Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007: Committee Stage

 

NEW SECTIONS.

1:00 pm

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this benefit to all Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the extension of child benefit to all children in the State.".

I welcome the Minister to the House. This amendment refers to approximately 1,600 children of asylum seekers in receipt of direct provision. I understand the legislation we passed a few years ago provided that people who come to this country seeking asylum are not entitled to social welfare benefits. I can understand the reasoning behind the legislation, which had its effect of making it less attractive for certain people to come here. On the other hand some families are living in direct provision, getting a few euro each week. I accept they get their lodgings and food. However, my concern and that of people who deal with children in poverty is that the children of these families are living in poverty. How can a parent of a family in receipt of direct provision getting approximately €10 per week buy shoes or clothes for children, or give them an occasional little treat? I am sure it is not even for treats but simply to provide them the essentials.

Some of these families will eventually be granted asylum and will continue to live here. However, I am concerned at what damage it is doing to the children in the meantime. Is there any way to cater for the small number of children involved without greatly upsetting the provisions in the legislation in order to ensure that children will not go without the necessities and that we do not deny them treats that they would need. That treat might include activities that would be of benefit to them, for example allowing them to come into town for a day or go to see a movie. People do not have the money for such matters. I believe we are discriminating against children and it may have an adverse effect. We should be able to include all children and treat them equally, particularly given that such a small group is involved.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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As the Senator knows, child benefit is paid to the qualified person with whom the child resides. Since 1 May 2004 the qualified person must satisfy the habitual residence condition. The requirement was introduced in the context of the Government's decision to open the labour market to workers from the ten EU member states that acceded at that time without the transitional limitations. As we were one of only three member states to open our markets in 2004, it was necessary to build in some protections to our systems. The effect of that condition is that a person whose habitual residence is elsewhere does not receive social welfare payment on arrival in Ireland. From 1 May 2004 until 31 January 2007, the number of child benefit claims that required particular examination of the habitual residence condition was 16,092. Of these only 1,557, less than 10%, were disallowed.

Those who are refused child benefit are mainly persons whose claim to asylum has not yet been decided — I suspect these are the people the Senator has in mind — who do not have a work permit, or who have only a minimal attachment to the workforce here. The habitual residence condition is achieving its intended purpose. It is allowing access to our social welfare system to those who are genuinely and lawfully making Ireland their place of habitual residence. At the same time it is preventing unwanted access by persons with little or no connection with the State. Obviously the State must strike a fine balance in that regard. The legislation specifies five factors in determining what constitutes habitual residence. These include the length and continuity of residence, employment prospects, reasons for coming to Ireland, future intentions and the person's centre of interest, for example their family or home connections.

Asylum seekers come under a different area and it is important to distinguish between the two. The Refugee Appeals Tribunal provided the following figures. Some 933 asylum seekers are awaiting initial decision and 2,669 asylum seekers are appealing their refusal. The number of appeals refused and awaiting final decision on application to the Minister for leave to remain has not yet been determined. On 28 March 2007 there were 5,724 asylum seekers in direct provision, comprising 4,014 adults and 1,710 children. The cost of that direct provision in 2006 was €78.7 million. As I said on Committee Stage in the Dáil, I am anxious to do everything we can to ensure that no child in our jurisdiction is in any way deprived of support. Asylum seekers are directly provided for. That direct provision is designed to support child and adult asylum seekers. The others who are here come under the scope of the habitual residence legislation and only 10% of those who required examination under that provision were disallowed between May 2004 and January 2007. The number of child benefit claims that required examination under the habitual residence condition was 16,092. I am satisfied the balance is right between extending the benefits of our welfare system to as many people as require it and protecting the Irish taxpayer in so far as possible. It always will be a case of balance, but given that, unlike most other countries, we opened our country in 2004, it is certainly a policy we are duty bound to pursue.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. I should have made the point that I understand the difference between those to whom the habitual residence condition would apply and asylum seekers. I apologise for not making this clear.

All I can say to the Minister is that we should keep a close eye on this. The amendment suggests that a report be laid before the House within three months. I know this will probably not happen either, but it is something on which we need to keep a close eye to ensure the rules we make which have an impact on people do not have an adverse impact on children, particularly since it concerns a small and, presumably, dwindling number. I will not press the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of a second-tier, employment-neutral, child income support payments to target child poverty levels.".

This amendment asks that a report on the introduction of second-tier, employment-neutral, child income support payments to target child poverty levels be laid before the House. I accept that much has been done to combat child poverty. Unfortunately, children from low-income families still live in poverty. We need to do more, despite the good work done by the Minister in targeting low-income families.

We need to introduce the special second-tier payment for families on very low incomes. As I said earlier, I do not believe any taxpayer would object to ensuring that children do not go to bed without food in their stomachs or go to school without a breakfast. The latter issue was raised here this morning. It appears it is not just children from poor families who go to school without a breakfast, but this is another issue that probably concerns parenting. Some children go to school without a breakfast, go to bed hungry and do not get a new school coat or pair of shoes when they are needed. These are the families we need to target with this second-tier payment.

I accept the new qualified child allowance has been established to target the poorest children. I would like to hear the Minister's comments about the introduction of this second-tier payment, which has been discussed for some time at the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and in this House.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. If even one child in this country lives in any kind of poverty, it shames us all. Progress must be made to ensure this cannot continue. I have said many times that it is unacceptable in the 21st century that even one child should live in any kind of poverty in a country whose economy grew last year by 7%, the highest rate in almost any developed country in the world. This was an astronomical rate of economic growth and progress and it behoves us to channel and target funds. This is why, in the budget, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, and I specifically targeted income support costing more than €240 million to benefit children in low-income families and families on social welfare. This is why we dramatically improved the old child dependant allowance, which Senator Terry rightly notes is now called the qualified child allowance, and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and channelled resources to low-income families in particular.

We could have increased child benefit across the board. Instead, we specifically targeted additional funds of more than €60 million at the lowest one third of children in terms of income. This was the first time in 12 years this shift happened and it is one which I believe is required.

I am fully committed to a second-tier payment. The National Economic and Social Council has been examining this for a long time and has told me it is very complicated and complex because there are poverty traps, points at which one comes in and out of the system and disincentives which can be built into it. I decided not to wait for this process to be completed. Instead, the Minister for Finance and I decided to channel approximately €60 million at the lowest one third of children in terms of income. Instead of introducing an across-the-board increase in child benefit, which has been the pattern for 12 years and did much good work, I felt strongly that the time had come to say it was not necessary to go all the way across the board with those funds and that we should target a disproportionate amount of them at the lowest one third of children on that ladder. This began in January of this year. It is not something that has been committed; it is working and those funds are being paid weekly to those families.

As the Senator knows, we have increased family income supplement thresholds dramatically. The family income supplement scheme provides a considerable amount of funds for low-income families. We have substantially increased the thresholds this year. As I am sure the Senator is aware, we have undertaken a promotion campaign to encourage more people to apply for that payment and, consequently, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of people applying. At present, 21,000 families are in receipt of family income supplement, which benefits 43,000 children.

Child poverty is predominantly located in the overlap between the lone parents allowance and family income supplement. This is why we specifically targeted the thresholds, the family income supplement incomes and did not increase child benefit across the board. While some of the increases were implemented across the board, we targeted a substantial amount of funds at the bottom rate.

In budget 2007, the old three child dependant allowance rates were increased and consolidated into one rate of €22. This represents a more selective approach to child income support, targets poorer households and, at the same time, limits the extent to which employment incentives are worsened.

