Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage


Question proposed: That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

3:35 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Social Protection to the House.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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In recent days we have seen another welcome indicator that Ireland's economic recovery is continuing. The live register has fallen below 400,000 for the first time in over four years. This is not a cause for celebration-----

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Dead right.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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-----because the number of people out of work remains far too high, but it confirms that the Government has taken the right measures since coming into office and inheriting an unprecedented crisis. The labour market is improving because of the policies we have pursued, and that is why the economy is healing - slowly but surely. We are exiting the bailout programme and we can look forward to regaining control of our destiny.

The live register figures are a clear sign that things are moving in the right direction. The latest CSO data showed there were 396,512 people on the register in October, 23,000 fewer than the same month last year and almost 34,000 fewer than in October 2011. This is a very welcome turnaround considering that the register was firmly on an upward trajectory towards 500,000 when this Government took office, to an unemployment rate of 15% or over. The unemployment rate for October has come down to 13.2%. The live register has fallen below 400,000 for the first time since May 2009.

The turnaround is the chief reason I was able to lower the spending reductions required of my Department for 2014. When negotiations on the budget began, the Department was initially expected to make new spending reductions of €440 million. This was ultimately reduced to €226 million plus an additional €30 million in savings will be made through more fraud and control measures in 2014, while €34 million will be saved through better management of expenditure and lower than expected demand on some schemes, bringing the Department's cumulative adjustment to €290 million. Even with this lower adjustment, the Department continues to play its role in the necessary deficit reduction programme as Ireland prepares to exit the bailout.

Overall, social welfare expenditure will fall below €20 billion in 2014, despite demographic pressures due to the growing number of older people, and welfare expenditure will continue on a downward trajectory as we help more people back to work through our Pathways to Work strategy.

That is the context in which I bring this Bill forward to the Seanad.

I mentioned earlier the population pressures on the Department's budget. These pressures mean that, for example, the Department had to provide an extra €190 million this year for expenditure on State pensions and on widow and widower contributory pensions. Nonetheless, I have protected pensions in the budget. I have also protected carer's allowance, disability allowance and the other core weekly payments upon which people depend. I am also protecting crucial supplementary supports for pensioners, carers and people with disabilities, such as the fuel allowance, the electricity and gas allowance, free travel, which is particularly important for retired people, the half-rate carer's allowance and the respite care grant. Child benefit has also been protected in this budget and will remain a vital universal support for all families and all children.

In addition to supporting people when they are out of work, we support them to stay in work. Critics of the welfare system often miss this crucial point. Last year, the Department spent €224 million on the family income supplement, which is a weekly tax-free top-up payment for workers on low pay with children. Next year, we will spend more than €280 million on that payment. More than 40,000 working families, with a total of more than 90,000 children, benefit from the scheme at present. The family income supplement makes a crucial difference for them by making work more attractive than welfare and in the process helping to build a better future for their families.

The reality is that helping people back to work and to stay in work is the most effective way of reducing overall social welfare expenditure. Every time we help 10,000 people to come off the live register, we save approximately €95 million in annual welfare expenditure. That is why, since coming into office, I have focused on transforming the Department from the passive benefits provider of old to an active, engaged and focused organisation that provides employment services for jobseekers and employers alike. Our core aim is to engage with every unemployed person to make sure their first day out of a job and relying on a social welfare income is also their first step on the pathway back to work. That work is paying off. The live register figures are proof of this. Data show that the number of people in work increased by 33,800 in the last year and that the private sector is creating 3,000 new jobs every month. It is in that context that I am bringing forward changes to jobseeker's allowance for younger people. Most EU member states require a young person to have made social insurance contributions before he or she can qualify for unemployment benefits or allowances.

Ireland is one of a small number of member states that pay young people a non-insurance-based payment - in our case, jobseeker's allowance - in addition to an insurance-based payment. I am ensuring this continues because of the difficult economic climate and the recognition that not everybody can walk into a job at 18 years of age. However, it is true that paying a significant amount of welfare support upon turning 18 is not the best way of helping young jobseekers into work. To be honest, I do not think any Member of this House would want his or her child to go to the jobseeker's office at the age of 18 to claim a social welfare payment, rather than getting into work or training or being involved in education or work experience. Work, training and education supports are much more beneficial to young jobseekers in the long term. I am making changes to jobseeker's allowance for young people to ensure a greater emphasis on work, training and education supports.

That is a critical move in terms of the traditional approach to social welfare for younger people in Ireland. This will ensure that younger people are always better off in education, employment or training than claiming. Even then, it is worth noting that the amounts paid to young jobseekers in Ireland will still exceed those in several member states, including the UK. In the UK, jobseekers aged 24 years or younger get £56.80, or €67, per week. To facilitate the shift towards employment supports, the Department will enhance the range of opportunities currently on offer in the form of internships, participation on employment schemes, subsidised private sector recruitment and supports for self-employment. The full range of youth employment initiatives will be set out in our plan for the implementation of the EU youth guarantee, which will be finalised and submitted to the EU by the end of the year. I want to tell Members here, many of whom are actively involved in employment or familiar with many employers, that on 1 January, young jobseekers aged under 26 will qualify for JobsPlus if they are without employment for more than six months. That means their employer will get a monthly cash back subsidy of €300 for every month they work up to two years. The monthly cash back subsidy for employing jobseekers aged under 26 who are out of work for more than two years is €400 per month and will be paid to the employer for each month the jobseeker works. It will be paid a month in arrears through electronic funds transfer. I have not been able to make it any easier than that. It is a very simple wage subsidy scheme for employers who take on jobseekers, particularly young jobseekers. Even before any EU funding is agreed, the Department is already committed to spending €1.08 billion next year on work, training and education places and related supports for jobseekers generally. This is an increase of almost €85 million on the projected spend this year. To recap, we will spend an extra €50 million next year on family income supplement for families in work with children on low incomes and an extra €85 million on supports for jobseekers in terms of training and education. In a time of tight budgets, that is a very significant commitment by the Department to helping people back to work.

I will now go through the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 is the Title. Section 2 provides for the definitions. Section 3 provides for the second element of the Budget 2013 decision to broaden the base on which PRSI contributions are charged so as to provide that the exemption from PRSI that applies to employed contributors and occupational pensioners under 66 whose only additional income is unearned income will be abolished with effect from 1 January 2014. The additional unearned income will now become liable to PRSI at 4% provided the person is a chargeable person for Revenue purposes. This relates to a person whose unearned income is in excess of €3,174. This will not apply to PAYE taxpayers with no other income or additional income less than €3,174. In addition, people who have reached State pension age of 66 are not liable to pay PRSI and, therefore, will not be affected. Sections 4 and 7 increase the number of waiting days for entitlement to illness benefit and injury benefit, respectively, from three to six days with the change taking effect from 6 January 2014. Section 5 provides for the alignment of the minimum and maximum rates of maternity benefit to a standard rate of €230 per week. The change only applies to new claimants and comes into effect from 6 January 2014.

