Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Social Welfare Bill 2022: Second Stage

 

5:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In accordance with the order of the Dáil of 28 April 2021, it is not necessary to agree an Order for Second Stage.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

As Deputies will be aware, the purpose of the Social Welfare Bill is to give legislative effect to the changes announced on budget day. Budget 2023 was framed in uncertain times. As the world emerged from the public health crisis caused by Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and the ensuing geopolitical instability has meant that inflation in this country is at its highest rate in a generation. The cost of living is rising and it is more expensive to do the weekly shop, fuel one's car, pay one's bills and make ends meet. That is why the Government compiled a budget that puts money back in people's pockets. Whether one is a pensioner, a carer, a person with a disability, a lone parent or a working family, the measures in this budget were designed to reach the people who need it most. This year's budget represents the largest social welfare budget package in the history of the State.

It is important to point out that many of the social protection measures announced on budget day do not require primary legislation and, therefore, are not reflected in this Bill. These include the unprecedented eight lump-sum payments which we are providing at a cost of €1.2 billion to assist people with the cost-of-living pressures they are now facing. Deputies will appreciate that traditionally measures announced in the budget relating to social welfare normally take effect the following January at the earliest. That is not the case with these eight lump-sum payments. My Department has, just as it did during the pandemic, acted swiftly to ensure that people receive these payments now over the winter months when they need the support most. I am pleased to inform the House that six of the lump-sum cost-of-living payments have already been paid. These are the autumn double payment; the €500 disability support grant paid to all people receiving a long-term disability payment; the €200 lump-sum payment to people receiving the living alone allowance; the €400 lump-sum payment to all households in receipt of fuel allowance; the €500 lump-sum working family payment; and the double child benefit payment. The latter two payments are vital measures to support hard-working families. The seventh lump-sum payment, which is the special €500 carer's support grant, will be paid to over 114,500 carers on Thursday next in recognition of the vital work our carers do and the pressure they are under. The final lump-sum payment, the Christmas bonus, will be paid out in early December and will support our pensioners, carers, people with disabilities, lone parents and other vulnerable groups.

Other measures announced by the Government on budget day but which do not require primary legislation in the Social Welfare Bill include the extension of access to the JobsPlus scheme to marginalised groups to support them into the workforce; enhancements to the reasonable accommodation fund to assist people with disabilities into to work; and the increase in the weekly earnings disregard for disability allowance and blind pension from €140 to €165. On budget day, I announced my intention to introduce a new over-70s fuel allowance scheme. Under the new scheme, a single person over the age of 70 can have income of €500 per week and a couple can have income of €1,000 per week and still qualify for fuel allowance.

Deputies will appreciate that the immediate priority for my Department following the budget was to ensure we issued the eight lump-sum payments as quickly as possible. My next priority is to open the over-70s fuel allowance scheme for applications. Work is advancing well on developing the necessary IT systems and it is my intention to open the scheme for applications in December. As Minister, I recognise the contribution that pensioners have made to this country. After working all their lives, they have put in their shift. I do not want to see any senior citizen afraid to turn on the heat. I am pleased to pioneer the new over-70s fuel allowance scheme. This is not a once-off measure. It is a permanent change for the better to support our old people.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the House this evening on these budget measures which are designed to support our most vulnerable. I will now turn to the Social Welfare Bill itself, by section. Section 1 provides for definitions of the relevant Acts.

Section 2 is a measure to preserve the craft of making and fixing musical instruments of cultural significance to the Irish nation. The low number of uilleann pipe and harp makers in the State suggests that Government intervention is warranted to support these crafters. It provides that the first €20,000 of relevant profits for those who are wholly or mainly engaged in the production, repair or maintenance of harps and uilleann pipes will be exempt from income tax but continue to make PRSI contributions so that their pension and social insurance based benefits can continue to build up.

I am sure all Members of the House will agree that participants in community employment, CE, schemes do very valuable work in our local areas, whether it is meals on wheels, the upkeep of amenities or other vital local services. At a time of full employment, I know some CE schemes have struggled to find participants. Therefore, I am pleased that section 3 extends eligibility for participation on CE schemes to adult dependants, that is spouses, civil partners or cohabitants, of jobseeker's allowance recipients. This is a pilot project and, if it works well, I will look to extend it to other groups of people in the future.

The weekly earnings of an employee determine the PRSI rate of employer contributions paid on behalf of that employee. Currently, employer PRSI is charged at a rate of 8.8% on weekly earnings between €38 and €410. Weekly earnings in excess of €410 attract employer PRSI at a higher rate of 11.05%. The earnings threshold increase from €410 to €441 in section 4 is designed to take account of the forthcoming increase in the minimum wage from €10.50 to €11.30 per hour.

Employers with employees benefiting from the increase in the national minimum wage will continue to attract the lower rate of employer PRSI. It is intended that this section will come into operation on the same day as the national minimum wage increase, that is, new year's day 2023. This measure should continue to stimulate employment especially in the services sector.

Section 5 provides for a €12 increase in the weekly rate of maternity benefit from €250 to €262 from 2 January next. Sections 6, 7 and 8 provide for the equivalent increases in relation to adoptive benefit, paternity benefit and parent's benefit, respectively.

Section 9 gives effect to the increases in the graduated rates of jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed. The working family payment, formerly known as family income supplement, gives extra financial support to families with children on low pay. Section 10 provides for a €40 increase in the weekly income thresholds of working family payment for all family sizes. Of course, recipients of working family payment received a cost-of-living lump sum of €500 last week. This benefited 44,000 families, many of whom are lone parents.

Partial capacity benefit is a very worthwhile scheme and I encourage Members to make their constituents aware of it. Partial capacity benefit is a scheme which allows people who have been in receipt of illness benefit for a minimum of six months, or invalidity pension, to return to employment or self-employment and continue to receive a payment from the Department if capacity for work continues to be reduced by their medical condition. The purpose of this section is to provide, like other PRSl-based benefit schemes, for an application window for claims. To encourage people with an illness or disability back to employment, it is a generous application period, from up to 13 weeks prior to commencement of employment through to three weeks after commencement of employment. However, similar to other social protection schemes, a deciding officer may relax these already generous time limits in exceptional circumstances.

Section 12 provides for the long awaited ex gratiascheme for CE scheme supervisors and assistant supervisors. Deputies are aware that last December, CE supervisors and assistant supervisors voted to accept the terms of a settlement negotiated between unions and the Department of Social Protection on the ex gratiascheme.

Section 13 provides for increases in the rates of social insurance payments. I am very pleased to say that there will be a €12 per week increase in the maximum personal rate of all PRSl-based benefits.

The purpose of section 14 is to provide for an increase in the disregard in income from agri-environmental schemes applicable to farm assist, jobseeker's allowance and the non-contributory State pension. These schemes, for example the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, will now attract a disregard of €5,000 from the new year. This provision supports Ireland's climate action agenda by removing a potential barrier for low-income farmers to participate in these agri-environmental schemes.

Section 15 and Schedule 2 provide for increases in social assistance, or in other words, means-tested payments. They also provide for increases to qualified adults and to qualified children where relevant.

Domiciliary care allowance is a payment in recognition of the additional burden involved in caring for children with a severe disability. It is not means tested. Section 16 provides for an increase in the rate of payment from €309.50 to €330. I am pleased to be the first Minister since 2009 to increase this payment. I am doing so in recognition of the significant and difficult role that family carers perform in Irish society. Domiciliary care allowance recipients will also receive the €500 carer's support grant this week. I might also take this opportunity to inform the House that regulations are being drafted which will allow a parent or guardian to receive domiciliary care allowance if the child remains in the care of the hospital after birth if the other conditions of the scheme are met. This measure, which I announced on budget day, is under the radar of many people but I know it is vital for the families it affects who find themselves in these very difficult circumstances.

Section 17 exempts the ex gratiapayment for CE supervisors and assistant supervisors from income tax. Section 18 is the Short Title of the Act.

I believe this is a fair and balanced Social Welfare Bill. It will provide extra help to those who need it most and strengthen the social safety net. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to hearing Deputies' contributions. I might just add that last year during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill, the issue was raised of half-rate carer's payments and disablement benefit excluding people from fuel allowance. I do listen and I am pleased to say that both payments will be disregarded in the means test for fuel allowance from the new year.

5:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister. I think we would all accept that a number of novel initiatives are included in the Bill.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I will begin by welcoming the Bill. It is absolutely essential given that it implements everything announced on budget day. As always, I welcome every increase to every payment and every move that is positive in the Bill. In my contribution I want to raise a number of issues. Some of these I have been raising for some time and there are others on which I hope the Minister might be able to give us some clarity.

An issue I have raised many times is the additional needs payment. I have been unable to get a reply from the Department on the current processing times for additional needs payments. At this point I have followed up directly with the office three times and I cannot get the processing times. What I really want to know is how long it is taking today for the payments to be processed. They are supposed to be emergency payments. The most recent details I have are from September when 95% of applications were being processed within five to eight weeks. This is far too long. In this context, it would be appropriate if the Minister could give us an update on the additional 80 staff she recently said would be taken on. I would also like an update on the progress being made with putting this payment online to make it easier for some people who would find it easier to apply online. This option is important. It is something I raised prior to the summer recess. I understand work is under way. We really need to see movement on this.

Community welfare officers, CWOs, are no longer in our communities. People cannot walk in the door the way they used to be able to. In my home town of Ballaghaderreen, the CWO worked out of the health centre. The family resource centre has raised this issue with me, particularly now when we have a lot of new communities. It used the example of somebody in a domestic violence situation who does not have ten or 15 minutes to be on the phone chatting to someone to explain the situation. When they went to the shop, they could pop into the health centre and see the CWO. This option is no longer available. This is very concerning. I ask the Minister to look at it.

The social welfare rates are still not being set against anything that is evidence-based, primarily the minimum essential standard of living that the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice brings forward every year. Repeatedly every year the organisations on the coalface raise adequacy and the minimum essential standard of living with regard to social welfare rates. Will the Minister look at this? I know this cannot be done overnight. I know it will cost an awful lot of money but as access to health and childcare improve, the minimum essential standard of living will reduce. This will mean payments do not keep having to increase.

I would like to see evidence-based social welfare rates when increases are announced. That way those who need it most will be targeted, and it will reduce poverty. If we do not have a social protection system that, at its core, protects people from poverty, it is a system that is not good enough.

Far too many social welfare rates are set well below the poverty line. Unfortunately, Central Statistics Office, CSO, data are always behind so the latest data are for 2021. The rates of people out of work due to illness - under which category those with a disability are typically included - who are in consistent poverty and at risk of poverty and deprivation have increased across the board. Deprivation levels among lone-parent families are at 44.9%. Almost half of lone-parent families in the State are living in deprivation. What that means for households and children should be raising alarm bells for all of us. Lone-parent organisations, with which I engage a lot, were disappointed with the budget in that there was nothing specific for them, aside from the lump-sum payments, which they and I welcomed. Going forward, we must look at the one-parent family payment and consider moves we can make to reduce the poverty rate, which is consistent and far too high, deprivation and the risk of poverty for lone-parent families.

