in regard to rent supplement and the importance of keeping in contact with young single parents who are vulnerable and away from families. Local family supports are needed. As the previous speaker said, this is social engineering. Because these areas are being regenerated we no longer want young kids originally from those areas living there. That does not make sense. Essentially it enables the State to exclude families who depend on social welfare from areas scheduled for regeneration by refusing to pay rent supplement. It goes against the previous position. The Ombudsman advised against it saying it was discriminatory. Many people have grave concerns about this whole area.
I agree with the concept of social integration. It is positive. However, this legislation deprives the most vulnerable in society, those in receipt of rent supplement. The Minister has an opportunity here to tell the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that rather than concentrate on the area of rent supplement he needs to concentrate on the shortage of social housing. Given that 44,000 families are on the housing list he should concentrate on that rather than put his nose in where it is not welcome and, clearly, it is not welcome in this instance.
A number of areas are being regenerated and that is welcome. However, in many areas the local committees have not been consulted on this issue. That is wrong. In the Ballymun area, Councillor Dessie Ellis opposed this when it was first mooted by the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern. Ballymun has been regenerated in that 2,400 flats have been replaced unit for unit. However, an extra 2,000 units which are not in the social and affordable bracket are in private development. Is that the way to regenerate or restructure the city? Everyone knows there have been problems in Ballymun. Who are the best people to solve the problems in Ballymun? It is the people living in that area, yet the people who have not been consulted in regard to the proposed changes are the people who live in that area. The experts have come in, the same experts who built the Ballymun towers without facilities and so on. There is a similar situation in Fatima Mansions which has been regenerated. This is another area that has been described in the Minister's reports as disadvantaged and yet we are saying to the young people who come from that area that they cannot live near their parents and friends, near the area where they grew up, because of this silly legislation.
I ask the Minister to delete that provision as it does nothing for the Bill. It is a backward step. The only reason there is a need for rent supplement is the failure to produce enough social housing. Things are getting worse rather than better. I agree that rent supplement is subsidising private landlords and there is the issue of double tax and so on. However, I am genuinely moved by the plight of many of those young people who come from the areas that are being regenerated. Regeneration is supposed to be a positive development for the community and yet this will be a negative element for the young kids who will be forced to live further away. The policy is that the best way forward for many of these kids is to keep them in the local area where the supports are available. The same view applies in regard to the homelessness. We are doing the opposite here and it does not make any sense.
I do not know where the logic for this provision is and I do not accept the argument in regard to social inclusion. What is meant by social engineering? Let us imagine a case where a person has had to move from the family home because of domestic violence. That person would be entitled to rent supplement and may want the minimum disruption for his or her children and may want to keep them in the local schools and connected to the local football club or after school activities. He or she will be required to move out of the area. Essentially, that is what will happen. There was a reference earlier to young people staying in the area in which they grew up where they have social supports and family. They are the people who will be excluded if they require rent supplement. This has more to do with protecting investment than social inclusion. If this is started in one area in regard to regeneration there are plenty of other areas such as section 23 reliefs for apartment blocks where an argument could be made for extending it to those locations on the basis that it would be a double support from the State. It is difficult enough for people with rent support to find accommodation without further excluding them. Many landlords simply will not accept rent supplement. One can see notices in newspaper advertisements telling people not to bother contacting the landlords in question if they are in receipt of rent assistance. What most people will read into this is that there may be a tax irregularity or that people may not be declaring income. I ask the Minister to rethink this retrograde step, which is a very bad idea. It is outrageous to hold out the hope of a new regenerated area and then tell people with the most direct connection to it that they are not welcome there.
My second point concerns community welfare officers. This is one system that works. If somebody in trouble calls in to one's constituency office on a Friday afternoon, the one person from whom one feels one will receive an immediate answer is the community welfare officer. This role is beginning to change significantly. The housing aspect of this role will be dealt with by local authorities which, in many cases, are remote from the areas in which people are living. The potential flexibility of the community welfare officer's role is being eroded. This has not been very well thought out.
It is a safety net that works and we need cogent arguments to change it. This is not simply an industrial relations issue, rather, it concerns how we deliver services to people in emergencies who need them. This must be the key issue addressed in terms of any change made in respect of community welfare officers. The points by community welfare officers in respect of the loss of flexibility are very well made and we should pay a great deal of attention to them.
I thank the Deputies. Section 25 provides for the payment of rent supplement to be refused in respect of accommodation which is situated in an area notified to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as one of regeneration for the purposes of providing for greater social integration.
I should point out that the provision contained in this section is not a blanket refusal of rent supplement in areas of regeneration. I have made specific provision in the Bill in two areas to ensure that those who already reside in such areas and who are in receipt of rent supplement may continue to receive payment and that those already residing in such areas in private rented accommodation and who may have recourse to rent supplement in the future would not have their entitlement restricted by these new provisions. I believe those two provisions in the Bill will give sufficient flexibility in the administration of the scheme.
The measures were introduced in 2004. From what I am hearing today, I may have misunderstood and am open to correction on this statement, but I understood that there was substantial support from most, if not all, local public representatives in this area. I may be wrong about that, but that was my understanding. If this is not the case, I am happy to accept that. Of course, they can make their own decisions in these matters, but that was my understanding.
It was a directive signed in 2004 and the Department is of the view that since it began, there has been no difficulty in its implementation in any real sense. The numbers involved have not thrown up any particular issues. The only reason we are putting it in legislation is because of legal advice available to the Government to the effect that the directive on its own might not be sufficient legally and we should take the opportunity afforded by the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill going before the House to underpin what is now the practice in legislation. It is important that we take the opportunity to do this.
There is a positive motivation behind this which has existed for years. This is to ensure, rather than prevent, greater social integration in so far as we can through our schemes. There is a commencement date on this provision and, obviously, the operation of the scheme will be kept under constant review. There was also a view that areas of regeneration should be given a fresh start and that we should not just replicate what went before. It was thought that a fresh start at trying to develop a strategy towards social integration would be a good idea. As I said previously, I understood there was substantial political support for that concept over the years.
I made a full statement on the matter of community welfare officers on Committee Stage, so I will not repeat it other than to assure Deputies that the excellent work undertaken by community welfare officers is valued by me, the Government and everyone else in the country. Those attributes will be maintained. The same staff will administer the same schemes and will provide the same personal service under the same legislation as the guidelines are at present. The only change is that, technically, they will not be employees of the HSE but will be employees of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
The legislation will ensure maximum flexibility and discretion. There is no intention to dilute or interfere with this discretion or flexibility in any way. There is already a significant level of liaison and ongoing interaction between the community welfare officers and the Department's staff and other agencies and this will facilitate it. This is not a new idea but goes back many years. On Committee Stage, I listed off all the various reports, some of which go back decades, which recommended this direction.
The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which, from memory, involves €800 million and is administered by approximately 700 staff, is already funded by the Department of Social and Family Affairs from which policy with regard to the scheme comes. There is ongoing dialogue and the process, as it moves forward, will include substantial dialogue. A communication and consultation strategy has been devised which will allow for ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders associated with the programme. A series of regional meetings is being organised by the HSE and the Department for all staff in the HSE community welfare service. The first of these meetings will take place this month. These meetings will provide the opportunity for further constructive engagement and feedback on the implementation process.
