Dáil Éireann - Volume 475 - 05 March, 1997

Social Welfare Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

[1613] Mr. Killeen: Prior to the adjournment of this debate I referred to the need to ensure that low paid workers have their income supplemented. The family income supplement is the appropriate vehicle by which this is achieved. That supplement has not been addressed adequately in this debate and warrants further examination by the Minister.

One question we must face up to is how national prosperity should benefit those most in need. An example of its failure to do so is to be found in the position relating to butter vouchers when widows, pensioners, carers and the unemployed had a much appreciated benefit very much reduced. This appears miserly in the context of the national finances.

This Bill fails to bring forward new proposals such as the initiatives of my colleague, Deputy Woods, in respect of the back to work allowance, second chance education and so on. There is need for a number of such initiatives to address anomalies in the system and create a new type of social welfare system more responsive to the needs of the late 1990s. I am disappointed the Bill neither addresses these matters nor introduces initiatives in this area. I am deeply concerned at the undermining of the social insurance fund which has a deficit of £114 million. Clearly it cannot continue. There is no way in which the system can survive the failure to put sufficient revenue in place.

Pensioners still have to pay the 1 per cent PRSI levy which is niggardly and unfair. Questions are being asked about the value of contributory State pensions. This must be addressed in the overall context of the social welfare system and pensions generally. Difficulties still surround the disabled person's maintenance allowance and its transfer to the social welfare system. It is not working well and is a difficult area to address when individual problems arise. The issue of individual pensions for adult dependants will have to be addressed in the near future in the interests of equity and fair play.

Each year a problem arises in respect of those who have fewer than ten years contributions at the age of 66 and an attempt will have to be made to address that matter. It occurs because people were over the age of 56 when the scheme commenced. There seems to be an attempt to give them a reduced pension but I am not satisfied that it sufficiently addresses——

Mr. Durkan: I can inform the Deputy about that matter.

Mr. Killeen: I am glad the Minister has an answer to at least one question. There is an effort made in this Bill, more than others, to recognise the problem and to make a half hearted attempt to address it. This is a dishonest attempt in that it fools people rather than benefits them. The Government may have correctly identified the problem but, in seeking to address it, justice has not been done to those in need.

[1614] Mr. Bree: I wish to share my time with Deputy Bradford.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

Mr. Bree: I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate. I have noticed in my time here that the annual debate on the Social Welfare Bill changes little from year to year. The content of the Bill is different but the response of both Government and Opposition speakers differs little each year. Put simply, the Government sets out to defend the changes it has introduced while the Opposition focuses its comments on measures the Government has not addressed. The possible exception to this process was the Social Welfare Bill introduced by Deputy McCreevy in 1992 which must have had even his backbenchers reeling in horror. For my part I do not intend to deviate from the norm.

I welcome the Bill for two reasons. The first is it contains a series of welcome measures. Foremost among these is the initiation of the pro rata pension. This provision will further legitimise the social insurance system by ensuring those who contribute to the system, even on an intermittent basis, actually benefit. There are other individual measures of note and I hope to have time to refer to them later. The second reason the Bill is significant is it makes further progress towards rationalising what was a complex and unwieldy social welfare system, a hallmark of the approach of the Minister and the Government to social welfare. As Members we often underestimate the extent of the problem for those who do not interact with the system regularly.

I welcome the Minister's intention to establish a new social assistance payment to be known as sickness allowance for people who become ill for short periods without the necessary benefit requirements. This payment fills a gap in the social welfare system. In the past, people were told no payment was appropriate and that responsibility for a solution, that is supplementary welfare, did not lie with the Department of Social Welfare but with the Department of Health through the relevant health board. I am grateful that both these problems have been addressed by the Government.

I welcome the extent to which the Minister, Deputy De Rossa, has been able to proceed towards meeting the appropriate limits for social welfare payments, as outlined by the Commission on Social Welfare and recently confirmed as a target to be attained in the social element of Partnership 2000.

Already we have witnessed the impact which the rates of old age pension have had. In some cases these are running at 108 per cent of the amount recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare. The result has been considerable net immigration by older British citizens, Irish people and people of non-Irish origin. They benefit under our pension and supporting free [1615] schemes. The figures are not provided by the Department of Social Welfare but by the Department of Social Security in the UK.

I welcome also the further improvements in child benefit. This is an area in which there has been considerable improvement not only since the Government came to office when for some families the rates increased by 50 per cent but since my party came to office in 1993. Deputy Harney and her colleagues consistently reiterate that the choice facing the electorate is whether her party or mine will form part of the next Government. She is being presumptuous but if she is right the public need to examine closely both parties' record in the area of child benefit.

Earlier speakers correctly identified the key role played by child benefit and the extent to which it is relied upon by mothers. On child benefit at least, the political record is clear. The Progressive Democrats Party cannot be trusted. Despite the whining of the Progressive Democrats, the policy of concentrating resources for child income support on child benefit which has been a feature of the last two budgets, is continued by this Government. This approach is in line with the recommendations of the expert group on the integration of tax and social welfare and the interim report of the Commission on the Family and is consistent with the commitment in the Programme for Government and the thinking in many earlier reports. The approach involves increasing child benefit as part of a planned strategy of reforming child income support and removing disincentives.

There is no doubt child benefit is the best mechanism for supporting families and tackling poverty. It is given to all families with children, especially large families who are at greatest risk of poverty. It is paid mostly to women who spend it mainly on buying food, clothes, shoes and so on for the children and the household. That the payment is universal and non-taxable and not affected by taking up employment means it has no negative employment effects in terms of unemployment or poverty traps.

The Bill provides for an increase of £1 per child per month for each of the first two children and £5 per child for the third and subsequent children. The new monthly rates will be £30 each for the first two children and £39 for each child thereafter. This will target greater resources at larger families. A family of three children will receive £99 per month and a six child family £216 per month from September. Since the Government came to office a three child family has received a 52 per cent increase in child benefit while a five child family has received a 54 per cent increase. This record stands in stark contrast to that of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. In their last budgets they increased the two child benefit by a grand total of 72 pence and £1.50. In 1991, a four child family received approximately £70 per month. This year the same family will [1616] receive nearly double that amount, £138 per month.

The issue of the family has long been associated with fringe right wing groups who pronounce themselves the only people capable of representing the interests of the family. Judging by last weekend's comments, these groups continue to wreak havoc in Fianna Fáil. The truth is, however, that families have fared better under left wing parties than under conservative parties.

I welcome the £10 increase in the threshold for payment of family income supplement and the fact that from June, in accordance with the provisions of Partnership 2000, family income supplement will be payable on income net of PRSI or any other relevant superannuation payments. Even more important is the effort this Government has put into increasing the take up of family income supplement which plays a valuable role in removing poverty traps for lower paid working families. It is of little use if it is not taken up by the families who are entitled to it. The Government has gone to considerable lengths to increase the take up of the supplement and I am pleased the recent tax allowance certificates issued to taxpayers contained details about it. The Minister for Social Welfare and the Minister for Finance deserve congratulations for this development.

The Bill gives effect to the changes announced in the social welfare code in the budget. The budget had two aims: to continue the Government's commitment to reducing the burden of taxation on ordinary taxpayers while promoting social solidarity and mobility. I welcome the reduction in the key social insurance rate from 5.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent. It is a particularly effective way to reduce taxation for those who need it most. The social welfare increases will, in some cases, be almost twice the rate of inflation. Despite concerns expressed about the inflation rate, it continues to stubbornly conform to many commentators' expectations.

