Tuesday, 27 March 2007
Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007: Second Stage
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Séamus Brennan, I am pleased to introduce this measure, the second of two Bills intended to implement the largest social welfare package in the history of the State at €1.41 billion, announced in last December's budget. This substantial investment brings total expenditure on social welfare this year to €15.3 billion, or almost €1 for every €3 of current Government expenditure. Ireland is now making solid and steady progress in tackling the core issues that can blight people's lives, blunt opportunities and leave some vulnerable and marginalised in society.
As well as income support improvements of over €970 million which took effect from January, another €430 million — or nearly one third of the total package — is being directed to support a range of significant reform measures. These include confronting and tackling remaining child poverty, increasing income supports for all pensioners, recognising and supporting carers and those with disabilities, as well as increasing the status and incomes of women. These are major structural reforms which, when taken with a number of other reforms implemented in areas such as pensions and lone parent allowances, will contribute greatly to the overall policy reform agenda that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has been pursuing for the last two years.
These reforms on child poverty, carer's allowance, women's incomes and pensions are about more than just increasing incomes. They are important and necessary reforms that create change, open up fresh opportunities and deliver enlightened social policies.
In recent years, this Government has lifted more than 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, out of poverty, but there is still a distance to travel. It behoves all of us to redouble our efforts and complete the task. Prior to budget 2007, resources were directed towards alleviating child poverty through substantial increases in universal child benefit payments, rather than through increases in qualified child allowances, which are paid to recipients of social welfare payments. From January of this year, the Minister increased the qualified child allowance, for the first time since 1994, to a new single high rate of €22 per week. This has benefited over 340,000 children by targeting those in poorer households.
The shift towards child benefit has been significant in tackling disincentives to employment. In 1994, child benefit represented just 27% of the combined child benefit-qualified child payment for a four-child family. Today, child benefit accounts for over 65% of that combined payment. In other words, when an unemployed welfare recipient moves into full-time employment — or a lone parent moves into a permanent relationship — the family now loses less than 35% of its child income support through loss of qualified child payments. In this Bill, the Minister is increasing child benefit rates by €10 per month. Over 560,000 families will benefit from the increase, in respect of approximately 1,134,000 children, which comes into effect next week. It is expected that expenditure on the child benefit scheme will be €2.15 billion in 2007.
It is well established that child poverty is especially prevalent among the families of those on the one-parent family payment. Last March, the Minister launched a Government discussion paper, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, which proposed an expansion of the availability and range of education and training opportunities for lone parents, an extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents, and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low-income families with young children. One of the discussion paper's proposals was that the upper income limit for the proposed new social assistance payment should be set at €400 per week. In budget 2006, the upper income limit for the one-parent family payment was increased from €293 to €375 per week. In the Bill, this element of the proposal is being delivered in full by increasing the upper income limit to €400 per week, which is no mean achievement.
The long-term aim of the proposed new social assistance payment, which is currently being developed by officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, is to assist people to achieve financial independence by enabling them to enter the labour force. This route offers the best way out of poverty and social exclusion. It is acknowledged that the proposed new payment cannot be introduced without co-ordinated supports and services being put in place by other Departments and agencies. For that reason, the Government has instructed the senior officials' group on social inclusion to draw up an implementation plan to progress the non-income recommendations to facilitate the introduction of the new payment scheme.
Senators will recall that in the Social Welfare Act 2006, significant progress was made towards achieving the commitment to increase the qualified adult allowance for the spouses and partners of contributory pensioners to the level of the State non-contributory pension. Since January, the budget increase of €23.70 per week in the qualified adult payment has benefited approximately 35,000 couples. That increase brings the rate of qualified adult allowance payments for those aged 66 years and over to 86.5% of the target rate referred to in the Government commitment. There is now a €60 million commitment to reach the target rate within the next three years. This Bill includes the provisions necessary to implement in new cases from September the direct payment of increases for qualified adults to the qualified adult for the duration of the entitlement of the State pensioner. It will remain open to any qualified adult to continue to have his or her portion of the pension paid jointly with the personal portion of the pension, if that is his or her preferred option.
Our social welfare system should evolve to reflect the social changes of recent years. The system needs to keep pace with changes in working and living conditions, particularly those of women. Accordingly, provision is made in this Bill to significantly reform the way spouses are assessed as qualified adults in a range of social assistance schemes. Women are generally involved in these instances.
The proposed reform involves removing the differential disregards from employment income which apply to couples on assistance schemes and assessing both members of a couple in a similar manner, with common disregards and assessments applying to both. Additionally, the poverty traps in the current method of assessment, which arise from the way the current disregard operates, will be removed. At certain income levels, if a woman increases her income from part-time employment to more than the current disregard of €100 per week, her spouse can lose €1.20 from his jobseeker's allowance for every €1 she earns in excess of €100. Such a situation, which represents a withdrawal rate of 120% in respect of income, has no place in a modern labour market.
Increases in labour market participation will be rewarded under the proposed reform. This will allow women to move beyond the occupational cul-de-sac of long-term part-time employment with earnings below €100 per week. The current position whereby it is more advantageous for the half of a couple who undertakes part-time work to be a qualified adult will be removed. Both partners will be able to claim jobseeker's allowance in their own right, as long as they satisfy the usual conditions. They will receive the same rate of payment as a couple where one is a claimant and the other is a qualified applicant. This will facilitate women, in particular, to claim jobseeker's allowance in their own right and access the accompanying range of employment supports and training opportunities. As part of this reform, the daily disregard of €12.70 from earned income from employment will be increased to €20 per day and extended to all customers with such income.
This proposal removes the anomaly whereby parents of qualified children cannot avail of the disregard. It further strengthens the incentive for labour market participation by increasing family income when children are involved. The complexities I have mentioned mean there is potential for some couples to be less well-off under the proposed reform. They will not be less well-off, however, because the Department of Social and Family Affairs will operate a transitional saver system to protect the level of income they have at present from a combination of jobseeker's allowance and employment income. I am confident that the proposals will reduce significantly the complexity in the system and recognise, encourage and reward increased labour market participation.
As carers play a valuable and much appreciated role in our society, it is important that we support and care for them. Since the Government took office in 1997, it has been committed to supporting care in the community to the maximum extent possible. Over that period, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced and extended. As a result of these improvements, almost 28,500 carers now receive either carer's allowance or carer's benefit. Such carers receive a respite care grant, as do approximately 10,000 other carers. Our commitment to carers was further reinforced in the national partnership agreement, Towards 2016, which contains significant commitments in the area of caring. Work is progressing in Government Departments on the development of a national carer's strategy by the end of the year, which will focus on supporting informal and family carers in the community.
The primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support. As a general rule, just one weekly social welfare payment is payable to an individual. In practice, people who qualify for two social welfare payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled. The Minister is aware that this causes particular concern for people in receipt of one social welfare payment when they become carers.
The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs has made some specific and sensible recommendations in this regard. The Minister has responded by introducing in this Bill a fundamental reform relating to payments to carers. From September, people in receipt of certain other social welfare payments, who also provide full-time care and attention to a person, will be able to retain their main welfare payment and receive another payment, subject to their means, up to half the rate of carer's allowance.