Incidentally, child benefit is paid to more than 560,000 families in respect of approximately 1.1 million children. I do not disagree with the Senator's analysis, except to indicate that whoever has the responsibility of Government or the responsibility of having been elected to this or the other House must ensure resources and funds are channelled into areas where they can make a difference to the lives of people rather than being spread too thinly across the board. This is what the Minister for Finance and I did in the recent budget and this work must continue.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I agree with much of what the Minister said and look forward to the next phase when second-tier payments are made. I hope we will see progress in that regard, perhaps in the coming budget. Obviously, we must wait and see who will be in charge then, but whoever is should continue this trend in the next budget. As the Minister said, no child should go hungry or be without appropriate clothing, although we know that happens. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, for instance, could say how many families on low incomes are struggling to put food on the table. Sometimes it is not just about money but about training people how to manage their budgets. Far be it from me to try to tell anyone how to do so when they are dealing with a very small amount to start with. If they have children, it can cost a lot more nowadays, especially given the price of food. The quality of food children eat is also an important issue. More work needs to be done in this area and I look forward to progress being made in the next budget.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of direct payment of the qualified adult allowance to all qualified adults.".

I compliment the Minister on the changes that were brought about in the budget as a result of his work in this area. We had called on him to address the situation of people in receipt of State pensions, especially women. We all felt it was grossly unfair that they did not receive such payments in their own right. I welcome the fact that that has now been brought about. My only concern is that there is still a little opt out clause whereby people can choose to have the payment made jointly or to somebody else. My concern is that where there is a way out, it may still be difficult for some people to be strong enough to say that they want this payment made directly to them. I would like to see that copperfastened to ensure that no individual — this concerns mostly older women — will be intimidated or otherwise put in a situation where they would not get this payment directly into their own hands. I compliment the Minister on taking this matter on board and correcting the anomaly.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for those kind comments. I suppose that in everything one does, one would prefer to go further but I acknowledge the generosity of her remarks. I have announced significant improvements in the rate of State pensions for qualified adults as well as important changes in the way these payments will be made. I am also committed to improving the rate for qualified adults to bring them up to the rate of the non-contributory State pension over a three-year period. The changes will involve amending the existing arrangements to provide that in the case of new claimants to the State pension scheme, the qualified adults increase will be paid directly to the qualified adult, as the Senator said. Customers who wish to be paid their pension jointly will continue to be facilitated. I note the Senator's comments about leaving some gaps for people to opt out. The revised arrangements will apply to all new applicants to the State pension scheme with effect from 24 September 2007.

The position regarding payments to people of working age is a little less straightforward, and a separate payment may not be appropriate in certain schemes. It is open to dependent spouses or parents to claim payments, such as the job seeker's allowance, in their own right, subject to satisfying means and other conditions. The decision announced in the budget, which is provided for in this Bill, applies to the State pension contributory, State pension transition, and State pension non-contributory. There is no decision yet to extend direct payment to other schemes at this point, but the matter is being examined by the Department.

Senator Terry and I have had many discussions in the House. I know the view has been expressed many times about the importance of the welfare system being fairer to women. Over the past two years, I have formed the view that that was not the case. That is why we have made dramatic changes in a range of areas, including for lone parents who can now earn up to €400 without their allowance being affected. That starts the process of freeing up lone parents and liberating other areas as well.

It is important to continue to drive forward this type of work. It will take some years to reach the point on pensions or in other areas where women are treated as well and as generously in the welfare system. We have a range of issues concerning marriage bars, averaging stamps, or contributions as they are now called, work records, and the home maker's allowance. Every time I meet women's group, their representatives impress upon me all the gaps that can appear in their contribution systems because they have other duties. The forthcoming Green Paper on pensions, to be published in mid-April, will examine some of those issues. We will see then if suggestions are forthcoming to develop some of those issues, especially in the contributory and non-contributory pension area. This move is a useful first step in that, from September, such payments will be made directly.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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My point concerned a loophole whereby someone might be put under pressure to leave the payment in joint names. Does the Minister see any benefit in closing off that loophole?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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From September, new applicants will automatically be paid separately.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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However, they can opt not to take it in their own name.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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If they come forward together and demand a joint payment, I do not think we could refuse that. Under the default system, two payments will normally be made. If somebody officially contacts us and says they want to continue joint payments, we would have to facilitate such a request.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Maybe the situation is not quite as bad as I thought. Is the Minister saying that the two payments will be made automatically as and from September?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Yes.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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So they would have to go to the trouble of applying to have it changed.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Yes.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Okay. I accept that as it is clearer.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 4:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the progress to date in replacing the One Parent Family Payment with the new parental allowance for all low income families.".

We are targeting one-parent families, which are those most at risk. It is not always necessarily the case that a single-parent family would be more at risk than a low-income family with both parents. However, we have generally found that the former category is most at risk. I therefore ask the Minister to provide an update on the progress that has been made on the new parental allowance.

3:00 pm

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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As the Senator is probably aware, last year's Government discussion paper, which I think we discussed in this House, was entitled Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents. It contained proposals for an expanded availability and range of education and training opportunities for lone parents. It recommended the extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents, focusing on the provision of child care in particular as well as on providing improved information services for lone parents, and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low-income families with young children. That discussion document also proposed the abolition of the cohabitation rule as a condition for receipt of the proposed new social assistance payment. The Senator will recall that one of the document's proposals was that the upper income limit for the new payment, instead of the lone parent payment, should be set at €400 per week. In the 2006 budget, the Minister for Finance and I increased the upper income limit on the one-parent family payment from €293 to €375 per week, and in the recent budget we completed this process by bringing the limit to €400 per week. Provision for this is contained in this legislation. This is a commitment towards the recommendations in the report.

The new payment that has been developed by officials in the Department will have the long-term aim of assisting people to achieve financial independence by supporting them to enter employment. It will replace the lone parent payment and will be based on low-income families, irrespective of their make-up. Whether children reside in low- income families that consist of two or more people will be irrelevant. The only measure will be that the children are part of a low-income family. Work in this regard is progressing well and the development of legislation is being prioritised in the Department.

The various groups involved asked me to ensure that when we progress with this new legislation, we move in parallel on other issues such as child care, health care provision, education and training provision, and so on. They wanted these other areas to be addressed simultaneously so there will be integration and joined-up Government when all this clicks into place. We agreed to this, and the senior officials group on social inclusion has been instructed to draw up an implementation plan and is doing so.

In the meantime, the Department, with the co-operation of FÁS, the Office of the Minister for Children and the Department of Education and Science, has agreed with the Government that the proposals should be tested in urban and rural settings. The tests will focus on identifying and resolving the practical and administrative issues that may arise in advance of the scheme being introduced and will allow for logistical and operational co-ordination to be planned.

Deputy Penrose rightly pointed out in the Dáil that when we introduce this legislation, we must be certain it does not create unintended welfare or poverty gaps. A way to ensure this is to press ahead with these tests in urban and rural settings with the results informing the finalisation of the drafting of the legislation.

I am disappointed that I could not have brought this legislation before the House sooner but it is too important to be rushed to meet political deadlines. Many years of good work were spent on the preparation of the report by the social inclusion committee, officials of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Combat Poverty Agency and all the agencies, and a senior officials group is now driving it ahead. This fundamental reform will see legislation in the course of 2007 and whoever has the honour to serve in Government will press ahead with it. Pending that legislation, we have made substantial progress by moving to the limit of €400 recommended in the report that permits lone parents to engage in employment and training and to develop quality employment for themselves.