I approve of the Minister's decision to relax the means test applying to the savings of old age pensioners. Members who represent remote rural areas are aware of the need for progress in this regard. Two developments are required. The first is the relaxation of the means test rules which the Minister has embarked upon. Second, and of equal importance, we must inform older people whose savings do not amount to much that the rules hardly apply to them. The Minister is also moving in the right direction with regard to the carer's allowance by removing effective penalties on carers which exist within the system. The system will no longer discriminate against incapacitated people who are prevented from pursuing rehabilitation by a over-stringent means test.

This is a good Bill. The key benchmark by which a social welfare Bill should be gauged is whether it makes the system more user friendly for its clients and whether its measures advance the fate of those to whom they apply. The Bill succeeds in both areas. That is not to say there are not issues which need to be addressed further. [1617] The Minister of State admitted there were and this will remain the case not only after this Bill but after next year's Bill. I look forward to this Government introducing next year's Bill so further substantial progress can be made in the social welfare area.

Mr. Bradford: I concur with much that the previous speaker said, particularly his anticipation of the 1998 Bill being introduced by the same Government.

There was a time when social welfare was seen as a scheme of last resort. It was designed for the poorest of the poor and the source of small amounts of money for people who had nothing. However, social welfare has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. It is a now a Department which not only looks after the needs of the poorest in society but also plays a proactive role across a number of areas in society. It plays a genuinely pro-economic and pro-development role. Progress in the past three years in streamlining the system, introducing new schemes where necessary and improving rates has resulted in a better social welfare system and in more people, particularly those most in need, obtaining a greater share of the resources being created.

Everybody is pleased the country is progressing economically. However, it is important that when the economy is booming, or exploding as we are told, we try to maximise the resources available to those most in need. This Bill continues our progress in that regard and I welcome its provisions.

I welcome the decision to introduce an averaging system for contributory pensions and to extend pension cover to people with a minimum annual average of ten contributions. This is a progressive and important change because the previous minimum average was 20 contributions. The Minister of State said over 6,000 people will benefit immediately, while an additional 2,000 people will benefit annually.

However, I seek clarification from the Minister of State on behalf of self-employed people who have been paying PRSI but have not managed to accumulate ten years of contributions. Members will be aware from constituency clinics of people who paid PRSI contributions for nine years and 11 months, even for nine years, 11 months and two weeks, but who did not qualify because they did not have ten years of contributions. Could the Minister examine the possibility of introducing a pro rata pension for such people? The only benefit to which these people are entitled at present is a refund of a share of their PRSI contributions. If ten years is the cut off point, we should endeavour to introduce some assistance or reduced payment for people who have between nine and ten years of contributions. I hope progress can be made on this matter, which I brought to the Minister's attention on previous occasions.

I also welcome the decision to change the period for which backdated social welfare payments can be made. The previous maximum limit was [1618] six months and this has been extended to 12 months. It is one of the strengths of our political system, although I am the first to criticise its clientelism, that Members are aware of cases where people did not claim their entitlements on time. I therefore welcome the extension of the maximum limit. However, does the Minister have any proposals to cater for people who should be allowed to claim backdated payments for periods of up to three or four years? Media reports suggested the Department intended to pay all arrears due since the original eligible date and that the proposal would cost up to £6 million. Some of the cases date from before the establishment of the office of the Ombudsman. I do not know if a decision has been made but we should try to be generous to people in that position.

We should adopt a generous approach to the few dozen people who, through no fault of their own, submitted their application forms too late. In some cases people were unaware that they were eligible for inclusion in schemes. They should be paid the arrears owed to them by the State for the past four or five years. If a taxpayer was remiss in making his tax returns the Revenue Commissioners would not be slow in seeking the money due to them and if he did not pay his PRSI contributions the Department of Social Welfare would not be remiss in seeking payment. These clients of the Department of Social Welfare are legally entitled to this money and they should be paid. I ask the Minister to check the figures and to make provision for this once-off payment to these people.

I welcome the improvement in the carer's allowance scheme. While it is a modest improvement in the sense that it relates to a regulation, it will be of assistance to those carers looking after two elderly or ill relatives. I welcome the increase in the allowance and the extension of the eligibility criteria. However, one must look at the issue from a cold economic statistics point of view and take into account the savings made by the State in not having to care for elderly or sick people in hospital at a cost of between £200-£300 per person per week. I welcome the improvements in the scheme since its introduction but I question if these are a sufficient response. In the future many more elderly people will require full-time care and attention. We can respond to this demand by building more nursing homes and providing more beds for elderly people but a better response would be to put in place an adequate carer's allowance scheme which will ensure the maximum number of people are looked after in their own homes.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy De Rossa, and the Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, on their proactive approach to the social welfare system and on ensuring it works better for recipients. I look forward to the introduction of next year's Social Welfare Bill by the same successful team.

[1619] Mr. Kirk: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I wish to focus on a few specific areas rather than drift over the entire Bill.

The two areas within the social welfare code which need to be addressed are the family income supplement and payments to widows and widowers. It may not be attractive for many people to take up low paid employment depending on family circumstances, eligibility for secondary benefits etc. The family income supplement is a worthwhile initiative and should be used to a much greater extent in encouraging people to take up work. Clearly this would involve the allocation of more funding. If people can derive the same income from social welfare as they do from low paid employment then this has obvious implications for the economy. A case can be made for increasing the family income supplement to make it more attractive for people to take up work.

We all lament the seemingly intractable problem of long-term unemployment. Area Development Management Limited has responsibilities in this area, while the Combat Poverty Agency has philosophical responsibilities. However, the reality is that we have not made any tangible impact on the number of long-term unemployed who mainly, but not exclusively, reside in large urban centres. The economy is doing well as a result of prudent management by Governments in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In many respects the economy could operate on autopilot as a result of the sound foundations laid during that time, yet the huge number of long-term unemployed people is still a social phenomenon. Despite the introduction of apparently worthwhile initiatives we have not made any impact on this problem, which must be addressed urgently. If the family income supplement was regarded as being in the income buffer zone a far greater and more influential role could be carved out for it.

I am aware from the work in my clinic that the widow's pension is not adequate to enable a widow to look after a young school-going family, meet mortgage payments and deal with a range of domestic responsibilities. This issue should be reconsidered urgently. Widows who have no immediate family and live on their own have to depend on the personal rate of pension. This is not adequate and I am very surprised the Minister did not address this issue.

On 1 October last people in receipt of a disabled person's maintenance allowance from health boards were transferred to the disability allowance scheme. I raised this matter on the Adjournment because of the number of complaints I received from recipients who have to go to the post office to collect their disability allowance. A mildly mentally handicapped person who has to trudge to the local post office to collect his weekly payment could easily be robbed on his way home. This is a very real risk for recipients. The Minister said he would review the arrangement. I do not know if the Department has had [1620] an opportunity to review the scheme and, if not, it should do so as a matter of urgency.

The social insurance scheme for the self-employed is a worthwhile initiative introduced by my colleague, Deputy Woods, when he was Minister for Social Welfare. A previous speaker referred to the possibility of introducing a pro rata payment arrangement for people who did not complete the minimum payment of ten years' contributions. The introduction of such a payment arrangement in other areas is welcome and would be beneficial if it were extended to the self-employed scheme.

The carer's allowance, again introduced by Deputy Woods when he was Minister, is a very worthwhile initiative. We are all familiar with the considerable costs involved for families when elderly parents require private nursing home care or need to be institutionalised because of old age or infirmity. The introduction of the carer's allowance was an innovative measure but, while there has been a gradual extension of the scheme, there is room for a further extension. We should set the objective of caring for the elderly in a home setting for as long as possible. The carer's allowance has afforded that opportunity in many circumstances and, with a further extension of the scheme, it may be possible to care for even more people in such a setting.