Energy poverty is growing and is hugely concerning for everyone. We need an energy poverty strategy. The previous strategy was allowed to lapse in 2019 we have seen nothing since. Action needs to be taken in that regard. Changes were made to the fuel allowance for older people, which is important. It will make a significant difference for many older households and is most welcome. The Minister could have linked the working family payment to the fuel allowance, given that they are provided to low-income households. This should be looked at again.

I ask the Minister to provide an update on the cost-of-disability research and the strawman proposal. Many issues have been identified in respect of long-term disability payments, including the blind pension, invalidity pension and disability allowance. I understand a review of those payments is under way as part of this process, and that is welcome. We need to see action on that as quickly as possible.

I refer to the means of family carers and access to carer's allowance. There needs to be a comprehensive and detailed review of the carer's allowance. Three family carers came before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands recently, none of whom, bar one, were receiving carer's allowance because the husband or wife was working and their means were over the threshold, yet they were providing 24-7 care for children. We must look at this. When care is being provided on such a basis, they should be able to access some kind of support. That care should be recognised across the board.

I welcome the Report of the Child Maintenance Review Group that was published last week. It recommended several important policy changes that will require legislation. Lone-parent organisations and I have raised these issues many times. I wish to focus on the first two recommendations on the removal of child maintenance as household means in social welfare supports, which could be included in the Bill. Lone parents have waited long enough. Child maintenance should never be treated as household income. It should always be treated as income for the rearing of a child or children. The review group was strong in its recommendations on that. In addition, lone parents are obliged to prove, typically through the courts, that they have sought maintenance in order to receive the few lone-parent supports available. The review group was strong in recommending that this needs to be removed. We have raised this many times in this House. I know the Minister is looking to introduce legislation on these issues next year, which is very important. Is this happening and can we have a timeline on that? I also ask that there be consultation with lone-parent organisations ahead of that legislation. When we are making these changes, at long last, it is so important that we get them right. That consultation is most important.

I was disappointed the review group did not make a full recommendation on the establishment of a child maintenance service or agency. However, given all the work the group did - they did a lot for which I give huge credit - the majority of the group determined that a child maintenance service should be established and that child maintenance needs to be taken out of the remit of the courts. The Minister should consider this in light of the report.

To conclude, I want to mention a couple of other issues I have raised throughout the year. I refer to Tracy McGinnis, who lost her son, Brendan Bjorn, earlier this year. I tabled an amendment, at that time, on disability allowance for young adults. Rather than the allowance ceasing immediately when a young adult passes away, it should continue for some time afterwards, as is the case with domiciliary care allowance, DCA. In July, the Minister said that officials were looking at this. I would appreciate an update in this regard. Disability allowance should be aligned with DCA in the context of the death of a child or a young adult. That is already a difficult enough time as it is without the financial cliff-edge.

I have mentioned parental bereavement leave and benefit several times, which may be under the remit of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. However, the payment is paid by the Department of Social Protection so I ask that it be looked at. The timelines that are in place when a parent loses a child are not good enough. A couple of days off are provided. We need to see a payment introduced at a similar rate to parents' leave and benefit, and that two weeks would be given in the case of the death of a child, including stillbirth and miscarriage, as is in place in the North of Ireland. In the context of the Social Welfare Bill, we typically look at existing measures but we also need to look at what does not exist. This would be an important support and I hope the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is working hand in hand with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, on that.

I have asked about the few supports available to those who are working and paying PRSI. They may get a scale and polish, or an eye test. A lot of the time, people are paying PRSI and do not know what they are entitled to. I have suggested developing an app, which is in place in several countries. The app would allow people to see what they are paying towards PRSI and notify them when they are entitled to an eye test, or whatever, based on their PRSI contribution. That kind of information for workers who are contributing, as well as for the State pension, would be important. I ask the Minister to consider that and look at our proposal.

5:40 pm

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I also welcome the fact the Government made increases to core social welfare rates. However, it is important to note that they are not the solution to keeping people out of poverty. For some time now, the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice has been calling for a working age payment based on the minimum essential standard of living, and we support these calls. The consumer price index rose by 9.2% between October 2021 and October 2022. Even after these increases, people will still be chasing their tail as the cost-of-living crisis continues month after month.

One issue we will seek to rectify on Committee Stage is a review of the current system of means testing for people in receipt of the blind pension or disability allowance. The system is far too rigid. It does not allow for any discretion based on individual circumstances. Assessment is based on the income of all the earners in the household, which can cause problems.

The Government's report of December 2021 found that people living with disabilities face a higher cost of living, and we should have a system in place that rectifies this. We do not want a social welfare system that acts as a barrier to people with disabilities trying to access employment. The Report of the Child Maintenance Review Group, which was published last week, states that child maintenance requires radical reform as a matter of urgency. In 2018, Sinn Féin proposed the establishment of a child maintenance service. We outlined three basic principles for reform of the system, namely that the child or children would be central to all maintenance agreements, that lone parents would be assisted and supported throughout the entire process, and that maintenance would be treated as a means to lift children out of poverty and not as a source of household income. I hope the Minister and the Department will give these proposals serious consideration in light of last week's report.

The expansion of the fuel allowance is welcome but it is limited. We in Sinn Féin seek to have it expanded to include those receiving the working family payment, for example. We also called for a discretionary fund to help those who are struggling but are not eligible. This is a missed opportunity by Government in that people are struggling with the cost of heating their homes but find no supports available to them.

The final issue I wish to raise with the Minister is the difficulty people are having with the supplementary welfare and additional needs payments. Those applying for these payments are reaching out in desperation and we should have a process in place to acknowledge that. I welcome the awareness campaign the Department ran and I acknowledge she is addressing the backlogs but people should have the option to apply online for these payments. Many people feel embarrassed having to approach these services in their time of need. It is something cultural that needs to be addressed within the Department. It is the last line of financial support for those who are struggling and it should be compassionate in how it deals with people in their time of need.

5:50 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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For a social protection system to work, it must meet the needs of people, which means it must deliver social welfare rates that are adequate and protect those who rely on social welfare from poverty. There are close to 40 different social welfare payments. Our social protection system is wide and varied and, in all likelihood, everyone in the State will receive some form of social welfare payment at some point in their lives such as child, illness or maternity benefit, disability allowance, jobseeker’s allowance, etc. Wide and varied as the system may be, it is only as good as the adequacy of the payment rates.

Unfortunately, as it currently stands and despite a growing cost-of-living crisis, social welfare rates are far behind where they need to be. Current rates leave vulnerable people at risk of poverty, especially older people and those with a disability. Current rates are not at the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, to protect people from poverty and provide rate adequacy across the system. The MESL is based on long-standing work by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. To this end, Sinn Féin proposed increasing working-age weekly social welfare rates by €17.50; pensions by €15 and by €17.50 for those living alone; disability-related payments by €20; and increases for qualified children over and under 12.

The increases announced in the budget will not protect those who depend on social protection from poverty and does not recognise the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on those reliant on fixed incomes. As my colleague, an Teachta Kerrane said, the once-off payments are welcome. It would be great if poverty and being at risk of poverty were only once-off but they are a constant every day for people who depend on social welfare. What is more, they will still have to wait until January to see these increases. They should have taken effect immediately in order that people could see additional support. The people who need these payments are in crisis now. They need those increases. Sinn Féin called for the national minimum wage increase to start in October for exactly that reason. On that front, we called for a €1.50 increase in the minimum wage as a kick-start to delivering a living wage by January 2025.

While I welcome that last year’s budget brought the number of weeks of parent’s benefit and leave available to parents following the birth of a child from five weeks to seven weeks, it is a pity that lone parents can only access seven weeks benefit and leave, while two-parent families can access the full 14 weeks. I hope the Government will examine and fix this anomaly.

Finally, I wish to speak to the matter of the State pension. I was at the Connect Trade Union delegate conference at the weekend where one of the core motions passed by union members was for workers to have a right to retire on the State pension at the age of 65. Workers and voters have spoken on this matter. I believe they wish to be able to retire on a decent pension at 65 or have the right to continue working past 65 if they are able. The Government, by its actions, has proved it is dead set against this.

The delegates at the Connect Trade Union conference were workers who are on their feet day in and day out. They work in construction and transport and are tradespeople. They simply cannot be expected to continue working beyond 65. They deserve the State pension at 65 and the Government should commit to doing so. It is ridiculous that two and a half years into its tenure, the Government has failed to deliver on this matter and it looks to me and the workers who spoke at the conference as though the Government never will.

Exceptional needs payments have been raised by my colleagues, na Teachtaí Mitchell and Kerrane, which are emergency payments. They are emergency interventions that people require on a once-off, non-recurring basis because there is an emergency. In my constituency of Fingal, I speak to people who tell me they have to wait five weeks and longer for a decision but the emergency is today and while the awareness campaign is welcome, the Minister is making people aware of a service that is not at the standard it should be. When people are in crisis, they should be dealt with immediately.

It is remiss of the Minister not to keep abreast of the delays and the time it is taking to process these payments. An Teachta Mitchell is correct in that people are embarrassed. They do not necessarily wish to have to ask for these payments but, when they do, they should be processed in a timely manner because they are in an emergency today. People need the payments today but they have to wait weeks. We say that if people have to wait years for an early intervention, the Minister has to stop calling it an early intervention. She cannot call this an emergency payment if it will not be there when the person is experiencing the emergency.

I thank my colleague, an Teachta Kerrane, for all of the work she has done on aligning the disability allowance with the domiciliary care allowance when it comes to the death of a young adult who was in receipt of the disability allowance. It should be aligned with the domiciliary care allowance. It is not too hard. We are not talking about large numbers of people or considerable sums. It is the only compassionate thing to do.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I welcome the Bill. We will support it and seek to amend it in places if that is allowable. I will start with the issue raised by the Minister regarding incentives provided for uilleann pipe makers and the exemptions that are proposed relating to income tax. The uilleann pipes, as I understand it, carry UN heritage status, which we all support. They are deemed to have UNESCO intangible heritage status similar to that of the hurley or, the hurl, depending on which part of the country one is from. In my part of the world, in Cork, they are called hurleys. We know there is a crisis with regard to ash and a considerable challenge in providing for hurling, which has UNESCO intangible heritage status. If the Minister could see fit to look at the game of hurling and the value of the hurl, or hurley, she would receive the broad acclamation of this House in devising a similar scheme for hurley makers.

For some time now, we have been advocating for increases in the thresholds for the fuel allowance. All of us on the Opposition benches were carrying to the Minister stories of our constituents whereby they had become marginally over the threshold, in some instances by a matter of cents, and were deemed ineligible. This happened in the over-70s category in particular where there would have been a small occupational pension and, for the most part, people who were living in older housing stock with D and E BER ratings or exemptions in some cases. I welcome the move by the Minister to increase the threshold on the fuel allowance because it will bring many people into the net.

