Wednesday, 12 December 2007
Social Welfare Bill 2007: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—The Minister shall, within the next 12 months, complete a review to determine and set new longer term benchmarks against which the evolution of social welfare rates can be measured.
There are systematic weaknesses or bottlenecks in the system that need to be ironed out. It would be constructive if that were accepted from the outset. My first amendment addresses one bottleneck, namely, the benchmarking issue. A target was set under the national anti-poverty strategy in 2002 to achieve a rate of €150 per week, equivalent to approximately 30% of the gross average industrial earnings in 2002, for the lowest rates of social welfare by 2007. The minimum level of social welfare will be €197.80 once this legislation takes effect.
It is time to examine a long-term benchmark against which to measure the real cost of living or the real threshold for social welfare payments. The Minister should introduce such a measure anyway, that is, to do a review within a year. I have couched my amendment in terms of one year because various Ministers have often told the House of reviews or examinations that can stagger on for four or five years before we learn of a result. In this context, I have sought for the review to be conducted within one year. I hope the Minister will consider accepting my amendment.
I appreciate the tradition in debates on the Social Welfare Bills is to table amendments in the same guise as Deputy Morgan's so as to create debate because Deputies are unable to table amendments that put a charge on the Exchequer. I do not mind this.
The appropriateness of benchmarking social welfare rates has been actively considered for some time. In 2001, the Social Welfare Benchmarking and Indexation Group was established to examine the issues involved in developing a benchmark for the adequacy of adult and child social welfare payments. The group published its final report in September 2001 but did not achieve a consensus position on the desirability of establishing a formal benchmark. However, I would not accept that we are not using clear public indicators. The illustrated benchmark options examined in the report included 30% of the gross average industrial earnings and 50% of average weekly household income. The group could not agree which would be the better option, as there were advantages and disadvantages associated with each.
The report provides a valuable resource for the assessment of implications of adopting particular approaches to the uprating of social welfare payments and was considered by the Government as part of the review of the national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, in 2002. Recognising that the exact rate was a matter for the Government, the strategy set a target of €150 per week in 2002 terms for the lowest social welfare payments to be met by 2007. This target was achieved in budget 2007.
The current social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, commits the Government and the social partners to working together to achieve the NAPS target and to maintain the value of the lowest social welfare rates at this level during the course of the agreement subject to available resources. The programme for Government reiterates this commitment, but based it on maintaining the value of the rate achieved in 2007 of €185.80. In budget 2008, the lowest rates of payment increased by 6.5% to €197.80 per week, more than twice the projected rate of inflation for 2008, not only maintaining the value of the payment in line with Government commitment, but enhancing it.
Since 2004, the lowest social welfare rates have risen by 58% compared to the period's cumulative price index increase of 15%. In 2004, the lowest social welfare rate payment equated to 24% of the gross average industrial earnings. As Deputy Morgan knows, that figure stands at 30% now. Therefore, I cannot accept his amendment.
It is always good to have a debate with the Minister, especially when he gets into a fiery humour and there is a bit of a row to liven it up. It is always interesting. Perhaps I should try to provoke the Minister now to get the debate going.
It would not work through the Chair. It is useful to debate these matters.
The Minister stated that a review is ongoing, but does he accept my point about how to achieve long-term benchmarking? I am not sure he is saying "No" because I did not hear him reject the amendment, despite that being what he will do. Does he reject the notion of the amendment, namely, a long-term review of the benchmarking process to make it more effective? I am not sure that he is rejecting that concept completely.
The principle of the Deputy's suggestion is at work. I have given clear indications of how it is occurring, namely, through social partnership, NAPS inclusion and the targets set. I have also given clear indications of the figures at the time of the discussions and the current figures.
The debate on the Green Paper on Pensions may provide the Deputy with clarity on the issue. The paper will involve a long examination of what we need to do, how we should do it, what should be the targets, how to make up pensions in future and what would be considered a reasonable, acceptable and good quality standard of living in old age. When the consideration is finished and we have plotted the path forward, there will be issues surrounding many of the matters discussed in the House. While there will not be direct linkages, obvious aspects will emerge after the completion of the Green Paper's review. I will leave the amendment in that arena for the moment.
Many poverty groups state that the current rates are insufficient to meet living needs. I referred to this matter when I stated that the people affected should not ask, cap in hand, for what is a basic threshold to meet living needs. I do not doubt that the Minister knows this through his constituency office. Many of my colleagues on this side of the House and I know it because these are the representations we are regularly receiving at our doors. People are unable to meet their living needs on these rates.
The poverty groups state that there must be benchmarking. The Department's current activity is not sufficiently focused or timeframed to get us to the point of putting a new benchmarking process in place. This is the essence of my amendment. As other Deputies want to introduce further amendments, I will rest.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—The Minister shall, within the next 12 months, review the Fuel Allowance payment and report to Dáil Éireann on the implications of increasing it substantially.".
The fuel allowance period was extended by one week in this budget but it was not extended by one cent. I would like to hear from the Minister on the way he intends to address that issue. We called for the fuel allowance period to be extended from 29 weeks to 34 weeks to bring it to the end of April, which would be a more realistic target given the Irish climate. We have also called for a €10 per week increase, which would reflect the true cost of fuel in this State. Fuel poverty remains with us and we see the effects of it on the most isolated groups in our society. Older people and lone parents in particular are unable to afford fuel and there are knock-on consequences on other parts of the system in terms of ill-health, additional doctor, hospital and accident and emergency visits, and so on. It also affects children's education because the lack of heating in their homes means they miss school due to colds, influenza and so on. It has a series of knock-on effects and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
I want to put one or two points to the Minister. My amendment seeks a report on the payment of the fuel allowance as a once-off bulk payment. I would like the Minister to at least consider that and engage in a discussion with some of the relevant groups in the sector. I am sure the Minister, no more than myself and other Deputies here, has come across pensioners in particular who borrow from their credit union to buy a full delivery of whatever type of fuel they use, be it briquettes, coal, turf, logs or whatever. They then use the fuel allowance to pay off the loan they get to provide them with fuel. It is slightly cheaper to buy fuel in bulk, although if they use oil they have no alternative but to buy in bulk and that is causing hardship. I accept some people are not as good as others at balancing their budgets and it may be more convenient for them to get the payment every week, but this aspect should be examined with a view to at least giving people the option.
In seeking a report, I ask that it would also consider the option of transferring the free electricity allowance to the natural gas allowance, which is only available to people who are on the town gas system. Unfortunately, only a limited number of towns are on that gas system. With more apartments being built, particularly in the main towns of each county, some of which are not on the natural gas system, and where the central heating system is separately metered and so on, people are unable to transfer the allowance because that is not an option. Obviously, as more social housing units are being provided by developers, more people will be put into those type of units not necessarily by choice, but because that is all that is available from the local authority. That has become more of a problem recently. In asking the Minister to consider this issue, I ask him to examine that aspect also.
