Seanad Éireann - Volume 154 - 25 March, 1998
Social Welfare Bill, 1998: Second Stage.
Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern) Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern)
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I am very pleased, as Minister for Social, Community and Family  Affairs, to have this opportunity to present my first Bill to this House. The purpose of the Social Welfare Bill is to give effect to the improvements in social welfare schemes and services announced in the 1998 Budget and to provide for a number of adjustments and amendments to the social welfare code. The Bill addresses a number of commitments set out in the Government's Programme “An Action Programme for the Millennium” aimed at combating social exclusion and marginalisation in our community and also delivers on certain key commitments in Partnership 2000.
The resources provided by the Government in the recent budget for social welfare improvements amount to £125 million this year and £225 million in a full year. It is the largest budget package for many years — £11 million or 9 per cent higher than that provided by the previous Government last year. As a result of this year's initiatives, the commitment to spend £525 million on social inclusion measures — including social welfare rates increases — during the three year period of the Partnership has been more than exceeded in the first two years. The increased allocation of £125 million this year will bring overall spending in 1998 by my Department to £4,850 million.
Before moving to discuss the main provisions of the Bill, I would like to take this opportunity to update Members on a number of important developments which are taking place within my Department. One of the main objectives set down in the Government's Action Programme is to seek to establish an inclusive society where everyone will have the opportunity and the incentive to participate in the workforce, to contribute to the wealth of the nation and to share in the benefits of economic growth, whether or not they are engaged full-time in bringing up a family or caring for relations. The programme includes a number of key issues which the Government are determined to tackle over the coming years. These include securing the future of our older people, improving the real value of social welfare payments, developing family and community supports and investing in employability.
In our Programme for Government we are committed to increasing the rate of contributory old age pension to £100 over a five year period. In recognition of the contribution which our older people have given in developing our economy and improving the quality of life in our community, the Government decided to go beyond what is strictly required by that commitment this year. Accordingly, it has given a special increase of £5 per week in the maximum personal rates of payments to pensioners with proportionate increases for those on reduced rates of pension. The Government is also committed to providing substantial increases in other social welfare payments. In addition, Partnership 2000 guarantees that the real income position of those dependent on social welfare would be protected and enhanced and that the minimum rate recommended  by the Commission on Social Welfare be implemented before the end of the Partnership in 1999.
These special increases in pensions, which represent increases of between 6.4 per cent and 7.4 per cent for those who receive them, are a clear indication of the Government's desire to fulfil the promises given in the Government Programme. As a result of these provisions, some 94 per cent of people who rely on weekly social welfare payments will now receive more than the recommended minimum rate of payment of the Commission on Social Welfare. The implementation dates for these increases is being brought forward by two weeks this year with the result that all the increased rates will be paid from the first week in June.
The position of pensions, both social welfare and occupational, and pensioners generally is also being considered in the context of the National Pensions Policy Initiative initiated by my predecessor and the Pensions Board will be submitting their report to me on this initiative in April next. The National Pensions Policy Initiative is intended to promote debate on the future overall pension policy for Ireland. It is intended to lead to properly researched proposals and options on the best way forward for the level of Irish pension provision to which the country should aspire.
The new name of my Department — the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs — reflects its wider brief in community and family affairs. This Government — both in its “Action Programme for the Millennium” and in the setting in place of specific policy provisions in this area — is recognising the vital importance of strengthening the social fabric for families. In the case of my Department, the 1998 Budget set aside £4 million for specific programmes for families, over and above the range of family income support measures channelled through the various social welfare schemes.
It is the Government's intention as promised in the Programme for Government that family policies will have a significant place on the policy agenda in the years ahead. The overall objective is to develop social policies which enable strong, confident communities to emerge starting with the fundamental and basic unit of society: the family.
Members will be aware that I expect to receive the report of the Commission on the Family shortly. I have been advised by the Commission that the report contains a comprehensive analysis of issues affecting families. The recommendations will provide the basis for the development of an integrated family policy to strengthen and assist families in coping with change and to put in place the supports to help prevent family breakdown. Due to the scope and nature of the issues involved, the finalisation of the report of the Commission on the Family has taken longer than expected. However, I expect to receive the report shortly and I intend to submit it to Government with a view to publication as soon as possible.
