Wednesday, 15 December 2004
Social Welfare Bill 2004: Second Stage.
I am pleased to introduce the Social Welfare Bill 2004, the first of two Bills which will implement the social welfare package of €874 million announced in last week's budget. The package represents an increase of €244 million, or almost 40%, on the 2004 package of €630 million. It brings the projected level of social welfare expenditure for 2005 to over €12.25 billion, which constitutes an increase of €1 billion, or almost 9%, on the allocation for 2004. That it is the highest ever level of social welfare expenditure is an indication of the Government's priority, which is to protect and improve the living standards of social welfare recipients, as well as a clear demonstration of its commitment to addressing the needs of people with disabilities, their carers, children, the elderly, widowed persons, the unemployed, those who are parenting alone and disadvantaged and vulnerable people who are on the margins of society. The package continues the Government's substantial annual increases in social welfare expenditure, which has increased by almost 60% in the last four years. The current level of such expenditure is twice that in 1997.
The budget of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which is over €12 billion, is the largest spending allocation of any Department. I wish to elaborate on what that means in real terms. For every €3 that will be spent by the Government in 2005, almost €1 will be spent on social welfare payments. An estimated 970,000 people are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments next year. When one takes dependants into account, almost 1.5 million people, or two out of every five people in the State, will benefit from welfare supports. The increases of €12 and €14 in weekly social welfare payments are three to four times greater than the expected rate of inflation in 2005. The increases range from over 7% to over 10%, compared to next year's expected rate of inflation of 2.5%.
Ireland has changed dramatically for the better since the Government took office. The number of people at work has increased to almost 1.9 million, the rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically from 10% to 4.4% and the number of low-paid workers removed from the tax net has increased. Those on the minimum wage will be taken out of the income tax net entirely in 2005. Social welfare spending has more than doubled, from €5.74 billion in 1997 to a projected €12.25 billion in 2005. Gross average industrial earnings have increased by 71% in the past decade, but social welfare payments have increased by between 87% and 95%, and by even more for larger families. Substantial improvements in the conditions for entitlement to a range of social welfare schemes and services have been implemented. New social welfare benefits, such as farm assist, carer's benefit, the widowed parent grant and the respite care grant, have been introduced and enhanced. All the real social welfare improvements have led to a significant reduction in consistent poverty in recent years. According to the ESRI, the overall level of consistent poverty in 1998 was 8.2%. This was reduced by over a third, to 5.2%, by 2001, the latest year for which figures are available.
I could spend a long time citing more facts and figures to confirm the pivotal role played by the Department of Social and Family Affairs in the lives of many people and the great strides made in recent years. The Department is concerned with more than statistics, however. The payments, benefits and supports it provides to almost 1 million people are a weekly lifeline for many of those who struggle to make ends meet. The Department is often the last safety net for those descending towards poverty, marginalisation and economic and social distress. It is more than an efficient and effective administrative structure for processing and delivering State entitlements, however, as it needs to be people-centred, above all else. The Department must continue to shape the welfare system to meet individual needs. That will be the Department's guiding principle under my stewardship. It will react and respond speedily and sympathetically to those who reach out for a welfare lifeline. It will not be guided only by rules and regulations that sometimes blur the real purpose. I remind Senators that a one-size welfare system does not fit everyone.
While the Department of Social and Family Affairs represents a valuable source of payments, entitlements and supports, it must be viewed in a broader context. It is concerned with the welfare and the overall well-being of those who are caught in a daily struggle to make ends meet, including children at risk of poverty, carers who look after those unable to care for themselves, the elderly, the unemployed and many others to whom we must reach out and support. The Department must constantly monitor the pulse of our changing society and broaden and evolve to respond to changes. The economic surge of the Celtic tiger era did not raise all boats — some people were left behind, for whatever reason. The rising tide must lift those who were left behind on the previous occasion during the new wave of economic growth we are enjoying.