The Minister for Social Welfare has failed to identify the serious difficulties faced by the long-term unemployed. It may sound contradictory that a payment under the social welfare code could contribute to getting people back to work, but if more resources were allocated to family income supplement, it might be possible to get more people back to work. I urge the Minister to consider that possibility.

Mr. Creed: I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare Bill and welcome a number of the initiatives contained therein. The rates of increase proposed in the Bill, varying from 4 per cent to 7 per cent, are welcome. We can have many philosophical debates about the social welfare system and its impact on the economy and the labour force, having regard also to the Report of the Commission on Social Welfare, but the bottom line for the people dependent on social welfare payments is the additional money they will have in their pockets. Rates of increase close to three times the level of inflation are particularly welcome.

The hallmark of the Minister's stewardship has been the focusing of resources on eliminating poverty traps, particularly for families. In that respect the increases in child benefit are welcome. Members of this House are familiar with the dilemma faced by many families in our constituencies in terms of taking up job opportunities or remaining on social welfare. The significant increases in child benefit, coupled with the improvements in family income supplement, go a long way towards making participation in the [1621] working economy more attractive, thereby opening the door to social inclusion.

Over the years people who found themselves, through no fault of their own, entirely dependent on social welfare for their incomes were largely excluded from participation in society, but by virtue of a range of initiatives, including the back to work allowance scheme, family income supplement and the significant increases in child benefit, their quality of life has been significantly enhanced.

Opposition speakers referred to paltry increases proposed in the Bill. None of us, on becoming old age pensioners, would like to be dependent on £78 per week. There will never be enough resources. We have never had a Social Welfare Bill that was not criticised by the Opposition because of its meagre increases and championed on this side of the House by front and backbenchers. Such an adversarial system ensures the social welfare agenda is not forgotten in this House and that the Minister for Social Welfare responds to our concerns in that regard on an annual basis. All things being equal, the Bill makes progress in an area where considerable ground remains to be made.

The reduction in the numbers of people signing on represents significant progress which is due to a number of initiatives, including our buoyant economy. There are now 30,000 fewer people signing on, with an additional 100,000 at work compared to the figure three years ago. That progress is due also to the deliberate steps taken by the Department of Social Welfare in the closing months of 1996, and which continue to be taken, to eliminate fraud in the social welfare system. Prior to that we had an annual debate on whether the live register or the labour force survey gave a truer indication of the levels of unemployment.

The measures taken following the study by the Central Statistics Office at the end of last year clearly indicate that there was a significant level of abuse. Many of us in this House have met people in our constituency clinics who, when confronted by a social welfare officer, knew that the game was up in terms of claiming unemployment benefit. That effort must continue. Not a week goes by that somebody does not come to one's clinic who has received a letter from the Department of Social Welfare asking them to outline what efforts they have made to obtain work, whether they wish to avail of the services of the social welfare jobs facilitator, and whether they are registered with FÁS. This constant contact — I would not call it harassment — by the Department of Social Welfare in an effort to help people to find their way off the social welfare register in a structured manner is positive, and it has had the desired effect of bringing abuses of the social welfare system to light, with the result that many people have voluntarily signed off.

Although a significant number of jobs have been created, unemployment remains stubbornly high. One reason is the significant increase in participation [1622] of women in the workforce which is a relatively new phenomenon here, although we are still at the bottom of the European league table in that regard. We have to face the reality that that will continue to increase. Returned emigrants are also taking up many job opportunities that arise. There is also a problem with the hard core of persons who have a low level of education and poor skills and who remain unattractive to employers. A debate is raging currently between the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed and a representative of the business community on foot of a recently published report in which such people were unfairly and unjustly referred to as social misfits. For ISME, the representative group concerned, this was an attempt to get a headline which went one step too far. It was regrettable, but if it serves to focus attention on the problem of long-term unemployment, it is welcome.

We have to question the effectiveness of the role played by the State training agency, FÁS, in trying to construct a meaningful route back into employment for in excess of 100,000 people who have been unemployed for over three years. It raises the question whether FÁS should have its role clearly defined and whether two distinct agencies should be established, one to deal with employers' need of ongoing training and retraining for their employees and another to deal specifically with long-term unemployed people and construct meaningful courses for them. Community employment schemes involve people in working for local authorities and voluntary organisations, but there is little meaningful training built into those schemes, and there is continuous recycling of the same people on the schemes. There is a need for innovation in the types of schemes being constructed by FÁS for the long-term unemployed.

It is ironic that this criticism can be made at a time when we are facing a serious skills and graduate shortage, with the Government actively considering inviting tenders from colleges outside the State to meet demands in the telecommunications, electronics and language skills areas. Much as we need to capitalise on the desire of employers to come here by providing the types of graduates they need, we must not lose sight of that core of long-term unemployed people, and this is one of the areas in which the Department of Social Welfare has been most disappointing over the past few years. I hope we can redouble our efforts to make meaningful progress in that area.

I want to deal with the improvements in the budget for pensioners. The previous speaker referred to the very significant concessions in the budget introducing pro rata pensions for self-employed people who made PRSI contributions. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the Department will adopt a proactive approach to this concession because a significant number of people have reached retirement age over the past four, five or six years since the introduction of [1623] PRSI for the self-employed in 1988. They have been told that because they have not paid sufficient contributions they are not entitled to anything in return, but there is now a possibility of an entitlement to a pro rata pension based on an amalgamation of contributions made earlier in their working life and their PRSI contributions. Some of these people have been through the system and refused pensions while others, by virtue of their own investigations, came to the conclusion that they did not have an entitlement under the regime that existed up to now. It would be appropriate for the Department to take a proactive stance by informing every applicant who has an entitlement that such is the case.

I welcome also the commitment to refunding the pension element of their contributions to persons who made contributions over a ten year period and who have reached retirement without making sufficient contributions to qualify for a pension. That is particularly welcome because it must have been galling in the extreme to find that one was entitled to nothing from a scheme into which one had paid and to find also that a commitment made by Deputy Woods when he was Minister for Social Welfare that the pension element would be refunded was not honoured until now.

The commitment to reviewing the means test for social welfare pensions and other payments signals good intentions, but I am not sure it will work. There is no Member of the House who is not aware of the “broad brush” approach of the Department of Social Welfare to assessing income from capital under the existing arrangements. A rough rule of thumb would be 10 per cent income from money on deposit, but no financial institution is paying that kind of interest on money on deposit. It is only a matter of time before that “broad brush” is challenged in the courts, and any court in the land would find in favour of the plaintiff if such a case were taken because it is clearly the case that there is no such return for money on deposit. The Minister's speech reads well in terms of intention but I am not sure that the small print of the Bill meets the objectives set out. It is stated in section 25 of the Bill that the first £2,000 of the capital value of property shall be excluded. It proposes that the yearly value of the next £20,000 of the capital value of the property shall be assessed at 7.5 per cent, a figure that bears no resemblance to the yield from capital on deposit. It also proposes that the yearly value of so much of the capital value of the property as exceeds £22,000 shall be assessed at 15 per cent. It seems these figures were pulled out of the sky. Money on deposit does not make that much dividend.

We should adopt a transparent approach in terms of assessment, taking the yield for money on deposit as that earned in the previous 12-month period. That would be the fairest system. To say that money on deposit will earn 7.5 or 15 per cent when at present it is earning 3.5 or 4 [1624] per cent is unacceptable and does not meet the objective outlined in the Minister's contribution. That would further aggravate the position in terms of assessment, with which people are already extremely annoyed. It is, therefore, a case of going back to the drawing board.

