Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

Section 1 agreed to.

SECTION 2.

3:00 pm

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 6, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:

""Anti-Fraud Initiatives" means those programs, measures or actions designed to eliminate fraudulent claims in respect of all payments made under the Principal Act, as amended;".

I welcome the Minister to the House. This is a worthwhile amendment on which I ask the Minister to comment.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not propose to accept the amendment as it is not necessary. Comprehensive legislation is in place which covers all aspects of control activity. Senators will have noted recent figures which show the Department's success in combating welfare fraud and error through prevention, detection, deterrence and debt recovery. This is done at various stages from the point at which a claim is made and throughout its life cycle.

A large number of people are actively engaged in ensuring taxpayers' money goes to those who deserve it. The Department uses targeted control measures as well as regular controls of individual applications, monitors employers' PRSI payments and carries out reviews. Prosecutions have also been brought before the courts.

As I indicated, the legislation is in place and anti-fraud measures are a central part of the Department's work. Approximately 600 people are employed at local and regional level to work actively in this area. While I appreciate the reason the Senator seeks to ensure the Department performs this function, I assure her the necessary legislative powers are in place.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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While I am aware that many checks and balances are needed to assess child benefit applications, delays of up to 12 months are experienced in processing these applications to identify fraudulent claims. Is it possible to expedite the processing of child benefit claims?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is correct that there have been some delays in processing child benefit claims. These largely occur in the case of claims made by non-nationals living in Ireland for children who are non-resident. Processing such applications requires a large number of checks to be made in the home country of the families in question to ensure the child exists and the family is not in receipt of other payments. While this has caused delays, in recent weeks the child benefit section has made a concerted effort to clear arrears. Senators will note from figures on payments made this year that expenditure on child benefit has increased considerably. This is primarily due to arrears being cleared rather than an increase in claims. The Department aims to clear the balance of arrears.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. Many people are becoming unemployed and lodging claims for benefits. It is a matter of considerable concern that it takes eight to ten weeks to process many of these claims. Are these delays also due to checks being carried out or can they be explained by pressure on services or a shortage of staff to deal with them? Is it a case of checking out the credentials of claimants and so forth? The problem described by the Minister should not be as significant in the case of claims for unemployment benefits.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I concur with Senator Fitzgerald. I am aware that there has been a problem for some time and it has been accepted practice that processing claims takes eight to ten weeks. The Department gave an explanation and stated that people receive an immediate gratuity or some other payment from their employer to tide them over. It seems harsh that people should be placed in this position.

The issue on which I ask for further information is recent newspaper reports, which I presume may have some substance as they appeared in reputable newspapers, that some of the Polish workers who were formerly employed here are flying over on cheap flights and collecting social welfare payments as if they were still resident here. I do not want to tar all Polish workers as I believe only a small minority is involved, as is the case in every community. There is, therefore, nothing anti-Polish in raising this issue. If, however, the reports are true, it is an abominable practice because it diminishes the pot for the rest of those experiencing difficult circumstances during a period of economic turbulence. Does the Minister have further information on the matter?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Two separate issues have been raised. The length of time required to process claims is due to the pressure caused by the number of applications being received. Unfortunately, all offices have experienced a large increase in the number of people applying for jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit. To ensure we can expedite the processing of claims, approximately 30 additional staff were made available some months ago. The Department also received sanction for 115 extra staff who are being recruited from other Departments and moved into the relevant offices. We also established a special unit in the Townsend Street office consisting solely of deciding officers. They will take claims from throughout the country and work very quickly through them to try to ensure people with claims can receive them before Christmas. We are targeting claims for jobseeker's allowance and benefit.

The jobseeker's benefit never takes as long because it is directly related to people having paid their social insurance stamps. The jobseeker's allowance, because it is a means tested payment, can take longer. We are very conscious of it and hope the extra staff in the special unit will help to expedite issues.

On the question asked by Senator Norris on potential fraud, there was anecdotal evidence some months ago that this was happening. To combat that, rather than having people sign on once a month and have their payment paid electronically through their bank and not have to collect it in person, I decided people could sign on once a month but had to collect their payment in the post office every week. The measure applied to new claimants and we are satisfied it has cut down substantially on any potential fraud. It is something we must keep under close control.

Photo of Martin BradyMartin Brady (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Norris has covered some of what I wanted to say. Some constituents brought a matter to my attention of a situation where a landlord has a partner living under the same roof and the partner receives rent supplement. The evidence is anecdotal. I believe the situation is widespread in north Dublin. Is the Minister aware of this? If it is happening, what can be done about it? It is something I have not come across before.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome the clarification the Minister has given. It is a good idea to have payments collected weekly.

Another element in the article I read stated that people are not normally asked for clear or photographic identification. Can the Minister consider introducing that through regulation? The same article had a build-up of so many incidental facts that an accurate case was suggested. It was suggested that some people were getting colleagues or friends to sign on for them and there was no photographic check, such as a driver's licences or passport.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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On Senator Brady's point on rent supplement, it is an area where, because we are spending €410 million, we must keep under control who is receiving it for whom. It can be difficult because we give it to the individual tenant rather than to a landlord. Records would not be kept under the name of a landlord but under the name of each individual tenant. I will check if we can have further control on that matter.

Senator Norris is correct. We do not look for photographic identification. When people come in to claim they must bring all their details with them. If we have evidence that people are signing on behalf of others, which was the story we both read, we must see how we can ensure the right people are getting the money.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 2:

In page 6, between lines 10 and 11, but in Part 1, to insert the following:

""Spouse" shall be construed to include marriages and civil partnerships between persons of the same sex which would be recognised in other jurisdictions.".

This is an attempt redefine the term "spouse" to include same sex couples. In an extraordinary move a number of years ago, the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Mary Coughlan, on foot of a decision by the Equality Tribunal which found a case of serious discrimination and violation of human rights because a transport company had denied the same rights to a spouse in a same sex relationship that were available to heterosexual couples whether they were married or not, chose not to address this discrimination but copperfastened the violation of human rights by redefining "spouse" to exclude people. We were told, four or five years ago by the then Minister, Deputy Coughlan, that this matter would be addressed speedily and was a temporary tidying-up operation. It has been consistently long-fingered.

It is disgraceful that this Government, as far as I know, is the only one in Europe to have introduced highly discriminatory legislation of any kind against citizens in the last 15 years. Citizens were reassured by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, that they had exactly the rights, that it was the responsibility of the law to justify and vindicate those rights, and that sexual orientation must never be used as a reason for discriminating against people. In an attempt to be helpful, as I always am, I tabled this amendment to address this glaring, blatant and mean-minded attack on the civil and human rights of a vulnerable minority.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
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I support Senator Norris in this.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not propose to accept the amendment. The reason is the preparation of the Civil Partnership Bill which, as the Senator knows, is due to be published early next year. It will give civil partnership registration for same sex couples and will also confer a range of rights and obligations. I intend, following the passing of that Bill, to ensure equivalent social welfare treatment will be extended in a future Social Welfare Bill to the category the Senator is talking about. It is appropriate at this stage, given how advanced the Civil Partnership Bill is, to wait until the issue is dealt with in that.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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While I do not wish to impugn the Minister's honour or goodwill in this matter, since the Social Welfare Bill was used as an instrument to discriminate viciously against gay people, it is perfectly appropriate that it be used in a positive manner to remove the discrimination. There is nothing to prevent that in the future. It can be done now quite easily, simply and technically. It would be a good day's work.

I have heard about this Bill for the past four years. It has now been postponed until the end of 2009. I had a Civil Partnership Bill on the Order Paper of the House for four years and it was kicked to touch every time. I cannot remember how many committees there were. There was the Anne Colley committee, the human rights committee, the committee on the constitution and old Uncle Tom Cobley and all. The whole gasworks were involved in it and they all said, "Yes, go ahead and do it." The courts said the same. I do not know what the problem is. It is being long-fingered again.

I remind the Minister that justice delayed is justice denied. I look for the amendment to be accepted. I am not anti-family. I would like the Minister to know that because a Senator from Wexford on the Government side of the House produced material on supporting the family. It was apparently intended to undermine those of us taking a progressive point of view. I offered to sign it and begged to have it given to me so I too could support the family. I did not come out of the hot tap in the bath. I came from a family. I support the family. I do not support it with uncritical fervour regardless of whether the father is fiddling with the children or there are other types of abuse going on. There are some pretty rotten families. To use the family as a scapegoat for denying people human rights is an idiotic piece of nonsense. I do not accept what the Minister has to say on this issue.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The difference between now and previous occasions is that the scheme for the Civil Partnership Bill was approved by Government last year. Preparation is well under way, unlike previous occasions when generalities were being discussed. That Bill will have a significant impact on same sex couples and on their rights. Therefore, it is appropriate to wait until that Bill has dealt with those issues so that I can then follow it up afterwards in a social welfare Bill, which is my intention.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for her courteous response. This will be my last intervention on this matter. To have something in the heads of a Bill does not matter a tuppenny damn. In the Charities Bill 2007, we had a clear indication that human rights would be included as it had been included in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and even Australia. However, it was suddenly whipped out. How do I know that my human rights will not be whipped out at a convenient moment? The fact that it is in the heads of a Bill has no significance whatever in law. That is what we are here for. We are not here to daydream about how wonderful it might be in 2009 if the Government gets itself together and does something. We are here to legislate.

