Dáil Éireann - Volume 576 - 10 December, 2003

Social Welfare Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

  Mr. Carey:I mentioned last night that one of the priorities of the Government had been to focus social welfare increases on the elderly. I referred to the increase in old age pensions and the pre-1953 provision.

  Another target area of the Government is the support it provides for families. The support it has provided through child benefit has been extremely important. Child benefit rates will increase by €6 per month for the first and second children and €8 for third and subsequent children. Those increases have been priorities for the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Administration and mean that, following budget 2004, child benefit will now be payable at a rate of €131.60 for the first and second child and €165.30 for the third and subsequent children. This is important support for families.

  I welcome the support given by the family income supplement. The improvement in the thresholds has been important and will provide additional support for families. Every year I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the child dependant allowance has, yet again, not been [1339]increased. It is an area in which we are remiss by not making supports available to that area of the social welfare code.

  The support for family resource centres, the work of some I am aware of, has been beneficial and I welcome the allocation of €1.17 million in the budget for these centres as well as the support for the MABS of €1.01 million. Comhairle has been doing good work – perhaps in some ways doing us out of a job, although that is probably no harm. People can now go to an independent, objective group to get advice on their entitlements. While the Opposition can rant and complain about what the Government has done, the provisions in the Bill and the budget will make a significant improvement in the lives of those who are primarily dependent on social welfare provision. Some of the ESRI research which was published today verifies that.

  Mr. McGuinness:I welcome the content of the Bill and compliment the Minister on what is an imaginative set of increases and proposals. It demonstrates a strategy for the future in terms of social welfare and those in receipt of the various benefits included in the Bill and operated by the Department. The Minister's performance since the budget was announced has been excellent in view of the Opposition coming forward with criticism of her work. I also compliment the Department officials.

  Mr. Ring:It is about money.

  Mr. McGuinness:She performed extremely well on the programme and I wish her well in her Department. If there is any Department that deserves credit, it is the Department of Social and Family Affairs because of its proactive approach to dealing with issues raised with it. Regardless of whether it is in reply to parliamentary questions or letters from Deputies, or queries from members of the public, the response time is extremely efficient. The details supplied in replies to parliamentary questions or queries from consumers are excellent. Other Departments could learn a great deal from the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

  I encourage the Minister to continue to explore ways of getting the message directly to those who benefit in some way from the Department's services. This is an excellent way to do business. It allows Members to escape from the parish pump aspect of their work and, as per the wishes of members of the public, focus on the legislative aspect.

  There are a number of issues within the Department which need to be addressed. The first of these is the appeals system. I compliment the Department, and I do not want what I am about to say to appear negative, but the matter I wish to raise needs to be addressed. Appeals mechanisms exist in respect of most of the benefit schemes but the system by which these are [1340]administered is inefficient. Where a claim is made and it is stopped or an appeal commenced, the manner in which the process thereafter is conducted leaves much to be desired. The system should be more efficient and it should not be necessary to have a number of appeals in respect of one applicant. The consultants' reports regarding some aspects of the appeals system should be considered and taken on board.

  I have been approached by a number of constituents who were called to appeal hearings, who were only seen for two or three minutes or asked questions which did not relate to the benefit they were receiving or their condition, and were then asked to leave. These people cannot understand how someone can make an assessment of their condition or position based on that sort of interview process. People who are elderly or infirm find it extremely difficult to deal with the appeals system. That system should be assessed in the context of its efficiency and the methodologies applied by those who are involved in administering it. If this was done, the Department would save money and would be able to deal more efficiently with members of the public.

  With regard to the increases that have been provided, it is difficult to understand that, while social welfare benefits can be increased each year – the Government is to be complimented on the substantial year-on-year increases people have received since 1997 – when recipients are assessed in terms of their local authority rents, these increases are clawed back from them. In recent years local authorities have become particularly mean in terms of the way they deal with rent assessments. They have taken more money in differential rents from people who perhaps had not been assessed for a number of years, who were then assessed and found that all the increases they had received were taken from them. The rent charged to the people to whom I refer has been increased to a level beyond that which they can afford. When they are obliged to make their case to their local authorities, these people must go to extreme ends to prove that they are enduring hardship. I know many proud, elderly people who find it difficult to make a case, particularly in light of the approach taken by local authorities.

