Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Social Welfare Bill 2007: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

Section 1 agreed to.

NEW SECTIONS.

11:00 am

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Senator Prendergast's amendment No. 1 is out of order as it is outside the scope of the Bill.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall maintain an informal consolidation of the Social Welfare Acts on the Department's website on an ongoing basis.".

I ask the Minister of State to accept this amendment. The social welfare legislation was consolidated in 2005 but amendments are already building up. It is not possible to make a consolidated version on the Department's website for ease of reference. The best time to consolidate them is now when the number of amendments is relatively few. The Pensions Board offers a consolidated version of the Pensions Act on regulation to certain clients. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has also informally consolidated texts of key Acts on its website.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept this amendment. All social welfare and pensions Acts since 2001 are published on the Department's website. Future Acts will similarly be published on the website. Acts are also published on the Irish Statute Book website. It would not, however, be appropriate for the Department's website to contain an informal consolidation of the Social Welfare Acts because of the lengthy and detailed procedure involved. The Law Reform Commission has published a consultation paper on Statute Law restatement. The Department participated in the public consultation process leading to the paper and will continue to participate in the Statute Law restatement programme with a view to enhancing the accessibility of social welfare legislation.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I will agree to differ with the Minister of State.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—Any regulation made under the Social Welfare Acts shall be published on the website of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and shall be transmitted forthwith to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs.".

I ask the Minister of State to accept this amendment.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept the amendment. All regulations made under the Social Welfare Acts are published on the website of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and are also available on the Irish Statute Book website. Also, all regulations are transmitted to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs. Following the introduction in early 2007 of a new electronic statutory instrument system, all new regulations made are now available on these websites within a short time of being made. In accordance with the requirements under section 3 of the Statutory Instruments Act 1947, as amended, the making of all statutory instruments has been published in Iris Oifigiúil .

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the current arrangements to deal with difficulties experienced by foreign workers in obtaining social welfare records from their home countries.".

Some non-national workers are experiencing difficulties when claiming benefits because of the difficulty in tracking down insurance records in their home countries. Perhaps applicants should have a warning on their claim. Will the Minister of State provide a report on the arrangements in place?

12:00 pm

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept this amendment because it is inappropriate for inclusion in legislation. In particular, it is inappropriate for this Bill which only deals with budget increases. All other items which are appropriate for legislation will be dealt with in a separate Bill in the new year.

The Department has increased significantly the volume of information exchange in recent years with European Union countries and with countries that have bilateral agreements with Ireland on social security. There has been a significant increase in the number of migrant workers and the response rate to requests for information from these countries vary for different reasons, such as whether the records are centralised or regionalised in the other country or if there is a difficulty with a particular person's record.

Overall, the Department is not experiencing significant difficulties in obtaining such records. If delays are encountered in a specific case and the records are required to enable payment of a basic payment such as illness benefit or jobseeker's benefit, a person normally will be entitled to supplementary welfare allowance. The EU is preparing for the introduction of electronic exchange of information designed to simplify and speed up this process but the projected date for this to become operative is 2009.

According to the information available to me I see no need for the Department to undertake an examination of the issue or for a report to be made to the House. If the Senator has specific information regarding difficulties experienced, perhaps this information can be forwarded to the Department.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister of State.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the rationale for keeping Qualified Child Allowances at a low level over the past decade.".

This amendment relates to qualified child allowances. Will the Minister of State provide a report on the continued justification for deliberately keeping qualified child allowances at the low rate of €24 per week? This policy appears to date back to 1996.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The qualified child increase, previously called the child dependant allowance, is paid to social welfare recipients in addition to a personal and, where appropriate, qualified adult increase. Unlike a wage, the level of qualified child increase varies according to the number of qualified children in a family. The result is an increased disincentive effect on larger families as their social welfare loss would be greater on transferring from welfare to work. Owing to this disincentive effect the policy direction followed by successive Governments from 1995 to 2006 was to dedicate substantial resources to child benefit, which is employment neutral, while maintaining the qualified child increase at 1994 levels.

An additional €1.27 billion was invested in the child benefit scheme during the period 2001 to 2006, making the overall child income support more neutral vis-À-vis the employment status of the parent, thus ensuring more parental choice on working inside or outside the home where the retention of child income supports is concerned. The shift towards child benefit has been substantial, from a position where child benefit represented 27% of the total child benefit or qualified child increase payment to 63%. In other words, following the child benefit increases, a family will now lose only 37% of their child income support when moving into full-time employment.

In the ten years from 1998 to 2007 the lower and higher rates of child benefit increased by 300% and 266%, respectively. This compares with the consumer price index of 43.4%. Having achieved a significant degree of employment neutrality in the provision of child income supports and while continuing to increase child benefit rates, recent budgets have seen the concentration of additional resources on more targeted payments, specifically to families who are dependent on welfare supports, including low earning employees with children. In addition, there has been a significant improvement in the in-work family income supplement scheme in recent years.

In view of the above and factors such as the introduction of the national minimum wage, the disincentive effect of the qualified child increases is less compelling. It was decided also to reduce the number of qualified child income rates from the existing three rates to one uniform amount. Consequently, the 2007 budget provided for all three qualified child increase rates which had remained unchanged since 1994 to be increased to a single rate of €22 per week.