With the greatest regret, I do not accept what the Minister has to say. I have had too many promises for too long. There has been too much of what the late Sean O'Casey would have called "prognostication and prevarication". I will call votes on all these things from now until the Government stirs itself and does something. It has been long enough in the waiting.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 4 (Dominic Hannigan, David Norris, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan)

Against the motion: 28 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Dominic Hannigan and David Norris; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.

Amendment declared lost.

Section 2 agreed to.

Section 3 agreed to.

SECTION 4.

Question proposed: "That section 4 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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It is obvious that increases in social assistance payments are to be welcomed in any debate on social welfare. Such payments are made, following means tests, to assist those who have not paid sufficient PRSI contributions. This section lists the allowances to which it refers. Like many other Senators, I made specific reference to carer's allowance during the Second Stage debate. I asked the Minister to give serious consideration over the next few months, as plans are being made for the next budget and social welfare Bill, to the possibility of removing the means test element of the carer's allowance payment. This proposal has been around for almost as long as the carer's allowance payment. One of the Minister's predecessors, the late Séamus Brennan, discussed this issue in this House on a number of occasions. When he gave us an estimate, or guesstimate, of how much the removal of the means test would cost, the figure in question seemed quite reasonable. I appreciate that this debate is taking place in difficult economic times.

The carer's allowance payment has helped to transform the lives of thousands of people in all parts of the country. It allows many elderly people to remain in their own homes and communities, which is where they want to be. The State is getting extraordinarily good value for money from the carer's allowance scheme. A little flexibility has been introduced to the scheme over the years. It has been decided that a carer does not need to reside in the same house as the person being cared for, as long as there is a sufficient link between them. I welcome the decision to improve the income disregard figure significantly. I hope that kind of policy will continue. The kernel of the matter is the issue of universality, which we recently debated in the context of medical cards and college fees, etc. If there is one statement we should make in the context of universality, it is to give full support to elderly people who wish to remain in their own communities.

The Minister's colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, is currently introducing the fair deal nursing home scheme. I am sure it will represent an improvement on what is in place at present. Regardless of how good the fair deal scheme will be, or how well we look after people when we give them beds in nursing homes, our aspiration must be to help the maximum possible number of people to remain in their own homes and communities. The carer's allowance payment is a key aspect of this policy position. I ask the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, to ensure her political priority in her current portfolio is to dramatically reform the carers allowance scheme so that everybody who provides full-time care to those who need such attention gets the maximum carer's allowance payment without being subject to a means test. Such a strong statement of social solidarity would make it clear that this country has an ethos of looking after its elderly people. We all aspire to be elderly at some stage in the future.

The care of the elderly in this country is not just a matter for nursing homes. Most people prefer to remain in their own communities, regardless of how well nursing homes are run, how clean the beds are and how fine the rooms are. The carer's allowance scheme plays a significant part in allowing people to remain in their homes and communities with their families, friends and neighbours. The Government, and society as a whole, are getting excellent value from each payment of approximately €240 a week. I appreciate that we will not change the carers allowance regime this afternoon. As I do almost every year, I plead for improvements in the scheme. I am glad that Ministers and Governments have listened and made improvements in the past five or six years. The real step that needs to be taken, politically and economically, is to declare that we will ensure that those who provide full-time care to elderly people who need such attention will be rewarded with the maximum carer's allowance, which is a modest payment. I know what we should do if we have to decide whether to pay €250 a week to a carer, or to direct between €500 and €800 to a nursing home.

I ask the Minister to put this matter at the top of her agenda as she plans for the next few difficult months and the inevitably difficult budget that will follow the recent budget. In times of difficulty and limited resources there are areas of economic and social policy in which we must try to make a real difference. In the social welfare Bills in the past five or six years, the one area that stands out is the carer's allowance. I welcome those improvements. One fundamental further step needs to be taken. It is a political statement of ethos as to what we stand for regarding our elderly. We want to see the maximum numbers of our elderly living out their lives in their homes and communities. I would like to get the Minister's views on the matter. She should give it serious political attention in the coming months. There have been reports and analysis. We now need genuine political will.

I strongly commend the attitude of one of the Minister's predecessors, the late Séamus Brennan. He made a difference through various amendments to regulations and rules. He seemed willing to work towards removing the means test for this payment. I ask the Minister to continue that work.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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My amendment on jobseeker's benefit was disallowed. In my Second Stage speech I referred to the Christmas bonus for jobseekers. I ask the Minister to review that entire section. It is wholly unfair that people made redundant in recent months will be unable to avail of a Christmas bonus and that their payment will run out after 12 months instead of 15 months, which was the case heretofore. These people have paid their tax and PRSI for some time. In my Second Stage contribution I referred to a lady who worked for 12 years and will now have nothing to supplement her income. I wish to address the issue of mortgages later. These people are really strapped for cash.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
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I support my Seanad colleagues regarding the carer's allowance. Carer's allowance is not always needed for an elderly person. I know a relatively young man in his 50s who is severely disabled and is having awful problems getting the allowance. In south Tipperary no home help has been allocated since August despite the same money having been allocated for the service. Is there any reason for this being so? I support my colleague's comments on the jobseeker's benefit. Those in receipt of this benefit are set to lose up to €40 per week if they are disallowed it as a result of different means testing now.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I just came in on this debate and have not read too much about it. I agree with all the points made, certainly by Senator Bradford, on the home help and carer's allowance. It is all about community and how we can best keep the elderly and those who are not well in their own families, which would be ideal. No doubt the Minister will have great empathy with the points made here this afternoon. Although perhaps not in the short term, the Minister might keep this in mind. We would all like to find ways we can best help the community and improve society by having those people within the environment of their own families and neighbours, who want to help. Many people would benefit from the carer's allowance in this regard. In the long term the Minister might rethink the issue and might include it in her agenda for the future.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I fully appreciate what Senators are saying about the value of carers in our community and that they support looking after the young and old in their own homes. At present approximately 44,000 people are in receipt of a carer's payment. Of those 14,200 are getting the half-rate carer's allowance. Of course each of these will get the increase set out in the section of €7 or €3.50 for the half rate. To remove the means test completely would cost €150 million in a full year. I would question whether that would give us the best value for money. Senator Prendergast raised the need for more home help, which involves the Department of Health and Children. Some carers would claim they would like to see the money that goes towards means testing going towards more home help, more respite care, more community facilities and more day-care services that would be of support to carers who really need it rather than lifting the means test and giving it to those who may have financial means even though their demands as a carer would be great.

A carers' strategy is being prepared and is being co-ordinated through the Department of the Taoiseach, because it involves more than just social welfare and affects the areas of health and facilities. That strategy will be available in the new year. I am not convinced that amount of money is best spent by lifting a means test particularly when there are demands of all other areas.

The Christmas bonus has been always given to long-term social welfare recipients. That is why some people who have recently lost their jobs do not get it. These are people who would have been in employment until recent months. While I know it is very difficult for them now, the people on social welfare would have been depending on their €200 a week all year and have come to look forward to that Christmas bonus. I am glad we were able to give the 100% again this year despite the difficulties we have with our finances.

For those who cease to get jobseeker's benefit after one year, of course, if they do not have any other means, they will move on to the jobseeker's allowance, which is at the same level of payment. In all these payments we are particularly conscious of the difficulties people are having. One of the reasons there is such pressure on the Exchequer funding is that the budget for my Department is already €19.6 billion just trying to support people, not only the pensioners and carers who we regularly expect to be claiming, but also unfortunately the unemployed following a significant increase in the live register.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I am disappointed with the Minister's response. I would have had a view of her ideology on many issues and would have expected her to be more sympathetic. As I said, I believe one of her predecessors, the late Séamus Brennan, not in the sense of producing reports, but in the ongoing engagement he had with us politically, was moving in a more positive direction on carer's allowance.

