Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Social Welfare Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
Last night, I referred to the failure of the Minister to adjust the caps applicable to family income supplements, which had some negative consequences for people. For a parent working for 40 hours per week on the minimum wage and with one child, his or her pay is increased by €4 per week. The family income supplement will be cut by €2.40, from €87 to €84.60. This implies the Minister has done nothing for those families on low incomes who rely very much on this payment. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, might let is know whether it is still Fine Gael policy to abolish the family income supplement. In the general election campaign, it was proposed that the working family payment would replace this. Is that idea now scrapped?
We welcome the increase of €5 in the disability allowance and the decision to grant medical cards to all children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, on achieving that. There was no provision for an increase in the domiciliary care allowance payment, however. As the Minister of State will know, the cost of living for people with a disability, especially children, is much higher. That argument is indisputable.
The universal child benefit has a major impact on poverty in Ireland. It goes to all parents and is simple to administer. It is universal in nature. Like all other child-related payments in this budget, no increase was provided. I hope the Minister will seek to address this next year.
An issue the Minister could also address next year is child benefit for those in second level education who have turned 18 and who have not finished their leaving certificate yet. If there are financial pressures at home, there is a disincentive for teenagers not to remain in secondary education if they turn 18. There are also major costs associated with the last year of school. Qualification for child benefit could end after the school year. Those concerned could be allowed to finish their education. A gesture like this would make a real difference for many families in meeting school costs.
With inflation now increasing, the Minister provided no extra money for meeting the costs of parents with school-going children. Across six payments that help families with young children and directly address child poverty, there was no increase in this budget. With regard to child benefit, the domiciliary care allowance, the qualified child increase, the back-to-work family dividend, the family income supplement and the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, the Minister did nothing. One must ask what this Government has against children.
There was one measure to help children. We welcome the extra €5.7 million for school meals but the Minister might outline where that extra funding will be used. Will schemes already set up in schools be able to expand? We are told the money will fund meals for 50,000 additional children. Will it be for breakfasts, snacks or lunches? I hope the funding will be used to extend the scheme in DEIS schools and to facilitate the provision of breakfast clubs in other schools from September 2017. As the Minister will know, those schools that do not offer the school meals already have issues with access to canteens and preparation areas. Has the Minister any plans to ensure all DEIS schools will offer the meals programme?
It is disappointing for many older people that the increase in the pension will not come into effect until 10 March. We had to wait a number of weeks to get the date. The budget did nothing to increase the living-alone allowance or provide an increase to the fuel allowance, with the cost of coal, peat briquettes and many other forms of fuel increasing.
On the eve of the budget, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, and his Independent Alliance colleagues were in a last-minute strop seeking the restoration of the bereavement grant. It looks like he was not able to deliver on that despite generating a lot of heat and headlines in advance of the budget.
Deputy O'Dea and his party, Fianna Fáil, also generated a lot of headlines in the summer. That was, of course, until the Minster for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, snookered him by implementing Labour's pre-budgetary proposal for increases in all weekly social welfare increases. I recall Deputy O'Dea calling in August for a lot more than a €5 increase in the old age pension. He said making changes for lone parents was a priority for Fianna Fáil in the budget. He might let us know where he now stands on this.
I was and am of the view that the changes and reforms affecting lone parents were totally premature in an environment where the child care issue had not been addressed and where job opportunities were limited. Transport opportunities were certainly curtailed. The issues pointed out in a recent independent evaluation report need to be addressed without delay. Outcomes are different from those anticipated. Let us accept the reality. If there is an error or mistake, it should be addressed, and we should ensure that anomalies and unintended consequences are addressed without any further delay.
In the interest of accuracy, I must put on the record that Labour provided a bigger increase for pensioners in 2016 than that provided in the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael budget. When one adds up the figures announced in the budget, it is clear that pensioners have been sold a pup. Taking into account the increase in the Christmas bonus from 25% to 75%, the €2.50 per week increase in the fuel allowance and the weekly €3 increase, Labour in government ensured the average older person benefited by a total increase of €336.10 in 2016. Let us compare this with 2017. The 10% bump in the Christmas bonus and a €5 weekly pension increase from 10 March will be worth a total of €240.60 for the average older person. Fianna Fáil spent a lot of time calling last year's increase an insult. It should let us know whether it believes the smaller increase this year is also an insult?
As a spokesperson, I have always focused on widows and widowers. No budget has done very much for them over the years. Widows comprise a long-forgotten group in social welfare terms. They are at increased risk of poverty, and no person wants to find herself in that situation. In future budgets, the Government in power might consider how the household benefits package and other key supports could be extended to widows under the age of 65. Very often, they may find they have lost the main breadwinner. They may have two or three young children and experience a significant loss of income and additional responsibilities at a time of vulnerability. We should be exploring ways of ensuring the benefits of the household package are available to them at this critical time. I would like to see this.
I welcome that the Minister accepted the Labour Party proposal to provide the back-to-education allowance at the full rate to those aged under 26. I ask him to clarify his intention to continue to address youth unemployment and to implement the youth guarantee.
Let me turn to JobPath, Seetec and Turas Nua. The Minister will be aware that the roll-out of JobPath is ongoing and that it is causing significant distress in communities across the country. I have a number of examples to hand. I have received many complaints and queries about the impact of JobPath on community employment schemes, as has my colleague and party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin. The schemes are taking all the people. There will be nobody left in community employment in rural areas. I refer to people want to gain valuable skills and receive training. I have questions about how Seetec and Turas Nua go about their business. They are under contract in the Department. It is time the Minister told them to pull in their horns. Could the Minister confirm whether it is covered by law that a person who has been referred to JobPath may not apply to participate in a community employment scheme?
People should have that option. Turas Nua operates in the south east, including Wexford where my party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin's office has received numerous complaints about its operation. We are discussing vulnerable people, but there seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach. There should be a bespoke option that suits people's skills and attributes. Compelling them into positions for which they are not suitable knocks them back rather than helping them to advance. People are being expected to turn up for interviews and jobs, even though they do not have the life or work skills to do what is being asked of them.
A lack of sympathy and compassion is being displayed by those operating this compulsory element of attendance for JobPath opportunities and other job activation measures. They are not opportunities; rather, people are being forced to accept whatever jobs become available. Dignity and respect must inform all job activation measures where people are compelled to attend. It is demoralising and having a different outcome than was heralded.
A number of people have contacted me about the operation of Seetec across the midlands. I have numerous examples of its modus operandiin my constituency, with which I take issue. For example, a number of people, particularly women, who are older than 60 but under 62 years of age, the cut-off point, have effectively been notified of the requirement to attend courses that are incompatible with their life skills. Some are over 61 years of age, have limited education, worked in various jobs as shop assistants and cleaners and are still seeking that type of work. They are located in remote rural areas with no transport of their own. One lady only has a bike and is 8 miles from Mullingar, but there is no public transport available. The people concerned must find a way to attend the courses. If they do not, their social welfare payments are docked. This is State-backed bullying and harassment of the worst kind and a stop must be put to it without delay.
Seetec and Turas Nua are results driven. It is my understanding they are paid on the basis of outcomes, but that should not be the case. The experience of applicants and their levels of satisfaction with the process should be the basis for any payment. In my experience, that means the companies would get damn all. It is time to review the process. A contract is involved, but these operators do not allow qualified people in their areas, particularly rural areas, to participate in local CE schemes where they acquire on-the-job training, evaluation and practical skills. Instead, they are prevented from participation in the community employment scheme by regulation or otherwise when selected for JobPath scheme participation. It is a bureaucratic monster that should be beheaded without delay as this approach is no longer required. It is wrong and does not accord with the principle of decency or encourage people to embark on schemes that are suited to their life skills and abilities, especially where they are over 60 years of age. I have no compunction in saying these companies should be told to pull in their horns.
A major issue is the victimisation of women under the social welfare code in terms of their entitlement to a contributory pension. This arises where a woman's contribution record commenced on the date she entered employment and she had to leave later because of State policy, for example, the marriage bar or other reasons. She returned to employment 20 or 25 years later, but the calculation of her average contribution has a severe and negative impact because it extends over her entire working life, that is, from the date on which she first entered employment. This anomaly must be addressed because it is being visited on people unfairly compared to others who entered employment for much shorter periods at later dates. This problem could be solved by imputing a credit for those who were compulsorily removed from the workforce because of the marriage bar which was State policy and so on. They are entitled to this change which would increase their average contributions and entitle them to receive a pension at higher rates. They should not be deprived in this way. I hope the issue will be addressed sooner rather than later.
When an industry is under pressure, it is important that we try to help it. This is particularly the case where the pressure is as a consequence of Brexit. The mushroom industry is under severe pressure. At one time there were approximately 600 growers, but that number has dropped to approximately 60. They employ many people in rural areas where job opportunities are limited. There are a number in my county, but they are being wiped out. One of the first casualties of the United Kingdom's decision in June on Brexit and the consequential fluctuations in sterling was the mushroom industry. Four significant farms have gone and more will follow. More than 90% of farms' mushrooms are exported to Britain. The Minister of State can see the problem. It is clear that the impact on the industry is serious and will wipe it out. It is important that temporary assistance be rendered to this exposed industry to help it get to over this problem and secure its future. If it gets over it, it will undoubtedly survive. For example, there could be a temporary reduction in employer's PRSI from 8.5% to 4.2%. This measure was implemented successfully in 2012 and 2013 for other industries. We must show some ingenuity if we are to protect jobs, get people over the hump and retain employment at a time when the industry is under pressure.
Regardless of whether we like the idea, the level of pension coverage must be addressed. The matter has been studied. For example, the former Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, initiated a review. Some 48% or 49% of people have no pension coverage. This will become a major issue. When we are young, we do not look ahead to our mid-60s. It never means much. When we raised this issue many years ago, organisations that represented employers, in particular IBEC and ISME, were against a mandatory contribution scheme, but in expressing that opposition they did not represent the views of many small employers or employees we met on the ground. There must be a mandatory scheme. One has operated in Australia and another is being adopted in the United Kingdom. It works. If people want to opt out, fair enough, but otherwise it should be mandatory. There would be auto-enrolment. It should not be the case that people who retire experience a significant drop in income because they have no pension entitlements. People have found themselves in this serious position.
A cross-party group is examining the compulsory age of retirement. Numerous people have asked me when it will be addressed for those who reach retirement age and want to continue in employment. It would be done on a voluntary basis. If people want to continue in employment beyond the mandatory retirement age in the public service and their health allows them to do so, we should give them that option. If they do not want to avail of it, grand; let them retire at that age, but many people with a great deal of experience are being forced out of the workforce. Just the other day I read that gardaí were being forced out of the workforce when they had much more to give and wished to do so. People should have the choice. We have entered an era in which, if people want to continue, we should allow them to do so. There should be no regulations to force them to leave.
I am sharing time with Deputy Gino Kenny.
We are debating the Social Welfare Bill. In some media circles the budget became known as the "fiver budget" because of the €5 per week increase for social welfare recipients.
The budget is actually misnamed because social welfare recipients will receive less than a fiver. The increase comes into effect on 10 March and when one averages a €5 increase from that date out through an entire calendar year, it comes to less than €4 per week or €3.95 to be precise. That is some contrast with the proposed increase for Deputies of €104 per week.
Last year TV3 broadcast a programme called "Dáil on the Dole" in which three Members of this House, Deputies John Halligan, Catherine Byrne and Willie O'Dea appeared on our television screens for a number of weeks spending time in the company of constituents who were trying to survive on social welfare payments. If the programme did anything, it showed how difficult it is for people to survive on social welfare payments. I am sure that in the run-in to a general election, that was very useful public relations for the Deputies concerned but it would seem that not only the Deputies themselves but the parties to which they are connected learned little from the experience. The parties to which those Deputies are affiliated are the Independent Alliance, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Rather than transform the lives of people who are trying to survive on social welfare, we have the most meagre of meagre increases. In our opinion, it is an insult to people trying to survive on social welfare payments.
I want to consider the cases of three groups in my contribution this evening, namely lone parents, carers and young unemployed people. The rules were changed for lone parents last year by the Fine Gael, Labour Party Government. Lone parents' allowance was only to be paid to lone parents with children up to the age of seven. Lone parents with children aged between seven and 14 were told that they could qualify for the family income supplement but only if they worked at least 19 hours per week. This has proved very difficult, if not impossible, for many lone parents because of the challenge of getting children off to and collected from school. Given the time of school runs, how does one fit that in with a working week of at least 19 hours? For those lone parents for whom that has simply been impossible, the family income supplement is beyond reach. These already struggling lone parents have been plunged even deeper into poverty.
Over the course of the last year, many lone parents and their representative organisations have made this poverty trap known to Ministers and Government Deputies. They have gone to their clinics and told them their stories, met them on the streets and given them information. They have also phoned into radio programmes and have put their message across in many different ways. What has the Government chosen to do in this budget? It has chosen to effectively ignore the information from lone parents and the pleas they have made. It has kept in place the same unjust system which has pushed so many lone parents even deeper into poverty in the last year. No doubt Government Ministers will say that there is a child care package which can be of assistance. However, 0.2% of GDP in this country is spent on child care which is only one quarter of the OECD average of 0.8%. Someone with two children spends 40% of household income, in many cases, on child care costs which is in sharp contrast to the OECD average of 13%. Indeed, it is the second highest percentage in the OECD. The child care package in the budget falls well short of what is needed for lone parents . The Government then compounds the situation by giving them not a fiver, but €3.95. It is no surprise that the Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids, SPARK, organisation which represents the interest of lone parents and was set up by them has been particularly vocal in lashing this Government and this year's budget. Indeed, it is well within its rights in doing so.