As I said in my opening remarks, and Deputy Enright may have been the only Member in the House at the time, I accept that people can highlight different aspects of the social welfare package and look for substantial increases. That is all very well if one did not have to do what I have to do, which is to balance the budget across the spectrum and ensure we use the resources available to us, which now total €17 billion. Over 30% of all Government expenditure goes through this Department and that is significant across the system.
I was conscious of the benefit of the fuel allowance and examined it to see if there was anything I could do. I decided what was achievable this year was to extend the fuel allowance to 30 weeks. That was a good move which cost €5.6 million just to move that one week into the mix. Deputy Morgan is talking about adding €10 a week but it would cost tens of millions of euro to do so. That is a significant cost and if we decided to do that, we would have to consider not being as generous in other areas. I am not sure that is what people want. From my perspective, the main concentration for people who benefit from the fuel allowance, and I am sure the same people are talking to all Deputies, has been the massive increases in the old age pension, which is more beneficial than simply concentrating on that area.
As the Deputy will be aware, budget 2006 provided for an increase in the rate of fuel allowance of from €9 to €14 and up to €18 in this year's budget. There have been significant increases in recent budgets, and rightly so because fuel costs have increased dramatically in that period. I would like to have had the resources this year to do more in that area, but I was faced with choices and I had to get the balance right. By and large, across the spectrum of the €900 million package available for the budget for my Department that I worked on at some length, I hope that we have used resources in the best and fairest way across the system.
Deputy Enright raised the point about a review of the fuel allowance. She said some people would prefer to get the allowance in a lump sum while others would like to have it paid out over a specific period. For the benefit of Members, a detailed review of the fuel allowance was carried out in 1998 and the review examined alternatives to the weekly payment method, including a single lump payment. A survey of recipients of the allowance on a customer panel showed that a majority, 58%, preferred weekly payment; only 22% wanted the lump sum payment, 12% favoured direct debit to a supplier, while 8% would rather have two lump sum payments during the fuel season. The review recommended continuing with the current payment system.
The weekly payment appears to be the most favoured by recipients on the scheme. I have no particular view regarding changing to a lump sum payment. I cannot recall anybody coming into my clinic to tell me they would prefer to get the fuel allowance in a lump sum. The weekly payment helps people to budget. They like to get their resources on a weekly basis. They feel secure in the resources they are getting. They know what they are getting every week and can better budget as a result. It is an issue we keep under constant review. All Ministers are aware of its importance. As fuel costs continue to rise, it is an issue I will re-examine in next year's budget.
I acknowledged at the opening of my Second Stage contribution that there will be a difficulty in managing a budget in the face of the current economic downturn we are experiencing, but will the House accept that a jackass could run the scheme if we are to simply let it run on and not be imaginative? What we should be trying to bring to this budgetary situation is a change in our thinking. Front loading can sometimes result in significant savings. If a group of accountants were running some of these Departments, would they be more effective? From an accounting perspective it would probably be more cost-effective and efficient to front-load some of these benefits, such as fuel allowance, to save on the other costs I described earlier, including hospital and other medical bills, and also the effect on education. I am acutely conscious that we do not want to burden the taxpayer unnecessarily by even a single cent. Obviously competitiveness and other factors are affected as a consequence. Those who qualify for fuel allowance are at the other end of the spectrum of poverty and deprivation. It is a missed opportunity.
The extra week per year will have an additional cost of €5.6 million to the Exchequer. I do not see any extra allocation. Where is the €5.6 million coming from? Is a saving made in the overall budget?
It is in the €900 million additional budget package to the Estimates. It is clearly identified in budget 2008 in the breakdown of the costs of each of the different categories.
Perhaps I should have tabled an amendment to provide for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to attend a training course in negotiations so he could be more effective in getting a better deal with the Department of Finance and various Ministers.
It is easy to be imaginative if one has the money. An extra €10 per week payment is very laudable and with which no one will disagree. To implement such a provision would cost €118 million, a significant amount of money. It would have to be taken from another provision which would lead to a reduction in, say, the old age pension or other welfare payments. The balance we struck in distributing the extra €900 million has met with a positive reception.
As a Minister and parent, I am becoming increasingly frustrated with people claiming the economy is in downturn or meltdown. That is irresponsible talk. The economy is growing better than most other economies. An economy's success is based on confidence, such as confidence in markets or international investors having confidence in investing in Ireland.
It is correct that the exceptional growth rates of 8% and 9% in recent years are no longer in place. However, they were not sustainable. No economy could inexorably maintain such growth rates. The economy has slowed to a more manageable growth rate.
It is important the message from everyone is that this is a good country in which to do business. By European and international standards, the economy is still growing strongly and ahead of the best. To talk about the changing difference in economic growth from 9% to 4% is reasonable. However, some experts in the House and outside it have described the economy as being in meltdown. That is humbug and rubbish. It should be knocked by every Member because it is not true.
"Downturn" and "meltdown" do not fairly describe the economy. It is extremely strong and we are able to reflect that strength with this year's social welfare package. I am not referring specifically to Deputy Morgan but to those outside the House who present themselves as experts every day of the week. Some day in their lives they may get it right.
That was a lovely after-dinner speech to a chamber of commerce, well practised by the Minister and his colleagues in various parts of the State. To say there has been no change in Revenue receipts is more than ridiculous.
It is unfortunate the Government was over-reliant on the property and construction sector. If it had managed it more carefully, we would not be in this situation.
Will the Minister consider my point on the switch over to the natural gas allowance? It is a cost-neutral measure and will allow people, such as those in apartment blocks whose gas supply may be stored centrally, to change from the electricity allowance to the gas allowance.
I appreciate there was a review of the fuel allowance payment method nine years ago. While I accept the Minister will not introduce a review, a close eye should be kept on the issue. I know of people borrowing from credit unions to make a bulk purchase of fuel and then paying interest. I appreciate the 1998 review found the majority favour the existing system and there would be a cost in changing the process. However, it must be ensured the payment is not used to pay off loans because fuel products have to be bought in bulk.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—The Minister shall, within the next three months, report on the direct provision scheme for asylum seekers; highlight the hardship it is causing that group, and report to Dáil Éireann on the implications of increasing it before the next budget.".
This amendment seeks a review by the Minister within three months of the direct provision scheme for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers receive €19.10 per week and €9.60 per week for children. Most children of asylum seekers attend school. The added expense of this is enormous, of which the Minister must have some understanding. The asylum process is lengthy. People who have been here for between five and eight years have visited my constituency office. If there is no recognition that €19.10 is not sufficient we need to review the length of the process or allow asylum seekers to work so that they can at least have the dignity of earning an income and lifting themselves out of dire poverty.
No doubt every Member of the House has dealt with asylum seekers and knows that their depression and loneliness are profound. A compassionate and humanitarian approach is required, whether by speeding up the process to 12 or 18 months or by providing for them to get a job, even part time, to earn their income.
The reception and integration agency of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is responsible for direct provision. The payment rate of €19.10 for an adult and €9.60 for a child, coupled with direct provision, is acceptable under all the conventions, particularly the UN convention.