 Dramatic changes in society, in the labour market, in gender roles and in family life generally have been well documented in recent years. The final report of the Commission on the Family will provide an overall picture of family life in Ireland at this point in our history and of the challenges facing families moving into a new century. I understand that the report will provide many new insights into our understanding of the complex web of human activity represented in today's families. New analyses and research have been brought to bear on this area and new detailed insights into, for example, the role of fathers in modern societies will be available, as will the results of a detailed survey of child care provision.
The commission brought forward some aspects of the final report for consideration in the context of preparations for the 1998 Budget. In response to the commission's recommendations, the Government has provided significant allocations for the development of family services in my Department in 1998 including, for a network of family and community services resource centres, 25 centres in 1998, an extra £600,000 for marriage counselling services, bringing the total provision in 1998 to £1.5 million and an extra £600,000 for the family mediation service for the establishment of additional centres towards the development of a national service, as per the commitment in the Programme for Government.
In addition, a new family affairs unit is being established to co-ordinate family policy, pursue the findings in the commission's final report following their consideration by the Government, undertake research and promote awareness about family issues. The unit will have responsibility for a number of family services including support for the marriage and child counselling services, the family mediation service, a pilot programme in relation to the local offices of the Department building on the “one stop shop” concept, with the aim of providing improved support at local level to families and an information programme on parenting issues.
Voluntary and community groups play an important part in improving the quality of the lives of people by helping them to develop the capacity to change their situation for the better. However, disadvantaged communities require support to enable them to realise this potential to play a real part and have a real say in their own development. The Department supports local self-help and community development initiatives through a range of grant schemes. These grants schemes are aimed at helping people develop the confidence and the capacity to participate as partners alongside statutory agencies and others in local development initiatives and to make a long term impact on poverty and social exclusion.
I am making a very considerable increase in funding available for voluntary and community services in 1998. The main features of the 1998 provision include an additional £1.37 million being provided for the Community development  programme. The programme was introduced in 1990, with 15 projects and a budget of £350,000. There are now 88 projects and a budget in 1998 of £6.8 million. Work is well underway on drawing up a priority list of 30 areas to be proactively targeted for expansion of the CDP, as provided for under Partnership 2000. It is intended that the list will be finalised during the coming summer.
Following the Department's change of name, I am placing an enhanced emphasis on the grants schemes on supporting families and parenting. A new programme of core funding for Family and Community Services Resource Centres is being introduced following on the success of ten pilot projects funded since 1994. I have provided an additional £700,000 for 20 to 25 new projects in 1998. I was able recently to announce that the first of these to be approved for funding is Clogh Family Resource Centre, County Kilkenny, which will receive an annual allocation of £40,000. I met this group recently.
The schemes of grants for women's, men's and lone parents groups are being integrated in a new scheme of grants for locally-based community and family support groups. The scheme of community support for older people, under which socially-monitored alarms and small scale security works for vulnerable older people can be funded, is being continued and a further £2 million has been provided for the scheme in 1998. The scheme will be advertised over the coming weeks. There is now provision for a percentage of grants under the scheme of grants for locally-based community and family support groups to be committed for two or three years. This will give greater continuity to local groups. A total of £1.5 million is also being made available to a range of marriage and child counselling services with details to be announced shortly.
A White Paper on the voluntary sector and its relationship with statutory agencies will be published this year. This will represent a significant step in the ongoing debate on this issue. The objective of the paper will be to develop a framework for the future development of the relationship between the State and the community and voluntary sector and to facilitate a debate on the issues relevant to that relationship. A consultation process with local voluntary and community groups will commence shortly, followed by the publication of the White Paper before the end of the year.
One of the most important issues to be covered by the White Paper will be the method and source of future funding for the sector and criteria to be attached to such funding, including the setting up of independent community trusts. Community trusts or foundations play an important role in resourcing the voluntary sector in other countries. Essentially the concept is of an independent foundation which raises donations from the private sector and also from Government. Government funds can be significant initially as seed money in allowing a trust to become established  and build up a stream of private sector donations. The objective is to build up a sufficient capital base to generate an income for disbursement to the community and voluntary sector.
The application of the community trust concept to Ireland could open up the possibility of generating significant additional income from the private sector for community and voluntary groups. The community trust is not a substitute for existing State funding but rather taps into the goodwill of the private sector who see society becoming more tiered. The community trust will endeavour to get the private sector to assist the Government in its work. A sum of £750,000 was provided in the budget for the establishment of a community trust. I hope to be in a position to bring forward detailed proposals in this regard shortly.
