Thursday, 16 December 2021
Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage
The Minister is welcome to the Chamber. It is great to be able to stand in this House and welcome such a large social welfare package. We can be very proud of our country and the levels of spending we see here across all areas of social protection. That does not happen everywhere in the OECD and beyond. We see a record budget for next year, 2022, involving an increase of €558 million. We see increases across all social protection payment recipients: pensioners, people with disabilities, carers, lone parents - everybody is getting an increase to reflect the increase in the cost of living. The increase in the cost of living is a particular problem in Ireland and we are conscious that it is a particularly difficult time for many families heading into the Christmas period with the increases in the cost of fuel and in general across utilities. To see a substantial and significant social welfare budget of this size, therefore, is something to be very proud of.
Next year the overall social welfare spend will be €23.3 billion, which is a colossal amount of money but money well spent. Ours is a country that prides itself on having a minimum standard of living for all our citizens and a safety net through which no citizen should fall. We protect and look after our most vulnerable. We look after people and give them a crutch, protection and assistance at the most vulnerable times in their lives and when they need it. In Ireland, 29.3% of overall government spending will be on social protection. That is almost a third, something else to be really proud of as a country that ensures that all citizens are protected, that we provide a minimum standard of living and that, again, we look after our most vulnerable. In addition, we spend 8.2% of our GDP on social protection, again a significant amount of money. As I said earlier, we allocate almost 30% of government expenditure to social protection. The OECD average is 20%, so we are way above the average in that regard, again something to be very proud of. Some 633,000 families receive monthly child benefit payments. I am proud that in our country that payment applies to every child and there is no assessment of income, again something to be proud of and something we have held on to.
It has been a very difficult time for the Minister's Department and her officials. There have been a lot of demands on the Department to cater for a variety of needs across the country and to deal with the pandemic and various sectors. Senator Black mentioned the live entertainment sector, which she has spoken about many times in this Chamber. Particular attention is to be paid to that sector in the weeks and months ahead. We know that that sector and the tourism sector and jobs in those sectors are not looking as positively on 2022 as they might have even a month or two ago. It is about being proactive and ensuring we target this huge amount of money going into social protection at the sectors that need it most, the citizens who need it most and those families and citizens who are most vulnerable to the coming year. We are not out of the woods yet. However, this Government has done an incredible job of maintaining social solidarity through the pandemic, in large part due to the Minister's Department and the work of her officials and herself in ensuring we have protected people's incomes, protected businesses and protected people from the worst elements of this pandemic. Again, that has not happened everywhere across the world. We have been able to maintain that social solidarity and to bring people with us not alone through our vaccine campaign and now our booster campaign but also by ensuring that we protected people's incomes and protected businesses and that we have, I think, left most people able to get back up on their feet again as we start to reopen society. The Taoiseach made reference recently - I think it was last week on "The Tonight Show" - to the degree to which we have reopened and got the economy back up and running and many sectors back up on their feet. Part of that is because of these significant payments we have made available through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the PUP and the social protection payments across all sectors. That has allowed our country to survive the past year and a half and will allow us to survive the next year or two as we continue to make our way through this pandemic. While it is a difficult time, I think the overall public perception or feedback we get as public representatives - certainly, the feedback I get - is that people feel the Government has done a good job in providing those protections, income supports and social welfare packages and payments. People feel the State is doing its best by its citizens, and that is something to be very proud of. We are coming through an unprecedented time. You could be forgiven for feeling we have got used to living like this, but we are still living through exceptional and extraordinary times. The budgets we have seen for next year are exceptional to meet the times we are living through.
It is a pleasure to have an opportunity to be on the record as saying this is a significant amount of expenditure for next year. I know it will be targeted to the most vulnerable citizens in our society. I look forward to hearing the feedback from our citizens next year as we move through the year.