Thursday, 7 November 2013
Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Fifth Stage
I thank the Minister for what has been a marathon session and I confirm that this House has achieved even more relevance than it normally would have considering the huge controversy over the amount of time given to this Bill in the other House. There was no such difficulty in this House and I compliment the Leader of the House on allowing it. While we disagreed on a number of vital issues concerning this legislation, as the Minister knows, it is never personal. It is always political. She batted effectively in defending her corner and while we did not manage to get her to accept any of the amendments we put forward, I believe she has taken on board many of the contributions made on all sides of the House. I wish her well.
I, too, thank the Minister for the amount of time she dedicated to dealing with the Bill in this House, which highlights the relevance of the House. I thank the Leader for agreeing not to guillotine the debate this week on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill, which was very productive. We all agree that painful decisions have had to be taken. It gives us no pleasure to do that but we do it in the interests of the country.
I also thank the Minister for her courtesy and professionalism because she was clearly on top of all the matters involved in the Bill. She gave good and full answers, although she occasionally took advice from her legal eagles behind her. I regret that none of our amendments was accepted but anybody who reads the Official Report will see that it was a full, clear debate and that on certain amendments the Minister met us part way in that she said she would come back to us or that they were covered in another circumstance. It was a very useful debate. Despite that the Bill was not changed in the House, I believe we have helped to alter to a small extent the context in which these decisions are made. We raised questions which the Minister took seriously, and she undertook in certain circumstances to relay our concerns to some of her colleagues. It was time well spent. It is unusual for a senior Minister to spend a very long time here and as Senators we all appreciate that.
I, too, thank the Minister for coming to the House and explaining the Bill in such detail and with such clarity. She has done a remarkable job. It is a fair and balanced Bill. It is a challenging time to put forward a budget but in the midst of that challenge there is great opportunity for reform, and I congratulate the Minister because I know that is her intention. It is about tackling long-term unemployment. We inherited a passive social welfare system-----
Tá mé buíoch gur thóg mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Cullinane, an díospóireacht ar fad ar ár son. Gabhaim buíochas freisin leis an Aire as a cuid ama a chaitheamh linn.
I will make one plea to the Minister, and I do not want this to be political, in fairness.
If you listen you might understand what it is all about. We tabled an amendment that was ruled out of order but it was a serious amendment on children and direct provision. We had a debate in the House in recent weeks on direct provision in which Senators from all parties agreed that the direct provision system should be reformed. The Minister is not yet of the same mind but there is a cohort of children in direct provision who are not eligible for children's allowance. There are only about 1,500 of them. We have had a children's referendum recognising the rights of children across the State but these children are left out of that scenario.
I plead with the Minister to review the matter. I appreciate that it is a legal situation between the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Justice and Equality. If we really believe that each child in the country is equal then these children should be included in the children's allowance provision. I call on the Minister to examine the matter even at this late state. If the provision cannot be included in the Bill then I ask her to do so moving forward. I am being genuine.
I, too, thank the Minister and her officials for their co-operation in advance and during the debate and hope the co-operation will continue. I remain concerned about the cuts to the maternity benefit and the jobseeker's allowance, a concern shared across the House.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to come here to discuss the Irish plan for the youth guarantee. She ably shared the information with us on how she showed leadership at European level on the issue. We are clear that she is committed to ensuring that the youth guarantee is a good plan.
Having listened to the debate, particularly on section 9, some good ideas were expressed from all across the House. We could add and give our support to the youth guarantee in order to ensure that it is successful for young Irish people.
I do not wish to strike a discordant note. I am glad the Minister has spent time here, as I wish some of her colleagues would do. She has engaged in debate here and has set an example to her ministerial colleagues in Cabinet to spend more time in the House. To be fair, I have never criticised her attendance record because she has attended here, listened and engaged in debate.
We are all commending each other on a good debate on the Bill's provisions but before we take the final vote we must remember that the legislation will reduce and cut jobseeker's supplementary welfare allowance for under-25s.
