Thursday, 5 November 2015
Social Welfare Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)
A new analysis of the budget changes shows that households with children are the biggest beneficiaries of budget 2016 and, in particular, working lone parents. There will also be an increase in the monthly rate of child benefit to €140 from January 2016, which sees further increases on top of increases in budget 2015. The family income supplement threshold is also being increased by €5 for each of the first two children per week from January. That will give an additional €3 or €6 per week for low-income working families in receipt of this support. I am also pleased to see an increase in top-up payments for jobseekers availing of community employment, rural social scheme, job initiative and other such schemes.
There are also elements of budget 2016 which do not require changes to legislation. They include: the increase in the fuel allowance; the increase in funding for the free travel scheme; an increase of €2.50 per week in top-up payments for community employment, rural social scheme, Gateway, job initiative, Tús and JobBridge participants; and an increase in funding for the school meals scheme, to support school-going children in disadvantaged areas.
The budget measures which require amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 are provided for in the Social Welfare Bill 2015. This Bill will implement the budgetary changes which are, in the main, due to come into force in early 2016 and will also give effect to increases in pensions payable to persons aged 66 and over and their qualified adult dependents, as well as increases to the rate of child benefit, respite care grant and family income supplement.
The new tapered PRSI credit for class A PRSI employees earning between €352.01 and €424 in a week will reduce the weekly PRSI bill for more than 88,000 employees and will be in addition to the gains from the USC changes announced on budget day. In addition, the lower 8.5% class A rate of employer PRSI will be extended to more than 26,000 employers with the employer threshold being increased from €356 to €376. I welcome those changes. After the years of sacrifice by the Irish people, they deserve to get something back. I wish to see the increases continue in the years to come.
However, I am somewhat disappointed that there is not an increase for a section of the population who are under the age of 26. I feel that is discriminatory on the basis of age. I commend Labour Youth for lobbying on this issue, which needs to be reviewed.
Before Deputy Sean Fleming commences, I wish to announce that I am obliged by the Order of Business to call on the Minister to reply at 3.45 p.m. but the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, has kindly consented to be called at 3.50 p.m.
My view, and that of many elderly people and many others in society, on the budget can be summarised in a few simple words, namely, €3, three miserable euro. That is what this Bill is about. It is the most miserable bit of legislation that has been brought before us. We are saying to elderly people that we will give them a miserable €3 and that they should be grateful. People are not grateful and it is important the Government appreciates that. All one had to do was meet people on the morning following the budget and ask what they thought. All they said was, "Three miserable euro". That is the hallmark of the Social Welfare Bill. The Government almost seems to think people should show it gratitude for the wonderful job it has done and the great improvements that have been made to the economy. The view seems to be that they are lucky to get something. The Government is giving them €3.
The sum of €3 would not pay for people's prescriptions charges or water bills. It is miserable and people know that, as does the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, who might say it is the first increase in a while. In contrast, even though Fianna Fáil worked within the same very tight financial parameters as the Government on budget day, we felt it was appropriate in our document to talk about a €5 increase and we said where the funding for it would come from.
It is bad enough that the increase was only €3, which is the increase for a single person on the State pension. Let us look at what the Government did for a couple on the State pension, two elderly people living together. It will give €3 to the person aged over 66 and a proportionate increase to the person in receipt of the qualified adult allowance. The allowance is 70% of the primary payment so the second person in the house will get €2.10. They will not even get the three miserable euro. The Government is saying to the spouse that €2.10 is all he or she will get. When one adds the two payments, it is €5.10 between the two. That is €2.55 per person. The Government might say it is giving some people €3 but, in reality, most elderly couples in receipt of the pension will get €2.55 each. One could ask how far that will go towards the payment of prescription charges. People believe there is a lack of generosity and a lack of spirit.
There is much money in society. In the past 13 months, the Government announced additional expenditure of €7.3 billion over and above what had been in the previous year’s budget. In October last year, before the budget, the Government said there would have to be a negative adjustment of €2 billion but on budget day, it found an additional €3 billion. There was not a negative €2 billion adjustment but a positive adjustment of €1 billion in terms of the turnaround of €3 billion the Government announced on budget day just one year and two weeks ago.
Shortly after the Government made an announcement on the €3 billion, it introduced a Supplementary Estimate last year of €1.2 billion. It was great money. Prior to this year’s budget, the Government made an announcement concerning €1.5 billion. However, 48 hours before budget day, the Government announced another €1.6 billion in Supplementary Estimates. I might have missed something but in terms of those particular measures over the past 13 months, the Government has been able to find an extra €7.3 billion. God knows where the Government has put it because people are not seeing the value of it.