There is much debate about pension entitlements and early retirement. A concession was made in regard to early retirement for teachers and the matter arose again recently with the nurses' dispute. There is need to consider pension provisions in the public and private sectors. PRSI contributions at various classes meet less than 50 per cent of the entire social welfare budget in any given year. While we clap ourselves on the back for reducing PRSI and income tax rates, a close look at the demographic structure in the future indicates that a significantly greater number of people will be dependent on the Exchequer. At the other end of the scale, a significant number of people will enter the workforce and we should consider mandatory or voluntary provision for increased payments of PRSI to enable persons to assess their pension provisions under the PRSI system and take early retirement at little cost to the State. That is socially desirable in that it would help solve the unemployment problem.

We must consider tax concessions for people who make arrangements through private pension plans. I have one criticism of the Department of Social Welfare in this regard. Where a person who makes provision for a private pension plan covering a ten or 15-year period reaches retirement age in the meantime and applies for noncontributory pension, that person is assessed on the capital value of the pension plan, its value at maturity rather than its immediate value. It is most unfair to people who try to provide in a responsible manner for their retirement to base their assessment on a pension that will not mature for a few years. I am aware of an interesting case which is on appeal to the Department.

I particularly welcome the introduction of the sickness allowance which recognises the plight of self-employed people who may have paid PRSI contributions which apply only for pension purposes. I share the views expressed by the previous speaker about widows. I regret I do not have more time to elaborate on those points. I broadly welcome the Bill and am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

Mr. Browne (Wexford): I welcome the opportunity to say a few brief words on the Social Welfare Bill, 1997. We all expected the Minister for Finance to announce in his budget speech major developments for the less well off and the poor in society. We had listened to much hype for weeks and read in the media that this would be one of the best budgets ever because the Minister had more money than any Minister for Finance in the history of the State to allocate to the people. In reality, however, very little was provided for those on social welfare.

We then expected that with the introduction of [1625] the Social Welfare Bill changes would be made to reflect the substantial funds available to the Government, that some of the miserly allocations announced in the budget would be increased. At a time when much money is being thrown around by the Government one would expect that this partnership, which includes the Labour Party and Democratic Left who portray themselves as the social conscience of the less well off in society, would make major improvements in social welfare payments to the long-term unemployed, old age pensioners, widows and other social welfare recipients. When the Government was on the Opposition benches they told us what they would do if they were in Government and said that Fianna Fáil, even when it gave increases of 25 per cent, did not allocate enough to people on social welfare. However, the last three years of this Government have proven beyond doubt that its concern for the less well off was only on the surface because during that time social welfare increases have been much less than those of the previous three years when Fianna Fáil was in Government. The Labour Party and Democratic Left in particular let down the people whom they purport to represent.

Like myself, the Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare has tried to find a solution to the problems experienced by firemen. I listened to local radio on my way to Dublin today and heard Labour Party Deputy Pat Gallagher claim that he secured major improvement for firemen. Will the Minister clarify whether section 13, which provides for improvements in the conditions relating to requalification for unemployment benefit, covers firemen? If so, I welcome it.

For some time I have made representations to the Minister and Minister of State about firemen. Unlike full-time firemen in Dublin who earn fat salaries, part-time firemen throughout the country provide a tremendous service to the State at very little cost. As a result of changes in social welfare some time ago those people found it very difficult to requalify for unemployment benefit and lost substantial amounts of money. The Minister of State has taken a very keen interest in this matter on behalf of firemen throughout the country and particularly in his constituency, and I compliment him on that. The change in this area is welcome. Firemen who provide a valuable part time service should, like others who provide similar services, receive special recognition from the State and I thank the Minister of State for ensuring that was done. Will he examine the social welfare appeals system, which has not worked effectively in recent years? In Wexford appeals can take up to six months to be heard. People are told their appeals will not be referred to Enniscorthy or Wexford town until a sufficient number has been lodged. Are there sufficient staff operating the system? This is a major concern for those who have submitted social welfare appeals.

The disabled person's maintenance allowance has been renamed the disability allowance. There [1626] are also long delays in this area. I am not inclined to table parliamentary questions on social welfare matters. I prefer to deal directly with social welfare officers. However, because of the long delays in making decisions on applications for disability allowance I have had to table parliamentary questions on this matter in recent months. While the disability allowance system is fairer than the disabled person's maintenance allowance — when decisions were made at the whim of local community welfare officers — the long delay in making decisions is unacceptable.

The needs of families are changing and we must respond adequately to the needs of those on social welfare. The budget did not provide adequate assistance for those on long-term social welfare benefit. There are still large numbers of people unemployed. In some housing estates in Wexford not only have fathers never worked but their sons and daughters are finding it difficult to get jobs. It is a reflection on all Governments in the recent past that we have not generated a sufficient number of jobs in rural areas.

I welcome the change in emphasis by the Minister for Enterprise and Employment who announced this week that he will seriously consider providing additional grant aid to encourage companies to set up in provincial towns. While Deputy Woods may not agree, there has been an over-supply of jobs in the Dublin area but companies are not inclined to put down their roots in rural Ireland. I hope the grant aid the Minister proposes to provide for provincial areas will encourage companies, particularly major computer companies that create thousands of jobs, to locate there. Virtually every town has benefited from EU funding and put in place major sewerage and water schemes. Local authorities have been to the forefront in providing the necessary infrastructure in rural areas, but foreign companies are not interested in locating there. I hope the recent discrimination in favour of provincial towns will change that.

The biggest scourge in this country is the level of unemployment. We must all endeavour to generate jobs and to provide a decent standard of living for families. There is nothing more depressing for a family than to have a number of its members unemployed. Most parents want their sons and daughters in a work environment rather than claiming unemployment benefit or assistance.

The carer's allowance was introduced by Fianna Fáil, but it is much too restrictive. I fail to understand why there is not more flexibility in the scheme. In the past few weeks I dealt with three cases where the allowance was refused because the carers were slightly over the limit when means tested. One of the people being cared for has since gone into hospital which will cost the State approximately £500 per week. The carer's allowance should be operated on a tiered payment basis. While the system has improved in the past few years, there should be more co-ordination between the Departments of Social Welfare [1627] and Health. In many cases when the allowance is refused the person being cared for has to go into a hospital or home. If the system were less bureaucratic it could save the State millions of pounds in hospital costs.

The Minister made a big deal of the social welfare increases he introduced this year. A widow on contributory pension with three children got an increase of only 2.5 per cent. While that may be in line with inflation, it is not enough. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s everyone, including those on social welfare, was asked to tighten their belts. Surely when the Government has a great deal of money at its disposal we should give substantial increases to people on social welfare. We must care for those who are living on the poverty line and finding it difficult to survive.

Some Ministers have tried to improve the lot of widows, but in general the benefit they receive is far too low. I raise this matter every year during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill. Widows should be given a once off decent increase. When the breadwinner in a family dies many widows, who may have been used to a reasonable standard of living, are unable to cope on the amount they receive in social welfare benefit. In some cases they lose benefits to which they would have been entitled if their husbands were on social welfare, although changes have been made in that area.

There is a need to look at the payment system to widows and to increase payments substantially given that many are left to look after two, three or four children and, in many cases, find they are unable to cope. If I meet a widow when I go out to canvass she will usually say politicians have no interest in her plight. That is not the case — all politicians are concerned about the plight of widows but do nothing to increase the weekly allowance they receive. There is a need to look at their situation.

The free fuel allowance has not been increased for a number of years. The Minister appointed a commission to consider this matter and I hope he will make an announcement before October. Perhaps there will be a change of Government and Deputy Woods will make the announcement. Whoever is in office at the time should look at the free fuel allowance. This allowance has not been increased for years but the price of a bag of coal has increased substantially. One could not buy a bag of coal for £5 and, in some areas, one would only get half a bag for that price. The Minister told me in reply to a parliamentary question that a commission was considering this matter in the context of an overhaul but it is taking some time. I expected the Minister to announce an increase last October to help people this winter. I ask the Minister to bring to his Department's attention the need to increase the free fuel allowance to all applicants.