Although any improvement in the qualified child increase can still constitute by definition an increased disincentive, the effect should be set against the situation which pertained in 1994 when, for instance, the qualified child increase element represented 27% of the total jobseeker's allowance for a family with two parents and two children. In contrast, even after the 2007 increases, it represents less than 13%. When the qualified child increase for a two child family is judged against the gross average industrial earnings, it represents 7% compared with 10% in 1994. These changes continue the more selective approach to child income support through targeting children in poorer households while at the same time limiting the extent to which employment incentives are worsened.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We will have to agree to differ again.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on any arrangements whereby claimants under the Social Welfare Acts are not provided with payments for the first 3 days of any claim and the continued justification for any such practice.".

I would like a response from the Minister of State.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not accept the amendment. The waiting days have been a feature of the illness benefit and jobseeker's payment schemes since their inception and are a feature of similar social security schemes in many countries. The application of a three-day waiting period avoids the disproportionately high administrative costs involved in processing large numbers of claims for a very short duration.

The waiting day rule is not applied in every case. Where a person is subject to intermittent spells of interruption of employment, clearly it would be unreasonable to impose the three waiting days for each benefit claim. In the case of illness benefit and jobseeker's benefit, spells of interruption of employment are aggregated so that the waiting period is confined to the first three days of the aggregate period, subject to the rules of linking.

Linking rules provide that any two periods of unemployment not separated by more than 26 weeks are treated as one claim and payment may be made from the first day of the later claim. The linking period for jobseeker's allowance is 52 weeks instead of 26 weeks. Linking rules apply in a variety of ways across schemes. Where a person claims illness benefit immediately following an unemployment benefit claim, for example, a person who has no other income is not left without support during waiting days. A person who has no other income may claim supplementary welfare allowance in respect of the days in question.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We will agree to differ.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of excluding Carer's Allowance from the means test for Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance.".

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The back to school clothing and footwear allowance, known as the BSCFA scheme, provides payment to eligible families to assist with the extra costs when their children start school each autumn. The scheme operates from the beginning of June to the end of September each year and is administered on behalf of the Department by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive. The allowance is not intended to meet the full cost of school clothing and footwear but only to provide assistance towards these costs.

A person may qualify for payment of an allowance if he or she is in receipt of a social welfare or Health Service Executive payment, participating in an approved employment scheme or attending a recognised education and training course and have a household income at below standard levels. In line with other secondary benefits, a means test is applied to ensure limited resources are directed to those in greatest need. Apart from a number of exceptions, all household income, including welfare payments such as carer's allowance, is assessable as means under the BSCFA scheme in accordance with the normal assessment for supplementary welfare allowance. The exceptions to these rules are that any income received in the form of family income supplement, higher education grants or the first €120 of earnings from employment of a rehabilitative nature is disregarded for the purposes of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance scheme.

Final figures for the numbers of applications received and awarded for 2007 are not yet available from the HSE. Current indications are that 85,000 plus families with approximately 174,000 plus children will benefit from the scheme this year at a cost of €40 million. This is an increase on the figures for 2006, when some 80,000 families with 161,000 children benefited at a cost of €23.5 million. This increase can be mainly attributed to the significant level of publicity given to the scheme this year in the media and through the other information services operated by the Department. The Department has increased its publicity in this area to ensure that as many families as possible are aware of the scheme.

The back to school clothing and footwear allowance is a demand led scheme and statistics are no available on families who might satisfy the qualifying conditions for the allowance but who have not applied. The rates were increased in last year's budget to €180 for children aged two to 11 years and to €285 for those aged 12 to 22 years, an increase of €60 and €95, respectively, on 2006 rates. In this year's budget the Minister has increased the rate by €20 to €200 for children two to 11 years and to €305 for those aged 12 to 22 years.

We consider the back to school clothing and footwear allowance an important support for parents at a time of particular financial strain. We are satisfied that improvement to the scheme in recent years, namely an increase in income limits and an increase in the rates of payment respectively, provide a major boast to meeting the financial costs associated with return to school for those who most need assistance. Any changes to the structure of the scheme, rates of payment, income limits or amendments to the qualifying criteria would have cost implications and would have to be considered in a budgetary context and in the light of resources available to the Department for improvements in social welfare payments generally.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of providing Carers with a full rate of Carer's Allowance for every person they care for.".

Will the Minister of State provide a report on providing carers with a full rate of carer's allowance for every person they care for because currently claimants are not paid double even if they care for two people? That is the basis for the amendment.

There was never such disharmony between North and South Riding previously. Although I understand it is not personal, I would be delighted in Christmas week if the Minister of State accepted even one of these amendments because there is a good solid basis for their introduction.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank Senator Prendergast. I do not propose to accept amendment No. 8. The rates of payment for carer's allowance and carer's benefit have been increased significantly in recent budgets. Since January 2007 the rate of carer's allowance and carer's benefit has been €200 per week for those aged under 66. The carer's allowance for those aged over 66 is currently €218 per week. As a result of improvements provided for in this year's budget all of these rates will increase by €14 per week from January 2008. People caring for more than one person receive a higher rate of carer's allowance and from January 2008 a person aged under 66 in receipt of carer's allowance who is caring for more than one person will receive €321 per week, an increase of €21 per week over 2007 rates.

In June 2005 the respite care grant was extended to all carers providing full-time care and attention to a person in need of such care regardless of the person's means or social insurance contributions. The grant is also paid to people in receipt of carer's allowance and carer's benefit. In recognition of the particular challenges which are faced by those carers who are providing care for two or more people, since June 2005 the grant has also been paid in respect of each care recipient.