There are 200,000 family carers across the country. They are, in some respects, Ireland's unseen workforce. They contribute more than 6 million unpaid hours of care each week and they save the State approximately €4 billion each year. They too are to receive a fiver or, in reality, €3.95. One particular statistic shows the real approach of this Government to carers. The current average waiting time for new carer's allowance applications to be processed and payments to be made is 40 weeks because of cuts and because they are not being dealt with as a priority. That is a shocking situation. This Government is not taking care of our carers and I would warn that if it does not do so, those carers will take care of the Government at the next election.
I wish to make a number of points about young unemployed people. In some ways the greatest insult in this budget is the one meted out to them. They do not receive €5 per week or €3.95, averaged over the year. They receive €2.70. They are cut out from all the other groups; they are a special group who will receive even less. The Peter McVerry Trust put it well when it said, "this will send a message to young people that Government does not value them". That is very true and truer again when put in the context of other conditions that young people face and other obstacles that the Government has put in their way. One in eight young people in this State under the age of 30 are trying to survive on the minimum wage. In fact, 40% of all persons on the minimum wage in this State are under the age of 30.
The policies of this and the previous Government forced 30,000 people to emigrate last year.
It was due to the policies of the previous Government, but they have been carried on in large measure by the Government. The situation of young teachers who started in their profession between 2011 and 2016 and were forced to accept lower pay rates than their colleagues has not been addressed. Before the Minister of State tells me that there is a 22% increase on offer if the union comes into the Lansdowne Road agreement, the issue has not been addressed. There would still be two-tier rates. One cannot have a little equality.
Of course, we face the same situation with the young unemployed. I have heard the Minister say people do not have to be young to be unemployed and that training and education places will be made available. Does he not realise a large number of unemployed persons have already been through the education and training system, including the third level system, are highly qualified and now face this Hobson's choice? It is particularly damning that in recent weeks one after the other homeless agencies have warned the Government that the low rates of social welfare payments available to young people have been an important factor in the rise in the level of youth homelessness. That is extremely important information. Perhaps the Government overlooked it in the run-up to introducing the budget, but it seems that was not the case because, despite the information being put in front of it and argued cogently by the homeless organisations through the media and in society, it chose to ignore it. Despite the fact that low rates of social welfare payments are such an important contributory factor to the rise in the level of youth homelessness, the Government is carrying on regardless and the real insult is that young people will receive an increase of €2.70, while everyone else will receive a fiver or €3.95.
There has been a lot of talk today about the result of the US presidential election. The rallies organised in football and baseball stadiums earlier this year by a candidate who I think had the potential to defeat Mr. Donald Trump if he had stood as an independent left-wing candidate, Mr. Bernie Sanders, were attended by 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people or more. They listened to his message which was sharply critical of Wall Street and a system run by billionaires. He spoke about the need for ordinary people to fight and challenge that system. It is very striking and interesting that the biggest cohort at the rallies were what were termed "millennials", people under the age of 30 or 35 years. They were the biggest supporters of the Sanders campaign, which is an indication that young people and the newer generations who are being given a vision of society in which they will be worse off and have a lower standard of living than their parents are developing attitudes that are critical of the system and capitalism - you reap what you sow. Policies such as this will politicise young people in this country also. What happened in the United States where young people flocked to hear the Sanders' message can happen in Ireland with people looking to the left for radical change to challenge the system.
I am sharing time with Deputy Bríd Smith.
Although I recognise the €5 increase in social welfare payments as a step in the right direction, I do not think any attempt was made in the budget to unwind some of the harsh effects of recent budgets. Some sectors of society have been failed in the social welfare system and not been protected, as they should have been. The examples I will give of the people who are discriminated against the most are of those who did not cause the crisis or benefit from the so-called boom, yet they are the ones who felt the harsh brunt of austerity and are living in poverty. I will list some figures and discuss in further detail the two groups which have been discriminated against the most. They are young people and one-parent families. In 2009 jobseeker's allowance was €204.30. In 2017 it will be €193 for those aged over 26 years, €102.70 for those aged between 18 and 24 and €147.80 for those aged between 25 and 26. The minimum loss for a jobseeker is €11, but for those under the age of 25 years, the loss of income is significant. If someone is aged 25 years, the loss is €56.50, but if they are under 24, it is €101.60. This mirrors the discrimination for newly qualified teachers or nurses in terms of pay equality. What we are saying is if that someone finds himself or herself unemployed, he or she will be discriminated against in rates of social welfare payments payable and that if he or she starts a job in the public sector, he or she will face pay inequality.
Unfortunately, the country does not just discriminate only against young people. Lone parents and their children have shamefully been let down by the Government. We cannot tackle the level of child poverty if we do not address the cuts inflicted on one-parent families. The rates of child poverty among children living in households headed by one parent are a national disgrace and it is important to look at them. The rate of consistent poverty among children in Ireland is 11.2%. When we look at this headline rate in detail, we see that the poverty rate among children headed by a lone parent is 22.1%, while in a two-parent household with fewer than four children, it is 7.9%. If we are to make any attempt to tackle the level of child poverty, we must address the poverty traps and barriers faced by lone parents, but nothing was done in the budget. When we look at the cuts inflicted on lone parents, it is clear that no other sector of society was hit as hard. Much has been said about equality proofing, but it was always known that the level of poverty among lone parent families was significantly higher than in the rest of society. What the previous Government, of which the Minister was a member, did and the Government continues to do is politically proof rather than equality proof budgets. By this, I mean that it decides what it can cut that may not prove damaging politically to it. Lone parents were an easy target because the Government could falsely stereotype and stigmatise them under the guise of labour activation measures. There was no discussion of the fact that at the time 60% of lone parents in receipt of the one-parent family payment were in receipt of a reduced payment as they were in part-time employment or participating in a community employment scheme. There was also no discussion of the barriers, particularly when it came to child care and other supports needed, faced by them. The Government portrayed them as a group that needed to be activated.
In looking at what has happened to lone parents it is important to list the cuts made. In 2009 the one-parent family payment was €204.30. In 2017 it will be €193. The qualifying age of children was reduced from 18 years to seven. In 2009 the child benefit payment for one child was €166. In 2017 it will be €140. The back to school allowance payable for a child in primary school was cut from €200 to €100, while the allowance payable for a child in secondary school was cut from €305 to €200. These are just the headline figures. The worst measure inflicted on lone parents involved the changes made to payments and entitlements. Contrary to the mantra that lone parents needed to be activated, it was those already working who suffered a financial loss. The Minister's claim that 3,000 lone parents are better off because of the changes is false and misleading. If any lone parent was to increase his or her working hours, of course, his or her income would go up, but what the Minister has failed to address is the fact that if he or she had increased his or her working hours prior to July 2015, the financial gain would have been bigger.
The Minister also fails to acknowledge the thousands who had a huge reduction in income, and that those already working 19 hours on FIS suffered a loss despite the increase in this budget of the income disregard to €110. This is €37.50 below what it was prior to the cuts. It is important to note that the €147.50 it was prior to the cuts had been the same rate since 1997 when it was introduced. There was never a gravy train for lone parents but a series of failed policies and rather than address them the previous Government, of which the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was a member, cut them further and brought in policy changes restricting their access to third level education and giving a financial loss to working parents. I see nothing in this budget that restores any loss to these parents.
Prior to the budget the Minister was made aware of problems with maintenance payments. The transition from the one-parent family payment to job seeker's transition payment did not take into consideration the "liable relative" legislation. The Department wrote out to thousands of liable relatives to tell them that they had no further obligation to the Department to pay. Despite this having been brought to the Minister's attention through a petition from lone parents, he has not dealt with it. Indeed, his response was insensitive to any woman who escaped domestic violence, saying they must prove their abuse. Local Intreo offices are informing parents if they do not seek maintenance their payment will be cut.
It has also been brought to the Minister's attention that deducting 100% of maintenance payments from rent allowance was causing great difficulties for many parents, especially for those where the maintenance is not being paid, or not paid on time from ex-partners.
The Minister, like previous Ministers for Social Protection, went for headline changes. If he was really interested in tackling inequality for our youth or child poverty among lone-parent families, he would have listened to the groups who had been pleading with him to make genuine changes.
I will address my comments to the "shadow" Minister, because the real Minister is not here.
The confidence and supply agreement cements Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Independents together. They congratulate themselves on an extra fiver in social welfare in the budget. However, changes in our welfare code across the board are still resulting in inequalities and injustices. I endorse what my colleagues said about the lone-parent's allowance, the carer's allowance and the discrimination against young people. I want to talk about another injustice that has fallen under the radar. I highlight the changes in the system for contributory pensions introduced over recent years. These changes and scrapping the State transition pension have taken a lot more money from the pockets of our pensioners and old than the amount by which it is proposed to increase their pensions.
At an overall cost to the State is €170 million, the new rates for contributory pension will be €238 at the top for those under 80 and €248 for those over 80. The non-contributory pension is €227. Therefore an entitlement to a State pension at 65 has been removed for thousands of working people because the State transition pension was abolished in 2014. While I understand the argument made earlier on that people should be allowed to work longer if they so wish, this is a forced situation. For many workers where the State tells them they are not entitled to benefit until they are 66, their contracts of employment state that they must retire at 65 and for that year they must seek jobseeker's allowance. Furthermore, the introduction of the new method of calculating how a retiree can qualify for the maximum contributory pension - this is complicated - means a reduction in the level of State pension for many newly retired people compared with what they may have expected.
The number of bands used to calculate the entitlement has now expanded to six. The required yearly average contributions have changed such that many will now find their pensions lower than the expectations they had. Increasing numbers of people are failing to reach the required yearly average contribution to be entitled to any form of a contributory pension. One band was effectively replaced with three new bands. The justification for this was to reward those with greater yearly contributions, but it has simply punished those with less.
For example, before 2012 a person with 20 to 47 average yearly contributions got the second category of contributory pension. Now a person with 20 average yearly contributions falls into the fourth category and is therefore penalised. These changes since 2012 mean many of those qualifying for contributory pension, which are still rising because of demographics, are qualifying for reduced pension entitlements. The differences in payments for old-age pensioners who fall foul of this is considerably more than a fiver a week on which Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Independents are congratulating themselves.
These changes will save €50 million in 2017, rising by €10 million annually. The State pension transition payment was abolished saving €137 million. This money is taken from the pockets of those pensioners affected. It is shocking.
Many women now retiring, who may have worked consistently for decades before retiring, find their pension is significantly less than they may have expected. This is partially explained by the home-making rules and by discrimination against woman who raised their families in the years that were removed before 1994. While years spent out of the workforce since 1994 for the purpose of raising a family and children can be discounted against the overall number of years that the calculation is based on, for the generation of women who had to leave the workforce before 1994 to raise a family, the years they spent raising their children is not discounted against the overall number of years used when calculating the pension entitlement, in other words the years from when they first entered the workforce to the year they retire.
This effectively makes it impossible for this cohort of woman to meet the criteria for getting the maximum contributory pension of 48 yearly average contributions or even to get between 30 and 40 for the next bracket in the scheme. The rates applying to the categories are as follows: the top rate is €233 a week; in the next category for those with between 40 and 47 yearly average contributions it is €228; for those with between 30 and 39 yearly average contributions it is €209 a week; and for those with between 20 and 29 yearly average contributions it is €198. I know it is complicated. God help me, I worked for hours trying to get my head around it after many questions to the Department and very helpful officials working with me.
These women have to work longer to get the contributory pension, often in very difficult and physically demanding jobs. It is impossible for woman who left for a period of time to raise their children in the late 1960s and 1970s to effectively reach a full contributory pension. This is the argument here.
I will mention the cases of two women, Lillian and Jean, who left their jobs in the late 1960s to get married and rear families, as people did in the day. Through the 1970s and up to the mid-1980s they spent their time as homemakers. Having worked from the mid-1980s right up until this year - a continuous period of 30, 32 or 33 years, they will now get a State contributory pension of €209 a week rather than the €230 they expected.
I signal my intention to table an amendment to the Social Welfare Bill to go some way towards correcting the injustice to that cohort of women. My amendment proposes to make this scheme available to any woman who had to leave the workforce regardless of the years - prior to 1994 and subsequently. This is a blatant injustice and many pensioners find themselves living on reduced State pensions despite having worked and contributed in full for years.
I reiterate that the cost to the State of the extra fiver a week is €170, but this is being wiped out by penalising women, such as Jean and Lillian, who worked full-time for more than 30 years from the mid-1980s until 2015 or 2016. It is not fair and is a kick in the face for those hard-working women, who have now retired and realise that they are not worth their salt to the State.
I shall start on a positive note and welcome the €5 increases for almost all social welfare payments and the new provisions for the self-employed that go some way to addressing the unequal way they are treated, including the provision of an invalidity pension and the extension of treatment benefits including access to dental and optical benefits. To delay such necessary changes until December 2017 is unacceptable and the package does not deal with all of the issues raised by the self employed who, as has been repeatedly pointed out in this Chamber, are the backbone of employment in the State. I also welcome the reversal of cuts to pharmacists, the introduction of the paternity benefit, the partial restoration of the Christmas bonus, among other positive provisions.