The Minister said that her budget was €19.6 billion, which is enormous but necessary and admittedly difficult to find. If we put the €150 million on the other side of the equation, I would contend that if the means test were eliminated for the carer's allowance the €150 million probably would be insufficient to pay for the extra claims that would come on board. It is like the ongoing arguments on child benefit, third level fees, medical cards for the over 70s etc. that will never conclude. At some stage it is necessary to make political decision, notwithstanding the cost. We need to make the political decision that we value people who provide full-time care and attention to a family member, relative or neighbour and that we also encourage the concept of elderly people spending their futures in their homes and communities rather than in nursing homes. I do not want to be seen as critical of nursing homes because I recall canvassing at some of them in an election and the proprietors felt I was public enemy number one, simply because I firmly believe that people if at all possible should be encouraged to remain in their homes and communities.

The €150 million is a substantial amount. At the moment the Department of Health and Children is paying out enormous sums in nursing home subvention schemes, often paying the enhanced subvention. In many cases the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is paying out €600 to €700 per week to look after a person in a nursing home. That person may well be much happier at home and if €250 or €260 a week were paid to a neighbour, family member or friend to look after the person, it would be win-win for everybody concerned, including the taxpayer.

I appreciate what the Minister said but I am a little disappointed with her overall response. I had hoped she would reflect further because over the next ten to 20 years, as the demographic trends will show, care of the elderly will be a major issue. We can build all the bright shiny nursing homes we like and put all the elderly people in there if we wish. That might be some people's view of a solution, but it is not mine. We need a strong political statement that we will encourage and support people who wish to stay in their homes and communities with their families and friends. There are many ways of doing this, but in view of what is before us today, the carer's allowance is key. It is not even the amount of money involved; it is the fact that the State recognises the work carers do for elderly people, relatives, friends or neighbours. From the point of view of policy, this is something the Minister should consider more fully and with more of an open mind. I appreciate that €150 million is a large amount of money and probably would not be enough to cover what I am looking for, but the costs on the other side are large also, with subventions and all the other financial remedies that have to be applied when people are not in a position to stay at home.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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With regard to jobseeker's benefit, I am concerned that we are creating a welfare state. We are almost encouraging people to be on long-term unemployment benefit. The idea that a person with large mortgage repayments, car loans or credit card bills — having paid PRSI, which is insurance against unemployment — is not entitled to benefit is something with which I am not happy. I ask the Minister to reconsider this. Like Senator Bradford, I am not happy with her response.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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It is just not possible to pay the Christmas bonus to everybody who is claiming, although I appreciate the difficulties some families have. People who are running into difficulties with mortgage interest repayments and so on should certainly investigate the mortgage interest supplement. So far we are providing mortgage interest support to more than 7,000 people. It is a particularly difficult situation and I have asked that the banks enforce the code of their own federation and refrain from foreclosing on people and taking houses from them where there are facilities to restructure their interest repayments or to re-mortgage. Benefit will of course be paid to people for 12 months, subject to their having the required stamps, but jobseeker's allowance will be available thereafter.

Question put and agreed to.

SECTION 5

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 3:

In page 7, between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following subsection:

"(3) 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 Family Income Supplement.".

The reason for this amendment is the number of people who are eligible for FIS but do not claim it. I remember discussing at length during the passage of the Social Welfare Bill last year the number of people who were not aware of the supplement and were not availing of it. A report on how many people are availing of the supplement would be useful.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Senator McFadden is right in thinking that the family income supplement is a valuable payment in cash to low-income families. Given the evidence we have seen of the difficulties faced by some low-income families, it is important that they can benefit from it. It is true there has been a lower than anticipated take-up of FIS, but this has improved as a direct result of advertising campaigns. Once people realised it was there they did benefit from it. Even public representatives can usefully let people know about its availability. What I was anxious to do this year, through the thresholds, was to ensure that more people could benefit from the supplement. Whereas 27,000 people benefited from it in 2008, I anticipate that at least another 2,000 will benefit from it next year because of the changes in the budget. Next year we will be paying €181 million through this scheme.

We have been carrying out a study on why people do not take up the FIS. The ESRI did early research and found that only about one in three of those eligible were actually claiming the supplement. We have been considering why families who should qualify and who did qualify did not take it up. When I have the results of that research I will lay it before the Houses of the Oireachtas, and we might get another opportunity to discuss it. It will certainly guide us in ensuring that those people who do qualify get the supplement.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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Is the Minister accepting the amendment?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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No, I am not accepting the amendment, because I am awaiting the results of the research.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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The Minister will lay the research before the Houses?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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As soon as I get it, I will lay before the Houses the research on why there is not sufficient take-up of FIS.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 5 agreed to.

Sections 6 and 7 agreed to.

SECTION 8.

Question proposed: "That section 8 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I may be off the mark with regard to this query, but this is the only section that seems remotely related to it, as the section mentions reckonable income for social insurance contributions. I refer to something I raised on Second Stage. The Minister intended to work on the area of retrospective collection of social insurance contributions from the spouses of self-employed persons. I am speaking particularly of the spouses of farmers who pay PRSI and qualify for a full contributory pension when they reach the age of 65. We had better use politically correct language, although what we are basically talking about is farmers' wives — we will have to strike off the record the mention of wives. The relevant provision was introduced in 1988, but some farmers' spouses did not pay PRSI — although they were contributing fully to the running of the farm, and in many cases either fully owned or part-owned the farm — because the tax and social welfare returns were done in the other person's name. Queries on this issue have gone on for ten years, and now the Department has reached some degree of compromise with the IFA and other interest groups. Leaflets have issued to say that people can seek to have their records considered retrospectively and can make retrospective PRSI contributions to the Department so that they will qualify for pensions in their own right. We are talking about a small number of people, perhaps a few thousand.

I wonder how the Department's proposal is progressing. A leaflet was certainly produced, because I received it from a number of people who were very happy to see it, but in the few cases I have been pursuing, progress seems to be slow, although they have not been rejected. I appeal to the Minister to try to resolve the issue. I am not sure whether I am on the right section, or whether there is any relevant section, but the words "reckonable income" gave me a little manoeuvrability. The Leas-Chathaoirleach would be aware of many of these cases. Accountants thought they were doing people a favour by suggesting that all the accounts be in one person's name, but spouses have lost out.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I am listening to Senator Bradford, and the issue about which he is talking is quite convoluted. I really need to study this. We are talking about spouses, farmers' wives, farmers' husbands, who is a partner, who is paying PRSI, who has not paid PRSI and who is doing the returns. I would hate to be in that league of thinking because they would buy and sell me. I would not be able for the way Senator Bradford presented the cases about which he is talking. I am glad it is the Minister who is to answer this. It is complicated.

5:00 pm

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I fail to see how this fits in with stallion fees, stud greyhound fees and profit from woodlands, but I am always happy to take the Senator's questions.

This has been an issue for a long number of years but the spouse, or both partners, has to be able to prove that a partnership existed. During the year my Department and the Revenue Commissioners agreed on what were the issues indicating that a partnership had existed, such as joint bank accounts or cheque book signatures, and the information in the leaflet to which the Senator referred is very valuable and useful. It is not just a case of turning up and saying, "I worked on the farm all my life." It must be based on some sort of partnership. I will get more detailed information for the Senator if that is of assistance.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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The Minister might indicate how many requests have been presented to her Department for claims of retrospective self-employed status and the progress on same.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I will certainly check that for the Senator.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the concept but it appears to be slow——

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I agree it is complicated.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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——and the problem will not exist in a few years' time because it only concerns people who were in the stream for a few years.

Question put and agreed to.

Sections 9 to 12, inclusive, agreed to.

SECTION 13.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 4:

In page 9, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following subsections:

"(3) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the link between receipt of lone parent allowance and the commencement of employment.

(4) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the progress made to support and encourage one parent families in entering the workforce.".

My strong view is that there are very few incentives for lone parents to go back to work. I am sure the Minister in her clinics has come in contact with many lone parents who may be working part-time and find that they are probably better off not working and instead stay at home and keep all their allowances such as the back to school clothing and footwear allowances, their medical card and supplementary child care allowance. Their grant for the provision of school books is now gone. These allowances are an automatic entitlement for those on social welfare whereas a person working for 20 hours a week will lose those benefits. I have first-hand knowledge of these people who lose their benefits.

I am sorry to say that since I last stood here, nothing has changed. I was one of those lone parents. In the 1980s I remember getting an increase of £1 in my wages and I lost £80 in allowances, which was the equivalent of my mortgage repayment. I was in dire straits but I was fortunate in having a good family. If I did not have my family at that time I would have been better off not working. Thankfully I was able to stay in my job but this situation is something very close to my heart and I really empathise with lone parents. These are well educated women who want to give good example to their children and who desperately want to be in the workforce. They value the social aspect of work, they want to give good example to their children and they want to escape the poverty trap. The only way to get out of the poverty trap is not to be on social welfare but rather to work and better oneself. I ask the Minister to consider the amendment. I am not happy with the way the situation has progressed in the past year and I ask for the Minister's comments.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not propose to accept this amendment but I share Senator McFadden's views on the need to ensure we support lone parents. Senators will be aware that the Government published a discussion document on supporting lone parents and we have been working very actively on it in the past few months to try to bring new proposals to a conclusion. These proposals not only deal with return to work but also issues of payment, cohabitation, back to education and child care, as there are many issues to do with supporting lone parents.