The 26-week duration of the payment is preserved under this budget because we know how important this time is for families and their children.

This level is substantially in excess of the 14 weeks required under EU legislation. For example, in the Netherlands and France only 16 weeks of maternity benefit is paid. Section 6 provides for the alignment of the minimum and maximum rates of adoptive benefit to a standard rate of €230 per week on the same basis as section 5.

Section 8 provides for the discontinuation of the payment of a bereavement grant in the case of deaths occurring on or after 1 January 2014. However, it is important to note that the additional supports which remain available for people following a bereavement are worth considerably more than the bereavement grant. These include widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's pension, which is a weekly payment based on contributions or a means test; the widowed or surviving civil partner grant, which is a once off payment of €6,000 where there is a dependent child aged 18 years or under, or up to 22 years where the child is in education; a number of social welfare payments, including State pensions, which continue in payment for six weeks following a death and deliver an income of €1,380 to the surviving spouse, partner or estate; and, if a person dies because of an accident at work or occupational disease, a special funeral grant of €850. We also pay significant amounts of money through special needs payments to those who require assistance with funerals.

Section 9 provides for the amendment of the rates of jobseeker's allowance payable to certain claimants aged under 26 years. A reduced weekly rate of €100 currently applies to recipients aged between 18 and 21 years and a reduced rate of €144 applies to those aged between 22 and 24 years, in both cases where the claimant does not have children. This section provides that the reduced weekly rate of €100 will continue to apply to existing claimants aged between 18 and 21 years until they reach 25 years and will also apply to new claimants aged between 22 and 24 years. Section 9 also provides that the reduced weekly rate of €144 will continue to apply to existing claimants aged between 22 and 24 years when they reach 25 years and will apply to new claimants who are aged 25 years. In addition, these lower rates of jobseeker's allowance will apply to claimants aged 25 and under who have exhausted their entitlement to jobseeker's benefit. Claimants who have children will be unaffected by these measures. These changes will apply from 15 January 2014. Section 10 provides for amendment of the rates of supplementary welfare allowance payable to people who are younger than 26 years old on the same basis.

Section 11 provides for the discontinuation of the mortgage interest supplement scheme for new applicants with effect from 1 January 2014 and allows for a winding down of the scheme for existing claimants over a four year period. In the last couple of years we have paid more than €300 million to banks in respect of mortgage interest supplement with no net gain for the people whose mortgage interest supplement we have been paying. Now that the Insolvency Service and MARP structures are in place, they will be provided for through the MARP process, as was recommended in the reports by various working groups.

Section 12 provides for the discontinuation of the higher personal weekly rate of invalidity pensions of €230.30 and €206.30 where the qualified adult attains 66 years of age on or after 2 January 2014.

Section 13 provides that where a specified illness or disability payment is paid by the Department to a person who is unable to work as a result of an accident, injury or disease and such social welfare recipient has been compensated by way of court settlement or otherwise, the amount of such illness related social welfare payments that have also been paid as a consequence of the personal injury is to be repaid to the Minister by the person liable to pay compensation.

In most cases the compensator is an insurance company.

Currently compensators are allowed to reduce the amount of a settlement arising from a motor accident by an amount equivalent to any illness benefit or invalidity pension paid by the Department. In effect, the benefits involved represent a subsidy to the compensators or insurance companies in such cases.

Similarly, in the case of occupational injuries, compensators are allowed to offset injury benefit and disablement pension payments against compensation for loss of earnings.

Part 3 and section 14 provide for amendment to section 38 of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 consequential to section 13.

Section 15 provides for the definition of the "Principal Act" to mean the "Pensions Act 1990". Sections 16 and 17 provide for the inclusion of a reference to the surviving civil partner (contributory) pension in section 59B and 59C of the Pensions Act.

Section 18 inserts a new section 59H into the Pensions Act and provides the trustees of a pension scheme with the power to amend the scheme rules to ensure that the correct occupational pension is paid at age 65. This amendment arises from the change in the qualifying age for State pension from 65 to 66 from January 2014. It is to address situations which may arise in a pension scheme where the rules of the scheme provide for age 65 rather than normal pensionable age, and the scheme rules cannot be amended to address this. This change is being made to ensure that trustees can act as appropriate to administer their schemes and are not prevented by any conflict between the Pensions Act and the scheme rules from making any necessary arrangements to amend the scheme.

It provides for the cessation of a bridging pension which may be payable in the period before the State pension becomes payable and for determining the correct rate of occupational pension payable in the case of an integrated pension. That completes the main provisions of the Bill.

Protecting people in need in a very difficult economic climate - while reforming the welfare system to ensure it delivers better long-term outcomes for people - is central to the Government's mission.

In 2014, my Department will continue to help more people back to work, reduce the overall welfare spend as part of the sustained effort to repair the public finances, and ensure the safety net of social protection remains firmly in place for those who need it most.

I commend the Bill to the House.

4:00 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I call Senator Mooney who has ten minutes. All party spokespersons have ten minutes, while all others will have six minutes.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. It is somewhat of a challenge to know exactly where to start. A former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said once in a different context that it was the little things that tripped one up. When one looks at any of the individual provisions and measures contained in this Bill, the Minister has quite cogently argued a justification for all of them. Cumulatively, however, one can see that a pattern emerges whereby two sections of society are being singled out and targeted in this regard, namely, the young and the not so young.

For example, last year the Government cut over 1 million home care hours for the elderly, shut down the mobility allowance, cut the respite care grant by 20%, and reduced the fuel allowance from 32 to 26 weeks. All that impacted directly on the most vulnerable, including older people.

Other changes that have directly affected the elderly include the abolition of the telephone allowance, increased tax on solid fuel as a result of the extension of the carbon levy, rising costs of medical insurance driven by Government policy, a 500% increase in prescription charges, changes to the income threshold for medical cards, and the ubiquitous property tax that is currently a cause of great debate.