I deplore, however, the utter failure by the Department to do what it should be doing. One area in which the Department does very well is in combatting fraud, having had the Garda and Revenue on the roads in Galway with regard to tax fraud, although it only consists of a minor fraction of the overall budget of over €19 billion. One of the main functions of the Department is to advise the Government and formulate appropriate social protection and social inclusion policies. I believe the Department, the Government and, unfortunately, the Minister have utterly failed to deal with that. If they had looked at any of the research available they would realise that inequality is deepening and the gap between the rich and the poor - which is repeatedly quoted from this side of the Chamber - is not a cliché; it is actually happening. Consider the recent reports from Social Inclusion Ireland, the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, or the National University Ireland Galway, which I have downloaded and read, with regard to lone parents and the detrimental effect of driving lone parents, 90% of whom are women, into the workforce. It has actually made them poorer. The Minister of State did not introduce that measure - unfortunately it was the Labour Party - but he has done nothing to rectify it in this budget. Notwithstanding one line on page 28 in the annual report from the Department of Social Protection, that income inequality is largely unchanged, the Department has utterly failed to advise the Government on policies that might address that inequality.
Social transfers keep half of the Irish population out of poverty. There are 1.6 million people who receive a social welfare payment and when qualified adults and children are included, almost 2.1 million people benefit from the payments. That amounts to almost half of the Irish population who would be at risk of poverty without social transfer payments from the Department of Social Protection. They are the figures from the Department. Further, there is any amount of up-to-date independent research which confirms that we have a most unequal society with the gap continuing to widen. I ask the Minister of State to look at that. I am not here to complain or to be negative. I am here to pressurise the Government to change the policy that would save the taxpayer money in the end. If we lessen the divide we will have a healthier society and a wealthier society. TASC's 2016 report Economic Inequality in Ireland has 18 indicators and on each one they show that economic inequality is worsening in Ireland. They are policy decisions. The report says "As has been demonstrated internationally [and repeatedly], a rising level of economic inequality such as we are experiencing in Ireland, jeopardises the sustainability of the recovery, both economically and socially". This is something I can never understand. For perhaps the third time in the last two weeks I use the word "naive" about myself, but I simply find it difficult to understand how Government cannot understand where different policy decisions will result in a better society for most of us, and therefore save money in the long term. For example, Ireland has levels of almost 20% functional illiteracy. This figure has been static for a very long time and yet there are absolutely no measures for it in this Social Welfare Bill.
One of the most direct measures for helping poverty is to increase the direct child benefit, but there is no increase here whatsoever. The lone parents, 90% of whom are women are being pushed also. The whole theme through this budget is absolutely anti-women with regard to the 90% of lone parents who are women, with regard to the gender gap in pensions and with regard to carers. The Anti-Austerity Alliance, AAA, made reference to carers. I totally agree with the AAA's concerns around the lack of increase for carers. The startling figure of over 60% of the current budget for the provision of services for older people goes towards long-term residential care. While 60% of the budget goes to long-term residential care only 4% approximately of the population who are aged over 65 live in residential care. A policy decision has been made to fund one side and the other side, the carers who are saving the State an extraordinary amount of money, do not even get a €1 increase. These are policy decisions that are happening all the time and I have a real difficulty with them because it would save money in the long term if we did it differently.
I will now turn to the issue of domestic violence and the figure I have quoted repeatedly - some €2 billion - which is the cost to the economy on an annual basis as a result of our failure to deal with it. Not only are we failing to deal with it, year after year we have actually reduced the money available to the organisations that specialise in helping people who have been subjected to domestic violence.
There are many other points I can make but my time is limited so I will mention just one or two other matters, one of which is JobPath. Deputy Penrose has already spoken about this. It has also been my experience in Galway that this new JobPath - under Seetec and Turas Nua - is the subject of the most serious concerns. If one looks at Connemara, where community employment schemes provide essential services in a rural area, people cannot be found for those schemes because they have no choice but to go to the private company Seetec. I have raised this, as have other Deputies, and we do not get an adequate answer, or we get no answer from the Minister. I would hope that with the Minister of State's particular interest in the area of disability he might look at this. We should have learned from JobBridge and we should have learned from how these private companies operate in the UK, but when each Deputy raised this with the Minister he dismissed our concerns, told us that it was going to be done differently in Ireland and yet we have seen absolutely no details in that regard.
My final point relates to rent and how policy decisions again are costing the taxpayer money. In Galway city the Intreo building - an extraordinary building that was not built for social welfare - was a property owned by the city council in Galway for the people of Galway. It was given over for a project that ended up in receivership and rather than the Government getting any social dividend from it, they are now paying over €500,000 per year, year after year, for a rented building in Galway city. This is only one of the buildings that social welfare, through the Office of Public Works, is renting year after year. This is an absolute waste of money. The question must be asked; what social dividend did Galway city or county, or any other city, receive from NAMA as a result of all the banks we bailed out. As I speak there is a building in Galway, previously used by Anglo Irish Bank, which has remained empty while the city council must rent premises; the library and the social welfare buildings in Galway city are rented. This is absolute money down the drain that could be going to essential services.
In my speech on budget 2017 I welcomed the very small and partial restorations of social welfare payments by €5 per week. I also welcomed the increase from 75% to 85% in the Christmas bonus payment. Of course I would like to see the bonus fully restored because I know it is a huge help to social welfare recipients at a very expensive and stressful time of year.
In my pre-budget submission to the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Donohoe, I called for a more significant increase for pensioners of at least €7 per week, a further increase in child benefit by at least €5 more per child per month and an increase in family income supplement thresholds by at least €5.
I am a member of the Budgetary Oversight Committee of the Dáil and I argued in my pre-budget submission that the estimate of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and the ESRI of a fiscal space of €1 billion could be significantly expanded. In addition to ensuring that due levels of corporation and income taxes would be paid to the Exchequer in 2017 through reforms of the Finance Act provisions and greater resources for Revenue, I proposed a number of new revenue raising measures, including the introduction of a wealth tax, an increase in stamp duties on shares until we adopt a financial transactions tax, and I welcome the fact that ten of our EU partner governments are about to proceed with this, and a third rate of income tax for incomes above €100,000. In the event, the fiscal space was expanded, but only to €1.3 billion. I recognise that an important portion of this was allocated to the Department of Social Protection.
The core aim of any social protection Minister, including the incumbent who is not here this evening, should be at least to restore the pre-crash value of social protection benefits and assistance. This was a key target of my independent proposals to the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Donohoe. Even with the €5 a week increase in sections 6 to 8, inclusive, 18 and 22 of the Bill and a further partial restoration of the Christmas bonus, the total social protection budget in still effectively capped at €20 billion to 2020. The Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, has obviously agreed to this capping of the social protection budget. This budget, of course, represents 35% of total State expenditure and includes spending of €19.854 billion this year on our pensioners, citizens with disabilities and other most vulnerable citizens and families. Social protection expenditure spending is due to rise to €19.9 billion in 2018 and to just over €20 billion in 2019.
The most vulnerable citizens in society suffered most in the eight or nine austerity budgets since late 2008, and the very small partial restorations of some payments in 2016 and 2017 do little to restore the economic well being of these citizens and families. In particular, I believe a higher value must be placed on carers as without them the cost of providing care for our elderly and our citizens with disabilities would increase hugely, although specific figures were not provided to me by the Government. Through parliamentary questions I asked about the cost of financing care. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, did indicate in the reply to a parliamentary question that a €7 a week rise for all State pensioners would cost in the order of €215 million per annum and that a further €5 a week increase for all other categories of social insurance and social assistance was estimated last July to cost about €207 million in a full year. The very minimal package the Minister and the Minister of State would have needed would have cost at least €422 million, but this was not achieved by the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, or any of his colleagues. I also asked for increases in child benefit rates by at least €5 a week and for increases in the family income supplement.
A crucial element of the social protection budget, of course, is the Social Insurance Fund, now standing at almost €10.855 billion or €8.988 billion net of the total €19.6 billion social protection budget. I would welcome a response from the Minister of State in his speech to the current standing of the Social Insurance Fund and the extent to which it is in surplus or has moved back into surplus. The fund has recovered from the devastating deficit at the worst period of the crash after 2008, and I noted in the figures given to us by the Minister on budget day that the net fund shows a 4% increase for 2017. I also note the social assistance estimate has declined by 1% over 2016. These figures remind us that a huge percentage of the social protection budget comes from workers' weekly contributions. Neoliberal economists and journalists always harp on about a €20 billion social protection budget while conveniently ignoring the role of the Social Insurance Fund to which workers and their families contribute. In reality, the two most recent Governments have relentlessly suppressed the social assistance budget to under €12 billion and now have it down to €11 billion, with terrible consequences for the most vulnerable sectors of society.
I welcome the extension of services to all payers of social insurance, including those provided for in section 3, with regard to paternity benefits for class S contributions, section 4, with regard to invalidity benefit and section 9, with regard to dental and optical benefits for employed and self-employed recipients. Section 16 on the inclusion of the transitional period for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals who pay social insurance is also a generous provision. It is unfortunate the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is not here because I want to take this opportunity to condemn his recent dangerous rhetoric of trying to pit different areas of Irish society against one another. He tried to set the gardaí striking for the basic restoration of their pay against the general public and later social protection payment recipients against public servants such as teachers. Both interventions were singularly unhelpful and create a damaging narrative as part of the fear-mongering divide and conquer tactics that show the worst in politics on what the Minister of State will agree is generally a sad day for politics in our world.
As I have illustrated, the framing of the social protection budget and the construction of the other key budgets of public service provision for our schools, hospitals, security services and civil services is not a zero sum game. Restoration of income for the nearly one third of our people, the 2.1 million people to whom Deputy Connolly referred, who depend on social insurance and social assistance payments is crucial. They are entitled to full restoration while the Minister of State holds his role in the Government. I believe the resources are in our economy to fund a truly fair and humane social protection budget while also ensuring that key public service professions are properly paid and resourced, including the Civil Service. Whatever about the competition for the leadership of Fine Gael, these attempts to set off different categories of society against each other are singularly unhelpful.
I welcome the partial restorations, which will benefit approximately 1.5 million people, but I note they are not scheduled to come into effect until mid-March 2017. As I have previously said, this date should be brought forward to the beginning of the year and commence in January 2017. I hope that sections 18 and 22 will be amended in this regard by all the parties in the House in this regard. I hope the Minister of State brings this back to his colleagues in Fine Gael. These payments assist the most vulnerable in our society and despite our social protection system, Ireland continues to experience high levels of poverty.
I will give an example of which the Minister of State is well aware. The excellent Brother Kevin Crowley of the Capuchin Day Centre in Smithfield, who has been doing invaluable and sterling work in our city centre for years, reported recently that demand for the service is now at the highest it has been in 50 years. Weekly volunteers provide some 600 hot dinners to individuals, families and children, and 1,700 food parcels per week are distributed on Wednesdays. This has increased dramatically from before the recession, when they used to provide about 400 per week. This is happening on the watch of the Minister of State as he is a member of the Government. We can clearly see incredible levels of poverty in this regard.
I echo the comments made by Deputies Gino Kenny, Bríd Smith and Catherine Connolly on the treatment of lone parents and the draconian changes made by the previous Minister, Deputy Burton, which are still having a very detrimental effect on lone parent families, 60% of whom experience at least one form of deprivation. I also echo Deputy Smith's comments on the gross discrimination against women workers when it comes to retirement. The anger people feel after rearing a family for 20 or 25 years and spending 20 or 25 years in work, when they find their pensions are far lower than what they expected, has been brought to our attention. It is clear the 1994 scheme needs to be examined.
A key challenge to the structure and minimal payment levels of our social insurance and social assistance welfare system is that we should look again at the concept of a basic income. Earlier this year, a referendum was held in Switzerland in which a significant portion of the population voted for a basic income. Countries such as Finland and the Netherlands are exploring the concept that every citizen, every child, woman and man, would have a basic income.
Fr. Sean Healy and Social Justice Ireland have run strongly with that idea and it always has been a proposal of the Green Party. Perhaps the Minister can have a look at the proposal again for our own country, to get away from the idea of providing income for a deserving poor and move towards being a country where we have a fair, egalitarian distribution for all our citizens.
My contribution to tonight's debate will concentrate on lone parents. All sections of society were hammered during the recession and the fact that the Minister is giving €5 here and there and increasing jobseeker's allowance for young people under 25 by €2 shows where society has gone. People will never see the full restoration of what they received before the recession in their pay packets or social protection payments because the recession has pulled money out of the pockets of ordinary people while the wealthy get richer. When the Minister of State in the House, Deputy Finian McGrath, was on this side of the House he would have had such ideas and would have echoed those sentiments. There has to be a different concept of how society is run. Brexit and what has happened in the USA - and may happen in other countries - are an indictment of people's frustration about how they have been disrespected and disenfranchised. The system that has maintained itself for the past 20 years cannot do so any more yet trade deals are being put in place that may affect people's public services even more, by allowing businesses to challenge Governments if they wish to reverse decisions that affect profits, such as decisions to increase minimum wages.
Social protection could have alleviated the problems faced by lone parents without costing too much money. SPARK attended a committee meeting yesterday morning and its representatives made the general point that Ireland has worryingly high child poverty rates. The overall consistent poverty rate in Ireland is 8% but for children it is 11.2%. According to a SILC report of 2014, when breaking the rates down by household composition a different picture appears and the consistent poverty rate for children in lone parent families is 22.1%, while it is 7.9% for two-parent families with fewer than four children. Any discussion about reducing child poverty must, therefore, focus on children in lone-parent families and two-parent families with fewer than four children.