We have come some distance on this matter and thanks to Opposition parties and the media, this did not turn into a political football, as is possible in the sensitive area of lone parents. I am convinced this legislation will be passed by both Houses in due course. In the meantime, we have made solid changes in the recent budget that help lone parents greatly.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his response and share his regret that he was not able to act more quickly on many of the good recommendations included in the lone parents proposals document published in February 2006. I understand what the Minister has said and realise that much work must be done across a number of Departments to ensure we get this right. We are dealing with a critical area and I compliment the Minister on the action he has taken in trying to help lone parent families in poverty and on accepting that the best way to remove people from poverty is through education and retraining.

The crux of the issue lies in deciding how to ensure we educate and retrain people to a standard that will make working worthwhile. There is no point pushing people out to work if the income they receive is not sufficient to lift them from poverty. Too often we hear adults saying that working is not worthwhile by the time transport to and from work, the cost of child care and suitable work clothing are taken into account. There are many costs associated with going out to work and we must ensure the level of education and retraining people receive is of a high standard. This may take a number of years.

The majority of the people in question may not have a leaving certificate and that is where we need to start on this issue. The process could take years of re-education through school and proper training to ensure work is made worthwhile. This will have a knock-on effect on the children of people being re-educated.

We must be careful about forcing people out to work, even when their children are as young as eight years of age. The type of work people receive is important and, as I mentioned yesterday, we must examine the community employment, CE, model and how it has worked well for many people. Some of this work does not qualify participants for much at the end of three years but it tends to be local work with flexible hours and nearby child care facilities, which cuts down on transport costs. Finding child care before and after school and during holiday periods can create huge difficulties for people going back to work.

There are many aspects to this issue that require time and examination and I understand that this is why the legislation has been slow to come before us. We must not force people back into the workplace if they are not ready. It is up to us to put the facilities and mechanisms in place to ensure people can achieve a certain standard of education and training. This will enable people to obtain a high standard of job that will provide a decent income.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to be here today because I spoke on this area relating to lone parents on Second Stage last night and was very concerned. This Bill reflects society's position on how to approach the issue of lone parents. We have started to establish infrastructure for co-ordination between various Departments. The Department of Education and Science has made reasonable progress in this regard through home-school links, remedial teachers and programmes such as the vocational training opportunities scheme and Youthreach. Communities and schools have a major role to play in assisting lone parents to re-enter the education system because many of them lack the self-esteem needed to do so.

I hope the Department of Social and Family Affairs will establish infrastructure to help lone parents. Child care, for example, needs to be tightened up because lone parents will argue they cannot return to education due to the shortage of childminders. I have a special interest in lone parents dating back to a previous employment when I dealt with many disadvantaged lone parents. As the Minister indicated, some tightening up remains to be done. I ask him to comment.

I did not discuss every aspect of the legislation on Second Stage because it would have taken me half the evening to do so. It is a great Bill, which has many good provisions, tackles a series of problems and reflects the nature of society. I wish the Minister well with it.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their comments on the section. I read carefully Senator Ormonde's contribution on the Second Stage debate and noted her emphasis on the need to put in place integrated education and training programmes.

The purpose of the reforms is to ensure people have a choice because until now many lone parents have not had choices. This has left bright young people trapped and unable to see a way out of their predicament. The way out for them is to acquire education, training, skills and income while, at the same time, caring for and supporting their child or children. This formula lies at the heart of my reforms and has been applied over two budgets. Once the reforms are complete, the designation of "one parent family" will no longer be used. Instead, payment will be targeted solely at families on low incomes, irrespective of whether they are headed by a married or cohabiting couple or a single parent. As Senators will be aware, I have always believed that focusing on family arrangements is out of date in terms of 21st century social policy. We are making good progress and we will reach our destination. I thank Senators Ormonde and Terry for their comments on lone parents.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 5:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this targeted supports Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of targeted social and community supports for young carers.".

As the Minister will be aware, a sizeable number of young people act as carers and do vital work in their families. Does the national carer's strategy include proposals to help young people who perform this role? While canvassing in their constituencies politicians encounter young persons, often teenagers, who act as a parent to younger siblings or look after a parent who may have a disability. As the Bill does not make any provision for this group, has the Minister suggested that the national carer's strategy group recommend the provision of additional home help or other useful measures?

Some children miss out on education and do not attend school every day due to problems at home or because they are needed to care for a sick relative, usually a parent. Young children in this position need assistance. Their education and social life should not suffer on account of the work they must do or the demands placed on them by their families. How will the national carer's strategy deal with this group? What progress has been made on the strategy?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Discussions are taking place between Departments to progress the national carer's strategy. One of the key Government commitments in the national partnership agreement, Towards 2016, is the development of a national carer's strategy which will focus on supporting informal and family carers in the community. While social welfare support is a key element of the strategy, other issues also arise, including access to respite and other services, education, training and employment, all of which will feature strongly in the strategy. Significant interdepartmental co-operation and discussions are taking place to determine if we can make urgent progress on the strategy.

I had planned to establish a forum for carers in the coming weeks to commence the national carer's strategy. However, Deputy Stanton, speaking in the Other House, proposed that I agree to a postponement because the forum could be affected by political timescales. Having considered his proposal, I have agreed not to proceed with it. I hope carers will not misinterpret my decision as indicating a lack of support because the opposite is this case. The purpose of the postponement is to ensure we do not embroil carers in political controversy.

The Government has made great strides in respect of carers in recent budgets. I am particularly proud to have changed the age-old rule that a person in receipt of a carer's payment was not eligible for any other social welfare payment. This meant that carers could receive only one payment. Following the change, carers may retain their social welfare payment and receive carer's allowance at half rate. This is a major advance which can be worth up to €100 per week. A consistent complaint from those on welfare who wanted to provide care was that they would lose their welfare payment if they chose to act as a carer, although they may have been eligible for a carer's payment. Under the new rules such persons will receive one and a half payments. This is a major step forward as it recognises the work done by those who provide care.

I pay tribute to my opposite number in the Other House, Deputy Stanton. Since I took office some two and a half years ago, he has regularly brought to my attention the issue of younger carers. While we have not been able to see eye to eye on the issue, I hope it will be addressed in the national carer's strategy and I will request that the group endeavour to make further progress in this area.

Towards 2016 committed the Government to undertake a study of the extent to which children undertake inappropriate care roles in order to establish the degree to which the practice arises and the level of impact it has on the lives of children concerned. The partnership agreement further states that, based on the outcome of the study and an analysis of the issues identified, a programme of in-home supports will be developed to alleviate specific problem areas identified for children. This provision is in line with the report, Caring Before Their Time? Research and Policy Perspective on Young Carers, published by Barnardos at the Children's Research Centre in September 2004.

This report considered that further research would be undertaken on the number of young carers, the supports available to them, their needs and the impact of their caring role on their education and general development. The report found that of an estimated 3,000 young carers who were providing some care, there were over 300 carers between the ages of 15 and 17 who it was estimated were providing full-time care. Special help, advice and support are essential for people like this, who are often caring for a parent, as well as particular services which should be put in place to support the household and ensure young carers can remain at school. These include the home help and public health nurse services and home care packages generally. The HSE would also be involved.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Is it 300 or 3,000?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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It is 300. The report found that of an estimated 3,000 young carers who were providing some care, there were over 300 between the ages of 15 and 17 who were providing full-time care. It is obviously a bit of both.

In terms of income support for young carers, the respite care grant is payable from the age of 16 and the carer's allowance is payable from the age of 18. Deputy Stanton and I have debated this issue over the years. People of this age should not have to do this kind of work. If one is aged 15 to 17, one's place is in school and one should not be sucked into this situation. However, in the real world, there are 300 carers who have been sucked into it.