In my constituency office, I field many queries about the fuel allowance and the increase in the threshold. We are teeing up an increase in the number of people who anticipate that they will apply. We are facing into Christmas. If there is any possibility that it could be fast-tracked to before Christmas, there would be many more applicants in the system. If there is any way to do that, I respectfully ask the Minister to consider it, given that we are in the midst of a fuel crisis. I realise it may not be possible. I acknowledge that the Minister has made a substantial change to fuel allowance policy to ensure that more people are brought into the net. That has to be acknowledged.

I could use the cliché and say that I am glad the Minister listened to the Labour Party on this. The zeitgeist was captured and, knowing the Minister to be a sound constituency worker in her own constituency, I am sure she was listening to many people who were put over the threshold and took on board the views of people in her constituency and made changes accordingly. I would like to think we influenced the Minister in some respect with regard to this policy change.

I would like to raise a broader policy issue. The debate on this Bill is the appropriate time and place to raise it. My colleagues and I are increasingly finding issues when people are making applications for schemes where medical evidence is necessary, there is a pro forma protocol to go through, with a doctor's letter or medical evidence depending on whether it is illness benefit, disability allowance, invalidity pension or partial capacity payment, or whatever else the payment is which requires medical evidence. The issues I am picking up when assisting people in our office to make applications involve a lag in getting medical evidence because of the challenges that people face in getting general practitioners, GPs. People will want something signed by the GP and will phone the GP's practice, then will speak to the gatekeeper, which I do not say in a pejorative way, the secretary or administrator. It can often take a long time for that form to be signed. That creates a follow-on lag time before people can benefit from a payment that they are eligible for anyway.

Can we look at the need for people to go into pharmacies and get print-outs of their prescriptions, where they have to go to the GP surgery to get access to a signed form from a GP? Is there a way to streamline the process by making it more efficient, to facilitate the applicant, including with the option for a paper-based system in accordance with citizens' rights and wishes, and also to make it more streamlined for the GP, pharmacist, and person who is dealing with the case in the Department of Social Protection? I make that observation based on the dramatic increase in the number of applications that we are fielding in constituency offices where there are illness-related payments to be made and particularly in light of Covid, since we are seeing a greater preponderance of respiratory-related illnesses. One can call it long Covid. I perceive a significant increase in the number of people looking to claim disability allowance, invalidity pension, illness benefit and so on. I make that point in the hope that the Minister might respond to say that some internal work is going on to try to make it as streamlined as possible to ensure that the applicant can have a decision with a shorter lead-in time, if possible.

While I am on the issue of medical assessments, some applications have to go to a Department-appointed medical assessor. Is there scope to appoint more medical assessors in the Department? What is the Minister's view on whether there is a sufficient number of medical assessors to decide on an initial application or on appeals? I perceive that it is taking longer now than it used to for caseloads to work through the system. I have great sympathy for employees in the Department of Social Protection, where it seems that caseloads are increasing. I am not sure whether that is because of a lack of additional staff being assigned to appeals. The Minister's perspective would be helpful.

I refer to people who are carers and, wanting to use the right language, to people who are neurodivergent or who have an intellectual disability. When they are over 16, they are not eligible for a domiciliary care allowance but a carer's benefit or allowance may have been applied. Deputy Kerrane referred to this too. I share her view that there are circumstances where if somebody is caring for an adult and has been eligible for that carer's allowance or benefit heretofore, a spouse may work overtime, which then has a massive consequence for the carer. Carers lose carer's benefit because their household income has gone over a certain threshold and they lose medical cards too. There would be great sympathy and support if the Minister was to look at what I perceive to be a relatively small number of cases where people are caring for people and have lost benefits. They may have forgone career opportunities themselves, having decided that they wanted to care for the people who they are caring for. They wanted to ensure those people were cared for and, heretofore, the State recognised that in certain circumstances. However, the spouse will rightly have sought and benefited from overtime, and so the carer is kicked out of the system and loses everything. The Minister will be familiar with such cases. If that could be looked at again, it would be greatly appreciated.

I ask the Minister to clarify the national minimum wage. With the cost-of-living crisis, we had a view that if the minimum wage could be raised to €12, it would at least go some way towards meeting the cost-of-living issues that workers have encountered. I refer also to PRSI thresholds and one school of thought. I defer to my colleague, Deputy Ged Nash, who I asked about this earlier. He said that as PRSI thresholds apply now, if there was an increase in the national minimum wage, the PRSI contribution that is due would mean that, in real terms, a person would not get the full benefit of that increase in the national minimum wage.

I refer quickly to the Minister's contribution, where she stated:

Weekly earnings in excess of €410 attract employer PRSI at a higher rate of 11.05%. The earnings threshold increase from €410 to €441 in section 4 is designed to take account of the forthcoming increase in the minimum wage from €10.50 to €11.30 per hour.

I would like some clarification on that in case there is a real-term loss of income to a worker as a result of an increase in the national minimum wage. I would appreciate it if that could be addressed.

The other issue is people who are on invalidity payments not being eligible for the bonus payment. There are so many categories of people in receipt of social welfare payments who will receive the bonus or who have heretofore and I do not understand why those on the invalidity pension do not seem to have been the beneficiaries of the bonus payments, though maybe I am misreading it.

6:10 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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They do get it.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I would like some clarification on that. I may, as I said, have it wrong and I put a health warning on what I am saying in that regard as well.

Broadly speaking, we welcome the Bill. We will examine it on Committee Stage. We recognise those of us in Opposition are hampered in the types of amendments we can put forward but thems the rules, as they say. We will try to push the envelope as best we can in Opposition to try to promulgate on behalf of the people we represent. If some of the processes I have referenced for applications for illness-related payments could be looked at and streamlined, that would be welcome. There is also the gap that still exists with access to community welfare officers in certain parts of the country. There are people who could be availing of exceptional needs payments and urgent needs payments but they are not because they do not have access to that face-to-face contact with CWOs on the ground. I am lucky that in my area we have exceptional CWOs but there are parts of the country where there are still gaps. There are still people who - and I do not mean this in any condescending or patronising way - will not interface with technology or if they have to go on the phone find it challenging because they want to sit down and give context to the case they are making. We should not lose that in any way, if that can be helped.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute on this Stage and thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House. We can all agree so many of our constituents are clearly facing tough times. They are worried about how they are going to pay for their shop at the end of the week, how they are going to keep the lights and heat on and keep so many bills at bay.

Many of the people who are genuinely struggling will recognise that in the Bill we have a series of realistic, comprehensive and compassionate measures as part of a €1 billion social welfare package that follows on from a much wider budgetary package involving all Departments. The measures go to the core of how the Government can genuinely help people and provide the people who need the supports with such supports in these tough times.

It is important to note again some of the measures announced in the budget and again this evening. These include increasing the social welfare weekly rates by €12, increasing the working family payment threshold by €20, a €30,000 increase in the savings disregard for the fuel allowance means test, extending eligibility for community employment schemes and increasing the domiciliary care allowance by €20. I welcome the comments by Deputy Sherlock, which were genuine and constructive. While he identified some issues that must be worked through, we can all agree there is much to welcome in this Bill. Sadly, the Deputy's contribution stands quite starkly in contrast to those of some of the previous speakers. I watched them with keen interest from the office and indeed it delayed me coming down because I did not want to miss anything.

When we compare the opposing budgets, we see those on fuel allowance will be given an additional €400 before Christmas, while Sinn Féin wanted to give them just €60. An additional 80,000 pensioners will be included in the fuel allowance, but Sinn Féin did not want to do this. Carers are getting a €500 lump sum compared with €180 under Sinn Féin. It is important to be honest in what are debating this evening. We are trying to help people in a realistic way that will not just benefit the most marginalised and at risk in society but also ensure that if we must do more as part of the wider budgetary process, we can do so. We will not be a hostage to fortune through some wild energy cap and, equally, we have a reserve fund because we do not know when the war in Ukraine is going to end. We do not know when the inflation crisis is going to end or when the various impacts and global economic shocks are going to end. It is a responsible act that the Government has not only provided for people immediately, that is, before the January window, but also in a consistent manner that will last through the year and that there is a reserve fund that can be dipped into if needs be. This is good, prudent economics. We all know we face vast challenges in our society at the moment but if we do not face them responsibly and sensibly, then we have no chance of countering them.

In conclusion, before passing to Deputy Dillon, I thank the Minister for her forthright contribution. Those of us who want to ensure we can iron this out and deliver this as best as possible would welcome her engagement on that.

Photo of Alan DillonAlan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which is most welcome and will assist hundreds of thousands of people across many strands our society who would otherwise face a difficult time as we head into an uncertain winter.

The eight lump sum payments that amount to more than €1.2 billion could be the difference between a happy and a miserable Christmas for many individuals and families across the country. The payments have helped parents of young children, those living alone, carers and those on disability, among others. While January can be a dreary month for many, a €12 increase in the weekly payment from the start of 2023 will represent the largest increase for more than a decade and will ensure a happy new year for so many. I welcome that initiative. Pensioners, those caring for their loved ones and the elderly in their homes, those with disabilities and low-income families will see the benefit of these measures in the coming months and the supports will help with the current increase in the cost of living. I welcome also the increase in the domiciliary care allowance, which is of vital importance for many parents of children with disabilities and is a vital support to these families. This is the first payment increase they have received in more than 13 years, which is a significant step. The expansion of the working family payment threshold means hundreds, if not thousands, of families will now qualify for aid with the increased cost of the weekly shop, car fuel, bills and generally making ends meet and, therefore, it is an important step.

The CE scheme is important and has been of great assistance in reducing our live register figures and getting the long-term unemployed back into work. These part-time and temporary placements have become important to the social fabric. This is especially so in constituencies in rural Ireland such as the one I represent, where some fantastic work and important projects have been achieved. I am thankful the Minister has recognised the value of CE schemes by extending the eligibility criteria for participation in them to spouses, civil partners or cohabitants of jobseeker's allowance recipients. This is most welcome. Along with this, the lower employer PRSI rates as well as increase in the national minimum wage should boost employment figures.

The shake-up of the farm assist last June has helped thousands of farmers who avail of the agri-environmental schemes because they did not have contributions from social welfare payments to reduce this. This will see a doubling in the income that can be derived from schemes such as the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, or agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES and will be of great assistance in ensuring the future of farming in rural Ireland. The expansion of the farm assist means test is vital to the survival of this industry in my constituency.

I commend the Minister on her work and that of her Department in delivering the Bill, which demonstrates her and our party's compassion and empathy towards those who are struggling at this time. I commend the Bill to the House.