In recent years significant changes have been made in the area of income disregards and working hours. I recently met a group of lone parents and one woman told me she dreads getting a routine increase in her pay every January because it impacts on her book and people depend on the book.

We are also very aware that despite the significant decrease in poverty levels, according to last year's figures and in the Silke report and the decrease in consistent poverty, unfortunately it is still the child of a lone parent who is four times more likely to be in poverty. There is a need to address this issue. We have carried out two localised studies in Coolock and Kilkenny, using a focus group and talking to other Departments, because the availability of child care is a very significant issue.

We are also examining methods in other countries. Many countries cease paying a one-parent family allowance when the child is six months, for example, in the case of the United States, and in places such as Finland, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand, it is three, four, five or six years. The United Kingdom is reducing the age to which payment is made to ten years. In Ireland as long as the child is in full-time education payment is made up to the age of 22. There is, therefore, no incentive for any lone parent to return to education. The intention is to start working very early with the lone parent, from the time she makes her claim, to help her prepare for the day when she will not be a full-time carer of her child but will have had access to education and training. We have appointed new facilitators and more will be appointed early next year to start work with these lone parents. There is a big demand for facilitators who will help bring people back into education. It is my intention to publish the long-term proposals for lone parents in the spring and for that reason I will not accept the amendment.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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There is a perception that lone parents will try to dodge in any way they can, they want to work and to receive the lone parent allowance and they will do everything to take as much as they can from the State. Is there a perception that lone parents want it all and the Minister has a problem trying to work through what they are saying and thinking? I ask for the Minister's view as that occurred to me as the Minister was replying.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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There is a number of myths about lone parents. There is the myth that there are hundreds of teenage mothers, which is not so; the number of teenage mothers is substantially reduced. There is the myth that lone parents have a number of children, but the majority of lone parents have only one child. I launched some very good research which was published recently byOne Parent and which has highlighted these issues. It shows the real desire of lone parents to go into education and to return to work, and we can tap into that desire.

It has been found in other countries that a voluntary system does not work so it is a case of finding the balance between supporting the lone parent in returning to education and training and being able to reach her potential, and being able to look after her child, which is the first interest in many cases, and ensuring she does not become trapped in dependency on the book.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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While I acknowledge that the Minister has put in place liaison officers, sadly, there are far too few of them. Some 50 officers would be required to provide a nationwide service because there are many lone parents. I disagree completely with Senator Ormonde.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I was only asking a question.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I did not mean to misinterpret Senator Ormonde, but in my experience, a number of lone parents are very eager to work, are well educated and are desperate to give a good education to their families. I disagree with the Minister, they have not been incentivised.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 15 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Brendan Ryan)

Against the motion: 25 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.

Amendment declared lost.

Section 13 agreed to.

SECTION 14.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 5:

In page 10, between lines 42 and 43, to insert the following subsections:

"(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 people in receipt of rent supplement on the waiting list for the Rental Accommodation Scheme.

(5) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the reform of the Rent Supplement Scheme.

(6) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on paying Rent Supplement in advance rather than arrears.

(7) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on requiring landlords to register with the PRTB in order to be eligible for rent supplement.".

The rental accommodation scheme is similar to the family income support. It is a very good scheme but there are some anomalies with regard to having to be on rent allowance for a certain length of time. People do not necessarily know about the rental accommodation scheme. That is not an issue for the Minister but I ask that she examine the fact that people must be on the rent supplement for so many months before qualifying.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I support Senator McFadden on this very good amendment, which is one from which we can derive much information. The Minister referred to 115 staff that would be brought into the Department. Where do these people come from? I fully agree that there must be a degree of flexibility in other Departments to allow the Minister to take people from other Departments and bring them into the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Perhaps it is a new phenomenon in Departments but it is welcome. We should have more flexibility. What Departments are these people coming from or are they temporary staff to do this job?

The amendment will require extra work but it is a worthwhile amendment. I hope the Minister will accept it. It is an important function of the Department that we would know how many people are in receipt of rent supplement and how many are on the waiting list. It is a valuable amendment.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The rent supplement scheme is important in helping people find accommodation. It is always intended to be a short-term payment. The way it complements the rental accommodation scheme is very important. I do not propose to accept the amendment but I will keep the rent supplement under review because of the amount of money we spend on it. Some 70,000 people benefit from rent supplement.

There is good co-operation with the councils in implementing the rental accommodation scheme. In recent years, 15,800 rent supplement recipients have been transferred to the rental accommodation scheme and other social housing options. In excess of 10,000 other rent supplement recipients have been assessed with a view to transferring them to the rental accommodation scheme. I envisage that continuing and improving over the next few months. That scheme rests with local authorities.

Regarding issues with landlords, our contract is with the tenant. We give the payment to the tenant. As soon as payment has been activated, we notify the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, electronically so that it can follow up to ensure the premises is registered. We find that, with the availability of more premises, rents are coming down and people can get better quality accommodation, which is important. I will keep the issue under review because it is a substantial sum of money helping a substantial number of people.

I can tell Senator Burke where the staff are going but I do not know from where they are coming. We do not yet have the detail but I will pass it on to him if I get it. It is open to all Departments. The important thing is that it is not additional staff coming into the Civil Service. They are coming from other Departments.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is it a new development that people are moving around within Departments? Has it always been the case or are people more flexible now in respect of moving from one Department to another? It is a good idea that people would be flexible and that where there is an overload of work, people can move from one Department to another.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I am not sure of the exact answer to the question but there was a Government decision to facilitate the move of 115 people so perhaps it is the exception rather than the norm.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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A report on the number of landlords that have registered with the PRTB is a good idea from the point of view of having a record of landlords. While not pressing the amendment, I ask the Minister to consider this useful exercise. Some landlords get away with blue murder in respect of the condition of their apartments. There must be regulation on the number of landlords and how they treat their tenants.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 14 agreed to.

Sections 15 and 16 agreed to.

SECTION 17.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 6:

In page 13, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following subsection:

"(2) 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.".

This concerns the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. I referred to it in my contribution on lone parents but it also affects low income families. In one situation there were two children at either end of the spectrum. One was an 18 year old doing his leaving certificate and the other was a youngster making her first holy communion. Both were costly to their parents in respect of buying shoes, clothes or books now that the book grant is gone. I seek more flexibility and a degree of human interest. There should be more support to encourage people to remain at work. This should always be the ethos and it should not be the case that they do not qualify because of one euro.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not propose to accept the amendment. This is a valuable scheme which supports many people and the amount of money provided in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance covers what it is intended to cover, namely, a uniform and shoes. I would not pretend that it also covers school books and I appreciate the pressure on people in this regard. This year, €49 million is being spent on it and 200,000 children are benefiting. When I looked at what we would do next year, the choice was to increase the amount of money available to people or increase the number of people who might benefit from it. In line with Senator McFadden's thinking, I was more anxious that more people should benefit. For that reason, instead of increasing the amount I increased the number of people and approximately 18,000 more families will benefit next year.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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Yes, and I welcome that.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Given all the various price increases, the prices of clothing and footwear have fallen over the past 12 months and I anticipate this will remain the case. I appreciate the value of the scheme and I will try constantly to ensure that more families benefit from it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 17 agreed to.

Amendment No. 7 not moved.

Section 18 agreed to.

Section 19 agreed to.

SECTION 20.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 8:

In page 19, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following subsection:

"(3) 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.".

This concerns child poverty. Many children remain in consistent poverty and, with the introduction of the income levy and increases in accident and emergency charges and energy and food costs, a report should be compiled on the introduction of a second-tier employment neutral child income support payment to target these children. I appreciate the Minister has tried to do this with regard to child benefit.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not propose to accept the amendment. An issue is raised with regard to children being at risk of poverty. As has been mentioned, most of these children tend to be the children of lone parents and they must always be a target group. Payment of child benefit has always been the way in which we have supported families. Child benefit is paid in respect of approximately 1.071 million children.

The programme for Government refers to a second-tier payment. One of the difficulties is that, despite research carried out by Dr. John Sweeney on this matter, no consensus has been reached on how it would be made. This has also been examined by NESC with regard to combining the qualified child allowance and the family income supplement. We have a number of ways to support children. The ESRI research on the family income supplement indicated it could help to support families.