It is interesting that the discussions seems to be centred around administration. I wonder what the debate will be like when people have to stick their hand in their pocket and pay out double in the coming months what they paid this year. That is when the real test of this Government will come about. As I have stated over the past 12 months, people have had enough. They have been tipped over the balance in terms of what they can give. I do not believe they can give any more.

This budget and particularly the measures in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill will tip people over into more poverty.

As the Minister has outlined, the main provisions are the reduction in jobseeker's supplementary welfare allowance for those aged under 26, the abolition of the bereavement grant, the reduction in maternity benefit and adoption benefit, and the abolition of the mortgage interest supplement. The Minister put her own spin on the reduction in the numbers on the live register. While we on this side of the House would welcome the numbers on the live register continuing to reduce, the savings the Minister is making are quite substantial. As she has said, every 10,000 fewer people on the live register results in a €95 million saving. Given that trend has been continuing for 16 months, the Minister might have fought a bit harder to ensure her budget was not attacked as much as it has been. As part of the Government spin, we had the kite-flying exercise indicating that it would be in excess of €400 million and it is now approximately €280 million. It is still a significant sum of money that targets two specific categories.

We oppose the Bill, which consolidates the Government's deeply unfair budgetary policies which have been independently verified as regressive by the ESRI and the European Commission in 2011 and 2012. It targets older people and young people who are out of work. It is anti-elderly and anti-youth. It fails the basic test of fairness. The legislation will result in the second cut to core social welfare rates since the Government took office with the reduction in jobseeker's allowance, child benefit having been reduced last year. It will also see the abolition of schemes which support the most vulnerable.

We condemn the Government's latest insult to young people, that being its slashing of jobseeker's allowance. The cut in the core rate of income support along with the Government's failure to implement effective labour activation measures will push more young people towards emigration. The Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed has stated that the Government has abandoned those up to 26 years of age on the basis that it will provide them with all sorts of training schemes, education, back to work schemes, etc. which have not worked to an appreciable extent. In families where money has been sucked out, how will 18 year olds live with the reduction in jobseeker's allowance? How will they be able to manage the necessities of life that everybody has, especially those reaching 18 years of age who, for a variety of reasons, may not be able to proceed to third level education?

These changes will result in a cut in payment to those engaged in the JobBridge internship programme as interns only receive an allowance of €50 per week on top of their existing social welfare entitlement. The Labour Party's commitment to secure core rates of welfare is in tatters given the budget 2013 cut of €10 to child benefit and the budget 2014 cuts to jobseeker's allowance.

Brid O'Brien from the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed has stated:

It is extraordinary that people can vote at 18, but in our social welfare system you're not seen as a fully adult until you're 25, and if this measure comes through you won't be seen as a full adult until you're 26. I think it will send out a very negative message to young people in this country, many of whom feel they don't have a future here.
That is a sad commentary. While I do not necessarily appreciate negative sentiments coming from any source, particularly when it relates to emigration, it seems to be the sad reality faced by young people aged from 18 to 26.

Live register figures show that during 2012, 41,000 people under 25 were without work for four months or more. In September 2013, 66,183 young people under the age of 25 were on the live register. When all these numbers are added up, including the thousands affected by the various schemes the Government has withdrawn, those affected by the withdrawal of the mortgage interest supplement and those impacted by the withdrawal of the bereavement grant, it adds up to quite a few electoral quotas in the next general election.

We are opposed to the cruel cut to the bereavement grant that will hit mourning families at their most vulnerable time. The bereavement grant of €850 is paid out to an average of 22,000 families per annum who are eligible under a minimum of PRSI payments to help deal with funeral expenses.

I was astonished to learn that funeral costs in Ireland vary from anywhere between €3,000 to over €10,000, depending on where one is living. I was genuinely gobsmacked when I saw those figures because it had never occurred to me that funerals could cost so much money depending on what part of the country one lived in. Perhaps there is a question to be raised about how these costs are arrived at, rather than simply criticising the Government for the withdrawal of the grant. This raises fundamental questions about the marketplace, why it costs this much and why there is such a variance in the cost. The variance can range from €3,000 in one part of the country - this probably applies to where I live, in the north west - while for those in Dublin it can cost up to €10,000. Why should it cost more in Dublin? In many cases, there are shorter distances in terms of the facilities and the services being provided.

Anyway, I reiterate that the removal of the bereavement grant hits the elderly in particular. It compounds the hike in prescription charges, the reduction in medical cards and the abolition of the telephone allowance. All of these changes will leave pensioners struggling to make ends meet and there are a fair number of electoral quotas contained in that particular age cohort. The Minister should note that they are the people who go out and vote. We believe workers who pay PRSI contributions deserve financial support at the extremely expensive and stressful time of the often-unexpected death of a loved one.

The maternity benefit standardisation will hit women and their families at a time when they are already struggling with reduced income and increased costs. A reduction of maternity benefit will force many women to go back to work earlier than they would have wished. That is the statement but the question in reality is whether they will have work to go back to. While jobs are being created, perhaps, in the country, they seem to be in one particular category, the high-technology area. If a person happens to be computer literate or moving up the scale in that particular category, then there are probably jobs available for him or her, but for the broad mass of the population, especially those who live outside Dublin, there are few job opportunities. The cut means a de facto reduction of €32 per week for the majority of women who would have received the maximum weekly rate of €262 in maternity benefit. This change will affect approximately 45,000 women and the figures keep going up.

The Government's decision to abolish the mortgage interest supplement will jeopardise thousands of home owners throughout the country. A total of 13,000 families are currently in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, while throughout Ireland over 143,000 families are in mortgage arrears. The mortgage interest supplement is provided for people who are unable to repay the interest owed on their home loans. We have had this debate previously and we have discussed how to some degree the banks have been getting off scot free with the payment. They Minister quoted the figure of €300 million with nothing coming back from the banks. However, I add the following caveat. Under the recent legislation, ultimately, the veto rests with the banks in terms of how they are going to restructure or reschedule mortgages and that issue needs to be examined. I am unsure what the evidence suggests thus far because it is too early to say, but it seems that if the banks continue to hold a veto, then those who are struggling in particular, especially in the light of the ending of the interest supplement, will be totally at the mercy of the banks and may be unable to agree to the new scheduling of loans.

The number of waiting days for entitlement to illness benefit has been increased from three to six days. The Minister says this will save €22 million. However, the Free Legal Advice Centres organisation has already pointed out that those who will be caught in this category will have no money at all. They will be obliged to stretch their money now and in some cases they will be unable to look after basic essentials. There really is a downside to the increase from three days to six days in illness benefit.