The rate of the respite care grant has also been increased significantly. In this year's budget the Government provided for an increase of €200 in the level of the grant so that from June 2008 the grant will be €1,700 per year in respect of each care recipient. Last year's budget provided for significant structural reforms whereby people in receipt of a social welfare payment other than carer's allowance or benefit who are also providing someone with full-time care and attention can retain their main welfare payment and receive another payment, depending on their means, the maximum of which will be equivalent to a half-rate carer's allowance. Similarly, people currently in receipt of a carer's allowance who may have an underlying eligibility for another social welfare payment can transfer to that other payment and continue to receive up to a half-rate carer's allowance. These new arrangements which came into force in September 2007 apply to almost all weekly social welfare payments including State contributory and non-contributory pensions, widow's or widower's contributory or non-contributory pension, and to people in receipt of qualified adult allowances. Recipients of carer's allowance also qualify for the household benefits package and the free travel scheme.

The spirit of goodwill was in existence since September last, long before we reached Christmas 2007. The Minister will keep supports for carers available from the Department under review in order to continue to improve the schemes and ensure commitments on income support are delivered.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister of State for that.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of extending qualification for Carer's Allowance to any person who provides care to such an extent that the care recipient would require nursing home care or significant professional assistance if they were not receiving assistance from the person.".

There is a need to relax the qualifying criteria for carer's allowance in the case of the onus to provide full-time care and attention so that carers satisfy this condition if, in the judgment of the deciding officer, the carer's work saves that person from being cared for by State nursing home care or significant professional assistance. Approximately 15% of carers are refused the carer's allowance on the basis that they are not giving full-time care and attention. In most cases in our experience this is because of the distance they are from the person for whom they are caring or because the care recipient wishes to hold on to some form of independence, for instance, he or she might not want help with dressing or cooking.

There are no specific guidelines on the length apart, in distance or in time, that a person must be to quality for carer's allowance but the Department provides a general list of tasks that it expects each carer to carry out. Many carers go through the long application form on which there are 69 questions, which is a little onerous, only to be turned down at this point. While accepting that every case is different, there should be clear criteria for full-time care and attention rules so that applicants know where they stand before they apply. I would argue that there should be a relaxation in the criteria that allow carers qualify where the carer saves the State a nursing home place, which is significantly costly as the Minister of State will probably agree.

On the essential question of whether the care recipient would require nursing home care or significant professional assistance if he or she was not receiving assistance from the applicant, I ask the Minister of State to provide statistics on carer's allowance applications that were refused. These might be helpful in that regard.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept this amendment. One of the fundamental qualifying conditions for carer's allowance, carer's benefit and the respite care grant is that the person is providing full-time care and attention to a person who needs such care. The number of hours a person may engage in employment, self-employment, training or education outside the home and still be considered to be providing full-time care and attention for the purposes of the schemes was increased from ten to 15 hours per week in June 2006. It is worth noting that the 15 hour rule represents a relaxation of the full-time care and attention requirement. A further increase to the number of hours which a person can work and still qualify of payment would dilute the full-time care and attention requirement.

In 2005 the carer's allowance scheme was extended to accommodate care sharing situations. Under these arrangements it is possible for week on, week off care sharing arrangements to be facilitated. This means that where two carers are providing care to the same person on alternative weeks, the carer's allowance and the annual respite care grant can be split between them.

It would not be possible for the Department to establish the number of people currently receiving care at home who would otherwise need nursing home care. The Minister will keep the supports for carers available from his Department under review in order to continue to improve the schemes and ensure that commitments on income support are delivered.

According to Census 2006 there are approximately 50,000 people providing care for more than 29 hours per week, that is, just over four hours per day. Approximately 19,600 of these are classified by principal economic status as being at work. At present there are over 34,000 people in receipt of carer's allowance and carer's benefit. A total of 42,000 also received a respite care grant for 2007.

Census 2006 does not give information regarding the number of hours worked by people in employment. However, a significant proportion of the 19,600 people classified as at work would be working more than 15 hours per week and, as such, they would not satisfy the full-time care and attention requirement for carer's allowance, carer's benefit or the respite care grant.

In summary, according to the census, 15,000 people care for people for more than four hours per day. In 2008, it is expected that approximately 39,000 people will be in receipt of carer's allowance and 2,000 in receipt of carer's benefit. Weekly payments will, therefore, be made to 41,000 people who provide full-time care and 8,000 people who do not get either the carer's allowance or the carer's benefit will get respite care grants.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 10:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall make an annual report to both Houses of the Oireachtas on data security within the Department of Social and Family Affairs, including information on the number of breaches, complaints upheld by the Data Protection Commissioner, internal and external investigations underway, internal and external investigations concluded, civil proceedings underway, civil proceedings concluded, the cost to the State of civil proceedings, etc.".

This amendment is self-explanatory.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept the amendment. Given the scale of the Department's operations, with 4,500 employees, the number of cases of the unauthorised disclosure of personal data is relatively small. No civil proceedings have been initiated against the Department with regard to information security breaches. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner intends to carry out an audit of the Department's procedures for processing personal data in the near future.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 11:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of facilitating carers who take up Carer's Allowance move from a position where they were neither paying or receiving credits to one where they receive credits from the date they are awarded the Carer's Allowance so that they improve their pension qualification upon retirement and the implications of having this provision backdated.".