All people under 18 are legally seen as minors and the policy that forces a parent with sole responsibility for raising a teenager to work full time is not in the child's best interest. A lot has been written about changes to one-parent family payments, which now stop once the youngest child turns seven. People put out the line that this is in accordance with international best practice and point out that, internationally, parents can lose support when children turn three or five. However, although parents are expected to seek training or a job before the child turns seven, once they do so the financial and other supports available to enable their participation cease. In the UK a lone parent working 12 hours a week is entitled to working credits. They can breach the benefits caps and are entitled to higher housing benefit to reward them for working but that is not even being looked at in this country. Work is seen as a route out of poverty but for lone parents in Ireland the infrastructure is not in place to ensure work pays. The recent changes in Ireland cut the income of parents working for 20 hours on the minimum wage by 17% in many cases, due to rules around rent supplement and high child care costs for many lone parents. This loss means they are financially better off not working and that is the irony of the policies that were put in place in the past number of years. Far from encouraging economic independence, this policy is trapping lone parents into long-term social welfare dependency.
Changes to one-parent family payments has exasperated lone parents looking to access all levels of education. In the programme for partnership Government there is a commitment to publishing recommendations from an independent report commissioned to identify the barriers to success in higher education for lone parents in advance of budget 2017. The report has not been published in the timeframe agreed and the barriers will remain in place for at least another year. Lone parents accessing ETB and SOLAS courses have been forced to drop out or face financial losses. Lone parents are paid a training allowance instead of a primary social welfare payment when doing these courses. Many courses operate on a clock-in basis and any time missing or late attendances result in a financial penalty. This system does not accommodate the dual role of a lone parent. Many courses start at 8.30 a.m., which does not facilitate a lone parent who has to drop a child at school. If parents have to stay at home to nurse a sick child they lose a full day's pay, likewise if they must bring a child to a dental or medical appointment. A lone parent who participates in these courses is paid a minimum of €15 per week for child care out of the weekly qualifying child increase of €29.80. This requires a significant investment in the course but the risk that they lose money when a child is sick is unfair and an additional barrier which is forcing lone parents out of training at a time when Intreo offices are pushing them into a course. The irony of these situations is unbelievable.
Lone parents on rent supplement have no access to higher education unless they transfer to the back-to-education allowance, BTA. However, they cannot receive the maintenance portion of SUSI if they are on the BTA. The SUSI grant is completely necessary to support the additional transport and child care costs associated with attending college and, in effect, a lone parent's access is determined by his or her housing status and this is discriminatory. The Department of Social Protection has confirmed that lone parents on jobseeker's transition can do postgraduate studies but in practice local offices are suspending payments for those who are studying at postgraduate level and this has to be addressed. Parents are being told they must stop studying or forfeit payments. The purpose of the policy was to encourage activation and it is therefore essential that all Intreo offices are fully aware that lone parents are entitled to study while on jobseeker's transition. In my own area of Ballyfermot, a young woman went in to collect her JST last Friday but she is doing a masters course and was told she would not get the JST until the course was stopped. We intervened to say it was allowed but she was nearly a week without money in her pocket, which is absolutely outrageous when a person is already on a low income. All Intreo offices should know the rules and regulations around payments.
It is important to give an overview of what is happening to lone parents. They were targeted during the recession and the austerity and they were picked off, one by one, as were people with disabilities who could not fight back to oppose the cuts. I hope that, as happened with the Right2Water campaign, there will be people organising on the streets and there will be real change so that we do not have the same tired politics of which people are resentful.
I welcome some of the provisions in the Social Welfare Bill 2016. In particular, the almost €5 across the board increase in social welfare payments is a positive move given the reductions over many years in those payments. The increase in these payments is indicative of an improved economy. I welcome the extension of eligibility to invalidity pension, treatment benefits and paternity benefits to persons who are self-employed paying class S PRSI. In regard to farming, I welcome the partial disregard of GLAS income in the context of means testing for the purpose of social assistance payments and farm assist payments.
I would like to put a proposal to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to which I hope consideration will be given. There are people who would like to return to work and retain their jobseeker's allowance or other forms of social welfare payments. This is particularly relevant to people who want to work as carers in their communities. Currently, a person who works for an hour or two per day as a carer loses a full day's jobseeker's benefit or other social welfare payment in respect of that work. I am asking that consideration be given to a reduction in the daily payment rate to reflect the number of hours worked. In other words, taking a notional working week of 35 hours, a person who works for two hours per day three days per week as a carer or in any other employment would, instead of losing three days' worth of social welfare benefits, lose only six hours of their 35-hour entitlement in terms of benefit. The reduction would be proportionate to the number of hours, rather than the number of days, worked.
Many care providers are experiencing difficulty recruiting carers to work in their local communities. This curtails the services that they can provide. If the reduction was based on the number of hours, rather than the number of days, worked, it would encourage people to return to the workforce. It would also improve the mental and social standing of individuals if they were allowed to care for people in their communities . Obviously, this would also be of benefit to the care provision agencies and, additionally, it would reduce the Government's social welfare payments bill. I accept that there would be a need for a limit to be set in terms of eligibility and so on but if reductions were based on the number of hours, rather than the number of days, worked, then people who are concerned about their communities and, in particular, elderly and disabled individuals within those communities would be willing to return to work as they would not stand to lose a substantial portion of their social welfare benefits. I would ask that consideration be given to that proposal if not in the context of this Bill then in future legislation.
There are elements of this Bill that are to be welcomed but there are also aspects about which I am concerned. I am sure the Minister of State is also concerned about them. For example, self-employed people have been let down badly over many years by successive Governments. Not enough was done for them at the time of the crash. People who were providing much needed employment were left with nothing for themselves and they could not even access financial assistance. These people worked tremendously hard to create jobs for themselves and others. I am referring not to massive contractors but to people who created jobs for family members or their neighbours, something that is extremely important in every community. People who are self-employed create jobs for themselves and for other people. I acknowledge that measures have been introduced that will open up access to benefits for them which, up to now, have not been available to them. However, more must be done for these people in the future. One of the biggest talking points in the constituency I represent in the aftermath of the announcement of the budget was the increase in pension and other social welfare payments and why recipients of those payments would not get the increase until next March. While an increase of €5 per week is a step in the right direction, it is not enough and recipients should not have to wait until next March to get it.
With regard to dental benefits, I have been campaigning on this issue for many years. I have always held the view that investment in dental care is an investment in the future because if people look after their teeth from an early age, it will save us money in the long term. I welcome the reintroduction of the dental benefits scheme but more needs to be done in that regard also.
In the context of farming families, everybody currently engaged in farming is struggling, be they involved in dairy, beef or sheep farming. Farm incomes - as a result of a combination of reasons - have never been worse. While I welcome the changes in respect of farm assist, which, again, are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done.
On lone parents and the incentives for employment and education assistance, lone parents are struggling on a daily and weekly basis to meet the high cost of living. The €5 increase which many people are to receive will be negated by the high cost of home and car insurance. People entitled to the €5 per week increase will have to pay at least €5 or more on increased home or car insurance costs. Another issue of concern is the high cost of education. Parents are being asked by schools to make voluntary contributions towards the upkeep of facilities. I know that not every school is asking for these contributions and I do not apportion any blame to those schools that are asking for them because it is not as if they are not doing something useful with the money. They would not ask for this money if they did not need it for the running and upkeep of school facilities. This is a major concern. Another concern is the high cost of school transport, particularly for parents who have a number of school-going children. The cost of sending children to school in terms of books, transport - if they have to pay for it - and uniforms is a savage expense on struggling families.
With regard to the rent allowance caps, this issue of rising rents was discussed during Leaders' Questions. The question that arises is whether an increase in rent allowance caps would lead to further increases in rent. I would not want that to happen. However, owing to the low level of available property for rent in Ireland, rents are increasing. While nothing can be done about that until such time as the report on the issue has been completed, serious consideration will have to be given to increasing the rent allowance caps. I am not asking that the Government do anything extraordinary or increase the caps too much because that would only lead to rents increasing further. As I said, I would not like that to happen. At the same time, I am dealing on a daily basis with single people, couples and families who cannot find properties to rent within the rent allowance caps applicable to them. These people are unable to find properties that conform with the regulations and stipulations set out in the current scheme. I call on the Minister to take a serious look at this issue, which is causing awful problems. People are trying to do their best. Obviously, the availability of more properties to rent might help calm matters in the context of the rising cost of rents. Rents in Dublin, in comparison with the rest of the country, are scandalous but that is obviously a supply issue.
I welcome the fact that the Christmas bonus is being increased to 85%.
Obviously, I would have liked to see it go to 100%. I hope it will happen at the next budget as it should. I know that is what the Minister of State wants.
Rural Deputies are acutely aware of people living in rural locations who did away with landline phones when the telephone allowance was cut and relied on their mobile phones instead. However, in doing so they lost their connection to Neighbourhood Watch schemes and alert systems, leaving them vulnerable. They decided that they could not afford to keep the landline phone without the telephone allowance. It is a serious and important matter which must be looked at because the safety and protection of our fine elderly people living in rural and urban locations must be thought of at all times. They are the people who built up this country and we should take care of them today.
I cannot praise highly enough the work that is carried out in rural social schemes the length and breadth of this country. Of course, I welcome the extra 500 places, but while it sounds like a lot, in the context of the size of the country it is not. That is another thing that could be looked at and we do not have to wait until the next budget to do so. The people working in those schemes are making a valuable and important contribution. More spaces are needed. If these people are going to be paid a social welfare payment and if they want to get on a scheme, do valuable work, get out in the morning and do jobs in their communities, is it not something to be welcomed? It should be encouraged because anything a person will do in the course of the day is better than doing nothing. If they are helping and contributing whether in a local football or GAA field or in a town through Tidy Towns, it is great business that should be encouraged. The more people can be put on a scheme if that is what they want, the more welcome it is. Another issue is eligibility to get on a scheme and the length of time a person can stay on a scheme. If a person wants to stay on a scheme and the work and space is there, I do not see why that should not be encouraged. I do not see why people should not have that place. Money invested in that type of work is beneficial in the absence of full-time sustainable jobs.
Any time we study caring for the elderly, it is right and proper to focus on keeping people at home, which is, after all, the most cost-effective way to care for them rather than to have them in a community hospital or, more expensively again, an acute bed in a larger hospital. The best place for a person where his or her medical condition allows is at home. We can never praise those who provide care for elderly, sick and disabled people enough. They are providing a great service and saving the State a great deal of money. They are being kind to a person in his or her own home which is the place he or she will be happiest. If a person could finish his or her time in his or her home, is it not a great deal better than to be in any hospital setting? That is not to say that our community and general hospitals do not provide great care where a person does have to finish his or her time there and we are very grateful for that work. However, if we can ensure that our carers receive allowances that encourage them and make it feasible for them to care for elderly, sick and disabled people at home, it should be done. It saves money every day of the week and is simply a better system.
There is only so much money in the pool at the end of the day. At any time, a Government must make decisions. However, I always ask in relation to budgetary matters that people think of the elderly, sick and disabled and young people and try to help all sectors of society in a fair and proper fashion. We should not leave people behind as has happened in the past. In future budgets, we want to protect those people who are vulnerable and take care of them.
Self-employed sole traders who have paid thousands of euro and, previously, punts in tax who find their work runs out for a while cannot access any social welfare payments for at least 12 months during which there is no money coming in. It is very unfortunate. It is very unfair when one thinks of all the tax they have paid and the people they have, in many instances, employed. If some source with which they were trading goes out of business, they may find themselves in a very vulnerable situation. Sole traders and people who work for themselves take very little out of their companies. They try to improve their companies by building them up and putting more into them, but all of a sudden a market or source of work may deplete with the result that they are left in a very vulnerable position. A couple contacted me recently where the husband's very good line of plumbing work simply ran out for a while. The wife rang me because they were hungry and had no money for food. It appeared they were going to have to sell some of his equipment but if that happened, he would be unemployed forever. He could never put that kit together again. They were tided over for a short while, which is all people want. They want some facility or to qualify for social welfare while things are bad until they get back on their feet again. It is the same where people are sick, which happens as well.
It has been stated that social welfare schemes are to be extended to the self-employed, particularly the extension of eligibility for the invalidity pension. This is long overdue and we campaigned for it for many years. The self-employed do not want to be out sick but over the years many have come to my clinics who were in bad shape and in tears. They were very hurt that they could no longer work due to illness, but they had little or no support. I have seen no mention of extending eligibility for illness benefits to the self-employed and I am curious to know how it will work in reality if they have to have been unable to work for one year to qualify for invalidity pension. What supports will be available to them in the short term and during the one-year qualifying period? I would like to hear more on this. Clarification is required because these people have paid their share and are as entitled as everyone on PAYE to get some assistance when they find themselves in vulnerable situations.
Another issue with social welfare is that in some instances, a few days' work becomes available but it may be difficult to get people to do it. There are people in receipt of social welfare who would like to work for a few days, weeks or months but are afraid to do so because they know it is only short-term and it will be difficult to re-enter the social welfare system. They have families and dependants and cannot take the risk of going to work. Many people think those in receipt of jobseeker's allowance or other social welfare payments do not want to work but that is not true. If they were able to work for a short time they would do so but they are afraid they will not be able to re-enter the social welfare system and that their dependants or children would be hungry. Something needs to be done to address this matter.