The Minister is also including in the Bill provision for an increase of €300 in the rate of the respite care grant to €1,500 from June 2007. This will allow up to 40,000 carers to have a well-deserved break from their caring duties. The full package of measures for carers included in budget 2007 will cost in excess of €107 million in a full year.
The Bill gives effect to a number of improvements to the supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, rent supplement scheme as part of the overall supplement package announced in budget 2007. These include an extension of the qualifying conditions and an easing of the rent supplement means test. The key objectives of the changes are to simplify the means test, so that a rent supplement recipient can judge the impact of an offer of work, and address disincentives and eliminate poverty traps faced by rent supplement recipients seeking to increase their hours of work or wishing to take up full-time employment.
I am also making provision whereby rent supplement may be withheld in respect of accommodation which fails to meet local authority housing standards and to allow rent supplement to be refused in respect of private rental accommodation located in specified areas of regeneration identified by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This latter measure supports the State's significant investment on regeneration in areas such as Ballymun. The objective is to achieve a better balance between private, social and affordable housing in these localities. In taking this approach, provision is made to protect existing tenants.
I am also taking the opportunity in the Bill to bring forward enabling legislation which will help to give effect to the Government decision to transfer certain income support and maintenance scheme functions from the Health Service Executive to my Department. At present, the social welfare allowance scheme is delivered by some 700 community welfare officers, CWOs, 59 superintendent community welfare officers and supporting clerical staff in the community welfare service of the HSE. The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 currently stipulates that HSE staff determine entitlement to social welfare allowance.
The legislation I am introducing is a technical change which is necessary to ensure that CWOs may continue to administer the scheme when they transfer out of the HSE to the Department of Social and Family Affairs and will come into operation by means of a commencement order. The legislation required for the transfer of functions will be prepared later this year following full consultation with staff and other stakeholders. The HSE's community welfare service is responsive and flexible in meeting needs and the Minister will ensure these attributes are preserved and built upon as part of the transfer process.
The transfer of functions presents fundamental reform and developmental opportunities for a fully integrated and enhanced income support system, including the restructuring and integration of income support services within one entity. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for those within the community welfare service and the Department in supporting those most disadvantaged in society.
The Government is concerned about retirement income in general, now and in the future. I do not need to remind the House of the demographic pressures our pensions system will face. Thankfully, unlike other countries, our position will remain favourable for a number of years yet. As part of the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, the Government is committed to publishing a Green Paper on pensions outlining the major policy choices and challenges in this area and the views of the social partners. Following a consultation process, the Government will respond to the matters raised by developing a framework for comprehensively addressing the pensions agenda over the longer term. While we face a difficult challenge in securing agreement on a way forward, work on drafting the Green Paper is progressing well and is scheduled for completion within a few weeks.
I will now outline to the House the main provisions of the Bill which includes new measures and amends the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, the Pensions Act 1990 and a small number of other Acts.
Sections 1 and 2 contain the usual provisions for the Short Title, citation and commencement of the Bill, and the definition of certain terms used throughout the Bill. Section 3 contains a technical amendment to clarify the definition of a volunteer development worker for the purposes of the social welfare code. Section 4 provides for an increase of €10 in the monthly rate of child benefit, bringing the lower and higher rates, respectively, to €160 and €195 per month. Families who receive the monthly payment via their bank accounts will receive the budget increase from April 2007, while those who receive payment via personalised payable order books encashable at post offices will be paid in the first week in May 2007, backdated to April 2007. In addition, section 27 provides for a measure of flexibility in the payment arrangements for child benefit by removing the presumption that a child resides with only one person.
Section 5 provides, in addition to a technical amendment, that where a person who was in receipt of illness benefit for at least two years has engaged in employment for less than 26 weeks and subsequently re-applies for that benefit, payment will not be made at a lower rate than that which he or she previously received. This section and section 8 provide that former recipients of carer's benefit or carer's allowance who transfer to illness benefit or jobseeker's benefit may revert to a rate not lower than that previously in payment. Section 5 also removes an obsolete reference to "rules of behaviour".
Section 6 contains a number of measures to enhance the maternity benefit scheme. These include provision for the payment of maternity benefit to the father of a newborn child on the death of the child's mother without having to satisfy the contribution conditions of the scheme in his own right. This section also provides for the payment of not less than six weeks maternity benefit on the death of the mother, bringing this scheme into line with the after-death payment arrangements of other social welfare schemes. In addition, the section clarifies the position in respect of disqualification for receipt of maternity benefit by providing that benefit will not be payable where a woman engages in any form of insurable employment or self-employment or fails, without good cause, to attend for medical examination.
As the provisions governing adoptive benefit mirror those applicable to maternity benefit, section 7 extends the section 6 enhancements to adoptive benefit. It also clarifies that a person will be disqualified from receiving adoptive benefit if he or she engages in any form of employment or self-employment. As outlined, section 9 contains amendments to the provisions governing the means test and the assessment of spouses' earnings for the purposes of jobseeker's allowance, pre-retirement allowance, farm assist and disability allowance.
Sections 10, 11, 16 and 26 provide for technical amendments to the occupational injuries schemes, including the deletion of an obsolete provision regarding the prescribed time for claiming the cost of medical care. They also provide for the deletion of obsolete references in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to "rules of behaviour".
Section 12 provides for the inclusion of education and training, subject to prescribed conditions, in the activities in which a recipient of carer's benefit may engage and still satisfy the conditions for receipt of that benefit. Section 13 provides for a technical amendment to clarify date of entry into social insurance for the purposes of a State pension, contributory.
Section 14 provides for the direct payment of increases for qualified adults payable with the State pensions directly to the qualified adult, for the duration of the period of entitlement of the State pensioner. This provision is applicable to the State pension, contributory, State pension, transition, and the State pension, non-contributory, and will come into effect for new claims made from 24 September 2007.
Section 15 provides that where a recipient of invalidity pension subsequently qualifies for State pension, contributory, or a pension payable under reciprocal arrangements by another state, he or she shall be entitled to receive whichever payment is the most beneficial. Section 17 provides that guardian's payment, contributory, and guardian's payment, non-contributory, shall not be payable simultaneously with a payment under Part VI of the Child Care Act 1991.
Section 18 provides that, for the purposes of the bereavement grant, "qualified child" shall include a person aged between 16 and 22 who is in receipt of disability allowance. Section 19 contains a technical amendment to clarify that the widowed parent grant is applicable to recipients of widow's and widower's contributory pensions which are payable under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.
Section 20 provides that where a person who was in receipt of a widow's or widower's payment ceases to be a widow or widower and subsequently applies for jobseeker's allowance, payment of the allowance will commence without the application of the "waiting days" condition normally applicable for that allowance.
Section 21 provides that where a current recipient of carer's allowance has been in receipt of pre-retirement allowance immediately before becoming a carer, such a person will be able to revert to pre-retirement allowance and retain half his or her current personal rate of carer's allowance if it is beneficial for him or her to do so. This is of course subject to continuing to meet the qualifying conditions for pre-retirement allowance in terms of age, retirement and so on. Section 22 provides for an increase in the upper earnings limit for customers in receipt of the one-parent family payment from €375 to €400 per week. This provision is effective from May 2007. Section 23 confers power to make regulations to provide for a transitional payment where a deserted wives benefit beneficiary's entitlement ceases because her earnings have exceeded the prescribed upper limit of €20,000. Section 24 provides for a means-tested payment equivalent to up to half the carer's allowance rate to certain persons who may also be in receipt of another social welfare payment.