I thought the Minister would have used this Social Welfare Bill to improve existing schemes, introduce new ones and make extra payments but [1628] he did not introduce any imaginative measures or anything which will benefit the long-term unemployed or old age pensioners. He has increased various benefits, including the family income supplement and the child benefit, depending on the number of children in a family.

We need to look at the entire social welfare system to see if a new and more radical approach may be taken to look after the less well off in our society. We must consider crime, vandalism and attacks on the old and also the extension of the free telephone allowance and telephone watch, a system which the social services operate throughout the country, including Enniscorthy. However, it is difficult for old age pensioners living alone and on the income they receive to find £40 to £60 to pay for this back up service. Because of the unfortunate changes in society and the escalation in crime and attacks on the elderly, there is a need to make this service available free to old age pensioners who cannot afford to pay for it. The Minister should consider how we can improve the quality of life for those living in isolated areas because it is a major concern for old people. After five or six o'clock in the evening, an old person will not open the door. I ask the Minister to consider making the telephone watch system available free to old age pensioners.

Mr. Broughan: May I share my time with Deputy Eamon Walsh?

An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Broughan: I warmly welcome the Social Welfare Bill, 1997, and its excellent introduction to the House by the Minister of State, who made a forthright speech. He reviewed the outstanding progress made by the Government in developing the social welfare system and the safety net for the poorest one third of the population. The budget contained important developments and innovations, many of which came from discussions between the social partners which resulted in agreement on Partnership 2000.

I welcome the further reforms contained in the Bill. One of the greatest fears people have is that the social insurance system will be privatised and dismantled by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. Deputy Woods has been out of step with his party in urging people to think twice about dismantling the social insurance system. We welcome the 1 per cent cut in PRSI but others on the Opposition benches, in particular Deputy Michael McDowell, have the clear aim of scrapping the social insurance system. I have heard a rumour — Deputy Woods will be interested in this — that the person who will stand in Dublin North-East for the Progressive Democrats has an interest in social welfare, which is astonishing because that party's main remit is to dismantle the social insurance system.

I hope if Deputy Woods is faced with the calamity of a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government he will rebel, lose the whip and refuse [1629] office rather than be involved in dismantling the social insurance system. I heard the Deputy in my constituency pay tribute to workers and their employers who contribute a large proportion of the £4.5 billion to maintain the system. The present system attempts to provide for people when they are ill, old or unemployed. It is a system of basic human decency, yet these theorists who sit on the Opposition benches want to smash it. This Government will not allow them to do so and is determined to protect the social insurance system. I hope Deputy Woods will be prepared to support that call from the Opposition benches.

It is heartening that the Bill contains many measures designed to protect the children of the poorest segment of the population. I salute the Government for increasing child benefit rates to £30 and £39 per month. This means that a family with three children will receive £99 per month. I am delighted that our partners in Government agreed to our demands that child benefit should continue to be increased to ensure there is adequate income support for children.

I welcome the increases in the weekly income thresholds used to determine entitlement to family income supplement. One of the problems is that there has been a low take-up. I pay tribute to the officials of the Department in the centres in my constituency, including Kilbarrack, for going to great lengths to ensure all eligible families are aware of their entitlements. It is heartening that those who take up employment under the jobs initiatives, which are playing a valuable and important role in facilitating the return of the long-term unemployed to the workplace, will be eligible to receive family income supplement.

The Minister has provided for the introduction of pro rata pensions to assist individuals who do not have the requisite number of contributions to qualify for a contributory pension. He has gone a long way towards removing one of the most irritating anomalies in the system.

Throughout his long working life as a politician and local representative, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will have come across many poignant cases where unemployment assistance recipients found themselves in dire circumstances when they became ill and had no option but to go cap in hand to the local health clinic to seek supplementary welfare allowance. This is not satisfactory. I am aware of families in my constituency who had no source of income on which to survive for weeks on end. I salute the Minister for providing for the introduction of the new sickness allowance. Approximately 12,000 to 13,000 families will be affected. This is one of the best measures in the Bill.

The Minister should be saluted also for pursuing the EU equal treatment directive to its logical conclusion. Over £300 million has been paid out in meeting our lawful obligations to the 70,000 to 80,000 citizens with outstanding claims.

I pay tribute to my constituency colleague for providing for the introduction of survivor's pension. There is at long last a level playing pitch. [1630] This should ensure nobody will be discriminated against on gender grounds.

The Minister has taken the opportunity to reverse to some of the vicious Thatcherite cutbacks — the infamous dirty dozen — made by Deputy Charles McCreevy during his short reign as Minister in 1990-1 when he attempted to limit the rights of workers, particularly those with paid contributions. In an appalling act of vandalism, maternity benefit was slashed by 21 per cent, from £76 to £60. This is an indication of what may happen if Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats come together to form a far right wing coalition Government.

I welcome the general increase of 5 per cent in social welfare payments, some of which are still too low. The Government has attempted to raise them to the rates recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare. There is an obligation on us to ensure the most deprived sections of the population are protected. Those politicians who wish to dismantle the social insurance system for spurious, selfish and monetary or fiscal reasons must be resisted at every turn and must not get their hands on the levers of power, either on their own or with somebody else. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. E. Walsh: I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy De Rossa, for bringing forward this excellent Bill. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, on contributing to the process.

I wish to concentrate on a number of matters of concern to me. An attack has been made on the long-term unemployed. This is based on false information and a lack of understanding. It has been suggested that those who fall into this category do not want to work. In many instances, because the wages on offer are so low they would be better off remaining on the dole. Ridiculous pay rates are on offer for some of the jobs being advertised throughout the city and the rest of the country. It is an insult to offer such rates for 40 hours work. Households would have no option but to seek supplementary welfare allowance because of their inability to survive.

Small businesses which employ young people at low pay rates are being subsidised by the State, yet they complain when long-term unemployed persons refuse to take up offers of employment. Because pay rates are so low some have no option but to avoid paying tax, if at all possible. This matter was addressed in the budget.

Many unemployed persons cannot afford to buy television licences. Some have ended up in Mountjoy Prison for the non-payment of fines as a consequence. Many unemployed people cannot afford television licences and some are sent to Mountjoy Prison for non-payment of fines imposed as a result of not having them. Long-term unemployed people do not have money management skills because they have limited resources. They cannot pay the licence because it is demanded in a lump sum, although stamps towards it can be purchased weekly. Rather than [1631] fining them in court and sending them to prison only to be released an hour later, giving free television licences to them should be considered. They have no hope of finding a job in the short-term and they need that type of support.

Some people who decide to live together without marrying are not recognised by the tax scheme as couples. A support should be given to children of such a relationship where one person is employed and the woman minds the children. She has no tax free allowance in that situation and the children are not recognised except through child benefit. The Minister might consider some type of payment paid through the child benefit scheme for people who form a relationship, live together, support a number of children and get no tax free allowance for the woman who does not work. Extra money paid through the child benefit scheme would help and I ask for that to be examined. As the tax system does not address the situation, perhaps the Minister for Social Welfare might consider it through child benefits.

The family income supplement is an excellent scheme which is becoming an important aid to people in low paid employment. However, the supplement allows employers to hire people at ridiculously low rates of pay. It could be argued that subsidies often enable wage rates to be kept low. For example, if we top up the family income supplement, employers will renege on their responsibility to pay adequate wages.

I will conclude by warning many of our constituents dependent on the system now in place of the danger of the Progressive Democrats. I warn Fianna Fáil, especially its members who have agreed to the maintenance through the social welfare system of people unable to care for themselves, of the attacks and comments of some Progressive Democrats members which suggest we withdraw payments from people not prepared to work. That is extremely dangerous.