Before I outline the contents of the Bill, I wish to mention some of the welfare areas that were targeted specifically in the budget, in which I have tried to recognise and support in a special way the contribution carers make to society. Like everyone else, Senators are aware of the commitments and sacrifices involved in the work of carers, who provide a valued and valuable service. The package of measures I agreed with the Minister for Finance commits additional spending of almost €40 million to enhance supports for carers and to allow more carers to qualify for entitlements. Carers will benefit from eight separate increases or improvements as a result of this year's budget. Carer's allowance and carer's benefit will increase by €14 per week and the annual respite care grant will increase from €850 to €1,000. Almost 33,000 full-time carers are expected to receive the latter grant next year. The grant has been extended to include all carers who provide full-time care, subject to employment-related conditions, thereby recognising and acknowledging the challenges faced by carers who care for several people. Some 9,200 full-time carers will receive the grant for the first time as a result.
The carer's package expands the income limits for carer's allowance, so that all those on average industrial incomes can qualify, by increasing the weekly means test income disregard by €20 to €270 for a single person and by €40 to €540 for a couple. A couple with two children can earn up to €30,700 and receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance, while the same couple can earn up to €49,200 and receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance, free travel, the household benefits package of free schemes and the respite care grant. These improvements will result in an additional 1,000 new carers qualifying for payment and 2,400 existing carers, who are currently in receipt of a reduced payment, receiving an increase in their weekly carer's allowance payment. I am committed to the cause of carers.
The most recent budget, with previous initiatives, went some distance in responding to the specific needs of carers. It was my first budget as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, just as it was Deputy Cowen's first budget as Minister for Finance. There will be further opportunities to address the needs of carers and I look forward to taking them. I will continue to meet and listen to carers to shape the entitlements and supports that are most vital to the valuable work they perform. A lot has been done but, as the cliché goes, there is more to do. I assure the House that we will work towards recognising and rewarding carers.
Let us consider what the Opposition has labelled as "cuts". These were introduced last year and I have been reviewing them since I became Minister for Social and Family Affairs. Some of the 30 or so groups involved in making pre-budget submissions told me that several measures needed easement. With that in mind and following detailed examination, I decided to amend and ease nine of the measures at this time, while instructing that those remaining should be subjected to a continuing active review.
To remove any lingering doubts, I want to make it very clear that significant improvements have been made in the following ways. As an employment incentive, I have arranged that the one-parent family payment will be restored and will continue to include a half-rate transitional payment for six months when employment paying over €293 per week is gained. The weekly income threshold for half-rate child dependant allowance in respect of certain benefits has been increased from €300 to €350.
The qualifying period for the back to education third level option has been reduced from 15 months to 12 months. As I stated in the Dáil last night, I am sympathetic to considering a further reduction in the qualifying period in this regard, perhaps to nine months. The qualifying period for entry into second level education has not changed and remains at six months. As a further boost in this area, the cost of the back to education allowance has been amended by increasing the grant from €254 to €400.
I have made major changes regarding rent supplement. The six-month rule has been abolished and replaced by a new criterion such that those with a short-term income need will not be disadvantaged. This applies to cases of illness or unemployment, together with those who are assessed by a local authority as having a housing need, the elderly, homeless people and those who are disabled. Previously, rent supplement was not paid to those who refused two offers of local authority accommodation. I have raised this to three offers, which I believe to be reasonable in order to strengthen the leadership role of local authorities in dealing with long-term housing needs. To that end, I will be having discussions with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, on how best to ensure housing assessments are carried out in a speedier fashion for all applicants for rent supplement. I increased the income disregard from €50 to €60 per week for the payment of rent supplement and have decided not to increase the relevant minimum contribution of claimants from the present rate €13 per week. I have asked the social partners to examine the non-payment of rent supplement where one member of a couple is in full-time employment.
The Money Advice and Budgeting Service is a significant contributor to anti-poverty measures. I have recognised this by providing in this year's budget special funding of €700,000 so the service can develop additional services in this area.
The purpose of the crèche supplement is to provide short-term emergency support in cases such as those in which a parent has a medical appointment. I have ensured that existing recipients continue to receive the supplement and that new cases referred by health professionals will be able to receive payment. I will be consulting my Cabinet colleagues on this matter.