I am not sure how quickly we can move on this in the absence of consensus. This year, to try to target support for the children most in need, rather than increasing child benefit, which is received by everybody and for which we did not have sufficient money available in the budget package, I increased the qualified child allowance by €2. At least it is targeted at the people who need it most.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I must accept the Minister's reply, but I am not very happy with it. Any organisation will tell us about the number of children who avail of this and if a breakfast club or other such facility was not provided by organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul children would go to school hungry. Children go to bed cold. Between now and next year I ask the Minister to consider a two-tier payment to target the most vulnerable children.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 20 agreed to.

SECTION 21.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 9:

In page 20, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following subsection:

"(3) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on eligibility criteria for the Early Childcare Supplement.".

This amendment is also important. While everybody recognises the benefit of the early child care supplement, it would be useful to have a report on the eligibility criteria laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as possible.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The early childhood supplement is designed to support the cost of child care and not only that but to support parents in looking after their children wherever they choose to do so. It is a good scheme. Changes have been introduced by the budget, largely as a cost-saving measure and to ensure that we continue to target children at pre-school age. When it was introduced it was on a quarterly basis until the child reached six years of age. The majority of children are in school by the age of five and a half years so the payment will stop from then and it will be paid as a monthly allowance rather than quarterly. I do not see the need to accept the amendment to make reports on the scheme.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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With regard to payments ceasing when the child reaches five and a half years, when children go to school they finish at 2 p.m. and parents incur major child care costs after 2 p.m. It is a bit mean and callous to remove the payment for those six months. It is one of those little social welfare provisions that has been snuck into the budget about which people will not be aware until next year. I completely abhor it and I think it is mean.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The savings from this next year will be €97 million, which is a significant amount of money. Given the way the scheme was devised in the first instance, the parents of a child born in March received the payment for the full quarter of January, February and March, which meant they received a payment for a child not yet born. If a child was six in January the parent received the payment for January, February and March. It has been changed to a monthly payment from the time the child is born until he or she reaches the age of five and a half. It was always designed to support children in full-time child care and the costs paid by parents for that rather than after school care.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 21 agreed to.

Sections 22 and 23 agreed to.

NEW SECTION.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 10:

In page 20, before section 24, but in Part 2, to insert the following new section:

"24.—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 easing the qualifying criteria for Back to Education Allowance so that unemployed persons, low income earners and persons dependent on social welfare can avail of the payment immediately.".

This amendment is important — it was raised by my colleagues in the Lower House on several occasions — as it concerns the back to education allowance for unemployed persons, low income earners and people dependent on social welfare. The impetus of the amendment is that those categories of people would be able to immediately avail of the back to education allowance and not have to wait for a year. It seems stupid, particularly in this economic downturn, that people must sign on for an entire year prior to availing of the back to school allowance.

Everybody agrees that education is the key to getting out of this recession. People will be demotivated because there are no jobs, not even the most low paid jobs, and I cannot understand why the Minister would have them wait for an entire year and be paid by the State for doing nothing while they could be upskilling, retraining or getting ready for a job.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I support Senator McFadden's amendment. It is regrettable that people who have lost their jobs, or self-employed people who have lost their businesses, cannot avail of the back to education allowance if they have been in receipt of social welfare for less than six months. It is unreasonable that such persons must waste a year before they can participate in this scheme. I am aware of people, including hairdressers and other self-employed persons who have lost their businesses, who are in very difficult circumstances. The Minister should take on board this amendment.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not propose to accept the amendment. The back to education allowance is an important benefit and one that I have promoted since my appointment. One of the positive statistics to emerge from the latest Central Statistics Office data is the 24% increase in the numbers participating in the scheme. This indicates its effectiveness. The scheme was designed to support the long-term unemployed and to offer particular support to those without second level education, who are the most likely to remain on the live register in the long term. That is why the time requirement for such persons is only six months, while it is 12 months for those with a higher educational attainment. However, for those participating in the education action plan, the timeframe is nine months, and those in receipt of statutory redundancy may obtain it immediately. Unfortunately, increasing numbers are finding themselves in that situation.

From the time people sign on the live register, they will be interviewed every three months, and more and more will become involved in the employment action plan. However, I must ensure at all times that the scheme is not abused. For example, we do not want a situation where people who have done their leaving certificates sign on for three months and avail of the back to education allowance even though they intend to go to college in any case. It is a generous scheme, paid at the top rate of the relevant payment. In those circumstances, people would receive €200 per week in addition to a third level grant. It is a valuable scheme but it must be targeted at those who will benefit most from it. Lone parents are benefiting as well as those who are unemployed.

I will, however, keep the matter under review, particularly as the live register is growing, to ensure we are targeting those who require upskilling. There is good co-operation between my Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, in regard to FÁS, and the Department of Education and Science in seeking to ensure that more people are interviewed, supported and offered training places with FÁS and that places which have not been taken up on post-leaving certificate courses and in the institutes of technology can be availed of. That co-operation is working well, in conjunction with the work of the facilitators in encouraging people to avail of that support. The 24% increase in participation is encouraging. I assure Senators, in light of my personal interest in the matter, that I will keep the scheme under review to ensure we are targeting the correct people for support.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 15 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Brendan Ryan)

Against the motion: 24 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.

Amendment declared lost.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 11:

In page 20, before section 24, but in Part 2, to insert the following new section:

"PART 2A

Reporting Requirements

"24.—The Minister shall provide that the following reports shall be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas within 3 months of the commencement of this Act:

(1) A report on the adequacy of each social welfare payment.

(2) A report on the eligibility criteria for the Disability Allowance.

(3) A report on reducing application processing time for social welfare supports.

(4) A report on the removal of the Habitual Residence Condition from the Child Benefit payment.

(5) A report on the progress made in tackling:

(a) Child poverty.

(b) Pensioner poverty.

(c) Lone Parent poverty.

(d) Poverty of the long-term unemployed.

(6) A report on increasing the Living Alone Allowance.

(7) A report on data security within the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

(8) A report on the nature of the anti-fraud initiatives that are in use or consideration for future use by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

(9) A report on the possibility of extending the free travel scheme to include other services providers in relation to free travel benefits for people in rural areas.

(10) A report on the rationale for keeping Qualified Child Allowances at a low level over the past decade.

(11) A report on the amalgamation of any and all agencies into the Department and the rationale thereof.

(12) A report on the number of people who are unable to meet their mortgage repayments who are seeking mortgage Supplementary Support.".

I ask the Minister that a number of reports would be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. They include a report on the adequacy of each social welfare payment, the eligibility criteria for disability allowance, reducing application processing time for social welfare supports, and the habitual residency condition for the child benefit payment.

All those areas speak for themselves and, while I accept there have been increases in social welfare payments, the question arises as to whether they are just to meet the rising cost of living. I do not believe those increases are adequate.

The habitual residency condition for the child benefit payment is unfair. We have enshrined the rights of the child in our Constitution and this benefit should be equal and fair. I ask the Minister to address that issue when replying.

We spoke earlier about child poverty. That is also a worthy request. We spoke also about lone parents and how to incentivise people and get them off long-term unemployment. Some of my colleagues spoke about the value of the FÁS community employment schemes, asked that they be protected and that positions would be available for long-term unemployed people on CE schemes.

Subsection (12) in the proposed new section calls for a report on the number of people who are unable to meet their mortgage repayments who are seeking mortgage supplementary support. The Minister has already said that 7,000 people are in receipt of supplementary help from the Department of Social and Family Affairs but many more people will be looking for that help after Christmas. It has been said also that some employers are holding off making people redundant until after Christmas. I dislike using those words because of the fear being experienced by people.

We had a dramatic Order of Business earlier where Senator Harris called for a state of emergency to be declared. I believe we have no idea what is going on or how to deal with the crisis. I do not understand how it is of any advantage that a bank would repossess a home. The Minister referred to that issue earlier and in the lower House, Deputy Michael Noonan spoke about what is happening in the United Kingdom with the banks' moratorium on mortgage repayments and the interest payment guarantee.

Now that talks are taking place with the banks, we have the upper hand with them. We have bailed them out. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been most supportive because we need the banks. Now it is their turn to look after the people by being sympathetic and not putting pressure on unfortunate people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, without a job.

I am particularly anxious that subsection (12) in the amendment is fulfilled and that a report is issued on the number of people who are unable to meet their mortgage repayments. The full extent of that problem will not be visible until early in the new year.

6:00 pm

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The adequacy of social welfare payments will always be questioned. We have always tried to maintain the basic rate of payment at 35% to 37% of the average industrial wage and we succeeded in doing that again this year. Obviously, it was not possible to be as generous in the budget package this year as in previous years but we provided for a 3.3% increase which we anticipated would match inflation for next year. It will probably be far more than inflation and some people are even predicting there might be deflation next year. Within that budget we had to target the people who needed the help most. The increase of €7 in many of the payments was widely welcomed.