Asylum seekers and their families are not considered to be at a higher risk of poverty than persons who depend on social welfare payments, given the standards of goods and services available to them through direct provision. There is no evidence to support the point underlining the remarks of several Deputies that children receiving direct provision are in great need or suffering in some particular way. We would examine any such evidence.
I do not propose to accept the amendment.
I support Deputy Morgan's amendment and disagree with the Minister's point. I accept that accommodation and food are provided but the figures for the payment remain as they were when direct provision was introduced. It is treated as pocket money, a term I dislike. Every group involved in this area, and the budget submissions from Combat Poverty, state that it causes difficulty for children and adults. The Minister has told me there is a school meals programme but not every school offers it. Children are at a disadvantage in not being able to avail of all school activities requiring payment, such as tours, or food.
I acknowledge that the Minister's Department is not responsible for the location of the direct provision centres but this needs to be considered. One recently opened in Emo in County Laois, between a motorway and a former national primary road, approximately six miles from Portlaoise. The people have to cross a roundabout on a motorway to get to the nearest shop which is a fair distance up the road. The payment of €9.60 for a child and €19.10 for an adult does not allow those people travel into the nearest town or village to avail of any services they need there. A taxi costs more than their weekly payment. It is an entirely different matter if one has a car and chooses to live there but the location causes difficulty for those accommodated there under direct provision. If the Government is intent on continuing the abysmal rate of payment it must examine where people are accommodated to ensure they can avail of amenities. They do not even have the option of bringing their children to the cinema, or doing other small things that most families take for granted.
I urge the Minister to review these limits and the habitual residents condition. Legal organisations involved inform me that there are social welfare officers misapplying this or still using the two year rule. The Minister may contradict this but that is what I have been told — I can try to get examples for him. It is important the rules are accurately applied. Will the Minister address any problems in that area?
I do not know whether asylum seekers are at greater risk of poverty than the rest of the population. I suspect that many of the groups involved would refute the Minister's point but I will ask them for reports to support their claims.
The direct provision concept is wrong. The Mosney camp in east Meath is the centre closest to me. I recall when it was Butlins which we visited on school trips when it was brilliant craic with roller skating, boating and so on. I visit asylum seekers there frequently to discuss their problems and by the time I get to the car park I am depressed because the place is so bleak. The accommodation appears as it did back in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
The residents must take a taxi to the nearest town, Drogheda, which is approximately four or five miles away. If they walk two miles they can get a bus. Those costs add up but the people receive less than €20 a week which is appalling in human terms.
The amendment asks the Minister to report on the direct provision scheme for asylum seekers, within the next three months, highlight the hardship it causes that group and report to the Dáil on the implications of increasing it before the next budget. That is a minimal request and I hope the Minister will listen to it.
On what does the Minister base his assertion that there is no evidence of poverty among asylum seekers? Any of the groups working in this area can tell him about the severe difficulties they face.
Surely research is not necessary to convince the Minister that it is exceptionally difficult to live on €19.10 per week. I am not suggesting people will starve because food is provided, though that is not ideal. How can a person survive on €19 per week? That payment was introduced in 1999 and has not increased since then so its value has decreased by at least 40% in the intervening years. How can a payment regarded as adequate in 1999 still be regarded so now when it has lost much of its value? This defies logic and this is the only welfare payment that has not increased over those years.
The Minister knows there are endless demands on families in terms of expenditure aside from food. An adult is only allowed €19.10 per week and a child €9.60 and this will not cover bus fares to town, let alone clothes, even from secondhand shops. How can the Minister have the brass neck to suggest there is no evidence of poverty among asylum seekers? His attitude is exceptionally mean-spirited and I call on him to acquaint himself with the realities of life for people in these circumstances, speak to the groups involved and review the level at which this payment is set.
I will respond to the Deputy's point if she allows me. People are not being asked to live on €19.10 and €9.60 for every child. They receive accommodation and food. I would not suggest we are an ungenerous people and the asylum system has improved with applications being processed faster. I do not have direct responsibility for this area and I am not responsible for the payment, though I am happy to address the matter.
We are dealing with the issue of habitual residence in a very narrow context but other schemes affected by habitual residence include the jobseeker's allowance, the non-contributory State pension, the blind person's pension, widow's and widower's pensions, guardian's payment, one-parent family allowance, carer's allowance and supplementary welfare allowance.
There is an issue at the root of all this and we wish to be as generous as we can on behalf of taxpayers but we cannot simply have no rules and regulations on how people come to Ireland and gain residency.
There must be basic rules and without them we know what the consequences could be. The habitual residence clause is one of the issues that affects a range of areas. When I gave the figures in a Dáil parliamentary question recently they were insignificant in terms of people caught in this position. People are moving through the system more quickly.
I have been generous in trying to deal with the question as direct provision has nothing to do with my Department. If Deputies do not want to listen to me there is nothing I can do about it and, therefore, I cannot accept the amendment. I do not provide direct provision.
A point must be made on child benefit because any Member of this House with children under 18 years of age is entitled to the payment, regardless of his or her salary. Children do not receive this through the asylum process. The Minister says these children are adequately catered for but I disagree with him and think most right thinking people would also disagree with him. It is wrong that the only extra money they receive is €9.60 per week and I agree with Deputy Shortall that €9.60 will not cover basic things such as clothes, school uniforms and entrance to sports facilities.
It seems the Minister does not want responsibility for this matter but I know, from talking to some of the groups involved, that nobody in Government is willing to take responsibility. These groups have contacted several Government Departments seeking to discuss direct provision and have it increased but nobody has been willing to engage in meaningful discussions. I ask the Minister to raise this issue at Cabinet level and even if the only area he will deal with relates to children that would be a good start. I urge the Minister to rethink Government policy on this issue.
I wish to correct the record on a point the Minister made; nobody on this side of the House advocates an open door policy on entry to this country. We all recognise that a responsible process is necessary but I suggested earlier that the process of examining those claiming asylum must be expedited. This would have a positive effect on the Exchequer and in the absence of this asylum seekers should be allowed to work. Not only is this an issue of income but it is an issue of dignity also because many of those who come here have significant qualifications and do not want to be dependent on the State; they would rather independence for the short period while their asylum applications are processed.
The Minister is being ridiculous on the issue of the €9.60 payment for children. What child does not want an occasional toy or birthday or Christmas gift? What can one buy for them for €19.10? I hope that when Members are searching for Christmas presents this year for children, such as nephews, nieces and other family members, they check the prices and think of the difficulties facing asylum seekers. Asylum seekers must face these difficulties all year long. It is unfortunate the Minister is not taking a humanitarian approach to this, rather than a solely budgetary view.
As a parent I reject the suggestion that I do not care about children and do not understand their needs. I do not disagree with the sentiments of the Deputies in that we all want to see people move through the system as quickly as possible. Huge resources and great effort went into transforming this area some years ago, led by the current Ceann Comhairle. These changes were needed and were a recognition of the demands made of this country. We are a generous, welcoming people and many people come here for better lives. They are welcome to this goal but there is a process they must go through to ensure they meet the reasonable requirements asked of them. Nobody wants to stop this process or punish anyone.