6:20 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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It is very disappointing to hear Deputies, and the Deputy who has just left the Chamber in particular, trying to score points by saying people would be worse off under Sinn Féin. He quoted a lot of nonsense figures but left out the fact that in Sinn Féin's alternative budget, those earning less than €70,000 would get cash payments and there would also be payments for those earning less than €30,000. Social welfare increases of €15, €17.50 and €20 would kick in immediately. It is totally wrong, when people are suffering so much, to go on with that kind of nonsense. Deputy Richmond is part of the same Government as the Tánaiste. As he prepares to take over the position of Taoiseach from Fianna Fáil, I am reminded of his shameful vilification of social welfare recipients during the austerity years. We need a change in culture and approach. I believe this will only happen under a change in Government. This Government is so desperate to hang on. It is always telling us we need to be under it and that we must allow it to retain the power so it can dig us out. It is just so wrong.

The 2023 budget did not go far enough to protect people from the rising cost of living. That is a fact. There were good initiatives but homeowners are getting house insurance bills that have gone up from €400 or €500 a year to €1,000 or more. That will get rid of every social protection payment that was made. We have to do everything we possibly can, collectively, to ensure some of the hardship people are going through is alleviated. Too many people are slipping through the cracks. The dedicated staff in social welfare offices need to be given greater trust and flexibility to support people in their communities. I am dealing at the moment with a man who was on jobseeker's allowance. He broke his leg and is now deemed unable to work so he has moved on to illness benefit. This means he has lost his fuel allowance and the one-off cost-of-living payment. We need to give flexibility to community welfare officers to be able to consider people's particular needs and help them in a more immediate way, and not ask them to wait six or 12 weeks. People should also be able to access payments online, particularly people in rural areas who may not have the money to travel to the social welfare office. They may also want the privacy of doing it online. There are some good things being done but there is always more to be done. Trying to score cheap political points is not the way to do it.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I had not intended to but I will begin by referencing some of the commentary from a previous speaker, Deputy Richmond. He talked about how important it is to be honest and said that if the Government needs to do more, it will do more. It is an interesting proposition. How much suffering must a parent or family experience before the Government decides to step in? Is there a requisite level of hunger before the Government will say it has the capacity to intervene? It is a logic I want to confront. Deputy Richmond referred to it as being fiscally responsible but I am not sure if it is ethical. If we have the capacity to ensure a family, an individual or an older person does not go cold or hungry, or without the basic provision of a warm coat, why are we waiting to intervene? There was space in the budget for targeted interventions that would have offset the worst aspects of the very real poverty people are experiencing, which has been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis and all that goes with it. I fully appreciate that the blame for that lies with Putin's invasion of Russia but it also lies with consistent underinvestment in our social welfare system. If we have the capacity to intervene, I implore the Minister to do so before we see the worst excesses of that being felt in people's homes.

When the pandemic first hit in 2020, the first Bill many of us dealt with was the one that introduced the pandemic unemployment payment. It seemed the State had finally accepted that the current core social welfare rates were entirely insufficient to live a dignified existence. We cannot unsee that reality. We must acknowledge the lessons around minimum income standards that came from that experience. Those lessons are more imperative than ever, given the rapidly increasing cost of living for families in meeting their basic needs, heating their homes, feeding themselves and their children and keeping basic provisions. I keep referring to having a warm coat because that is a very real way by which poverty is measured in this country.

The cost-of-living crisis has been significantly exacerbated by the decades of underinvestment that preceded it. We must address the chronic deficits that exist in our public services, which have contributed to this. Increases to core social welfare rates are welcome and should be welcomed but we should go further. Changes to tax bands can help people in the short term but they will not solve the underlying problems that come with an absence of basic provision of public services. While emergency measures are necessary, and indeed welcome, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, so too are steps that will bring down the cost of living not only over the short term but over the longer term too.

It is hard not to agree with Social Justice Ireland, which called on the Government to raise all core social welfare rates by a further €8 a week through this Bill, bringing the total increase to €20. This call has gone unanswered. The organisation is correct that the €12 increases do not match up with the inflation consumers are experiencing. It is anticipated that that rate will continue to rise and with it so too will the hardship experienced. The Social Democrats believe in benchmarking social welfare rates to cover the cost of inflation, instead of waiting until we reach a crisis or the crisis being experienced in people's homes now is further exacerbated. We must move away from a style of politics that waits for people to undergo hardship, pain and strife before they are supported by the State.

We have an ongoing poverty problem, which I and others believe is simply being ignored. Over half a million people in Ireland are living in poverty. That is one in six people and one in three of those are children. They go to school without a warm winter coat and often have to go to bed hungry. The State does not show compassion for those who need it most when they need it. Others who are fighting illness or have a disability and are unable to work because of it face the highest risk of poverty in Irish society. Nearly 20% of this group are experiencing poverty. This is completely unacceptable. There is an ongoing need for better assistance for these groups. Further investment in disability services is essential to reduce the likelihood of individuals falling into that poverty trap and all that goes with it.

We talk about poverty and use the word too often but I am conscious that the very essence of poverty when experienced by the individual is beyond my capacity to even articulate at this moment in time. People contacting our office are cold and are going to become colder. They are hungry. A report from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from last spring referred to the cost of survival. That report was released even before the war in Ukraine and all that has come with it. We talk of poverty but it is about the cost of survival for so many in this country. A recent report commissioned by the Department of Social Protection estimated that the overall average annual cost of disability is between €9,500 and €11,700, or between €180 and €225 a week. A comprehensive Government response must provide for these rising costs to level the playing field.

The lump sums announced in the budget have fallen short of the assistance the most vulnerable in our society require to keep them from the edge. The current cost of living, perpetuated by the energy crisis, has made every day a challenge for more and more people. Members of our retired population make up over 12% of those living in poverty. These people have worked their entire lives only to be forgotten by those who should be representing them and a State that should be wrapping its arms around them. Poverty is corrosive to the human condition. At its very essence, it is about the basic provisions a person is asked to go without. However, poverty is not inevitable. Effective policies progressed by a Government committed to universal public services could improve the quality of life for the many families living on the margins.

I will quickly refer to the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, as have others before me and I am sure others after will as well. This is a benchmark for social welfare rates to counter inflation. Many of us across the Opposition believe social welfare rates should be set in line with the MESL research, which currently sets core rates at €228 per week.

More important, it should track inflation and costs to ensure that rates move accordingly.

To ensure that social welfare supports maintain their real value, they must be adjusted in line with potential changes in minimum living costs. The estimated increase in minimal essential standards of living for the final quarter of this year is greater than the additional income provided by the measures ratified in the Bill. As a result, income inadequacy is forecast to deepen in the latter part of the year. The €12 increase to adult rates falls short of the €20 increase required to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

The €2 increase in the qualifying child rate is nothing short of insulting and the gradual progress that has been made in the past towards adequate income supports in this area will likely be reversed next year, falling below the MESL. I am conscious that one parent family groups called the budget announced a couple of months ago the most regressive for one parent families in the history of the State.

The core rate of fuel allowance has remained €33 per week despite massive inflation and rising energy costs. Research from Meitheal shows budget 2023 has not protected core social welfare rates. The increase in rates is not keeping pace with the rising cost of living. It is, therefore, a cut in real terms. However, the adjustment to conditions for supports such as changes to the fuel allowance means test and an increase in the working family payment threshold are welcome.

It is regrettable that a more targeted approach, one that focuses a greater share of available resources on low-income households, was not taken in the budget or even in this Bill. In order to ensure social welfare supports and the minimum rates of pay maintain their real value, it is imperative that they are adjusted in line with potential changes in minimum living costs.

Another decision made in the budget and not addressed in the Bill is why those with disabilities participating in the National Learning Network have been excluded. I believe the Minister rectified this recently, which is welcome.

I will table amendments to the Bill to deal with a couple of issues, if possible. In recent years, before and after I was elected to the House, I have taken great umbrage at the manner in which social welfare inspections are carried out. I have seen how that has impacted people, predominantly one parent families, not only in my constituency but around the country. I intend to bring forward a Bill that questions the practice over the coming months. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that or perhaps over the next couple weeks she and I could have a conversation about it. The legislation that enables a social welfare inspector to carry out his or her work is, we are told, only relevant in cases where potential employment or self-employment is taking place on a premises or a person has to prove he or she is resident at an address for the purpose of rent supplement. In all other cases those inspections should not take place. These are older, cruel practices that create a hostile environment in our social welfare system.

I was recently made aware of a case where social welfare tried to contact a person and, for some reason, could not. It appears that recipients go to post offices where they previously received their payments but find their payments are not available and no explanation is given as to why that is the case. They then have to go to an Intreo office because, inevitably, they will not have any money and are living hand to mouth. They are told the Department has redirected their payments to another post office. In my constituency, post offices are relatively close to each other but in other constituencies they can be much further away. People have to get a bus or taxi to a post office or Intreo office to find out why payments have been redirected. They will then have to get a bus or taxi to a second post office to collect payments. That is happening in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis in which people are living hand to mouth. It is a cruel and unjust practice and needs to be eradicated. I intend to challenge it through legislation, if necessary, over the coming months.

6:30 pm

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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"Warm bank" is a definition added to the dictionary this year. It refers to buildings such as libraries or churches that provide a space for people struggling to heat their homes due to spiralling energy costs. It is a terrifying summary of where many people find themselves. Previously, we had food banks, another facility that emerged in response to chronic and consistent poverty. They are incredibly important services, often run by volunteers, but they also reveal the cold reality for many families and individuals in our society. They let slip the mask of neoliberal economics and a social protection system that should provide a safety net for all.

People are experiencing one of the hardest winters in living memory. The cost-of-living crisis has left many families terrified. Households that have never had to seek State assistance or turn to local charities are finding themselves in that position now. The Government's budget is a missed opportunity to address the underlying issues. It prioritised universal one-off payments and tax cuts over investment in our public services and supporting ordinary people.

Social Justice Ireland has shown that poverty rates in Ireland have decreased when budgets have given greater attention to improving minimum welfare payments or prioritising welfare dependent households. Conversely, of course, poverty increases when budgets favour tax breaks over social investment. Unfortunately, the budget and this Bill are the types of policy that will make life harder for many families this winter.

First is the issue of core social welfare rates. Hundreds of thousands of pensioners, disabled people, carers, unemployed people and families are dependent on these measures. However, these payments are awarded on the whim of the Government rather than in any benchmarked and reliable manner. Core rates were increased for the first time in three years by €5 in the last budget and now, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, there is an increase of only €12. In real terms, a significant proportion of the population is worse off under this and previous Governments. In our alternative budgets, the Social Democrats proposed an increase of €15 per week to the core rates which would have begun in October. We also prioritised and targeted those in the most severe fuel poverty by increasing the fuel allowance by €15, totalling €48 per week. We would have extended that eligibility to include recipients of the working family payment.

Second is the issue of one-off payments. While we need measures to address the immediate crisis, universal payments are an imprecise tool. Temporary supports will not help people in the medium to long term. They will not provide sustainable relief to those who can no longer afford the soaring price of food, fuel, energy and rent. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul pointed out that the temporary measures will help people get through this winter, but next year people on low incomes will be pulled even further into poverty. This short-term thinking will particularly impact disabled people. They have received the €12 payment increase and a €500 one-off payment. Once-off payments mean little to people with long-term or permanent conditions. The Department of Social Protection's report established that it costs up to €12,300 more annually to live with a disability in Ireland. We we know that depends on the disability; the figure can be more. That was before the cost-of-living crisis.