  Some arrangement must be made between the Department and local authorities to ensure that fair play is achieved. Local authorities must strike fair rents but I do not believe that the way they do so is correct. Many elderly people and other individuals who are in receipt of benefits cannot afford to pay the rents being charged by their local authorities. They have come to me in large numbers to complain. I ask that the Department liaise more closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to develop a fairer mechanism to deal, in particular, with the elderly. Policies are poverty-proofed and they must also be proofed to take account of the elderly. If there should be any bias in Government policy, it should be towards the elderly. The [1341]Minister has been proactive in this area. However, her Department could deal with it in a constructive and fair way with local government to ensure fairer play for the elderly.

  Every year local authorities engage in arguments about the payment of refuse collection charges. People in my constituency are being asked to pay in excess of €400 by Kilkenny County Council. The elderly continually make the simple and accurate case that they do not produce enough waste to warrant putting out their bins and that each week they put out plastic bags that are only half full of rubbish. However, they are being asked to pay a substantial amount out of their incomes to cover refuse charges. Some local authorities have introduced tag-a-bag schemes – Kilkenny Borough Council will do this in the current year – under which elderly people can fill bags with rubbish, put them out when they like and are only charged €5. This drastically reduces the amount elderly people are obliged to pay in refuse charges. All local authorities should introduce schemes of this sort.

  The Department of Social and Family Affairs can provide a lead in terms of how the elderly should be treated by encouraging the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure, by regulation if necessary, that refuse collection rates throughout the country are structured in such a way that the elderly and those on long-term benefits are given reductions – every euro taken from these people in charges has a major effect on their living standards and their ability to meet their needs. People are entitled to claim back refuse collection charges on their taxes, but a recent report indicates that they do not do so. Those who are on benefit cannot do so because they do not pay tax. We must ensure that reductions are factored in which will cater for the elderly and the vulnerable. If we are correct in our dealings with those who are dispossessed or marginalised, it will be a sign that our society is truly maturing. We should consider this issue in the latter context. However, I accept that the co-operation of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is required and I encourage the Minister to seek it.

  I compliment MABS, which is an extremely good organisation, on its work. The work the service does in my constituency is outstanding. It has taken individual cases and structured the outgoings in terms of families' incomes. It enjoys a huge success rate. The Minister, within her Department, has set aside €1.1 million for MABS this year. We should provide whatever increased financial support we can to MABS to allow it to extend its service.

  Ms Burton:The Minister is cutting funding for the service.

  Mary Coughlan:I am not.

[1342]  Ms Burton:The support funding has been removed.

  Mr. McGuinness:That is incorrect. It is more of the nonsense and misinformation Fine Gael and Labour are disseminating in respect of what is contained in the Bill.

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy can twist it whatever way she wants. It is additional money.

  Acting Chairman (Dr. Cowley):Order, please. Deputy McGuinness should conclude.

  Mr. McGuinness:Those opposite are wrong in what they are doing. They are giving misinformation to people who find it difficult enough to understand what is happening with their benefits. They should be somewhat more responsible in terms of their actions.

  Acting Chairman:Deputy McGuinness must conclude.

  Ms Burton:The Minister is taking away the—

  Mary Coughlan:I have an additional €1 million over and above what was in the budget.

  Mr. McGuinness:This year's increases, when compared with the year-on-year increases, are good and that message must be communicated to those who are benefiting from what the Minister is doing.

  Ms Burton:I wish to share time with Deputy O'Sullivan.

  Acting Chairman:Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Ms Burton:I wish to refer first to the ESRI report which was published this morning. At a time when the country has known a period of unprecedented prosperity, it is shameful for the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government that the level of persistent income poverty, which relates to people who are poor for more than three years, rose between 1997 and 2001. Those in poverty are now more likely to be persistently poor.

  Mary Coughlan:Those figures are two years old.

  Ms Burton:That is a shameful reflection on the Minister's stewardship—

  Mary Coughlan:I will have an opportunity to reply to the Deputy.

  Ms Burton:—and on the stewardship of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government.

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy did a mighty job when her party was in power.

[1343]  Ms Burton:On people in employment, the report goes on to say: “The increase in levels of employment from 1994 means that although the risk of poverty for the employed has decreased substantially—

  Mr. Carty:That report is two years out of date.