Since the Government took office, there has been much progress on the implementation of the national anti-poverty strategy. Of particular importance has been the establishment of the Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion and drugs, including local development, chaired by the Taoiseach and comprising no fewer than nine Ministers, including the Minister for Finance and me. This committee underlines the Government's commitment to establishing a more inclusive society.
A NAPS unit was set up in my Department and liaison officers have been appointed in key Departments to fill a communication and co-ordination role. It is through the network of liaison officers that the unit basically interacts with other Departments.
The approach of the first anniversary of the NAPS provides a new focus for the strategy as the implementation of its commitments begins in earnest. While 1997 saw the establishment of soundly based structures to underpin the strategy, practical initiatives are currently under way to drive the NAPS process towards its main objective of cutting the number of people living in persistent poverty by half. Departments are now submitting baseline documents, detailing where current policy impacts on social inclusion, and NAPS workplans for 1998. These comprehensive documents are intended to identify cross-departmental issues where inclusive policies and resources can be targeted effectively at those most in need and where duplication can be avoided in order to effectively advance this Government's drive against marginalisation and social exclusion.
This Bill — the first in my Department since the introduction of the NAPS — provides a number of concrete examples of this Government's determination to tackle the problems of poverty and social exclusion still being faced by some members of our society despite our booming economy. The calculation of family income supplement on a net rather than gross income basis, the extension of the back to work allowance scheme, greater allocations to voluntary and community services, substantial real increases in the  value of all social welfare payments and additional support for families — all these measures are designed to impact on those who are most in need. They are part of a long-term strategy to enable people to rise above the poverty line and, through a consequent raising of dignity and sense of inclusion, to play a greater role in the society in which they live.
Given the prospective economic growth, it is forecast that employment will continue to grow rapidly over the next three years. The number of people at work is expected to rise by 48,000 in 1998 with average annual increases of about 37,000 in 1999 and 2000. The impact on unemployment will depend on the rate of increase in the labour force taking account of the effect of such factors as the levels of migration and participation in the workplace. It is notable that the most rapid growth is predicted to be in high skill occupations which require at least second level qualifications. It is essential, therefore, that we refocus our policies, including social welfare policies, to tackle the changing nature of our unemployment problem. We must move from paying income support as a response to unemployment to investing in employability so that the unemployed can share the benefits of economic growth.
A number of key measures were announced in the budget with the aim of supporting unemployed people in making the transition to work. A very positive evaluation of the back to work scheme was carried out in 1996 and published in October last year and in the light of its findings I am continuing a pattern of ongoing improvements in the scheme. These include the provision of 5,000 additional places on the back to work scheme for 1998, bringing the total to 27,000 places, and an additional year's payment for self-employment on the scheme, bringing this to four years in total.
I recently announced details of the new back to education programme embracing both the existing second and third level allowance scheme which includes a number of new features, including an increase of £50 to £150 in the annual cost of education allowance, the extension of the scheme to students receiving disability allowance or blind pensions from my Department, extending the scope of the scheme to allow unemployed people attend approved courses of education, training or development which largely are outside the realm of second and third level courses and the inclusion of a new course — the national certificate in technology — run by regional technical colleges and aimed at recruiting, educating and training technicians to fill vacancies in the information technology sector.
I will now explain the main provisions of the Bill. Section 4 provides for the increases in social insurance payments of £5 in the weekly maximum personal rate of payments to pensioners aged 66 years and over and in the maximum rates of retirement and invalidity pensions payable to  people aged 65 years and over. All other personal rates of social insurance payments are being increased by £3 per week and payments in respect of qualified adults are being increased by approximately 3 per cent.
Similarly, section 5 provides that social assistance recipients aged 66 years and over will receive a £5 increase in their weekly personal rate and those under 66 years will receive £3 per week. As with social insurance payments, increases in respect of qualified adults will be approximately 3 per cent.
Section 6 provides for increases in child benefit of £1.50 for the first two children and £3 for each subsequent child, bringing the monthly rate of child benefit to £31.50 and £42, respectively. This section also introduces much needed improvements in respect of multiple births. The rate of child benefit payable in respect of twins will be one and a half times the normal rate. Also, the grants payable in respect of multiple births are being aligned so that all multiple births will receive a grant of £500 on birth and further grants of £500 at the age of four and 12 years. All these improvements will be effective from September 1998. There are 12,500 sets of twins in the country, so 12,500 families will benefit from these increases.