In the past, social welfare was a transitional arrangement to enable people to go from one job to another. There is now a new situation where social welfare is the only means of support from the day a person is born to the day they die. A person may spend their entire life on social welfare. It is a means for survival whereas, in the past, it was an aid from one job to another or during temporary unemployment. Any attempt to dismantle the system is an attack on people who have no future or means of support. Imagine the horrendous situation if payments were withdrawn from people accused of not wanting to work. Withdrawing payments is no means of solving that problem.

Mr. H. Byrne: I wish to comment on the last speaker's contribution. It was not coherent but I heard him suggest that some people in Fianna Fáil were hostile to the long-term unemployed or those who could not get a job. This is the usual cheap shot at Fianna Fáil from a party which has [1632] delivered little for the unemployed in the past three budgets. I recall it was Fianna Fáil which introduced social welfare and that it was my esteemed colleague, Charlie Haughey, who established it properly.

Mr. Broughan: What about Deputy Charlie McCreevy?

Mr. H. Byrne: I will not stand for any rubbish of that sort from the opposite side. It is a great pity the two Government Deputies cannot recognise Fianna Fáil's contribution because there are elements of this Bill which I welcome.

The weakest people, widows, old age pensioners and the long-term unemployed, have fared badly in the past three budgets. They received an approximate cumulative increase of £2.20 per week, which is small. The great left wing of this Government comprising Democratic Left and the Labour Party, which occasionally claims to be left, has delivered little.

Mr. Broughan: It is much more left than Fianna Fáil.

Mr. H. Byrne: It is understood that the Minister of State's party was never very generous towards social welfare recipients.

Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Mr. Durkan): Who understood that?

Mr. H. Byrne: I am surprised that the left wing, which appears to be in control on most issues and occasions, has failed miserably on this occasion.

This country is enjoying the best economic climate for some time. This was earned the hard way. Difficult decisions had to be taken. It is recognised by most people that Fianna Fáil in 1987 had to take difficult and hard decisions. When the weaker sections of the community saw that the country was doing well, they expected to do better. They were disappointed. At a time when the economy is going well — I would not say it is a boom——

Mr. Durkan: Do not go overboard.

Mr. H. Byrne: This is the problem. The Government is already spending money it does not have. It thinks the boom will last forever. We created it, the Government will spend it and we will pick up the tab. Taxpayers would not have begrudged the weaker sections in our community that little bit extra. That is an opinion shared by most people.

Shortly after the budget, I received a letter from an 84-year-old-man. He asked me, having listened to various political broadcasts——

Mr. Broughan: Was he a relation?

Mr. H. Byrne: He was not and he even had the stupidity at one stage to support the Labour Party. I do not know whether he has seen the [1633] light but one could judge from the letter who he will vote for in the next election.

He asked how much extra money he got in the recent budget in personal allowance, free fuel, free electricity, free television licence, free telephone rental and living alone allowance. It was difficult to respond because the only change was a slight increase in his personal allowance. The other five areas mentioned were unchanged. It is a sad reflection on a Government which had access to a fine set of books and a little surplus money when an 84 year-old man must write such a letter.

I recently welcomed the Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, to beautiful new offices in Wexford. They are state of the art and custom built. The staff are customer friendly and those who call to the office are afforded privacy. I compliment the Department of Social Welfare on the provision of those offices. They were built during the term of this Government, but we committed the moneys for the building when we were in Government. I noted a Freudian slip by the Minister of State. He forgot to mention people other than Government Ministers were involved in work to ensure the provision of those offices. Senator D'Arcy was also disappointed about that.

I do not want to be parochial, but I wish to refer to the social welfare office in New Ross. The person in that office is providing the best service possible within the limits of the scarce resources provided. The Minister of State should note that the social welfare facility in New Ross has two offices and a long counter at which people must bare their souls. On a wet day the queue is long. People must reveal all without privacy and the community may know their business the next day. That is unacceptable. Privacy must be respected. It must be provided in New Ross. The girl in the New Ross office, Marianne, is doing an excellent job, but sufficient resources must be provided to ensure she is able to provide a service in a manner that will guarantee people the respect they deserve. Most people who are unemployed, through no fault of their own, are forced to conduct their business without privacy. The least they are entitled to is to say their piece in privacy. I know the Minister of State appreciates the need for privacy in such offices.

Will the Minister of State consider granting free travel to retired people aged between 60 and 66, people in receipt of disability allowance and widows? Those people should be entitled to the benefits to which people over the age of 66 are entitled. People aged 60 and over cannot get a job. Will the Minister of State consider providing that people aged between 60 and 66 will be eligible for the benefits to which people over the age of 66 are entitled?

Most previous speakers referred to the issue of butter vouchers. It is hard to understand what the Government is trying to achieve in this regard. I do not know if the decision to reduce the allocation of butter vouchers is because of stupidity [1634] or meanness. The Minister of State may sigh. I know he is telling constituents who raise this matter at his clinic on Saturdays that although there is a boom we cannot go overboard because he believes in saving for the rainy day. The Government has halved the number of vouchers issued. It is hard to understand the reasoning behind that in this election year. I am surprised the Government let that matter slip because it will pay for it. The butter voucher scheme should not be about elections, they should be issued as a matter of common decency and they should not have been reduced at a time when we could afford them, if moneys were spent in the right direction and not frittered away elsewhere.

Means tests are carried out by various Departments and a person could be means tested on three or more occasions. People are means tested to determine their eligibility for a medical card, unemployment assistance, disabled person's maintenance allowance and higher education grants. Staffs in various Departments are responsible for carrying out means tests. There is a duplication or quadruplication of work and it should not be necessary. If we got our act together, one staff could be responsible for carrying out means tests in the four instances to which I referred. Will the Minister of State consider that and give his view on it?

There is usually some delay in carrying out means tests because of a lack of staff. A person who becomes unemployed and is in urgent need of income must undergo a means test and it should be carried out immediately. Will the Minister of State consider increasing the staff in this area?

I wish to refer to means testing of the self-employed whom Department officials often regard as having plenty of money. A self-employed man who is are out of work must undergo a means test to secure benefit to put bread on the table for his family, despite having made a genuine effort to secure work. His application for unemployment assistance is means tested on his earnings for the previous year. If he had realised he would be out of work, he might have saved some money. However, he is penalised because he is means tested on his earnings for the previous year. The means test should apply to earnings for the current year.

Mr. Durkan: That has been changed.

Mr. H. Byrne: I am delighted to hear that. The Minister of State is smarter than I thought.

I wish to refer to an unemployed young man who is living at home. He must undergo a means test, but he will not qualify for full benefit if his parents have an income. That young person must move out of his home to a caravan in the nearest village or a flat in the nearest town to claim full unemployment assistance and rent allowance, but if he qualified for full unemployment assistance in the first instance he would not have to move out of home and there would be a saving in [1635] respect of rent allowance. This system has disastrous consequences as it causes families to split up. Vulnerable young people who are 18 years of age are forced to move out of home to qualify for unemployment assistance. That system is socially wrong and it should be immediately changed. That will not be easy. Some people will not be totally honest with social welfare officials, who by and large do good work and are very familiar with their jobs. We must address that problem.

The Government is permitting a tax on the earnings of home helps. I note the Minister of State is surprised because he was not aware of that. However, I am aware of it because constituents have told me about it. A widow or a person who has some free time and becomes friendly with a person who is sick may become a home help and earn about £20 a week. In many instances it is a thankless job. However, it is a wonderful service. Many people who would otherwise have to go to hospital can be kept at home. The Government is trying to steal through tax some of the money earned by home helps. Its scrooge attitude adopted in that and many other respects is hard to take. I suggest that in order to keep the excellent home help service working, the Minister should remove the horrible anomaly introduced earlier this year. A home help is normally loyal, generous and a good carer. I know the Minister recognises that.