The Government cut over 1 million home care hours for the elderly and shut down the mobility allowance. Earlier, I mentioned that the Government has also cut the respite care grant by €20 and reduced the fuel allowance from 32 to 26 weeks. I stated at the outset and I repeat now that all of these measures directly impact on older people and the most vulnerable.

4:10 pm

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
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I commend the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, and the Government on this Bill, which comes at one of the most difficult economic periods in the history of the State. The Bill reflects the Government's commitment to tackling poverty and protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

The fact that there are 34,000 extra people employed in Ireland means that there are 34,000 extra taxpayers rather than social welfare recipients. The Government's work during the past two and half years has enabled the Minister to do a difficult job in a balanced and fair manner.

As employment continues to increase, it will mean more people will move away from social welfare dependency and become taxpayers and contributors, which will ease the decisions that must be made in future budgets. The State pension, the carer's allowance, the fuel allowance, the electricity and gas allowance, free travel, the half-carer's allowance and the disability allowance have not been touched. Moreover, it is important to note that child benefit also has been protected and there has been no cut to the mobility allowance.

As I already have stated in this Chamber, the Government inherited a passive social welfare system that did not empower the people it was supposed to protect. During the period between 2005 and 2007, when the economy ostensibly was strong and the unemployment rate was at a very low level of between 4% and 5%, Ireland had a very low work intensity rate that oscillated between 13% and 15%, while the European Union average was just 10%. Research undertaken by the ESRI in 2012 indicated that a specific policy approach is required to address the issue of jobless households as even during the boom years of the early 2000s, the rate of joblessness at household level was very high by European standards. The ESRI concluded that this reflected structural factors that had little to do with the recession. A window of opportunity now exists for long-overdue reform of the social welfare structures, on which the Minister, Deputy Burton, is taking the lead through a range of initiatives including the roll-out of the Intreo offices, JobBridge initiatives, the European Union guarantee, the Tús scheme and the wage subsidy schemes for employers, as well as through the tackling of poverty traps such as, for example, the replacement of rent supplement with the housing assistance payment scheme.

There has been much comment about the ending of the bereavement grant and it is important to note the full facts in this regard. There are a number of additional supports available for people who have experienced a bereavement, such as the widowed or surviving civil partner grant, which is a once-off payment of €6,000 where there is a dependent child, or the provision of continued payment after death whereby the deceased person's payment continues for six weeks to his or her spouse or partner who also is in receipt of a weekly welfare payment. This can be worth up to €1,380, depending on the payment the deceased person had been receiving. If a person dies because of an accident at work or occupational disease, a special funeral grant of €850 is paid. For those with particular difficulties who are unable to afford to pay for the funeral, there is the possibility of an exceptional needs payment, which is means tested and for which the average payment made is €2,000. In 2012, the Department spent €2.5 million on such payments. These supports are still in place and I reiterate it is important to have all the facts. I agree with Senator Mooney that there is an onus on funeral homes to consider the cost of funerals and it is quite alarming that they can cost up to €10,000 in Dublin.

As for the telephone allowance for landline rental, I understand the Taoiseach has asked both Ministers, Deputies Burton and Hogan, to consult with Community Alert organisations to put in place a process by which security pendants can be used through a mobile telephone system. It is important that people still have the security of being able to contact a local Garda station through that pendant system and given the advances made in digital technology, this should be possible.

In order to incentivise young jobseekers to avail of education and training opportunities and to attempt to avoid the risk of such people becoming welfare dependent from a young age, the changes made to jobseeker's allowance rates in 2009 are being extended. This decision was made on foot of ongoing consideration of unemployment and incentives policy by the Government. It is not discriminatory but rather is a targeted measure aimed at protecting young people from welfare dependency. Receiving the full adult rate of a jobseeker's payment at a young age and without a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training, can lead to welfare dependency from an early age. If those concerned do not improve their skills, they are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed from a young age. Therefore, it is considered necessary to provide young jobseekers with a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training or to take up employment. All jobseekers aged between 18 and 25 who participate in back to education allowance schemes will receive €160 per week.

I commend the Minister on tackling fraud in the welfare system. It is crucial that social welfare is there to support those who need it most. People who abuse the welfare system are taking from the most vulnerable in our society. This demonstrates the up-front and fair approach the Minister is taking in managing our welfare system.

I am delighted to congratulate the Minister. I support this Bill.

4:25 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. It is important to realise that this is the sixth in a series of cumulative cuts for many people. While we are discussing individual cuts in the Bill, I am very aware that many families and individuals have been hit six times in one way or another. It is my third time to discuss the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill in this House.

I feel slightly disillusioned because of the way the budget process is handled in Ireland. No matter how we cut and slice the Bill, it is about how we make political decisions. There is a strong public perception that the decision has been made to target vulnerable groups and hit already stretched families and individuals. I look at countries such as Denmark which has an open and transparent budget system. The Danish Government lays out the budget targets, debates in which people will get involved ensue and then the budget decisions are made. I question our processes, including the way we can invite groups to appear before committees, such as the Joint Committee on Health and Children without any real influence on the decisions that are made in the budget process. This is an issue for a wider debate on another day.

Today, I wish to discuss the aspects of the Bill on which I have particular concerns and have tabled three amendments. First I will address section 5 dealing with maternity benefit. I understand the rationale for the cuts and the argument that it will bring the level of payment up for some and down for others, but it will decrease the payment by €32 per week for 95% of the recipients. This reduction will affect the vast majority of recipients. Any parent will be able to articulate the significant costs associated with newborn babies. The cuts have a cumulative impact and this comes on top of the cuts in the 2012 budget, in which the maternity benefit was taxed and reduced the real value of the payment even further. The National Women's Council of Ireland has calculated that in less than one year the cut to maternity benefit is nearly €3,500 per mother. I have the details of that calculation. We know from studies conducted internationally and in Ireland and Government reports that the first year of a child's life is very important. I have major concern that over two budgets we have cut that payment by €3,500 per child. That is a matter of concern. I have similar concerns on the adoptive leave and the rate of payments to a person adopting a child as the same arguments will apply.

As the Minister will be aware from my e-mail last Tuesday, to which she responded with detailed answers, I have substantive issues with section 9 which deals with jobseeker's allowance. I am extremely concerned as are others about these cuts to the payments to young unemployed people. I think it is regressive and is likely to exacerbate the difficulties these young people are already experiencing trying to get into employment and training. I am also very concerned about an urban-rural divide on this issue. It is easier for those based in Dublin to go for an interview, but the young people who are based in rural areas may have great financial difficulty in getting to the interview. Some young people who are offered a three month job placement face obstacles when going on and off social welfare benefits. This is a major issue because it is difficult to have one's allowance restored after a three month placement.