The Government has said to an elderly person living with his or her spouse on the State pension that out of the €7.3 billion, it will give him or her €2.55 a week or €3 if he or she is a widow or widower or a person living on his or her own. There is not a shortage of funds. The Government has demonstrated that over the past 13 months. Nobody can say the Government has been acting in a prudent manner. It has been spending a lot of money which has come in as windfall gains in taxes.
From where is that money coming? The Government is increasing, on an ongoing basis, basic permanent expenditure on the basis of windfall taxes and receipts. Were people to identify any particular mistake that happened during the property boom in the past, it was that expenditure was ramped up on the basis of stamp duty and property tax receipts, that is, once-off stand-alone taxes that were not guaranteed to be repeated in the future. This is precisely what the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Finance have done this year. An additional €1.6 billion in corporation tax has been received but the Minister for Finance has no idea why he got it. Neither he nor anybody else predicted it and there is no guarantee it will carry forward into next year. It was a once-off increase of €1.6 billion over and above expectations. Additional income also arose this year from dividends from the Central Bank, which is a carry-over from dealing with the IBRC liquidation issue. Although such dividends will not carry on into the future but will peter out as time passes, the Government has managed to increase expenditure this year beyond the expenditure ceilings announced on budget day last year. I note these expenditure ceilings have a legislative basis and the Government has both breached the ceilings for 2015 and the ceilings it has in place for 2016, which it announced 12 months ago. While I acknowledge the Minister is only required to notify the Dáil when he changes the expenditure ceiling, this is an example of the extra money the Government has had at its disposal. Expenditure ceilings this year went out the door and expenditure ceilings for next year have gone completely. Although €7 billion was available, it went on three miserable euro to the State pensioners and they know that. There was a debate in November between the two Government parties, with one option being to go to the country on foot of the announcement of the budget, after which people would know they would get an increase. However, the views of others prevailed and it was decided to wait until people actually have the money in their hand next January and to hold a spring election. While the Government has chosen the latter option, it should not expect gratitude when the married couple in receipt of the State pension receive that miserable €5.10 between them and when they hear of all the money that has been available up to now.
This budget and the Government's previous budgets have been highly regressive. Ultimately, the story of the present Administration will be of net regressive budgets. As I have been highlighting, additional money is available this time but it will not make up for some of the regressive budgets of previous years. A couple of weeks ago, I sat in this Chamber listening to the Minister, Deputy Howlin, and one issue struck me immediately that day, namely, an issue regarding the family income support administered by the Department of Social Protection. The issue, to which I referred immediately after hearing the statement, is that the budget increases the threshold for family income supplement by €5 for the first child and €10 for the second and subsequent children, apparently to offset the increase in the national minimum wage. However, the increase in these thresholds is not sufficient given the 50 cent per hour increase in the minimum wage for a person who works a 40-hour week as it would yield an increase of €20 in his or her basic wage, or perhaps €19.50 if such a person works a 39-hour week. I welcome this increase of 50 cent per hour in the minimum wage and Fianna Fáil at all stages has supported it. In our submission to the commission in this regard, we actually proposed an increase of 55 cent, which it is a matter of public record. Fianna Fáil proposed this increase in this calendar year, to come into effect for next year, and that translates to a weekly increase of approximately €20. However, the Government is increasing the threshold for family income supplement by €5, which I read to mean that many people will be removed from the scope of the family income supplement. While the detail can be teased out on Committee Stage, on the face of it, the increase in the family income supplement threshold does not match the increase in the minimum wage. If this is the case, this change must be reversed and that can be teased out in further detail. If the way in which I am putting this point is not completely correct, the matter can be clarified in due course but on the face of it, given the announcement on budget day, it was reasonable to arrive at the conclusion I reached and which I reiterate today. If further detail is thrashed out on Committee Stage on this issue, it will represent an improvement on the budget day announcement. Nevertheless, concern exists that people on low incomes will encounter a difficulty as a result of this measure.
In respect of lone parents, the change to the eligibility criteria to qualify for the one-parent family payment that came into effect last July was a particularly callous move on the part of the Government. There is little in this year's budget from which lone parents can take comfort and this is a matter that again will come up extensively on the doorsteps.
While there are many items to consider in this budget, one of the biggest issues is that of housing and the rent supplement. I lay the chaos that exists in housing fairly and squarely at the door of the Labour Party, not on Fine Gael. Members are aware of what Fine Gael do and we know their type. They do not care or are not particularly concerned about people on the margins of homelessness, who are not their core people. However, I would have thought they were core voters of the Labour Party. In truth, once the top 30% are flying, which they are-----
-----Fine Gael will be happy. However, people expected better from the Labour Party and what is ironic about the homelessness situation is that two Ministers are directly responsible for it. One is the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, who is the Minister responsible for the legislation under discussion and who is responsible for rent supplement but has not done anything on it. The second is the Minister with responsibility for housing, who is the Labour Party's deputy leader. Consequently, the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party are the two principal Ministers who are responsible for the homelessness situation that has arisen under the Government's watch. When the Labour Party entered office, there was not a homelessness issue. I acknowledge there were other issues but this issue arose under its watch.