Mr. Durkan: We did not introduce it.

Mr. H. Byrne: The Minister did. Once a month, people must go to rural Garda stations to sign on, a system which has applied for many years. I can see the Minister is interested in what I have to say.

Mr. Durkan: I am making inquiries and researching the Deputy's allegations.

Mr. H. Byrne: The Minister does not have to make inquiries because anything I say is accurate. If the Minister does what I ask the social welfare system will improve substantially.

Garda time is being taken up witnessing the signatures of those signing on, a job that could be done by almost anyone else. What powers do gardaí have if they know someone is working? It is essential that gardaí should be on the beat in rural areas rather than stationed in towns and occasionally driving to the country.

I want to comment on the free fuel allowance. I am not sure what price a bag of coal is in Kildare, but in Wexford it ranges between £7.20 and £8. The free fuel allowance was introduced 11 years ago at £5, which at the time paid for a bag of coal. This has not increased since, despite economic improvements.

[1636] Mr. Durkan: There have been some improvements.

Mr. H. Byrne: It is difficult to understand why the Minister does not increase the allowance to cover the price of a bag of coal. This would be a sensible arrangement. There has been no movement in 11 years.

The carer's allowance is important. The carer in our community does a marvellous job. We should encourage more people to care for people in the home rather than resort to hospitalisation, which costs the State far more. It is good therapy for people to be cared for in their home where their friends can visit them. Everyone agrees that carers are not paid too much. The area should be widened to enable more people to be cared for in their homes.

Mr. E. O'Keeffe: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. This morning we heard the Minister for Social Welfare outline the many changes incorporated in the 1997 Social Welfare Bill. I welcome many of the changes, particularly those in the carer's allowance and the extension in the contributory pension scheme to include those with a yearly average of ten contributions.

While I welcome the extension from six months to 12 months in the period for which arrears will be paid in the case of late applications for contributory pensions, I ask the Minister to extend this period even further to include many pensioners who may be two or three years late applying for a contributory pension, owing to confusion about the pensioner's date of birth. Such a pensioner has paid his or her PRSI contributions and is fully entitled to a pension.

I recently encountered a case where a small but generous contribution was made to a pensioner by the Department of Social Welfare. I am anxious that the payment should be backdated three years because of the failure in notifying the person and in informing him of his rights and entitlements. From the reply I received from the Department of Social Welfare, I now have no option but to forward some supporting information to the Ombudsman, to whom I have already appealed.

If there was more give and take in the Department of Social Welfare, there would not be such huge correspondence with the Ombudsman. There has always been bureaucracy in the Department of Social Welfare and there is more since this Government took office. We were told this would change and there would be a more liberal approach from a liberal Government. They have not been liberated yet. I have brought this case to the Minister's attention. If he is not interested, I will pursue it in the normal manner.

I urge the Minister to consider extending the free electricity allowance scheme to include widows and widowers under the age of 66 years. I have no doubt this can be achieved because we now have one of the most buoyant economics in [1637] the world. The Minister talks about when Fianna Fáil was in office. When we were in office, we had reached the bottom of the barrel. Deputy Woods was one of the most outstanding Ministers for Social Welfare at a time when our economy was on its knees. When he entered office in 1987, the cupboard really was bare. When this Government entered office, it was an EI Dorado for them. They are now distributing the wealth we created.

Mr. Durkan: We stocked the cupboard first.

Mr. E. O'Keeffe: Our hard work in the management of the economy gave the Government that wealth. There are no gold medals for the Government.

At present, the free electricity allowance is applicable to those widows and widowers over the age of 66 living alone or over the age of 80. Very often, those who are under 66 have dependent children. There are many substantial expenses involved when rearing a family, which are often next to impossible to meet when dependent on a pension. Likewise, those under 66 years who are dependent on a widow's or widower's pension and are without a family have financial needs which must be met. I ask the Minister to extend the free electricity allowance scheme and to bring it in line with other schemes where additional allowances are available.

Since its inception, the free fuel scheme has been very successful. Many of those in receipt of the allowance find it invaluable in helping to meet the cost of their heating requirements. However, I ask the Minister to consider increasing the allowance from £5 to £8 per week which would at least cover the price of a bag of coal. I also urge the Minister to extend the free fuel scheme for a further month.

We have had harsh winters in the last few years and those in need have had to beg for a concession from the Department of Social Welfare. We are experiencing harsh weather at the moment which will probably continue for the month of March. There will be a problem, as there was before Christmas. The problem should be addressed in a more flexible manner rather than bureaucracy prevailing. We have all experienced the inconsistencies of the weather in this country, particularly when spring and summer seem more like winter. The elderly often have additional heating requirements. An increase in the free fuel allowance and extension of the scheme would certainly go a long way to meeting those requirements.

I welcome the abolition of the income limit for dental and optical benefits. However, the dental scheme should be extended to include certain orthodontic treatment. Orthodontistry is an important area of dental care which is being neglected. While the responsibility for orthodontic treatment for school-going children lies with the Department of Health, the criteria to qualify for orthodontic treatment under the health board [1638] services need to be revised urgently to include more students who need to be treated but who are not in categories severe enough. This service should be operated by the Department of Social Welfare. The orthodontic scheme is a shambles and no treatment is available for children with serious dental problems. Many families are unable to meet the cost. The scheme is not what it should be. Some relaxation is necessary. It is no good having a scheme in name only if it does not work.

Certain orthodontic treatment needs to be included in the dental scheme for those paying PRSI. While I understand that not all orthodontic work can be included, in view of the costs involved, the Minister should liaise with the Minister for Finance to ensure that income tax relief will be approved for those who undergo extensive work which is not included in the dental scheme.

It is obvious that further improvements, similar to those I have outlined, need to be made in the area of social welfare. The financial resources are available to the Minister to carry out these improvements. We have a buoyant economy, much credit for which can be attributed to Fianna Fáil policies which were pursued, and often criticised, some years ago.

The medical card scale will be increased when the Social Welfare Bill goes through the House. The inconsistencies from one health board area to another in operating the medical card system are questionable. That is the case even within the same health board area when one goes from one division to another. By and large, a medical card must be made available to a person within the guidelines. Guidelines, however, are only guidelines and what is necessary depends on the severity of the problem.

I have seen the scrooge mentality being adopted by some social welfare offices in the south Cork area. Compared with what happens in other areas of my constituency it is amazing and I would like the problem to be addressed. If it were not for the Ombudsman many people would go without their real benefits and back payments. Over the years he has been of enormous help to people on social welfare. Why has there not been more give and take in the social welfare area? Why do we have to have recourse to the Ombudsman all the time?

I welcome the fact we have moved away from the disabled person's maintenance allowance as disability benefits are now the responsiblity of the Department of Social Welfare. That was a step in the right direction which got rid of much bureaucracy and long delays involved in decision making. Delays were also caused by people having to cash their social welfare cheques every week. The new monthly system is working reasonably well, but I will reserve judgement until it has been in operation for another year.

Let us use the resources now available to us to make life easier for those who have contributed to our economy, however many years ago, and who are now dependent on the State for their [1639] bread and butter. Some people who are made redundant, for one reason or another, attend college for three-month refresher courses in computing and other subjects. On becoming redundant they qualify for unemployment assistance, benefit or SAA, but when they enrol for courses to improve their skills in order to get a job, they find themselves without any income because of the scrooge mentality that is prevalent. The policing of the system is over bureaucratic. I am aware of a number of women who were drawing unemployment assistance and then got onto SAA. Because they were doing short courses they were denied assistance and were thus left without any source of income. There should be some relaxation in that area. That happened in Fermoy.