Section 25 provides that where a person is unemployed for 12 months and in receipt of rent supplement, he or she may engage in full-time employment, or where a person participates in a community employment or back to work scheme, he or she will continue to receive rent supplement if he or she has been accepted as being in need of accommodation under the rental accommodation scheme. This section also provides at Schedule 1 for the transfer of certain functions from the Health Service Executive to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, as recommended by the core functions of the health service report and as agreed by Government, and provides for a number of consequential amendments to existing provisions in the area of appeals, overpayments and recovery of overpayments arising from this. The section also provides for measures to preclude the payment of rent supplement where accommodation standards, as defined by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, are not met. In addition, the section contains the legislative provisions to preclude the payment of rent supplement in areas of regeneration, as identified by the same Department.
Section 28 provides for an increase in the amount of the annual respite care grant from €1,200 to €1,500 from June 2007. The section also provides for an enhancement of the scheme by providing that, subject to the conditions that may be prescribed, a person may engage in education and training and still qualify for the grant.
Section 29 clarifies the obligation of a claimant to provide the information and evidence required in support of a social welfare claim, and to inform the Department of any relevant change of circumstances in the course of payment. Section 30 outlines in legislation the five factors, based on European Court of Justice case law, that are taken into account when determining whether a claimant for certain social welfare schemes satisfies the habitual residence condition.
Section 31 provides for the exchange of relevant employment data between the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to facilitate the operation of the agency established under Towards 2016 with responsibility for ensuring employment rights compliance. Section 32 contains measures to further strengthen control in issuing personal public service numbers. They include increased penalties, enhanced identity measures and provisions to combat the use of fraudulent documentation.
Section 33 provides for the household budgeting scheme to encompass any telecommunications service provider which is registered with the Commission for Communications Regulation. Section 34 contains provisions for the inclusion of the managers and staff of social welfare branch offices in the categories of persons designated to decide claims for certain social welfare payments under the social welfare code. This measure is intended to facilitate improvement in claim processing times in branch offices by removing the current requirement to forward certain claims to social welfare local offices for decision.
Section 35 provides for an improvement in the means test applicable to disability allowance by increasing by €30,000, from €20,000 to €50,000, the amount of capital which is disregarded for the purposes of the means test. It also provides for some technical amendments to Schedule 3 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.
Section 36 provides a number of enhancements to the means test for entitlement to supplementary welfare allowance, including the disregard from means assessment of any moneys received by way of guardian's payments and respite care grant. This section also provides for the disregard, for rent supplement purposes, of €75 per week plus 25% of any additional income over €75 derived from employment or training, subject to a minimum disregard of €75 per week. This, together with the improvement in section 24, whereby a rent supplement recipient accepted for the rental accommodation scheme may engage in full-time employment, is aimed at supporting people returning to work and to assist tenants in achieving long-term solutions for their housing needs.
The main measures I am introducing in this Bill with regard to the Pensions Act will further enhance the regulatory regime governing supplementary pensions. Section 36 and Part 1 of Schedule 2 make provision for the inclusion of trust retirement annuity contracts — trust RACs — within the remit of the Pensions Act 1990. This is a requirement under Directive 2003/41/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 3 June 2003 on the activities and supervision of institutions for occupational retirement provision — the lORPs directive. This amendment to the Pensions Act applies only to trust RACs which currently have approximately 10,000 members. These are arrangements for groups of individuals established under trust, for example, the Law Society of Ireland or the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ireland. This amending provision treats trust RACs in a similar manner to that already provided for in the Pensions Act 1990 in respect of defined contribution occupational pension schemes.
Part 2 of Schedule 2 contains amendments to the Pensions Act to enhance the Pension Board's powers in the area of prosecution. Section 3A of the Pensions Act was inserted by section 39 of the Social Welfare Law Reform and Pensions Act 2006 to provide an alternative to the prosecution of an offence by the Pensions Board. It allows the board introduce an on-the-spot fine regime as an alternative to taking a prosecution. Section 3A is now amended to specify the sections of the Act, a contravention of which will warrant the application of an on-the-spot fine. Contraventions of the Act which are not specified under section 3A because they do not, in the board's view, meet the criteria for an on-the-spot fine will be considered for immediate prosecution by the board.
The Pensions Act is also amended to increase the level of fines for both summary and indictable offences under the Act from €1904.61 to €5,000 for a summary offence and from €12,697.38 to €25,000 for an indictable offence. It provides that fines imposed under the Act shall not be paid out of the resources of the scheme, trust RAC, or out of the assets of any PRSA, as the case may be.
Part 3 of Schedule 2 provides for a number of miscellaneous amendments which are mainly technical in nature, including the insertion of two new sections into the Pensions Act with regard to the accountability of the chief executive of the Pensions Board and the Pensions Ombudsman before the Committee of Public Accounts. This amendment is in compliance with the requirements of the Report of the Working Group on the Accountability of Secretaries General and Accounting Officers — the Mullarkey report.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Minister, I thank the Pensions Board for its help in drafting these amendments to the Pensions Act.
Section 38 amends the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to underpin the proposals in Towards 2016 for the Revenue Commissioners to transfer to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and the new office dedicated to employment rights compliance, information similar to that which the Revenue Commissioners will be empowered to transfer to the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
Section 39 and Schedule 3 amend the Combat Poverty Agency Act 1986 and the Family Support Agency Act 2001 to provide that the director and chief executive officer, respectively, of these agencies, which are under the Minister's remit, are accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts on the same basis as are the Accounting Officers of Departments, in line with the Mullarkey report.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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This Bill builds further on the development of social inclusion measures adopted by the 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. Resources will continue to be targeted at helping those most in need in order not alone to raise their standard of living but to ensure that everyone is a valued citizen who can make his or her own individual contribution to society regardless of his or her particular personal circumstances. However, while the significant social issues we face can be eased, they cannot be solved by welfare and support payments alone. It is vitally important that we do not view welfare solely as a panacea. That is why a one size fits all welfare system does not provide the answers. Welfare support systems must be tailored to the specific needs of individuals and should be seen as stepping stones to achieving a better quality of life.
The Bill is also about solid and fundamental structural reforms of welfare policies. It is about reforms that will modernise and make the welfare system fairer and deliver more enlightened social policy. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. His speech was very well read — 45 minutes is perhaps a record. That does not leave much time for the Members of the House to speak on Second Stage, but hopefully everybody who wants to speak will get the opportunity to do so.
The Bill is welcome. It is difficult to be critical of many of its provisions. It would be churlish of me to criticise the many good provisions which deliver benefits to many people. I welcome the increases in child benefit, maternity benefit and carer's benefit. The fact that a carer in receipt of another welfare benefit can now receive an additional payment up to half the rate of a carer's allowance is particularly welcome, as we have called for this over a long period.