All the Minister of State can say about what the Government inherited, along with the financial situation, is that my party in office built too many houses. It is a particular achievement of the Labour Party to turn a surplus of houses into a homelessness crisis. No other Government has turned a situation in which it inherited a surplus of houses into a homelessness crisis within a few years. Moreover, it did it all on its own after the troika left. It did not happen on its watch but happened when the Government was left to run the country on its own.
There was no homelessness crisis when the Government came to power but there is one as it is leaving power. This issue will be visited heavily, and rightly so, on the Labour Party. While Fine Gael Members might not like me saying it, the Fine Gael way is not to worry about such people. However, it should be the Labour Party's way - not Frankfurt's way but the Labour Party's way. The Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, has presided over a cut in rent supplement over recent years. Moreover, the Minister with responsibility for housing stated this time last year that this issue would be his legacy. He will be leaving a legacy, albeit not the legacy he promised shortly after he came to office as Minister. He is leaving a legacy of homelessness and the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party are the two Ministers who could have done something about it. All Members are aware of the position.
The Simon Community recently conducted a survey in respect of rental property nationwide and only a tiny percentage of properties available for rent were within rental amounts to which the supplementary welfare allowance could be applied. In County Laois, not a single property was available for rent on some of the websites that were within the rental amounts of which one could avail if one sought a rental supplement. This has happened and while I concur that the Minister certainly is leaving a legacy, it is not a legacy of which the Labour Party should be proud.
I also considered many other events that have taken place over the years and I am aware the Minister of State will suggest the Government did not cut basic rates. However, I refer to the situation of 18 year old people who are on jobseeker's allowance of €100 per week, people up to the age of 24 who are in receipt of €140 per week and people aged 25 who are in receipt of €144 until reaching the age of 26. These amounts essentially tell such people to head off to Canberra or elsewhere in Australia or to New Zealand, London, Canada or wherever. This essentially is a one-way ticket for young people. As for those who are on the live register operated by the Department of Social Protection, those figures ignore the number of people who have emigrated in recent years.
The reason young people are emigrating is because they are being told once they have been educated they are to be given the paltry sum of €100 per week to live on. Nobody can provide for themselves on €100 per week. It is no wonder they are emigrating.
I would like to comment on the employment schemes that have been put in place to reduce the number of people on the live register. The Minister, Deputy Burton, is very good at massaging the unemployment figures. The Minister has reduced the length of time a person can participate in community employment following which he or she then becomes eligible for jobseeker's benefit but is deemed not to be a long-term jobseeker, which gives the impression that there are fewer people long-term unemployed. However, this is just a recycling of posts which allows the figures to be massaged. Young people and others in community employment know the difference in that regard.
While an increase in payment for those participating in community employment is provided for in this Bill it is only of the scale of that offered to people in receipt of the State pension. This Government had €7.3 billion to spend. Perhaps the Labour Party will explain to people where this €7.3 billion is being spent because it is not evident in terms of what has been announced. It appears to have been disappeared or scurrilously spent on God knows what because there is no visible signs of it for most people. That issue will have to be addressed.
This is the final throw of the dice for this Government in terms of social protection. The Second Stage debate on the Finance Bill 2015 was guillotined and this debate is also being guillotined. It is no wonder the Government wants it guillotined: it does not want to hear people speak in this House of the full facts in terms of its record over the last four years. I was listed to speak this afternoon on the Finance Bill 2015 that has been guillotined. This Government gave a commitment that it would not guillotine debate on legislation. What is being done here today is not political reform as the people understand it.
Much of my contribution has been focused on young people who had to emigrate and on elderly people. Prior to this Government coming into office there was a 50 cent charge in place in respect of prescriptions, which the parties in government promised to abolish. Many accepted that promise in good faith. However, that 50 cent charge then increased to €1 and later to €1.50 and is now €2.50 or €25 per month. If the Government thinks that is fair to people on medical cards or those people who are being given a €3 per week increase in their old age pension, I do not share that view and neither do most people.
Many other allowances have been cut by this Government. These are the cuts that will be remembered at election time, including the abolition of the telephone allowance and the change in eligibility criteria for the State pension, in terms of the average yearly contributions required to attain the maximum benefit. These are the issues that are now coming home to roost. A person who a few years ago would have been eligible for 90% of the State pension will not now get anything near that amount. The change to the eligibility criteria for the full State pension was not fair on people who worked most of their lives. There have also been cuts down through the years to the back-to-school and clothing and footwear allowance. This Government introduced a series of 42 cuts during its time in office. I wish it luck when it comes to explaining to the people how it did not make any cuts to core payments. Regardless of the Department of Social Protection's internal definition in terms of whether a cut is a headline cut or an actual cut, a cut is a cut as far as people are concerned.