Successive Ministers took the view that if a carer's allowance is paid to a 15 year old, this does not solve the problem. It arguably makes it worse because it enables the 15 year old to continue to do the caring when the solution is to ensure the 15 year old does not have to do it by developing home help, home care and public health nurse services, and home care packages and support so the 15 year old can go to school. Many of the 3,000 involved are caring after school, in the evening and at weekends, which is why the respite care grant is paid from the age of 16.

I will recommend strongly to the national carer's strategy process that it would address this issue with some vigour because it is not fair to the persons being cared for or those doing the caring to find even 300 people in this situation.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I agree with the Minister that we need to address this problem. To have 3,000 people caring for so many hours of the week and to have 300 caring full time is unacceptable. No child should have to do this and give up his or her education and social life. The children who do this are wonderful, but that is what they are in this context — children. We are depriving them of an awful lot. This could be easily solved by providing services to the family in terms of home help and whatever other services they require to enable children to have the freedom to attend school, get out to play and do the things any normal teenager would be doing.

Nothing is easy but this is not a difficult area to resolve for 300 families. When the strategy is put in place, I hope the matter will be quickly dealt with. We should not let another year pass in which any child must stay at home to look after a parent. I agree with the Minister's sentiments and would like to see progress made.

I hope the carers will not be disappointed that the forum is being postponed, which is a good idea. I am sure they will be understanding of the reasoning behind this.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 6:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the impact of the individualisation of the means-test for Carers Allowance applicants.".

We have probably covered this ground in referring to carers. In this context, I will assume a carer is not a child but an adult who is caring for a young child with a disability or an elderly parent. The work carers do is fantastic but they had not been given the recognition they deserved over the years until recently. I recognise the benefits the Minister brought to many carers by improving the carer's grant, increasing the respite grant and making it easier for people to receive a grant or the carer's allowance.

We want to ensure that anybody who is caring gets the allowance. It is usually a woman who gives up work to care for somebody, although this is not always the case and I recognise there are men who also do this work. Anybody, regardless of gender, who gives of their time to care for somebody should not in any way be discriminated against in terms of getting whatever benefit is available to them.

I welcome the fact somebody who is in receipt of a welfare payment will now get half of the carer's benefit, which is great progress and a measure for which we have called. I credit the Minister with bringing this about.

Perhaps there is no need to emphasise the role of carers as we recognise the work they do and the money they save the State. We know that people, particularly older people, are much better off in their own homes than in nursing homes. Wherever possible, if somebody can be accommodated and looked after at home, and given all the services that person needs to stay at home, this must be supported. I hope nobody would be denied a carer's benefit or allowance because of a means test. I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I compliment the Minister and his officials on the improvements that have taken place for carers. I also compliment those who take on the role of carer, which results in a tremendous saving for the State. Many thousands do valuable caring work and claim nothing whatever. They put themselves out at great financial cost simply because of the needs of a relative.

Senator Terry referred to the introduction of the measure whereby those on social welfare payment will receive half of the carer's payment. This has been well received and great credit is due to the Department and the carers involved. We recognise that carers' organisations are very active and have put much pressure on politicians to ensure the situation for carers is improved.

Carers carry out magnificent and worthwhile work, often on a voluntary basis and in many cases on behalf of people who are not related to them. Great credit is due to them. I compliment the Minister on the improvements he has made.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank both Senators for their comments. The means test has been eased significantly in the past few years, particularly with the introduction of the disregard of the spouse's earnings. Provision was made in the recent budget to increase the income disregard on the carer's allowance means test to €320 per week for a single person and €640 per week for a couple from April 2007. This means a couple with two children can earn in the region of €36,000 per annum and still receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance. The same couple will be able to earn just over €57,500 and receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance, as well as free travel, the household benefits package and the respite care grant. In June 2006, average industrial earnings were estimated at €602 per week or €31,000 per annum. Therefore, the recent increase surpasses the commitment in Towards 2016 to ensure that those on average industrial earnings continue to qualify for a carer's allowance.

On the removal of the means test, the cost is approximately €140 million in a full year. Deputy Penrose has been pursuing me on this for a long time. I have an open mind on its removal, but in respect of the approximate €140 million, I have chosen at this point to put that type of funding into improving the disregards and the amount of a carer's allowance so that those who do the job are better supported. The disregards are increased dramatically as can be seen from the high levels in recent years. Whether there should be a complete removal of the means test is an issue for debate. It is really a matter of whether we should use the funds to allow everybody have a carer's allowance irrespective of income or whether we should use the funds to improve disregards and increase the allowance itself.

Some 28,800 people are in receipt of carer's allowance and a further 1,800 are in receipt of carer's benefit. Some 44,400 people will receive the respite care grant, which is not means tested, this year. The current cost of the respite care grant is €66 million and the carer's allowance costs €342 million. There have been strong improvements in the area of carers.

I believe we are coming to a crossroads in respect of carers, which is why our strategy is so important. We must stand back and define the role of a carer and decide whether we can continue supporting the role by way of income supports for people on low incomes or on welfare payments who find themselves caring or whether we need to look as caring more as an occupation. The carer's strategy will have to look closely at this question.

The Minister for Health and Children said recently that it costs four times as much to maintain a person in a residential institution than at home. While we provide strong income supports, it is doubtful we can continue to respond to the situation in this manner or whether it is sustainable to do so for the future. The strategy will have to face up to the question of whether the role of carer should be a more formal role in society. If we make that change, there will be significant costs involved. We should put the question on the table and examine the role of carers. Carers must be cared for also. If we do not care for them, the cared for will not get the kind of care they deserve.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his response and will not press the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 7:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the success of the rent supplement and rental accommodation schemes.".

What progress has been made on the rental accommodation scheme and will the Minister clarify how it works? I am concerned by the amount of money the State spends on rent on private houses. Senator Cox mentioned this issue yesterday and it is a concern to many. It seems a waste of money to pay out rents to private landlords on an ongoing basis when the money would be better spent on building social housing. I am concerned by the delay in delivery of social and affordable housing by local authorities.

My son lives in Pamplona in northern Spain and when visiting him recently, I was amazed by the amount of social and affordable housing being built in the city, which is approximately the size of Dublin 15. I admire many aspects of how local government works there. The city is small, but it is building thousands of local and affordable houses. If the council in Pamplona can do it, why can we not do the same? I cannot understand why we are so slow at delivering social and affordable housing while at the same time we spend significant sums of money paying rent to private landlords to provide accommodation. Without the private landlords, we would be in a bad way, but perhaps if there was not such a significant stock of private housing available, the Government would be forced to deliver sooner. I ask the Minister to address this point in his response. Will he also outline the success of the rent supplement and rental accommodations schemes?

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Social welfare has, through subventions, supported people who are not in a position to provide themselves with accommodation. However, I agree with Senator Terry on the need to review this. When rent subvention was first introduced, it cost approximately €3 million per year, but as Ministers have increased subvention over the years, landlords have increased the cost of rented accommodation.

There have been some improvements on accommodation. In the past planning permission was granted for developments without a requirement to include social and affordable housing, but that has changed. It is only now that we are beginning to see the benefit of this change, particularly in country areas. There was a difficulty also with regard to the types of houses the Department insisted on for social and affordable housing. Often it insisted on the building of three and four-bedroomed council houses despite most applicants being single or families with only one or two children. Many of these people would have settled for a smaller dwelling, more of which could have been built from available funding. The Department may have realised this eventually, but it lost valuable time that should have been used to provide suitable accommodation for people on the list.

In general the system works well. There were many complaints about the accommodation available in the past, but properties are now registered and there is an improvement in standards. In the past, money was often paid directly to the person renting accommodation and was not always passed on to landlords. These tenants were then evicted and new accommodation had to be found for them. The improvements are welcome, but the situation must be watched carefully because the more the Minister increases the allowance, the more landlords increase the cost of accommodation in order to benefit from the increase.