  Ms Burton:—this group have become a larger proportion of those below relative income poverty lines alongside the elderly, the ill-disabled and those who are on home duties”. It further states that those at particular risk of persistent income poverty for three years or more are the elderly, in particular, elderly women – so much for Fianna Fáil taking care of the elderly – and lone parents with children.

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy's party gave them £1.80. They are receiving a €10 increase this year.

  Ms Burton:The ESRI, the Government's independent think-tank, has produced a damning indictment of the Minister's stewardship.

  Mary Coughlan:Those figures relate to 2001. They are two years old.

  Ms Burton:I am quoting figures from the ESRI, an independent body.

  Mary Coughlan:The report was printed this week but the figures relate to 2001.

  Mr. Carty:Go back to 1986.

  Acting Chairman:The Deputy should address his remarks to the Chair.

  Ms Burton:The Ministers for Social and Family Affairs and Finance have, in the Social Welfare Bill and the budget, thrown away an opportunity at a time of prosperity to reform the tax and social welfare system significantly. Their failure to reform tax and social welfare to benefit people on low income will cost the economy and employers dearly. It will also cost the economy in terms of opportunity. The budget for 2004 is a recipe for the return of the black economy which plagued us during the 1970s and 1980s. It is a landmark in the return of tax and social welfare traps for those on the lowest incomes.

  The Minister for Social and Family Affairs and her colleague, the Minister for Finance, have authorised and endorsed five traps which will be cruel barriers to families on low incomes. The first is the PRSI trap where a person earning more than €287 a week, not a significant wage, immediately finds himself or herself having to pay PRSI at 4% on income above €127. The second is the health levy trap where a person earning more than €356 a week will have to pay a health levy of 2% with no tangible return for the individual, many of whom would like to know where the money is going. The third is the medical card trap. Failure to increase the threshold for medical [1344]cards means people on low incomes no longer qualify for a medical card. Workers with an asthmatic child will have to choose between earning extra income and attending their family doctor. The cost of attending a doctor in the Dublin area plus the cost of the medicine prescribed often comes to €70 which, for a low income family, could be up to 30% of their week's income. That is a shame.

  The fourth is the rent allowance versus the family income supplement trap. The Minister speaks a great deal about FIS but does little to reform it.

  Mary Coughlan:I reformed it as the Deputy pontificated during the Estimates.

  Ms Burton:The increase given this year is pathetic—

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy is incorrect. It is about time Deputies from the Labour Party spoke facts.

  Ms Burton:—and is not sufficient. I will give an example.

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy should look at the other three changes which reform FIS.

  Acting Chairman:The Minister will have an opportunity to reply later.

  Ms Burton:Is the Minister to be allowed to interrupt me continually? Do I have the floor?

  Acting Chairman:Yes.

  Ms Burton:I will give an example. A family in receipt of a FIS payment of €38 a week, not untypical for a family on low income, will immediately lose up to €60 of its rent allowance. I can outline cases for the Minister.

  Mary Coughlan:Did the Deputy not read the information on FIS? It is no longer based on means.

  Ms Burton:Middle income earners on approximately €30,000 face the greatest trap of all. They will have to pay tax at 42% plus, 4% PRSI, 2% health levy and 10.75% employers' contribution. That is an effective tax rate. It means this budget is the greatest incentive for the return of the black economy and for under-the-counter payments. Contrast that to the benefit to investors in car parks of €100,000 of tax saved per year, more than three times the average industrial wage. The Government has a policy of redistributing income upwards to the wealthy and the well-off. Once again, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has shown that it prefers to give tax breaks to the wealthy while ordinary workers and their families face stealth taxes, traps as I outlined and ever rising price increases.

[1345]  Ms O'Sullivan:The nub of the issue in this budget is, as referred to by my colleague, Deputy Burton, the growth of relative and persistent poverty despite our wealth. We are the third highest in the OECD in terms of income per head of gross domestic product, yet we are the second most unequal country in the OECD in terms of measurement. That is, essentially, what is wrong with this country and this and previous budgets.

  We are witnessing a growing inequality in terms of relative poverty between the better-off and the less well-off. The argument was made that the rising tide lifts all boats. It does not lift those on the rocky shore. The Bill and the budget put many people who thought they were rising with the tide back on the rocky shore.

  Deputy Burton referred to poverty traps. I would like to develop that point and to refer to specific areas. People hoping for the opportunity to get out of the poverty trap are being thrown back into it. That is the terrible shame of missed opportunities. The economy had begun to turn the tide long before the two parties in Government took office. The foundations for that turn were laid when the Labour Party was in Government. We share some credit in that regard.