I mentioned home help and the fair deal scheme to the Taoiseach a number of weeks ago. Elderly people may need home help in the mornings or evenings to get them in and out of bed but service providers are not inclined to provide such hours. Instead, they suggest such people need to be in nursing homes for long-stay care and should not be in receipt of home help at all. There is no problem in providing the fair deal scheme for such people but what I ask is for the Minister for Social Protection to provide the fair deal scheme for people living at home. If the money is in place, it will help the same people, namely, those who want to stay at home but cannot get home help. There should be some discretion as to how the money is spent rather than insisting it can only be given to elderly people who go into nursing homes.
The fair deal scheme is not a fair deal for farming families. In fact, it is a very lousy scheme. If a member of a farming family has to go into a nursing home, the farm and dwelling are both taken into account in the valuation process. Over three years, at a rate of 7.5% per year, that is a total of 22.5% of the total value of a farm. We all know the current situation regarding farming. Beef farmers were never worse off. In the past few weeks, milk farmers have improved their lot a little but some grain and tillage farmers will not be working at all next year because they have taken such a hit. I ask that the dwelling on a farm be the only asset that is assessed to bring farmers in line with every other person who only owns a residence.
The fair deal scheme hurts other sectors of people such as those who live over pubs. The pub provides their income and when the owner of the property has to go into a nursing home, the entire property is taken into account for valuation purposes. The same applies to those who own shops. Many people in rural Ireland live over the shops they own. They are becoming scarce, but they still exist. Publicans and shopkeepers have raised this issue with me recently. They are being very badly hit, to such an extent that they are afraid that if a person who needs attention goes into a nursing home, they will lose their pubs or shops and, as a result, their livelihoods for ever. They are in a serious predicament. The scheme needs to be reviewed to ensure fair play.
Every day, we hear about people in receipt of jobseeker's allowance who have been told they must visit their nearest office and Turas Nua is the organisation dictating the terms. I know of a young man who is 23 years of age who has attended an office one day per week to sign on for the past seven or eight weeks. He is being treated the same way as a person who stabbed someone, is on remand, has been granted bail and has to visit a Garda station two or three times a week to sign on or be seen. The person to whom I referred has been told he will have to appear in the office for 52 weeks.
It is a scandal. The man does not have a car and has to travel 19 miles to be seen every week. He must thumb for a lift on a national primary route as he cannot cycle that distance to the office. He is hoping someone can drive him in and out of the town in question. He is in receipt of €100 per week. It appears to me that Turas Nua wants to keep him going to the office so that he will get fed up, lie down at home and forget about the €100 payment. The system is very unfair and is leaving a sour taste in the mouth of a young person who is trying to survive until he gets a job. That carry-on should not be entertained.
I must again refer to school buses, which are very important in rural Ireland. When local schools in rural areas were closed years ago, people were promised they would always have transport to central schools. That is not the case. The Department of Education and Skills has reneged on that promise. It is imposing clauses, such as the requirement that ten children must travel on a bus for a route to operate. That is not possible in rural Ireland today. If ten children do not avail of the service, the service is not provided. Fair play is required as people in rural Ireland are as entitled to go to school as those in built-up areas. They have been denied this right because assurances and promises were given in the past that they would always have transport to central schools. That is not happening and I want the Minister to address the matter.
There is a lot of discussion about housing and the lack thereof. If the Government is serious about building social housing it will have to do something about the regulations that are being set for local authorities by the Department. It is now the case that no one will sign off on anything because they are scared they will lose their jobs. In County Kerry, three rural cottages were built in the past eight years. We hope to build 22 in Killarney this year. This issue has been ongoing since 2014 but rules and regulations are set by the Department and unless the Government gets stuck in and sorts out the problem, no houses will be built in Kerry, Dublin or anywhere else.
The rules that have been set by the Department cannot be complied with by local authorities. The Government needs to get down to brass tacks and sort this out. These are big problems but the Government is not attending to them.
Yes. I will be sharing time with Deputy Seamus Healy and members of the Social Democrats, should they arrive.
When we look back to the foundation of our State and the way we treated our most vulnerable people, it was the academics Eoin O'Sullivan and Ian O'Donnell who described it as the "casual disregard [we had] for the quality of life of vulnerable citizens [which] characterised the formative decades of [our] State". Its history is well recorded. Between 1926 and 1951, 1% of our population, or 31,000 people, were held in a variety of different institutions. They were, in effect, incarcerated in industrial schools, mental hospitals and Magdalen laundries. Rather than creating the Gaelic Eden de Valera described of comely maidens at the firesides and athletic youths dancing at the crossroads, we had, in truth, created what Sean Ó Faoláin described as a dreary Eden. It is welcome that we moved on from that. True to the kind of progressive policy of creating a social welfare Keynesian state of other countries, we escaped from that narrow and repressive sense of how we look after our most vulnerable people to a better, more inclusive and caring way.
I want to pick out some examples of where I think we need to go further. I am very glad that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is in the Minister's chair.
I had not forgotten him. I am glad he is in the House because there is a specific example in the social welfare we provide of where we need to improve our caring infrastructure. This relates to the fact that we have moved away from congregated settings for those with most difficulties. These are those in whom the Minister of State is most interested, that is, those with physical or intellectual disabilities. It is right that we have moved away from the old, institutionalised approach. However, we are not providing an alternative in the community that would give us a real ability to look after those most vulnerable citizens.
I know this is not just an issue for the social welfare budget. As previous speakers stated, we also need housing. We see this when we come to address specific examples. Parents may have an adult child who has severe intellectual disabilities. The difficulty they face is that the systems are not integrated. Housing or other respite facilities are not available. While we have taken the first step to move away from that old, historic, institutionalised care system, we have not provided the resources and the social welfare infrastructure for, in particular, those who are most vulnerable and in need of residential care. There is no connection between the health system, the housing system and, I would argue, the social welfare system. I consider that to be one of the first major gaps or flaws that I do not see being addressed within the Social Welfare Bill or in the budget more generally.
Our system of child benefit was deeply sexist. Originally, the payment went to the man of the house and there were all sorts of restrictions on it. It took a long time but, starting in the 1950s, we made advances. We made a major advance in the early part of the previous decade when we started to give significant support in the form of child benefit. I believe this was one of the best interventions in our social welfare system. By giving a sufficient amount for each child directly to the mother, it was one of the few measures that gave real financial protection to those in financial difficulty. They could rely on the child benefit payment as a final fallback to meet the most basic of needs.
I deeply regret that the Government did not increase the child benefit payment. I have no difficulty with the arguments made by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, that she wants to target certain child care provisions at those in disadvantaged communities. However, the latest evidence from the US and elsewhere is that one of the best ways of doing that is to provide financial security to the parents of very young children. I believe that our child benefit measure does that better than any other measure. I would prefer to have maintained a policy of not discriminating between different types of parenting and to have increased the child benefit payment. This leaves the choice to the parent. Every parent has different circumstances and an increase in the payment would have allowed them to call how best to support and raise their children. This is a critical intervention that can be made during the early years that can prevent an ongoing poverty spiral resulting from a lack of proper development of the social, educational, cognitive and emotional skills of our youngest people.
Many would argue that the problem is that this does not differentiate between the well-to-do and the poor because the child benefit system provides a universal payment. When I was in government, we spent an extensive period of time examining if that problem could be overcome and if we could integrate some sort of progressive measures into the child benefit system in order that it was not just a universal payment and could be further targeted at the most vulnerable. One of the biggest frustrations I had was the seeming inability of the State, which still exists, to integrate our social welfare system and our revenue and tax system. That is not a small project, but I have yet to hear a clear and coherent argument as to why it is not possible. It is one of the big structural changes we should be looking to make. Were we to do it, it would allow us to provide for all sorts of creative mechanisms such as the provision of refundable tax credits and the individualisation of our social welfare system and our tax system.
We only went half way in reforming our system. We individualised the tax system but not the social welfare system. We currently have a minority Government and different options can be examined. It is to be hoped we are over the worst of the previous crisis. This was a chance for us to make structural changes. I do not see provision in the Social Welfare Bill or in the budget for a new, better and increased form of child benefit.
I mentioned a further major concern of mine on budget day but I want to repeat it today. Many of the provisions in the budget are welcome. Our social welfare budget is not small. It is our biggest budget. People obviously welcome the €5 increase in the pension and other social welfare payments, but it was a mistake not to target the youngest people in receipt of social welfare. That was an unfortunate signal to send. That original reduction in the unemployment benefit payment to younger people was introduced during our time in government, but it was nothing like the scale that subsequently occurred during the time of the last Government. In the same way that we are looking to restore pay for the newest entrants to the teaching, nursing and other professions, it is right and time for us in this budget to start recognising that we need to provide such a safety net for younger people.
That someone is on the dole or in receipt of unemployment benefit is not always a sign that he or she is looking to shirk work. That is an old Victorian idea of social welfare. There are many instances during which a younger person may need a period when they are not working. They may be engaged in an artistic activity or a learning activity that is not part of the formal education system. We need to provide that flexibility for our young people and recognise that sometimes it is not easy, for instance, to transfer from the education system to the work system. On occasions, they need support. Perhaps they are emigrants who have come home and are taking several months to settle in. For a variety of different circumstances, the young person is just not in gainful employment at that particular time. Rather than having a punitive social welfare system that sends a sharp signal that a person has to get out and work, we should have used this opportunity, when funding was available, to provide an increased provision for younger people. I regret that this did not happen.
The Green Party and other Deputies have consistently noted the need for the introduction of a basic income model for social welfare provision. It is a fundamental truth that providing a basic income to all citizens allows them greater freedom to decide when to provide care and when to engage in community work or paid employment. This model recognises each form of employment. We should not create a restrictive social welfare system that removes benefits or supports when a person moves from unemployment into employment. A large amount of work done in society is of great benefit to individuals and society and this should be recognised through the provision of a basic income support. Such a model would provide a flexible, innovative and just social safety net. While it would not be easy to establish and those models that I have examined are expensive, there are means of achieving this objective. A refundable tax credit is one option which is supported by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Canada and the Netherlands are introducing working examples of a basic income.
I do not get any sense that the Department of Social Protection is thinking outside the box. It continues to operate a large budget using existing systems without innovating or trying to spend its budget in a better and more effective manner that would reduce the need for it to be policed and would not have many administrative charges. It should do this while continuing to provide a basic social protection network, with the aim of creating an Ireland of which we can be proud and the genuine Eden to which we should aspire in our social welfare provision.
Social Justice Ireland, in its analysis of the budget, noted that budget 2017 disproportionately favoured wealthy people and did nothing to safeguard against deepening inequality. It also pointed out that reductions in the universal social charge and income tax clearly had a greater benefit for those earning more money. The TASC report made the point that the basic rate of social welfare post-budget 2017 is still €17 below the at risk of poverty line. This means the 2017 budget maintains and widens the gap between rich and poor.
What do the gap between rich and poor, the increases in payments in the budget and the philosophy of supporting very wealthy people as opposed to low income, middle income and poor families mean? They mean that 750,000 people live in poverty, one in five children lives in a household with an income below the poverty line, 18.7% of children are poor and almost 20% of adults with an income below the poverty line are in employment. This final group is the working poor. Furthermore, since 2007, the deprivation rate has more than doubled, meaning 1.3 million people or 29% of the population are deprived.
The budget and measures flowing from it mean the gap between rich and poor will be maintained and widened. Wealthy people will continue to be cosseted and supported by the Government, while low income, middle income and poor families are forced to live from hand to mouth and find it almost impossible to make ends meet. What does the budget mean for wealthy people who are already very comfortable, namely, those with incomes of more than €186,000 per annum? The wealthiest 10% of people in Ireland have net financial assets of more than €100 billion, an increase of €35 billion on the levels recorded at the peak of the boom. These assets are not businesses or companies but net financial assets held by individuals. According to the Irish Independent, the wealth of the country's 300 richest people has increased from approximately €50 billion to €84 billion. What did the 2016 budget do for this group? Changes to the tax code and universal social charge handed €120 million to the wealthiest 5% in society, while the 2017 budget gave this same group €52 million, giving a total in two years of €172 million. Not 1 cent in tax is paid on that wealth or those assets.
Incidentally, it is not revolutionary to propose a wealth tax given that wealth taxes apply in many European countries. Deputies may not believe it but a former Fine Gael Minister for Finance introduced a wealth tax, although it was abolished shortly afterwards by an incoming Fianna Fáil Government. In introducing a wealth tax, the former Minister set a precedent. We need to change how we do business by supporting low income, middle income and poor families and ensuring the wealthy pay their fair share of taxation.
I will address some of the specific elements of the budget, with particular reference to families, many of whom are being forced to live from hand to mouth. Many families are not in a position to put away a few euro for events such as communions, confirmations or school trips and must borrow from money lenders and credit unions. More and more people are borrowing from money lenders, including many illegal lenders. What did the budget do for families? It did not provide an increase in the child dependant allowance, child benefit - formerly the children's allowance - family income supplement or domiciliary care allowance, a benefit available to families who must look after children in need of additional care.
One-parent families are at greatest risk of poverty, with the highest percentage of families in poverty in this category. Unfortunately, one-parent families have been decimated by the measures introduced by the former Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton.
