Dáil debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Priority Questions

Social Welfare Benefits

1:00 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Question 4: To ask the Minister for Social Protection the measures she is considering in relation to the rent supplement scheme in the Budget 2012; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36439/11]

3:00 pm

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Between 2005 and 2010, rent supplement expenditure increased from €369 million to €516 million. The number of persons claiming the allowance increased from almost 60,200 in 2005 to more than 96,100 as at 18 November 2011, a 60% increase. The Deputy will appreciate that I cannot discuss measures under consideration for inclusion in budget 2012. However, in framing the budget proposals, my priority will be to continue to make progress on delivering on the commitments in the programme for Government and to deliver good value for money for the taxpayer.

My focus in regard to the rent supplement scheme will be to return the scheme to its original intentions of a short-term income support payment for people who suddenly lose their jobs or who are renting a house or flat with the local authorities taking over responsibility for meeting the accommodation needs of those in receipt of rent supplement on a long-term basis.

Two main initiatives are being pursued by the Department to transfer long-term rent supplement recipients into housing solutions supported by local authorities. One is the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which was introduced in 2004, and gives local authorities specific responsibility for meeting the longer term housing needs of people receiving rent supplement for 18 months or more.

The second is the new housing policy framework statement announced by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the former Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning on 16 June 2011, which sets out the principles to underpin the development of housing policy into the medium term. A multi-agency steering group has been established by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government to give effect to this initiative and this group is developing proposals and operational protocols for the transfer of responsibility from the my Department to housing authorities of persons who have long-term housing requirements. The transfer of tenants from rent supplement to local authorities will help achieve a key Government commitment of removing barriers to employment and returning rent supplement to its original intention of a short–term income support payment.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate that the Minister will not tell me her intentions in this regard for the budget. Unfortunately, the response to the first question I asked let it slip that employers' sick pay is a kite that will not be taken down by backbenchers, or has not been taken down yet anyhow.

We spoke on this issue previously and I asked six weeks ago whether some consideration or initiation of co-operation might be instigated by the Minister with her counterpart in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in order that the stock of housing in NAMA may have a social dividend for the State. There are 100,000 people on this scheme, which, as the Minister rightly says, was never intended to be a long-term solution but has ended up being one. It is an issue that has to be addressed in the short term.

I appreciate and agree with the Minister's intention to move the whole area of rent supplement back to the local authorities, where it belongs, those authorities being the best guardians of housing. Will the Minister confirm some progress has been made in regard to NAMA stock with her counterpart in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government since we last put that proposal to her?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Discussions have been taking place, particularly involving the former Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, with NAMA in regard to utilising NAMA properties, where appropriate, for housing solutions and the social dividend to which the Deputy refers. Obviously, these are very difficult issues.

I have spoken with and met the local authority managers in this regard. There is a series of difficulties with rent supplement. It is probably one of the biggest barriers to taking up employment. People who get an offer of a job fear they will lose their rent supplement if they go work, whereas if somebody is on the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, or is a direct local authority tenant, they are on differential rent and can predict, broadly, their rent charge if they take a job and, most importantly, they are not disbarred from taking a job.

The other issue if that in some cases local authorities cannot find tenants to accept some properties because people may prefer an option of renting in the private sector a newer property that may be available in the locality. In addition, local authority managers have told me they have a problem with some local authority tenants, whether those on RAS or traditional tenants, who build up arrears of rent. As the Deputy knows, the Department traditionally pays the rent supplement to the individual, who pays it to the landlord. The local authorities in some instances suggest a very difficult arrears problem has been established. As part of the changes in rent supplement, we need better IT developments to perhaps facilitate the household budgeting scheme operated by An Post being used to assist local authorities.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Is the Minister looking at the prospect of payments being made directly to landlords under that scheme?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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In an ideal world, the payments ought to be made directly to the landlords, which is the idea of RAS. In that way, we can ensure the landlord is tax compliant and the local authority, where it is operating the allocation, will be in a position to vet the property and establish its standard. Most importantly, the tenant is free to take up work, subject to the differential rent scheme. However, the local authorities have 88 separate differential rent schemes and 88 separate computer systems for deducting rent, so there is an IT difficulty. There is an interdepartmental working group, set up by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, on which my officials are closely involved to try to develop a system that will enable the requirements of the local authorities to be met.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Question 5: To ask the Minister for Social Protection her views on the importance of the role played by the half-rate carers allowance; her views that were this to be cut many family carers would have no choice but to relinquish their caring duties to the State resulting in a potential cost to the Exchequer four times the size of any social protection savings made. [36441/11]

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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There are almost 52,000 people in receipt of carer's allowance from my Department and approximately 22,000 of those are getting half-rate carer's allowance in addition to another social welfare payment, an increase of almost 40% since 2008. This year, we will spend more than €650 million on carers across several schemes.