  We have become a richer country; nobody denies that. However, relative poverty has increased. We have become a country more divided in prosperity. It gave us the opportunity to narrow those gaps and to rid ourselves of the type of poverty witnessed in the “Prime Time” programme shown two weeks ago on television. Young people were indulging in crime against their own communities. I have witnessed sheer poverty in my constituency. I am sure other Deputies have witnessed it in their constituencies. That is the nub of the issue and the Government must address it.

  The threshold for medical cards is not being increased. An increase in one's social welfare payment can result in one being denied a medical card. The suggestion is that this does not happen but, in reality, it does. The Bill provides for a 20 cent a day increase in the family allowance. That allowance would have been increased by €24 a month if the Government had honoured its commitment in this regard.

  Regarding the 16 savage cuts referred to by other speakers, some of them will result in people losing opportunities they might otherwise have retained. Last week, the Minister said changes were being made in the back to education allowance because people from other EU countries were sponging off our system. I tabled a parliamentary question in this regard. There are 7,498 participants in the scheme but we only have information, in terms of nationality, for 5,273 of them.

  Only 9% of people on the back to education allowance are from other EU states. In order to make savings in this area, the Minister is denying those without a good level of education the opportunity to get further education. It is well known in education that people move from state to state – many Irish people go outside Ireland [1346]to be educated at third level and benefit from rights in other EU states. This is a small comeback, yet the Minister has denied the unemployed and lone parents the opportunity to go back to education. Surely education is the greatest opportunity people can have to move from poverty to a decent income.

  The Minister previously indicated that she intended to expand the school meals programme. While it was referred to in the budget, I have not seen anything in the Bill that shows how the Minister might fulfil her commitments. This scheme is beneficial to children in poverty.

  There is no increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. This is something that impacts on poor families at the start of the school year when expenses are high. The level is currently €80 for primary students and €150 for second level students. To be able to meet incurred costs, it would need to be €140 for primary students and €220 for second level students. Yet again, parents are to be faced with worrying about how they will pay for the back to school needs of their children.

  Deputy McGuinness correctly said that local authority rents will claw back the social welfare increases but he failed to mention that increases in the cost of ESB, gas, television licences and telephone bills etc., and general increases in the cost of basic foods, will do likewise. Low income families will not benefit greatly from the miserly increases contained in the Bill.

  The Minister has announced changes to the rent allowance regime. I cannot understand how people will find the money for the first six months and then need the allowance after this time has elapsed. I think of people living in packed family homes where the only option is for a member of the family, such as a daughter with a child, to leave home and seek a rent allowance. How is she supposed to find the money for a deposit and then pay the large rents now common in the private sector without access to a rent allowance? Can the Minister explain this? I do not understand how people are supposed to find the money. If they have managed to scrape together the money for the first six months – in some cases they may have to borrow from illegal moneylenders – are they then to be asked why they need rent allowance if they survived without it? These are the questions people are asking, but they do not get answers because local authority accommodation is not available for many of them. They are stuck in a trap from which they do not know how to escape. People have been in tears when talking to me about some of these issues.

  An announcement was made that the rent allowance is to be capped. although exceptions can be made. What happens to a person on a housing list living in a private rented house but who is forced to move out as the rent is above the limit allowable based on the size of their family? They will not be able to find anything in the private sector as many landlords do not accept [1347]this allowance. I know of someone who had to move into a psychiatric hospital this week as she had been forced to move out of her house when she exceeded the limit for rent allowance. While this was not the only reason it was one of the factors. This is a real issue and the Government needs to listen to the kind of person I am talking about. It might then see that it has created problems for people who were just about managing until now. They may have been thinking about going back to education, getting a rent allowance and hoping to get a local authority house in the near future. They do not know what to do now.

  While the diet supplement will not be withdrawn from those already in receipt of it, families are concerned they will not get the supplement if they have a celiac or diabetic child. This may also affect those suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses, as I know of dieticians recommending high protein food for them. Surely the professional word of the dietician is enough to say that someone should have a diet supplement. Until now, people who found they were suffering from a disease would have their dietician sign their form in order to get dietary allowance. It seems from what the Minister has said that even the professional word of a dietician will no longer be enough.