Correct diet is important for many people who have particular medical needs and I have therefore restored payment of the dietary supplement, with immediate effect. Given that it is some years since diets were last comprehensively assessed, my Department has commissioned a study by the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute on the most appropriate diets over and above normal food costs. I will study that report.
The remaining measures will be continuously monitored to ensure that there is no disadvantage caused. These include graduated rates of payment and the increase in paid contributions for entitlement to certain social insurance benefits.
It is a sad fact of life that, more often than not, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in society are children. This budget set out to further improve entitlements and supports targeted at directly benefiting children and families. I know there has been some questioning of the policy of not increasing the child dependant allowances on the grounds that these payments are made only to recipients of social welfare. The Government's policy is to concentrate resources for child income support on the child benefit scheme.
After the budget, child benefit will account for over 66% of child income support, while in 1994 it constituted less than 30%. There are sound reasons for this policy. Child benefit is more neutral vis-À-vis the employment status of the child's parents and it does not contribute to poverty traps whereas the loss of child dependant allowances might do so. As Senators are aware, child benefit is a near-universal payment. They will appreciate that the child dependant allowance had not been changed since 1994, but the view of successive Governments is that child benefit represents a better way forward.
As part of Sustaining Progress, special initiatives are being taken to end child poverty. Payments that would replace the family income supplement and child dependant allowance, and perhaps the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, are being considered. Perhaps we can put a new scheme in place. I am particularly interested in studying the findings of the NESC report on child poverty.
My priority in this budget package is to make significant progress in delivering on the social welfare commitments contained in the programme for Government, Sustaining Progress and the national anti-poverty strategy. We are focusing our resources on the relevant areas.
Sections 2 and 3 reaffirm the Government's commitment to supporting pensioners. The Bill provides for an increase of €12 per week in the personal pension rates, increasing the rate of old age contributory pension to €179.30 per week and the old age non-contributory pension to €166 per week. This is a real increase of over three and a half times the rate of inflation. There is also an increase of €12 for those in receipt of widow's and widower's contributory and non-contributory pensions. Widows aged under 66 who are in receipt of those pensions will benefit from a €14 increase, bringing their weekly pensions to €154.30 and €148.80, respectively. Proportionate increases will be applied.
Proportionate increases apply to qualified adult rates across the board to match the other increases. These increases are already on the record of the Houses. I am conscious of the needs of other vulnerable groups in our society, particularly those who are unemployed, disadvantaged or ill, and those who provide care for the elderly and the ill. Accordingly, I am providing for a weekly increase of €14 in the personal rates that apply in this regard. The rate of carer's allowance will reach €153.60 per week while the new carer's benefit rate will be €163.70 per week.
The social welfare increases included in this Bill will become payable from the first pay day in January 2005. Some 160,000 customers who receive long-term payments by means of electronic payment through a post office will receive their increases on the first pay day in January. Obviously, there are some administration issues to be addressed.
The production of new order books will entail a minimal delay, and the new books will be issued to all customers in mid-February 2005. These customers will receive a lump sum arrears payment covering a period of six weeks in their first payable order of the new book, and the weekly increase will be included in their weekly payable orders thereafter. A further 260,000 customers will receive their new order books in April. To minimise inconvenience, they will, however, receive a special arrears payment in mid-February, covering the previous six weeks, and seven weeks advance payment. I trust this will be helpful.
Section 4 provides an increase of €39 in the weekly income thresholds applied in determining entitlement to family income supplement. This could mean a weekly increase of €23.40 for most eligible families. Sections 5 and 6 of the Bill provide for changes to the PRSI structure. Section 7 of the Bill provides for changes to maternity and adoptive benefits. We are meeting substantially our commitments under Sustaining Progress to raise the limit in respect of these benefits to 80% of average weekly earnings over the life of that agreement. This measure will benefit the majority of recipients and will take effect from January 2005.
Section 8 provides for an increase of €44 per week in the health contribution threshold, thereby increasing the weekly income under which no contribution is payable from €365 per week, or €18,512 per year, to €400 per week, or €20,800 per year. This measure, which will take effect from January 2005, will benefit some 95,000 income earners.