A document outlining the high level proposals of the Department and the HSE has been sent to SIPTU and IMPACT, which are the unions representing staff in the community welfare scheme, and to the unions in my Department. The first meeting of the joint liaison group involving management of the Department, the Department of Health and Children and the HSE with IMPACT and SIPTU took place last Wednesday, 14 March. A meeting also took place yesterday with the unions in my Department to discuss the matter. All of these discussions and consultations are ongoing and I hope we can make some solid progress in those discussions. These very fine officials have nothing to fear from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. On the contrary, I believe they will be a fantastic asset to the Department. As I said previously, they are carrying out departmental policy and are paid by the Department, the HSE strategy does not really have a clear role for community welfare officers as part of a health strategy and the title "community welfare officer" suggests we should recognise reality. Welfare officers are looking after people on welfare, and it is appropriate they are technically employed by the Department with responsibility for welfare.
My amendment No. 4 is of limited use in the area of regeneration. The Minister has not given an adequate explanation as to why there is a need for this measure. As somebody said to me, it will be a case of somebody who is a rent supplement recipient being replaced by somebody who is a non-rent supplement recipient. That is all the Minister is doing. The difficulty I have in this regard is that it would be setting a precedent which can be utilised in other areas. Deputy Catherine Murphy also referred to this point.
I was the only one who referred to community welfare officers, CMOs, during my Second Stage speech. I spent about ten minutes on the subject. This system was introduced for a specific reason by the late Frank Cluskey, a former leader of the Labour Party. He did not want a system that could be hamstrung within a Department. It is no use telling me the current situation would be possible within a Department. The Minister has admitted no change will take place but he will have institutionalised the elimination of discretion. It is as simple as that.
In spite of the perception, community welfare officers are not money dispensing machines, as such, they are socio-economists. They have a role to play in regard to the health strategy. They know who is suffering various infirmities or health difficulties and who has been involved with drugs and of others who need help for their addictions. Community welfare officers have a comprehensive knowledge that has been built up by cultivating a strong relationship with the recipients of the payments. Therefore, it is of critical importance this type of interaction between community welfare officers and applicants for supplementary welfare allowances such as rent supplements is continued.
As I said on Second Stage and as Deputy Catherine Murphy pointed out, community welfare officers can be secured at weekends or late at night by a phone call from a Member to deal with an emergency. They always respond. Will CWOs operate solely on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. basis and who will be available at 10 p.m when some emergency arises when these people are changed to a departmental structure? Why break something that works well?
Somebody in the Department appears to be set on making this change. One gets a sense of these things when one asks questions here and there. I cannot understand why this is the case. As recently as June 2006 I brought the CWOs and their union representatives, which included IMPACT, SIPTU etc. before the committee. The genesis of this proposed change began a few years ago. At the time, nobody passed much remark on it. Professor Brennan's report brought the issue to a head. I have often seen reports gathering dust and creating litter. Many departmental reports were never seen again, yet this is one area in which somebody had a profound interest who kept coming back and encouraging another report.
There is no need for anyone to clarify it with me. I am acutely aware of my rights on behalf of my party. Do not say there is somebody else who does not want to hear what I have to say.
The Minister should not sign any commencement order. He should allow this matter to come back before the new Government. This is an unnecessary and retrograde step. There was a good reason the late Frank Cluskey left this as an ad hoc situation. The rationale has not changed in the interim. The Labour Party will oppose this measure. Deputy Stanton feels strongly about this issue also. He put his views on record in the strongest terms on Committee Stage and I assume he will oppose it bitterly also. We will put this issue to a vote because it is an important and fundamental one.
There is no need to do anything. As Deputy Murphy correctly stated, when a system is working well, is adaptable and flexible and co-operates with the applicants for help, it should be retained. We should ensure the necessary flexibility is available to people who require help. When this amendment is passed by the Minister, with the help of his Government colleagues, that situation will not prevail.
Why is the Minister only now meeting the people who operate the scheme through their union representatives? As Deputy Stanton eloquently stated, why was the horse not brought out before the cart? Instead, the cart was brought out and now the horse is running a half mile behind.
When I met community welfare officers they expressed their concern on this matter. No discussion has taken place and they have not been consulted. I worry when I hear the Minister say there is nothing to fear. Need I say more. I urge the Minister not to go forward with this Schedule to the Bill. He should continue meeting those involved in an atmosphere of goodwill and not have this issue hanging over them like the sword of Damocles. He should discuss the matter and agree a compromise with them. The matter can be dealt with in the next social welfare Bill. That would be the sensible approach to take. Let us have goodwill all around.
When I met the CWOs I told them I have an open mind on the matter. I have yet to be convinced one way or the other. We did not have a chance to debate or discuss the matter either. It will make no difference because, according to what the Minister said, it will probably be time for the next social welfare Bill before this will happen anyway. It is unlikely it will happen before that. It would be neat and tidy if everything was agreed and organised and was ready to be brought forward in the next Bill.
We all have experience of constituents who have difficulty with landlords who will not accept rent supplement and we all say this is terrible, but why is it the case? It is because someone is on social welfare and therefore not of the proper class. The Minister is doing something of the same kind with rent supplement, stating that if someone is on it, he or she is not of the proper class to live in a regeneration area and will not be allowed to do so. That is fundamentally wrong, and if it has been going on for so long, why is it necessary to bring primary legislation forward now to underpin it? Was it illegal to do so hitherto? When I see primary legislation introduced to underpin something, I worry about it.
Those are the two issues that I wished to raise. I suggest to the Minister that he relax a little regarding community welfare and get the matter sorted before introducing legislation in a Bill next year, if he is once again in power. Why the hurry to do so now? I also have questions regarding the other business.
I wish to speak on my amendment, No. 20, which proposes the deletion of the entire section dealing with rent supplement. I argued earlier that it was wrong and discriminatory. I do not believe there was any real consultation, although many areas are being regenerated. The Minister seemed to be under the impression that there was political consensus, but there is no such consensus. If there was once, there is none now, and my party was certainly opposed to this measure.
I genuinely believe that this matter will end in the courts. If the Minister feels there is anything positive in this Bill, he should think again. The Office of the Ombudsman has already stated its belief that the provision is discriminatory. It goes against the thrust of what we are trying to do in many communities. We are trying to keep young people, particularly those on rent supplement, close to their families, communities, and work and school supports. This says that it may not happen.
I have heard the Minister say that those who currently receive rent supplement in an area will be able to continue doing so. It is a case of pulling up the ladder and creating new areas. It is a little rich that this legislation is ostensibly to provide for greater social integration, since it will not do so. I am conscious of where this originates, and the Government watered down Part 5, which stipulated that any new developments should include 20% social and affordable housing. It allowed private developers to buy their way out of commitments and construct estates devoid of any social or affordable housing. It is claimed that this provision will achieve happy communities, but it will not do so. Rather it is a form of snobbery, and I intend to press amendment No. 20, which calls for this section's deletion.
Regarding community welfare officers, it is sad that the two should be linked. This is about removing their capacity for flexibility and exercising more control; that is the view coming from the officers themselves. They have great experience of community welfare and can look at the age profile and know what is going on in their communities. The Minister is making these proposals without any real consultation. Months ago I asked about this area and was told that consultations were under way. One wonders what was meant. Were there any real negotiations or union involvement? Its members have told me that there were not, and community welfare officers have inundated Members with concerns regarding where this might lead. This is about exercising control rather than supporting the existing flexibility that other speakers have raised. It is certainly a retrograde step.
When people consider something in the abstract, it is very different from viewing it in practice. We see that all the time, for example, when a development is planned. It is only when bulldozers move in that people start to consider the implications, although there has been a long process in which they have probably not been engaged. There may be an element of that regarding aspects of regeneration projects. Matters must be considered in practice.