I refer to the availability and appropriateness of training places and to the youth guarantee. I do not believe we are investing enough ,nor do I believe enough has been announced. Over the years, there have been successive cuts to youth organisations. I am interconnecting these issues because it is all about young people and the message we are sending to them. I listen to the narrative which is saying to young people that it is to incentivise them to go to work but the figures do not support that. During the boom times, the take-up rate among young people was the highest across the EU. Young people want to go out to work and want to be in education and training.

I am concerned the OECD report, Getting Youth on the Job Track, which was only published this September, clearly stated:

A comprehensive national strategy to tackle the very high unemployment rates among young people is lacking. Youth policy is fragmented, with several Government departments taking individual action. A more co-ordinated and tailored approach to the youth unemployment problem is required.
It is talking about Ireland. That is probably at the heart of the issue. We can debate the cuts but it is about the alternatives for young people.

In 2011, 40% of our young people aged between 16 and 24 were at risk of poverty. That is the highest rate in the EU and that is the group whose payments we are choosing to cut. It is at the highest risk of poverty but we are saying we might cut the payments.

I asked for details on the €32 million in savings on the basis of the cuts to jobseeker's allowance. I also asked for the estimated number of recipients affected and I was informed that it would be 13,767 for 2014, which does not tally with the figures I worked out. The reply to a parliamentary question asked in September showed there were 20,853 young jobseekers aged between 21 and 24, the two years affected by the cut in 2014. That does not take into account any new entrants. If I take the €72 million saving to be made and do a simple calculation of the €44 per week, it shows 31,468 persons are affected. I will go back to the Minister's Department because the sums do not make sense and I cannot work out these figures. I am trying to understand how many places and how many young people we are looking at.

The Minister highlighted the back to education allowance scheme, but a person must be 21 years of age to qualify for that scheme. There were 25,000 people on that scheme in 2013, of which 6,500 were under 25 years of age. That is approximately 26% of the people on that scheme. The Department said it was not possible to be precise when giving a number for the total of education places available for young people. Part of the problem is that we do not know the number of places available. We are saying to young people that we want to encourage and incentivise them to take up appropriate training and work, but I am hearing from young people that the places are not available.

In regard to the savings from the cuts, the Department said the cuts will affect 13,767 people. I estimate the figure to be approximately 20,000, but even if we differ on that, the reality is that the answers I have received show there are 5,250 places available. Where is the incentive? Young people are told that for every job for which they apply, there are 32 applicants. We are sending mixed messages to young people.

I mentioned the youth guarantee. The Department said it held consultations. There was a briefing on the youth guarantee on 14 October last and there was a general presentation by the Minister's Department and some discussion in smaller groups. Organisations were invited to make submissions to the Department. The plan is being finalised by an interdepartmental working group but nobody, including myself, as a Senator, and organisations working with young people, has any idea what is in that plan.

An Oireachtas committee will meet tomorrow at which organisations such as the National Youth Council of Ireland will be represented but they do not know the detail of the plan. Will the Minister come to the House for a debate on the youth guarantee and the plan the Government will submit to the European Commission on labour activation measures for young people? All of us regularly consult organisations that represent the group to whom I refer and a debate would be healthy.

4:35 pm

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for dedicating so much of her time to the House this week to discuss this Bill. I commend her on her achievement in reducing the adjustment in the social protection budget to €290 million from €440 million. A total of €220 million of this will impact on recipients, which is almost half of what was sought, and this is critically important. Despite all the pressure for a €440 million reduction, the Minister fought successfully to reduce it by half and this is clear evidence of the work of a Labour Party Minister in government.

One cannot expect to take €220 million out of the social protection budget without pain. There is no doubt difficult and painful measures have had to be incorporated into this Bill but we must bear in mind that social protection accounts for 40% of the Exchequer budget. Spending reductions could not, therefore, have been avoided in this area. While hard decisions have had to be made, the Bill contains positive measures. Last year, the Minister said she would not make any further cuts to child benefit until safe and affordable child care is in place. She has been true to her word by not implementing further reductions to child benefit and she has once again protected core social welfare payments.

I would like to highlight a number of beneficial measures that are being introduced such as the €14 million allocation to a youth guarantee fund and the extension of the school meals programme to almost 200,000 disadvantaged school children. The current spend is €37 million per annum, which was increased by €2 million in this year's budget, and the scheme will be extended in the coming year.

While the €100 jobseeker's allowance payment is being extended to the age of 26, I remind Senator Mooney that his party introduced that rate first.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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And the Minister went crazy about it at the time when she was in opposition.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I did not.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I stand corrected.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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This is the game of politics. When one is in opposition, one looks at all the bad things while when one is government, one looks at all the good things. Unfortunately, that is politics in Ireland. The Government is re-investing more in jobs, education, training and activation measures than it is taking out with this adjustment. For example, €1.6 billion is being allocated to the revised pathways to work strategy in 2014. It is time that attitudes towards young people, particularly those who are out of work, changed on the part of employers. I listened to a recent radio interview about the differences in internships between this country and others. In Ireland, many interns are given mundane chores to do and they are pen pushing in many cases with little or no stimulation in workplaces where they should be learning and benefitting in the long term by improving their career prospects. In other countries, more hands-on training and engagement is provided and an intern feels part of the workforce. The attitude of some employers needs to change.

The changes to the jobseeker's allowance are part of that change in attitude towards young people. We have moved towards incentivising young jobseekers to avail of education and training opportunities and are trying to avoid a scenario where they become welfare dependants. As Senator Naughton said, it is not discriminatory but rather a specific target aimed at protecting young people from welfare dependency, which is a reality in Ireland. It is argued that this is encouraging emigration and while I have no doubt that some people will emigrate, it will not be because of social welfare payments. Nobody will stay in Ireland because of the amount they receive in social protection payments. That will not stop them emigrating

What will stop young people leaving this country is the availability of jobs and employment and the financial and emotional stability which follows from that. The Government's focus is on jobs; on getting people off social welfare and into work. That is why, in 2014, the Department of Social Protection will spend more than €1 billion on work, training and education places and related supports for jobseekers. This is a significant increase of €85 million on the allocation for 2013. Furthermore, while the reduction in jobseeker's allowance for young people will lead to a saving of €32 million, the Government is investing €46 million in youth employment initiatives. Turning 18 years of age and moving immediately onto social welfare is not the answer. We must be more ambitious for our young people. In this regard, I welcome the commitment to reduce the threshold for eligibility for the JobsPlus scheme from 12 months to six in the case of persons aged under 25. It is anticipated that this will bring an additional 1,500 people into the scheme in 2014. I look forward to that objective being achieved, along with the aim of targeting 1,000 additional places for young people on the Tús scheme.