This Social Welfare Bill, the first of two instalments, builds further on the progression of social inclusion measures adopted by this Government over recent years. It safeguards the living standards of those who rely on social welfare income and other supports and prioritises the allocation of resources in favour of those most in need. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate.
I welcome the Minister to the House. The Social Welfare Bill certainly represents a welcome change to the image of the Government. I compliment the Minister on his input to the Bill, which makes many changes that are of benefit to many people. I recognise the changes he has made to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is a change from last year's budget which did nothing but hit the most vulnerable in our society. I welcome the fact that this Bill recognises them and changes are afoot to improve the lot of many people. While a great deal more needs to be done I believe that with this Minister at the helm things will continue to improve. I acknowledge and welcome some of the positive aspects of this Bill but I must also point out areas where changes could be made to improve social welfare.
I welcome the removal of all national minimum wage earners from the tax net. Despite changes to the tax bands 33% of working people will continue to pay tax at the higher rate. I would like to see some changes to that in the coming years. I welcome the minimum social welfare rate increase and the increase in the non-contributory old age pension. While this is welcome it is lower than was expected, therefore more must be done in the next two years. I also welcome the funding package for people with disabilities and the child benefit increases but more remains to be done in this area to meet the commitment given in Sustaining Progress. Why did the Minister not give a further increase this year? Is he saving the large increase for the year before the general election? It must be given out and could be phased in gradually rather than given as a lump sum or larger increase in the final year which I suspect will happen.
Some of the dreadful cuts made in last year's Bill had a serious impact on very vulnerable families. The Minister has addressed some of those but he has played around with them rather than reversing them although the impression is given that they have been reversed. For example, the qualifying period for the back to education allowance was six months until 2004 when it was increased to 15 months. Now the Minister has put it back to 12 months. While I recognise that he is examining this, I fear he may bring it back to nine months rather than six. The initial advice and consultation leading to the introduction of the allowance was that any period longer than six months was retrogressive. Will the Minister consider reversing that cut?
The transitional half-rate payment for lone parents seems to be only a 50% reversal. In 2004 the transitional half-rate payment for lone parents was to be discontinued where a recipient of one parent family payment took up employment and earned more than the upper threshold of €293 per week. The Minister has amended that by saying one parent family payment recipients are to receive transitional half-rate payment for six months where income exceeds €293 per week. Prior to the cutback transitional half rate payments were given for 12 months. This was a very petty measure. Before the cutback only 580 people claimed this payment but six months after its introduction 120 people were taken off the scheme. What is the figure now?
I welcome some of the changes to the rent supplement scheme but some are ambiguous. According to some voluntary groups that have contacted us, this change means that an individual must prove some form of renting, not necessarily for six months but this amendment does not cover lone parents or people living at home with their parents who want to move out. These people are the most at risk and need to be independent and move out on their own. What form of renting will people be expected to prove to qualify for this scheme?
The special funding of €700,000 to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service is not a full reinstatement of the original cutback. Prior to the cutback this measure cost €700,000 per year; now, instead of reversing this payment, the Government is giving a once-off payment of the same amount but only 370 people availed of it. I welcome the Minister's reversal of the cutback in the diet supplement. However, I am concerned that he has commissioned a report which may suggest a reduction or restriction of this supplement. Why does the Minister feel another report is necessary?
The changes to the child dependant allowance are not a reversal for everyone who was receiving this before the 2004 cuts. By June of this year, six months after the introduction of this cutback, the number of people receiving such a payment was reduced by 17,000, from 63,000 to 46,000. In his press release on budget day the Minister claimed that his amendment would benefit approximately 4,600 families. This is a 30% reversal, and the figure could be much worse given that the latest available figures for this cutback cover only the first six months of the year.