This amendment seeks to address what we see as an anomaly.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept the amendment. Credited PRSI contributions are an integral part of the social insurance system. The primary purpose of PRSI credits is to secure social welfare benefits and pensions of insured workers by covering gaps in insurance where workers are not in a position to pay PRSI, such as during periods of unemployment, illness or caring. In order to qualify for social insurance credits, a person must have previously worked and paid PRSI at an ordinary or modified rate of contribution, must have paid or credited contributions in the last two contribution years and must show evidence of underlying entitlement to the contingency giving rise to the credited contribution, namely, illness, unemployment, maternity, etc.

Under the current statutory provisions governing the award of credited contributions, recipients of the carer's allowance may be awarded credits if they switch to that payment from another credit bearing payment, for example, a jobseeker's allowance. There is also provision for the award of credits to claimants of carer's allowance who have left insurable employment to engage in caring duties. The award of credits is subject to certain conditions. For example, when a person has no paid or credited contributions for a period of two years, they cannot be awarded further credits until 26 contributions are paid. In recognition of their caring role, this rule will be waived where claimants of carer's allowance were eligible for homemaker's disregards immediately prior to claiming carer's allowance.

Recipients of carer's allowance who are not entitled to credits may be eligible for homemaker's disregards, which preserve the carer's entitlement for contributory pension purposes. The homemaker's scheme provides that contribution years spent working in the home while caring on a full-time basis for a child up to 12 years of age or an incapacitated person will be disregarded in calculating a person's yearly average number of contributions for old age contributory pension purposes. The provisions apply for the contribution year commencing on 6 April 1994 and up to 20 contribution years may be disregarded. In addition, the homemaker's scheme provides for homemaker's credits to be awarded for the balance of the tax year in which the person leaves the workforce and from the beginning of the tax year to the date of re-entering employment. It is worth noting that recipients of carer's allowance can engage in employment or self-employment for up to 15 hours per week and still be eligible for payment. This applies to those who do not pay PRSI contributions on the same basis as all other employed people.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Amendment No. 12 has been ruled out of order as it is outside the scope of the Bill.

Amendment No. 12 not moved.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 13:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 1 month of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the progress of the National Carers Strategy.".

I seek this amendment because of the disregard of the Government for carers and because the promises of the Towards 2016 agreement will not be brought before the House by the end of the year. Yesterday we were told we would have the proposed report by the summer. The summer lasts a long time. Will we get it in early or late summer or can the Minister of State give me a specific date?

We spoke in great detail on this issue on Second Stage and I acknowledge the comprehensive answer provided. Carers are wonderful people who save the State €2.1 billion by keeping their elderly and disabled relatives out of nursing homes and hospitals. I urge the Minister, therefore, to lay a report on the national carers' strategy before the House.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept the amendment. One of the key Government commitments in the national partnership agreement, Towards 2016, is the development of a national carers' strategy. This commitment is reiterated in the programme for Government. The strategy will focus on supporting informal and family carers in the community. While social welfare supports for carers will clearly be a key issue in the strategy, other issues, such as access to respite and other services, education, training and employment will also feature strongly.

Co-operation between relevant Government Departments and agencies is essential if the provision of services, supports and entitlements for carers is to be fully addressed. For that reason, all relevant Departments and agencies will be involved in the strategy. There will also be appropriate consultation with the social partners. Department officials have been in discussions with their colleagues in other relevant Departments in order to decide on the best approach to the development of the strategy. An inter-departmental working group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, is being established to develop the strategy. The Minister expects the strategy will be completed by the summer of 2008. We aim for July 2008, on the completion of the Dáil and Seanad session.

The recent improvements in income supports available from the Department represent major improvements in supports available to carers in the community. Speakers here have not acknowledged the serious level of support provided to a number of carers throughout the country in their homes. People who need that support get it from this Department and the Department of Health and Children through the HSE and home care packages. We also aim to reduce the numbers who avail of long-term residential care in nursing homes.

The development of the national carers' strategy provides us with an opportunity to build further on these improvements and to consider other areas where progress can be made.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 14:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the levels of support available to young carers.".

I acknowledge the fact that carers did receive an increase. However, €14 is not a huge amount of money, particularly when one considers the cost of living.

I note the position in respect of the respite grant but I have concerns about the latter because people are not using it for its designated purpose and, on foot of the low amount they receive each week, are instead using it as a top up. We must ensure respite grants are used for respite purposes. In other words, there must be capacity in the system to allow carers to take holidays. We should not just provide a token amount. Otherwise the grant will be merely seen as a once-off annual payment designed to make up for the fact that the weekly payment is so inadequate.

As stated on Second Stage, I am particularly concerned about young carers. There are 5,433 carers between the ages of 15 and 19 who were completely ignored in the budget. Adolescents need to spend time on their education and personal development and they also must be allowed to socialise with their friends. I am aware of many young people who have deferred college courses and decisions relating to their careers in order to care selflessly for their elderly relatives. I call on the Minister of State to take to heart the needs of these individuals and to take action in respect of the commitment made in Towards 2016 to engage in research on young carers and provide a programme for their specific needs.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept the amendment. It is one of the merits of the respite care grant that use of it remains at discretion of carers. The Department does not request accountability as to how the money provided is spent. I would like that flexibility to remain within the scheme.