I also welcome the increase in State pensions and thank the Minister for listening to what we have been saying in the House on the matter of qualified adult allowances. For several years I have called for that payment to be made directly to wives as giving it directly to husbands was inequitable and made it seem as if women were not entitled to receive a payment in their own right. I am glad the Minister has recognised that right. There is still provision for a woman to choose to allow the payment to be made to the husband, but I would prefer if the payment was given directly to women so as to leave no doubt that it is her payment. Some women could be left in difficulty where a husband receives the payment. I welcome, however, the progress that has been made.
Increases in child benefit, respite care grants and many other areas must be welcomed. However, the Government should not clap itself on the back for disbursement of taxpayers' moneys collected by the Government on benefits for those less well off, young children and older people. That is its job and it is only right these moneys should be well spent.
Despite our great economy, some people still live in poverty. It is sad that in the year 2007 and despite the Celtic tiger we still have children living in poverty. The Minister of State must also be aware we have a new poor, husbands and wives struggling to keep jobs and family together and to pay a mortgage. If we are to tackle the issues of low incomes and child poverty, the best way to do it is to educate and retrain parents. I wish to mention the Minister's proposals for lone parents in this regard.
The Minister has been good at commissioning reports, but we have not seen delivery of any of their findings or recommendations. Why has there not been more progress on proposals in respect of lone parents? Why has there not been progress on pensions? We have seen report after report from the Pensions Board and now we expect a Green Paper on the issue. The Minister did not grasp the nettle as I thought he would. I welcomed his appointment to the Department as I felt he would deliver in many areas. However, he has not delivered, particularly with regard to occupational pensions or for lone parents. I do not like some of the recommendations that compel lone parents to go back into the workplace, especially when there are no support services for them. The Minister soon may not be in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, at which point we hope to have a change of Government which will review many of these recommendations. We cannot force lone parents back to work unless we can provide local child care and flexible work practices for them.
The community employment schemes worked because they were flexible and provided child care. We should follow that model. Anyone who has worked on one of those schemes has been upset when the three years has ended because he or she has been trained into the job, has liked it and has found it difficult to get a job that provides child care and offers flexible working hours. Educating and retraining parents is the key to tackling child poverty and providing support services for children in schools, smaller class sizes and so on. This Government has not delivered on these services.
Child care is one of the many important issues for parents. The Government's action on child care has been inadequate. The money given for this service would scarcely pay one month's child care. Providing more places in the community has had little impact. While the Government has done a great deal, many areas remain that have not been adequately addressed after ten years of this coalition Government.
There are some amendments to this Bill which do nothing to address the issues I have highlighted in the House in recent years. I have been too soft on the Minister up to this point in the hope that he would deliver but now I want to criticise him. Sometimes he agreed with me but said things were difficult to do. It is coming to the end of his term in office, however, and he has not delivered for the people who paid into pension plans for years and who have either retired or are approaching retirement only to find their pensions worth very little. These people have deferred pensions with frozen benefits and have had their plans changed from defined benefit to defined contributions with charges and companies dipping into the pension funds.
I have asked the Minister to address these problems that have stretched back over decades but I cannot get answers. I hope that many of these issues will be addressed in the Green Paper but I will not hold my breath. I think there is a cover-up on many of these issues. I have been trying for almost ten years to get answers. I do not have time to list the number of occasions on which I have written to the Pensions Board and the Minister asking questions only to be told a study will be done or the answer will come shortly, which it never does. Why not? Why can I not be told how many people in the country have deferred pension benefits? Why has that question not been answered for ten years?
The Pensions Board appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs last November and Mr. Kennedy, the new chief executive, informed me he would have the answer at the end of January. Each month since then I have received a letter saying he cannot get this information because he does not have the power or authority to compel companies to give the information. Why did the Minister not give the Pensions Board the authority to compel companies to give that information? Why was an amendment not included in this legislation to get the information? There is a cover-up.
The Minister does not want that information to come into the public arena when he is trying to encourage young people to take out pensions. This is driven by the pensions industry, of which this Minister is a puppet. Why would any young person pay into a pension plan when he or she can see that his or her father or grandfather, forced by a company to pay into a plan, received nothing on retirement? I have heard the Minister say recently that we must get young people to take out pensions or what will we say to them when they come to retire and have little or no pension. How dare he say that when he cannot address the people who are retiring today with little or no pension, having paid into a plan.
There is a cover-up. This Government does not want the figure released. I would say the figure is well over 500,000, but I am only guessing because I am not in a position to give the figure and cannot get any kind of ball park figure from the Pensions Board or the Minister. Why? What is the Minister hiding?
It is important to recognise that as the Minister of State said:
This is the largest social welfare package in the history of the State at €1.41 billion, announced in last December's budget. This substantial investment brings total expenditure on social welfare this year to €15.3 billion, or almost €1 for every €3 of current Government expenditure.
One of the great things about being in our present situation is that it gives us an opportunity to look at not only the operational detail as we deliver this money but also the vision of what we want the social welfare system to do and its purpose.
I have a strong concern about section 6 amending the principal Act:
(b) by substituting the following section for section 50:
50.—Regulations may provide for disqualifying a woman for receiving maternity benefit where—
(a) during the period for which the benefit is payable, she engages in any form of insurable employment, insurable (occupational injuries) employment, insurable self-employment[.]
I may be interpreting the section incorrectly. I need clarification on this point. A woman may have two part-time jobs in one of which she is entitled to maternity benefit, but she may not be able to give up the second job for the full amount of maternity leave to which she is entitled from her first job. Are we are now saying that if a woman is entitled to maternity leave from one job, she cannot avail of it if, by choice, she continues to work in a second job?
Let me cite a further example based on my having spent three terms of pregnancy while a Member of this House, bearing in mind the circumstances that would obtain if I, as a Senator, did not earn enough money to allow me to have only one job. It is quite acceptable for people to say a man must earn a certain amount to support a family but women may also need to earn such an amount. No maternity leave is available in this House and I did not take mine. If I wanted to take the maternity leave to which I would be entitled on foot of another socially insured job — I have two jobs, for which I was paid during all my pregnancies and in respect of which I paid stamps — I could not do so because I would have no right not to be here according to the legislation. I have no mechanism to allow me to be absent from this House during maternity leave from another job.
If the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, tells me I am wrong, I will be a very happy lady and say the position as outlined is fair enough. I cannot believe section 6 proposes that we remove a woman's right to maternity benefit if, by choice, she holds two jobs. The concept of choice is important in this regard, bearing in mind the provision whereby a woman was once obliged to take four weeks of her leave before her baby was born, as was stipulated many years ago by the legislation, the EU or some man in the then Department of Social Welfare. This is a serious matter. If I am wrong, I will apologise for my misinterpretation, but if I am right I will table an amendment to delete section 6. It is inequitable because nobody should be forced to forfeit a right by virtue of her having two sources of employment. Maternity leave does not mean one is incapacitated from doing a second job for 24 hours per day and seven days per week. We have rights and entitlements.