Several organisations have contacted Senators with their responses to the budget, many of which were complimentary. Nevertheless, they point to some areas where further improvements could have been made and I agree with those. Community Platform, a collective of 26 national organisations, working against poverty and inequality, stated that the budget was a relatively positive one for adults but it completely ignored the needs of children, especially those living in poverty. It stated the Minister failed to meet the Sustaining Progress commitment on child benefit and should have given €18 to the first and second children. Sharon Keane of Community Platform said: "This Government continues to ignore the 66,000 children it acknowledges are living in poverty. . . . This is the second Minister for Finance in succession to break this promise."
She added that the lack of affordable child care places a significant burden on working parents and must be tackled as a priority. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has announced a package on child care. That is a major issue which is not directly within the remit of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs although he is probably trying to deal with it under child benefit.
The lack of affordable child care is a significant issue that I would like to see the Government tackle at the earliest opportunity. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has said that child benefit falls short of the Government's own commitment to reach €149 per month in this budget and pushes out the fulfilment of that commitment to the 2006 budget. I agree that it should have increased child benefit this year by more.
The child dependant portion of the social welfare payments has remained frozen for the 11th year in a row, although eligibility has been widened so that 4,600 extra families will qualify. I cannot understand why, over the past 11 years, that payment has not been increased. The families who get it are the most vulnerable. Not all families will benefit from the changes that the Minister has made this year.
There has been no increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, something that I find surprising. There is a problem of some families not claiming it, but we can make people aware of the benefits to which they are entitled through the media. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has said that there has been no increase in the qualified adult allowance and that it should be increased from €89.40 per week to €104.86. It also said that social housing had been virtually ignored, with the €66 million allocated providing for only 250 extra social housing units in 2005. That comes at a time when there are 48,000 households on waiting lists.
I wish to again address the issue of child benefit. If we are serious about tackling child poverty, many of the organisations that have contacted us have said the best way to do so is to increase child benefit. The budget offers little hope for the 6,000 men, women and children living in homeless accommodation of ever moving into their own homes. The Children's Rights Alliance has said that child benefit is the principal financial vehicle for supporting families with children. It is also at the heart of the Government's plan to eliminate child poverty. Both objectives — supporting families with children and ending child poverty by 2007 — have been seriously undermined by the Government's failure to keep its promises to raise the amount to €150. Furthermore, policy practice continues to refuse to increase child dependant allowance targeted at families with children in receipt of welfare. The Minister is missing a golden opportunity to move thousands of children out of poverty and improve the lives of thousands more. Those choices are made at the expense of the rights and needs of children. We need to tackle child poverty in this day and age when the country is so well off. We are all aware of many children living in poverty.
The increase in the family income supplement is not enough and, worse still, is not reaching those who need it. Only 12,000 people are getting family income supplement, but any survey of the income figures will show that at least three times as many should be getting it. What can we do to ensure that those families who deserve it get it? Why is it not paid through the tax code, which would at least guarantee that it would reach those who need it?
I welcome the increase in the respite care grant. Also welcome is the removal of the anomaly whereby a person caring for more than two people did not receive the grant for each care recipient. It is about time that was removed. The income disregard for the carer's allowance will result in an additional 1,000 carers qualifying for the payment. The number of carers receiving the carer's allowance will increase from 23,500 in 2004 to 24,500 in 2005. However, it is believed that there are at least 50,000 carers in the country. How do we reach them and ensure that they get what they are entitled to?
I have more to say, but I will have to yield to others who wish to speak. This does not concern the Bill directly. I thank the Minister for attending the House recently to discuss occupational pension schemes. I welcome the fact that in the budget the Minister did not mention any move to let the pensions industry get its hands on the SSIAs. However, the Minister said that he might examine other ways of encouraging people to take out their own occupational pensions, but in such a way that their pensions are protected.
I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, to the House. I will start with the suggestion that Fianna Fáil has adopted a new image and has apparently made a miraculous conversion to giving to the people. In the context of total spending on welfare, which has more than doubled since 1997, it is a joke to make such a suggestion. If the Government had suddenly found its feet this year and started giving money to everyone through the social welfare budget, it would be fair to criticise us and say that the decision was perhaps only for perception or image.