I am very conscious of the needs of people on social welfare and appreciate that many depend solely on welfare payments. I will do my utmost to protect the most vulnerable people on welfare, including carers, in the forthcoming budget. Carers play a particularly important role in society which the Government acknowledges through a range of supports, including carer's allowance, half-rate carer's allowance, carer's benefit and the respite care grant. The means test for carers allowance is one of the most generous means tests in the social welfare system, most notably with regard to spouse's earnings. Since April 2008, the income disregard has been €332.50 per week for a single person and €665 per week for a couple. A couple with two children can earn up to €35,400 and qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, as well as the associated free travel and household benefits.

The Government's policy is to support the preference of people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities. Where people are being cared for at home, the care they receive is usually a balance of support from family and professional help. My Department provides income supports for family carers while the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive provide professional support and services.

Obviously, sustainable public finances are a prerequisite for maintaining an adequate system of social protection, as well as for achieving future economic stability and growth. For these reasons, the State must pursue a determined deficit reduction strategy. Accordingly, there will be an ongoing requirement to curtail expenditure and prioritise resources in my Department in 2012 and in later years. Final decisions have not been made in regard to welfare expenditure for next year, including carer's allowance. These decisions will be made after full consideration by the Government and will be announced on budget day.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Does the Minister agree, and from her answer it appears she does, that half-rate carer's allowance exists for a good reason, namely, it plays an important role in tackling poverty among households affected by disability in particular? Does she agree the payment of €102 per week for full-time care is not a bonus, far from it? Is she aware the payment is generally subsumed into the household weekly budget to cover the many additional costs to which disability gives rise, for example, when caring for a person with cancer or with limited mobility, there is an extra cost to heating a home to ward off the cold, or if someone is caring for an incontinent person, there are extra costs for linen and so on, as is the case for a person with special dietary requirements.

The Minister told us there are some 21,000 families on the half-rate carer's allowance. Is she aware that if she was to cut that allowance, this would result in weekly income cuts ranging from 15% to 50% for those families, and that among those, the largest grouping affected would be pensioners?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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As the Deputy is probably aware, the comprehensive review of expenditure being undertaken by the Government follows the format used in a number of other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Holland. These were developed at times when those countries had financial difficulties. In that context, it is necessary to look at every item of expenditure in regard to the budget. I very much appreciate the contribution carers make. Carers who care on a full-time basis for people carry out a service of enormous benefit to the people they love and of enormous benefit to our society. In Ireland we have had an approach that is slightly different in this respect from that in other countries in that in many areas of social welfare, particularly during the Celtic tiger years, there was an emphasis on increasing direct payments whereas many other countries tended to put equal emphasis on payments of income supports and the provision of services. The Deputy should bear in mind that the spend this year is more than €650 million while ten years ago it was €100 million.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I will take a brief supplementary from Deputy Ó Snodaigh.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Therefore, the State has expressed its commitment to carers in the amount of finance committed.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Does the Minister agree that if there was a substantial change in the half carer's allowance it would give many family carers no option but to relinquish their role and place their loved ones in the care of the State? Does she also agree it would be terrible if that were to happen and that it would also involve a huge cost for the State? Does she agree that since the beginning of 2009 the carer's allowance and disability allowance have been cut by more than 9% and in September the Minister cut a range of fuel allowances at rates of between 16% and 25% while the cost of fuel increased by up to 25% in that period?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Unfortunately, I cannot divulge to the Deputy any details of the budget announcements which may be made by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, on budget day. All I can say is that, as Minister, I very much value and appreciate the role and work carers do in Irish society. The model of caring we would all wish to see is one where people are enabled, encouraged, facilitated and supported to stay in their own home for as long as possible. That is the modern model of caring for people who have an illness. It is important that we should support the development and continuance of that model.