There is little point in telling us about the dirty dozen cuts when the Government's own house is not in order and there is no liberal approach to welfare. I wish the Minister of State well in enjoying the fruits of the good work of Fianna Fáil's years in office.

Mr. B. O'Keeffe: The Minister for Social Welfare does not appear to care for pensioners because his first effort in office was to give them the price of a box of matches — an increase of £2.33 per week. A widow receives £2.20 per week and the long-term disability allowance increase is £2.17. The overall increase has been £7 in total for those categories of social welfare recipient. That is devastating at a time when the economy is flush and there is plenty of money around.

When one talks to old age pensioners and widows one finds they are really disappointed. They thought their lot would be improved by the budget but, unfortunately, the Minister did not see fit to do so.

As regards the Social welfare portfolio, we must look at the ad hoc nature of the system. I would have thought that over three years the Minister would have a grand plan for social welfare and that a sustainable rationalisation of schemes and a more progressive outlook on social welfare would have been taken. The cost of social welfare is escalating but one must question whether it needs to escalate to such an extent. While the focus has been on child dependants there has been no focus on elderly people living on their own, such as widows and pensioners. While it may be all right for those people with children who will receive some increase, the Minister appears to have a political entity in mind, or perhaps the Minister of State — at whom I am surprised — has asked himself whether there is any advantage for him in looking after the elderly. They have not been catered for in the recent budget.

I spoke about focus, ad hockery and the fact that I should like the Minister to re-examine a number of measures already in place. It has been claimed recently that identity cards are useless unless they carry the holder's photograph. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there are [1640] groups buying, selling and exchanging identity cards, without such photographs. While this problem has been brought to the Minister's attention it appears he has decided not to do anything about it.

Mr. Durkan: Not true.

Mr. B. O'Keeffe: The Minister will be well aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General undertook a cost-benefit analysis of all means testing. There is a means test in respect of social welfare payments, another to determine eligibility for a medical card, a separate one in respect of the disabled person's maintenance allowance sometimes entailing five or six different tests overall. Is that not a total waste of money on the part of the Department? Any rational observation of the system would dictate that there should be some rationalisation or co-relationship between the various bodies to obviate waste of administrative funds which could be expended more worthily on realistic increases to social welfare recipients.

The Construction Industry Federation monitors its pension scheme. Simultaneously teams of social welfare inspectors visit building sites also for monitoring purposes. Is it not time we examined the monitoring of that pension scheme and its database with a view to eliminating duplication, if not triplication, within those areas? If the Construction Industry Federation pension scheme were to be brought within the Department's remit, with a common database, it would eliminate much of the groundwork being undertaken by the Department's inspectorate.

There is a fair amount of organised fraud. While there is an anti-fraud unit in the United Kingdom, there is none here. It would be worthwhile examining how we could integrate such a unit here, thus reducing the current level of fraud.

I know the Minister has circulated thousands of questionnaires to social welfare recipients. He may claim to have been successful in the short-term in that this has led to some people being removed from the live register. Time will tell. Although X number of questionnaires may be sent out and returned to Department offices the same number of staff must endeavour to handle all of them. They feel demoralised that no extra staff have been allocated to examine the responses in any great detail. This means that, while many people may vanish from the system in the short-term, the probability is they will gradually return to the fold. The continuance of this practice of desk-top interviews rather than the departmental inspectorate being given the requisite resources to carry out their investigations in the workplace in order to establish the precise level of fraud means that this exercise is doomed to failure in the long-term, with earlier gains being negatived.

I have spoken to many housing officers of local authorities who are very concerned at the evidence of fraud they encounter by people seeking [1641] local authority housing. For whatever reason there is no common database shared by local authorities, health boards and the Department of Social Welfare. This lack has been highlighted in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General in which he indicated the importance of such a common database being made available to reduce administrative costs.

Many Members have referred to the carer's allowance. Has the Minister undertaken any survery of the cost of this allowance and its attendant means testing in coparison with nursing home accommodation costs? Many nursing homes cost an average of £250 per week. In the case of an elderly person in receipt of an old age pension of between £74 and £80 this will necessitate the maximum subvention of £120, taking that figure to £200, with a resulting deficit of anything between £60 and £100, depending on the type of nursing home in which an elderly person seeks accommodation.

That takes me to the matter of caring for the elderly at home and the economic advantages of so doing. While any elderly man or women retains any degree of good health, the last thing he or she will want is to go into a nursing home. Most prefer to remain at home within their local community. Because of the means testing of the carer's allowance many young people who might otherwise maintain elderly parents or relatives at home refrain from doing so.

The cost of giving young people who decide to care for an elderly relative a down payment to maintain them in their home environment would be considerably less than a nursing home subvention and would yield much greater social benefits for society as a whole. The loving care and attention a family give an elderly parent or relative in their home would be rewarded to some extent. I strongly advocate the elimination of the means test for the carer's allowance. Bearing in mind the growing numbers of elderly citizens, we will be unable to continue paying nursing home subventions in the long-term. The time has come to seriously examine how we might help to maintain them at home.

While it appears the Minister for Health is not amenable to a pricing structure for nursing homes, I am aware that some two weeks ago a nursing home in Cork raised its weekly cost from £185 to £250 and there is absolutely nothing one can do about them. Perhaps there should be some meeting between the Departments of Health and Social Welfare and nursing homes, as there was in the case of publicans, to arrive at some realistic figure to ensure that these escalating costs are controlled or kept in check to some degree.

The Departments of Health and Social Welfare jointly should examine the very low amounts being paid for home helps who perform an extraordinary task in assisting the elderly in their homes. Something will have to be done about the pittance they receive whether it is £1.40 in the Southern Health Board region or £3.20 in another health board area. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul. [1642] Given the interaction between social welfare and health there should be a meeting of minds between the two Departments on a policy that is comprehensive and all embracing. If home helps were given specialist training the elderly could be kept in the home much longer.

If families on social welfare in urban areas have students attending college there is not much in the social welfare system to keep the family intact. We are forcing 17 year olds out of the home from a safe environment into flats and apartments. This is bad from a social and from a family point of view in that it means a break-up at a young age. A number of social difficulties can follow. If the student remains at home the Minister says £27 per week is available to him or her. I beg to differ. That person should be entitled to full unemployment assistance while staying at home. This would ensure a rent supplement is taken out of the system. If my son leaves home and goes to college and into a flat he has to pay rent of £80 per week. He can claim not only a rent allowance but other allowances that go with it. If an unemployed person leaves the home he gets a rent allowance and unemployment assistance. If that person was given full unemployment assistance at home, both he and this country would be better off. There are many social evils which beset young people in terms of drink, drugs and so on.

The Minister has not put a plan in place for the future and has not considered the social ills besetting the country. To do so would be well worthwhile in terms of the social well-being of our people. The elderly have contributed enormously to society and deserve something better than they have got from a Democratic Left Minister.

Mr. Lenihan: The Social Welfare Bill is a technical measure but its annual introduction affords us an opportunity to review progress in the evolution of our social welfare system. It is surprising at a time of unparalleled economic growth and prosperity that so little fundamental thinking has taken place on the part of the Minister in the reform of the social welfare system. Those of us who have to deal day in day out with a population for whose benefit the system is administered are aware of the widespread public concerns about the operation of our social welfare system.

The Minister has decided for his own reasons in this election year, despite an unparalleled prosperity generated by sound economic management by Fianna Fáil-led administrations, to do little but tinker around with the social welfare system.

Debate adjourned.