Moving away from the issue of legislative technicalities, let us consider our vision for social welfare and its role in providing for and looking after those who need our assistance in a sustainable economy. Let us also refer to child care, as mentioned by Senator Terry. I do not understand why no Minister for Social and Family Affairs over the past ten years has outlined a vision to introduce paid parental leave within five years. Why not? Do we not believe it is important to allow a parent with a child under one to take time off without being forced, for financial reasons, to re-enter employment after her maternity leave is finished?
I recognise fully the changes made in respect of the maternity benefit. They are very welcome and necessary but we cannot stop there. Where is our vision for our children? My vision, under a Fianna Fáil Government or any other Government, be it led by Fine Gael or another party, would be to have parental leave available for either the father or mother in circumstances that would allow him or her make an economic choice to stay at home with his or her child. This choice would otherwise be impossible.
Let us think outside the box because we have sufficient time and the appropriate economic circumstances to do so. The carer's benefit allows people to take time out from work to work as carers. The Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social and Family Affairs should make a job sharer's benefit available and put in place facilities that allow women or men, but most likely women, to job share or engage in part-time work without losing entitlements. If one has a part-time job, one does not receive a social welfare top-up. If a person has a part-time job because he or she is looking after his or her two or three children at home, to whom he or she wants to devote time, surely the Department of Social and Family Affairs should look after him or her.
We need to think outside the box and consider what vision would best produce a society in which one could raise children properly and give them the best of everything, and which would allow parents to be parents rather than having them engage in a rat run requiring them to get up at 7 a.m., bundle their children into the car, come home at 7 p.m. and bundle the children into bed without knowing what is happening in their lives. This is not fair.
When I first entered this House in 1997, I drew attention to the need for social welfare recipients to receive carer's benefit. I said to the Minister on the previous occasion he spoke about social welfare that this benefit comprises the most significant reform recognising the role of women and allowing them to retain social welfare payments.
My vision also requires that the €1,000 universal child care payment be made available to all children under seven years and six months. Let us advance this vision every year. As we have said in the House that school-going children of six come home at 12.30 p.m., thus requiring one to make child care arrangements. Let us address this.
The Minister has made some changes regarding community welfare officers and the rent allowance. It is nice to be in the comfort zone such that we can talk about a particular vision we would like to see realised. As I stated previously, the rent allowance scheme is creating a landlord class and making property developers and owners increasingly rich every day.
What is the State getting out of this? We continue to provide reasons for private landlords to buy houses to rent, to give them facilities that are not really adequate and to encourage individuals to do all sorts of funny things with rent because there is a cap on how much money can be paid. This is not right. I acknowledge that there have been some changes to the scheme but one must ask why the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the local authorities are not buying houses and taking rent allowances to pay the mortgages? Why are we making landlords richer than they had ever imagined they would be? This is not acceptable and we ought to have a vision.
The Minister of State will be aware that there is a national emergency in Galway. He may not be aware that many families on the breadline, who do not have enough money most weeks to pay for their electricity, food and children's requirements, need to boil every single pint of water.
Consequently, they are being forced to buy their water, which costs 39 cent per litre. It is not only poor families on social welfare who are affected but also families in middle-income households who have been experiencing increases in mortgage repayments, child care fees and other inflation related increases every month.
I have four children. In this regard, has the Minister any concept of the number of litres of water used in a house every day for washing one's teeth and making one's tea and the porridge in the morning? It is a considerable amount and we therefore need to do something about the problem.
I am delighted to be joined by my colleague from Galway West, Deputy Fahey, because I know his interest in the issue is equally as deep as mine. If we do not give all the affected families, particularly those on social welfare, free water or vouchers to allow them to buy it in the supermarket, they will accumulate debts to live and avail of a basic human right. I made the point on the Order of Business that according to the World Health Organisation, clean, safe water is a guaranteed human right. I quoted Kofi Annan, who stated every person is entitled to clean, healthy water. Currently, 90,000 people in Galway do not have that. If that is not a state of national emergency, I do not know what is. As and from tomorrow morning, every social welfare recipient in the affected areas in County Galway should be given vouchers to allow them to get free water until a proper plan is put in place to deal with the problem. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.
Senator Cox has done an honour to this House by her courageous and clear speech. It is not easy to offer a direct and open critique of Government policy from the Government benches but this is what Seanad Éireann is all about. In her quite outstanding speech, Senator Cox clearly illustrated what the Seanad is for, namely, non-partisan debate. While some of what I will say later may appear to be partisan, I salute this kind of independence. It is very important. Senator Cox is quite correct about the question of maternity benefit.
I wish to return to a few other areas where the Government is giving with one hand and taking away with another. This kind of rather mean-minded accounting goes on in all Governments. It is not just a Fianna Fáil exercise, it is a Department of Finance exercise and it is pretty wretched. I listened and watched with delighted as the Minister of State, to paraphrase his final paragraph, tripped gaily over the stepping stones to a bright future. He was obviously afraid he would fall in because he did it all in slow motion. That is why we do not have quite as much time as we might otherwise have. On the other hand, it was a most interesting and provocative speech. I wish to turn to this speech before I address the two issues of particular interest.
There is an echo of Bertie's rabble-rousing speech out in Citywest. The Government will implement the largest social welfare package and all the rest of it, but when one examines the Bill closely, some troubling issues arise. I refer to support for lone parents, for example, and the expanded availability and range of educational opportunities. What about the fact that I and many other people have been deluged in recent years by ordinary members of the public, not constituents, who are concerned because owing to the nitpicking provisions that are included, they have been excluded from schemes such as the back to education allowance and the vocational training opportunities scheme? This is regrettable.
There is a lot of old bilge in the Bill in terms of the means test for job seeker's allowance. Reference was made to reflecting the changes in society. Like hell they reflect the changes in society. We are back again to this nonsense about spouses and how it is women who are usually in this role and all the rest of it. References to spouses and couples were sprinkled throughout the Minister's speech, yet we know perfectly well the Government, in the person of the previous Minister, Deputy Coughlan, operated to define people out of their rights. The Government is not talking about couples in the true sense. It should refer to heterosexual couples every time the word "couples" is used because gay people have been mean-mindedly defined out of the rights to which they are entitled under equality legislation.
A positive spin is put on the supplementary welfare allowance. This is one of the issues with which I am most concerned. The Minister of State referred to "an extension of the qualifying conditions and an easing of the rent supplement means test". The Government is going to "simplify the means test, so that a rent supplement recipient can judge the impact of an offer of work" and so and so forth.
Then we get on to the business of regenerated areas. It was stated:
This latter measure supports the State's significant investment on regeneration in areas such as Ballymun. The objective is to achieve a better balance between private, social and affordable housing.
I give a hollow laugh when I hear about affordable housing. We heard about it the other day when we discovered that to qualify for some of these affordable housing units, one has to have an income between €47,000 and €58,000. That is not very affordable. Then we have these inexplicable and opaque lotteries. They are the reverse of openness, transparency and accountability.
We then encountered this nasty little phrase, which we do not really understand. "In taking this approach, provision is made to protect existing tenants." What is meant by "protect"? I would like to know what lies beneath this expression. Who is being protected and what is the necessity for it? Towards the end of the speech some elucidation is given in the analysis of the sections. It was stated that section 25 includes measures "to preclude the payment of rent supplement in areas of regeneration, as identified by the Department" of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. In other words, these areas are too nice, too middle class and too clean to allow people on rent supplement. That is a nasty form of apartheid. It is snobbery and discrimination.