This Government's budget has done absolutely nothing to right the wrongs in that regard.
Unfortunately, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has just left the Chamber. Prior to the budget, we heard much talk from him and his Independent Alliance colleagues on the restoration of benefits for the elderly. The telephone allowance has not been brought back. There have been no increases in the living alone allowance, the household benefits package or the fuel allowance. Over the years, the fuel allowance season has been reduced to 26 weeks from 32. Research and statistics show there are higher mortality rates among elderly people during cold weather. The fuel allowance should be at least brought back to the position where it was prior to the recession.
Other Members referred to how young people have been discriminated against in the budget. Not a week goes by that I, along with other Deputies, do not receive queries from women who are about to apply for the State pension but who find when they request their contribution records that, lo and behold, they do not have enough stamps to get the maximum payment. This is because the previous Government changed the rules. In the past, when women gave up their jobs to rear families and went back to work, those years were counted as credits. That is not the situation now and we find many women either do not qualify for the State contributory pension or that they only qualify for it at a reduced rate. That is unjust and should be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
It is welcome that the Christmas bonus has been brought back. However, it is mean-spirited that, rather than the full amount, only 85% of the bonus will be paid.
I wish to refer to the outrageous delays relating to social welfare applications. If one applies for carer's allowance, the State pension or an invalidity pension, one has to wait 14 to 16 weeks for an initial decision. If one does not get a positive decision, one can ask for a review but that can take a further 14 weeks. If one does not get a positive outcome from the review, one can appeal but that can take up to 12 months. It is simply outrageous that someone applying for carer's allowance, for example, would be obliged to wait 16 weeks for an initial decision and, if that is not successful, a further 14 weeks for a review. I have had situations - I am sure this is the case with every other Member - where applicants for carer's allowance find that before the allowance is approved, the person they were caring for has actually passed to his or her eternal reward. This is not good enough. Will the Minister immediately investigate the reason for the significant delays in the Department with regard to the making of decisions in respect of these applications? Is it because there are not enough staff? Do we need additional staff? The staff I deal with are helpful and do an excellent job. Despite their best efforts, these delays are simply unacceptable. This matter should be investigated immediately and put to rights.
Rent limits for social welfare recipients are off the wall. In Tipperary, for example, the rent limit for a family comprising a couple and one child is €525 per month. However, no house is available for rent in Tipperary that would meet the requirements of such a family at that price. I am sure it is the same in every constituency. Such a family house in Tipperary would cost a minimum of €750 per month. The Minister can verify that independently, he does not need to take my word for it. There are no rent controls, no rent certainty and no security of tenure. These rent limits have to be increased and we have to implement a system of effective rent control. During the week, a family in receipt of housing assistance payment of €525 per month, told me they had received a letter from their landlord informing them the rent was going up to €780 per month. That is simply unacceptable. Serious action will have to be taken in respect of this matter. Will the Minister review rent limits to ensure they are realistic? Families such as that to which I refer are forced into paying double rent. They pay a rent to the local authority under the housing assistance payment scheme and then a top-up rent. In the case in question, it was a top-up of another €225 a month or €55 a week. That means from one week to the next, the family does not have two red cents to rub together. They have no opportunity to put any money aside for any eventuality that might arise.
I would like to refer to the respite care grant and other benefits but I will leave it at that as my time is up. The entire policy of the Government is to support the wealthy and powerful while effectively widening the gap between the rich and poor and ensuring ordinary people are forced to live from hand to mouth on a daily basis.
I am sharing time with Deputy Joe Carey.
On the last point made, I am not sure Deputy Seamus Healy and I are discussing the same budget. I feel like I have come in here to talk about a different one altogether. When an untruth is said, it needs to be tackled. This ESRI uses a switch model that examines the fairness and social impact of any given budget. It is a model that works on a non-indexed basis. It was found that, under the social welfare package, the 20% who are least well off in society are the greatest beneficiaries of this budget. It is not the Government that is saying this; it is the ESRI.
There is no doubt but that there is a recovery but it is fragile and we must manage it prudently. We will do so fairly such that we can spread the benefits across society. As I will outline, there are those who have benefitted from an increase who have not seen one since 2009 and 2010. That is very important.
This was an absolutely fair and prudent budget. It was a reforming budget considering some of the measures for the self-employed, who take great chances and take on staff. They are drivers of our economy and they need to be remembered. They are remembered in the Social Welfare Bill, which was not always the case. The Bill provides modest increases for all from available resources. It is inclusive and not picking one group over another, as others would have one believe.
The main measures in this Bill include the increases in social welfare payments by €5, which will see a gain for approximately 1.5 million recipients, from carers, the disabled and jobseekers to pensioners, widows, the blind and those on maternity leave. There are 8,000 recipients benefitting under the farm assist scheme. There are measures covering illness benefit, invalidity benefit and lone parents benefits. I will refer to some of these in a little more detail. I welcome the Minister's commitment to increasing the rates above the rate of inflation in future budgets as resources permit. This is a very important element.
The increase of €5 for pensioners was one element. There are other elements that benefit the elderly. There are changes concerning prescription charges, DIRT and the Christmas bonus. There will be an increase of 85%. It is not just the elderly that will benefit from the Christmas bonus measure. The 85% increase will be very welcome among recipients.
Some 840,000 people will gain from the increase of €5 per week. This covers benefits such as the back-to-education allowance, the back-to-work allowance, the enterprise allowance, the pre-retirement allowance and some others. The jobseeker's benefit and allowance, the jobseeker's transition payment, employment support and payments for community employment workers and those on Tús and rural social schemes are also taken into account.
I touched earlier on some of the reforming measures. The self-employed comprise a key element. In the Finance Bill, we saw further improvements involving a move towards equalisation for the self-employed in terms of the increase in the tax allowance. We shall continue to try to have full equalisation between the self-employed and PAYE workers.
There are other benefits. We are extending the dental, optical and hearing PRSI benefits to the self-employed without an increase in the PRSI payment. This is another sign that we want to recognise the role of the self-employed, including the small business owners who employ staff throughout the country and take chances. There is a tax credit increase. Self-employed people will be able to become eligible for the invalidity pension. This covers at least 205,000 workers. This is another key benefit.
I have touched on lone parents. They are to benefit from an increase of €5 per week. The reduction in the income disregard from €110 to €90 will benefit 17,500. I refer also to the €500 cost of the education allowance. The single affordable child care scheme is a key element of that. When we examine these measures, we realise that the lone parent provisions feed into the measures that focus on children. This budget focuses very strongly on children. In this regard, one must consider the child care package and the medical cards for the 11,000 children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance.
The Bill has an educational element covering school meals. There are some 52,800 additional places. They are not just for DEIS schools. DEIS status is very important for schools that have it but some schools are very close to having missed out that status. I refer to the difference between DEIS bands 1 and 2 and to schools on the fringe of having any DEIS status. Until now, a school with DEIS status gets all the supports while a school without it gets none. The school meals measure of the Social Welfare Bill is very important because it extends beyond DEIS schools. The provision of 35,000 breakfast places for non-DEIS schools is a key component. The increase of €15 per week in the guardian's payment is another element of the focus on children.
With regard to the self-employed, paternity benefit kicked in during September of this year. The treatment benefits I mentioned - the optical, dental and hearing benefits - are to be introduced in March 2017. The invalidity pension element will be in December 2017. This benefits up to 380,000 self-employed individuals. It is long awaited and warranted. This goes back to the core Fine Gael principle of rewarding enterprise, work and risk-taking.
In this past couple of weeks, there was industrial strife and accompanying challenges. Therefore, it is key to bear in mind the budgetary measures and the Social Welfare Bill in this regard. There has been much discussion over the past couple of weeks on industrial relations and the problems and frustrations in the public service. As with all workers in the State, public servants have endured a lot of pain in the past seven or eight years. As we proceed, we want to see the fruits of the recovery benefitting them. We must be very careful and measured, however, given our limited resources. We must ensure that, when sharing out the increases and benefits, we do so in a way that benefits all. We must do so in a very prudent way that does not threaten the fragile recovery.
When we talk about the Lansdowne Road agreement and our very important 300,000 plus public servants, who do a very important job for this country, we note that the conversation in the media over the past couple of weeks would have one believe at times they are the only workers in the country. There are 1.7 million people about whom we may not talk enough. They also get up in the morning, work hard, pay their taxes and face all the challenges faced by workers in the public service.
The Government is trying to bring together all in society on the road to recovery. We have tried to achieve reforms and efficiencies in how we run our country. The public servants who have felt the pressure have had to do more with less because of the moratorium on recruitment and the trimming down of the number of staff in the public service. We are trying to ensure reinvestment in services, including for the people who are vulnerable, those who need it most and everybody who wants to gain access to our health service. Such investment and the budget for the justice service and education system - we want to see an increase in the number of teachers and SNAs, as allowed for in the budget - are key elements of a fair, balanced approach.
An economy is driven by those who work and pay taxes. The Government is about much more than the economy. It is about a whole-society approach. We have measures in the legislation for the vulnerable and those who need to receive supports from the State, but these all need to be paid for. They are paid for by the people who work and pay their taxes.
Most of them have felt a significant burden of taxation in recent years. As we continue to increase the number of people at work through the great measures taken under the Action Plan for Jobs, we want to grow the pot of money in the Exchequer and spread a lessened burden across all taxpayers while retaining enough money to give back something to those who are working and provide extra funding to vital services. This is an important statement of intent by the Government.
I wish to touch on some of the concerns about the under 26s social welfare payments. Deputy Brady of Sinn Féin was present earlier. He and I were in a debate on local radio that got heated the morning after the budget. Sinn Féin struggled to find holes to pick in our budget, but it focused on the under 26s. We gave an increase of €2.70 per week, which was proportionate to the €5 increase for someone in receipt of the full jobseeker's rate.
I will conclude in a minute. Deputy Carey is happy for me to make this final point. The change was proportionate, but the State should not incentivise people who want to stay at home at 18 or 19 years of age, do not work or go into full-time education and who do not look to undertake training of some nature. For jobseekers, there is a reward for upskilling. Jobseekers aged under 26 years will get the full adult rate of the back to education allowance, representing a 21% increase, which is the single largest increase in the social welfare package, and rent supplement. In Northern Ireland, jobseekers' rates are between €64 and €81 whereas we are still at the €100 mark.
Fine Gael is about enterprise, reward and making work pay. That is what we want to do. This approach is working. In 2010, 90,000 young people were on the live register. Now the number is 34,000. We want to see it decrease further. The budget is an important step in that regard.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on Second Stage on the Social Welfare Bill 2016, which will bring about the measures announced in the recent budget. In general, the Bill provides for modest increases across all social welfare payments as well as measures targeted at particular groups. It provides for a €5 increase in weekly benefits, ensuring that people of working age as well as retired people aged 66 years or older see an improvement in their weekly incomes. As a result of this and last year's budgetary increases, pension payments next year will be €8 per week higher than in 2009.
I welcome confirmation by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, of his intention to make increases in future budgets at a rate greater than inflation. I compliment him on his efforts at Cabinet level in his budgetary negotiations, which ensured that no one was left behind by the increases. It must be noted that the recipients of the payments in question, such as widows, the sick, the disabled and carers, have not received increases in their payments since cuts were introduced in 2010 and 2011. Therefore, I welcome the increases.
I welcome the self-employed aspect of the Bill. That sector consists of 380,000 people and is important for the economy. To date, the social insurance system enabled only the self-employed to qualify for the contributory State pension. The Bill provides that, from March 2017, they will be entitled to access dental, optical and hearing benefits that are currently only available to employees under the treatment benefit scheme. With effect from December 2017, it will also enable them to qualify for invalidity pensions for the first time. This measure will ensure that, where a self-employed person is no longer in a position to continue working because of long-term ill health, he or she will have access to a safety net of State supports without a means test that would count the person's savings and assets or his or her partner's income against him or her. I welcome this progressive change and look forward to future budgetary reforms of the self-employed's access to social welfare supports.
Another aspect of the Bill that I welcome is the reversal of the cuts to farm assist. At a time when farm incomes have been falling, it is important that safety net supports such as farm assist be available to the farming community. I also welcome the provision of an additional 500 places on the rural social scheme.
I welcome the income disregard for the one-parent family payment and jobseeker's transitional payment, which will increase from €90 to €110 per week. In recent weeks, the Joint Committee on Social Protection has held meetings regarding lone parents. A number of anomalies were highlighted by advocacy groups, for example, the need for greater flexibility in the 19-hour criteria that is applicable for family income supplement, FIS. With this flexibility, more lone parents could take up work. While the income disregard was welcome, it was pointed out that there was no corresponding increase for FIS recipients. The advocacy groups told our committee that, although the reforms had been intended to encourage lone parents to leave social welfare for in-work payments, many parents who had transferred to FIS would have been better off transferring to the jobseeker's transitional payment. I ask that the Minister and his Department examine these issues in the context of the Bill and to afford lone parents the chance to return to the workforce.
In overall terms, the Bill provides modest increases in weekly social welfare payments. It is important that the recovery that has started be shared. The Bill is a start in that process. I support the Bill and look forward to its passage through the House.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Bill. I wish to address a number of issues on the social welfare side. There is a major backlog in respect of those applications to the Department of Social Protection that must be signed off on by someone from its medical office, for example, the carer's allowance, disability claims and invalidity payments. Let us consider the carer's allowance from a commonsensical perspective. It is applied for by family members who provide professional care in their homes for loved ones. Sometimes, they apply because they have taken leave from work. Other times, they must apply for it to sustain themselves because they have no entitlement to the carer's benefit. Deputies have already referred to the weeks and months it takes to get an application through the Department. If the case is simple but the financial issues are not in absolute compliance with the criteria and a medical assessment or someone signing off on same is awaited, it is per saecula saeculorum.