In a week where five technology companies announced their intention to set up business in Ireland, we must bear in mind the importance of being job-ready. Nobody is better at technology than young people. However, Louise Phelan of PayPal had an important message to convey last month when she announced the creation of 1,000 new jobs in Dundalk. While she praised Ireland as a destination for investment, she also expressed a concern that members of the younger generation are not hungry enough to get ahead in their careers and are woefully unprepared when they enter full-time employment. She also pointed out that Irish workers do not have sufficient language skills to fill more than half of the jobs that will be available. That is why we are moving towards getting young people job-ready, by enhancing their language, technology and other skills. We must be sure they are ready to take up jobs as they become available.

Another very welcome provision for which the Minister should be commended is the change in activation arrangements for older jobseekers. Under the current system, any unemployed person aged up to 65 must be available for work. From the beginning of 2014, however, anybody aged 62 and over will not be required to comply with that condition and will not be penalised for failing to do so. In addition, jobseekers in that age category will be required to sign on only once a year.

I very much welcome the provisions requiring insurers to repay welfare benefits paid by the Department of Social Protection for loss of earnings arising from injury or accident where the insured person has also been compensated for the same loss of earnings through a settlement. The principle here is that a person should not be compensated twice in respect of the same injury or accident. The expected savings will be €21 million in 2014. As it stands, insurers are entitled to reduce the amount of a settlement in respect of loss of earnings from an accident by an amount equivalent to the social welfare benefits and to retain that money for themselves. Under this change, there will be a legal obligation on insurers to repay the money to the Department. I cannot understand why this anomaly was not addressed years ago.

The changes in regard to the bereavement grant and telephone allowance have caused a great deal of concern and unrest. It is important to note that the bereavement grant is not a universal payment. For example, people with a lifelong disability or owners of small farms who are in receipt of a farm assist payment would not be eligible for the grant. In fact, heretofore, half of what was being paid under the grant was going into estates. In other words, the beneficiaries of wills were claiming the payment. Under the new arrangements, anybody in need of financial assistance at the time of a bereavement can go to his or her community welfare officer and request the burial grant, which averages out at some €2,000 rather than €850. This will ensure that those who need it most will continue to receive financial assistance with funeral costs. This is in keeping with the principle to which we all subscribe, that social welfare is there to assist those most in need. What we are about here is real reform - making sure it is those most in need who get help.

There are other supports available to people after a death which the Minister has maintained, such as the widow's pension, widower's pension, the six weeks' payment after death for those bereaved, as well as the widowed parents' grant, and the over 60s household benefit concession for widows and widowers. In respect of the telephone allowance, it is important to remember that the Department of Social Protection expenditure is increasing yearly for elderly people as demand grows. Examples include the living alone allowance, the over 80 allowance, the free fuel allowance, the free television licence, free travel scheme and the companion travel scheme, along with the electricity and gas allowances, all of which have been maintained. We tend to forget what has been retained when one allowance is taken away. The telephone allowance has become quite outdated, however, given the wide variety of telephone services and packages now available. I understand that one company has already absorbed the cost of this change. I welcome the commitment of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to invest more funding in alarms for the elderly, which up to now were one of the main reasons for the retention of a land line. I have spoken to the Minister for Social Protection and I asked to look at the cost of reinstating the allowance for those over 66 in receipt of the living alone allowance or those with a dependent adult. I welcome the fact that those over 66 will not be liable for the extra PRSI and unearned payments.

The budget continues the Government's process of repairing the public fiances, while doing all that is possible to protect the most vulnerable in society. The loss of our economic sovereignty under Fianna Fáil has left this country's finances in a sorry mess but through the measures in this Bill and the budget we can begin again to look forward to restoring our economic independence and ensuring that our people benefit accordingly in the long term.

4:45 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I wish to share time with Senator Quinn.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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You each have five minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I do not envy her job. I think she is one of the two outstanding Ministers of the Government, the other one being Deputy Noonan, but I do not agree with him ideologically. I would not start from there, but then again I am a socialist. In fact, I would be tending towards communism and I think it is very important to put the people first. The live register has fallen below 400,000, but that does not take emigration into account so it does not confirm that the right measures have been taken. If we look at the state of the country, the morale of the people, the general financial condition of most families and the huge amount of emigration of our most talented people, then I do not think we can congratulate ourselves on anything. We are not really exiting anything. We are going to be still in the same stranglehold with the same financial institutions and I wish them damned in hell. The people should come first.

The Minister said in her speech that young people are not best assisted by welfare payments, because work, training and education supports are much more beneficial in the long term for young job seekers, but that is not the case when these are not sufficient to get them into a job or when there are not sufficient jobs out there. This is the terrible situation. In a theoretical sense, the Minister could possibly be right if she took that point of view, which I do not. However, it is not correct to say that the cuts will create incentives for young people to take up education and training. This is the "flat screen television in Tallaght" argument in a slightly milder form. These cuts will hit 21,000 people and we have 3,250 new places, so there is a huge discrepancy involved. Therefore, it is simply not accurate to say that this will have the effect of shifting people off the register. I congratulate the Minister on halving the cuts that her Department was asked to introduce. That is why I say she is one of the best Ministers in the Government and why I do not envy her job. However, these people have already been means-tested and when they live with their parents, their parents' income is taken into account. We see from an analysis of this that it is always the low-income families that are being affected. That is something that should worry all of us, as representatives of the people.

The second issue of particular relevance is jobseeker's allowance and the single parent tax credit. We have all received letters from people on the single parent tax credit, and they are all individual cases.

We have all received a circular letter as well, which makes a series of relevant points. Very often they are prefaced with a personal story which is interesting and highlights the situation. One of them is from a man who states, "I am a single father to four amazing kids and I pay maintenance of €900 per month". He is getting €137 per month, but that is being taken from him. That is dreadful. This man is paying a very significant amount and is trying to be a good father, but he is being discriminated against. There is another from a man who says, "For years we have been an invisible class in society, our names have, in many cases, been removed from our children's lives by the stroke of a pen upon a birth certificate." The rights of single fathers must be taken into account. It will adversely affect all single, separated and divorced fathers and mothers. In addition, if a single parent's income drops below a certain level, it will mean they will be less able to do anything for their children. It is also likely to create further tension between separated parents if they squabble over this. There is a human development as far as this is concerned.