Instead of producing a plan to tackle this massive gap, the Government has gone with a one-off payment. My motion in July proposed a package including a cost of disability payment of €20 per week, meaning people would have an increase of €1,040 annually. Instead, the Government is only giving a once-off payment of €500.

Ireland, disgracefully, has one of the highest rates of poverty among disabled people in Europe. Some 24% of people who are not able to work due to illness or disability are living in consistent poverty compared with 6.7% of the rest of the population. Disgracefully, the budget is vastly insufficient to address this systemic discrimination.

Next is the inadequacies of the Bill in supporting lone parent families and combating poverty. One Family has consistently highlighted that lone parent families had the highest deprivation rate in 2021, at 44.9%. The single most prominent factor influencing child poverty is belonging to a lone parent family. There are over 200,000 children at risk of poverty in Ireland and more than 90,000 are in consistent poverty. This means that they do not have guaranteed access to sufficient food, shelter, healthcare and other essentials that so many of us take for granted. These are truly shocking figures.

There is hardly a greater avoidable tragedy in Irish society than that of child poverty. The scarring effects of living in consistent poverty as a child last for life. Eliminating child poverty requires a combination of child and adult income supports and access to quality public services. This budget has failed on all counts.

Bernardos has pointed out that the €2 increase in the qualified child payment is wholly inadequate to cover increased costs for parents. The Social Democrats proposed an increase of €12 per week for a child over 12 and by €7 per week for children under 12. Publicly provided affordable childcare is a key tool to help single parents to access education, training and employment. However, the massive costs currently mean it is not economically viable for them to use childcare. The Government has proposed to cut childcare fees by 25%. That is welcome. We had planned a 60% reduction in the next two years and ring-fenced capital investment of €20 million for the creation of public childcare places. Child poverty is a massive social issue impacting all communities. This budget has utterly failed those families. Incredibly when we know that the single biggest determining factor as to whether you live in consistent poverty is being the child of a single parent, it is incredible that there has never been a real attempt to lift those families out of poverty. This budget is the latest example of that.

The Bill is a disservice to the invaluable work of community employment, CE, schemes and the rural social scheme. These excellent programmes provide people with experience to gain work while also contributing to local communities. Many organisations in towns and villages in west Cork really benefit from these schemes. However, the top-up payment to standard welfare rates has only increased by €5 to a total of €25 per week. This is no way reflects the work and the role of these schemes in people’s lives and their communities. The Social Democrats called for an increase to the top up of €100 per week for participants in the rural social scheme and to reinstate the community employment budget to €500 per annum per participant. While I welcome the measures to extend eligibility for participation in CE schemes to spouses and cohabitants of jobseeker's allowance recipients, this budget could have done more for participants and workers in this scheme.

This Bill symbolises the Government’s attitude to those less well off in society. It is eager to push headline-grabbing one-off payments while ignoring the structural causes of poverty and inequality. Disabled people, one-parent families, carers and many more people living in poverty need sustained, bench-marked payments with additional targeted measures to compensate for decades of failed economic and social policies.

6:40 pm

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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We have to put this Bill in context. It is in the context of the Social Welfare Bill and the Finance Bill, of the announcements made on budget day and the resources this Government has been able to gather from the people of Ireland and those people who invest in Ireland to create wealth so that we can redistribute it. At the beginning of Covid-19 many people would have said it would be surprising if Ireland was in a position to make an €11 billion intervention without borrowing. We should not forget how the money arrived here. It was due to effective management of the economy.

There is a once-off issue here which is the war in Ukraine. That is having an energy impact. Therefore once-off payments are one way to approach that because we do not know what will happen next year. We have left aside resources to deal with further increases if they are needed. In regard to how we protected people on energy price rises, Dr. Barra Roantree of the ESRI said:

...the Government’s approach to insulating households from the recent rise in energy prices has been effective. Targeted welfare measures combined with universal household energy credits will do more for most lower income households this winter than had welfare payment rates risen in line with inflation both this year and next.

We have done more than if welfare payments had risen in line with inflation. That is not to say that we do not understand the pressures that increasing energy costs place on families. On increasing energy costs we have effectively doubled, between extending weeks and additional payments, the fuel allowance in the time that this Government has been together. I also welcome the increase in the fuel allowance eligibility thresholds for those over 70 to €26,000 annually for an individual and €52,000 annually for a couple. That is an incredibly welcome intervention. That will have a real impact. Many people who did not believe they would ever get fuel allowance will now be able to apply, that is almost 81,000 people. They will also be able to get access to the Better Energy Warmer Homes scheme. That means they will be able to insulate their homes for free. That is real action in tackling the energy crisis. Of course we have already seen the increases with the double payment for child benefit in November, the €500 cost-of-living payment, the €500 disability support grant and in December we will see the Christmas double payments. I welcome all those measures.

I also welcome drawing a line under the CE supervisors’ claim for pensions which this Bill does. As the Minister knows we have spoken about it many times. Many people will be unhappy with this arrangement. I am happy that finally the Government has acknowledged in this payment that we should make a contribution to pensions with an average payment of €11,000 to 2,500 beneficiaries for that period between 2008 and 2023. Some will be cut out by that who perhaps worked until 2010 and might only get two years. I feel sorry for them because if you are a meals-on-wheels service and you have a limited company established by a CE supervisor to carry out that meals-on-wheels service that is funded by the HSE that really should not be in the Minister’s Department. That should be a HSE service delivering meals-on-wheels. We should think about that as a proper pensionable position. Overall this is about protecting people who live in this State. It is about managing the economy and making sure that we as a Government do our very best.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I commend the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on this Social Welfare Bill and the practical way in which she approached her brief. We are operating in difficult times. You never get perfection but must spend the money wisely. In the limited time I have I will touch on a few areas. The Minister will be aware that there was an anomaly in the fuel allowance whereby people had to be in receipt of a social welfare payment to qualify for it. For the over-70s it is based on means alone. The Minister ensured that clarity was brought to bear so that it is now based on means alone for the over-70s. That has been hugely well received by people in that age-group, many of whom were border-line for fuel allowance. They will now qualify. People are coming to us saying it has major add-on benefits. It is necessary to have the fuel allowance to qualify for the warmer homes scheme. I commend that. The Minister will shortly announce the application process for that. She might give us an indication on that. It is not specifically in this Bill but it will be brought in by way of secondary legislation effective on 1 January 2023.

There are also eight once-off lump-sum measures to spend. However, there are many core changes as well. Social welfare is going up by €12 a week. The working family payment threshold is now €40 a week. I feel very strongly about that. Working people on lower incomes are under pressure. Ensuring that threshold is higher in order for them to qualify for the working family payment, historically known as FIS, is positive. Domiciliary care allowance is going up by €20.50 per month. That is very welcome. The core payment for child benefit is going up by €2 a week. It is important that we increase the lower PRSI rate commensurate with the increase in the minimum wage. In summary, one can never get everything absolutely spot-on but the choices made in this budget both with the once-off lump-sums and the core payments, in the circumstances as presented is a good judgment call on the Minister's part.

It will benefit people on the ground who I represent in Limerick city and county and north Tipperary.

6:50 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Funchion.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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Thank you. As I have not been speaking in the House since the Ceann Comhairle returned, I welcome him back. It is great to see him back in the Chair.

I welcome the increases. At the time of the budget, I said that I welcome the changes in the means test for the fuel allowance because many people fell outside the fuel allowance by a small margin, so that is very good. The reason I want to speak this evening is to raise three important points with regard to waiting times. The first point concerns community welfare. Just today, I had to contact the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for somebody who has been waiting 12 weeks for an answer from community welfare. The whole idea of community welfare is that it is an emergency; it is called an exceptional needs payment, so people cannot wait 12 weeks. This is putting unnecessary pressure on the scant resources of the St. Vincent de Paul. We have to do something in regard to the timeframes for community welfare. In many areas, particularly rural areas, people cannot get in to see a human being anymore. They have to leave a message on a mobile number and they may or may not be contacted. I understand everyone is under pressure but people going to community welfare are under pressure and that is the reason they are going there.

There have been serious delays in the processing of the fuel allowance and waiting times average ten weeks for the people who are coming in to us. Again, fuel allowance is for fuel that people need now, for this week or next week, and it is not something they can afford to get in a lump sum. We are in the winter now and people need that money.

The other issue I want to raise concerns the delays in the processing of the working family payment. I specifically raise these three issues because they are payments that people need immediately, or at least within a two-week timeframe, and, as I said, community welfare is for an emergency situation. With regard to working family payment, there is this crazy situation with social welfare where people will be sent a form for an exceptional needs payment and told to apply for that in the interim. However, once they are working, they are not going to qualify for that, so while they are waiting on their working family payment, they might be living on just two days of work. We need to address the waiting times for those payments, including fuel allowance. Those are three areas where people need that money nearly immediately, or certainly within a reasonable timeframe. I believe two weeks is reasonable.

For community welfare, we need to figure out a system where people can go in and speak to somebody. That was the system a number of years ago and it was great because people could potentially get money there and then for their situation. A huge number of people are being rejected for community welfare as they are being told that it does not fall within the guidelines and that it is something they should have budgeted for. That does not take account of the massive increases we have all seen in everything. People last year might have been able to budget but this year they cannot due to the increasing costs.

There needs to be a review of the waiting times for those three payments. Community welfare in general needs to become more adaptable. That is why we need to go back to having someone for people to speak to, so they can explain the situation. That is easier because the CWO will often understand more when speaking to the person.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I was not going to start in this way because it sounds sort of Dickensian, and it is, but having listened to some of the Government Deputies eulogise the budget, I want to start by reading a letter I got in my constituency office from a neighbour who lives on the road near me in Ballyfermot. It reads:

I went to my parents’ home at 9 p.m. tonight. My mam had the bottle gas fire right in front of her and my father had his housecoat on him and was in bed. I can’t stand back or stay quiet. My parents need urgent help. My dad is almost 73 years old. He has COPD. My mam is 66 years old. The house has no heating at all and the hot water takes hours as it is coming from an immersion, which costs a fortune. The boiler recently broke down and they haven’t got the money to have it repaired. My dad recently retired and the money that he has from a small pension puts him slightly over the right to the fuel allowance.

They want me to come to see them and I will be visiting this home either tonight or tomorrow night. I want to contrast that with the idea that, somehow, this is an amazing budget that is going to lift people out of poverty, that we are a great country of egalitarians and that this House sees everybody as being equal and treats them equally. Actually, we do not. This is the third wealthiest country on the planet and all the wealth is in the hands of a few. Although somebody on the other side of the House talks about sharing the wealth equally, we are far from it.