It was not a passive social welfare system. One can tie the news up in any way one wants but that is what is happening, it is a significant cut. The Minister proposes to abolish the bereavement grant so it will be completely gone. In addition, in reducing maternity benefit by €32 per week, the Minister said it was standardisation but it is not, because 96% of women will be affected by the cut and only 4% will gain. The Minister is abolishing the mortgage interest supplement; increasing the waiting days for illness benefit from three to six days; discontinuing the personal weekly rate of €230.30 paid to invalidity pensioners at age 65; and extending PRSI cover to all employed contributors of unearned income.
The following is not in the Bill but the Department of Social Protection has abolished the telephone allowance for the elderly. That has been done already. The Minister has increased minimum contributions for couples from €5.35 to €40 and changes have been made to the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance.
I know that the truth might hurt. All I am asking my colleagues opposite, particularly Senators in the Labour Party and the Minister, is how they would respond to the Bill and proposed cuts if they were in opposition.
The provisions have been dressed up as changing from a passive system to an active system of social welfare. That is patently not true.
I welcome the debate and hope that the Minister will take on board some of the comments made. Let my colleagues opposite remember that how they vote on the Bill today will be remembered and the people will remind them of it at the next available opportunity.
Remember what was promised in the programme for Government. Remember the list of cuts that my colleagues opposite brought forward and are passing again today that followed a disgraceful Social Welfare Bill last year.
All I am asking the Senators to do, particularly our Labour Party colleagues opposite, who are apparently champions of the vulnerable and the needy, is to look at what they have done and what they are going to do today.
These are the facts. What the Government Senators are voting on today will impact on people who need the State's support. All of their promises and stances made while in opposition mean nothing and we have further proof today that they mean nothing.
During the debate the Minister gave a commitment to revisit some of these areas and to examine activation measures. She has done so and I commend her for parts of that. The fact of the matter is that this is a disgraceful Social Welfare Bill and its cuts will hurt the people who need our assistance. Frankly, if the Government Senators feel good about the debate held over the past three days and they feel that they have done a good job, well great. I shall wait to see what people think about the measures that they have approved here today.
I thank the Minister for her presence in the Chamber yesterday. It was a very long day but we had some very good discussions on many issues. At times the debate became party political but, in the round, we tried to confine our contributions to the many amendments being discussed. It was a constructive debate.
I concur with Senator Darragh O'Brien that we must remember that we are here today to vote for a Social Welfare Bill that contains cuts worth over €200 million that will impact on many people across the State.
I represent people who voted for me and my party and I have a responsibility, as a public representative, to articulate their concern to the Minister and the people in the Chamber. I represent people who vote for my party and all of the people who contacted us about various cuts and used e-mail and telephones to express their disappointment at many of the cuts.
Some Senators in the House have clapped themselves on the back for the Bill but we must remind ourselves about some of the cuts. For example, extending the waiting time for illness benefit from three to six days; cuts to maternity benefit; cuts to adoption benefit; cuts to injury benefit; the scrapping of the bereavement grant; cuts to the young jobseeker's allowance; cuts to the supplementary welfare allowance for young people; phasing out of the mortgage interest supplement and its cessation by a certain date; cuts to invalidity pension payment level for 65 year olds; and the other cuts that were announced in the budget that are not part of the social welfare Bill. Many of the cuts are unfair. Yesterday I made the point that if the Minister was in opposition she would oppose the cuts because this is not a Labour Party social welfare Bill or budget. I view it as a Fine Gael budget due to the type of cuts outlined.
I find it very difficult, and share the frustration of the Government representatives, to listen to Fianna Fáil talk about fairness.
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Deirdre Clune
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Michael D'Arcy
- John Gilroy
- Jimmy Harte
- Aideen Hayden
- Imelda Henry
- Lorraine Higgins
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Marie Maloney
- Mary Moran
- Tony Mulcahy
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- Catherine Noone
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan
- Jillian van Turnhout
- John Whelan