This Social Welfare Bill will be remembered in the context of this Government, despite having had €7.3 billion to spend, giving an increase of only €3 per week to recipients of the State pension.
I welcome this Social Welfare Bill. It strikes me, having listened to the contributions of members of the Opposition over the past few days, including Deputy Fleming's contribution just now, that almost five years on Deputy Fleming and Fianna Fáil are still in denial. They still have not come to appreciate the decision of the Irish people four and a half years ago, when they returned only 19 Fianna Fáil Members to this House.
Let us be clear, the housing crisis being experienced in Ireland, an issue with which Members on all sides of the House, including I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, are dealing every day in our constituency offices, rests firmly on the shoulders of Fianna Fáil. Deputy Fleming is correct that it is a legacy issue, one that this Government continues to grapple with and improve. I include in that regard the Government's efforts to address the homeless crisis. Fianna Fáil may be in denial but the Irish people, I am sure, are clear in their minds in that regard.
As stated earlier, I welcome this Bill. As a proud member of a Government party I would love to be able to say today that this Social Welfare Bill reinstates all that the Irish people have lost but, of course, that is not the case. Those who are realistic know that it is not and cannot be the case. This legislation is a positive step. It attempts, in a fair way, to reinstate some of the assistance that Irish people have lost over the past couple of years. I heard the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, outline many of those measures yesterday, which I welcome.
The Minister referred yesterday to reinstatement of 75% of the Christmas bonus as a significant measure. The response to this from many Members opposite was that Christmas comes only once a year. Like me, every Member of this House knows that the people who receive the Christmas bonus appreciate and need it. This is a genuine and significant attempt to reinstate the full bonus, a process which commenced last year. This Bill also provides for increases for pensioners, carer's, adult dependants under 66 years of age and over 66 years of age and persons with disabilities. There is no magic wand that can fix what this Government inherited. This legislation is a positive step in the right direction and cannot be alluded to without reference to the unemployment levels over the past couple of years. Earlier this week we were told the unemployment rate has decreased to 9.3% from 15.1% only a couple of years ago. Again, Deputy Fleming may be in denial as to who, more than anybody else, was responsible for our high level of unemployment but the Irish people, in terms of the decision they made on 25 February 2011, know who bears responsibility for it.
There is no better way of empowering people or of giving them a quality life than by providing them with a job. There are other aspects that feed into that but giving people an opportunity to work, earn and contribute to their economy is the best way of empowering them. We have seen down through the years how generations of families have benefitted from a return to employment. This Government is helping people to do that.
I listened to the contribution yesterday from Deputy O'Dea, who was a Minister in the previous Government, during which he quoted a lot of poetry but said very little.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill.
The budget demonstrates the success of the improved economy. It was the Government's first opportunity since coming to office to show those who are in receipt of social support that the improvement in the economy is having a positive effect on their lives. The reduction to 9.3% in the unemployment figures is something nobody could have dreamt of forecasting five years ago. We now have jobseekers back at work. As the previous speaker said that is vital for the well being of the family and especially the self worth of the person in respect of their contribution. That the carer's allowance will be paid for an additional six weeks after the death of a loved one is welcome. That is a very trying time for an individual who has cared for somebody for many years and who has devoted their life to the wellbeing of a loved one. It is a welcome development. The cut off was cruel as the day after the burial the income to the household was reduced.
I wish to raise the issue of communication for people making application to the Department of Social Protection in respect of the eligibility criteria for various schemes. Sometimes the information is not sufficient to ensure the person submits the documentation necessary for a speedy decision on their application for benefit. Frequently, numerous letters are toing and froing seeking clarification for a decision on an application. An example is invalidity pension where there has to be an indication that a person will not work again. If somebody says a person is unable to work for the foreseeable future, what does that mean? The foreseeable future could be a month, six months or a year. A pension is for life. There must be a way of disseminating that on sheets or whatever. Sometimes people are told they can get it on the Internet. As we discussed last night, some people are lost when it comes to the Internet because they are not computer literate.