Regarding community welfare officers, the figure of €800 million has been quoted, and I know that a substantial proportion will be rent assistance. One hopes that, with some of the increased flexibility mentioned, we will see many such people previously precluded from working owing to the poverty trap moving into employment. I very much hope that it will happen. It is obvious when one sees new housing schemes, and I can certainly see it in my area. People are allocated a house, and a substantial number get not only a new house but a new life with the opportunity to work. That is very obvious in practice.
I reiterate Deputy Penrose's point regarding the local contacts of the community welfare officer. People will make statements about them ranging from their being the greatest thing since sliced bread to acting as if the money was coming out of their own pocket. It goes right across the spectrum, and the very fact that they know the people coming to them and can advise them means that they have a one-to-one relationship. I have come across many situations where a community welfare officer has saved the State money. The idea that someone is there dishing out funds to people in emergencies is wrong. That the community welfare officer has a degree of flexibility benefits both the State and the genuine emergency case. We should not change something that is working well.
I would like to speak on amendments Nos. 26 and 27 in my name. There is some confusion owing to printing errors in the amendment list. However, they are of a piece with amendment No. 25 tabled by Deputies Penrose and Seán Ryan.
I would like to add something rather than repeat previous speakers' points on the community welfare officers scheme. It is important that we apply the principle of natural justice that one should not be a judge in one's own court. Having direct employees of the Department — which is at least being double-guessed, if not examined — as community welfare officers is not optimum line management. The Opposition is very much of one voice on this issue, and it is unfortunate that in a Bill of this type, which introduces necessary increases in some social welfare payments, we should be divided on an issue at the core of how services are delivered to those in need.
Even at this late stage, I ask that the amendments be accepted and that the obvious discontent that exists among community welfare officers be properly addressed, with an ongoing process put in place to examine how the service might best be delivered without making a rash decision and subsequently turning this into an unavoidable election issue.
Noel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps I might say a few words in support of the clause not allowing rent allowance in regeneration areas. I do so on two grounds, as a Deputy for Dublin North-West, which includes Ballymun, and as Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which allows me a wider view.
I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy, whose words explain my thinking. She said that certain groups were taking a very theoretical or abstract view of this and producing objections. I take a very practical view based on experience of my own area. It is a matter of giving an area that has been regenerated a chance to breathe. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s we built vast local authority housing estates and high-rise developments of between five and 15 storeys. We are currently spending about €230 million or €250 million a year in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government trying to rectify some of the errors of the past. Some of that expenditure is on small scale remedial work schemes, while much of it is being spent on regeneration schemes such as that in Ballymun, which alone accounts for perhaps €100 million a year. When Ballymun was built, it comprised 2,800 flats and a couple of thousand houses. Some of them have been bought out, while others are rented by tenants. Nobody will be prevented from living in these areas in the future. Everybody who was in a flat in Ballymun is being given a new house or a duplex. To provide a social mix we are building some private apartments. To give the place a chance to grow, we said there would not be any more rent allowances for those private apartments.
Noel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I heard some of the debate on the monitor earlier. Part 5 of the Planning and Development Bill involves social engineering. We try to provide a social mix in whatever building we undertake but even in local authority housing strategies there is no Part 5 in certain areas. There is no Part 5 in Ballymun, for example, because there is already a huge amount of social housing there. The thinking behind it is to try to have a social mix. If we build private apartments and allow them to be turned into social housing, we would undo the regeneration work. We discussed this matter at local level when I was on the local authority in Ballymun for four or five years and there was substantial political agreement on that. I accept that a few councillors from other parties, who did not represent Ballymun but represented other wards in the same Dáil constituency, did not agree. I do not want to name people here but Deputy Crowe's colleague, whom he mentioned, would be a Dáil candidate and an elected representative for another ward in the constituency, but not Ballymun. There was substantial support for this plan which is about trying to give an area a chance to breathe. If the State invests large amounts of money in regeneration it does so to get away from the vast high-rise local authority estates we built in the past. We do not do that anymore — we try to have a mix of private, social, affordable, voluntary and housing association accommodation. I hope that model will work into the future. Some of our huge high-rise estates — be they in Ballymun, Fatima Mansions, St. Michael's or O'Deveney Gardens — are the sort of places that could be considered for this model in future. It is a case of giving it a chance. People on the ground in Ballymun will say that even the first private development there quickly went wrong because it was filled with rent allowance people overnight and nobody controlled them. If it is a local authority estate or building, at least there is some management by that authority but there is little such management by many landlords.
This is a development on the thinking that local authorities have already done. If one builds a private development in Ballymun tomorrow, there will be no Part 5 application on it because the local authority's housing strategy recognises that in an area which already has large-scale social housing, we need a social mix. It does not stop anybody from living in the area, however. Anyone who currently wants to live in Ballymun or any of these places must go on the waiting list for a local authority house. There will still be a couple of thousand local authority units in Ballymun but it means they cannot have rent allowances in the new units that are being built. I would not see that provision being there for eternity but it must be given a chance, otherwise we are talking about the opposite of Part 5, which is to say that all the poor or unemployed should live in one area, turning it into a type of ghetto.
We are putting a great deal of time, energy, State expenditure and community involvement into such regeneration projects. The regeneration of Ballymun for example was discussed for years and has now been going on for five, six or seven years. Everyone has co-operated on it and wants to see the area lifted up. It is a case of whether one wants to give the area a chance to breathe, but nobody is being prevented from living there. There will be the same number of social units in Ballymun in future as there currently is because as the flats are being taken down everybody in them is getting a social unit. As vacancies arise they will be available but the private, developer-led units will not have rent allowance tenants.
Noel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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When we examined this three or four years ago we were told that would include the existing houses in the area. This scheme developed over recent years but there was disagreement initially over whether the process by which we did it was safe. It has been done with substantial agreement, however, and it is operating. It is needed to give the area a chance to breathe. The Department has overseen the taxpayer's investment in regenerating areas and hopefully we will do this in many other areas, based on practical experience.
I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, attending the House. I wish more Ministers would be accountable to the Dáil and explain their actions here. In fact, however, Ministers regularly hide behind written replies and civil servants, but will not answer oral questions. Whether we agree with the Minister of State, at least he has put his point of view and Members can cross examine him and make their own points.
I want to discuss social welfare officers. I am pleading with the Minister because this situation is not good for people who depend on such officers. Deputy Penrose asked earlier why one should fix something that is not broken. The system has worked well in the past but what is being proposed is not good for the people. Some aspects of social welfare work well, while others work badly but officials must live by the book. Community welfare officers cannot just live by the books; they need to have a conscience in order that when a problem arises they can make a decision there and then. The Minister knows what will happen. He will have his civil servants drafting rules and regulations. We know that a great deal of money is being spent on those who can only live from day to day. I listen to many people, including backbenchers, Ministers, local people and commentators. Many commentators do not understand how people live on welfare. Such people have to exist on a small amount of social welfare but are not able to manage from week to week.
If some people got €300,000 per week they would spend more than that because they cannot live within their means. A safety valve is needed for them. The Minister may say that the safety valve will be left to the community welfare officers but it will not. The Minister has been in the House longer than I have. He has seen Ministers come and go. He knows that the civil servants will be drawing up rules and regulations, and will tell the community welfare officers "You must live within this rule or regulation, and there will be no discretion". There will be discretion for a few months before polling day, but once the election is over the Minister or his successor will sign the regulation into law so that community welfare officers no longer have any discretion. This should not be allowed to happen.