The process that we have has improved a great deal in recent years and, while I understand the Deputies' points, I am dealing with a process that is in place to ensure we manage this issue as a society. When people come through the system they may then receive good outcomes.
I do not understand how this amendment is adjudged to involve a charge on Revenue. The Estimates make provision for the numbers eligible and becoming eligible for a State pension. That is what determines the cost to the Exchequer——
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—The Minister shall, within 1 month of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the progress of the National Carers Strategy.".
This issue has already been thrashed out to some degree via Priority Questions earlier in the week and on Second Stage. The Minister is aware of my dissatisfaction with the failure to deliver the national carers strategy on schedule. Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 propose timeframes for the purpose of keeping the Minister on his toes and ensuring the strategy is in place by next summer, as he has promised it will be.
Amendment No. 6 proposes the publication of a progress report on the strategy within one month of the commencement of the Bill. I understand there have been brief discussions, as opposed to proper consultation, with some of the associations involved, with a view to implementing the strategy. The budget offers some improvements in terms of payments to carers. Like many of my colleagues, however, I have concerns. The allowance is increased for those who are eligible by €14 per week. However, many carers remain ineligible for payment. I am opposed to the stringent application of the means test to the income of the carer's spouse rather than basing it on the carer's own income. This is something that should be changed as part of the carers strategy. There must also be flexibility in regard to other allowances. The Minister must have discussions with his colleagues, particularly the Minister for Health and Children, to ensure respite care, for instance, is available for those who need it and that they can avail of the grant and use it for the purpose for which it is intended.
Amendment No. 7 proposes that the Minister should, within three months of the commencement of the Bill, produce a progress report on the levels of support available to young carers, of whom there are some 3,000. In an ideal world, no persons aged less than 18 years should be placed in the position of carer. The people concerned are to be commended on the responsibility they take upon themselves at such a tender age. Many of them are conscious of an obligation to the person for whom they care and are certain it is what they want to do. However, the State has a responsibility to lessen the burden that caring responsibilities place on young people. Will the Minister ensure this report is based on consultation with these 3,000 young people, many of whom combine their caring role with full-time education? They are likely to be the least vocal and engaged in terms of drawing attention to their position. When I attend meetings of the Carers Association and other groups, it is generally older carers in attendance and making their voices heard. It is important that young carers are engaged in the process.
Amendments Nos. 24 and 26 in my name seek to address two anomalies in the operation of the carer's allowance system. The first relates to those carers who care for more than one person. The system as it operates is unfair in respect of their position. If a person is providing full-time care for two or more people, thus enabling them to live independently and remain outside institutional care, he or she should be paid an allowance in respect of each of those persons. I do not understand the justification or rationalisation for not recognising this type of contribution and providing an appropriate allowance in each case. Will the Minister reconsider this rule or, at least, provide some justification for it?
Amendment No. 26 relates to the situation where people are not entitled to credits while in receipt of carer's allowance unless they were claiming for credits in the two years prior to being granted the allowance. Many carers previously worked in the home and did not sign on for credits and were not in receipt of any social welfare payment. There is no justification for denying such carers the right to be awarded credits for the period in which they provide care. The failure to award these persons credit for the duration of their caring duties has long-term implications in terms of their pensions. It is a mean-spirited rule and the cost implications of a change would not be significant. It is unfair to those who may have been full-time carers of their own children in the home and subsequently take on the care of an elderly parent or parent-in-law. They are denied credits simply because they were not in employment beforehand or claiming social welfare benefits. There is no justification for this and I ask the Minister to review it with a view to correcting it in next year's budget.
There seems to be little difference between us on this issue. We are ad idem in our desire to have the carers strategy in place. The relevant groups are interested in participating but it has taken more time than we wished to get the process going. Some of the reasons are outside our control. There are differing views and the emphasis placed by various groups is somewhat different. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that we will secure an outcome. I hope it is one that is driven by a broad consensus.
Deputy Shortall raises two valid points. I will consider the issues she has raised in the context of the strategy. I remind the Opposition spokespersons that if they wish to raise any specific issues as we move forward with implementing the strategy, I am open to discussions individually or by other means. I never pretended I was the font of all ideas on any subject. I am not sure we will secure all the outcomes we seek, but it is important to discuss any issues that arise to better shape a strategy that will best meet the needs of those concerned. Although I accept Deputy Shortall's points as valid, I will not accept the amendments because they are not suitable for inclusion in primary legislation. However, I have set out my position in principle.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to produce a carers strategy before the end of this year. Why is this process delayed and what is the timescale now envisaged by the Minister? What opportunity will there be to avail of his invitation to spokespersons to contribute to the process?
Several matters of equal importance to this were being dealt with at the time I took up my Ministry. The timeframe I am working towards is to have this completed by next summer. I hope the various groups will adhere to that timetable.
As I have often said, deadlines sometimes create a false sense of focus that is not always helpful. The focus should be to achieve a good outcome. So be it if that takes some additional months to achieve, as in this case.
I am open to having discussions with the spokespersons directly. If they prefer to feed into the process in some other way, I will structure it such that anybody who wishes to express his or her view can do so. As I said, however, I am pleased to meet directly with Deputy Shortall and others to discuss the matter. I do not have an issue with this.
It is very important to have a focus and dates give us something to work with. This delay has not been caused by the strategy being very complicated but by the process not having even started. This must be recognised. Any of the carers to whom I have spoken is not happy with the delay which has not been caused by carers but by the Department.
Two issues immediately come to mind in bringing the strategy forward. The first is that if a carer is switched, meaning that person dies or leaves, the person being cared for must be re-examined, despite their care needs having already been established. That is a waste of resources within the Department which must be addressed.
Will the Minister deal with the delays in his own Department in processing carer's allowance applications? I accept that doctors' reports etc. are required and that the payment is backdated, but if a person really needs the money, it is of no use knowing it will be paid in six months. A person cannot borrow against it because receipt of the allowance is not guaranteed. The time lag is unacceptable. We are all involved in tabling questions to try to find out when people will receive their payments but the matter must be dealt with in the Department. It does not relate, in particular, to the strategy.
That will wash out of the system quickly. It is a new programme with new processes in place and there have been delays because of the sheer volume of applications. It is unfortunate but the officials in the Department are dealing with the matter as quickly as possible. The Deputy correctly indicated the allowance is backdated.
We need a focus but the timeframe is not the be all and end all of everything. The quality of the focus and what we achieve as we come out the other end is important. We should commence the process and, more importantly, complete it to see where we go from there.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas a report on the levels of support available to young carers.".
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on increasing the Living Alone Allowance.".
The Minister dealt with some of my comments yesterday on Second Stage in his conclusion today. He indicated that priority had been given to personal rates rather than supplements and that the Government had improved the lot of pensioners. I wish to make the point again, as it is important to do so, that I have a difficulty in that the living alone allowance has not been increased since its introduction approximately nine years ago.