I compliment the Minister on the measures he has taken. Were it not for them, many young couples and families would have a serious problem with regard to accommodation.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Senator Moylan's point is at the heart of this issue because the payments for rent supplement in 2000 were €150 million. This year they will probably exceed €400 million covering 59,000 households. Arguably the scheme has gone beyond its original intention which was to help young people. It also helps many who are not young who might otherwise not be able to provide accommodation for themselves. It was never intended to be a permanent solution but to be a support and get people to the point of having their own homes.

That is why the Government introduced the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and made a further commitment in Towards 2016 to the procurement of an additional 1,000 private units under the social partnership agreement, and that is under way. The affordable homes partnership has undertaken the procurement of up to 1,000 units of accommodation under public private partnership, PPP, on regional long-term contracts. By the end of 2007, up to 10,000 tenants will have come off the rent allowance scheme and will be transferred over to the RAS or some other type of social housing. That is important progress in taking the pressure off the RAS. My Department will this year transfer approximately €25 million, up from €24 million in 2006 and €19 million in 2005, to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for the provision of RAS to assist it in providing that accommodation.

Of the 59,000 households on the RAS, 32,000 are eligible for assistance under the new arrangements. We will press ahead with the RAS and seek to provide more social housing and permanent housing opportunities. Life on rent supplement is neither easy nor a long-term solution.

Considering that it accounts for up to 40% of the entire rental market in the State, we must cap the amount of rent paid. We must adjust rents regionally and by size of apartment and recently did so. Otherwise, we would be responsible, through State expenditure, for pushing up rents and leases and, arguably, house prices, which would not help those it should help. Good progress is being made and the funds and people are being transferred from the rent supplement scheme to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government under the RAS.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Progress is slow. I am not sure whether that is the fault of the local authorities, although it probably is, or whether this proposal will be a success. The length of time it takes to accommodate all these people under the RAS will determine its success. Anything that can be done to increase its delivery will be helpful but I am sceptical as to how it will work out.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate that the Minister is passing people back to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government whose services it is hoped will improve as a result. There are, however, thousands of houses that people have vacated because they have died, left or moved out that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is not restoring to a habitable condition quickly enough. It does excellent work to make housing suitable for people, with heating, etc. but the length of time that takes is a problem. While that is happening, the Department of Social and Family Affairs continues to pay substantial rent for accommodation. More co-operation between the two Departments and the local authorities, which are really responsible, to speed up the repairs is important.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 1 agreed to.

Sections 2 to 24, inclusive agreed to.

SECTION 25.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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Amendments Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, are related and will be discussed together, by agreement.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 8:

In page 22, subsection (1), to delete lines 44 to 46 and in page 23 to delete lines 1 to 4.

The new provision in this legislation whereby somebody in receipt of rent supplement would be barred from living in areas designated for urban regeneration marks a movement into a new era, denying people the right to choose where they live. How constitutional is it and has the Minister received legal advice on the provision? It reminds me of Wicklow County Council's declaration that only people from Wicklow could buy a house there. I am not sure how that has progressed.

It is wrong that anybody should be barred from living in an area of his or her choice, especially those who receive any type of welfare benefit. The provision does not bar people on an annual income of more than €50,000 but those in receipt of rent supplement, which seems discriminatory. Perhaps the Minister can explain it because I do not understand it.

Some Members stated last night that this measure may be motivated by the views of private property owners. I am not sure whether it is but I can understand how private property owners might want to ensure a certain type of person lives in their area. The measure will come into play in Ballymun, parts of Cork and other areas and it seems very wrong. The measure could be barring people from living in an area in which they really want to live because they have family connections there, or because it suits them for work purposes or any other reason one would choose an area in which to live.

The Minister and I are free to live wherever we want, provided we can afford to do so. Heretofore nobody said one could not live in a certain area if one was on a low income but we will now be saying this to certain individuals. This is a backward step and it will be challenged in the courts. We need to consider this provision very carefully before we proceed. I am interested to hear the legal opinion of the Minister on this matter. I presume he has obtained a legal opinion and we need to hear it today in the House.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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The directive commenced in 2004 and, on the basis of legal advice, we are giving it statutory effect. The Bill, including the section in question, has been cleared legally. This does not stop anybody challenging legislation in the courts. The Government operates according to the best legal advice available to it and it is satisfied that section 25 and the other relevant sections are legally sound.

Section 25 provides that the payment of rent supplement may be refused, for the purpose of providing for greater social integration, in respect of accommodation situated in an area notified to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as an area of regeneration. Approximately €1 billion has been invested in the past ten years in programmes to improve certain local authority estates and in delivering homes and sustaining communities. The recent statement on housing policy by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government provides for a planned and concerted increase in investment in social housing stock over the coming years. There has therefore been substantial investment in regeneration projects to tackle long-standing problems in communities that have experienced multiple disadvantages. The measures in the Bill support the State's significant investment in areas of regeneration in addition to trying to meet the objective of creating sustainable communities.

I do not know if Senator Terry had the opportunity to hear the contribution of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, on this legislation. He took the view that the provision is about assisting local authorities to achieve a social mix. He stated we built vast local authority housing estates and high-rise developments in the past without making any attempt to achieve a sustainable mix. He claimed regeneration projects are to provide a mixture of private, social, affordable and voluntary housing and are quite the opposite of social engineering. Rather, they are to give some of the areas in question a chance to breathe and a fresh start.

The Minister of State also said that, "In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s we built vast local authority housing estates and high-rise developments of between five and 15 storeys". He argued that filling such private developments solely with recipients of rent supplement would not give the areas in which they are situated a chance to breathe and develop a sustainable future.

The measures provided do not comprise a blanket refusal of rent supplement in the area of regeneration. We made specific provision in the Bill to ensure that those already residing in areas of regeneration and in receipt of rent supplement may continue to receive payment. Those already residing in such areas in private rental accommodation, and who may have recourse to rent supplement in the future, will not have their entitlement restricted. I do not envisage the restrictions lasting forever; it is a matter of giving the regeneration areas time to grow and develop and to provide breathing space, as stated by the Minister of State. My Department will keep in close contact with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government when implementing section 25 and we will keep the relevant matters under close and constant review.

The provision is a means of not repeating automatically some of the mistakes made in the past. While there are risks associated with the policy adopted, it is a better policy than that which obtained heretofore and it can be kept under constant review to observe how it is working. It is as much in the interest of those receiving rent supplement as those who are not, and it is arguably very much in the interest of allowing areas to have a new beginning.

4:00 pm

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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The Minister referred to problems in areas where large numbers of local authority houses were built. I could point to many very badly built housing estates where individuals on low or no incomes were housed. There are some in Tallaght and Blanchardstown, with which I am familiar, and others throughout the country. One of the main problems associated with such estates was the lack of facilities. Thousands of individuals were housed in areas where there was hardly a shop nearby. This was the case in many parts of Blanchardstown. Retailers sold groceries and chips from caravans and they thrived because there were no other shops nearby. There was no swimming pool or playing field in some of the areas and, in some cases, residents had even to fight for schools. These are the main reasons there were such grave problems in the areas in question, and there are still problems in the affected areas today. Some did not even have a community centre and some still do not.

I agree with the Minister that having a social mix is very important, and that it is difficult to achieve it in the areas in question. It is not good for any community to have just one group of residents, be they unemployed or perhaps of a certain ethnic background. We must learn lessons from the mistakes made in this regard but I am not sure the Government's proposal is the way to do so. It will be interesting to see how it pans out. To use that as the main reason for ensuring social integration and regeneration of an area, much more needs to be done. I understand many additional social facilities have been put in place in Ballymun to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes we made in the past. Building high-rise flats or apartments should not lead to problems. People throughout Europe live in high-rise buildings and do not encounter the problems being experienced here. If we expect families to live in high-rise buildings and the State has a responsibility for those families, we must ensure we maintain those buildings and the general environment, including the lifts and the cleaning of the buildings.