The mortgage interest supplement has been, until this year, a little known and little used welfare payment. There are 7,000 people currently in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, an increase of 70% on this time last year. It demonstrates the need for the payment. The estimate for this year is approximately €26 million. There is a higher estimate for next year but I am not sure that it will be sufficient to meet demand. People who are having difficulty with their mortgage payments should go to their financial institution and reschedule their payments. Unfortunately, many people put the matter to one side, let the problem run and do not deal with it. The advice from the money advice and budgeting service is that people should deal with the issue immediately by going to their financial institution to discuss restructuring. The mainstream financial institutions are willing to do that.

Last year there was a total of 50 repossessions of houses by the banks. Obviously, there is an increase in repossessions but some of them appear to be by sub-prime lenders rather than the financial institutions governed by the Banking Federation code. Again, I urge the banks to be flexible and understanding with people. The banks will be unable to sell the house anyway and the people will end up losing their home, living on rent supplement, going on the RAS scheme and getting a social house. At the end of the day the State pays everywhere and the bank will be left with a house it cannot sell. The mortgage interest supplement scheme is available to help people in paying their mortgage interest.

Other issues are dealt with in the amendment. I am aware the mechanism in the amendment is used by Senators to raise these issues because it is difficult to put down an amendment on a social welfare Bill that might impose a cost on the Exchequer. However, constant reviews are carried out on some of the major payments. Different payments are reviewed every year to ensure we are meeting the requirements of those most in need. We will continue to do that.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I take issue with the Minister about the banks. She echoed every word I said about them but I believe the Government has a responsibility to negotiate a deal on behalf of people who find themselves in a position where their house are repossessed. I have gone to the MABS with people and they have been told to go to the bank to negotiate a deal. The bottom line, however, is that people have no money. Regardless of how well they budget or keep their affairs in order, they are at the mercy of the bank. If the bank tells them it will repossess their house, they will end up in social housing or in receipt of rent supplement, as the Minister correctly pointed out.

The Government brokered a deal for the banks. The Minister and her colleagues in Cabinet can equally broker a deal on behalf of the people and ensure there is a moratorium on payments for people who find themselves in this very serious situation. The problem will become more apparent in January and February. I urge the Minister to do that.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
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I support Senator McFadden's comments and I echo her request. How many people are having their houses repossessed each week? As the Minister said, it will be a far greater strain on the Government to have more people in need of rent supplement or being put on the RAS scheme, while the banks will have houses they cannot sell or use. It makes more sense to have some type of system whereby people are only required to pay interest until their position improves. The banks are not the only ones hurting in this situation. It goes down the line and it is the most vulnerable people who are being badly affected.

There is constant reference to next year. Next year is the week after next, which is very close. The bleakness will not go away. People seem to be focused on one day, Christmas, but for many the reality and worries afterwards will be far greater and harder to deal with. They are frightened of what is coming down the line for them. Every day the radio and other media reports are getting worse, with reports on the bleak economic outlook, how fruitless the situation is, the trouble the banks are in, the international situation and the crises here and there. People are extremely worried.

I agree with Senator McFadden that we have the upper hand with the banks. If the Government is in negotiations with the banks to arrive at a deal that will bail them out, we must be in a position to say to people: "It is coming down the line and because we have been able to do this with the banks, hopefully they will be able to do this for you." That is what we are seeking. It is not an unreal expectation or request. The Government has the remit to do it. The proposal should be given serious consideration. The amendment is good and seeks something positive, and I hope the Minister will accept it.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I, too, support the amendment, particularly the element Senator Prendergast singled out, the issue of mortgages. I raised this issue on the Order of Business for many months before the situation became disastrous. I am concerned about it. At least, mortgage interest rates have fallen. However, we are moving towards a situation of considerable unemployment and the point made by my two colleagues about the banks is significant. The banks are being bailed out by taxpayers' money but there is still a significant number of repossessions. Over the past six months to a year I have put on record the steady increase in the number of repossession orders given by the courts in Dublin. One of the judges drew attention to this as an important and significant fact.

I will conclude by pointing to the biblical lesson in this. There is a parable in the Bible, with which the Minister will be familiar, about a man who is in debt to his master. The debt was forgiven by his master but the man was then utterly severe with somebody lower down the chain of indebtedness and insisted on his pound of flesh. The master took a grim view of that and of somebody whose debt had been forgiven being so unfeeling and callous. There is that element in the banks. They got themselves into this situation because they could not be bothered with the little people, the people who were described by an American woman, whose name I cannot recall, as the little people who pay taxes. These are the people who take out bank loans and so forth. We have all seen the way in which the banks have treated ordinary customers with indifference and went after big corporate sources, futures, derivatives, gambling on the Stock Exchange and so forth. When they got themselves into trouble, however, they had to seek money from the taxpayer. That is all I have to say in support of my two colleagues.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I concur with the previous three speakers on the issue of house repossessions. When the State, Government and taxpayer is coming to the aid of the banking and financial institutions in a fashion not yet determined, we need to demand some form of reciprocation. That so many people have difficulty with their mortgage repayments is a cause of grave concern. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of court orders for repossessions being granted each week is staggering. While action is not taken on foot of many of these court orders, once granted a repossession order may proceed. This leaves many people living in fear of losing their homes.

The Minister outlined the mechanisms in place to address this issue. The supplementary welfare system, for example, provides assistance for people in difficulty with mortgage repayments. We must send a strong political signal to the banks and mortgage agencies that we expect them to tread softly with regard to those in difficulty. As many Senators noted, the economy needs a banking system and financial houses if it is to survive. On the other hand, mortgage companies and banks also need customers and home owners if they are to survive. The Minister, Minister for Finance and Taoiseach should hold direct talks with the lending agencies to impress on them — we do not need to implore or beg them — that the financial institutions must respond to the generosity of the Government and taxpayers by showing flexibility, compassion and common sense to those experiencing financial difficulty.

Jobs are being lost at a record rate and the trend is set to continue for some time. However, like all economic cycles, the current one will come to an end. The majority of those experiencing mortgage difficulties are responsible citizens who are not seeking a free lunch but time and space to get their financial affairs in order. The financial institutions should respond generously and in the same fashion as the State responded when they found themselves in a difficult position in recent months.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I am on record as asking financial institutions to show forbearance with clients, not to foreclose early and to give people an opportunity to reschedule their payments or pay only the interest on mortgages, an issue raised by Senator Prendergast. However, arrangements the Government makes on behalf of taxpayers to ensure money is made available more freely to the banks in order that small businesses can secure loans, overdrafts and credit are with the main financial and banking institutions. In general, these institutions are not seeking repossessions in the courts. It is the sub-prime lenders and mortgage companies, some of which gave mortgages too generously in the first instance, which are trying to claw back properties. For this reason, I am not sure to what extent the Government can influence the major banks. When I referred to this issue in conversation with the chief executive of one of the two large banks the other day, I was informed that the bank in question had only two or three repossessions. The Government is examining this issue.

Senator Prendergast referred to a sense of doom and gloom among members of the public. While there is no doubt she is correct, Ireland continues to attract significant foreign direct investment. Many major projects have been announced in recent months, for example, by Pfizer, Intel and Coca Cola, which will create jobs. Infrastructure is still being built and the Government continues to invest heavily in a range of projects. The Government will also announce an economic plan aimed at regenerating the economy.

I accept that many people are losing their jobs. Unfortunately, my Department has made provision for an average of 290,000 people being on the live register next year. This is terrible for the individuals in question and their families but we must ensure Irish entrepreneurs and companies around the world know that Ireland is open for business and has a well-educated, flexible and adaptable workforce. Employers like being here because the workforce is so flexible and adaptable. While the news on the jobs front has not been good, there is scope, through good economic planning, to be able to improve matters.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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Has the Minister held direct talks with the financial institutions on this issue and, if not, does she plan to do so? I noted her remark that she had made her views known. The Minister or other Ministers should discuss this issue with the banks and other mortgage lenders and strongly impress on them the Government's thinking and position on this issue. Will she consider doing this?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I have not held formal talks. As I indicated, however, I had a casual conversation with the chief executive of one of the large banks. The Government deals with the major institutions whereas the companies taking cases to court tend to be sub-prime lenders. I have discussed the issue with the Minister for Finance and I may discuss it again.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Is the amendment being pressed?

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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While I do not propose to press the amendment, I implore the Minister to hold formal talks with the financial institutions to protect those who are suffering. She has the capacity to do this.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 24 agreed to.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Amendment No. 12 in the name of Senator McFadden is out of order as it is not relevant to the subject matter of the Bill.

Amendment No. 12 not moved.

Section 25 agreed to.