If the old age pension is increased, every person in receipt of it will benefit rather than a small group. The difficulty with a living alone allowance is that where a couple is living together and one passes away, whether the couple in question consists of a brother and sister, husband and wife or partners, the other will only have to buy food and clothes for one person but every other household bill will be as expensive as before, whether it is for light, heat, electricity or insurance. In that sense, the living alone allowance has helped such persons to cope with the change from a cost perspective when living on their own. It is more difficult for persons who had not been used to being on their own. It is an important allowance. Although I appreciate everything cannot be increased, this has merit. It may not change as a result of this amendment but I ask the Minister to consider the issue in order that people can be helped, particularly those in the circumstances I have outlined.
I support the amendment. I believe it is actually 14 years since the allowance was increased. Does the Minister accept the principle that it is more expensive for one person to live alone than what it costs two people to live together?
Of course, I accept the principle and it would be a fool who would not. Clearly, it is more expensive for one person to live on his or her own as many of the overheads undoubtedly remain the same. My essential point on this matter is that it was in recognition of this fact that so much emphasis was put on increasing the rates of different pensions in recent years.
The rates have been increased much more than if the living alone allowance had been maintained at the proportion it was some years ago. Going back to 1996 and keeping pace, it would be worth about €17 at this stage. I am not saying this is unimportant but in the meantime the rate of comparability on the pension side has moved way beyond this. The decision taken was that it was far better to do more for everybody than to just have a narrow focus. That was the correct approach.
The rates of pension in place at the time had significance for persons living alone but given the transformation in the pension system in recent years, the right approach was to look at the overall pension position. I was going to say most of us would end up alone but that would not be true. It will be one or other of the partners.
The way we are going, the female side of the partnership is living longer; therefore, women will last longer than their male counterparts. The bad news for males in the House is that it will continue this way, according to all projections.
The bottom line is that I do not deny it is an issue which can be very difficult to deal with. I am not dismissive but the Government has tried to lift all boats dramatically. Considering the comparable figures of maintaining the rate and what has happened across all pension payments, the increases have been way ahead of what would have been needed in the living alone allowance. That was the right way to proceed rather than concentrating on one cohort in the spectrum.
I do not accept what the Minister is saying as there is no logic to it. He has just stated he accepts the principle that it is more expensive for one person to live alone. If that is the case, irrespective of what is being done in general with pensions, by not increasing the living alone allowance those living on their own are being penalised.
That is exactly what is being done. The people concerned are not keeping pace with pensioners who are living with somebody else or who have a bigger family. That is the reason I asked the Minister about the principle. If he accepts that it is more expensive for one person to live alone, he must recognise the fact this by making the living alone allowance keep pace with inflation. There is no justification for the failure to do so.
I do not know what the Government is at. Has this issue been overlooked by the Department and the Minister, as there is no justification for it? The Minister should leave aside the term "lifting all boats". Persons living alone are placed at a disadvantage by the policy which failed to increase the living alone allowance over those 14 years. This issue needs attention. There is no reason single pensioners should be placed at a disadvantage vis À vis persons living within a family. The Minister should consider the matter in the coming year.
I agree with the points made by Deputy Shortall in this regard. A couple will get €424 and a person living alone will get €212. The single person's amount needs to pay all the same bills, with the exception of food and clothing. It is simply not possible for them to do it. The Minister needs to give considerably more attention to this area. It is wrong to refer to giving the increase across the board. It does not sort out the problem for the person who is living alone and needs to face those bills. The small amount they get from the allowance is almost an irrelevance in terms of the costs they are facing.
Owing to restrictions on costs to the Exchequer, we were constrained in the way we could word the amendment. We have asked the Minister to provide a report on the living alone allowance. I ask him to genuinely investigate the benefits of increasing it and get an accurate report from his departmental officials of the additional costs faced by a person living alone so we can have a fair discussion on the matter. While all areas of social welfare provision have justification, people in these circumstances are genuinely struggling to make ends meet. Not increasing the allowance has made their lives extremely difficult. Listening to people directly affected by the issue brings home very clearly the difficult conditions under which they are living.
It is a fact regardless of one's age. A person does not need to be old for the costs to be different. Throughout life the costs are greater for someone living alone than sharing with others.
The difference between us is either a policy difference or we are involved in semantics and optics. I will try to put it this way. Either the Opposition Deputies believe we should not have raised old age pensions to the level we have——
I deal with pensioners at clinics, as does the Deputy. The general view among them is that the approach taken of substantially increasing pension rates across the system has been right. The Deputy is suggesting that for the optics we should not have increased them by as much.
The Deputy is being disingenuous. The correct approach in this regard adopted by Fianna Fáil-led Governments since 1997 has been to look after all pensioners in a very substantive way, which has been of considerable benefit to people living alone. The increase has been far greater by addressing the overall pension position than simply concentrating on the living alone allowance. The benefit to the individual has been far higher than by maintaining the rate, as the Deputy has suggested, which would have seen the rate go up to approximately €17 when comparing the position in 1996 with today. Individual pensioners as well as couples have gained far more than they would have if we had simply inched along with the overall pension and inched along with the living alone allowance. That is the reality.
The Deputy is arguing that to have increased the living alone allowance would have been far better than increasing the overall pension position. We took an approach of substantially increasing the overall pension position for both the couple and the individual. The benefit to the individual has been considerably greater than it would have been if we had simply moved the pro rata basis of the living alone allowance. That is simple and straightforward. All pensioners have said to me that the correct approach is the one we have pursued in Government of addressing the overall benefit of all pensioners by increasing substantially the pension for both couples and individuals in recent years.
We should bring this discussion to a close because we are going around in circles. The Minister's failure to recognise the additional costs that a single pensioner has over and above a pensioner living with somebody else has meant that in recent years single pensioners have lost out relative to pensioners living as couples or in larger family situations. Single pensioners have lost out relative to couple pensioners. I do not understand the Minister's justification for that. He started by accepting that single pensioners have higher living costs than pensioners living in couples and yet he did not recognise it in the social welfare code. I do not know why he did not do so.
It may have been an oversight by the Minister and his officials. Given that they have lost out relative to pensioners living as couples, we now need to pay attention to that area and ensure they do not fall further behind.
The Minister's argument is flawed because he does not acknowledge that we all have welcomed the increases in the old age pension. He is deliberately ignoring the specific point we are making that it is more expensive for somebody living on his or her own. There is no point in spending any more of the House's time on the matter because the Minister is not genuinely trying to take on board the points we are making. However, I ask him to reconsider it. While we all welcome the increases in the old age pension, the Minister needs to take cognisance of the points we have raised. He needs to genuinely listen to the arguments being made rather than just trying to twist them in the manner he has done. What he claims we have said is not the point we have made, as the record will clearly show. While those 157,500 people in receipt of the living alone allowance will welcome the increase they have received in the old age pension, they would still make the very points we are making about the costs and difficulty that in relative terms they are far worse off when paying bills than others who have the advantage of being able to share.