If Fianna Fáil backbenchers had any courage they would vote down this amendment because it is not good for their constituents. Why do they always have to be led by Ministers and civil servants? This measure is morally wrong and I ask the Minister to accept the amendment. He should discuss it with the community welfare officers and operate it on a trial basis in some areas for a few months to see how it works. What is being proposed in the Bill will not work, however, so the next Government will have to revert to the old arrangement. Whose premises will community welfare officers use? Will they use HSE premises or will they be sent into towns to use social welfare offices? Will community welfare officers be used for means testing for carer's allowance and social welfare payments? Will they be brought into the system to deal with all of this? At least previously there was an element of discretion involved.
Some people hate social welfare offices because when they go there looking for work they are told they are not looking for work. Deputy Penrose has heard me raise this matter at committee level week in, week out. I know people who must leave social welfare offices and approach community welfare officers for money because the Minister's officials tell them they are not actively seeking work, despite there being no work in many of these areas.
I ask the Minister to ignore the civil servants on this occasion and accept this amendment. The situation as it is works and should be left alone; the Minister should refrain from targeting the poor and letting them down.
In the Dáil this morning I heard of civil servants being paid large wages by the HSE. Where did the HSE get this money? It saved €2.5 million in my region by not bringing the poor and sick to hospital for appointments. As I said last week, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, refuses to bring the poor and sick to hospital for appointments while the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, seeks to set up transport to bring them to the pub. Are we not a sick country? Once again the weak and sick are targeted.
I ask the Minister to accept this amendment and choose not to go ahead with this as nobody, neither the public nor the community welfare officers, wants it. Things are working as they are and should not be interfered with.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, has put the case on the regeneration issue very well because he understands it better than most. Regeneration attempts to give communities a fresh start and has been in operation since 2004. The evidence available to my Department suggests it is working well and it is included in this Bill only to allow us, having received legal advice, to avail of the opportunity to give it a more solid legal footing. There is no hidden agenda and the aim is only to continue a policy that has been in operation for a number of years. The Minister of State clearly explained the thinking behind this.
The changes relating to community welfare officers are fairly technical. I would not accuse the Deputies opposite of whipping up this matter but, I suspect, if this were not an election year the issue would not get the attention it is receiving.
Some 750 community welfare officers administer approximately €800 million. On the commencement of the health reforms the health strategy made it clear that community welfare officers had no role in that formal structural context. The idea of community welfare officers working more closely with the Department of Social and Family Affairs goes back to the Social Welfare Commission of 1986, a review of the supplementary allowance by the Combat Poverty Agency in 1991, the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities in 1996, the Commission on Financial Management and Control Systems in the Health Service in 2003 and so on, including Professor Brennan's report.
This is not a new idea that I dreamed up, it is logical and sensible and the same people will do the same jobs, giving the same personal service as always. The Department of Social and Family Affairs laid down the policy in this regard — it is not as though there are 759 people wandering around with €800 million at their disposal to distribute as they wish. Every cent distributed by community welfare officers comes under a scheme or heading approved by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. If we sought to interfere with the independence of community welfare officers tomorrow we could do so, regardless of this Bill, if that were the wish of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
If one cannot rely on a Department with a title referring to social and family affairs, which administers funds of €15 billion to help people in our communities with pensions, child benefits and welfare, to support those in need of assistance, why suggest the Department of Health and Children could do better? Why suggest a health service executive, composed of people appointed by a Minister, could do better? The argument made by the Deputies does not stand up as the same people will do the same jobs under the same regulations and legislation as always and with funds that may increase in the coming years.
Community welfare officers do a marvellous job and have everyone's full support but it is incorrect to think they are totally independent and can suddenly dream up new schemes and give money to people who did not want to approach a social welfare office. They administer an enormous amount of money extremely well but the flexibility they have is granted by this Department. The Deputy worries that this flexibility may be taken away but there is no question of that happening as we give them the flexibility, pay their wages and lay down the rules and regulations under which they distribute money. The only reason this legislation has been proposed is that the health service has gone on a train in a different direction due to health reforms and community welfare officers do not fit on that train. The logic of this is overwhelming.
It is increasingly important that other schemes administered by the Department of Social and Family Affairs be co-ordinated because very often we deal with the same people. As Deputy Catherine Murphy said, half of the €800 million they administer goes on rent allowance. There is no question of changing flexibility in this regard as community welfare officers do their work subject to guidelines and legislation. They do not wander around giving certain people rent allowance because they suspect the individual has a special need; they follow guidelines and rules.
A communication strategy is in place and a series of regional meetings with the entire community welfare service is being organised by the Department and the HSE. The first such meeting will take place this month and a document on this topic has been sent to the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU, and IMPACT. A meeting of the joint liaison group was held last Wednesday, 14 March, involving management, the Department, the HSE, the Department of Health and Children, IMPACT and SIPTU and a further such meeting took place yesterday. These meetings will continue to be held. This is in this legislation because the Bill is travelling and we took the opportunity to include it.
The commencement order is something that can be dealt with when a measure of agreement is reached on key issues. Whoever signs the commencement order will have the common sense to ensure the temperature is agreeable at the time of signing.
First, I wish to humbly apologise to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Clerk for my misinterpretation of the order of amendments earlier and for getting unnecessarily angry. I understand now that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle was in no way precluding me from contributing. I do not think I am the only one confused, however, as amendment numbers appear to have been mixed up.
I will not be moving amendment No. 1 or amendment No. 4, whichever one it is now, as it relates to a report. The substantive amendment comes later and I will withdraw it. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will not enact or introduce a commencement order in the community welfare officer system, pending the outcome of the general election? Thus far, he has always mollified me when I have been angry about issues but I have strong feelings about the community welfare officer system.
I argued in favour of the proposal in amendment No. 4 last June, probably 12 months before the election, and in October and November. My motivation, therefore, is not electoral but based on the idea that the proposal is in the best interests of members of the public. The step proposed by the Minister is unnecessary.
As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle pointed out, we will not discuss the issues in question until much later. For this reason, I will withdraw the amendment but other amendments will be moved to address the issue.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
1.—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on—
(a) the need to improve pre-application information to provide carers with a clearer picture of their chances of qualifying,
(b) the need to relax the qualifying criteria for Carer's Allowance in relation to the onus to provide "full-time care and attention" so that carers satisfy this condition if, in the judgement of a deciding officer, their work saves the person being cared for and/or the State nursing home care or significant professional assistance,
(c) the need to allow carers who take up Carer's Allowance from a position where they were neither paying or receiving credits to receive credits from the date they are awarded the Carer's Allowance so that they improve their pension qualification upon retirement and the need to have this provision backdated, and
(d) the need to ensure, with the introduction of the half-rate Carer's Allowance, that carers in equal circumstances receive equal payments.".
The amendment proposes to simplify the application form for carer's allowance to give carers better information about entitlements for which they may qualify. While I am aware the Minister has relaxed the condition that carers must provide "full-time care and attention" and offered some degree of clarity, neither step is sufficient. Frequently, the independent appeals officer who must examine all the circumstances pertaining to a case finds in favour of the carer.
The most important issue raised in the amendment is the carer's credit. While I do not wish to pre-empt the Minister at this stage, perhaps because we have been rowing for so long, I know what will be his response to the amendment. Persons who are at home and not employed or self-employed do not benefit from the carer's credit, although they receive carer's allowance. Surely they should qualify for carer's credit as this would enable them to build up a contributory record and qualify for various payments in their own right at some point in the future.