I want to go through some of the issues in the budget that I thought were worth raising. First, on an obvious point, having come out of the Covid period, when this country recognised that everybody needed at least €315 per week to survive, and everybody got that payment, the Covid payments were then removed and we are back down to the basic welfare payments. What do we get in the budget of this year, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis that we have never seen the like of before in the history of this State? We get a €12 rise in basic social protection payments, when €12 is not anywhere near the figure for inflation. What would be required to be inflation-proof is something like €25 per week on every social protection payment.

We recognise that the once-off payment measures have given people a bit of breathing space, and they have certainly given the Government a bit of breathing space. I would describe them as palliative. They will keep the pain away for the few months in the lead-up to the post-Christmas period but, after that, the energy hikes will continue, the food hikes in particular will continue, and people’s social protection payments and basic income will not see them through.

I particularly think this is true of people with disabilities, and many Deputies have referred to this. If we, as a State, believed that everybody needed minimum pay of €350 a week to live on, to survive and to keep them out of poverty, then that is particularly true of those with disability payments because of the extra needs they have in terms of getting over the everyday challenges they face. That needs to be looked at again and perhaps we need a mini-budget that would really address the need to improve the lot of people with disabilities. There is quite a high rate of people with disabilities in this country.

Other Deputies mentioned the exceptional needs payment. This will be part of the discussion with the family I am going to meet in the next day or two. In all of our experiences, we know the wait is way too long and the refusal rate is way too high. I have looked back at some parliamentary questions that Deputies around the House have asked about the exceptional needs payment in their own areas. The national figures are rising and rising. In April there were 6,500 applications for exceptional needs payment, in July that was 17,000, and I do not know what it is now. The average processing time is eight weeks, and it can be 12 weeks or more, as Deputy Funchion said. That has to change. If they are exceptional needs, then they are needed now, like the case of this couple who have a boiler that needs fixing. I got my own boiler fixed recently and it was €2,500 just to get it fixed and another €500 for the labour, but I have that because I am a Deputy and I am paid handsomely. However, if someone is living like that couple who live around the corner from me, then there is huge discrimination and huge challenges to be faced.

The other point to mention is this idea that the fuel allowance is all sorted. It is not. There are a number of exceptions to getting the fuel allowance that are going to stand in the way of many people. One is if somebody lives with a person who is not on a qualifying payment. I know of the case of a blind man on an island off the coast of Cork who came to me because he knows me from the past. Somebody who lives with him and helps him has been refused carer's allowance. Now, he has been refused fuel allowance for the first time because she is living there and she is not entitled to any payment from the State. She has no income and he has been cut off fuel allowance. None of these things make sense. We need to have a system where we look at individual cases and they are dealt with in a fair, compassionate and timely manner. There are other reasons someone would not be entitled to fuel allowance, for example, if a person is on jobseeker’s, enhanced illness, occupational illness, maternity or disablement benefit.

A person getting any of those payments is not entitled automatically to the fuel allowance. That creates a real barrier in the context of other rights people might have, such as to Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants. I have been contacted by dozens of workers who have retired with a tiny pension that may throw them €6, €5 or €3 over the limit and have been cut off from all benefits from the SEAI. That is shocking and needs to end.

I emphasise that we need social protection increases that keep track with inflation. Inflation has not gone away. It is predicted to be at least 7% next year. The situation is particularly bad when it comes to items such as food, which is something on which people who depend on social protection spend most of their income, and they do so in the here and now. Food inflation has gone crazy, particularly when it comes to basic items such as dairy products. I do not understand the inflation in the cost of dairy products, particularly in Ireland, which has the biggest dairy industry in the EU. Dairy inflation is at 26%. There is no explanation for that other than profiteering and price gouging. The same has happened with energy companies. I know the Cabinet is talking about bringing in a solidarity tax and a windfall energy tax, and it is not beyond time for that to happen, but there is still profiteering taking place while the poorest and most marginalised are struggling to survive.

The issues I have raised need to be considered. We need a system that is timely and compassionate and can deal with the hardest of cases in the hardest of winters in a long time as a result of the level of inflation and the various crises we are facing. That leaves aside the need to address the biggest crisis the State is facing, namely, the housing crisis. Many of the people in this cohort are facing the dual challenge of housing as well as poverty. The budget should not be eulogised by the Opposition, especially in a country that is so unequal and where there is clearly a big hollow between the very wealthy and the very poor.

7:00 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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Before I address my substantive points, I note that one of the benefits of sharing the duties of chairing the House with the Ceann Comhairle is that one gets to listen to debates in depth. Much of the debate on the Bill has been good. I do not know whether anybody has eulogised the budget. All Members across the House have pointed to aspects they believe are good. Deputy O'Donnell acknowledged that no budget is perfect. I take issue with some of the language I have heard, with reference having been made to cruelty, systemic discrimination or it being an utter failure of a budget. I do not think all 160 Deputies are universally good people, but there are not very many cruel or bad people here. If there are such people, I am sure no particular party or side of the House has the monopoly on that. Most people are here to try to do a good job and represent their constituents as best they can. We have differences in terms of political philosophies when it comes to how that can be achieved, even within the coalition, and we acknowledge that, but most people are here to try to do the best they can by the constituents they represent.

This statement may be contested, but this is a progressive budget It is the third such progressive budget. It has been analysed and shown to be progressive. I acknowledge some of the points raised in respect of lone-parent groups, but in successive budgets we are making headway on this. Research commissioned from the ESRI by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, considered that issue of poverty and found that the working family payment is possibly the most impactful tool in terms of tackling poverty within that cohort. In that context, we have to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in the budget in respect of the working family payment. It will impact many people who are affected and in that poverty trap.

The Minister outlined the 11 lump sum payments. We know there are two elements to the budget. There is the element whereby we are trying to increase social welfare payments across the board, but there is also those one-off payments. We acknowledge that. The additional €12 on social welfare payments is a substantial increase but we have to acknowledge that it does not keep pace with inflation. The one-off payments are designed to help to fill that hole but I agree with some of my colleagues on the other side of the House that in the longer term we have to consider benchmarking those payments, possibly to the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, or looking at the income-smoothing approach outlined in the Pathways to Work document. That is something towards which we have to begin moving.

An issue that may not belong in the Bill but does belong in the Minister's Department is the extension of the free travel pass to people who are precluded from driving. I was contacted by Epilepsy Ireland in that regard. It made a good and detailed pre-budget submission. When it factored in all of the people who suffer from epilepsy - not all of whom are precluded from driving at all times - it arrived at a figure that is not an enormous sum but could make a substantial difference to many people, particularly those in rural areas, such as the one represented by the Minister or the one that I represent. If a person living in a rural area is precluded from driving, that makes a difference to how he or she lives life and accesses services. That is something the Minister may be able to consider outside the parameters of the Bill.

As Deputy O'Donnell stated, no budget is perfect. This is a good one, however. It does its best to be kind and fair to those in society who need help from the State at this extremely challenging time.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Bill. I echo the words of Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. The budget is fair and equitable and has shown that the Government is acutely aware of the pressures this cost-of-living crisis has placed on people. The rising cost of living is ever prevalent, but there is recognition of that through the movement on social welfare rates, for example. It is the largest increase in well over a decade and certainly the largest in my time - almost 12 years - in this House. There have been increases to parent's benefit, the core weekly payments, which I mentioned, and the working family payment, as Deputy Ó Cathasaigh rightly pointed out, in addition to an increase to the domiciliary care allowance. There have also been changes to PRSI treatment for those in receipt of the national minimum wage. A fact of which I am very proud is that this is the ninth occasion on which this Government, of which I am a supporter, has increased the minimum wage. Come January, that increase will kick in.

Of course, the biggest part of the budget was the one-off supports to cover families and individuals against the rising cost of living, including the increase in the fuel allowance. Hundreds of thousands of people across the State will benefit from one-off payments in areas such as carer's allowance, living alone allowance, double payments of SUSI grants, the waiving of SUSI fees and the working family payment. Those are on top of the recognition of the rising costs of getting around in light of increases in the cost of diesel, other fuel and other transport costs.

I listened to the entirety of the debate thus far from my office. It would be remiss of me not to mention the doublespeak I have heard from the Opposition, specifically Sinn Féin, this evening. Its alternative budget does not even come up to the bar that has been set in this social welfare budget by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the rest of the Cabinet. It is indicative of a party that has been found, yet again, to be a dollar short in its ambition. The Government has set out a budget that has supported and insulated hundreds of thousands of people across the State. We have never claimed that we will be able to cover all cost-of-living increases but we have done our best to ensure that the money we have available thanks to the prudent economic management of the State through the past decade has been brought home in the run-up to Christmas in ensuring that families across the country receive the benefits they so rightly deserve.

7:10 pm

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I hope we do not keep Deputy Farrell awake at night too much. Many families are awake about things the Government does-----

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy should stick to the script.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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-----and brings into this House.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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Stick to the script.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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Sorry?

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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Stick to the script.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I will stick to the script.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I ask that we hear Deputy Browne speak.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy Farrell should relax for a minute. I welcome the opportunity to talk about this on behalf of constituents who experience particular hardships, when they find the system either slow to respond or not responding to their circumstances.

I will refer to the additional needs payment. While I appreciate the Department has taken some action to address the limited timeframe involved, many people are still faced with unacceptable delays. The many constituents who have contacted me about this have invariably said they have been waiting five or six weeks. It is not unheard of for people to wait between six and eight weeks and that remains a problem. While I understand that community welfare officers are under an increased amount of pressure, more needs to be done to assist them and the people they are trying to help. If a family has an immediate need, for example, if their washing machine, boiler or other appliance breaks down, they cannot wait for a month, let alone two months. Additional needs payments are, therefore, emergencies, which by their very nature need a swift response. I urge the Minister to identify the resources that are needed and to respond accordingly. Too many people find themselves left in limbo facing bills and awake at night thinking about how they can buy more time before they pay those bills.

The qualifying criteria for carer's allowance is another issue that must be addressed. Many people are putting their lives on hold to look after a loved one or a neighbour and the time and work involved does not allow them to get on with their lives as they otherwise would. However, time and again, people who are genuinely carers are being refused the carer's allowance. This causes undue hardship for those people but also poses uncertainty for people being cared for, as they cannot be sure whether their current unpaid carers will be able to stick with them. Carers were the unsung heroes of the pandemic. They are also the unsung heroes of any day of the week. Whether the Department considers them carers or not, the fact remains too many people are working day in and day out with no recognition, only to be told the State will not recognise them for the work they do. I urge the Minister to review the criteria that will leave a carer worthy of some small payment and to address this shortcoming.

We also need to see some reform of disability-related supports. Current means testing results in some people losing or having adjustments made to their blind pension or disability allowance because of a change in the income of their partners. We are not calling for the removal of means testing altogether but we need to see it applied in a fairer way that takes account of the challenges faced by the applicant. The higher daily cost of having a disability is also not given proper consideration. The Government has spoken about addressing this within the social welfare system yet nothing has been done. If we are to recognise the imbalance that exists properly, the Government needs to act urgently and address the inequality that continues to exist.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Social welfare is set up for the assistance of disadvantaged groups, mainly as a back-up for people who are in need. I compliment people working in the service that is available to our office and many other offices throughout the country. I recognise the good work they do and are doing in an efficient and effective manner.