However, that is not what this party and Government are about. Fianna Fáil is the republican party, and part of that ethos concerns looking after and providing for those in need. We must ensure that we create a system and economy that are sustainable and will allow us to continue giving and looking after people not able to catch up with those doing very well. I speak of the most vulnerable, such as children who live in poverty. The Fianna Fáil republican image and ethos concern the creation of an environment that allows those children living in poverty to get the education and jobs that they need to get out of it. That way, they do not continue in a rat trap circle of poverty where they know nothing else and, if they have children themselves, the same is true of them. That is not what the Government is about. I am delighted to be able to reject completely the idea that it did not care about people before and that the social welfare budget, representing the largest sum ever spent on the sector — an increase of 8.8% up to €12.25 billion — is merely part of the new image of Fianna Fáil. It is not; it is what we are about.
I congratulate the Minister who was recently appointed to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. If we had examined his bona fides before his appointment we would have recognised that he is probably one of the few Ministers to have saved the lives of ten, 20 or even 30 Irish people in his previous job, by introducing penalty points. He showed a determination in his attitude to that issue that, if replicated in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, will lead to another budget and Social Welfare Bill next year with which we can be happy. It will continue to look to the future and provide for those who most need help.
I will move on to some of the specifics. One of the great things about a budget like the one recently announced includes having the money to pay for it and put it into services. This gives us the opportunity to see what we can do next, given that we were unable to do it all on this occasion.
What are the issues about which we need to be concerned? I wish to focus on child benefit, to which the Minister and Senator Terry referred. The rate of child benefit payable in respect of four children is €637 per month. That payment is generally paid directly to the mother and is directly focused on the cost of looking after the children. It is a benefit that needs to be protected and retained. We need to ensure that it continues to increase. My view on child benefit is probably different from that of the Minister. I do not believe it is the way to deal with the cost of child care for parents who are working. That is a mistake we are making. Continuing to increase child benefit for that reason is a mistake. We need to do something different.
If one has four children of varying ages where they need child care, they may be in part-time care, or a full-time carer, a child minder, may come to one's house to look after them. One's children are the most important part of one's life and the reason one gets up in the morning to go out to make a living to provide for them. If one pays a child minder an appropriate wage of between €16,000 and €20,000 and employer's PRSI on top of that, which is another 10%, one spends €23,000 per annum of one's income in respect of which tax has been deducted on child care.
If one is employing a person to look after one's children, that person should be paid a proper wage, covered by the social welfare system and be able to build up stamps to provide for his or her future. If a person is caring for three or four children in his or her own home, perhaps some disregard could be introduced. Children are the central part of our country, society and culture. Perhaps we could decide to do something different in respect of the cost of child care. In this context, child benefit is not the answer. It is not dealing with the real issues, including the cost of child care. We discussed this issue previously here. Some people pay more in child care expenses than their mortgage repayment. That means something is wrong. I plead with the Minister to bring the message back to Cabinet that child benefit is important. It does a wonderful job and is succeeding in its objective, but it is not the answer to providing a solution to the cost of child care.
Another issue I wish to raise, which was discussed during the debate on pensions, is that of the treatment of women's pension rights. We need to continue to make improvements in that area. I will leave it at that.
The rule that a recipient can receive only one payment from the Department of Social and Family Affairs is becoming more of an issue. A person in receipt of widow's or widower's pension, which represents that person's only income, who is looking after an older person, a near relative, a mother-in-law or father-in-law cannot qualify for the carer's allowance. If that person's partner was still alive and in receipt of a pension, an income disregard of approximately €250 per week would apply and that carer would qualify for carer's allowance.
It does not make sense to have in place a blanket ban that precludes widows or other recipients in receipt of a payment from the Department from receiving a second payment, particularly in the case of carers. The rule particularly disadvantages women and widows because they tend to have more caring roles such as looking after older people in their homes. If a person has been widowed, that person may not have been the chief bread winner in the family and may be totally dependent on the widow's pension. I plead with the Minister to reconsider this issue to see if something can be done in this regard.