From the State's point of view, a cost-benefit analysis of a carer's allowance that is paid to a family member who cares for a relative in his or her own home compared with that relative being in full-time care with the State picking up the tab under the fair deal scheme would show a value for money that could not be quantified. This is just the financial aspect of the allowance. As to the social and well-being aspects of a patient being looked after at home when a carer's allowance is paid by the State, that person's quality of life and care is incomparable. It is high time that the Department was clear on this.
Other Deputies asked about the reason for the backlog.
Why is there such a delay? It is the same with many of the other applications going through the Department, including those for disability allowances and so forth. Obviously certain criteria must be met and no one wants to see the Department defrauded but the vast majority of those who apply for the carer's allowance do so in good faith. Of course there must be checks and balances but could somebody explain, before this debate concludes, why there is such a delay? If an application is made on 1 May but not granted until 1 August or even 1 December if it is the subject of a review, requiring additional information from medical practitioners, the payment is backdated to the date of the original application. Therefore, there is no financial benefit to the State in delaying the process. Is it that there is not a sufficient number of staff in the Department or is it down to a lack of urgency? Does the Department not recognise the fact that a carer's allowance which enables a person who is in need of full-time care to stay in his or her own home is far better than that person having to go into full-time residential care? Has the Department not grasped that simple fact? Often applications are refused on the basis that the person is not in need of full-time care. When applicants appeal, they nearly have to bring the care receiver to the hearing, who may be barely able to walk, in order to try to prove their case. That takes away the dignity of the person who requires the care and the person providing it. Clarification is required and an explanation should be given for the size of the backlog.
I wish to turn now to the issue of the domiciliary care allowance. In recent times, a line has come back from the Department to the effect that it does not dispute the fact that a child is in need of extra care because of a medical condition or a disability but that the care is not of a sufficient level to warrant receipt of the domiciliary care allowance. That is an awful line to put in a letter. I have met many parents in my constituency who have applied for the domiciliary care allowance, as have other Deputies in this House, and it is obvious that it has become extremely difficult to qualify for it. Somebody within the Department has tightened the criteria enormously from a medical point of view. Parents of children who need extra care above and beyond that required by a fully healthy child are constantly struggling to get the best possible services from the State. Every day they have a new struggle on their hands, whether it relates to occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and so forth. They are receiving letters telling them that the assessment waiting list is 18 months long and they are trying to pull money together to get private assessments done. They are under enormous pressure. Every parent wants the best for his or her child. Parents are increasingly frustrated with regard to the domiciliary care allowance. That frustration is also evident in parents who apply for the carer's allowance to provide care for their children. When was the qualifying criteria changed? The Department might point out that a certain percentage of applications are approved but there are far more people in need of the domiciliary care allowance than the numbers who are being approved for it.
There are also issues surrounding the respite care grant. While this is not directly linked to the Social Welfare Bill, there is an issue with people, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, getting respite care. The services of respite care providers have been cut, including those provided by St. Joseph's Foundation in Charleville, CoAction in west Cork, Kerry Parents and Friends Association or St. John of God. These services have been cut to the bone and there are constant reviews by the HSE in an attempt to realise further savings. Respite care providers are using money raised through various fundraising events like table quizzes and so forth. Such funds are being used to fill a gap being left by the State. The fundamental point I want to stress is that there is a problem with medical assessments in the Department and I would welcome an explanation for that.
I wish to turn now to the issue of PRSI contributions. In many of the constituency newsletters I have produced over the years I have included a note encouraging people in their 50s to check their PRSI records. The tightening of this area under the 2012 Act has made things more difficult and the averaging of contributions is penalising women in particular. There should be a mechanism in place so that when people reach the age of 55 they are automatically notified by the Department of their PRSI contributions record since they entered insurable employment so that people can make an informed decision on how to go forward. The S-class contribution for self-employed people must also be examined and changed.
Community Employment, CE, schemes have been of huge benefit to communities all over the country. They have also been hugely beneficial to those who have participated in them. However, a lot of CE supervisors and managers, when they began 20 or 25 years ago, expected to be paid a pension when they retired but they have found that none is available. They are only entitled to the State pension. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, met a number of sectoral interests today to discuss social inclusion and cohesion. When people reach 62 or 63, they are taken off CE schemes because of the rules and are left only with jobseeker's allowance. It is hugely difficult for them to find full-time mainstream employment. Allowance should be made within the CE schemes for such people. They are coming to the end of their working lives and if they want to stay on a CE scheme, which is contributing to their community as well to their own well-being, they should be allowed to do so.
I now wish to speak about Tús, the rural social schemes and farm assist. The relaxation of the rules with regard to the latter, particularly this year, are very welcome. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Deputy Andrew Doyle is in the House this evening and he is fully aware of the perfect storm that raged this year in terms of farm incomes. All sectors were affected including sheep, beef and dairy, while our tillage farmers had an horrendous harvest on the back of already reduced incomes.
The change in the criteria is very welcome but there needs to be further change because the rural social scheme and the farm assist scheme in particular keep families, including young families, in rural communities and maintain their income level in such a way as to provide for their families in a proper way. We need to look at that and make sure it is really being targeted.
The Tús scheme came out a number of years ago. Some people would ask what difference is there between the Tús scheme and the community employment scheme and whether the two of them should be working in tandem or as one. Fifteen years ago, there was a major effort to change the community employment scheme into a labour activation scheme. There is significant room in respect of Tús and the rural social scheme. By and large, the dignity of the participants has been upheld on the community employment schemes. It is vitally important that when people leave a Tús scheme or the rural social scheme, they believe they have bettered themselves in a way that will benefit them, their families and society. The Department should look at that, cast a critical eye over Tús and other schemes and make sure the participants really believe in it and have a sense of dignity coming off it.
In respect of where we go with social welfare, people out there will say that too much social welfare is being paid. We must accept that 15% of this society is not engaged in society at all, finds it very difficult to get engaged in society, depends on payments for their entire living and that possibly two or three generations are involved. We have many challenges relating to the money side. We need funds for a raft of issues such as the health service, the trolley issue, the needs of the Department of Education and Science and pay. What the most vulnerable people - the least well off - need more than anything else is hope. We have seen families where two or three generations have been outside the workforce. You see some of them getting back into it and the pride it has brought back into those families, particularly over the past number of years. We must develop policies because 75% of society will be able to look after itself in the best way possible and if we have a balanced and caring society, that will pick them up but there are people who feel completely alienated from society regardless of whether it is school, communities, sport, drama or anything else. We must be as radical as Donogh O'Malley was in the 1960s when he brought in free education. He brought in a raft of people who increased the worth of society on a massive scale and benefitted their families and communities in a major way. We must tackle that issue. There are parts of Dublin and every city, small town and village where a certain cohort finds it very difficult and is becoming more and more marginalised. There has been a lot of work done in respect of resource and community centres and trying to get people on to various schemes. I visited one of the resource centres in Dublin this morning to try to resolve an issue for somebody. I looked at the cross-section of people who came in. I was there for the bones of an hour and a half doing some transactions for people. They were all vulnerable people such as young mothers with children trying to access services, elderly and frail people and people with different health issues. Some people would say "God helps those who help themselves" and that kind of nonsensical rubbish but I do think we must become more caring and make sure these people are brought along with it.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me a good few minutes to speak on the Social Welfare Bill 2016. The number one issue for me is that all schemes that require medical certification when they go into the Department need to be hurried up. It is simply not acceptable to think that someone has to wait 16 weeks for the carer's allowance with all the benefits to the State and the human being needing care that follows from the carer's allowance. It is not good enough in this day and age. Could the Department or Minister clarify the reason for this before this debate concludes tomorrow? Other issues include the expansion of the community employment schemes, the rural social scheme, Tús and the issue of PRSI. The way women in particular have been treated in respect of averaging is grossly unfair but other people are affected as well. People come with records. I know of some people who would have worked very early in their lives, particularly from a farming point of view, in sugar factories and elsewhere and would have gone on to have no contributions while they worked the farm until the compulsory contributions were introduced in 1988. They would be outside any State pension whatsoever because of having worked part-time in the early 1950s even though they have PRSI contributions paid. Many people would have paid PRSI but would be outside it because of their 56th birthday. Could the Minister come back into the House and clarify what is the policy in respect of medical certification by the chief medical officer in the Department before we conclude this debate?
I am taking ten minutes, Deputy Funchion is taking five minutes and Deputies Munster and Buckley are taking two and a half minutes each. I spoke in this House on the Revised Estimates for social welfare earlier this year and spoke about looking beyond the broad figures and at the reality of people's lives. In my constituency of Dublin Bay North, I see what people are facing every day and it is a difficult reality. Seeing the reality of people’s lives was, unfortunately, not mirrored in the policy behind the Bill. It does not effectively deal with the people who most require the assistance of the State.
It is relevant to look beyond the figures and, most importantly, to look at the purpose of this Bill. Surely at its heart, this Bill should be about protection of the most vulnerable. It should be about providing the moneys of the State in a fair and equitable manner as the words "fair and equitable" were sent around willingly by Ministers in recent weeks. This Bill should be about addressing inequalities and aiding those most in need of aid. What it should be about and what it is about are, unfortunately, different in action. Although some provisions are welcome and will be welcomed by those who suffered previous cuts in their payments, we believe this Bill does not achieve the end result of fairness and falls considerably short in addressing the major inequalities in society.
A more equal society, if that is the intention of the Government, would recognise the different needs of different groups and attempt to address these needs, rather than see a figure on a page and simply increase it for political ends to suit a new political arrangement among its brothers.
Not only is the Bill largely unfair in content for the people it affects, but it is also unfair in application. For instance, pensioners and others must wait a little over four months for their payment in March. Considering news last week of the lengthy waiting times for social welfare payments in the first place, does the Minister and his Department like to people to wait? They wait in anticipation for a disappointing amount. In reading the various amendments the Bill proposes, Members of this House, and particularly Government Members, must remember the effect, or more importantly the lack of effect, this Bill will have in people's lives.
If we are to look at the figures contained in the Schedule of the Bill, we must be conscious of other figures, such as the high consistent child poverty rate in this State of 11.2%. One in four lone-parent families in this country are seeking the services of organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Barnardos. There is a consistent child poverty rate of 22.1% in lone-parent families. In what way does this Bill address child poverty?
What effect will €2.70 have on those aged under 24 when we take the figure on the page and place it into people's everyday expenses? This group continues to suffer and has suffered previous horrendous cuts to their social welfare payments. We know of the high rate of homelessness among the under-24s. Focus Ireland has stated that "Young people who are homeless can be prevented from moving on into independent living due to the unintended consequences of the reduced rate of social welfare paid..." Many young people who become homeless are trapped in emergency accommodation for long periods. How does the Bill address this problem for these young people?
As I said, the first rise in certain social welfare payments in many years is welcome. However, the broad dusting of payments is not. In terms of this broad approach, where are the priorities in the Bill? The Minister could have done things differently. For example, in the budget, the Government indirectly gave 2,000 people €20 million with the increase in the inheritance tax threshold. Let us compare this with the Sinn Féin proposal in our alternative budget to increase the fuel allowance which would have cost the State €27 million. An estimated 28% of households are suffering from fuel poverty. As we are debating the Bill tonight, people are cold in their homes.
Another proposal from Sinn Féin was to reverse one of the most cynical, cruel and heartless cuts of the previous Government, which would have cost €15 million. I refer to the bereavement grant. This payment was intended to assist families at their most difficult of times as they struggle to pay for funeral expenses.
The policy approach seems to be one-size-fits-all, suggesting, "There you go, lads, we're all happy". However, many advocacy groups dealing with poverty would question the Bill's fairness and equity. Social Justice Ireland has stated that the budget overall favoured the wealthiest and that it did not take any significant steps to address inequalities in society. Sinn Féin proposed a completely different approach. We would have sought a greater rise in social welfare rates for the under-26s, an increase in the fuel allowance and changes to the transition State pension as well as looking after those living alone and those with disabilities.
I am not being disrespectful in saying this but does the Minster actually see the problems people are facing? If not, I invite him to my constituency to see at first hand the difficulties people are facing on a daily basis and how the Bill will affect them. As this Bill passes, we must be conscious of the type of society we are creating. The Government needs to consider the message it is portraying and what the most vulnerable mean to it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I thank Deputy Mitchell for sharing her time.
Sinn Féin advocated for an equality-proofed budget and this was reflected in the proposals we made in our alternative budget for 2017. We said from the start that fairness needed to be at the heart of the budget. We said that given that some financial improvements had happened across some parts of the country, the Government needed to seize that opportunity to begin using money wisely and to reduce the cost of living for people while investing in proper public services. Next year needed to be a year of change and while the budget announced in October included a few tokenistic gestures, it did very little to tackle head on the status quoof our State's ongoing crises.
The increase to the one-parent family payment from January 2017 is welcome, but the overall negative impact of budget 2017 on lone parents, many of whom are on the poverty line, must be acknowledged. As Deputy Mitchell already mentioned, we know that lone parent families are the poorest in Ireland. We know that the consistent poverty rate is 7.9% for children in two-parent families but rises by almost three times, to 22.1%, for children in one-parent families. These children and families are in particular need of assistance.