  Mary Coughlan:It is means tested.

  Ms O'Sullivan:The people who are means tested and told they require dietary supplements should continue to receive the allowance. There is a great deal of concern on this issue.

  These are the traps that politicians are hearing about from the public. In a time of plenty, the Government should identify these issues and address them to help those living in relative poverty rather than closing perceived loopholes that may be abused by only a small fraction of people. The Department should catch those that are abusing the system and prevent them from doing so. If a flood of people were to come from other EU countries and take up a large percentage of the back to education allowance, then I would accept that the Minister would have to look at the issue again. The Minister is closing opportunities for people in poverty because a small number are getting things to which they are not entitled. The attitude should be the other way around. We should be trying to take people out of poverty and bring them into opportunity. This is how problems of exclusion are addressed.

  There is a need to be more creative and positive in using the social welfare system. Education provides one of the biggest opportunities to allow people to take these chances. I am disappointed that the back to education allowance has been attacked in this way.

  Several people have referred to community employment schemes as being connected to this, even though they are not contained in the Bill. The cuts in such schemes, and the cuts contained [1348]in the Bill are combining to have an effect on disadvantaged communities, making them feel that despite all the riches available in this country, their needs are not being fulfilled. I received a letter from a nun in County Limerick asking me to vote in favour of last week's Labour Party motion on community employment schemes. The writer opens by saying that she wishes to support the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, in his efforts to secure extra funding for community employment schemes. She then outlines the positive aspects of the scheme and asks me to support Deputy Fahey's motion.

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy would have to vote for her party's motion anyway.

  Dr. Twomey:They are Frank's fusiliers.

  Ms O'Sullivan:This demonstrates the level of confusion in the Government where the backbenchers are trying to be in Opposition while the Cabinet tries to say one thing and allows backbenchers to say something else. We need leadership and compassion for people living in poverty.

  Mr. Carty:I wish to share my time with Deputies Wilkinson and Nolan.

  Acting Chairman:Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. Carty:I compliment the Minister on a caring budget, which will give 970,000 people who claim benefit a total of €11.2 billion. Given that she, like me, is from a county where we can see the benefits increases bring to the young, old and disabled, it is fitting that she should introduce this Bill, which implements the brilliant budgetary provisions for the less well off. The people are happy with her despite the prophets of doom and gloom in the Opposition benches – I see that they have left the Chamber. People have not forgotten the paltry increases made by the Labour Party when it was last in Government as part of the rainbow coalition.

  I will not mention all the increases individually but I must mention the increase of €11.50 per week given to widows and widowers over 65 years of age on contributory pensions. This will bring them into line with the main pension rate. There was an anomaly in this area and I am glad the Minister has rectified it.

  The abolition of the supplement paid by some health boards to persons who had made arrangements for debt settlement with creditors through the Money Advice and Budgeting Service has attracted comment. I know the Minister was concerned that this supplement operated in an ad hocmanner in some health boards only, and no matter how good the intention behind it, she could allow it to operate, in effect, as a supplement delivered to creditors. It is certainly the case that people need assistance to get out of debt. The abolition of the MABS supplement makes a clear [1349]statement that the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is not the most appropriate vehicle of delivery of this support. I am happy the Minister regards MABS as the best vehicle and it is telling that she increased funding for the service by €960,000 over and above the increase in the Estimates. This means the total allocation to the MABS will be over €1.5 million in excess of the 2003 allocation.

  The previous Minister established the Family Support Agency to support families, promote continuity and stability in family life, prevent marital breakdown and foster a supportive community environment for families at local level. The Minister has allocated additional funding of €1.69 million to the agency to establish new family mediation service offices in the northwest and midland regions. This is in pursuance of the Government's long-standing commitment to establish a nation-wide family mediation service. We have this service in Mayo and I am familiar with its tremendous work. I compliment the Minister on extending it.

  Additional moneys have also been allocated to the agency to provide additional funding to organisations providing marriage and family counselling services to facilitate the provision of an accessible nation-wide counselling service provided by voluntary and community organisations. Moreover, funding has been provided to expand the family resource centre programme towards the Government target of 100 centres throughout the country and roll out an evaluation model for family resource centres.

  The Minister has done a lot in this budget and I have no doubt that when we leave Government in 2007 she will be regarded as having been one of the most successful Ministers for Social and Family Affairs.