Section 7 provides for improvements in family income supplement. For the first time FIS will be assessed on a net basis, that is, gross income less superannuation contributions, income tax and PRSI. This improvement delivers on the commitment in Partnership 2000 to calculate entitlement to FIS on the basis of net earnings. This scheme is designed to ensure that unemployed people have an incentive to take up work and employees have an incentive to stay in work by providing an income supplement to low income families in employment. This particular improvement, which will come into effect on 1 October 1998, will bring an extra 1,600 families within the scope of the scheme in 1998 and some 7,000 in a full year.
In addition to this improvement, section 7 also provides for a general increase of £7 in the weekly thresholds for the calculation of entitlement to FIS from June of this year. As a result all current recipients will automatically benefit by at least £4 per week. In overall terms, the effect of the budget changes will mean that a two child family where the breadwinner is earning £210 per week will gain an extra £18 per week in household income.
Section 8 provides for increases in social insurance allowances, thresholds and ceilings. Under this provision the amount of an employee's earnings not subject to social insurance contributions will increase from the current £80 per week to £100 per week. The threshold under which employers are liable for the lower 8.5 per cent rate of employer contribution will increase from £260 to £270 per week and the earnings ceiling up to which social insurance contributions are payable will increase from £23,200 to £24,200 per annum for employees  and from £27,900 to £29,000 per annum for employers. These changes will come into effect on 6 April. Section 9 provides for a similar increase in the income ceiling for self-employed contributors to that of employees, from £23,200 to £24,200 per annum.
Part III of the Bill provides for improvements in social welfare schemes. Section 10 provides for an easement of the rules for assessing means of certain social assistance schemes. An amount not exceeding the rate of the old age contributory pension which is received by way of a foreign social security disability pension will be disregarded from the assessment of means for carer's allowance.
Rental income will be disregarded for the purposes of widow's and widower's non-contributory pension where the rent is paid by a person who lives with the widow or widower and that widow or widower would otherwise live alone. The first £2,000 of any income received under the special areas of conservation scheme will be disregarded in assessing means for unemployment assistance, pre-retirement allowance and old age non-contributory pension. A similar disregard currently operates in the case of REPS income. In addition, this section provides that only half of any remaining income above the £2,000 threshold will be assessed. This measure will provide a real incentive for many smallholders to avail of these schemes.
The budget provided for further improvements for carers. These include a disregard of non-national disability pensions up to the maximum level of the old age contributory pension in assessing means and the payment of carer's allowance for six weeks after death to carers whose spouse was not in receipt of a social welfare payment. Both these improvements will be effective on the enactment of the Bill.
Another much sought improvement, which was announced in the budget, is the provision of a free travel pass to all those in receipt of a carer's allowance in their own right. As part of my commitment to improve the supports for carers, I have recently reviewed the operation of the full-time care and attention condition and have decided to adopt a more flexible approach. Carers may now attend educational training courses or participate in voluntary or community based activities for around ten hours per week provided the carer makes adequate provision for the care recipient in his or her absence. These new arrangements come into effect immediately.
In its “Action Programme for the Millennium” the Government is committed to progressively relaxing the qualifying criteria for the carer's allowance to ensure that more carers may benefit from the scheme, as well as increasing the value of the allowance in real terms.
In line with these commitments, an overall review of the carer's allowance is being carried out by an interdepartmental working group. This review is considering the purpose and development  of the scheme, both in terms of its operation and its future development. It will also examine the potential for the development of provision for carers through the social insurance scheme and the role of the private sector. The review is expected to be completed by the middle of this year. It will be published and will deal with the many issues raised in this debate.
The legislative proposals contained in Part IV — sections 14 and 15 — of the Social Welfare Bill provide a framework for the development of an integrated approach to the administration, delivery, management and control of publicly funded income support services. The lack of integration between various State services has been a matter of concern for some time and there have been many calls from Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, and various commentators, for better integration and streamlining of services. It is generally recognised that this can lead to greatly improved customer service and better control of schemes and services. The proposals in this Bill build on the recommendations contained in the report of the interdepartmental group on the development of the ISSS, and on the work that has been under way in my Department for many years.