There is also the issue of the Equal Status Act. I have been briefed that research from Trinity College points to the fact that in 97% of separation cases in the State, the courts deem the child's mother to be the primary carer, even in cases of 50:50 access. That is another anomaly. In terms of the language, some people feel quite sensitive about the idea of being a secondary carer. I know what is meant by that, but there might be another way around it. Finally, another person begs that we:

"Do what is right for our dignity and our children. €2,500 is not worth tearing apart our relationships. It is soul destroying.
I have two other questions for the Minister. One is about the illness benefit. The Bill doubles the time one must wait before claiming from three to six days. That means people on very low incomes must try to put together a float of a week's wage to carry them over. This is worrying.

The final matter is very important. I was briefed on it by Focus Ireland, a wonderful organisation. It is concerned about the impact of the reduction in the social welfare rate for people under 25 years of age. It believes this might lead to an increase in homelessness among young people. It calculates that approximately 200 people will be affected, which is a small number, but in times of devastation in their lives, it is a problem. Homelessness at an early age often leads to chronic homelessness. Perhaps the Minister might contact Focus Ireland to seek a further briefing on this and to see if some accommodation could be reached.

I will conclude on the telephone scheme. I was amazed to hear that the telephone benefit is being removed, particularly in light of the current situation where elderly people throughout the country are being attacked. Many of them only have landlines and they might not find mobile phones easy to use, even if they could afford them. This is such a mean-minded measure. I would probably be eligible for it now, although I have never applied for it and do not want it. I do not believe in taking things I can afford to pay for myself. However, my heart bleeds for the two old ladies in Donegal, one of whom was hauled out of her bed, banged on the head and left on the floor. Without a telephone such people are completely vulnerable.

4:55 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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That leaves three minutes for Senator Quinn.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I apologise. Can something be done about it?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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There are 25 more speakers. I did advise the Senator.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister but, like Senator Norris, I do not envy her her job. It is not an easy task at this time.

I will concentrate on a couple of matters and one of them is the effect on employers. Will the Minister put my mind at rest regarding the sick pay scheme, to ensure we are not increasing the cost to employers?

The other point I wish to raise is an anomaly or, perhaps, an error. The allowance for married couples is double the allowance for two single people. In all cases, including income tax, it is recognised by the State that a couple allowance is exactly double that of the single allowance.

I would like the Minister to put my mind at rest in regard to the over 70s couple medical card eligibility criteria. It is proposed to reduce the over 70s couple allowance to less than double that of the single allowance, that is, for a single person it is €500 and for a couple it is €900 instead of €1,000. It is clear that if the over 70s couple medical card eligibility criteria was in line with other parts of our legislation, the allowance for the couple should be €1,000. I believe this is a discrimination against married couples or civil partners aged over 70. To be clear, if the eligibility criteria for a couple was, as custom and practice has it, double that of a single person, namely, €1,000 for a couple, a couple would retain their medical card. However, as it is proposed in budget 2014, with the discriminatory allowance of €900, which is less than double the amount of a single allowance, a couple would lose it. I ask the Minister to put my mind at rest on that because I do not believe it is fair. There should be equality. I would be glad if the Minister could address that issue because it appears to be one where an amendment could be considered to rectify that anomaly.

We must make it clear that it is sensible for people to work. The Minister has put a great effort into that and referred to it a number of times but over the weekend an article in theIrish Independentstated: "While the Government bats around statistics saying that the vast majority of people are better off working, the Economic and Social Research Institute notes that 8% of the unemployed would lose money by getting a job [that is not what the Minister said, at least it did not sound like that], meaning the reality is that thousands of householders are disincentivised to work". To put that starkly, the Irish Independentfound that a family could be €4,000 a year better off on social welfare than it would be with one parent working full-time in a minimum wage job. That is an amazing finding to consider. It arises because it includes jobseeker's allowance with additional payments for a spouse or partner and children, child benefit, fuel allowance, back-to-school allowance and rent supplement. Will the Minister comment on that? Does the Government not accept that if all the associated benefits that go with being unemployed are added up, there is a big difference between that figure and the salary of a low-paid job? I am glad the Government is moving towards making rent supplements based on financial need but if we then remove medical cards from those who move to work - they will now only get them for one year instead of three - we could be shifting the entire problem and not setting the conditions for people who want to get back to work.

As I mentioned previously on several occasions, and the point is worth repeating, it was highlighted recently that one in every seven people on social welfare has never worked a single day in their lives. Other reports show that one in three people offered a place on the back-to-work scheme failed to show up for interview. That is a huge factor. The benefit was recently called unemployment allowance until the Minister changed it. However, how can one be unemployed if one has never been employed? To me, one must have been employed to be unemployed. The Government says that it will follow the model of not giving benefit to a person who refuses a job or training, as happens in countries such as the Netherlands or Germany, but will that ever happen? It would be political dynamite to alienate so many thousands of voters. However, we have to say that if a person refuses a job or training, one simply cannot go back to receiving social welfare for the next number of years. That will not be a popular thing to say and the Minister has said that the Government is moving in that direction. The figures from the Economic and Social Research Institute seem to bear that out. I would like to Minister to consider those points and respond to them.

5:00 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We are moving on to the second group of speakers who will each have six minutes. The first speaker is Senator Clune.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the point made by the Minister in her speech that originally €440 million was to be taken from her Department's budget and that figure was reduced to €226 million. She had a similar story to tell us last year. However, as others have said, these spending reductions will still have an impact. Budget 2014 was about getting people back to work while at the same time ensuring that payments in respect of the State pension, carer's allowance, disability benefit and child benefit were all protected.

Budget 2014 was about getting people back to work and at the same time ensuring State pension, carer's allowance, disability and child benefit payments were protected. I acknowledge that some changes were proposed. I will go through some of the measures that will have an impact on individuals.

I do not think it has been mentioned in this debate that work is the single greatest protection against poverty. It should inform everything we do. All of our efforts should aim to ensure people return to work. While the figures are good, they are not good enough. We need to go much further. The creation of 3,500 jobs a month over the past year has had a positive effect on the economic balance sheet and on the lives of individuals and their families. Many payments have been protected, as I have said, but others have not. The reduction in the level of jobseeker's allowance paid to those under the age of 25 has been criticised by many people. The Minister made the case very well in her opening remarks when she said there is an emphasis on creating training, education and internship places across a range of programmes to ensure young people have the necessary skills for employment.

