Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I am sharing time with Senator Kyne.

I welcome the Minister. This is the largest budget that has been delivered by the Department for years. I think it amounts to €23.5 billion in total, a phenomenal achievement. I acknowledge the Minister, her Department and the officials in the Department. I know she is very proud of the work they have done, especially over the past 18 months. Along with the Department of Health, no other Department has been under as much pressure to get support immediately to people who have needed it. I put on record our appreciation, as Fine Gael Senators, for the work the officials have done. We have only to look back to two weeks ago, when the Minister and her Department acted quickly to reinstate PUP payments for people who had been adversely affected by the decisions made by the Government. People appreciate that and acknowledge the Government has acted in the best interests of citizens throughout this pandemic. The Minister's Department, in particular, has played a significant role in that.

There is so much contained in the Bill that I cannot cover it in my allocated time, so I will point out and acknowledge just a couple of aspects. The first relates to the Christmas bonus. It is welcome that will be delivered to pensioners, carers, lone parents and people with disabilities. The small but important changes the Minister has made in that regard, reducing it from 15 to 12 months, will make a huge difference. That people who might have been receiving PUP and then moved to jobseeker's will be taken into account will have a significant impact on people and will allow people to qualify who might not have done previously.

One aspect that is personal to me relates to the changes the Minister has made, not just this year but in successive years, to the parent's benefit. She mentioned how the provision has increased from five weeks to seven weeks, which is very welcome, but in her time as Minister it has increased from two weeks to seven weeks. There has been an increase of five weeks, therefore, since she has been Minister. In my case, my wife was racing to get the final three weeks she could get when the announcement of the increase to five weeks was made last year. It is worth noting how many men take that time off. They see the benefit in the early stages of a child's life of being at home as a couple and a family. The more of these supports we offer, through the Minister in particular, the more it will benefit that family structure. As a Government, supporting that family network, especially at that time of life, is important.

The Minister spoke about her commitment to the carer's allowance. She will be aware that Senators held a meeting with family carer representatives before the budget and they made an awful lot of requests, one of which related to the income disregard for the carer's allowance. They had asked year after year for it to be increased in order that more people could be included and could come into the threshold. Deputy Humphreys is the first Minister to take such a step for more than ten years, for which they are really grateful. That people who are single and had earned €332 will see their payment increased to €350, while couples who had earned €665 will earn €750, will make a considerable difference to people. Similarly, the increase in the capital savings disregard from €20,000 to €50,000 will have a big impact.

Finally, there is a €3 million budget for hot school meals, a programme that is to come on stream next month. That is very welcome and it will make a big difference to schools in my community in County Tipperary. I am thinking of schools in Tipperary town in particular that have applied for the scheme, and more schools will come on board. Does the Minister foresee an opportunity to expand that even further over the coming years? It is very important for the kids in those areas and I can see the benefits already in Tipperary town and other schools throughout the county.


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