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy has made the Opposition's day.

  Mr. Wilkinson:I, too, am delighted to have the chance to say a few words on the budget. There is no doubt that the increases in social welfare in the budget are deeply appreciated across the country. I listened with amazement to the statements made a few moments ago by the Labour Party Deputies and am appalled at the negativity coming from that quarter. One would think Ireland was a Third World country rather than one with a proud position in Europe, which it has.

  Deputy Burton stated poverty was the cause of crime. We have seen recently that some of the major crime bosses in Ireland are anything but poor. The amount of wealth they possess is unbelievable.

  The social welfare improvements in the budget will cost €630 million for a full year. This contrasts starkly with the equivalent provision in the budget of the rainbow Government in 1997. Labour Party Deputies quoted figures from 2001. Let us go back a little further to 1997, when €273 million was spent. It is pointless to try make a case [1350]that circumstances have not improved because there have been amazing improvements. As a result, increases for those dependent on social welfare are payable more than five months earlier than when the rainbow Government was in power. For every €3 that will be spent by the Government in 2004, almost €1 will go to social welfare recipients.

  An estimated 970,000 people are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments next year. This is an amazing sum to try find in Ireland and it is a great credit to the Minister that she has managed to obtain so much and distribute it as fairly as she has done.

  I remember well the dole queues in my area of west Waterford prior to 1997. Furthermore, I remember being asked to see if I could get a shelter erected along the main street to protect those queuing for social welfare payments. Today there are no queues. I will not say that the office outside which people were queuing is redundant, but it is gratifying to see the changes that have been made.

  The number of people at work in Ireland has increased to almost 1.8 million. Well over 95% of all eligible working people have jobs. While other figures will be quoted and while other comparisons will be made, this figure is important. It is wonderful to consider that the young can complete their education and be guaranteed a job in Ireland given that only a short ago, unemployment rates stood at between 10% and 15%.

  I am delighted with the budget and its increases, and I am particularly pleased that old age pensioners are being looked after and respected. They built this country and reared their families in difficult times with very little luxury or grandeur. Today, in a more affluent Ireland, it is a good sign that the Government is looking after them.

  I appreciate the scale of child benefit increases under Fianna Fáil in Government. It is worth emphasising that when Fianna Fáil returned to Government in 1997, child benefit was payable at the rate of €38.09 per month for the first and second children, and at €49 for the third and subsequent children. The priority Fianna Fáil has attached to child benefit means that, following budget 2004, it will be payable at the rates of €130 per month for the first and second children and at €165 per month for the third and subsequent children. That is a tremendous improvement.

  Fianna Fáil does not have great experience of being in Opposition but I understand what the Opposition must do. Trying to give the impression that there has not been a dramatic improvement and that the Government is not spreading money as best it can is quite wrong. I compliment the Minister and I agree with what my colleagues have said. I am delighted the underprivileged, and old age pensioners in particular, are being looked after so well.

[1351]  Mr. Nolan:I commend the Minister on securing such an increase in her budget for 2004. As Minister in one of the Departments which is obliged to look after the less well off in society she has proved herself more than capable of fighting her corner in Cabinet. At a time of year when the finances look a little fraught, I commend her on securing the Christmas bonuses at a level which every social welfare recipient will be proud of. On top of that, she secured improvements in this year's budget to the tune of €630 million, an increase of over €100 million on last year's budget increases.

  At a time when the Government is spending over €11 billion per year on social welfare, there is an onus on the Minister and her Department to ensure the taxpayer, who is paying for all of this, is getting value for money. The Minister and her officials should look at social welfare schemes with a view to refocusing, updating and, where necessary, reforming them. Schemes were introduced in the early to mid-1980s, when we had unemployment levels of 15% to 16%, with the long-term unemployed in mind. Now we have unemployment levels of 4.3% to 4.4% and we should focus our social welfare schemes on the basis of those levels. In doing so, various Ministers of Social Welfare have succeeded in refocusing and remoulding schemes for social welfare recipients.

  This Government more than any other is a caring Government and it realises the difficulties social welfare recipients face, particularly the elderly, widows, widowers and dependants of single parent families. It is not easy to have a growing economy in which there seems to be a lot of wealth when there is also a section of society which is totally dependent on the State for weekly payments.