Caring Before Their Time? — Research and Policy Perspectives on Young Carers, the report published by Barnardos and the Children's Research Centre in September 2004, indicated that of the estimated 3,000 carers providing care at that stage, there were more than 300 carers between 15 and 17 years of age who were providing it on a full-time basis. The report also recommended that further research should be undertaken in respect of the numbers of young carers, the supports available to them, the nature of their needs and the impact of their caring role on their education and general development. It further recommended that policy relating to young carers should be a matter for the Department of Health and Children and that services should be delivered by the Health Service Executive.

Towards 2016 commits the Government to undertaking a study of the extent to which children undertake inappropriate care roles to establish the extent and degree to which this issue arises and the level of impact it has on the lives of the children concerned. It further states that based on the outcome of this study and an analysis of the issues that come to light, a programme of in-home supports will be developed to alleviate specific problem areas identified in respect of children. The Office of the Minister for Children intends to commission this study in 2008 following consultation with the relevant Departments and agencies. Although my Department does not have the lead role in respect of this study, its officials will engage with it as appropriate.

With regard to income supports for young carers, the respite care grant and carer's benefit are payable from age 16 and carer's allowance is payable from age 18. However, special help, advice and support are essential for young carers who are often caring for parents. In particular, services must be put in place to support households and ensure that young carers remain at school. These include the services of home helps and public health nurses and the provision of home care packages generally, which are a matter for the Department of Health and Children and the Health Services Executive. It is through the provision of these health and education services rather than income that we can best support young carers.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the levels of support available to young carers.".

The Minister of State referred at length to this matter on Second Stage. I would welcome her comments in respect of the amendment.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept this amendment. The living alone increase is an additional payment of €7.50 per week made to people age 66 years or over who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments and who are living alone. It is also available to people who are under 66 years of age who are living alone and who receive payments under one of a number of invalidity-type schemes. The increase is intended as a contribution towards the additional costs people face when they live alone.

The living alone allowance has not been increased since 1996 because for many years the policy regarding supports for pensioners has been to give priority to increasing personal rates of pensions rather than focusing on supplements such as the allowance in question. The objective is to use resources to improve the position of all pensioners to the fullest extent possible. This approach was continued in 2008, with increases of up to €14 and €12 per week granted in respect of personal rates. Since 2002, the level of the contributory State pension has increased by more than 50%. This improvement has had a marked impact on the living standards of older people, enabling them to face the future with a greater sense of security and dignity.

The Department monitors regular statistical releases such as the EU survey of income and living conditions, EU-SILC, to track the effectiveness of income policies. The 2006 EU-SILC report, which was published recently, shows that the position of older people improved significantly from 2005 to 2006, with the at-risk-of-poverty rate falling from 20.1% to 13.6%. Furthermore, the number of people aged 65 and over at risk of poverty was significantly lower than the figure for the general population, which stood at 17%. The estimated cost of increasing the living alone allowance by €1 per week is €8.4 million per annum.

The needs of older people will remain a priority for the Government. Further reforms and improvements will be considered in the context of the Green Paper on Pensions, which was published on 17 October. A major consultation process on future pensions policy is under way. Following its completion, the Government will develop a framework in respect of future pensions policy.

The allowance is intended as a contribution towards the additional costs pensioners face when they live alone. However, the downside is that this is lost when they need to live with someone else. As pointed out on Second Stage, people often avail of support from their families in the context of being cared for and move in with relatives. These people lose the living alone allowance as a result. The Government and the Department saw fit to continue to significantly increase personal rates of pension on an annual basis rather than concentrating on increasing the living alone allowance, which has its limits.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

What is the position regarding a person who lives alone and who does not move in with his or her family? Surely an increase should be provided in respect of his or her living alone allowance.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The decision taken at the time was based on the fact that the numbers of people who live alone as they grow older tends to diminish. The trend is that these individuals move in with their families. Thankfully, their telephone allowance and other benefits remain in place but they lose the living alone allowance. The amount provided through the allowance is small but personal rates of pension have increased annually. We are very proud of our record in respect of the latter. We are of the view that we used our best discretion at the time.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 16:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on administrative options to reform the Rent Supplement Scheme.".

This is a serious issue and I tabled the amendment because I am seeking support for people living in rented accommodation. A review must be carried out in respect of the existing system. Under the current scheme, rental supplement is paid in arrears to recipients, which places them on an uneven footing vis-À-vis other tenants who are able to provide their landlords with deposits and the first month's rent up front. Landlords will choose people who can pay immediately rather than those awaiting the payment of rent supplement. If landlords are considering requests from the latter to commence tenancies with them, they should not be obliged to wait for the rent to be paid in arrears.

Some tenants are forced to top up their rent with additional payments to their landlords, which is in breach of the conditions attached to the payment of rent supplement. As we are all aware, that is going on in every part of the country. However, tenants often have no option other than to make such payments. If they refuse to do so, they run the risk of losing their tenancies and putting their rent supplement in jeopardy. I ask the Minister of State to comment on that.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The programme for Government includes a commitment to reduce long-term reliance on rent supplement. This will be done mainly by keeping the standard means test for rent supplement under review to provide enhanced financial incentives for people taking up employment, or other professional options, and providing long-term housing solutions under the rental accommodation scheme, etc. Improvements in the means test were implemented in June 2007. If a person has an additional income in excess of the standard weekly rate of supplementary welfare allowance, the first €75 of such additional income, together with 25% of any additional income above €75, is disregarded for means assessment purposes. This ensures that those who return to work, or participate in the training schemes, are better off as a result of taking up such opportunities. Rent supplement may continue to be paid to a person in full-time employment, as long as they satisfy the improved means testing arrangements I have outlined and have been accepted as having a long-term housing need under the rental accommodation scheme.