I considered this issue and I had a choice. I could have increased the living alone allowance and kept the pension levels at a reduced figure. It was a simple choice in many respects. The Government took the view that overall benefit to all pensioners, including people living on their own, is the best way to achieve the best outcome, which is what we have done.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the reform of the Rent Supplement Scheme.".
The points about the rent supplement have been made well in the past fortnight. The Minister carried out a review last year and is doing another one. Without needing to reiterate what I said yesterday in this regard, I ask that a report be published as soon as possible following the review, possibly within the three-month timeframe. There are two particular issues in this regard as the Minister is aware, the first of which relates to rent supplement caps. It is particularly difficult to find rental accommodation in some areas such as certain parts of Dublin and other cities where rents have increased substantially. As some tenants are unable to receive rent supplement, they are being forced to behave in an illegal manner. There is a significant number of homeless people on our streets — many homeless people have died in recent years — some of whom were unable to acquire accommodation in the first instance because of difficulties with the manner in which rent supplement was paid in arrears. Landlords tend to choose tenants who are able to pay in advance. I am not calling for an increase, as such. It is obvious that the cap issue necessitates an increase. Payment in arrears is a timeframe issue. It does not need to involve a charge on the Exchequer. I ask the Minister to give some attention to these two issues.
As Deputy Enright said, we have discussed this matter at some length in recent weeks. I do not think either of us has much more to add to it. I accept that some issues have arisen. We know this from our dealings with those who come to see us at our clinics. The review of the rent payment system, which runs from January 2007 to June 2008, is up and running. In the next few months we will see exactly what is required. We will take into account the points made in recent times by Deputies on all sides of the House, including Deputy Enright. I await the outcome of the review.
It will kick in after June 2008. I think the new regime has to come into effect at that time. As the review finishes in June, it might be July by the time we receive the report. I do not want to mislead the House.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2— "The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the removal of the Habitual Residence Condition from the Child Benefit payment.".
I made the case for this amendment when the House discussed amendment No. 2 in the name of Deputy Morgan. Some groups have suggested to me that 3,000 children will be affected by the removal of the habitual residence condition. When the Minister replied to a question I asked about the matter last week, he said approximately 390 children would be affected by it. I know he disagrees with the points I am making about this issue, as he has expressed his disagreement on several occasions. I ask him to try to keep an open mind when examining my proposal. He is directly responsible for the child benefit system. I ask him to re-examine the situation, particularly in the light of our commitments under Articles 2, 3 and 26 of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, to which I referred yesterday. He should examine this matter and try to take on board the points we all made during the debate on Deputy Morgan's amendment. I do not need to make any further points at this stage.
We have discussed this matter at some length. I understand Deputy Enright's point. It is important that we understand the reason for the introduction of the habitual residence condition in May 2004. It was introduced to ensure people who had not worked in Ireland, or had not established habitual residence in Ireland, could not avail of assistance schemes across the system, including the child benefit scheme. That is the reality. The Deputy has suggested that we should remove the child benefit scheme from the list of schemes. I have not seen any specific evidence that the package provided through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is having an obviously negative effect on children in that system, as opposed to the direct payment system. We are where we are on this issue. If there is a change in the conditions of the children in question, we will be alert to it.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
2.—"The Minister 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 payment to target child poverty levels.".
This amendment relates to the qualified child allowance which is to be increased by €2. The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs discussed this matter yesterday with delegations from the Conference of Religious of Ireland and the Combat Poverty Agency. I am aware that the Minister and his predecessor have had discussions on this allowance which is linked to the allowance paid to lone parents in the last 18 months or so. The Department has not reached any real conclusions on how it will make progress with regard to these payments. I was disappointed with the increase in the qualified child allowance. As I said yesterday, it would not even meet the cost to a household of one slightly more nourishing meal per child each week. In the context of the Government's examination of this issue, it is important to have a real and genuine discussion on how we should proceed. The two groups I have mentioned expressed various opinions yesterday about the best way to deal with child poverty. Some speakers argued that it should be dealt with through the child benefit system. Many others disagree with that view. I would be interested to hear the Minister's views. This has been under discussion as a live issue for approximately 18 months, but we have not reached any conclusions. I understand the Minister is somewhat averse to deadlines——
——but it is important that we try to reach some conclusions on these issues. It would be preferable to approach the debate in a consensus manner to try to reach agreement among as many people as possible. The argument made in the National Economic and Social Forum's report on this issue is at odds with the views of the two organisations which attended yesterday's meeting of the joint committee. I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on when we can expect changes to happen or progress to be made.
We are all interested to hear the Minister's thinking on this matter. As Deputy Enright said, there is no consensus on what should happen. We all recognised the serious difficulties with poverty traps in the past. I refer to the disincentives encountered by persons who might have been thinking about moving from the welfare system to the workforce. There was an emphasis on child benefit for that reason. There remains a small core of persons who continue to depend on welfare. Does the Minister accept, like many do, that not everybody can go out to work? Some will need to remain on social welfare for various reasons, including child care reasons — children need their parents to look after them in their homes. There will always be people, particularly lone parents, in such circumstances. I am sure the Minister accepts that certain individuals have to stay on welfare because they cannot go out to work due to a disability or a long-term illness.
I am concerned about the children of persons who will depend on welfare indefinitely. The Minister has deemed it possible for such children to survive on €22 per week in the current year. That is the amount the State is giving them on which to live, over and above what every child receives as child benefit. A certain amount is given to my children, the Minister's children and the children of millionaires in the form of child benefit. I am talking about the amount given to parents to bring up their children in addition to this. The children of the poorest of the poor have been given €22 this year. It is obvious that the Minister or somebody in his Department decided that this was inadequate because it has been announced that the payment in question will be increased by €2 per week, a derisory figure. Somebody has deemed it possible for a child to be reared on €3.43 a day from next year on. Anybody with any experience of rearing children knows that is impossible, especially in the case of a 16 or 17 year old who eats like an adult and whose clothes cost the same as an adult's clothes. What is the rationale for keeping the children of social welfare recipients in such poor circumstances? Does the Minister have any evidence to support his policy, to suggest that it is working? Does he have any evidence to suggest that by increasing the qualifying child allowance he will actually discourage parents from entering the workforce? I do not think that is the case any longer. The research conducted in the past no longer applies because of the particular profile of the cohort of parents who remain dependent on social welfare. Is there any social benefit to be gained in keeping the payment so low? Is there any evidence that the payment is acting as a disincentive for parents going out to work? I do not think that is the case. If there is modern research to support this theory, I would very much like to hear about it. In the case of children in families which are very poor, families entirely dependent on social welfare, there can be no justification whatsoever for keeping the payment at a level of a mere €3.43 per day. I ask the Minister to explain his thinking and say whether it is based on current research.
I support the amendment. I support all the amendments tabled by Deputy Enright but chose not to use up the time available unnecessarily because other speakers had made all the necessary points. I concur with Deputy Shortall's point that there is a difference between the groups with respect to this issue. It would be very useful to have a committee examine the issue in a speedy manner to see if agreement and a conclusion could be reached. However, if that were to happen, given the Minister's attitude to the debate, he simply would not listen——
——because he has not been listening all evening to the points we have made. He has continued to repeat that the Minister for Finance has given him his budget, that he is working within it and that he is not prepared to be creative or handle the matter differently. He is going along merrily on his own way. This is most unfortunate because many of the points made by Deputies would have assisted him and helped his Department had he chosen to take them on board. I do not expect him to change much at this time of the evening.