This question should be included in the Minister's famous review. The review pot is so full one could not get another ounce into it. The Minister will be glad to leave the Department. He will accuse me of being a greedy sod for demanding that, having addressed three quarters of the problem, he deal with the final quarter. However, this final part may be the critical element. I ask him to note my remarks.
As I hate to disappoint the Deputy, I will respond in the manner he expects. Under the current statutory provisions governing the award of credit contributions, recipients of the carer's allowance may be awarded credits if they switch to that payment from another credit bearing payment such as jobseeker's allowance. From April 1999 formal provision has been made for the award of credits to claimants of carer's allowance who have left insurable employment to engage in caring duties.
The recipients of carer's allowance who are not entitled to credits may be eligible for homemaker's disregards which preserve the carer's entitlements for contributory purposes. The homemaker's scheme provides that contribution years spent working in the home while caring on a full-time basis for a child up to 12 years of age or an incapacitated person will be disregarded in calculating a person's yearly average number of contributions for State pension contributory purposes. This provision applies for the contribution year commencing on 6 April 1994 and up to 20 contribution years may be disregarded.
The award of credits is subject to certain conditions. For example, when a person has no paid or credited contributions for two years, he or she cannot be awarded further credits until 26 contributions are paid. In recognition of their caring role, this rule will be waived where claimants of carer's allowance were eligible for homemaker's disregards immediately prior to claiming carer's allowance. In effect, this means credits will be awarded where a person who has a gap of two years in his or her paid or credited contributions was eligible for homemaker's disregards before claiming the carer's allowance. This provision will protect the position of those who do not give up work to become carers but may have qualified for homemaker's disregards due to childbearing duties and subsequently became carers after a two-year period had expired.
The Deputy was ahead of me in noting that the Green Paper on pensions will examine a broad range of issues, including contributions, pension entitlements and averaging. It is intended to publish the document in the middle of April.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the universal availability of child benefit and the lifting of residency conditions.".
My party has always argued that the child benefit payment is important because it is universal and mainly given to mothers. The introduction of a second tier, means-tested child benefit payment has been proposed to tackle child poverty. Children resident in the State who fail the habitual residence condition are not eligible for child benefit. The introduction of this condition was unnecessary because the problem it was intended to address, that of welfare tourism, did not materialise as the Minister's predecessor predicted. The universality of the child benefit payment must be restored. We must examine the eligibility criteria which preclude the application of the universality principle in child benefit payments.
I will speak to amendment No. 12 which the select committee discussed in detail on Committee Stage. Free legal aid centres contacted Deputies expressing concern that the parents of certain children resident in the State have few resources to provide necessities. Although they receive food and a roof over their heads, they also have other needs. Some of the children in question have been here for considerable periods and may end up living here permanently. The free legal aid centres are concerned that such children may suffer from deprivation which could impact on their later lives. For this reason, they seek to have child benefit extended to all children in the State, including those living in asylum centres and direct provision accommodation. While asylum seekers may avail of exceptional needs payments and so forth, it is bizarre that children may be suffering deprivation through no fault of their own. I ask the Minister to ensure no child suffers as a result of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
I presume many of the families concerned will be given permission to remain here. Several years ago, a group of bishops sought an amnesty for families who had been living here for lengthy periods. While I am not sure we should fully adopt such a policy, the decision-making procedure for dealing with asylum claims must be speeded up to ensure people are not sent back to their country of origin after living here for extended periods and becoming almost naturalised. This practice is a major wrench for those involved. The Minister will probably tell us it is an issue we must keep under review. What is in place to ensure these children are not suffering through poverty or deprivation?
From 1 May 2004, 1,557 children have been denied child benefit as a consequence of the habitual residence condition. Some of those refused are the children most in need of this allowance. I made the point during debate on a previous Stage that immigration policy seems to be taking precedence over anti-poverty measures. If the purpose of this allowance is to help children and provide support for families in need, we should not separate children for the purposes of eligibility on the basis of their parents' status. Any children in this State who are hungry should be fed.
Deputy Stanton spoke about reviewing the situation, introducing some flexibility and so on, and I have no problem in this regard. There are reports of asylum seekers going hungry because, for example, they are used to a particular diet. However, there is no definitive information in this regard. Reform is needed so child benefit is once again a universal payment. All children must be treated equally and all should have the right not to live in poverty.
We are not experiencing the huge swamp or influx of asylum seekers that was predicted. Making child benefit a universal payment would not involve a major financial commitment but it would mean a huge amount to the people concerned. Many families must wait a considerable period for their asylum applications to be processed. In many cases, it can take years rather than months or weeks. Child benefit should be a universal payment and children should not be discriminated against on the basis of the habitual residence condition.
The habitual residence condition was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes, including child benefit, with effect from 1 May 2004. It was introduced in the context of the Government's decision to open the labour market to workers from the ten new EU member states without the transitional limitations imposed by most other existing member states. The effect of the condition is that a person whose habitual residence is elsewhere does not receive social welfare payments on arrival in Ireland.
In the period from May 2004 to the end of January 2007, the number of child benefit claims that required particular examination of this condition was 16,000. Of these, only 1,557, or less than 10%, were disallowed. Those who are refused are mainly persons whose claim to asylum is not yet decided, who do not have a work permit or who have only a minimal attachment to the workforce.
The habitual residence condition is achieving its intended purpose of allowing access to our social welfare schemes to persons who are genuinely and lawfully making Ireland their habitual residence, while preventing unwarranted access by persons who have little or no connection with the State. We have had many discussions on this issue in the House. Several factors apply in deciding whether a person meets the habitual residence condition, including length and continuity of residence, employment prospects, reasons for coming to Ireland, future intentions and the individual's centre of interest.
There are currently some 900 asylum seekers awaiting initial decision, and some 2,660 are appealing the refusal of their asylum application. There is no figure for the number of appeals refused and awaiting final decision on application for leave to remain. At the end of February, 5,710 asylum seekers were in direct provision, of whom 4,000 were adults and 1,710 children. The cost of direct provision last year was €78 million. Some 448 adults and 112 children were in receipt of supplementary welfare allowance while in direct provision accommodation, while some 3,700 adults and 1,431 children were in receipt of direct provision allowance.
I share Deputy Stanton's wish that no child should suffer in any way in our system. However, we must have a system in place. As I said, those in direct provision — 4,000 adults and 1,710 children — receive direct support at an Exchequer cost of €78 million under the policy direction of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Few applicants are refused child benefit on the basis of the habitual residence condition.
We will continue to monitor this issue. It is everyone's wish that no child should suffer while in Ireland. At the same time, however, the system must work for the benefit of the State as well as for the children in question. I am satisfied there is no evidence of undue hardship as a consequence of these regulations. If I become aware of any such hardship, I will ensure it is brought to the attention of community welfare officers.
Somebody in the Department can prepare the report. We often talk about the permanent government.
The habitual residence condition is causing angst among the public. The free legal advice centres organisation, FLAC, has expressed deep concern about it and is strongly of the view that it is an impediment to the universality and applicability of child benefit. I will withdraw the amendment if the Minister commits to the preparation of a report on the impact of this condition, the numbers disallowed on this basis and the reasons for those disallowals.
I thank the Minister for his comments and concern on this issue. I hope he will be proactive in this regard. He has said he is not aware of any evidence of persons enduring hardship as a consequence of this condition. Perhaps he might ask the Combat Poverty Agency or another suitable body to examine the situation.