One of the most intelligent and proactive measures introduced by the previous Government was carer's benefit and carer's leave. It provides that a person can take time off to look after a person who is ill. The carer's employment rights are maintained and he or she can be paid carer's benefit through the Department of Social and Family Affairs. However, the process involved is still bureaucratic. One has to apply for leave before one can apply for the benefit and complete the necessary forms. Generally, the people who want to apply for this benefit and leave want to do so for the short term. The person may wish to look after a person who has been diagnosed as being terminally ill and may not have many months left to live. The carer may have been working and everything may have been fine but suddenly he or she is faced with dealing with the likely death of a loved one in difficult circumstances.
The carer wants to look after this person, to take the time off, but to do so he or she must complete all the necessary forms and jump through all the hoops. We need to make the process simpler, which it would be easy to do. The Department is getting better on a weekly basis at making the system simple. Will the Minister ensure this process is reconsidered by his Department in association with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, given that one has to make an application to one Department and then apply to the other Department for the payment. Therefore, the process is complex. It should be reviewed to ensure an applicant is required to complete only one application and submit his or her PPS number. On receipt of that application, one should be advised if one is entitled to the benefit and, if one is, one will get it, following which one is automatically entitled to the leave.
The Department is great in the manner in which it deals with its clients on a daily basis. People are informed by letter of their rights. If a person's circumstances change and he or she is not claiming all the benefits to which he or she is entitled, the person will receive a letter to that effect. I had a recent case where a person in receipt of disability benefit received a letter from the Department. That person has been in receipt of that benefit for a period and it was clear that the person would not be able to return to work. The letter from the Department advised that the person might want to go on to disability pension with its advantages. That was fantastic. The person moved from a position of being in receipt of disability benefit to being in receipt of disability pension and now qualifies for free travel and a number of other benefits, including a medical card, to none of which that person was previously entitled. It was due to the proactive approach of the Department that this person was so advised.
I wish to focus on two issues. I am concerned about the issue of social welfare fraud. With all the changes that have taken place in our system during recent years, opportunities are being exploited by individuals to defraud the social welfare system. People are selling their PPS numbers. One can get a PPS number legitimately and then sell it on to somebody. Most employers tend to ask an employee for a PPS number rather than a visa number or a work permit. Fraud such as that is happening throughout the country and it needs to be stopped. If we are to have robust and fair social welfare system, it must be fair for everybody and not open exploitation and abuse. The Minister has dealt with this issue in the past and it has been dealt with by previous Ministers in this Department, but we need to make sure that people are not exploiting and abusing our social welfare system. The people who lose out in the end are the people who need to be provided for by the social welfare system.
The issue of paid parental leave is another measure I would like included in the shopping basket, so to speak. I would like some payment to be made available in the future to parents who take parental leave. Such a payment might not apply for the entire period but it should cover a portion of it. It could cover initially four weeks, then a further eight weeks and so on.
Parental leave is vital. It is an important type of leave for parents and their children. If we were to introduce an initiative that was focused on protecting children and giving them a better start in life, it would be in the area of parental leave. Many of us may have good jobs and a good income and may not notice the loss of income while on such leave because we pay the top rate of tax. When we reduce our income we would not lose that much money because we would make a saving in terms of tax. However, it would be helpful if people on lower incomes who want to take parental leave could be given payment during such leave.
The Bill is excellent. I commend the Minister on the work he has done. He has put his stamp on the Department in a short time. I look forward to seeing what will come forward in terms of such legislation in 2006 and 2007. I commend the Bill to the House.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Brennan, on his new appointment and welcome him to the House for this important debate. While some elements of the budget were very much needed and are welcome, I do not agree with other elements of it and may concentrate on those for the larger part of my contribution. Overall, there has been a welcome increase in spend and a concentration on people with disabilities, however, other areas must be considered with a view to effecting real change by providing resources and finance to areas where it is clearly lacking.