Those are my words but I received a pained response from Focus Ireland which made the point that this creates in primary legislation a legal mechanism which prohibits specific categories of people from living in certain areas. That can only be described as apartheid, but Focus Ireland is too polite to say it. This is a most regressive step. I would like the Minister to re-examine this matter. I would also like an explanation why the Department continues to use terms like "couples", "spouses", etc. when it does not mean couples in the broad sense. I am partisan on this issue because I deal with people who have been denied their rights. This is unjust and unfair.
I wish to return to Senator Cox's contribution. She referred to water pollution in Galway. A number of years ago, briefed by people in Trinity, I raised the issue of cryptospiridiosis. I could hardly spell it let alone pronounce it at that stage but I learned a certain amount about it. I also pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Henry. Over a number of years she has consistently raised the issue of the quality of water. It is an extraordinary irony that on World Water Day last week, we heard some of the most disastrous results arising from this pollution of the water. This is a serious situation and one person is critically ill in hospital.
Although there are some positive aspects to it, and the Government will put the best spin possible on it, we are charged in this House with prising open the lid on some of the less positive features of the Bill. I salute Senator Cox. I note she said she would table an amendment. I hope she does if she is not satisfied with the result. She raised a bit of a stink in the House last week when she said she would table an amendment. On this side of the House we were all hungry for that amendment so that we could vote on it and we could see which way Senator Cox would vote, but whichever way she does, it does not take away from the fact she is a courageous, intelligent woman who knew what she was speaking about on the Bill. She and Fianna Fáil did honour to this House by that exercise of freedom of speech which I now propose to hand over to my esteemed colleague, Senator Henry.
I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time with me. I, too, am grateful to Senator Cox for raising this issue. Last week, I raised the issue of the Environmental Protection Agency report on private water schemes. The pollution is worse now due to sewage than when I was first elected to the House 15 years ago. This is unbelievable. The outbreak of cryptosporidium in Galway is scandalous. Senator Cox referred to making porridge and tea but people are also advised not to bathe their babies in this water. What on earth are people on social welfare supposed to do to wash their children? How much water would one have to boil to wash children? This is just ridiculous and there seems to be no sense of emergency about it. I am disgusted by the response of the Government to this shocking issue. I see no sense of any desire to clean up the act. That is about all one can say about it.
Senator Cox also raised the important issue of what a poor example is provided by the Houses of the Oireachtas in terms of maternity leave. That should be investigated as a matter of urgency. The old chestnuts have arisen in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. Like everyone else, I am pleased with the improvements that have been made.
I always have been concerned about lone parents, being the patron of formerly Cherish, now One Family, but I hope the Minister will concentrate on those who are managing best rather than penalise those who are not managing very well. He should try to find out the reason they are not managing very well. Perhaps it is because they are carers to elderly parents as well as having children of their own or because they have had poor educational opportunities in the past. We can be sure it is due to lack of child care. We do not want children given anti-social behaviour orders because their mothers have to go out to work.
Section 6 struck me as rather amusing. I suppose it provides for an improvement in maternity benefits in that if the woman dies, they can be paid to the father in certain circumstances. However, subsection (b), paragraph (b) states that where "she [the woman] fails, without good cause, to attend for or to submit herself to any medical examination that may be required in accordance with regulations made under this section" the benefits will not be paid.
This morning I drew the attention of the House to the fact that it is now not possible for women in the Galway and Drogheda areas to get appointments for ante-natal care before they are 20 weeks pregnant. It is advised that one should go for this care at 12 to 14 weeks. Is it the woman's fault if she does not manage to attend before she is 20 weeks pregnant? This is interesting and I suggest the Department of Social and Family Affairs should address this matter with the Department of Health and Children because people may be disqualified before they are in a position to attend for ante-natal care.
Have any improvements been made in the mobility regulations for disabled people? I have been asking about matter this since I was elected to the House. The regulations are archaic and people who would like to work are being denied mobility allowances. I hope when replying the Minister will be able to tell me those regulations have been updated.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House and congratulate the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and his Department on their work in preparing this legislation. The Bill reflects the social changes of recent years because it brings the total Government expenditure on social welfare to €15.3 billion this year. That means that for every €3 spent by the State in current expenditure this year, almost €1 of it will go on social welfare payments.
There are many measures in the Bill that will rightly make a major difference to numerous sections of society but the area on which I want to concentrate is that of lone parent families and deserted wives. These issues can have a major impact on other areas of social welfare support. For example, it is well known that child poverty is particularly common among lone parent families. Nothing is more challenging than raising a family alone. Lone parents face one of the most difficult challenges one can expect in life. Thankfully, the measures in this Bill will help them.
Section 22 provides for an increase from €375 to €400 in the upper earnings limit for customers in receipt of one parent family payment. That increase will come into effect from May. This is one of the proposals contained in the discussion paper launched by the Minister on the topic of supporting lone parent families this time last year. The document contained other proposals that included the expansion of the availability and range of education and training opportunities available for lone parents. It also contained a proposal for the extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low income families with young children. That is one of the important areas because I have had many requests from lone parents who found themselves in difficulty but this Bill will make a major difference to their education.
Putting in place an education and training programme to lure lone parents back into education, once their children are in school, is a way of integrating them and giving them a standing in society. These are all valuable goals and the Department is well on the way to achieving them.
The proposed social assistance payment being developed by the Department will help provide the type of financial independence that will allow lone parents and other disadvantaged groups enter into the labour force. I would caution the Minister, however, that other areas, particularly child care, will need to be fully developed if lone parents are to take advantage of these opportunities. I am aware the Minister and the Department are working on the development of co-ordinated support with other relevant Departments and I hope that work will shortly reap dividends.
Lone parents must have the necessary supports. If we want to introduce all these extra measures for them we must have the infrastructure in place.
I thank Senator Ormonde and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House. The two Bills on social welfare have been welcome. In particular I welcome the point made by the Minister about the contributory pension having doubled since 1997. The State contributory pension has increased to €209 per week and the non-contributory to €200.
I welcome the fact that people in receipt of a small pension can now claim the half-rate carer's allowance, which is very relevant in the case of a widow or widower who is caring for a relative. In the past those people were told they could get only one pension, which was unfair, and the fact that they can claim half-rate carer's allowance is very welcome.
The carer's allowance is a good scheme and the income limits have been changed to allow a person earning €640 per week get the allowance. There is a problem with it, however, that I would like to bring to the Minister's attention. In the case of women, who usually do the caring, they get a letter from the Department every six months — it used to be every year — inquiring about their spouse's income. I am aware of a case where a woman was getting €120 per week carer's allowance, which is a fairly small rate, but following inquiries from the Department about the husband's income, the rate was reduced to €7 per week, which was a miserable rate. From 1 January this year it increased by €20 to €27 but the Department is again inquiring about the spouse's income. I am concerned this person might lose that €27. In such situations it is unfair that the Department is penny-pinching and inquiring about the spouse's income every six months. That aspect could be examined.