If children in such circumstances are living in consistent poverty — to use the Minister's favourite way of measuring poverty — there is serious cause for concern. Consistent poverty is measured by such deprivations as not having a second pair of shoes or a change of clothes. The information I have received is that this may apply in some cases. It would be useful if the Minister would ask the Combat Poverty Agency to report on this soon in order that we all know what is happening.
I am happy to commit the Department to prepare some statement for the House within six months providing up-to-date information on this issue. I take Deputy Stanton's point. However, I am satisfied there is adequate provision to prevent any instance of hardship. Children who arrive here are dealt with either through direct provision or, alternatively, are in receipt of child benefit or supplementary welfare allowance. I am keen to balance that with the protection of our social welfare system. I take the point being made.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
1.—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the ongoing effects of the marriage bar in the social welfare and pensions systems.
The impact of the marriage bar has left a residue of deeply unhappy people. The bar was the greatest injustice perpetrated on women in State, semi-State and banking institutions. Women were compulsorily retired from work and had no option but to leave work on marriage. Subsequently, this had a severely negative impact on their contribution records. One woman wrote to one of the national newspapers a few months ago and described herself as a non-person in so far as her contribution record was concerned. She could not qualify for participation in some schemes or for any pension entitlements and was compelled to be an adult dependent without the right to receive a payment in her own right.
I acknowledge the position has now been rectified by the Minister. However, I believe the previous position was unconstitutional and would not stand scrutiny in the courts on the basis of the application of gender neutral employment laws. Therefore, while the Statute of Limitations can be pleaded, I would not be surprised if the National Women's Council, which is about to embark on a discrimination action, succeeded in a retrospective claim on the basis that a grossly, inherently defective mechanism and procedure was used to preclude women from continuing in the workplace despite being well qualified to do so.
The marriage bar is another issue in the pension review pot. That pot is like the old pot or skillet in which people used to cook that would overflow no matter how often one adjusted the pressure. I am afraid the pension review pot will go on fire as it will be so overloaded. Something more must be done in this regard. We must face up to the problem. The nation deprived these women of the right to earn their livelihoods. This was reminiscent of de Valera's Constitution. Once women got married it was expected they would become mothers, remain in the home, look after the children and do all the household chores. That was their function. The rest of the Constitution was aspirational. Articles 45 and 46 were aspirations not based in reality.
The marriage bar would fall under Article 40.3 of the Constitution and the judges of the High Court would not give the State much credit in arguing against a case taken against it. The Statute of Limitations is the only defence that could be mounted against such a case. The country would be laughed out of court if it insisted on maintaining the position that obtained in the past.
We must ascertain the number of people affected by the marriage bar and immediately set about remedying the wrong done to them. The costs involved could not be that high. The Minister provided some figures on Committee Stage, but they were lost in the whirlpool of figures provided that day. It is hard to keep track of such figures, but as I recall the Minister said the number of women involved was not very high. This is all the more reason to ensure the injustice perpetrated on them is remedied. We should take whatever avenue is available to do this and ensure that women, particularly those who have contacted us, are compensated.
The National Women's Council is articulating the case on their behalf. We must now set about redressing the serious injustice done through the application of a law that owes more to a different society than the society that came into being after court decisions of the mid-1970s and the application of equality laws. Looking back, one good result of our European Union membership was the compulsion on us to prioritise the equality agenda through the application of equality laws. Certainly, the issue of the marriage bar is one on which we must hang our heads in shame.
It is only 34 or 35 years ago since the marriage bar was removed and only now its impact has become evident as a result of women affected by it reaching pension age and realising the injustice done to them. While the number of women involved is increasing, it is a limited number.
The Minister is losing his touch and has slipped up badly. I am amazed he has not featured on the front page of one of the Sunday newspapers announcing plans to do something about the situation.
Of course. We will wait and see what happens. The Minister has already featured with regard to pensions, lone parents and others, but we wait for him to feature with regard to sorting out the problem of the marriage bar. I am amazed it has not happened yet.
Deputy Penrose was right to say we need a report on the issue. Perhaps the issue will feature in the pensions' report which is due to be published this month. We need to know how many people are affected and how they have been affected.
It is amazing that individualisation, which was introduced by former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, encouraged women to work outside the home. Nowadays, both parents must work outside the home to keep a roof over their heads. Before 1973, women working in the public service — teachers, nurses etc. — had to leave the service on marriage. The social norm and doctrine of the time was that women were expected to give up work once they married. We have gone the other way now and the expectation is that everyone will work outside the home. This has given rise to the issues of who will look after the children and how children will be minded. Child care is now a serious issue and we have to consider whether it is right to put our children in large, anonymous child care facilities at a young age or what impact this may have on them. These are significant social questions.
With regard to the marriage bar, we are now looking at redressing a wrong that was done prior to 1973, when women had to give up their job because of marriage if they were working in the public service. Thankfully the European Union put paid to this and the position has changed. The marriage bar has become an issue with which we need to deal. All parties must focus on the issue and decide what can be done to resolve it.
If the National Women's Council proceeds with its case in Europe and is successful, the State will have to deal with the issue. I suggested on Committee Stage that the State should interact with those involved at this stage to see what can be done to preclude a case being taken all the way to the European Court and to ensure that something is done now.
The only thing of which we can be sure is that the cohort is reducing. I know of some people who benefited from the change. Maybe the Minister knows how many women this affects but the rest of us do not. People had no choice beyond whether to get married. If they married they lost their jobs. We have moved on but how far depends on whether women have a real choice about staying at home or pursuing a career. Most of us are struck by the waste of talent and experience involved in putting these people on to the economic waste heap. I have no objection to people being given a choice but it is morally wrong to force a decision on them. We need to know how many people are affected, particularly in respect of their pensions and other entitlements. On that basis I support the amendment.
There are no figures available for the total numbers who left the general public service as a result of the marriage bar. According to the Department of Finance 1,240 marriage gratuities were paid between 1962 and 1973. There is no information on periods before that so the total affected across the whole public service is multiples of that figure.
The National Women's Council has announced its intention to take a discrimination case against the State in respect of the continuing effects of this bar. It will focus on women's pension entitlements within the social welfare system and suggest that the numbers receiving reduced rate contributory payments and the number relying on means-tested non-contributory payments are related to the operation of the marriage bar. That may be a factor in some people receiving reduced rate payments but the fragmented nature of our social welfare system until the late 1980s and 1990s, when it changed in respect of self-employment and part-time work, and the workforce participation of women in general are probably greater factors in this regard.
The group in question was never insured for social welfare pension purposes as at the time public servants were insured at modified rates which did not give any entitlement to contributory social welfare pensions. It is estimated that 88% of women over 66 years of age receive support through the social welfare pension system either in their own right or as qualified adults on the pensions of their spouses or partners. Under this Bill the qualified adult increases will be made directly to the spouse or partner of a new State pension claimant. That change will be welcome.
I am anxious to see as many people as possible qualify for social welfare pensions in their own right and have introduced a range of measures in pursuit of that policy such as the reduction of the minimum yearly average required to qualify for a contributory pension from 20 to ten, the introduction of pro rata pensions, and the P53 pensions. The arguments in this area have focused on the question of also backdating the home-makers scheme which is an aspect of this discussion.