I can take the Minister to see four or five storey buildings in the city that are a disgrace. They are not in the Minister's constituency but they are not far from it. The common areas are not cleaned regularly and even when they are cleaned, they are still not what the Minister and I would expect when we open our doors in the morning. We will achieve social integration if we maintain the buildings, provide the local services and facilities and ensure we educate and train the people who live in those units.

I am concerned about enshrining this provision in legislation. Perhaps it could have been done in another way by proper management. I do not like to see this type of legislation going through the Houses. It is poor legislation which I am concerned about and cannot support.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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It is far too long ago to go into when I was elected to this House first but in those days, I was particularly concerned about homeless people. We had a reasonably broad definition of "homeless", which was people who were unable to provide accommodation for themselves of a suitable standard or those who were living in shelters, hostels and such places. We came up against a wall of institutional prejudice, starting with the comment that there were no homeless people. It took a while to overcome that. I do not believe there is anybody left in either the health or housing areas of public provision who does not accept that there are substantial numbers of homeless people.

The next prejudice we met was that people were homeless because they chose not to take up the accommodation available to them, and we had the usual campaign to remove that particular one. We then had people saying it was somebody else's problem. The housing authorities said it was a health issue and the health authorities said it was a housing problem, and that had to be sorted out. One after another we knocked down the prejudices and got what I believe to be a remarkable consensus. First, there were homeless people, second, homeless people — primarily but not exclusively — needed housing, and third, the problem of homelessness would not be dealt with by housing people in ghettos because that was not the way to do it.

Over the years I observed that people were slowly learning that the best way to develop housing was by mixing it. That meant mixing various groups from the comparatively well-off to the comparatively badly off. We now have a provision before the House, which I heard the Minister say has been in force since 2004 but is now being enshrined in legislation, which states that people who cannot afford to pay for their own accommodation because their income is so low are a problem. In refusing to allow anyone from a category of people to live in an area, we are saying that anybody from that category will be bad for that area. I have no problem with a sophisticated, intelligent planning service declining to allow lazy planners and officers of local authorities to turn estates into ghettos and social dumps, as has happened in the United Kingdom more so than here, and let people be lost.

I know a good deal about this area. I chaired the committee which considered the regeneration of St. Michael's estate in Inchicore and the experience for me was extraordinary. I was amazed by the extraordinary resilience of the surviving tenants who wanted to make something out of their community. They were the bravest people I have ever met. People had to put steel plates on their doors because of what went on at night. Their first activity every morning was to go out and sweep up the detritus — used condoms, discarded syringes and so on — from the landing outside.

The fundamental problem was that Dublin City Council had turned into an absentee landlord because it allowed these places to be run down systematically. They were among the best apartments ever built in terms of size, security, space, etc. but when the assembled so-called nasty people, not many of whom lived in the area, arrived at night, they broke all the lights. These were not replaced because the retort from the council was they would be broken again. They also put black plastic on the windows to ensure they could see the gardaí arriving in the dark but the gardaí could not see them. I never heard the brave people who put up with all that and fought back say they did not want any poor people in their estate. What they did not want was people whose behaviour was offensive and threatening to them. The measure before the House is a plan to exclude a group of people for no reason other than they are poor.

I have no problem with the Minister saying he wants social integration. We are a country increasingly devoid of social integration. Our children attend different schools, especially in second level where the children of the affluent increasingly, and in my view foolishly, queue to get into fee paying second level schools when there are perfectly good non-fee paying secondary schools, but that is what people are choosing. We are dividing them up in terms of our health service. We will have a private health service and a public health service for the poor, and now we are enshrining in legislation a provision to exclude the poor from certain areas.

We should not concentrate on the extreme example. We all know about obnoxious tenants. We knew about them in St. Michael's estate and it took endless effort on behalf of the bravest people I know to get Dublin City Council to pay the least amount of attention to them, but the type of people who are indifferent to the plight of good, decent people in places such as St. Michael's estate love these simplicities because it makes it easy for them. They do not have to deal with the individuals who behave badly. They can exclude the whole class.

I have to be careful in what I am about to say about a particular housing estate in Cork, not one made up of people on rent allowance but a middle class estate where a friend of mine lived 20 years ago. He said his life was dominated by two houses in his street — both owner occupied — because on most weekends one or other of the families ended up out on the street for one reason or another due to alcohol or other factors. It was not a case of poverty or social problems, other than drink and a family disintegration. Can one imagine anybody putting into legislation a provision which stated that families would not be allowed to buy property in these areas if the husband has a drink problem; and that people would have to prove they do not have a drink problem, or that families would not be allowed to buy houses in these area unless a couple can show they have a stable relationship and there will not be any family violence?

One can imagine the furore if the legislation stated no affluent gay couples would be allowed. The world would blow up at the suggestion. What if the Minister said no black people would be allowed. I do not believe that is the Minister's intent, but this would be portrayed by at least one member of his party of whom I have nasty experience, as a way of keeping nasty people of different skin colour out of certain areas. This man has used every other index, and he will use this one, to point out that due to the restrictions on rent allowance, certain people will not be able to live in some areas.

I do not want to hear an argument about social integration, because we are in favour of social integration. No sane person would take the opposite view. Why is it only the poor who are the victims of this plan of social integration and what will happen if they are excluded from these areas? Will we have a queue of people seeking regeneration — wonderful risk-taking entrepreneurs? As I stated last night, it is about 25 years since anybody took a risk investing in property. Will we have wonderful risk takers looking to regenerate area X, knowing full well the consequence would be that the grotties will be outside the walls? I would like to hear from the Minister, not about social integration, but about why he believes it is necessary to have this most extraordinary legislative attempt to say, in effect, there are two kinds of people in society, those who deserve to be housed and to live in certain areas and those who are such an inherently threatening minority that we must keep them all out of certain areas?

The solution is to ensure there is a proper mix of ownership and tenancies. As any city manager will say, the demands for services from middle class estates are vastly greater than the demands from poorly run local authority estates. In spite of the fact that the middle classes have more going for them, they are the ones who demand better lighting, roads, cleaning and everything else. The people who need it most are the ones who are least likely to make demands. If the Minister's left wing colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, were to put together a proposal that there would be proper planning, I would have no problem with it. Does the Minister realise what he has written down here, that poor people will not be allowed to live in these areas? If Robert Mugabe said something like that——

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Come on.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I am serious. If Robert Mugabe said he would not allow grotty people to live in the area of Harare——

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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He is not going to say that.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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He bulldozed the shanty towns and dumped everybody out because they did not vote for him.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Ryan is getting carried away.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I fully accept that is an extreme example. The Minister should not laugh.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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It is very extreme.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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That is what we would say if somebody else did it against any group other than poor people. If we did it against people because of their skin colour, sexual orientation or anything else, we would say it was a dreadful but, in effect, we are slipping through a form of apartheid — that is what Focus Ireland called it — which our country is beginning to accept. This is based on a belief that one puts the poor somewhere they are not visible.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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No.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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That is what it amounts to. We will have showpiece regenerations——

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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It is actually the opposite.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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No, it is not. I know a good deal about what happens in housing. The Minister has been a thoughtful and imaginative one in this portfolio and he has tried to work the pensions issue with some imagination. I hope he does not give in to the business lobbies which are trying to send him off on a track that would make them a lot of money and not do much for our pensions.