I welcome the Bill.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Dan Neville. The reason I want a minute to speak is that I have a special interest in the carer's allowance as a mechanism to keep people who are being cared for out of institutions and at home where they generally want to be. I welcome the restoration of the respite care grant, the increased Christmas bonus payments and the lowering of the universal social charge. I ask the Minister of State to continue a process of making the carer's allowance more attractive so that recipients automatically receive secondary benefits, such as the medical card, and would be supported in every conceivable way and, as the country can afford it, that the allowance is increased on an annual basis. It is a huge opportunity for people to be cared for in the home and for people to leave jobs in which they are not necessarily happy and to do something for their loved one. That is so important.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Last week we had a very successful comedy festival in Galway. I think Deputy Sean Fleming's performance would have sold out many times over. It is a shame he did not get a chance to discuss the Finance Bill either as that would have been a cracker. Admittedly, it is a very sticky job to do in 20 minutes. He did not have one alternative and did not say what he would have done differently. His party is giving out that the Government is giving something back. The previous Government's last budget cut the blind pension and the Fianna Fáil backbenchers applauded. After five years we can now give something back to people and we are being criticised for that. Not one person in Fine Gael or the Labour Party is saying to people in receipt of the old age pension that they are made up with €3 extra. What is clear is that this is a country that has turned around, that economically we can stand on our own two feet again, and what is wrong with that? Having listened to Fianna Fáil for 20 minutes after 14 years in government, not only was their no alternative plan but it criticised an increase in the amount being given back. We did not hear anything about the fastest growing economy in Europe and the chance for 6% growth next year. It is a terrible shame that, first, the Opposition is not present but it bet, actively, against the country. It can only sell a dismal story and that is regrettable. It is a shame that when it comes in, it does not have some alternatives. It is a remarkable situation when the Opposition does not turn up and it has no alternatives.
As with all budgets, there are always issues we need to work on for the future. I appreciate the Minister of State is doing great work in respect of community employment schemes and community involvement schemes. Perhaps I should give the Minister of State some more credit when I speak to the local media about this. I hope we can get this over the line sooner rather than later. A 65 year old gentleman who contacted me today is ten months away from retirement and has to come off the scheme. This is an individual who wants to continue in the scheme. In respect of schemes such as Tús and so on, one area where people have a concern is in the disability area, their access to the schemes, the percentage of positions that might be available to them and perhaps it is something we could look at. It is welcome that we can increase child benefit, bring back some of the Christmas bonus and the respite care grant again.
Let us consider how this Government is ending compared to the last Government. The last Government had about four Ministers with five different portfolios. This time each Minister with his or her own portfolio will go the people and say that not only are we giving something back but the opportunity for further growth is there into the future. If we did nothing else and for all the tough decisions we have had to make it is a good message to give that we are in a much better position now than when we took office. It is a very sad day for the soldiers of destiny that the best they can do is give out about an increase in the old age pension and then all leave the Chamber. They are the people who are running to the doors because they still should be apologising.
I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Social Welfare Bill 2015. This is one of the most important Bills to come before the House as it contains within it provisions that are vital for people who, for one reason or another, depend upon the State, are subject to fixed incomes and are vulnerable. It covers a significant cohort of the population and gives legislative effect to the social welfare measures announced in the Bill. I could speak for an hour on the Bill such are the very positive measures contained therein, and it would be churlish of anybody to be negative about it.
I note from the Minister that the budget provisions have been subject to a social impact assessment, which means the impact of the main tax and social welfare provisions set out in the budget for the year ahead. It estimates the impact of these policies on household incomes, families, poverty and incentives to employment because we know that a perennial focus of debates is the emergence of new or the sustaining of old income poverty traps. One notes that these results are positive from the perspective of gain and it is noteworthy that the higher average gains favour those in the bottom two quintiles. That is very important.
Ever since I entered the Dáil I have championed the cause of carers. I have been a strong advocate on their behalf and remain so. When I was chairperson of the then social affairs committee in 2003 I initiated an examination of the welfare policy, practices, support structures and education for carers, together with a review of the long-term effects of full-time caring on the physical and mental well-being of carers. That is important because carers can suffer as well.
In regard to that report I am especially proud that we did it ourselves without the aid of consultants, which was at my insistence, and a significant number of 15 or so recommendations were subsequently implemented by Government over a period of years, including the groundbreaking proposal that people in receipt of another social welfare payment will receive 50% of the carer's allowance and that the respite grant be paid to people who are caring, regardless of the social welfare payment they were receiving. That was a huge breakthrough. In regard to those who say that reports prepared by committees are not effective, I believe we proved that is not the case, and the Carer's Association and others were very pleased with the outcome of our deliberations.
We also advocated that the means test be abolished and were in favour of universality of payment for long-term care. Indeed, the Mercer report argued against means testing thus, over the past 12 years, that has not been done but in fairness to all Governments, the means test for carer's allowance is by far the most generous of all means tested social welfare schemes.
Weekly means of €332.50 are disregarded in the case of a single person and €665 in the case of a couple. As a result, a couple aged under 66 with two children earning a joint income of up to €35,000 can qualify for the maximum carer’s allowance. The household benefits package is also payable to residential carers in receipt of carer’s allowance.