Not to disappoint Deputy Penrose, the Green Paper on pensions will consider all those who, for one reason or another, are outside the welfare system. A total of 68,000 women receive contributory pensions in transition and 45,000 receive them at reduced rates, 49,000 receive the non-contributory pension, and more than 88% of women over the age of 66 receive supports through the social welfare system. That translates into 230,000 women receiving support with some 31,000 outside the system. I am advised that providing a full rate pension to this group would cost more than €300 million plus the cost of increasing the pensions of those on reduced rates. Many of these women have come back into pensions having moved into other employment and contributed for ten years or more thus qualifying themselves for contributory pensions. Many may be covered by the figures for those who already qualify for non-contributory pensions. The figure of 88% is the most accurate I can give the House.
That is fair enough but if they got married in 1963 they were knocked out for ten years. The only way in which the Minister can examine this to know who was precluded from continuing to work because of the marriage bar is to study the register. The Minister may laugh at this but one's occupation was registered there. Deputy Crowe is right, this is a fixed number that is probably reducing somewhat.
The Minister may well have to tackle this and he could ascertain the number of women and average the sum across that number or impute to them contributions for each year that they were precluded from working when they could have worked. If they got married in 1967 and came back into the workforce in 1974 they lost six or seven years. That would amount to 364 contributions which should be assigned to them because the State precluded them from making the contributions. There are a few ways of calculating this. I accept the point and will not press the amendment but this will come back to haunt somebody.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, as soon as is possible after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on re-instating child benefit as a universal payment and the lifting of the habitual residence condition.".
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on increasing the living alone allowance.".
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months after the passing of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the success of the rent supplement and rental accommodation schemes.".
On amendment No. 18, concerns were raised at a recent meeting of the End Child Poverty Coalition regarding the administration of the RAS. Recipients of rent supplement were transferred to local authority housing lists. The Minister might let us know how the system is functioning. A lot of money has been transferred from his Department to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government but little has been spent. Therefore, the scheme may need to be reviewed. Figures obtained from the replies to two parliamentary questions I tabled earlier in the year indicate that just €8 million of the €63 million allocated to the Department of Social and Family Affairs has been spent on the scheme. There are 59,000 tenants in receipt of rent supplement, of whom approximately 32,000 have been receiving the payment for 18 months or more. Some 20,000 of these have been reviewed, while 3,000 have been provided with RAS accommodation.
It appears the scheme may not be working as intended. The quality of much private rental accommodation is very poor; we all come across this from time to time. We all encounter individuals with very small children living in terrible conditions. As I stated, some people refuse rent supplement. This is a significant issue.
Housing is one of the major issues with which we all must contend. Some days ago we had a meeting on poverty, the most considerable issue of all. High quality housing for people on very low incomes must be made available. Only for the rent supplement scheme, such persons would literally be on the side of the road. Even as matters stand, they are under ferocious pressure.
Something needs to be done. Social housing for people on low incomes is one of the issues on which the Government has clearly failed considerably. In this regard, consider a case with which I dealt some days ago of a lady with two small children who was expecting another. She and her husband who was on a very low wage were renting a house and did not know about family income supplement. She asked whether I could do anything to get her family a house. Local authorities have housing officers but some local authority areas such as that in Cork are so big that it can take months for the few such officers to make assessments.
I am not sure whether the RAS will succeed and whether it is being reviewed. The targets outlined originally were clearly missed. Where do we go from here with the scheme?
Some 59,000 households are in receipt of rent supplement. In July 2004 the Government introduced the new rental assistance arrangements. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has indicated that, at the end of January, over 3,000 tenants had been accommodated under the RAS and a further 2,300 persons in social housing. When implemented fully, the RAS will enable the rent supplement scheme to revert to its original objective, that is, to serve as a short-term income support scheme. It is projected that by the end of this year up to 10,000 tenants will have transferred from rent supplement-related accommodation to accommodation provided by local authorities, either through the RAS or some other social housing initiative. The scheme is progressing. As the Deputy knows, it applies to those who were on the list for rent supplement.
The overall target is to accommodate, by the end of 2008, in excess of 30,000 tenants who have been in receipt of rent supplement for 18 months or more. To finance this, €19 million was transferred from the Department's Vote to that of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2005. A further €19 million was transferred for 2006 and a further €24 million was provided for this year. Similar arrangements will apply in the coming years as the new arrangements are implemented.
Of the 59,000 households in receipt of rent supplement, 32,000 are eligible for assistance under the new rental arrangements. The scheme got off to a slow start but is now working right across the country. Over 3,000 were accommodated under the scheme by the end of January. The target for the end of the year is 10,000.
What is the point in transferring all this money when it is not being used? The Department obviously has a huge surplus considering that just €8 million of the €63 million allocated has been spent to date. What is the rationale for this? Is the Minister serious about the target of accommodating 10,000 by the end of this year considering that only 3,000 have been accommodated so far, bearing in mind that we are almost half way through the year? It appears the money is going to the private rental sector. Therefore, the benefit is rent supplement by another name. This seems to imply a failure on the part of the State to provide social housing. It is a very expensive Band-Aid to cover up the problem.
It is expected that the €24 million allocated for this year will be spent fully. Steps are being taken by both Departments, local authorities and community welfare services to ensure this. The funds being transferred are and will be used to roll out the RAS. The scheme is not rent supplement by another name because it provides more permanent, negotiated accommodation, including long-term accommodation, whereas the RAS, by definition, provides short-term accommodation. There is now more security in attempting to provide permanent accommodation for so many. We are confident the target of accommodating 10,000 by the end of the year will be met.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of a second-tier, employment-neutral, child income support payments to target child poverty levels.".
This is one of the issues the Minister has raised from time to time in recent years. It concerns the second-tier, employment-neutral child income support payment to target child poverty levels. This idea was broadly agreed and welcomed when it first arose. We had been pushing for the child dependant allowance to be increased for a number of years. It has been increased but we are still awaiting a second-tier, targeted, employment-neutral payment. This might be an opportunity for the Minister to report progress to the House.
As the Deputy knows, I have long held the view that implementing a targeted second-tier payment for children of families on low incomes is the best effective method of tackling child poverty. The NESC has been examining this concept and indicated that, as proposed, a second-tier income represents a new approach to targeting. The issues involved are complex and technical and a substantial policy challenge must be overcome. The commitment to examine the changes was subsequently embodied in the partnership agreement, Towards 2016, which committed to completing consideration of these issues within one year. As the Deputy knows, I made a decision to press ahead with a form of a second tier payment while this work was progressing in the background.
The child dependant allowance, now called the qualified child allowance, was established to pay additional funds to the poorest of the three categories of children on the child benefit list. I am satisfied this payment which has been paid from 1 January last will serve as a second-tier payment in the hands of those who need it while we await the introduction of a more formal system.
I welcome that payment, for which we have been pushing for some time on this side of the House. Will the Minister state when the NESC was first asked to report on this matter and when he expects to receive its report? Has he given any indication on the extension of the deadline for the back to school clothing and footwear grant, which is part of the second tier payment, to closer to Christmas instead of the end of September, which is tight time-wise? It would make a major difference to people if he moved it forward. It would not cost anything extra but would give poorer people some extra breathing space.
When was the NESC asked to carry out this report? When will the Minister receive the report? Has there been an interim report? Will there be an extension of the deadline for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance?
The Department of the Taoiseach requested the NESC to prepare that work and it goes back three or four years. I referred in my reply to an additional year of work under Towards 2016 but I am satisfied that an additional €60 million went towards a child benefit form of payment, the child dependant allowance, the first time that happened since 1994. The House asked for that and it will have a direct impact because the money went directly to the one third of children on the lowest incomes.