It is profoundly mistaken to believe any other statement is being made here, other than if one wants to regenerate an area, whether it be classified or otherwise, one should try to find a way of keeping the grotties out. The Government has said that is the way to develop social integration. One will not achieve social integration in an area if one has nobody there who is poor. This works both ways. One will then have schools in those areas which will not have anybody who is poor. The same would be true for the health service and other services. There will be delightful Irish versions of US gated cities. We will not have the physical gate, we will have a financial one preventing people from living in a certain area because individuals on rent supplement are not welcome.

I appeal to the Minister to re-examine this proposal and to think about what is being said. It is written in technocratic language but what is actually being said is we do not want the poor here.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I am concerned about this section and invite the Minister to explain his interpretation of it as it is not clear what is envisaged. The Minister said it is the direct opposite to what Senator Ryan has stated, and I would like to hear his explanation. It appears to me that we are trying to exclude people from areas, which has never happened in the history of the State. I urge the Minister to explain what is envisaged in the section. If it is in line with what my colleagues have stated, we should exclude it from the Bill because it would be a retrograde step for society.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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This directive has been in force since 2004 and it has not caused any difficulty. Neither the local authorities nor the Department report any issues whatsoever that have caused any difficulty. I have great respect for Senator Ryan and I read what he stated on Second Stage. I sincerely believe he is overstating this case. I accept his heart is in the right place and I acknowledge the great work he has done to highlight social causes. I have taken inspiration from some of the speeches he made.

There is no hidden agenda. This measure has been in operation since 2004. As the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern — who knows this area very well — stated in the other House when the Bill was debated, it does not stop anyone from living in the area. Anyone who currently wants to live in Ballymun or any of these places can go on the waiting list for a local authority house. He emphasised there will still be a couple of thousand local authority units in Ballymun, but no rent supplement can be taken in the new units that will be built. He did not see the provision being there for eternity and stated it should and would be reviewed regularly but the area must be given a chance. This is why I intervened to say I thought the opposite was the case.

I do not know the area very well, but if one lets Ballymun continue in the way it was developing, it could have the opposite effect to what the Senators want to achieve, in that the only people living there would be people on rent supplement. The Minister of State pointed out that the early private units were snapped up immediately by people on rent supplement before any change was made in the directive. Do Senators wish the new Ballymun to consist 100% of people on rent supplement? There is nothing wrong with people on rent supplement. It is not a matter of saying black or gay people cannot live in a certain place. This deals with people in receipt of State funds and it is legitimate to use taxpayers' money to bring about a better result for a given area.

I agree it is an arguable point and we could have a wonderful debate on it, though there was no such debate in 2004 when it was conceived. However, the temperature has risen in the Houses lately and people are going out of their ways to receive insults. Furthermore, the temperature will continue to rise in the next six weeks and any issue can fall foul of that, though that is not necessarily what is happening in this case. It has been a long time since 2004 and there was no deep concern about it at the time.

The choice is a Ballymun full of people on rent supplement, which is the way it was heading, or a Ballymun with thousands of local authority houses and some private buildings where non-recipients of rent supplement can get accommodation. Which kind of Ballymun do Senators want? I do not know the area but it seems to be a common sense approach. I do not dress it up in a particular philosophy or plan for social engineering but it is a practical step in an area which needs to breathe again with a fresh start. In the old Ballymun everybody was poor, a situation to which Senators have expressed their opposition. We want a Ballymun where not everybody is in receipt of the same welfare payment, because that is not fair to them, nor to the taxpayer or to Ballymun.

This provision will not necessarily be permanent, it will be heavily monitored and only applies to Ballymun at the moment. It has not caused any trouble for two years and a new Ballymun is beginning to be built where people from different backgrounds and different income levels, rather than just welfare-dependants, will try to live together. This is a brave attempt to give people a fresh start and to give people on rent supplement, many of whom are lone parents, the chance to integrate, as they do not all want to live in a block of apartments side by side.

It is a difficult issue but the approach is based on a genuine attempt to give an area a fresh start. I recall that, since it was initiated in 2004, the need to try something new in the area has been accepted across the board. There was no avalanche of questions in the Dáil during Leaders' Questions and Opposition and Government alike saw the merits of the plan. If the scheme makes life difficult for vulnerable people it will be stopped forthwith and a new policy adopted but at the moment the policy seems to be having a positive effect.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I have listened to the debate and to the Minister's comments and do not think we will gain anything by spending further time on the issue. I do not agree with it and do not understand why we need to insert this provision in our legislation because local policies can deal with the problems involved. We also live in different times from those we experienced 20 years ago, when unemployment was high and people were claiming rent supplement, or the equivalent, for long periods. I would hope people in such a situation today would not remain so forever and would eventually be able to pay their rents once they gained employment. As I said earlier on the question of lifting people out of poverty, there are other ways to regenerate areas and laws such as this are not necessary where local management plans operate effectively.

Senators:

I do not want to stifle debate but I must try to progress the Bill.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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This issue would benefit from a long debate but I accept we must move on. I will address a couple of matters the Minister mentioned. I do not disagree with much of what he said because we have created disasters in the past and there is a great need to put them right. Appallingly bad management decisions have been taken to demolish buildings, such as St. Michael's estate, which were perfect from a structural point of view and where the heating actually worked, unlike many other local authority housing schemes. Some people were moving into local authority houses with a smaller floor space than the apartments they had in St. Michael's estate. The solution is good planning.

The Minister referred to people who were dependent on the State but such people exist because we live in a compassionate society which supports the vulnerable. I do not like the idea of a special rule for certain people because, for example, old and retired people are dependent on the State, as are people in receipt of child benefit to pay for expenses such as child care. People whose children go to a State primary school are dependent on the State, as are those who send their children to secondary school, even fee-paying schools. If the case is valid for a regeneration area it is overwhelmingly so for schools. Why should a school be full of people from rent supplement families?

This policy was decided on because too many people in Ballymun were in receipt of rent supplement. One solution would be to restrict the purchase of properties in the area to owner-occupiers. It would probably reduce prices and increase the usefulness of the properties, as well as dramatically reducing the number of people on rent supplement. If, however, we allow people who experience the joys of letting property with guaranteed rent supplement payments carte blanche to buy property in these areas we will get exactly what the Minister is trying to avoid. Real regeneration involves permanently rooting young people in an area by allowing them to buy houses in order that they can become the backbone of the community. This provision will mean people on slightly higher incomes will rent and pass through the area with no more, and possibly less, commitment to the community than people on rent allowance. Populating the area with young people such as students attending DCU will not regenerate the community, notwithstanding the fact that it might regenerate the area. Incidentally, I do not care whether my party said anything about this. It has not been my style to be bothered by that. If the party did not say anything, it is a pity but many things are missed and I almost missed this as well. It is profoundly wrong.

Would the Minister table a minor amendment to provide that this be reviewed and a report made to the Oireachtas in 12 months or two years?

Senators:

Would the Senator not table such an amendment for Report Stage?

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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Not unless the Minister is interested in it. I do not believe he will accept any amendments. However, a proposal that this will be reviewed in 12 months or two years and a report provided to the Oireachtas would ameliorate some of the effects of this.

Question put: "That the words proposed to be deleted stand".

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 23 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 19 (Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Cummins and Terry.

Question declared carried.

Amendment declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 not moved.

Question proposed: "That section 25 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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Judging by his facial expressions, the Minister seemed sympathetic to the suggestion of a report on the prohibition on rent supplement being paid in areas of regeneration. Does he have anything to say on the matter?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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There is never any difficulty with reports. I am not sure what legislative section could be inserted in that regard. A report on the progress of the legislation can be laid before the House at any stage. I can repeat what I said earlier which is that it is fully intended that this would receive the closest scrutiny, measurement and monitoring. I expect that reports on the monitoring of the scheme will be laid before both Houses regularly.