As with all services, there are a minority of people who will take advantage and create issues for the system. I also recognise the many people who are working but qualify for nothing. They work hard and often feel they should qualify for more assistance, as they believe they are the squeezed working class. For example, when two people with a child are working, their costs include inflation, rent, mortgage, insurance and even education. When they look at all the bills that come in, they see there is nothing left, which is disheartening for them. It is also very discouraging for people who go out to work. We talked about carers who look after our vulnerable, such as people who are disabled. We look at all these people who cannot afford to put food on the table, even though they are working.

There are also escalating fuel costs for people who are working and the issue of home help. From a carer's perspective, for nurses working in hospitals and people going to nursing homes to care for people, we are again looking at fuel costs, which the Government has not tackled. On electricity costs, it is not yesterday that we asked the Government to help out on the energy crisis. We asked the Government to help 12 months ago, but it is late coming to the table every time. We now see that energy companies have made more than €1 billion in profits. The Government will sign up for €120 per kilowatt hour, when Wind Energy Ireland has predicted it can produce wind energy for €50 per kilowatt hour. We are still €70 off from giving energy at a good rate in order to bring down people's electricity bills. The Government has given a €600 credit to be paid in €200 instalments but that is inclusive of VAT, which means the credit is actually €550. Every time we ask the Government to help, it is coming to the base in second and third place. We have to push and push it all the time. It is as if it is disconnected from the working people of Ireland. Every time the Rural Independent Group asks the Government to do something, it tries to make it its own idea.

The Impaired Farm Credit Bill will come before the House for a vote tomorrow night. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, rejected it and did not even want to amend it to allow for the protection of the family home from vulture funds. Members of the Government will come to the Chamber tomorrow night representing counties. I am looking across the Chamber at Deputies who represent counties. They will be watched tomorrow night, if they vote against their county, the farming community and the family homes of people who put them in the House to represent them. Every one of those Deputies will be watched tomorrow night to see what they do to vulnerable people in this country. That is what the Government should look at, not the protection of banks and vulture funds. It should come down to earth to working class people on the ground who are paying through the nose for everything. All the Government does is to create inflation, which is bringing more hardship on them.

Three butcher shops have closed in Newcastle West due to energy costs. I visited one butcher recently who told me his family had 100 years of tradition as butchers but he is close to closing his doors. He said he can either raise prices, which he knows people cannot afford, or close the doors. People will then go to the big supermarkets where there is a monopoly. This is about small and medium enterprises. I was in Limerick the other night where we have seen SMEs flourish, but we have small companies and businesses that are crying out for help. The people on the ground and the grassroots are looking for help. I ask the Minister to look at the people the Government represents.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get the opportunity to talk about a few very important issues that I can address under the Social Welfare Bill. While I welcome the extension of the fuel allowance thresholds, I asked the Minister by way of a Topical Issue matter a year or so ago about those people who are left outside the scheme and do not qualify for it because they are on welfare benefits. For instance, a pensioner living with a cancer patient on illness benefit will not qualify for the fuel allowance. People on contributory payments, such as jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit, occupational injuries benefit, maternity benefit or disabled benefit will not qualify either. I raised this issue previously with this Minister. This situation is entirely wrong and not acceptable. These people would not have received benefit payments if they had not paid stamps in the first place. To think that they are ruled out of qualifying for fuel allowance is very hurtful to some. They are constantly making it known that they are being left behind.

The cost of fuel is hurting and hitting so many people.

The Government says it will do something about a cap but it is far too late and it is not enough. Electricity companies are raking it in. Their profits have tripled. Does this mean that the Government is taking three times the amount of tax?

Pensioners living on their own are still struggling. Perhaps a couple on two pensions are barely surviving but pensioners living on their own are really struggling to pay for everything such as a car, especially people in rural Ireland who have no public transport. As has been said, young families where parents are working must leave their children in crèches and pay baby-sitters. They are paying for fuel and everything else. Anyone on the road is murdered with extreme costs. Fuel, be it diesel or petrol, costs more than €2 per litre. It is not acceptable. The Government promised it would do something about that in the budget but it did not help those people at all. Those people are paying for us in this House while facing taxes of every creed and description. They are being driven down to the ground.

When we press the Taoiseach about a category of people who are under pressure, he invariably tells them to go to their community welfare officer as they should be entitled to the supplementary welfare payment. There are so many people who are trying to access this payment but cannot access their CWOs because there are reams of people, some of whom are coming from other countries, and they cannot get inside the door. If there are more people outside the counter, the Government must put more staff inside the counter to deal with them. It is just common sense. Telling people living in rural Ireland in places like Lauragh and Gneevgullia to come back to their social welfare office tomorrow is not satisfactory for them or for me representing them. It is not good enough. If the Government is ensuring there are more people going to community welfare offices, it needs to put more people on the other side of the counter but it has not done that. It has not provided more doctors in communities when thousands more depend on them. We were already struggling. The Government has done nothing to address that. It is not good enough to just provide a roof and a bed for people. You need to have services as well.

7:20 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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Taken as a whole, budget 2023 will help families across Ireland somewhat to meet the growing costs of food, heat and electricity this winter. The measures announced such as the extension of fuel allowance thresholds, electricity credit payments, double child benefit payments and the once-off €500 payment to recipients of the working family payment will go some way to reducing anxieties and alleviating the fears of those on low incomes regarding their ability to afford daily necessities.

However, it is bitterly disappointing that social welfare increases will not match rates of inflation and in the medium to longer term, this will mean that more families could struggle next year as their finances do not stretch as far. While we strongly welcome many of the measures introduced in budget 2023 to help protect families this winter with essentials, we fear these measures do not go far enough to alleviate the financial struggles families are facing. We hear first-hand from families across the country who are anxious about whether there will be enough money for food, heat, electricity and clothing.

The reality for people who apply for a disability payment is that they are waiting well over eight weeks before they are turned down for the payment. They then have to appeal and must wait for weeks and weeks again. I heard from one lady who has been waiting for well over nine weeks for a disability payment. One lady who came to see me in my clinic two weeks ago told me that the budget did nothing for her. She was very critical of me for not putting up a strong argument. She had cancer last year and is only able to work three days a week. She does not want to go and there are "X"s and "O"s and social welfare continuously chases her to get full-time employment. She is trying to live on €300 per week. She said she is getting nothing - nothing to fill the oil tank at home and to put fuel in the car and insure it. She said: "I'm getting nothing." She said she is falling between every crack. She is earning €300 per week. She is happy with her job and is happy to work. If she could work full time, she said she certainly would but she does not have the ability to do so. Unfortunately, for many reasons, she is falling between the cracks.

Carers receiving carer's allowance, which is means tested. It is mainly women who are carers. Many carers spend hours every day taking care of the patient. When they are means tested and if their spouse or partner is working, their allowance is reduced. This payment should never be means tested. If a person takes on the role of carer, he or she needs to be paid accordingly. But for carers, our overflowing hospitals would be in dire straits. Carers need to be paid without being means tested. What they get is a pittance compared to what a hospital, home help or nursing home would cost the State.

While we welcome the increases, we believe they do not go far enough to protect the most financially vulnerable. That was why the Rural Independent Group Deputies called for a €20 per week increase in all weekly social welfare payments. The reality is that the cost-of-living crisis is having a profound impact on the high proportion of individuals in Ireland who are unemployed, have a long-term illness or disability, live alone or are single parents. This is because such households spend a greater proportion of their income on essentials, which exposes them to price increases in the shops and hikes in energy prices.

Core social welfare rates were not increased in two out of the past four budgets. Older people are living in fear this winter. That fear stems from not knowing whether they can afford to light or heat their homes or put food on the table. This is why the Rural Independent Group sought an increase of €20 per week in our pre-budget submission and, therefore, we are disappointed that the Government has chosen not to protect older people's weekly spending power sufficiently. A €12 per week increase simply will not give pensioners the same spending power they had in January 2022.

The pension rights of CE scheme supervisors were mentioned in the debate. They should get these pension rights. Even though there has been some rectification of the wrong done to them for years, many of them have not received their payments. Some of them came to see me in my clinic last weekend. Some have received payments and others have not, which is unfair. This needs to be rectified urgently because it has been going on for years.

I was contacted by an accountant yesterday. Businesses are struggling. Many of them are on their knees. One accountant who deals with quite a lot of businesses in west Cork told me yesterday that he paid their electricity bill himself. I know this will not last for long. They are meant to get the subsidy in February 2023. He pleaded with me to urge the Government to bring that forward because quite a lot of these businesses are on the brink. They are café owners, restaurant owners and pub owners. They are telling him they are on the brink. One business would have gone to the wall yesterday morning but for him writing a cheque himself. This cannot continue. That is what is happening.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I acknowledge the increases in the budget. There are certain elements of it that are most welcome. However, the one thing of which we must be very mindful is the ever-increasing rate of inflation. In terms of what €100 will do in terms of spending power, we are not very far away from a bag of coal costing €50. In many cases, it is already over €40. Everything is so expensive. There has been a massive increase in the cost of electricity. Despite the allowances certain categories of people might have, it is still not near enough because the cost of a unit of electricity is gone through the roof.

People are struggling to keep pace with inflation, which is so difficult. We are talking about people who are unemployed, people with disabilities, people living alone and pensioners on the contributory or non-contributory pension. There is an awful anomaly when it comes to getting the fuel allowance. The fuel allowance is so important to people; it is vital. There are people who might never have needed it previously but they certainly need it now because fuel poverty is becoming a real issue.

Regarding what the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications is trying to do, previously, people were able to go along and get a bag of turf easily and accessibly in their local shops. Thanks to this Government, they cannot do this now. At a time when heat and looking after people are so important, surely this was a stupid and wrong decision. Nothing will ever stop us from saying how stupid and wrong it was.

One thing I want to do in the short time I have, and I know the Minister will be interested in this because she prides herself on what these people do, is to thank the people in County Kerry who work in our Intreo offices and deal with people every day. These are our representatives who explain things in the best way they can. There are, of course, times when they have bad news for people, in that they cannot give them an allowance or what they are looking for, but these officials are extremely kind and diligent people. I will not start naming them, but several individuals, in Killorglin, for example, retired recently who were what I would call the real, sound ambassadors for the State in that they always did their best for their clients, as we call them. They always assisted and helped and were kind in every way they could. They went far beyond the call of duty in trying to help and assist people. I again publicly thank those people. They are so important to the system because they are the representatives on the ground dealing with applicants.