Rent supplement and all other supplementary welfare payments are paid in arrears. The cost to the Exchequer of paying rent supplement in advance would be approximately €33 million. Advance payment of rent is possible in exceptional circumstances, through the exceptional needs payment, at the discretion of community welfare officers. Exceptional needs payments can be made to cover rent deposits, if necessary. That over 59,000 people are receiving rent supplement indicates that the system is not problematic — it is not restricting those who need the assistance of rent supplement when seeking accommodation in the current rental market. There is no evidence of tenants making complaints about refusals to the Department or the HSE. The current rent limits will apply to the period between January of this year and June of next year. Data published by the Central Statistics Office indicate that rents are stable at present — they fell by 0.2% in September and were unchanged in October.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The rental market in the Minister of State's neck of the woods must be different from the market in Athlone. One of the biggest issues raised at my clinics is the serious difficulty people are having with the rent supplement scheme.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 17:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the removal of the Habitual Residence Condition from the Child Benefit payment.".

This amendment aims to assist 3,000 people whose incomes are so small that their children are being deprived of the most basic and fundamental necessities, such as food, clothing, schoolbooks and over-the-counter medicines and Christmas toys, and who do not qualify for child benefit under the habitual residence condition. It is grossly unfair that existing Government policy excludes the children of those in receipt of direct provision from the advantages of the child benefit system. It directly contradicts the Government's policy on the reduction of child poverty and is in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by Ireland in 1992. Countries which sign up to the convention promise to protect the rights of all children within their jurisdictions without discrimination of any kind, including any prejudice based on their parents' status. Therefore, the Government's approach is somewhat contradictory. Article 26 of the UN convention states that every child has a right to benefit from social security. Children whose parents do not qualify for child benefit under the habitual residence condition are expected to survive on €9.60 per week, which would hardly buy a bar of chocolate. As I said yesterday, the chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council has argued that the Government's policy in this area is having a dehumanising effect — it is pushing people further into poverty and isolation and causing stress and heartache. Given that the number of people affected is quite small, the Minister of State should be able to examine this matter, open her heart and take appropriate action.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I support Senator McFadden's amendment, which seeks to deal with an issue I have raised on a number of occasions. I launched a campaign over a year ago to seek to restore universal child benefit to the children of asylum seekers who are being dealt with under the direct provision programme. The campaign is co-ordinated by the Free Legal Advice Centres and supported by a range of non-governmental organisations involved in children's rights. As Senator McFadden said, the imposition of the habitual residence condition and the subsequent denial of child benefit is seriously disadvantaging these children and their parents.

When I raised this matter on the Adjournment some weeks ago, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, told me that children in direct provision are regarded as having a payment being made to them. The Government considers that payments under the direct provision scheme are somehow equivalent to, or in substitution for, payments under the universal child benefit scheme. When one looks at the figures, however, that simply cannot be the case. As Senator McFadden said, the parents of children in direct provision are entitled to just €9 per week whereas those who can avail of universal child benefit in respect of their children receive approximately €250 per week, which is significantly more. The denial of child benefit to this relatively contained group of children — less than 3,000 people are affected — is in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Government's stated policy on the alleviation of child poverty. It is potentially in breach of the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, in which the Government pledges to allocate additional resources to help tackle child and family poverty. This benefit is supposed to be universal — it should be made available to every child in the land, irrespective of the means or status of their parents — but it is being denied to the disadvantaged children I have mentioned. I ask the Minister of State to consider accepting this amendment.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept the amendment. The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes, including the child benefit scheme, with effect from 1 May 2004. That condition was introduced to ensure that people who have not worked in Ireland, or have not established habitual residence here, should not be able to avail of assistance schemes, such as child benefit. I am satisfied that the condition is achieving its intended purpose, which is to allow people who are genuinely and lawfully making Ireland their habitual residence to access social welfare schemes while preventing unwarranted access by those who have little or no connection with the State. The operation of the condition was reviewed by the Department of Social and Family Affairs in 2006. It is not intended to introduce any changes to the current policy in this regard, as the original reason for the policy is still valid. The advice of the Office of the Attorney General on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was obtained before the habitual residence condition was introduced. It was pointed out that the convention allows national law to prescribe the manner in which the needs of children are met. The requirements of the convention in this respect are adequately met by the alternative child benefit provisions in place in Ireland for those whose habitual residence is established. Direct provision is made available for those in need whose habitual residence has yet to be determined. Therefore, the application in this country of the UN convention to child benefit is consistent with the provisions of the convention.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 22 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)

Against the motion: 27 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ciarán Cannon, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Tony Kett, Terry Leyden, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Nicky McFadden and Ivana Bacik; Níl, Senators Diarmuid Wilson and Déirdre de Búrca.

Amendment declared lost.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Amendment No. 18 is out of order as it is outside the scope of the Bill.

Amendment No. 18 not moved.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 19:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister 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 payment to target child poverty levels.".

I welcome the increase of €100 per year, even if it will not come into effect until April. The early child care supplement was announced by the Government in 2005. The intention of the Government was to help parents with child care costs. Will the Minister elaborate on that? I am aware she spoke at length yesterday about it and therefore I will not repeat the case.

1:00 pm

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not accept the amendment. An unacceptable number of children remain in consistent poverty and the Government remains focused on further substantially reducing child poverty. The level of commitment in this area was particularly prominent in the 2008 budget in which was announced a range of targeted measures and supports, costing more than €147 million in a full year, specifically to benefit children in low income families and families on welfare.