Question put and declared carried.

Sections 26 to 39, inclusive, agreed to.

SCHEDULE 1.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 11:

In page 46, to delete lines 28 and 29, and substitute the following:

""(fa) to perform the functions conferred on the Board by this Act;

(fb) give balanced and impartial information to consumers regarding pension products, including, not limited to—

(i) tax relief,

(ii) operators' charges,

(iii) tax implications of leaving a sum of money in place, and

(iv) the commutation of tax-free sums of money on point of retirement;".".

The Minister will be very glad that I do not have much time left to speak on these amendments. The purpose of amendment No. 11 is to ensure people taking out pensions would be given accurate and transparent information when doing so. It is not good enough that the Government, the Pensions Board, the Financial Regulator and the industry, when advertising and promoting pensions, do not make clear to people the various aspects entailed in taking out a pension which ultimately may result in not having a very good pension. The amendment outlines some of the areas in which we need greater transparency. Advertisements often claim that participants will get 50% of their contributions back in tax relief. However, it should be much clearer and be referred to as tax deferral. Many people do not realise they will pay tax when drawing down their pensions. It is tax deferral. Perhaps we should consider a scheme in which one pays the tax at entry and draws it down free of tax in retirement.

The operators' charges are not clear to people taking out pension plans, which they should be. We have been told that charges could amount to anything up to 26% of a pension fund. Most people do not know about that. I feel very strongly that when taking out a pension, people should be informed about the implications of taking the tax-free lump sum on retirement. People do not realise it would be more financially beneficial for them to leave in place the tax-free lump sum, thus providing them with an income stream during retirement. If they really needed that lump sum, it would be cheaper for them to borrow it from a bank. They could make the repayments out of their pensions and still have larger pensions than if they had first taken it out. People are not informed of this. I will not delay any further on this, but there is an onus on the Pensions Board, the Financial Regulator and the Minister to ensure people are given the information in order that they can make an informed decision and not be blinded by the industry convincing them to pay into a scheme where they will receive great tax-free allowances and which will give them wonderful pensions when they retire. People must be informed of the possibility that this will not happen, that there may be no indexation, that a company may decide to change from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme. All the pitfalls must be pointed out. This has happened before and is still happening and people are not being informed about it.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I support my colleague, Senator Terry, on this matter. It is essential that people are informed and given the full information in respect of pensions and their pitfalls.

On Second Stage, my colleague, Senator Bradford, raised on my behalf the question of pre-1953 contributions and the need to take them fully into account in the calculation of pension entitlements. It involves only a small number of people and the Minister of State said he would report back to us on this on Committee or Report Stage. Perhaps, the Minister might comment on this as well. When taking out pensions, it is essential people have full information.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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A number of issues, including the provision of information, have been raised. The Pensions Board provides an extensive information service through the provision of a range of free information booklets on occupational pensions and through its website, www.pensionsboard.ie. The pensions booklets and website cover a range of topics, such as pension options, what happens to a pension if one leaves the scheme and what happens when a pension scheme is wound up or mergers or acquisitions take place. There is also a consumer guide to PRSAs and a pensions calculator to permit a person to calculate his or her future entitlements.

The information available through the information service is continually updated and promoted as part of the board's ongoing pensions awareness campaign. As the Senator is aware, the taxation issues are primarily a matter for the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. The Green Paper on pensions will be finalised shortly and will address issues relating to taxation, charges and commutation factors.

Senator Terry was also concerned about the survey carried out by the Pensions Board. The board is currently finalising a survey of occupational pension schemes with at least 1,000 active members seeking data on deferred members of these schemes. On Friday, 30 March 2007, the Pensions Board will submit to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs the information about the 28 schemes which have responded to it in order that the committee will have the outcome of this survey. The survey being finalised by the Pensions Board will indicate the number of deferred members who did not qualify for preservation of their pension rights. This will provide the information necessary to estimate the cost of extending preservation to those deferred members.

The survey was conducted in respect of 34 schemes with 1,000 or more active members. To date, the board has received the information requested from 28 schemes and is confident it will receive the required information from the remaining six schemes. The information requested as part of the survey included the number of deferred members with no entitlements to revaluation of benefits, the number of deferred members with entitlements to partial revaluation of benefits and details of any discretionary increase granted to deferred pensions.

5:00 pm

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I did not address amendment No. 12 when I was speaking. I thank the Minister for his response and look forward to the results of the survey.

The purpose of my amendment was to ensure the Pensions Board has the authority to compel companies to give this information. I know the Minister said companies are complying with the request on a voluntary basis, but I can show him responses to letters I have written to the Pensions Board over a ten-year period requesting this same information. The replies I received make fairytale reading. Even at this stage, the Pensions Board has difficulty in securing this information because I was told in November that the information would be available in January.

All I am trying to do is to strengthen the legislation to enable the Pensions Board to get from companies the information it requires, and the Minister should do likewise. We change our laws to suit the pensions industry. The amendment I am asking the Minister to accept is minor. I strongly advise that he includes this amendment, at least on Report Stage tomorrow if he cannot do so today, because we know some companies may not answer the request from the Pensions Board, which is not good enough. They should be compelled to do so.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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The Pensions Board has confirmed that it is receiving full co-operation with regard to the information it wants. The board has very strong powers and there is no reason these powers cannot be strengthened. At least two pieces of legislation from the Department, one of which is called the social welfare and pensions Bill, come through this House every year and there is a regular opportunity to increase the power of the Pensions Board in any area. Such an opportunity is offered at least twice a year, if not on many more occasions in respect of other appropriate legislation.

The Pensions Board is satisfied it is getting all the co-operation it needs. Senator Terry should be able to study this information on Friday and I would be interested to hear what she and other Members of both Houses have to say about the information once it is produced.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Why has the Pensions Board not provided me with this information since 1995? Why can it not answer the simple question about deferred members with frozen benefits? It can only lead me to believe that there is some kind of cover-up, as I said yesterday. Why must one become a Member of either House to try to get information from various Departments? It is not good enough that a statutory body does not provide information to members of the public or to an elected Member. We are making some progress in getting this delivered on Friday. However, this information has been requested for more than ten years and has been either denied or those requesting it have been fobbed off in one way or another. It is not good enough for one of our statutory bodies to behave in such a fashion.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister has half a minute.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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This survey was undertaken in respect of schemes with 1,000 or more active members in December 2006. I urge the Senator to study what it says. I regret that she was unable to get the information earlier. However, if they conducted the survey only last December, presumably the information was not readily available to them in advance of that work. Perhaps that was the reason they were not able to respond to the Senator. I doubt if there is any hidden agenda or cover-up. The Pensions Board is continually getting extra powers and we are building up its resources and clout. We will continue to provide statutory back-up because it must act on behalf of consumers to protect them. That is an essential part of its work.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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As it is now 5 o'clock, I am required to put the following question: "That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the Schedules not disposed of are hereby agreed to in Committee, amendments Nos. 11 and 12 are hereby negatived, the Title is hereby agreed to in Committee, and the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment." Is the question agreed?

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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No.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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What is the question?

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The question is that Committee Stage be disposed of.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Does that mean Committee Stage is being guillotined?

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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That is how today's business was ordered.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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We disagree with it.

Question put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 23 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Brendan Kenneally, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 19 (Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Cummins and Terry.

Question declared carried.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Tomorrow.

Report Stage ordered for Thursday, 29 March 2007.