Returning to the situation on the ground, we must do more because of inflation. There was a time when it could have been classed as meaningful if the pension went up by a fiver a week and as something people could do something with. Where would a pensioner be going now, for God's sake, with a fiver? The cost of everything has gone through the roof so much that we must be meaningful in the changes we make in future. We must consider every way we can assist people, especially vulnerable people. There are people, such as carers, working in the community and helping to keep people in their own homes. If people want to be kept in their own homes, let us consider the cost the State would have to bear if those people were instead inside in community or district hospitals and we were trying to take care of them there at enormous cost. This type of work is invaluable and we must try to ensure that we pay the carers and make it easier and more accessible for them to get a payment. This should be done in such a way as to allow them to be able to provide this much wanted and needed service to those people who want to stay in their own homes for as long as they possibly can.

In future, we must always try to remember the less well-off. We must try to think of making their lot better. We must try to ensure we have a greater understanding of how difficult it is for people. Recently, I highlighted a case very publicly of a person who had a couple of lumps of coal in her fire in her house. This woman was aged over 80 and was sparing the bit of coal she had outside in a bag in the hallway leading into the house because of its cost. To be honest with the Minister, it was very sad to see a person in that type of vulnerable situation. This woman was living, sleeping and eating in that room and trying her best to keep that room warm. As we say at home, it would be easy to make a shirt for yourself after looking at a situation like that. I want the Minister to understand this point.

I thank her for always being very understanding in her role and for having her feet firmly on the ground concerning this issue.

7:30 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I greatly appreciate the efforts of the Government to reinforce new social welfare measures in the context of this legislation. It is good to see the goals of our recent budget fully realised and put into the legislation. After all, families who rely on welfare need as much help as they can get, and sooner rather than later. We can see the rising costs in the context of prices. Even for the immediate future, we are seemingly going to have a very harsh winter inbound.

I welcome the €283,000 in social welfare supports paid to people in County Carlow so far. This direct financial aid to those in need has been impactful, especially when combined with the upcoming Christmas bonus, the double payment for those on welfare supports, ensuring that families will receive a double children's allowance payment before Christmas, alongside an increase in the rate of fuel allowance. All this is so important, but children must be a priority for the Government in future.

Some areas do need improvement, namely, the exceptional needs payment, to which others have referred. While I welcome it in principle, it just takes too long to implement. Is there any other way to speed up the delivery of these payments to those who need them? People are coming into my office regarding a freezer, a fridge or even a bed. I also compliment the staff in the Department of Social Protection. They are doing their best and there are many payments to go out. Will the Minister look at this?

It is vital that people suffering from the impact of unforeseen complications be cared for quickly and effectively, rather than getting access to these payments when it may be too late. Many people are waiting and telling me they are going to try to save their money and buy the item themselves. They may not have the money, but they have to do something. It is important that we look after the most vulnerable in our society and I welcome the supports listed in this Bill. I also compliment the Minister on her commitment and dedication and on the work she has done on this legislation.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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We are coming from a dark place as we emerge from the impact of Covid-19. I acknowledge the work of the Minister and her officials in County Clare and throughout the country in respect of what the Department has done to support our most vulnerable people. Little did we think we would have a war break out on the Continent, and an illegal war at that. God knows when it will finish. The Government needs to respond to this situation. I believe strongly that the Minister has shown great leadership. She made a strong plea for her Department In budget negotiations. She put us in a position whereby we could give unprecedented supports, particularly regarding the targeted measures incorporated in the budget and, indeed, in this Bill. I support her in this regard.

These are difficult times. If we had more money available, we could have given more, especially for the weekly payments, but these are set to increase in the new year. This is welcome. I note as well, however, that the Opposition parties did not have any targeted measures included in their budget submissions. The Government has led the way on this issue, just as it did during Covid-19. The Minister has been solid on this and I compliment her. I look forward to the Bill passing with my full support.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity, however brief, to speak on this legislation. I compliment the Minister on the work she is doing and the co-operation in all the work she is doing in the Department. I and many others greatly appreciate it.

I wish to raise several issues. One is the disregard of the half-rate carer's allowance. This is an important aspect. It must be acknowledged that this was an issue in respect of the fuel allowance. Turning to the issue of the CE schemes, and the brief mention of the supervisors in this context, the eligibility criteria for these schemes make it difficult for communities to get people to participate in them. Keeping people aged over 55 on these schemes should be explored in this context. I refer in particular to vulnerable people who have been on these schemes previously. Perhaps there might be a little flexibility in this regard. People use as much flexibility as is possible within the schemes, but there may be scope here for people who are on a scheme and would like to stay on it. They may not have an alternative of going into full-time employment, and these may well be vulnerable people. There is something that can be examined in this context.

I spoke about people with disabilities. The disability allowance is welcome. It is, however, a means-tested payment. Schemes are coming, and I refer especially to the development of social farming schemes, and participants joining those. A new scheme should be brought in for people with disabilities. They are going on different schemes now, such as work placements, social farming or their equivalent in different communities. A flexible scheme, with income disregard, in which people can participate, should be brought in.

Time out of number at the Joint Committee on Disability Matters on a Thursday morning advocates and, indeed, people with disabilities talk about how if they go into work they would lose the medical card or the disability allowance. There is scope. I know that the departmental officials and the Minister would examine how that could be looked at.

On the carer's allowance and the carer's benefit, the carer's benefit was an innovative scheme. At this point, it is payable for two years. Is it possible to have the carer's benefit extended? I constantly say that we should look at it from the State's point of view because the services are being provided by carers and that it should be care-assessed rather than means-assessed. When people are providing full-time care, that will cost big money. At this point in time, it is something that could be looked at because it would benefit people who give up full-time employment to look after a parent, a sibling or a child on a full-time basis and they have no income after two years. There is something that could be examined, or maybe extend the carer's benefit.

I compliment the Minister and the Government on all the work they are doing and the extra money that is desperately badly needed to continue the good work.

7:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Mark Ward. I thought the Deputy was incognito there for a while.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I am a little incognito today, yes.

Listening to the Government benches today, one would swear Sinn Féin did not produce an alternative budget. One would swear Deputy Kerrane did not go and fully cost an alternative budget when it came to social welfare measures. It was fully costed by Departments of Government. Listening to what has been thrown across, like much of the stuff that the Government is trying to put in, it does not add up.

We are in the middle of one of the toughest cost-of-living crises we have seen since the days of Fine Gael austerity. This cost-of-living crisis affects all people on this island but it affects those who are most vulnerable the most. Increases in social welfare payments are welcome during these times but the measures in budget 2023 are not enough to meet the rising costs of food, fuel and rent. Those who are the most vulnerable are squeezed the most and any steps taken by Government to address this must put these people front and centre.

When it comes to emergency payments, they are not emergency payments at all they take that long for people to access. I have constituents who have applied for fuel allowance who were refused because one individual in the household does not have a qualifying payment. There could be three people with a qualifying payment in a household, but one without, which disqualifies the whole household. One person in a family who is on minimum wage disqualifies the rest of the household from getting fuel allowance. These are the families who are struggling to heat their homes this winter.

Sinn Féin has called for a discretionary fund to be established to ensure workers and families who are not eligible for fuel allowance but are struggling with utility debt can receive assistance when they need it. The advice given to them is to contact their local community welfare office and apply for supplementary welfare allowance. It takes up to eight weeks. It is not an emergency payment. Up to eight weeks is nowhere near an emergency payment.

Time and again, the Government is not responding properly to the emergencies in society, be that in housing, health or the cost of living. Another constituent of mine applied for the supplementary allowance because they were unable to afford clothes for their children. They were refused on the basis that they did not have a medical need. This should not be a reason to refuse the supplementary allowance, particularly as they supplied the budget, as they were requested, of their outgoings demonstrating their need for support. I have raised this issue with the Minister by email on two occasions. I have an acknowledgement from her but I have not received an answer to that query. I would appreciate if this could be followed up today.

I will finish on this because it is welcome but it does not go far enough. The Bill will roll out a gratuity payment for former CE scheme supervisors. Many people in my area would welcome this as they feel that they were ignored for a long time. This was agreed last year but many former CE supervisors are still waiting for their gratuity payments to be made. When will this payment for these crucial workers within our communities be made and when will they receive these payments?

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I congratulate the Minister on a very progressive budget. It epitomises her view and approach to politics and society generally. The Minister has done Herculean work in the Department over the past two plus years and that is reflected in this budget.

However, there are a couple of issues I will pick up on. One of them is the exclusion of the recipients of the disablement benefit payment from the €500 disability support grant, which has been paid. Many of these people are probably among the most vulnerable in society. There was a genuine expectation that they would have been included in this payment when it was announced but, unfortunately, they have not been. I have corresponded with the Minister on it and I would hope it is something that she can have a look at. In the teeth of the escalating cost-of-living crisis and soaring fuel costs, these people are adversely suffering. They were especially disappointed to see that the disability support grant was restricted to recipients of the disability allowance, invalidity pension, blind pension and carer's grant. I ask the Minister to have a look at this and see if something can be done for these people.

When she sees issues, she reacts well and she changes. We had an issue with course participants, for example, with Rehab, who would have moved off their disability payment to get a training allowance and the Department responded quickly and addressed that. That was most welcome because a large number of people who were involved in fulfilling and worthwhile courses could have exited them because they would lose their payment. That epitomises the way the Department works and the way it can react when errors and oversights are made. Hopefully, the Minister can have a look at the disablement benefit for me as well.

It is great to see the progress on the fuel allowance. I will not rehash, but many people have made valiant points about it, most particularly where there is a family member in a house who does not receive a qualifying payment. This is a progressive budget. It is not a final budget. Hopefully, the Minister will have another couple of budgets in the lifetime of the Government and she can address those issues for us in them.

A couple of key points before I finish up relate to staff. Many people have mentioned the community welfare offices. In Longford, we probably have the best community welfare office in Ireland. We have three outstanding staff members there: Ms Patricia Doyle, Ms Bernie Quaine and Ms Jacinta Keogh. Not only in the cost-of-living crisis but right throughout Covid, these people have been on the front line and at the epicentre of it. I was disappointed that a case was not made for the Minister's community welfare officers to receive the Covid payment. They were probably more on the front line than many. Everybody who gets the payment is perfectly entitled to it but these people worked tirelessly throughout that period.

It has to be said that the system is creaking. It is under an awful lot of pressure. I can hear the strain in these people's voices when I contact them. They are incredibly accessible. If one telephones them, one will always get them. Indeed, I must say that for the entire Department of Social Protection team. That is indicative of the Minister's leadership as well that she has such a responsive and effective team.

My final point relates specifically to the Minister's staff. With regard to the 4% cumulative back pay most civil servants received recently, there is an issue within the Department where some staff have moved from a weekly to a fortnightly salary. Some of those have not been picked up. They have only got it for the period when they were on a weekly salary but when they changed to a different pay type, that was not picked up. They have been told the issue will be resolved in February but I would like that addressed before Christmas. I imagine it is a small cohort of people. As an employer, and particularly given the employees that we have there who are very much on the front line and doing Herculean work for society generally, the Minister can look after and address that for us.

Debate adjourned.