In the context of the overall review of targeted child income support payments, the National Economic and Social Council was asked by the Department of the Taoiseach to examine the feasibility of merging the family income supplement with child dependant allowance, and possibly including other child supports such as the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, resulting in a single second tier child income support. Such a payment would be aimed specifically at targeting child poverty by channelling resources to low income families without creating significant disincentives to employment.

The commitment to examining such a change was subsequently embodied in the partnership agreement, Towards 2016, which committed to completing consideration of the issues within one year. That examination was recently completed by Dr. John Sweeney and the outcome will be made available in a discussion document following consultation with the Department of the Taoiseach.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State's response. I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Amendment No. 20 is out of order.

Amendment No. 20 not moved.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 21:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within three months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the implications of the introduction of a scheme to provide paternity benefit, including details of—

(a) qualifications criteria, and

(b) payment methods,

for the scheme, which shall be run on a similar basis to entitlement to maternity benefit.".

This area needs further support and I would welcome the Minister of State's comments.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I support Senator McFadden's amendment on paternity leave, an issue on which I have spoken previously in this House. There is a real need to consider introducing paternity leave. The Minister spoke yesterday about changes to parental leave but paternity leave should be regarded as something different from parental leave because parental leave is an entitlement for both parents. Paid paternity leave is important and if we were to introduce it, it would underline our commitment to recognising the role of fathers in the workplace, give fathers a stand-alone right, in respect of their right to parental leave, to take paid leave from the workplace, and send out an important message about gender equality. On a day when a conference on gender equality is taking place in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham highlighting the ongoing disparities between men and women in the workplace, it is important that we consider taking steps to try to address this issue, and paid paternity leave would be a huge step towards that.

We should also look to our neighbouring jurisdiction, Britain, where paid paternity leave has been introduced. Tony Blair was one of the more high profile people who took it up. Britain introduced paid paternity leave for a period of two weeks, which does not come anywhere near the period for paid maternity leave and benefit but is a step in the right direction, and we should examine the possibility of introducing something similar in this country.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I support the comments made regarding this issue.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept this amendment. Responsibility for matters relating to paternity leave rests with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The question of social insurance funded payment for paternity leave would be contingent on an underlying entitlement to statutory parental leave.

The introduction of paid parental leave or paternity leave would have significant cost implications for employers and-or the Exchequer and the social insurance fund. Any proposal to introduce such payments would have to be examined with regard to its effect on the sustainability of the social insurance fund and employers' costs in terms of global competitiveness.

Under Towards 2016, the Government and social partners are committed to a review of a level of statutory entitlements to maternity and paternity leave before the end of 2008. A working group will be shortly established, led by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to progress this commitment. The work of the group will be informed by the commitment of the agreed programme for Government. These include increasing paid maternity leave by five weeks over the next five years, all leave after the first 26 weeks being made available to either parent and examining the introduction of a statutory entitlement to paternity leave and shared parental leave.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 22:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the implications of extending the free travel scheme to include other services providers and improving free travel benefits for people in rural areas.".

Everyone aged 66 years and over, living permanently in Ireland, is entitled to free travel. Certain people under that age are also entitled to free travel. It is available on all State and public transport and a limited number of services operated by private bus transport companies.

In many rural areas, however, the elderly are dependent on public transport but often these services are infrequent, restricting people from moving about easily. Will the Minister extend the free travel scheme to include other service providers and that public transport in rural areas is a more reliable and efficient? The rural transport initiative operates successfully in County Westmeath but it does not scratch the surface in providing a proper service for the needs of the elderly.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept the amendment. The free travel scheme permits travel on most CIE public transport services, Luas and a range of services offered by a large number of private operators. Some 19 private transport operators are involved in the scheme, providing services to free travel pass-holders. It is open to private transport operators to apply to the Department for inclusion in the scheme. All applications are considered providing the operator holds a valid passenger licence from the Department of Transport.

The Department provides funding through the rural transport scheme in recognition of the carriage of free travel pass-holders. Funding of €1.5 million was provided for the programme in 2007, with a similar amount provided for in 2008. The scheme, managed by Pobal on behalf of the Department of Transport, encourages innovative community-based initiatives to provide transport services in rural areas to address social exclusion by lack of access to transport. It is acknowledged free travel pass-holders benefit from the programme, particularly those who had no access to public transport prior to the establishment of the scheme. The free travel scheme benefits 64,000 customers at the cost of €64 million per year.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 23:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the payment of the fuel allowance as a once-off bulk payment.".

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The fuel allowance is paid from the end of September to the end of April each year. It represents a contribution to a person's normal heating expenses. It was never intended to meet the costs in full. Improvements to the allowance in recent years include the easing of the means test and extending the duration of the payment from 26 to 29 weeks.

Budget 2006 provided for an increase in the rate of fuel allowance from €9 to €14 and €17.90 in designated smokeless fuel areas. This year's budget increased the rate by €4, from €14 to €18 and €21.90 in designated smokeless fuel areas. The primary social welfare rates were also increased to keep in line with inflation.