  The €630 million found by the Government for social welfare increases will be put to good use. However, we have an obligation to our entire society to ensure every opportunity is given to those individuals and families who are unfortunately not unable to support themselves to the level they would like. We have an obligation to continue to support them in any way possible.

  The family income supplement threshold has been increased by €28 per week and that is very welcome, as it will help those on lower incomes. Thankfully we have far fewer people totally dependent on social welfare payments now than in the past 20 years, with significant progress being made in this regard. The increases granted to all social welfare recipients are very positive and the Government's commitment to ensuring that payments of €200 per week will be guaranteed in three years' time is well on the way to being secured.

  Budget changes in 2002 meant that all social welfare recipients would receive their payments on 1 January, which was a very positive move. Years ago, when the Minister for Finance announced social welfare increases, there was a feeling among recipients that while that was [1352]great, they would not see those increases until March or April, with some increases not being introduced until July. Now when social welfare recipients hear the Minister for Finance's Budget Statement they are pleased that the increases being announced are effective almost immediately. The 1 January payment date announced for this year was good for all recipients.

  The Minister can be proud of her achievements to date, particularly on behalf of large families with schoolgoing children. Until now they have felt the brunt of price increases, which have been a problem with higher inflation due to our improved economic circumstances. The real increases these families will see will assist them in their daily lives. The Minister could look at school meals, though Governments have been reluctant to focus too much attention on this area, as there are schoolchildren who are falling through the net when it comes to nutrition. They are not getting proper meals during the day because while they are getting lunch money. They are having crisps, sweets and minerals and they are not having balanced meals. The Minister may look at this in the future.

  The disabled person's grant should also be examined. This grant was very successful when it was first introduced and has become very popular but the difficulty is that there is insufficient funding available for it. I accept that part of the difficulty is that local authorities are not providing sufficient funding for this in their estimates and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must provide matching funds. In many cases local authorities, for one reason or another, are reluctant to put the required amount of funding into this area. The Department of Social and Family Affairs has some responsibility for this area and perhaps something could be done in consultation with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

  A big difficulty for local authorities is the provision of sufficient housing for those on our housing lists. Those lists are growing because of the high cost of new houses and because local authorities are not in a position to supply the amount of housing necessary to clear the housing lists. Another problem is that local authorities must often provide two houses for families. The social climate is changing and unfortunately we have many more family separations than previously. We now have a situation where some children of large families stay with the father and some with the mother. Local authorities are now obliged in many cases to provide a second home for a single family. This is unfortunate. While blame cannot be apportioned in many cases, it is also unfortunate for other families on the waiting lists who cannot be rehoused by their local authority.

  I commend the Minister on her work and on how strongly she defends her position when challenged.

[1353]  Mr. Ferris:I wish to share time with Deputies Twomey and Sargent.

  During the debate last night, one Fianna Fáil Member referred to the bad old days of the 1980s and how much conditions had improved since then. While conditions have improved for many people, one factor remains the same. Hundreds of thousands of people on the margins of our society are still subject to the daily grind of trying to survive on low incomes, whether that is through social welfare or appalling wages doled out by many employers.

  Much has been made of the increases granted to social welfare recipients. I refer to the one parent family allowance. A young mother and child are in receipt of €144 per week and will receive an increase of €10 per week in the new year. Yesterday, all Members received a form to claim their overnight allowance.

  Mary Coughlan:Not everybody received one.

  Mr. Ferris:The Minister filled it as well. Our overnight allowance has almost the same value as the allowance for a single mother with one child. How can a Government or system justify that? The old age non-contributory pension will also increase by €10 per week. Most Members will be inundated with telephone calls from pensioners because local authorities will increase rents, which will eat into their increase.

  Something else remains unchanged in that right wing parties, which are upright and strict in the manner in which they regulate the incomes of working class people, are as generous and accommodating to their wealthy friends as they were in the good old days of the 1980s. We were reminded of them on Monday when former Minister Ray Burke resurfaced in regard to his activities on their behalf while he was a member of a previous Fianna Fáil Government. It should not be forgotten that he has applied for free legal aid.

  Mary Coughlan:I would not go down that road. People in glasshouses should not throw stones.

  Mr. Ferris:Those were the days when the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, appeared on television to remind us all we had to tighten our belts and it was necessary to decimate our social services to repay the massive debts that had been accumulated over the years. Most people fell for this and voted for the three parties that oversaw the cutbacks in the 1980s without knowing that, while they were counting each penny, practically every member of what we might be termed “the misruling class” was committing tax fraud on a massive scale.