NEW SECTIONS.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 13:

In page 21, before section 26, but in Part 3, to insert the following new section:

"26.—(1) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on data protection policies and procedures within the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

(2) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on progress and savings accrued to date as a result of the Department's anti-fraud initiatives within the Department of Social and Family Affairs.".

The issue of fraud arose in our discussion of an earlier amendment. While I am aware the system has been tightened up dramatically in recent months, a report on savings which have accrued as a result of the Department's new anti-fraud initiatives should be laid before the House. A taxi driver in Athlone told a friend of mine that he hops on Ryanair flights to visit his family who live abroad but claims social welfare and child benefit payments here. Unfortunately, neither I nor my friend know the identity of the man in question, although I attempted to find out who he was. However, he was laughing at the way in which he was looked after and treated in this country. I am sure there are similar cases. While I welcome the hard line taken by the Minister on one level, as I indicated on the issue of child benefit, we must avoid penalising ordinary, honest people who are not being fraudulent.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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To give the Senator an idea of the control activity which has taken place this year, at the end of September almost 290,000 reviews and 2,300 employer inspections had been carried out. These measures produced savings of €337 million. The special investigation unit is doing more regular interviews of jobseeker's payments recipients, especially those with high risk ratings. These may be the people to which the Senator refers. Since July, the unit has secured savings of €5.7 million.

We have been targeting child benefit and there is a high risk group there. There are potential savings of €13 million in that area. We take this matter very seriously, to the extent that prosecutions have been taken. By the end of 2007, 361 cases were sent to the Chief State Solicitor's office and 243 cases were finalised. There were 26 cases of personation, which addresses the issue of photographic evidence raised by Senator Norris. By the end of October this year, almost 300 cases had been sent to the courts. We take fraud very seriously in the Department. I do not think there is a need for a report on it, but I will make information available at any time.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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That would be useful.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 14: In page 21, before section 26, but in Part 3, to insert the following new section:

"26.—(1) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a review on the effectiveness of the Fuel Allowance in view of rising energy prices.

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

(3) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the eligibility criteria for the Carers Allowance with a view to recognising and supporting the work of young carers.

(4) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the financial implications of providing Carers with a full rate of Carer's Allowance/Benefit for every person they care for.

(5) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of extending the number of hours a week a Carer may be employed while retaining entitlement to the Carer's Allowance.

(6) The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report considering the implications of awarding PRSI contributions to carers on the same basis as paid contributions so that carers can improve their pension entitlement.".

There are a number of issues in this and I will try to be as brief as possible, particularly on the effectiveness of the fuel allowance. The Minister emphasised that the greatest advantage is the extension of it rather than the €2 increase. That is not adequate. It sounds very dramatic, but there are people who go to bed early because they are too cold to sit up at night. I ask that a report be laid before the House and that research is done to see how people are coping with rising energy costs.

Senator Bradford spoke about carers, who comprise a very disappointed group. The increases they received in the budget are only inflationary. There is not a penny extra for them and they feel let down and betrayed. I insist that a report be produced on the national carers strategy, which has been sought for a long time.

Senator Bradford spoke about the disregard for people who want to work. It is very difficult for carers, who are emotionally and physically worn out. They are exhausted. There is no incentive for them and they are suffering. According to carers, there are 3.5 million unpaid hours. There are 161,000 carers in the country and they are saving the State a significant amount of money by caring for their loved ones. The optimum situation, as Senator Bradford stated, is for people to be able to stay at home. It is a saving and it is foolhardy not to listen to them and consider their views. The Minister stated how much it would cost to have no means test — I cannot remember the figure — but it is something she should look into because in the long run it will cost significantly less to keep a person at home.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I have addressed the issue of carers and we will produce the carers strategy. I do not propose to accept the amendment. Regarding the fuel issue, at the time budget submissions were made fuel prices were at the highest level ever and they are now at the lowest in 20 years, so now is a good time to buy. Pensioners in particular were glad of the two week extension, which ensures the fuel allowance is received from the end of September until, I hope, the beginning of the warmer weather. It is paid for 32 weeks.

There is also the household benefits package. The price of gas and electricity might rise but that does not affect household benefits because the State will pick up the extra payment for that as the pensioners receive units rather than a particular amount. Approximately 300, 000 people benefit from the fuel allowance scheme at a cost of €170 million. Next year it will cost more than €200 million. The electricity and gas allowance costs €170 million and benefits 358,000 people.

It is very costly to support people with fuel but it should also be seen in the context of better housing stock and central heating being installed in new council homes, warmer homes improvement schemes and other activities designed to support people.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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While I accept much of what the Minister is saying, I am also very disappointed because I am sure she is aware that in rural Ireland people are no longer able to cut turf, and when one is older one cannot do such things. As I said repeatedly, €2 is not enough to buy a bale of briquettes, not to mention the cost of a bag of coal. I am very disappointed.

The rolling out of these schemes is not consistent. In some areas, particularly in Dublin, they benefit those who need them most but that is not the case in rural Ireland, where they are not rolled out to the same extent. Some examples are schemes for the insulation of houses, replacement of windows and so on. I ask the Minister to take a keener look at this area in terms of consistency throughout the country and increase the fuel allowance by the price of a bag of coal.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 12 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)

Against the motion: 24 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.

Amendment declared lost.

Sections 26 and 27 agreed to.

SECTION 28.

Question proposed: "That section 28 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I will comment briefly on section 28? I pay tribute to the work that is done by the money advice and budgeting service. It is an important arm of the social welfare system. It does a great deal to assist people who are bewildered by the financial predicament in which they find themselves. I commend any provision the Minister might consider that would strengthen this worthwhile service, to which I pay tribute.

Question put and agreed to.

Section 29 agreed to.

SECTION 30.

Question proposed: "That section 30 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I oppose this section of the Bill, just as I will oppose every section in Part 5. It may seem like a slight waste of time to oppose the definition of "agency" for the purposes of this part of the Bill. I will give my reasons for opposing Part 5 when we reach section 31, which provides for the dissolution of the Combat Poverty Agency.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I join Senator Norris in opposing Part 5 of the Bill. The Combat Poverty Agency has made a number of presentations to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. The agency has been exemplary in carrying out its research function. Its professionalism and expertise have allowed it to operate as an independent voice. It has been highly critical of a number of developments. It has spoken out on fuel poverty, for example. I completely disagree with the proposal to abolish the agency. I oppose Part 5 of the Bill.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
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I support what my colleagues have said about this excellent agency, which has done immense work over the years. I regret the Government's proposal to abolish the agency, which provides a great service.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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As Senators are aware, Part 5 of the Bill is necessary to give effect to the Government decision to integrate the Combat Poverty Agency with the Office of Social Inclusion in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The decision arose from a recommendation made by a review group that was established on foot of a Government decision in June 2007. Long before I was appointed as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, it was decided that it was necessary to review the role of the agency in light of changes that had happened in the preceding years. Other agencies and structures had been established to do the work associated with combating poverty that is central to the work of the Government and is of interest to all Senators and Deputies. Although the legal wording of section 31 of the Bill refers to the "dissolution" of the agency, it is not intended to absorb it without recognition into the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is intended to enhance both sections, the Office of Social Inclusion and the Combat Poverty Agency, both of which do good work.

The Combat Poverty Agency was established at a trying time in Ireland, when it was decided that there was a need for a body to highlight issues, conduct independent research and contribute to Government policy. Those aims and aspirations are as relevant today as they were then. We have to look at what has happened in the meantime. The community and voluntary pillar has a valuable role in social partnership. There are offices of social inclusion in various Departments. A number of good non-governmental organisations contribute to policy-making and participate in the social inclusion and budget forums etc. The Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion has been mentioned. There is a high level group of Government officials in this area. Many people have contributed to the significant amount of research that has been undertaken in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. An independent voice has been given to those who experience poverty. One of the things the Combat Poverty Agency has been very good at is helping people to participate in domestic and EU forums in this country and in Brussels.

I envisage that all the work I have mentioned, such as the research and policy advice that directly gives a voice to those who experience poverty, will continue in an enhanced and focused way that ensures we get the best possible value from the skills of the staff of the Department and the agency. That was the intention of the review in the first instance. The challenge we face is to ensure that the new structure works. Although the board members and staff of the Combat Poverty Agency to whom I spoke expressed their disappointment with the Government's decision — they wanted the agency to be retained as an independent body — they are willing to co-operate to ensure that the work of the agency continues and is enhanced. I am satisfied that we can and will work with them to ensure that happens. I appreciate that other issues will be raised by Senators as this debate continues. The section of the Bill under discussion provides for the dissolution, in a legal sense, of the agency.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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We are speaking about the section that sets out the definition of "agency".

Question put and agreed to.

SECTION 31.