There are 187,112 family carers in Ireland, of which 5,295 are based in Longford-Westmeath. Female carers provide approximately two thirds of all care. The 2011 census identified 4,228 children aged under 15 years engaged in providing care to others, accounting for 2.3% of all carers. Up to 59,380 carers receive carer’s allowance, of which 24,326 receive half-rate carer’s allowance and 1,769 receive carer’s benefit. The care provided by family and friends to the ill, frail and people with disabilities is worth €4 billion each year. It amounts to 900,000 hours of caring every day and €77 million per week. This is equivalent to one third of the total annual cost of €13.3 billion of the Health Service Executive. It is five times what carers cost the Department of Social Protection in income support, €878 million. It means that a full-time care contributes on average, €72,500 a year.
They are the unsung heroes. I have been in contact with carers in my constituency. I know Caroline Poole, Denise Nolan and many others in the Carers Association do wonderful unsung work. They save the State billions of euro by allowing their loved ones live in the comfort, ambience and serenity of their own homes. I salute all those who undertake various fund-raising activities for the Carers Association which has many demands on its resources. In this regard, I commend the great Billy Mac, Billy McCauley, who has hosted an annual musical extravaganza for the past ten years at the Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar, raising substantial funds for the Carers Association. It is in this context that I am especially glad to note the respite care grant, a non-means-tested grant paid annually in June to carers to assist them in caring for a person who requires full-time care and attention, has been restored to €1,700. The reduction in 2014 was one of the decreases that greatly annoyed me and I am delighted to see it is fully restored. The carers are quite pleased with the increase of €325 to this grant.
Will consideration be given to paying out the respite care grant in two moieties? It might better suit the needs of carers at vital times. I also welcome the fact that under section 9, the period for which the carer’s allowance will be payable following the death of the cared person has been extended from six weeks to 12 weeks. That is an important recognition of a difficult time for people.
I have been arguing for years about how unfairly the self-employed have been treated by the social welfare and tax system. I am glad a start has been made in rectifying the glaring inequality in this treatment. Self-employed people perceive themselves as being just generators of wealth and employment, tax collectors of the State and collectors of social welfare contributions for the Department of Social Protection. After all that, they have to try and make a profit, along with paying their own contributions and taxes. Despite having to invest long and arduous hours in their enterprises, be they a small rural shopkeeper, building contractor, painter, plumber, electrician or farmer, they are often victimised by the State which refused to give them an allowance equivalent to a PAYE allowance, notwithstanding the original basis for the differential treatment had long disappeared when the self-employed moved on to a current year basis of accounting for profits. They were really penalised when the universal social charge, USC, was introduced. Another significant differential, admittedly at the top of the scale, of an additional 3% was introduced solely for the self-employed. While there may well be a basis for this, one has to reflect on and consider that many self-employed small operators genuinely contribute to the economy, creating many jobs. They are especially important in rural areas where the big factories and entrepreneurs never materialise.
Worse than that was their treatment by the social welfare system when they fell on hard times, especially between 2008 and 2012. It was frightening. I witnessed it at first hand when many people were literally penniless. Despite this, they had to prepare accounts to examine their previous year’s earnings, notwithstanding that, like the snows of last winter, not a penny was to be found as it has all been spent and any savings accrued had also been spent. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, amended the system. Now, the self-employed are getting 90% of entitlement to social assistance payment without having to go through the hoops, a welcome development.
More importantly, however, would be the devising of a special PRSI rate for the self-employed to allow them contribute an additional 1.5% or 2%. If they fell ill, they would then have an entitlement to the payment as of right. Their own representative organisations need to wake up because many self-employed people I meet are eager to make such an additional contribution to the Social Insurance Fund. It is high time this was addressed.
I welcome the increase in social welfare pensions. While the €3 increase is only a start, along with the increase in the fuel allowance and the Christmas bonus, this could come to €690 per year, or €13.30 a week. It is important this increase for pensioners and others on fixed incomes continues to be improved. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection has given a commitment that this will be the case.
I concur with Deputy Penrose about the self-employed. During the crash, many businesses went to the wall. Many people who invested every penny and every hour they had into their businesses faced terrible times. The self-employed were treated like someone from Mars when they tried to get social welfare, even when many of them had paid a lot of tax. There was an ingrained sense among some that the self-employed had to be wealthy. They may have lost everything, however.
I welcome the earned income tax credit to the value of €550 as the first step in getting equality on this issue. The whole system needs to change for the self-employed. The self-employed are not afraid to pay PRSI and whatever extra. However, it must be ensured that a self-employed person whose business fails is not left lingering in the social welfare system. When one goes into a social welfare office, one is not going in for the craic. One is going because one needs assistance. To be left for months in limbo is inhuman.
While I acknowledge the €3 increase for old age pensioners, we should have gone a step further to help them. These are the people who kept the country going until the next generation took over. Someday, we will all be looking at a pension. The pensioners are vulnerable and should be looked after.