It was the first budget of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, and like other Ministers for Finance, it was his first major hurdle. I do not envy his task in attempting to redress some of the issues left for him to deal with following the departure of the former Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, to Brussels. The former Minister introduced seven budgets, some of which by and large favoured one section of society over others. Trying to overcome the gap thereby created was a serious challenge for the new Minister, Deputy Cowen, and one he did not take lightly. Given this, he is to be congratulated for arriving at the other side of his first budget and addressing some of the issues which needed to be addressed. However, he needs to consider areas that have been neglected.
There are two budgets to come in the lifetime of this Government. I hope we do not return to the system that was manipulated by the former Minister, Deputy McCreevy, who saved the largesse, went on a shopping spree, bought votes for the last election and within one week of the new Government being formed sent memos to Secretaries General of Departments telling them to claw back on spending. I hope this is a practice the new Minister for Finance will not pursue. To say the least, it is cynical and not good for democracy or the body politic.
Some tough decisions must be made in regard to who will be looked after. Should we look after the horse fraternity or the less well-off in society? In that context, as I stated in regard to two previous Bills brought forward by the former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, I must refer to a wonderful body of people, namely, carers. It is difficult to quantify the service provided by carers because they care for loved ones and those who are less well-off than most, for whatever reason. They do not qualify for holidays or annual leave, do not have the same rights as organised labour-intensive workplaces and do not earn overtime.
The ministerial record of the new Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, will be judged on whether he abolishes the means test for carers. I realise this will be expensive but it must be done. We cannot afford not to do it. It would provide significant resources for carers in terms of the financial assistance which is clearly needed but also by reducing the burden on them. The benefit to the State will dramatically outweigh any trepidation that might exist in terms of the cost. If what the Minister stated to Ursula Halligan on "The Political Party" is true, it is a challenge the Minister must meet and his record will be judged on this.
Carers are a wonderful group. They are in every town and village and there is no area where the care they provide is not needed. As a group, they are slowly organising themselves in terms of co-ordinating meetings, swapping ideas and offering assistance and advice. In my area of west Cork, there is an active group of carers made up of people who by their very nature are selfless. The abolition of the means test is a measure which must be quickly introduced. I am surprised it was not introduced in this budget and hope it will be in the next. I realise many groups lobby the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and much wise advice is available to him. However, if he makes what will be a revolutionary move, history will perhaps judge him with kindness. It is like supposed comment of de Valera from the film "Michael Collins" that, "History will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense". However, this is a worthy and deserving cause and this change needs to happen.
The budget increases were welcome and the increase of €14 in social welfare payments is significant. However, this must be considered in context. The savage 16 cuts were introduced during the reign of the former Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and had an adverse effect in a number of areas. For example, it was a retrograde step to alter the criteria for the back to education allowance. The key to effectively dealing with poverty is by tackling disadvantage in education. This means providing the opportunity to allow those in receipt of social welfare to return to the education system where they will obtain a standard of education and skills based on that before entering the workplace. There is a kickback for the State in terms of the fact that most will then pay tax at the higher rates. Therefore, the Exchequer earns some dividend in regard to that scheme. It is not an area that should be starved of finances but which needs more finance and initiative. Any attempts made to dismantle it were retrograde.
Senator Cox referred to another outstanding issue, that of child care. It is a huge burden on the many young couples who work morning, noon and night to pay mortgages and child minders. While I am not sure of the best way to tackle the issue, we could use the tax system to militate positively in favour of those who need assistance with child care. The tax system could be used for this in the same way it is used to allow others to take advantage of the system in terms of the ten millionaires who pay no tax, although I accept they correctly and properly do not pay tax due to the current system. It is critically important that a similar system is used to allow parents a fair opportunity in terms of child care and a genuine opportunity to work, provide a good home and access child care based on need and financial capacity. It is a serious issue.
Many other issues will be raised during this debate in the coming days. I look forward to putting down amendments on Committee Stage, particularly in regard to the means test for carer's allowance. As long as the means test is in existence, I will keep raising the issue in the House with the relevant Minister and at different fora. It is an emotive issue and one which runs to the heart of every family in this country. I will put down an amendment on Committee Stage to reflect this and hope the Minister will consider it favourably. I urge the Minister to reconsider the issue of carers and the other issues raised, and to have a sympathetic ear on Committee Stage.