Question proposed: "That section 31 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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This section is strenuously opposed. I was interested in the Minister's comments during the debate on section 30. She seemed to be somewhat queasy about accepting responsibility for this decision. She pointed out that the original decision was not made on her watch. I agree with that and accept it. If she had been there, perhaps a voice might have been raised against it. She honestly accepted that there continues to be a need for independent research etc. and she suggested that this need could be met within the Department. That has not been the experience of any professional body I have ever come across. I have been involved in politics and management long enough to know that the proposal to incorporate, absorb or swallow the agency into the office of social inclusion is bad practice and will inevitably militate against the independence that is necessary. It has to be considered in the context of the destruction, in effect, not only of the Combat Poverty Agency but also of every other organ that has spoken out on behalf of marginalised people. The Government has a really shameful record in this regard. I am sorry that some of my decent friends are involved in it.

The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, used soft language when she said that the work of the Combat Poverty Agency will be "enhanced and focused". I would hate to be "enhanced and focused" in this manner because it would mean the extinction, in effect, of the life form that I am. If it is not the case that the agency is being made extinct, in effect, why is every group speaking out, as a coalition, against this savage attack on the most vulnerable people in society? In the week in which we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is absolutely insufferable that the Government is embarking on such a swinging series of demolitions. I do not accept the Minister's response. I spoke at great length about this issue. I do not intend to be tedious on this matter, unless I am seriously provoked. I am sure I would be restrained by the Cathaoirleach if I were to attempt to be tedious.

I do not believe for a single minute that any money will be saved as a result of this proposal. Questions about the nature of these savings have been asked by Senators on the Government side. During the break, while we were waiting for the last division to take place, I checked whether anything was lingering in my little postbox and I was rather interested to find a document setting out the details of a Supplementary Estimate of €50 million that is being provided for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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We are on section 31 of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and we are not discussing agriculture.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am exactly concentrating on that. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his guidance. The point I am making is that the Government can suddenly, at 6.50 p.m. on a Tuesday, find €50 million lying around the place, but apparently we are told there must be all these swinging cuts that do not save a penny, will create inefficiencies in the system and will deprive people of their rights. The Minister may well have been supplied with facts or figures that might appear to show otherwise. I will find great difficulty in swallowing them. If there is any serious intention to try to hoodwink people about this, why not subject it to an independent cost-benefit analysis and let us know what are the facts. I challenge the Government to do that. I bet it would not have the courage to do so because it knows what the answer will be, as do a few wise old birds on the other side of the House.

I am opposing this section. I shall probably confine myself to that one vote. It shames the House that these words should be read into the record: "The Agency shall be dissolved on the commencement of this Part." What an awful thing. As we go into the worst recession this country has probably ever seen, the Government addresses it, as it addressed the question of inequality and discrimination, not by curing it, not by reaching out and trying to do something positive, but instead by a negative and destructive action, by collapsing the agency that is more than ever needed during these difficult times. This is a shameful day's work and I shall certainly call a vote on this issue as I understand my colleagues who have spoken so effectively this afternoon also wish for a vote.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I am also amazed that the Minister would argue that the work of the Combat Poverty Agency would continue in a more focused manner following its abolition than if it were to continue.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Life after death.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I ask the Minister to comment further. It is beyond belief that she could argue that. The Labour Party will certainly be opposing the section.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I certainly appreciate the interest and passion of the Senators on this matter. The interest and passion is more about combating poverty than in just having an agency, and everybody would share that. That will always be at the core of my policies, particularly in the portfolio I now hold. Senators will be well aware that the development of the DEIS scheme in education was about doing the same thing. When I talk about a focused way, I mean ensuring there is not overlap and duplication and that it can work closely with other State agencies and Departments, including the National Economic and Social Development Office, the National Economic and Social Council and others I did not mention earlier. It can be very focused because it can start work immediately on, for example, preparing for the European Year of Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion in 2010. As a group, they will be working closely on that and it gives them a set project to do. Together they will benefit from it.

Research is a really important part. I know that Senator Norris of all people would appreciate the importance of evidence-based work. It has been a measure of the importance they attach to it that the Office of Social Inclusion and the Combat Poverty Agency have commissioned research. While that will continue, it will not be just research commissioned as a result of a request, but they will initiate that type of work. We can only combat poverty if we know where is the particular need. They will be able to identify it from work and research they will do. They will continue to do that work, sharing the expertise they will have from the new division. At a strong policy level they will undoubtedly be able to enhance their work. They will be able to do it in a way that will feed into the Cabinet committee on social inclusion and to the various other bodies I mentioned earlier. They will also bring their skills and expertise to it in a way that will ensure that the voice of people experiencing poverty is heard.

I appreciate the work that has been done in recent years. However, the review was established not as a budgetary issue, but to ascertain how the work can continue in a way that will benefit policy most and to ensure it is feeding in properly. As a result of the review, this was the recommendation. From the manner in which the board, the staff and officials in my Department are working through what I appreciate is a difficult time for the staff, it is clear they are very anxious to ensure they keep working on the projects and research they have been working on and that they can start preparing for the European Year of Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion as a joint group.

I believe the integration — not the abolition — of the agency into the Office for Social Inclusion will ensure we are drawing from the best of the skills and talents of both groups. The Office for Social Inclusion as it stands will also be disbanded and an entirely new unit will be set up. The agency should in no way feel that it is just being brought into an existing office. It will be a new unit and that will give everybody an opportunity to draw on the best of what they do.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am sure the Minister will be familiar with the historical use of the word "dissolution". It was used by Henry VIII. He dissolved the monasteries, and there is not much left of them.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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And his marriage.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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He dissolved lots of marriages. He was an enthusiastic supporter of marriage. He was a great family man. He was a defender of the Catholic faith. What else can we say about such a remarkable scion of the Tudor family?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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And six wives.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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It is dissolution. I agree that, of course, they are co-operative — that is their spirit of professionalism.

On the basis of this series of scandalous attacks on human rights, I will write to every international organisation I can think of indicating the approach of the Government. It should be shamed internationally as well as nationally. I certainly propose to do this, as I did when we had the awful collaboration between the Government and President Bush's regime on the issue of rendition flights. Our Minister went over to appear before the parliamentary——

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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On the section, Senator.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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It is a parallel point and I am going to make it.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I know, but it is not relevant to the section.

7:00 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I wrote to them and said they should not believe a word of what is being said because the Minister will tell them it was never raised. I mentioned all the debates and so on in which it was raised. I am going to make sure this news travels.

The Minister said that the agency can continue to be independent. Will that really be so? In that case, why does the Government routinely include in legislation a section restricting criticism of Government policy on the part of civil servants? Such sections have appeared in many Bills in recent years. That is the official position. Civil servants cannot be allowed to be critical from within Departments. That is the problem. I know the Government does not like criticism — of course it does not. None of us particularly likes criticism, but it is a very important element of democracy. The Minister says everybody feels the same way, but they do not. The Government has lost touch with reality — not all its members, by any means, but a significant number of them. The Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, said last Friday that nobody gave a damn about the removal of the medical card entitlement from the over 70s because there was only one person in the Gallery. She was blithely ignoring the fact that that person represented 10,000 pensioners. The Leader told us it was great for shopping to have all these protests, and another Member on the Government side said they had only come up for the craic on the day.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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On section 31.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am responding to what the Minister said. She said that everybody was very supportive. That is the extent of the sympathy that exists in some sections, although by no means all. There are splendid people on the Government side who have a heart. It is important that these matters are placed clearly on the record.

Question put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 23 (Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 12 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Diarmuid Wilson and Camillus Glynn; Níl, Senators David Norris and Nicky McFadden.

Question declared carried.

Question, "That section 32 stand part of the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That section 33 stand part of the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That section 34 stand part of the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That section 35 stand part of the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That section 36 stand part of the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That section 37 stand part of the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That section 38 stand part of the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That Schedule 1 be Schedule 1 to the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That Schedule 2 be Schedule 2 to the Bill", put and declared carried.

Question, "That the Title be the Title to the Bill", put and declared carried.

Bill reported without amendment.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
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Now.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I do not agree. It is awful that a very significant Bill like this should go through all Remaining Stages like this. That allows for absolutely no suggestion of amendments whatever and no real Report Stage. They might as well abolish the Seanad——

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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There were no amendments.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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—— and they forgot the Ombudsman's office as well. Why do they not get rid of that?

Question, "That Report Stage be taken now", put and declared carried.

Question put: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 23 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 13 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Fiona O'Malley and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden.

Question declared carried.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Fifth Stage?

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
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Now.

Question, "That Fifth Stage be taken now", put and declared carried.

Question put: "That the Bill do now pass."

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 23 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 13 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Diarmuid Wilson and Fiona O'Malley; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden.

Question declared carried.