  While people were dying because of the lack of hospital places, the great and the good were transfering hundreds of millions of pounds into illegal offshore bank accounts. However, they were not content with this and those who were part of the golden circle also enriched themselves [1354]through land speculation. These people now wring their hands and wonder why large parts of Dublin and other major urban areas are afflicted by major social problems. One of the reasons is that when many of the sprawling housing estates of Dublin were under construction the only consideration was who owned the land. Proper roads, public transport and other amenities were of no consequence compared to the most important issue, namely, who was prepared to hand over the brown paper bags.

  Land was not the only commodity those in power sold at the expense of the people they were supposed to represent. Our natural resources were handed over to multinationals with no benefit accruing to the State or its citizens. That demands as much explanation as the issues before the tribunals. Who decided that the massive potential wealth that lay beneath the Irish Sea should have been given away and why did they do so? Perhaps there is a completely innocent explanation or perhaps Ray Burke was caught on a day he was in a generous mood.

  Mary Coughlan:That is sweet coming from someone like the Deputy.

  Mr. Ferris:I refer to this because it exposes the vast difference in the attitude that the right wing parties take towards different sections of our society. Minor changes in social welfare or cutbacks such as that applied to the back to education grant are justified in the name of preventing fraud, while the abuses I mentioned have been tolerated for decades and the same people are still given favoured treatment by their friends in power.

  Anyone who doubts this need only consider the recent handout given to the Punchestown event centre. This should be contrasted with the miserly attitude displayed by the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism to clubs seeking small amounts under the sports capital grant programme. Clubs in Tralee, for example, are attempting to provide vital amenities for young people in areas designated under the RAPID programme. The three most populated parts of Tralee contain working class estates. They are the Shanakill-Monavalley-Rathoonane area, which comprises more than 300 houses and in which most of the population is aged under 35; the Spa Road-Balloonagh estate, another massive housing estate; and the Mitchels' area. None of the clubs in these areas received a copper under the sports capital grant programme while golf clubs, rowing clubs and so forth were awarded generous grants.

  It would be better to spend the money allocated for the Punchestown event centre on providing facilities that will give young people with an opportunity to develop their talents and personalities, rather than as a gift to those who do not need it. The same people lecture working class people about not helping themselves but [1355]they are only too happy, as always, to take whatever they can in hand outs and tax breaks.

  As other Members have pointed out, most of those in receipt of social welfare are not part of the labour force. It is not an issue that they should be supported by the rest of us, except among the more extreme elements of the right. Others receive social welfare because they are unemployed. In most cases this is temporary but, nonetheless, people are entitled to adequate provision until they find work because they do not become unemployed of their own accord.

  Dr. Twomey:It is often difficult for Members to keep talking to fill their slots on Second Stage of various Bills and this debate is similar because it offers nothing memorable to social welfare recipients next year.

  Mary Coughlan:The Deputy will have another opportunity after Christmas.

  Dr. Twomey:Few countries offer social welfare recipients more than a subsistence payment and it should not be a surprise in a low tax, low spend economy such as ours that it is any different. If we have failed in terms of the monetary benefit to social welfare recipients and those on the threshold of receiving benefits, we have failed utterly to address honestly the issues that affect the less well off in society. During the year, there are many debates on important social issues such as crime, education and health. These social and economic areas of Government do not come under the Minister's control but, nevertheless, they are important.

  Three significant reports on the health service have been produced by Prospectus, Brennan and Hanly and health is probably the most frequently debated issue in the House. While the debates highlight issues, nothing has happened. Perhaps we can look forward to changes in the health service in 2004.

  Great play has been made on the increases in social welfare benefits but the medical card issue will not go away. I am surprised the Government has no great interest in tackling this issue. At the height of the Celtic tiger boom, 34% of the population had a medical card. If the over 70s are excluded, approximately 26% of the population is entitled to a medical card this year. A medical card is vital as it covers an individual's GP fees, medication costs and hospital care. It is vitally important to those on the threshold of social welfare benefits. A number of social welfare recipients may exceed the limit for eligibility for a medical card following the budget increases. That is a greater issue than the granting of increases of €5 or €10 per week.

  Debate adjourned.

  Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.[1356]