Last year we debated the timing of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. I recall the advice at the time being that we should not bring it back too much but Deputies opposite made a case for a week or two. It might not, however, be a good idea to make it available towards the summer. It is paid from 1 September and the request was to bring it back to August.
We can certainly look at that. I committed myself to that last year but as we left it too late, I said we would look at it this year. I will commit the Department to examining that. I remember thinking at the time that an extra two weeks would be about right, instead of going all the way to Christmas.
I thank the Minister for making that commitment. If he brought the payment as far as the end of October, it would be a natural full-stop in the time limit. It is not that much further on but it would give people the extra time because September is such a busy month in school — I spent long enough at the chalk board to know that parents are under pressure and do not think about these things until it is too late and the community welfare officers' hands are tied. It is a shame that the money is there when people do not know about it.
I thank the Minister for the other information about the NESC.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the progress to date in replacing the One Parent Family Payment with the new parental allowance for all low income families.".
This is another issue the Minister has raised on a number of occasions. We had a meeting in Farmleigh and I went myself to hear what people had to say. It involves the cohabitation rule and the need to offer one-parent families more support and assistance. What is the situation here? When does the Minister expect the Department to take action on the issue? There is broad agreement across the House that something must be done about this.
I have heard about inspectors from the Department going out and noting car registration numbers outside houses. The former partner cannot enter the house to visit the children. Is that an interpretation that some officials are making themselves? If that persists, I will cause a ruaille buaille because people are entitled to visit their children. That is why the cohabitation rule should be booted out. It is nonsense and, in fairness, the Minister is committed to getting rid of it.
The problem is, however, that a plethora of poverty traps could be created whereby parents in one-parent families could face huge difficulties. FÁS must totally reorganise to facilitate lone parents in acquiring new training and skills to avail of employment. Neither must people be forced into low paid employment.
This must be done slowly because we could take one step forward and two steps back. We do not want people to be worse off as a result of desirable change that causes problems because it is not practically applied.
The Government's discussion paper proposals for supporting lone parents includes proposals in this regard and I thank all those involved in working on this reforming document.
It proposes the abolition of the cohabitation rule as a condition for receipt of a new social assistance payment and proposes to replace the lone parent's allowance with a new social assistance payment aimed at supporting children in low income families irrespective of the make-up of those families. That is an important reform that we must press ahead with as soon as possible. The groups involved have asked us to develop other services alongside it in parallel, such as child care, and I accept that point.
While we are pressing ahead with this, and it is receiving substantial attention in the Department, we increased the upper income limit for the one-parent family payment from €293 to €400 per week, the figure recommended in the proposals. I have started to implement the contents of the document by making that decision.
A group of senior officials is examining social inclusion and it is drawing up an implementation plan that will look at non-income elements, such as training, education and other services, that must be brought along at the same time. The Department, with the co-operation of FÁS and the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science, has decided to test these proposals in both an urban and a rural setting and we will get on with those tests as a matter of urgency. They will focus on identifying and resolving practical administrative issues that may arise.
It would be appropriate to test some of the issues Deputy Penrose mentioned to see if there are any unintended consequences. The tests will also allow logistical co-ordination between Departments as we move towards the development of the new scheme.
I would have liked to come before the House with a Bill on this matter. As Deputy Penrose said, it is better to be sure and get it right because a good deal of work has gone into it. I am confident that the momentum built up, the fact that we have already implemented substantial parts of the financial aspects and the agreement now reached will allow us to bring forward the legislation, remove the cohabitation condition and replace the one parent family allowance with one targeted at low income families, whatever their make-up.
The Minister has said this is a very important issue and that it is right that we proceed carefully. A number of issues arise. I was told by a lady recently that her son and his girlfriend wanted to get married but they found out that they would lose out financially if they did. There are other issues tied up with this one. On the issue of work, a lone parent with a 14 month old boy visited me recently. She returned to work for 14 hours a week but for some reason was unable to receive family income supplement, while her rent supplement was reduced because she was earning. As a result, she got into debt and experienced various problems. The poverty levels among lone parents are high compared to those in the general population and the level of indebtedness is something about which we should be concerned also. Am I correct in saying the earliest this measure will be introduced is in the Social Welfare Bill next year?
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
1.—"The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of targeted social and community supports for young carers.".
I have raised this issue many times. The social partners which make up the real Parliament where all the decisions are made have now decided that the issue of young carers should form part of a study. I want to record my concern for young carers who are small in number but have to care for a parent and carry out very intimate functions. They should receive more support than they are getting. I ask the Minister to push that issue with his colleagues.
I acknowledge the Deputy's consistency on this matter over a long period. The report with which he is familiar recommends that policy relating to young carers should be a matter for the Department of Health and Children and that services should be delivered by the Health Service Executive. The Deputy has spoken up for this group. It has not been easy to develop strategy in this area because of the very young age of the people involved. While they are carers, there is a view strongly held in many quarters that they should not be.
I move amendment No. 24:
In page 28, line 38, to delete "Table" and substitute "Table 1".
This amendment provides for the correction of an error made in the printing of the Bill and ensures the appropriate reference in Part 3 of Schedule 3 is that the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act refers to "Table 1" as opposed to "Table".
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 69 (Dermot Ahern, Michael Ahern, Noel Ahern, Barry Andrews, Seán Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Johnny Brady, Martin Brady, Séamus Brennan, John Browne, Joe Callanan, Pat Carey, John Carty, Beverley Flynn, Mary Coughlan, John Cregan, John Curran, Noel Davern, Síle de Valera, Tony Dempsey, John Dennehy, Jimmy Devins, John Ellis, Michael Finneran, Dermot Fitzpatrick, Seán Fleming, Mildred Fox, Pat Gallagher, Jim Glennon, Noel Grealish, Mary Hanafin, Joe Jacob, Cecilia Keaveney, Billy Kelleher, Peter Kelly, Tony Killeen, Séamus Kirk, Tom Kitt, Brian Lenihan Jnr, Conor Lenihan, Jim McDaid, Tom McEllistrim, John McGuinness, John Moloney, Donal Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Michael Mulcahy, M J Nolan, Éamon Ó Cuív, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Charlie O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Liz O'Donnell, John O'Donoghue, Denis O'Donovan, Noel O'Flynn, Ned O'Keeffe, Fiona O'Malley, Tom Parlon, Peter Power, Seán Power, Mae Sexton, Brendan Smith, Noel Treacy, Dan Wallace, Mary Wallace, Joe Walsh, Ollie Wilkinson, G V Wright)
Against the motion: 51 (Bernard Allen, Dan Boyle, James Breen, Pat Breen, Tommy Broughan, Joan Burton, Paul Connaughton, Paudge Connolly, Joe Costello, Jerry Cowley, Seymour Crawford, Seán Crowe, Ciarán Cuffe, Jimmy Deenihan, Bernard Durkan, Olwyn Enright, Martin Ferris, Eamon Gilmore, Tony Gregory, Tom Hayes, Joe Higgins, Michael D Higgins, Phil Hogan, Brendan Howlin, Paul Kehoe, Kathleen Lynch, Shane McEntee, Finian McGrath, Paul McGrath, Paddy McHugh, Olivia Mitchell, Arthur Morgan, Breeda Moynihan-Cronin, Denis Naughten, Dan Neville, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Jim O'Keeffe, Brian O'Shea, Jan O'Sullivan, Séamus Pattison, Willie Penrose, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, Michael Ring, Trevor Sargent, Joe Sherlock, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Mary Upton, Jack Wall)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Stagg and Kehoe.
Question declared carried.