Given that people are living and working longer, I welcome the fact that they can now earn more without being taxed. I understand the figure was €20 some years ago but the Minister increased that by five times the amount in the 2006 budget. We are going in the right direction to allow people the freedom to earn additional income without being taxed, and I welcome that.
The increase in the qualified adult dependant allowance is welcome because it is an indication that the payment is being made as of right. The increase has been welcomed by those who in the past were regarded as the dependent spouse or partner. That increase is very much to the credit of the Minister and the Government.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sé taitneamh as an díospóireacht. B'fhéidir go ndéarfaí rud éigin fiúntach, cé go bhfuil sé déanach san oíche.
Among the more embarrassing records of this country is its level of child poverty. We were at the bottom of the table ten or 12 years ago when we were a poor country and we are still at the bottom of the table now that we are a rich country. We have among the highest levels of child poverty in the developed world, which dubious distinction we share with countries such as Greece and the United States of America. The inclusion of those two countries with ourselves shows that child poverty is not connected with the income of a country but with its politics and the way it decides to use its resources. We have decided, to a large extent, to subscribe to the usual nonsense that passes for economics in this country wherein it is believed that to get rich people to work harder we should give them more money but to get poor people to work harder we should give them less. We squeeze poor people's social welfare but dangle a carrot in front of the rich. The evidence from all serious studies is that neither policy works.
The only people who really believe in what are called the laws of economics are economists. An interesting series has just finished on BBC 2 which looked at the enormous damage done to humanity by the blind belief that human beings respond to economic stimuli with pathological irrationality and self-centredness, and only respond to rewards dangled in front of them. The programme concluded last Sunday with the findings of a major study of the concept of homo economicus — the notion that people act in crude economic self-interest — that the only groups to so behave were economists and psychopaths. According to the study, nobody except members of those two groups respond as expected.
However, we will be forced to respond as expected. The major economic textbooks put forward a view of how humanity behaves and state that, should people not behave in that way, society will try to force them do so. The ultimate view on child poverty depends on whether one thinks it is worthwhile. Countries that have addressed the problem properly, such as most of our neighbours in northern Europe, have eliminated or spectacularly reduced child poverty. It is achieved by reducing the number of families in which there are children at risk of poverty. It is easy to achieve but only if society wants to.
Increasing benefits in excess of the cost of living as reflected in the consumer price index is only a token effort. The consumer price index is a global figure but I have not seen a poor people's consumer price index, which is often completely different from the consumer price index for a person such as me. If Members look at the items in the index they will see an MP3 player but not broccoli or other basic food and vegetables. The average affluent family's budget is different from the average poor family's budget so, as the prices of basic items such as energy and waste rise, poor families spend a far greater proportion of their income than the CPI suggests. The increases, therefore, are not generous in the context of the consumer price index for poor families.
This year in Cork alone the local authority raised the charge for a bin tag from €5 to €6. Very poor families are entitled to a waiver but that is a rise of 20% and reminiscent of the sudden increase in excise duty and tax for which the former Minister for Finance, Richie Ryan, was denounced some 30 years ago. Waste and energy prices are shooting up and the failure to consider the costs to families of such necessities is why poverty is still endemic in this country. Instead, we look at a basket of items which people such as I, with a substantial amount of discretionary income, must buy. We then become sanctimonious about the poor, which is why our children live in poverty.
The way the Government has trumpeted its increases in pensions intrigues me. The increases are welcome but the focus has always been on the contributory old-age pension and the people in receipt of that pension have, by definition, been working. Pensioners who have worked for 40 or 50 years will be overwhelmingly male because most married women did not work for significant periods until perhaps 20 years ago. Accordingly, it is a pension which is generous to men and which, effectively, penalises women who, once their spouse dies, will go onto the non-contributory pension, and that has been increased less generously. It is, in fact, an assault on women's standard of living and women, as we all know, are more likely to end up in poverty than men, for a variety of reasons. They have the commitment of children, unlike men, who tend to walk away with considerable ease and too much generosity from the State.
I am glad Senator Norris raised an astonishing aspect of the Bill. Where did the idea come from not to allow rent allowance to be paid in areas of regeneration? I cannot imagine a more extraordinary decision. What is it about? Is it to ensure people who live in such areas do not smell or is it because they might be poor? If I were to wear my malicious hat, which I will probably put on in a minute, I would suggest the refusal to accept people on rental allowance is usually an indicator that a landlord is not up front with the taxman and that the decision is far more to do with taxation than poverty. Landlords do not want tenants on rent allowance because that creates a paper trail. If the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Revenue Commissioners were serious, every advertisement in every evening newspaper in Cork and Dublin which states "No rent allowance" would invite an immediate investigation. That is not the case, however, because only a small number of landlords have registered for tax and paid stamp duty on the property, as is required if a person is not an owner-occupier, and few have registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. We do not know how many people have not registered.
When I see the exclusion of rent allowance tenants from areas of regeneration, I smell a rat. I do not refer to the good and decent people who work in that Department but to the political attitude that we should not make life difficult for the risk takers who invest in property, which is the greatest nonsense ever. It is approximately 25 years since there was a risk involved in investing in property in Ireland. However, people still talk as if those who buy property for rental or other purposes are risk takers. There has not been a risk in investing in property since approximately 1987. It is the most extraordinary attitude.
The Department and the Government are extremely keen on prosecuting people who are found to be abusing social welfare, and I do not have a problem with that. However, they are slow to prosecute people who fiddle their taxes. That is not a reference to income tax but to the people who collect VAT from customers and keep it. That is theft. In the case of income tax, people are at least dealing with their legitimate income but if somebody collects tax or PRSI and does not pass it on, it is theft. These actions do not involve somebody resenting paying over their own money but people holding onto other people's money. The Revenue Commissioners, however, do not prosecute them.
I hope we are not seeing the beginning of a Fianna Fáil scam with social insurance. The country is awash with prophets of doom about a future pensions crisis and the idea that the social insurance fund would be reduced to win an election for Fianna Fáil, which is what this is about, is nothing short of disgraceful. It is as irresponsible as some of the promises that were made in 1977.
The debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill is always interesting, with each speaker bringing their own perspective to the policy making forum that is the Seanad. The Minister has on occasion taken on board some of the suggestions made in these debates. All of the contributions to today's debate were interesting. Social welfare is an area of public policy with which any public representative worth their salt is well attuned. Almost daily we hear from constituents about the various anomalies and blockages in the schemes which must be resolved. For that reason, it is important that the Minister listens and responds to Members in so far as he can.
Senator Ryan concluded his contribution with a reference to the social insurance fund and the recent commitment of one of the Government parties to reduce the amount of money paid into it. That broader debate should probably be held on another day but the subject is at the core of this debate. Without a sufficient insurance fund, we cannot respond to the needs of recipients of these schemes. I hope that the weekend's announcement, if it is more than simply a political ploy to win votes, has been thoroughly considered. Our constituents almost always refer to tax rates and will argue that taxation in general should be reduced, but people accept the fact that a sufficient social insurance fund is necessary to fund the various contributory schemes in place. I hope the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues will reflect again on this issue.