The Deputies have made valid points all evening but I have to take responsibility for the choices I made. I do not have unlimited resources, nor would the Deputies if any of them was standing where I am; they would make choices and I would have to respect them, even if I disagreed with them. That is a reasonable attitude.
I do not accept what Deputy Shortall said, nor would I expect any child to live on €22 or €24 a week; this sum is part of a very important range of supplements paid directly in respect of children. I will give the House some examples. A family on social welfare with one child under six years receives more than €4,266, which equates to €87.77 per week for that child. This is a substantial amount. It is broken down into child benefit, child dependant allowance, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and the early child care supplement.
For a family with one child over six years, the figure is €3,266, or €66.62 per week. All these figures are available and demonstrate a fair commitment to children. For a family on social welfare with two children, one under six years and one over six and less than 12 years, the annual payment is €7,532. These are direct cash payments.
That is not what everybody receives. They are, correctly, specifically targeted payments.
In answer to a question the Deputy asked at the start of her contribution, my philosophy is to try to direct the resources available to where they are most needed. I am not wedded entirely to big universal payments, as valuable as they are, because it presumes in many respects that there are unlimited resources. No country and no Government have unlimited resources. While there must be some universal payments, it is very important to ensure one maximises the amount of resources going directly to those who need it most. That is my philosophy and I think it may well be the Deputy's also. I am trying to give her some examples. That is the reason for the different rates of payment because it is not possible to keep everything in the child benefit genre, a monthly payment made to everybody. It is paid to multimillionaires and persons who do not really need it. We have broken out some payments because there are restrictions in respect of to whom they are made. The restrictions ensure they are made to the families in greatest need.
I will cite the example of a family with four children, which is not unusual in Ireland. The annual cash payment to a family with four children, with one under six years, two between the ages of six and 12 years and one over 12 years is €15,000, a significant commitment. I cannot think of any other government in Europe which is making such payments. It is right to do so but it is a huge amount of money. I remind the Deputy of the amount a working person needs to earn to have a net amount of €15,000. I am not including the family's social welfare payments in that figure; I am citing the specific, exclusive, direct support provided for children in a family with four children. This is a very significant sum paid by the taxpayer.
I will break it down for the Deputy. It is made up of child benefit, child dependant allowance, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and the early child care supplement. The total for a family with four children, one of whom is under six years, two over six and under 12 years and one over 12 years, is €15,009, to be accurate.
I have listed the payments to refute the point being made by Deputy Shortall. I do not expect anybody to survive on a payment of only €22. I have increased the figure to €24 a week, which is well ahead of cost of living allowances. I think the figure is around 9%, one of the biggest increases for which I provided. I admit I would love to give substantially more and do not argue that point but I did the right thing within the resources available to me. The payment is also targeted. If one considers all the rates payable, depending on the number of children in a family, the lowest weekly income payment per child works out at about €66.62, when across the board payments are taken into account. All families do not receive these payments but the bulk of the payments are made to the families most in need of them. This fact should be recognised in some way. Since 1994, when the policy of non-indexation of qualified child increase, QCI, was introduced, the combined child benefit-child benefit payment was increased by more than three times the rate of inflation.
This is the first year I have been responsible for the social welfare package in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. In the next 12 months my personal philosophy will be to try to target the resources at the less well-off. This is not necessarily the most popular policy either, as there are those who believe they should receive payments, irrespective of their means. However, while I agree there must be some universal payments, one must try to maximise the available resources by targeting them. One of the best ways of targeting resources is by benefiting children because they are the ones who are most vulnerable and need the great support of adults during childhood. People like ourselves who decide policy in these areas must do this. I have explained the figures as they relate to different numbers of children.
I asked the Minister to imagine that he is. Let us imagine we both have 17 year old sons and receive child benefit. Apart from the grant in respect of clothing and footwear when the child goes back to school, the Minister can more than adequately provide for his child without difficulty. The only sum in recognition of the costs involved for me as a lone parent raising a 17 year old child is a payment of €24 per week.
I am talking about a real life situation where there are two people in very different circumstances raising a 17 year old son. Leaving aside child benefit, which every child receives, the only welfare payment that will be made to me as a lone parent on social welfare for my 17 year old son is €24 per week. It is not possible to provide any quality of life for a teenager on a payment of €24 per week but that is what is being paid over and above what anybody working has received in being able to provide for his or her children. There is a need for joined-up thinking. Is it any wonder there is such a high drop-out rate among teenagers in low income families, given the pressures in trying to survive on €24 a week for young people and their parents? It is simply not on to survive on that level of income. The Minister should recognise the reality of what it costs to buy a pair of runners for a teenage child and to meet the costs involved in going to school for materials, outings and all the other demands made on families. It is simply not possible for families to survive on the current level of income being provided by the Minister. The sum of €24 per week for a teenage child is derisory. The Minister must pay attention to this issue urgently because there are too many families slipping through the net where teenage children cannot survive and continue in school on the current level of income support.
The amendment calls for a report to be published on the introduction of the payments. It was my understanding from reading the brief the Minister received when he took office that a review was ongoing and that change was imminent in this area. What is the status of the report and when we are likely to see it? What is the Minister's view? We have heard him say he wants to ensure the least well-off can have the greater share of what is available to give to them. However, the €2 increase did not really achieve this. This will have major implications. We all want to form our view on where we stand on some of these issues. When is it likely that the report will be published and what is its current status? We need more information.
It was my understanding that there was a review of amalgamating in some shape or form family income supplement, FIS, child dependent allowance, CDA, and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Perhaps that might ensure clarity in respect of what is happening.
I am not leading that change, as it relates to another Department. I have given Deputies the answers. There is significant disagreement on this issue. There are strongly held views which have been directly expressed to me. I regret the great divergence in views because one would like to achieve consensus on some of these issues. Great fears have been legitimately expressed by both sides.
I disagree with Deputy Shortall. She has made the point that because somebody else receives a benefit, that the benefit paid to another is diminished. I do not accept that point. A benefit still has the same value to whoever receives it. Just because somebody else gains the same benefit does not make it of a lesser value, as the Deputy put it.
The Deputy used the example of a 17 year old. I would expect any family to send a 17 year old out to earn some money for himself or herself. That was the approach I took with my children. My 17 year old was working part-time to earn money. There is no shortage of work.
I do not accept that 17 year olds should be sitting at home on their backsides. Irrespective of the income levels of their families, be they good, bad or indifferent, they should be making a contribution.
I do not believe my children are different from the rest. They have the same problems and face the same issues as everybody else. They could have stayed at home because young people do not spend seven days a week studying for any exam. If they want pocket money, one has to teach them responsibility and values and allow them to earn some money. They do not have to work all the hours God sends but some training at that age is good. Deputy Shortall may disagree with me but that is my view.