We need to start thinking outside the box for employment creation. We may need to put in new systems to get people back to work. There are many computer courses available. However, if someone wants to go into an apprenticeship to be a mechanic or a chippy, for example, there are obstacles in their way. One could give them a certain amount of their social welfare payment and allow them to get a trade. With green shoots of recovery here and there, the opportunities for these skills will emerge again. We have lost many skills. We need to look outside the box at creating new ways of giving people a chance, rather than just putting everybody on a computer course. Not everyone might be suited to such courses. Some of those people may be gifted with their hands, for example, and we must make sure we facilitate them getting back to work.
We are bringing people in from other countries for work. We will have to look at where we are going in ensuring the people who are unemployed here get back to work. There is something amiss. We need to put our finger on the pulse to make sure the 200,000 people unemployed get work.
The Government has made the farm assist scheme more complicated. In Donegal, for example, a small farmer may go out on a fishing boat for a month or two or work in a processing plant. Changes to eligibility moved these farmers to the jobseeker payment, further complicating the system. There has been much manoeuvring around this, with many of these farmers losing the farm assist scheme payment.
The rural social scheme, RSS, introduced by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív years ago, did marvellous work around the country. North, south, east and west, the RSS workers are recognised everywhere for the work they did. There are other schemes and people have ideas. We need to ensure that we are prepared to take risks. We need to find out why someone is not returning to work. We need to put our finger on the pulse and ensure this is addressed.
I will not keep the Minister of State, Deputy Humphreys, here all evening, except to say one more thing. When the measure was introduced the argument was made that we did not have the money, but we are telling youngsters we will give them €100. It is hard for them to live on it unless they are living at home. If we are honest about it, it is virtually impossible for them. We are basically giving them a one-way ticket out of the country. We need to bring kids back into our country. We need to bring back the generation we have lost. I hope the Minister of State is open to looking at new ideas and taking risks because the end game is to bring down the unemployment figures.
I will reply first to Deputy Sean Fleming who made criticisms about the operation of a guillotine today. It is 3.40 p.m. and there is no other Opposition spokesperson offering to speak on the Social Welfare Bill yet we had to waste time this morning voting on the issue. We had to listen to Deputy Fleming giving out about a guillotine being imposed this afternoon, yet the Fianna Fáil benches are empty as are those of Sinn Féin and People Before Profit.
I always find Deputy Fitzmaurice constructive and informative and thank him for the spirit in which he made his contribution. I thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their constructive remarks on budget 2016, in particular the social welfare budget. Some Deputies, of all sides of the House, have been quite constructive and positive. Some Deputies would have done well in a comedy show but I will not go down that road.
Most economists said we would still be in a bailout last year and making corrections of another €1 billion in this budget. This Labour-Fine Gael budget has put €1.5 billion back into the economy, which has been welcomed by many. The social welfare budget is built on the foundations of the recovery. It has four key aims, namely, to increase the supports for pensioners aged 66 and older, strengthen supports for families with children, increase the momentum to date in helping jobseekers back to work, which is very important, and to provide targeted assistance for vulnerable groups. We are making these improvements in a fair and sustainable way.
A number of contributions to the debate indicated the Government did not do enough to restore the rates of social welfare payments to the levels they were at before the crisis. I note with interest the proposals on budget 2016 by parties in opposition. I was struck, in particular, by the contributions of Deputies Fleming, O'Dea and Keaveney who criticised this budget. Deputy Fleming said the €3 increase in the pension payment was miserable. I can tell this House what is miserable. In its pre-budget submissions, Fianna Fáil proposed no increase in the Christmas bonus. That was Fianna Fáil's way. It proposed no increase in the fuel allowance and carer's allowance. Unfortunately the Fianna Fáil Members are not here to contradict or argue with me. We heard their remarks on the minimum wage but they should remember that Fianna Fáil reduced the minimum wage by €1 per hour. It was a Labour-Fine Gael Government that increased the minimum wage twice in its term of office. It has been increased by 20%, which is not enough, and the increase should go further. However, the party that reduced the minimum wage by €1 per hour is not here to answer me.
This Government is introducing two weeks of paternity leave. What did Fianna Fáil propose? Nothing. This Government is adding a second free preschool year. What did Fianna Fáil propose? Nothing.
I welcome Fianna Fáil's spokesperson who has arrived in the House.
Every single time I have been in this House, Fianna Fáil has been scaremongering, saying the free travel scheme was going to be abolished. I have heard it for the past five years. I heard it this year too. What did Fianna Fáil propose to support the free travel scheme in this budget? Nothing. What did this Government do? We added €3 million to the budget, bringing it from €77 million to €80 million.
We all worry and care about our children. The sum of €676 million has been allocated in 2016 to Tusla. Deputy Fleming asked what we were going to do about this in the budget. That is what we did. What did Fianna Fáil propose? Nothing.