During these debates we tend to cover the broad spectrum of social welfare but on this occasion I wish to refer to a couple of the issues dealt with in the Bill. The increase in contributory pensions, which is welcome, gives rise to a number of issues concerning pension calculations which the Minister should address. The first relates to the contributory pension scheme for the self employed. Since 1988 self employed persons have been deemed eligible to pay social insurance. There is a ten year rule, whereby they qualify for a full contributory pension if ten years of contributions have been recorded. A partial pension, with a five year rule, was introduced for people who had paid contributions for eight or nine years but who did not qualify for a pension.
Many of my constituents who have paid social insurance for five to nine years make the argument, which is worthy of reflection, that a person who has paid six years social insurance should get a 60% pension, a seven year payment should result in a 70% pro rata pension and so forth. Perhaps the Minister would consider this issue. It is almost 20 years since the 1988 deadline and the vast majority of self employed people will get the full pension on retirement. The number of people in receipt of the 50% pension is reducing significantly, but they still are still there. I hope we can do something for the people who have paid six, seven or eight years' contributions but are at present receiving half the pension. They could, with a little good will, receive a higher rate.
There are also people who only paid social insurance for two or three years before they reached pension age. There will always be people who fall out of the net where rules and regulations are concerned but in this case there are hundreds rather than thousands of applicants involved. I hope we can do something for them.
My colleague, Senator Cummins, asked me to raise the pre-1953 contributions. There is a reduced rate of pension for pre-1953 contributors and Senator Cummins requested, on behalf of a number of constituents, that pre-1953 contributions should be taken into full account in the calculation of pension entitlements. That would require a change in legislation but, again, it involves only a small number of people. Perhaps the Minister will consider this suggestion.
Progress has been made with carer's allowance and carer's benefit, which is welcome. I particularly welcome the fact that, in a few months, the carer's allowance scheme will be extended to include carers who are also in receipt of a social welfare payment. Such carers will be allowed to receive half the carer's allowance as well. That is progress. Each year, however, I and many of my colleagues raise the means test calculation for the allowance. Serious consideration should be given to abolishing the means test for the carer's allowance. We should put a premium on care of the elderly.
There have been many debates about the standard of nursing homes, subvention rates, enhanced subvention and so forth. We must do the maximum amount, in both policy and financial terms, to allow people to remain in their own homes and communities. The carer's allowance has a key role in this regard. In a country and economy that is awash with money, the means test for carer's allowance should be abolished. Every person who is providing full-time care for a family member, neighbour or any other eligible person should be given the full carer's allowance.
I welcome the progress on separate payment of adult dependant payments. My colleague, Senator Terry, has spoken many times on this issue and I welcome the Government's decision. However, another issue related to means testing deserves attention. The income disregard for a social welfare applicant, where their spouse is in receipt of a reasonable wage, means that the social welfare applicant is unlikely to receive any means tested social welfare due to his or her spouse's income. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, gave a commitment to consider the issue of income disregard for the spouse of a social welfare claimant. I would hope we would see some progress. If progress has been made already, I have not fully understood it. I would welcome it if any improvement in income disregard has been made.
Overall this is another step in the right direction. I was going to say another step forward, but that phrase——
A lot done, more to do, next steps. Let us hope it is not a step backwards. While the Bill represents progress, many schemes need attention. If I had a magic wand I would address the carer's allowance and the abolition of the means test.
A number of issues were raised. The Green Paper on pensions, as mentioned by Senator Terry, will outline the many policy choices and challenges we face in the pensions area. The Green Paper will be finalised in the coming weeks and published thereafter. The Senator asked for information on deferred members of occupational pension schemes who did not qualify for the preservation and revaluation of their pension rights under the Pensions Act. The issue has been discussed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs in the past and the Pensions Board is finalising a survey of occupational pensions with at least 1,000 active members seeking information on their deferred members. The board has received the co-operation of the organisations surveyed and will be in a position to give the results of the survey to the joint committee by the end of the month. The proposals on lone parents are still awaited. On the question of the qualified adult allowance entitlement, the Bill contains provisions to pay the qualified adult allowance of State pensions directly to the qualified adult. It is expected that some 2,000 qualified adults will benefit from this arrangement in 2007 and 6,000 annually thereafter.
On the issues raised by Senator Cox just after I came into the Chamber, there is grave concern in Galway about the condition of the water which must be addressed in a co-ordinated way by the agencies involved, supported by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I take the point that people are spending huge sums of money on bottled water in Galway and I will bring to the attention of the Minister the points about giving support to people on social welfare. However, the HSE and the city council have been very adamant that water that is boiled is safe to drink and we must accept that as being the case.
Senator Ryan mentioned rent supplement. It is particularly important to protect the State's significant investment in areas of regeneration as well as achieving the objective of sustainable community through regeneration measures. The Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, indicated during the Report Stage debate on this Bill that this provision is to assist local authorities in achieving a social mix. In the past we built vast local authority housing estates and high-rise developments with no social mix. Today the aim of regeneration projects is to provide a mixture of private, social, affordable and voluntary housing. If we were to allow rent supplement for these private units it would undermine the efforts to achieve the desired social mix.
Senator Ryan also raised the issue of child poverty. The Government remains particularly committed to taking swift and decisive action on child poverty. Our policies have resulted in some 100,000 children being lifted from poverty in the past decade, based on the consistent poverty measure. The 2007 budget included an overall package of €240 million in a range of measures to combat child poverty, increasing child benefit by €10 to at least €160 a month, while three levels of child dependant allowances payments have been combined into a new single high-rate qualified child allowance of €22 per week. The budget also detailed significant improvements in the schemes aimed at families, including improvements in the family income supplement, a 50% increase in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, further funding for the school meals programme and a higher earnings limit for one-parent families.
Senator Norris spoke about rent supplement. In July 2004 the Government introduced new rental assistance arrangements giving local authorities specific responsibility for meeting the longer-term housing needs of people receiving rent supplement for 18 months or more on a phased implementation basis. The rental assistance arrangements also cater for new applicants for rent supplement and people who have been receiving rent supplement for less than 18 months provided the local authority is satisfied they have long-term housing needs. These people will be eligible for some form of assistance from their local authority under the scheme, whether it is contracted rental accommodation, voluntary housing or a local authority house. When fully operational local authorities will meet the housing needs of these individuals through a range of approaches, including the traditional range of social housing options, the voluntary housing sector and in particular a new public private partnership rental-type accommodation scheme. These arrangements are intended to be long-term housing options for the people concerned.
Senator Bradford spoke about carers and caring. I agree entirely with what he said. An improvement is taking place regarding carers. I will certainly bring his comments to the attention of the Minister. I thank Senators from both sides of the House for their constructive contributions to the debate. Some further issues raised will be replied to directly.
On a point of order, I wish to ensure the record is correct. The survey being carried out by the Pensions Board is not a survey of 1,000 members — the officials may be clear on that. It is a survey of 55 schemes each of which has more than 1,000 members.
I would like the Minister of State to give me an undertaking regarding the anomaly in section 50 which I raised. I have a better understanding of it having talked to the officials. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, should be made aware of the issue and we should deal with it on Committee Stage tomorrow.