Sinn Féin proposed to raise the cut off age of the one-parent family payment to 12 years and increase the earnings disregard to €120. The Government, while increasing the payment to €110, kept the cut-off age at seven, which completely ignores the barriers faced by lone parents trying to access work. The decision also refuses to acknowledge that any ten, 11 or 12 year old child, as any parent will know, is no less a child than a seven year old. If anything, the cost to support and provide for a child usually rises as the child grows.
The €500 per year for parents in receipt of the back-to-education allowance is welcome, but when pitted against the high cost of child care for lone parents, particularly when there has been no indication of caps for the services used, one Government allowance is cancelled out by another extortionate cost such as child care.
Low pay and precarious work have become an undeniable part of Ireland's labour market. Unemployment among our youth continues at high levels. The €5 increase to the jobseeker payment is only for those aged 26 years and over. We know that people aged 18 to 24 will receive an increase of €2.70 and those aged 25 will receive an increase of €3.80. In no way does this provide any relief for our young unemployed people who are struggling to survive with increasing living costs year on year. It is somewhat ironic that we are discussing small increases of €2.70, €3.80 or €5 via this Bill in the aftermath of debating a motion last night for an increment of €5,000 for TDs and Senators. The amounts are vastly different. Is it any wonder that the public is annoyed when social welfare recipients need to wait until March 2017 for the extra €5 and the minimum wage has gone up by the grand total of ten cent?
I welcome the Bill’s commitment to increase school meals funding to €47.7 million in 2017 which will see an extra 50,000 children benefit. This cannot distract from the fact that 2,426 children are homeless right now as we debate this tonight. We have been told by many child advocacy groups and agencies that budget 2017 will not make much of a dent in the atrociously high child poverty figures and we are particularly disappointed by the education budget decisions which will do little to help struggling families. While there have been a few positives moves made in this Bill, unfortunately it will not go very far to assist the families who are struggling and in poverty tonight.
Sinn Féin's alternative budget 2017 proposals put forward a package of measures for older people that included a rise in the basic pension and raising the living alone allowance. Other proposed measures included reinstating the State pension transition and we would have also restored the pension bands to their pre-2012 rates. The focus of reinstating the pension bands was to address a major inequality for pensioners. Under the Government's budget women remain at a particular disadvantage on retirement. The changes made to pension bands by the Fine Gael and Labour Government resulted in thousands of people, predominantly
women, finding their weekly payment short of expectations come retirement age. This meant that a pre-2012 pensioner could get a pension of some €30 higher than a post-2012 pensioner with the same contributions. The Government knew this - the measure has been in place since 2012 - and still it has failed utterly to act in the interests of this group.
Sinn Féin raised the anomaly of the State pension transition in our alternative budget. It has not been acted upon in this Bill, but we proposed to reinstate the State pension transition which was abolished in 2014. The current situation leaves people, who are faced with forced retirement at the age of 65, to claim jobseeker's payment - with its various obligations. These people should not have to face this. They have worked all their lives. They deserve and are entitled to their pension but this Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Government believe that these people are not permitted to their well-earned pension in the later stage of their lives as they look forward to their retirement. What will the €5 rise mean to those people, predominantly women, affected by the changes in contributions in 2012? What will it mean to those pensioners forced on the dole queue come the age of 65? We hope the Government will address these changes and put them right. It is awfully disappointing that the Government has not addressed these measures in the Bill but hopefully it will see the error of its ways, see that women are those who are predominantly affected by this and bring in measures to correct it.
A few budgets ago, in the deepest darkest days of austerity, the Fine Gael-Labour Government cut the jobseeker's payment for people under the age of 26. This was not just a very low blow to unemployed people at a time when jobs were particularly scarce, it was also a direct attack on the young adults of Ireland. It was a loud and clear message from the Government to the generation that had been failed by Fianna Fáil, by the policies it cheer-led and by the bailout plan followed dutifully by that party. The message said to young people "Get out, we do not want you and if you do not leave you had better be prepared to bend the knee, doff the cap and prostrate yourself before exploiters who refuse to pay a decent or even a legal wage." What followed was the arrival of yellow pack and unpaid work in its droves. To be more correct this was not work; it gave no dignity and rewarded barely survival. It was drudgery. That was what was offered to the young people of Ireland who had their future pissed away by the Seanie Fitzes and their Fianna Fáil buddies. The Government cut the telephone allowance, the bereavement grant and household benefit. Now they would have us think the good times are rolling in again. Well certainly the other side of the Chamber must think the good times are rolling. The Government thinks it is time to cut taxes for high earners, time to give back more USC to the better off - who are probably more liable - than to the worse off and time to cut capital gains tax which is a tax most people in the State would never be lucky enough to even have the chance to pay, unlike the Government's cronies who get crafty accountants to weasel them out of paying it.
The Members of the elite who make up this House, who already earn far above the average wage before expenses are even considered, have arranged a handsome pay rise for themselves of €100 per week, and it was spoken much of this week. What have young people and pensioners got to celebrate in these times of glory? Nothing. The Government has given them a measly fiver and €2.70 a week, respectively. That could probably cover a pint or a takeaway coffee. You are very generous. Surely this is a welfare state that typifies human dignity; pensioners left scraping to survive and the young unemployed left to live in despair or debase themselves for a zero hour contract to drudge, where the best they can hope for is minimum wage-----
-----or enough saved to get the boat if they are lucky. Having got a few column inches from their feigned protest a few weeks ago Fianna Fáil have now turned around and said that they will actually support this Bill. It is a shame. The people know it and the Members know it.
The Finance Bill, the Social Welfare Bill and the budgets should be part of a bigger philosophical debate around what kind of a society we want to live in, now and in the future and about the values and the principles that we need. I believe the principles and values are dignity, equality, inclusiveness and a sufficient income so that everybody can live in dignity. If that is the vision then budgets have to be measured in how they contribute to that vision. The economic, fiscal and tax policies determine the kind of society that we live in. Where do this budget and its measures fit into that vision? The figures for the social welfare allowance payments are going in the right direction, which is upwards, and that makes a really big difference from the downwards direction during the budgets of recent years. There are aspects of the Bill to be welcomed such as the Christmas bonus which is up to 85% this year, and hopefully it will be 100% next year. That particular cut caused an awful lot of difficulty in the communities I represent especially when people's only payment is a social welfare payment and they have the additional cost and expense of Christmas to deal with. The €5 increase across the board is better than a €5 decrease. Unfortunately it is not coming until March. Other aspects to be welcomed include extending eligibility for the invalidity pension to the self-employed. I believe that the school meals funding increase is also very valuable. It is vital particularly for those additional numbers of children who are coming from hostels, bed and breakfast accommodation and hotel accommodation. It is good that the measure is also extended to non-DEIS schools because there are children who are disadvantaged but are not exclusively to confined to DEIS schools. I welcome also the education allowance and the proportionate increase for qualified adult dependants for the self-employed, the benefits for rural Ireland and the protection of the fuel allowance and the free travel for older people. I see the investment in child care such as the early years funding and the affordable child care. I know there are criticisms from the stay-at-home parents and I am sure that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone will take those comments on board, but it should be noted that the Children's Rights Alliance has said that this measure was a fair attempt to address the needs of children living in poverty.
There are also increases in the employment programmes, and I want to mention community employment because it has been so beneficial in communities in Dublin Central, but it has been a struggle in recent years to get people to go on it because of the drastic cut to the financial incentive. For some people, availing of community employment costs more than they received and there is an additional cost for them. It is vital for participants in second chance education, further education, child care and personal development, not to mention the essential services they provide in the communities where they live. Sometimes people and their needs get lost in the statistics on gross national income and GDP.
When speaking on budgets, we constantly make the point there is a need for equality proofing and a need to measure quality of life. The question is whether these budgets will contribute to or take from the quality of life. While all the increases are welcome, particularly after the horrendous budgets of recent years, it will take quite a long time to redress these cuts.
There is a roadmap to 2030, and it is a roadmap to ending poverty and protecting the planet, but is also about dignity for adults living in poverty, those living with a disability, mental or physical, those who are homeless, Travellers, the new communities, prisoners, those in addiction and those in recovery from addiction. The measures have been introduced, but there is a need to evaluate and monitor them constantly.
My main criticism is on spreading the net so widely that it will be of minimal impact generally. It is a case of a little for everyone versus a lot for one particular sector. For me, this one sector is those with a mental or physical disability. People tell me the USC cut means they will receive 90 cent extra a week. This will not make any difference and there are similar examples to this.
Before the budget, disability groups told us that more than 70% of people using disability services state it is difficult or very difficult to live on their income. We know people with a disability find it difficult, if not next to impossible, to get employment. They are half as likely to be employed as others. Therefore, they are dependent on social welfare. Many tell us the disability allowance is barely enough to live on. People with disabilities have additional costs because of the disability. We need to look at the fuel allowance, because someone with a physical disability is not be able to move around and spends longer at home in one particular place. The fuel allowance does not take this into account.
The Disability Federation Of Ireland felt there was a real opportunity for a focused impact in the budget on funding for people with disabilities, but this was not taken. Senator John Dolan expressed his criticisms, making the point that 600,000 people and their families are being denied access to basic services and supports or having such access rationed. They called for a €20 increase weekly to meet the extra daily cost, but they did not get it or anything near it. They acknowledged the positives, but the disappointment is with not taking the chance to make a real difference to this group and the chance to kick-start the recovery of those with a disability. I also want to discuss a payment which is not social welfare but is related. This is the grant for housing adaptations, especially for people with a disability. A total of €30 million had been sought. There is a need for more cross-departmental communication and co-operation.
In his speech on 1 November, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, stated that budget and social welfare measures aim to ensure everyone benefits from the recovery and that the ESRI had already shown that budget 2017 contains the greatest benefits for the least well-off, but the ESRI has shown it is the poorest 10% who have paid more than any age group. I do not think this has been addressed in the budget.
Social Justice Ireland indicated a €6.50 increase to all social welfare payments was needed to combat inflation. It also stated there was need to look at the basic payment, vis-à-visthe increases in inflation. I often think with payments, and with requests for pay increases which we see so much of at present, the debate should also be about the cost of living because so many times a pay increase can be given with one hand but the cost of living increases and the pay increase is completely negated. We do not have enough debate on how we can contain our cost of living. Perhaps this is something for the new budget committee.
There have been larger gains for those on the higher incomes compared with those on lower incomes. For example, a single unemployed person will gain approximately €95 yearly while a single employed person gains approximately €1,000. The unemployed couple will gain €157 and the employed couple will gain €1,500. All gains are very welcome, but they must be proportionate to need. To go back to Social Justice Ireland, its figures show a single person earning €25,000 will gain €127 but a single person on €75,000 will gain €352. It suggested that for the same amount of money a tax credit could have been refundable.
The minimum wage increase amounts to 10 cent per hour. We know thousands of people live in poverty. The new hourly minimum wage of €9.25 is almost 25% below the living wage of €11.50. It is very alarming that one in every six people in Ireland, which is 750,000 people, live on an income below the poverty line, and I go back to the point on the cost of living. Of these, 250,000 are children who are either in low-income households or are homeless. The test is whether the budget will see a decrease in these numbers, and perhaps this time next year, if we are all still here, we will be applauding the fact we are seeing these decreases.
I welcome the initiatives, which are going in the right direction. Most people will benefit to some degree, but I must question where the benefit would have made a difference, which is why our budgets must be rooted in human rights.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this important Social Welfare Bill. It is the first Social Welfare Bill in many years where a Government was able to give something, even though small, back to the people after such a long hard haul. There is no use in people saying one group experienced hardship more than another. Everybody experienced hardship, including those who are young, those who are unemployed, those are middle aged, those who are elderly and, in particular, those with special needs, as Deputy O'Sullivan stated. They continued this battle in the coldest and hardest of times. They fought on in the hope things would get better. Eventually they are beginning to turn and they are getting better.
It is a shame we cannot repay them all at the same time because unfortunately we cannot do this. It is all very fine for people to say if we did this and increased taxes and did several other things, it would be much better and we would be able to recover overnight. I am afraid if we tried the option of recovering overnight, we would find ourselves back where we were before. Sadly and unfortunately, if we find ourselves back in that particular trench it will not be so easy to get out of it the next time. It was not easy to get out of it the last time.
I congratulate the Minister, all parties and participants in the Government and the Opposition on their positive comments. We must move away from suggesting to the people there was a different route and an easier way, and that if we did not have to pay bondholders or we did not have to pay back debts, we need not have gone in this direction. In fact this is not the way it was. Before the full effects of the downturn in the economy hit the country, I and everybody else in the House was inundated with phone calls from people inquiring about what was likely to happen to the few shillings of savings they had because, suddenly, they began to get worried about the few euro they had put away for their old age. When the bank guarantee came about, I was not in favour of it, as my colleagues will remember, because I felt things had happened outside of our control, as a result of which we were all going to pay. However, I knew that if we did not do it, there would be consequences which would be ten times worse than what befell the country eventually. There is no sense in trying to get away from this. We are misleading the people if we try to tell them there was an easier way and it need not have been as bad as it was. This is wrong. There was a worse way, and if we had gone that other way, it would have been worse and we would have found ourselves trying to explain to people why they were rifling the dustbins to survive.