On many occasions, Deputy Fleming has argued back and forth across this House with me about the school meals programme. He told me how good and positive the programme is and how he needed it in the schools in his area. He said further investment was needed in it. This Government has put an extra €3 million into the programme in budget 2016, bringing the sum up to €42 million. What did Fianna Fáil propose? Nothing.
We are increasing the threshold for eligibility for family income supplement. I heard Deputy Fleming's concerns and look forward to addressing them on Committee Stage, but what did Fianna Fáil propose in relation to family income supplement? Nothing. What did it propose on job activation measures? Nothing. What did it propose on the Lansdowne Road agreement? Nothing.
I admit Fianna Fáil did propose a €5 increase in the pension but it did not suggest reinstating the Christmas bonus it abolished. We were able to restore it partially. Fianna Fáil proposed nothing on it. When Deputy Fleming stands up in this House and tells me something is miserable, Deputy Fleming should remember how miserable he made this country when he crashed and burned it. We have had to put the pieces back together. It has been hard for people to put those pieces back together. They carried the burden. They suffered the cuts. They suffered the loss of jobs.
The Labour Party and Fine Gael in this Government provided for 2,260 new teachers, including 600 extra resource teachers. There is a big difference in what Fianna Fáil proposed and what it did not propose. In answering Deputy Fleming's claim that the €3 increase was miserable, I would love if it was much more but we have gone through three difficult budgets. I wish Deputy Fleming was in the House to defend himself but he is not. I am sure he is out looking to see how miserable everyone is and how miserable Fianna Fáil made the country because Fianna Fáil was in government for 14 wasted years, during which time it destroyed the country.
There were many other submissions and I listened carefully to the speeches. Deputy Colm Keaveney is my former party colleague. He was very good at wrapping the red flag around himself and he has been very good at waving it on the opposition benches. He should take himself and Fianna Fáil off writing speeches and possibly get Red Flag to do it in future. They might make a great deal more sense than some of the rubbish we heard from Deputy Sean Fleming earlier. However, that is enough about Fianna Fáil. What we must do, and very carefully, is examine how we will rebuild this country from the crash and shambles we inherited. I do not use those words with any glee. Every Member of the House and the parents of the children in the Visitors Gallery have suffered as a result of what we were left with.
There have been allegations that the budget favours the better off. Deputy Costello, Deputy Ryan and others explained how the bottom groups benefit far more than the top quintiles. I do not intend to repeat what was said. However, one contribution rankled. The leader of RENUA Ireland arrived into the Chamber to speak on the welfare budget. She accused the Government of Bertie-nomics. We are all familiar with Bertie-nomics; it probably got us to the current position. However, looking at the budget submission from RENUA Ireland I worry that this is what we are facing from a new progressive party when it talks about a flat tax on minimum wage earners of 23%. There is a budget gap in its figures of €3.6 billion as a result of introducing a 23% flat tax rate. Its members say that extra VAT returns, extra this and extra that might fill the gap of between €3.6 billion and €4.6 billion. When the Deputy talks about Bertie-nomics she should take a quick look in the mirror. If that is her budget proposal in respect of welfare, it will crash and burn the country as quickly as Fianna Fáil crashed and burned it five years ago.
The intention of my Department is to ensure every person gets the opportunity to get back into employment. Consider our new Intreo services. For somebody who has lost their job or who is seeking to get back into work, the first step they take into the new Intreo office is their first step back into work. That is where we must keep our focus, and that is why we must be careful with the social welfare budget and the Finance Bill. We must ensure that everything we do is targeted to help as many people as possible back into work. As the Tánaiste says, the surest way out of poverty is getting into work.
We have created 110,000 additional jobs in the last three years. Deputy Sean Fleming did not mention that. He talked about schemes that massage the figures and gave out about people going into the schemes because it broke their long-term employment. Tús and CE have helped people to keep in contact with the employment market. That is the reason people have been able to get into employment. They filled the gap in their CV, got the training and experience they needed and got into employment. This Government is a Government of work. We wish to ensure that work pays and that we can help people back into work. I am not sure if Deputies O'Dea and Sean Fleming are caught up in the last decade and in keeping people in welfare dependency. I want to see people back in work on good pay, with fair pay for fair work.
I also want to see people availing of citizens information centres, so they do not have to go to their local Deputy to find out about their entitlements. We are here to legislate, not to offer clientelism. It is the Fianna Fáil type of clientelism that we experienced over a long period that got us into this position.
In conclusion, Deputies raised a range of issues during the debate. I do not have the time to address all of them, although I took notes on each one. I look forward to the debate on Committee Stage when there will be an opportunity for closer scrutiny of what we are proposing, as well as what other political parties have proposed for the Department's budget. I commend the Bill to the House.
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