I heard criticism this week of the 300 jobs that are being created in the technology sector, on the basis that they are not suitable for everybody. I accept that they are not suitable for everybody. We should bear in mind that for every job created in employment backed by IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland, up to 1.5 further jobs will be created in the community. Anyone who has read the Fast-track to IT report will be aware that a range of skills are needed in the technology sector. It is not just about coders and programmers. A range of skills are required across the board. Many young people who used to work in the construction sector, after finishing their trade apprenticeships, are finding meaningful employment in the IT sector. We should bear in mind that a range of skills are needed in the IT sector. It is not necessarily all about high level coding and programming.

I would like to speak about the job activation measures that are in place. A positive Indecon report, which looked at the success of the JobBridge scheme, referred to the success of those who have participated in the scheme in gaining employment outside their internships or the organisations they were in. It is very positive and it continues to be positive. I look forward to seeing how the Minister will conclude this country's programme under the youth guarantee initiative towards the end of the year. This positive development, which was finalised under the recent Irish Presidency of the EU, is focused on getting young people back to work and ensuring they acquire the right skills. The proposal in this Bill to reduce the jobseeker's payment received by young people, as proposed in the budget, will ensure there is a focus on what is available to young people, how they can be supported in getting back to work and offering them the necessary education or training placements. We have given a commitment to this effect under the youth guarantee fund.

I congratulate the Minister on the introduction of the welfare fraud initiative. I welcome it because it is important for us to know that action is being taken. The introduction of the public service card will be of assistance in that regard. The special investigation unit, which will look at organised fraud, suspected non-residency cases and multiple claims, will co-operate with Revenue. A range of measures have been and will continue to be effective. I understand further funding is being provided towards that end this year.

We should bear in mind that maternity benefit, which is being reduced, is not a payment towards the cost of rearing children. Child benefit is provided for that. Maternity benefit is provided as an employment support to ensure mothers receive income support during the time they spend on maternity leave. We have come an awfully long way. Under EU law, we are required to provide for just 14 weeks of maternity leave, but we provide for 26 weeks of paid maternity leave and 16 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. This goes a long way to help people who have children by giving them time to bond with and adapt to their new arrivals. It is certainly not meant as a payment towards child care.

In many cases, the employer has previously ensured that the mother gets full pay on maternity leave. I suspect that in many cases, those days have gone. We should applaud the way we have moved on in terms of supporting parents with their new children. We have come a long way and should not focus on the payment or cost.

5:15 pm

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. While there are some very difficult changes, every job is difficult and there are tough choices to make, could the Minister deal with one aspect of complaints we all receive, namely, the length of time for processing claims? I am going to debate some of the cuts she has made, claims for disability, illness and jobseekers, and in particular appeals and the percentage of appeals that are upheld. The percentage of appeals upheld show that some of the decisions made at the very start are incorrect. Perhaps the Minister has some up-to-date details about what percentage of appeals are upheld and granted and could tell us what the turnaround times for processing claims are and what changes, if any, she has made in the administration sections of the Department to ensure that claims are processed as promptly as possible.

My colleague, Senator Mooney, has outlined our party position on this very well and has detailed many of the items about which we have grave concern. I will focus on two or three items. First, I will address the abolition of the mortgage interest supplement. The mortgage interest supplement was one of the few direct measures that assisted people in mortgage arrears and applied to people regardless of whether they were working or not. In the context of the Government having introduced the new Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act which makes it easier for banks to repossess people's principal private residence and having torn up the statutory code of conduct on mortgage arrears to give the powers to the banks under the new code of conduct on mortgage arrears, I am interested in finding out what the Government is proposing in its stead. Is it proposing that the State should not intervene to assist the 143,000 households in mortgage arrears that are in grave difficulty? What will happen to these people? I know this covers a couple of Departments but the abolition of mortgage interest supplement is a retrograde step and the Government will be taking the rug from under people who really need this payment.

I listened with interest to some Members and some Government colleagues, particularly the Taoiseach, talking about welfare over the past weeks. One headline stated "Kenny declares war on welfare culture". I am not saying that the Minister has been guilty of this but there is a sustained message coming from Government about welfare fraud and welfare spongers. Tory-style language is being used, particularly from Fine Gael colleagues in this regard. The welfare system is there to help people when they are in trouble. Most of them have paid taxes for this. Could the Minister ask her Government colleagues, particularly the Taoiseach, to watch the language that is used? Does the Government expect people to feel grateful that they receive assistance from the State when they are out of work or have problems with their mortgages? I believe this notion has crept in over the past 18 months in Government circles.

I was astonished to hear Senator Clune commend the Minister for changes to maternity benefit - standardisation as she called it. It is not standardisation. That is language used by focus groups employed by the Government and its spin doctors. Let us be straight about this. This change in maternity benefit is a cut - a €30-million cut. I ask the Minister to confirm these figures. What percentage of women claiming maternity benefit in any given year will the de facto reduction of €32 per week affect? According to the figures I have, standardisation will affect 96% of women.

Only 4% of women will benefit from it. The Minister can call it whatever she likes but it is a substantial cut. We do not think it is too late to change course, and we will be tabling amendments through our spokesperson, Senator Mooney, because the Minister got it wrong in this regard. I support her in the tough choices she has had to make in other areas but the cut - not standardisation - to maternity benefit is wrong. I would like to know what figures are available from the Department. If she is saying it is a standardisation that is saving €30 million, it is effectively a cut.

Other issues that are not covered by the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill include the telephone allowance and the household benefits package. In case my colleagues believe the abolition of the telephone allowance will only mean a cut of €9, it was €26 when this Government took over and it is currently €9. It will be nothing from next year. That will affect people. We cannot change it because it is not in this Bill and primary legislation is not required for the cut.

These are things that really hurt but even at this late stage, I ask the Minister to reconsider the cut to maternity benefit and the bereavement grant. She corrected me earlier when she said that she supported the reduction introduced by the previous Government to social welfare payments for those aged between 18 and 21 years who were living at home. I take her at her word in that regard but her party vociferously opposed the Social Welfare Bill which introduced those measures. She should not proceed with the cuts to the maternity benefit and the bereavement grant. It is not too late for her to change her mind. A government cannot say that it supports working mothers when it takes €32 per week away from them. It it not standardisation; it is a cut.

Debate adjourned.