A detailed review of the fuel allowance was carried out in 1998 and the review examined alternatives to the weekly payment method, including a single lump payment. A survey of recipients of the allowance on a customer panel showed that a majority, 58%, preferred weekly payment; only 22% wanted the lump sum payment. Up to 12% favoured direct debit to a supplier while 8% would rather have two lump sum payments during the fuel season. The review recommended continuing with the current payment system. The Minister will keep all aspects of the scheme, including the lump sum payment, under review.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

On Second Stage Senator Doherty and I referred to fuel poverty and the report from the Institute of Public Health which stated Ireland had the highest levels of winter mortality in Europe with an estimated 2,800 more deaths over the winter. Accordingly, 44% of these excess winter deaths are directly associated with poor housing standards, people living in poor, damp and thermally inefficient houses.

I feel strongly about the vulnerable in our society. It is not acceptable that some people are living in cold and damp conditions.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Fuel poverty is described as the inability to afford adequate warmth in a home or the inability to achieve adequate warmth because of the energy and efficiency of the home. The Green Paper on Energy Policy, published in October 2006, stated the Government's commitment to reducing fuel poverty. This issue will be further addressed as the current energy policy formulation process develops through the Green Paper consultation phase and White Paper publication and implementation.

Last year, it should be recalled, the then Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Séamus Brennan, increased the units of electricity in the free electricity allowance for welfare recipients.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Will the Minister of State further comment on the feasibility of the single lump payment?

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

A detailed review of the fuel allowance was carried out in 1998. A survey of recipients of the allowance on a customer panel showed that a majority, 58%, preferred weekly payment while only 8% would rather have two lump sum payments during the fuel season. As a result the Department kept the scheme as arranged. The Minister is open to reviewing this arrangement at a later stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 24:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of a national waste waiver system for all low-income households administered through the social welfare system.".

A new report by the Combat Poverty Agency has highlighted the need for a uniform approach to the application of waiver arrangements for waste collection charges for low income and poor households. Such waivers should be available from all refuse collection operators, both public and private. Senator Cassidy and I are aware of the good waiver system in County Westmeath but, as it is under constant review, there is a danger it will be removed. Several factors need to be assessed, for instance eligibility for a waiver, the proportion of the discount, the application procedure and a clear decision-making and appeals system. There should be a national payment to the local authorities, or through the social welfare system, to allow people avail of the waiver, which is a good system and directly helps those who are worst off.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

This is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Local authorities have the power necessary to operate the waiver schemes and most do so. The introduction of a national social welfare scheme to address the issue would not be feasible given the wide range of charging arrangements, regimes and cost structures that exist for waste management throughout the country. Charges vary across the local authorities, and within local authorities where there is more than one provider. In addition, some local authorities and private operators also operate waiver schemes but the qualifying conditions for these schemes also vary.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 25:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on improving women's entitlement to the full State Contributory Pension.".

The Minister of State said in her speech yesterday that women who are not entitled to a contributory pension would benefit from the qualified adult allowance. These women have been hard done by because of their responsibilities in the home. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments on this if she could lay before the House a report on women's entitlements.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not propose to accept this amendment. There has been a range of reforms to the social welfare system over recent decades which make it easier for people, and women in particular, to qualify for contributory pensions. The Government has taken action to improve the position of those who do not qualify for a pension in their own right but are supported as qualified adults on the pensions of their spouses or partners. The programme for Government contains a commitment to increase the rate of the qualified adult payment to the level of the non-contributory State pension over three years.

There are also many older women who for various reasons cannot benefit from the many changes outlined. Their position, together with that of others not covered by the social welfare pension system, and the implications of providing for them are discussed in the Green Paper on pensions published on 17 October. We await the outcome of the public submissions in response to the Green Paper to which everyone, Members, women in that situation and others, are welcome to make a submission.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sections 2 and 3 agreed to.

NEW SECTIONS.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 26:

In page 4, before section 4, to insert the following new section:

"4.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the level of use and take up of the Family Income Supplement.".

Sadly, the family income supplement has been unsuccessful. It attempted to support families at work on low pay but the take-up is a long-standing problem. Recent research by the ESRI suggests that fewer than one in three of potentially eligible claimants receive family income supplement. This was introduced in 1984 and it is stunning that 22 years later the take-up has remained a fraction of its potential throughout that period. There are no suggestions why 60% or more eligible families did not receive the supplement. I would like the Minister of State to comment on this and hope she can outline some suggestions for improving the take-up by those who are eligible.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The information reaches people through public campaigning and advertising. The Department has publicised the scheme consistently to maximise the uptake by qualified families. Following the significant improvements in the qualifying income limits in the 2006 budget the Department undertook a week long nationwide awareness campaign in March of that year to encourage increased take-up of the scheme. This, combined with the improvement in the income limits, resulted in a strong upward trend in the level of new claims and, consequently, claims for renewals.

The Department has received 35,945 new and renewal claims to the end of November 2007 and has decided on a total of 29,840 cases. At 24 November 2007 there were 10,746 claims awaiting decision. These comprised 5,100 new claims and 5,646 renewal claims. The average time it takes to award a claim or renewal is 14 and a half weeks. We are impressed and pleased with the uptake of those claims, showing that the awareness campaigns were successful. The Department has commissioned a research project to examine the factors behind the level of take-up for the scheme. This is at tender stage and is expected to be completed in July next year.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome that.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 27:

In page 4, before section 4, to insert the following new section:

"4.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the number of eligible persons and proportion thereof availing of the Back-to-School Clothing and Footwear Allowance, among low income families.".

This amendment is similar to Senator Prendergast's amendment which the Minister of State has discussed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sections 4 to 9, inclusive, agreed to.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.

Title agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.