Who said they were working to survive? The Deputy made the point that the only income a 17 year old had was €24. I disagree with her. She is wrong because the State contributes substantially more than that sum. It is perfectly reasonable for most, if not all, 17 year olds, barring a disability or other reason such as acting in the capacity of carer in a family, to go out at the weekend and mullock around with the rest of the young people in this country who are working to earn a few bob. There is nothing wrong with this. They should go out and do it. We should stop mollycoddling everyone of that generation and pretending that there are no worries about anything and that they should not have to go out and earn a living; they should, and they should learn at a young age, just as we did. When I was 15 years old I earned a few bob during the week.
What I have said in response to the Deputy is valid. It is about time people started to say it. It is about time parents started to say that, with all the rights young people have, they have responsibilities. I hear about rights every day of the week but nothing about responsibilities.
I take a simple view which has nothing to do with parents' income. At 17 years they are not children and would give an answer if they were called a child. There is nothing wrong with going out and supplementing one's income by earning a few bob. That opportunity prevails right across the spectrum today.
I disagree with the basis of Deputy Shortall's point that we are expecting 17 years old to live on €24 a week. That is untrue because the allocation through the social welfare system is greater than that sum. It is well the Deputy knows this. The opportunity is available to top it up. If people want to do some part-time work, they can roll up their sleeves and do what we all did when we were young.
It is important to view this in the context of what is happening in the world nowadays. The fact of the matter is that in many disadvantaged areas the educational outcomes for young people are abysmal. They remain abysmal in spite of economic growth in recent years. I refer to situations where children are not staying on in school for the leaving certificate. The figures are in double digits. For those who do stay on, the number who get the points to go on to third level is minuscule.
I suggest that the Minister speak to the principals in some of the schools in disadvantaged areas who will tell him about the pressures on young people who are forced into the workplace for economic reasons. Most of us would be of the view that certainly in leaving certificate year it is preferable that young people do not have a part-time job. That argument is borne out by teachers everywhere. Certainly, children should not be under pressure from their parents at home to go out to work to keep food on the table and pay the electricity bill.
That is the reality for low-income families and families dependent on social welfare. We were speaking about how we might deal with this. It would be good to have a mature debate instead of hurling insults across the floor.
The proposals on support for lone parents have merit where it is suggested that there should be a special payment for children in low-income families that would be employment and family formation neutral. We should recognise the demands on children in such families by making a special payment in such cases.
There can be an argument about the cut-off point. Yesterday Fr. Seán Healy spoke about a cut-off point of €20,000, for example, which would create a poverty trap for parents earning more than that amount. Why not make the threshold higher and then taper it in order that we recognise the significant problem of child poverty?
There are 96,000 children living in consistent poverty, a scandalous figure. We need measures to target the problem in order that we can tackle it in the next couple of years. We should have done this already; now the problem needs urgent attention. We need to look at the possibility of putting in place a payment to recognise the difficulties for children living in poor families and to enable their parents to avail of it, irrespective of whether they are lone parents, co-habiting, a one or two-parent family, married or in employment. All of the agencies stated they thought that getting people back to work would solve all the problems of poverty but the new poor are the working poor. We need to target the problem of children living in poor families and to give it all our attention in the coming year. For that reason, I suggest that the Minister look at the possibility of providing a payment, payable up to an income of €30,000 or €35,000, at which point it would taper off, or even a higher level could be set. We need to focus urgently on the 96,000 children living in consistent poverty.
I seek clarity on this issue. Is the Minister suggesting that children should go out to work? That, effectively, is what has been said and I want to know whether it is Government policy.
Going through the Bill there seems to be a lack of coherence in the approach of the Government to many of the issues involved. We had the same problem with direct provision. Certainly, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, has a very different view from the Minister on whether children should be out working or concentrating on being in school. If the Minister wants to proceed with a policy such as this, I urge him to seek the views of teachers. On many occasions it has been said children are asleep in school or are unable to concentrate because they work. I do not have a difficulty if they wish to work — I encourage it to a degree — but the notion that children should work to earn money to meet basic needs is wrong. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with anyone working a few hours' per week but we should be encouraging them to concentrate on being in school. The drop-out rate is already running at approximately 18%; in disadvantaged areas, where the people about whom we are speaking live, it is already far higher than this. Encouraging children, particularly those living in disadvantaged areas, to go out to work amounts, effectively, to discouraging them from staying in school. That is a policy fraught with difficulties and I ask the Minister to re-examine it.
On the amendment, Deputy Stanton made the point that there had been discussions with a view to bringing together the three payments. The Minister has stated clearly that there are difficulties in that regard. I understand and accept this. I have been teasing out the three payments — FIS, CDA and the back to school allowance — with some of the groups represented. Does the Minister intend to bring the discussions to a conclusion in the near future and make changes, or will we talk in perpetuity about the issue? It was one on which in the six months before the general election one could not have listened to "Morning Ireland" without hearing the former Minister, Deputy Brennan, discuss it. We still have not seen any conclusions and I wonder when we will.
The danger in trying to have an open debate is that one will end up being misquoted. I was not suggesting that all children in school must go out to work. I was speaking about a kid working for a few hours on a Saturday morning.
I have suggested that there is no reason a 16 or 17 year old cannot work for a few hours on a Saturday morning to earn a few bob for himself or herself. That is all I suggested. It was as simple as that.
It goes back to the point Deputy Shortall tried to make that we were expecting one child in a family to live on €24 a week. I explained why she was wrong and indicated that the supports payable by the State were more substantial. I went on to state there was nothing wrong with a 15, 16 or 17 year old working for a few hours, wherever it might be, on a Saturday morning. It might even be only in the home and involve cutting the grass in return for a few bob.
The second point very much concerns the argument about family income supplement which is targeted at people on low incomes. It is to support people on low incomes to get them out of the poverty trap, in other words, the payment is only for parents who are working, not for those on social welfare. It is targeted at getting people back to work in order that there is an incentive to come out of the system. It is also clear that there are many who are entirely dependent on the social welfare system who could find work and should be encouraged to go back to work. That is one of the main programmes we are trying to manage across Departments to engage directly with the people concerned.
The evidence is blindingly clear that where the main provider or both partners is or are working, there is a much better atmosphere in the family, a much better ethos and approach to issues. That is what we need to achieve. That is why I say to Deputy Shortall — others whom she has quoted can speak for themselves — that some are vehemently opposed to creating new poverty traps. That is why family income supplement was such an imaginative scheme. It was put in place to assist and encourage people to leave the social welfare system to go back to work but, equally, to ensure the State would support their children. That is the point I was making. That is the right approach. If we can do more in targeting resources at the families we all agree need State support, we will continue to give them such assistance and encouragement.
As it is now 7 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Dáil of this day: "That in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, that the section is hereby agreed to in committee, that Schedules 1 and 2 and the Title are hereby agreed to in committee, that the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment, that Report Stage is hereby completed and that the Bill is hereby passed."