Sections 14 and 15 provide for four things, namely, the standardisation of the RSI number as a personal public service number, the introduction of a public service card on the lines of the existing social services card, the use of new technology on cards to develop new methods of paying social welfare benefits by way of direct electronic delivery to the customer and the sharing of information between relevant agencies for the purpose of determining entitlement to and control of certain social services.
The new personal public service number will replace the RSI number which is currently issued by my Department. Over three million RSI numbers have been registered by the Department since 1979 and these numbers are currently used by several public service agencies. In future it will be used as a key identifier by certain specified agencies including Government Departments, health boards, local authorities, the Revenue Commissioners, FÁS, the General Register's Office and the Legal Aid Board. The list of specified bodies may only be extended by means of regulations which will require a positive resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The use of a single number across the wider public service will make for easier and speedier access to services for customers, will streamline administration within the specified bodies, will facilitate the sharing of data where such sharing is specifically provided for in legislation and will, of course, aid control of public funds.
Fears that the introduction of this number will eventually lead to a national identity number are unfounded. There are specific penalties included in this legislation for unauthorised use of this number and card.
The new public service card will replace the  current social services card, of which over 1.6 million have been issued to date. The person's name, their personal public services number, the card's primary account number and date of issue will be visible on the front of the new card. The initial cards will contain a magnetic strip on the back with the person's date of birth and gender. The card's primary account number, expiry date and service code is in encoded form.
The introduction of the public service card will, over time, replace the social services card and will enable the public service number to be used as a single identifier for public administration purposes. This is a reasonable extension of the system currently in place. The public service card is not a general identity card and is not intended as such. As I said earlier, the Bill also provides penalties for unauthorised use of the card in this way.
The Bill also contains a proposal to allow for certain information to be placed on commercial cards for the purposes of paying social welfare benefits. This means that social welfare recipients may in future collect their payment via ATM machines, banks, supermarkets or a variety of retail outlets.
The Bill includes provision for the sharing of information relating to a number of the most common social services provided by various Departments or agencies. At present, for example, a person who becomes unemployed or has separated may have to undergo separate means tests for supplementary welfare allowance, a social welfare payment, a medical card and differential rents in the same week. All this can lead to a great deal of frustration among people accessing these services.
Under existing legislation, a community welfare officer — who may be dealing with the same person in relation to a medical card and a supplementary welfare allowance — is obliged by law to take down the same set of details they took in the first instance. One has the ludicrous situation where somebody seeking a medical card and a supplementary welfare allowance on the same day is obliged to give the same information to the same person twice. This provision tries to streamline that procedure so that a more efficient service can be provided to people who are in contact with State agencies in this regard.
Our aim is to put in place, over time, better administrative procedures by various State agencies which will enable them to share the latest available means data for customers. The means information will be stored on a central means database which has been developed by my Department and which will be accessible to other relevant agencies where a customer has made a claim. This will help ensure a better and quicker service for the customer and will ease some of the difficulties currently experienced in accessing such services.
It is intended that the new arrangements on data sharing will apply in the case of social welfare schemes operated by my own Department as  well as certain income support schemes provided by health boards, medical cards, higher education grants, differential rents and legal aid. In effect, the information required for any of these services will only be provided once. Similarly, corrections to existing information will also be shared.
Concerns were raised during the passage of this Bill in the Dáil with regard to the protection of an individual's right to privacy. The Attorney General has confirmed that these provisions are consistent with the provisions of the 1981 Council of Europe Convention which was ratified by the Data Protection Act, 1988.
I am satisfied that the Government has addressed both the need for efficient public services and personal privacy protection in a balanced way. Indeed, there are additional safeguards with regard to privacy included in this Bill. There are penalties for the unauthorised use of the number and the card. The holder of the card may at any time request a copy of the information encoded on their card and this information may be read only by specially programmed computer systems. Data sharing will be restricted for the specific purpose of entitlement to and control of certain social services, and these services can only be added to by means of primary legislation.
Data controllers in all Government Departments and agencies who are responsible for ensuring that data protection requirements are enforced, have to be satisfied that the proposed data sharing is relevant to a specified lawful purpose.
Under existing legislation, people have the right to receive a copy of any computerised personal information held by a public body. This will be further extended when the Freedom of Information Act comes into effect on 21 April 1998.
Part V of the Bill contains miscellaneous amendments to the existing legislation affecting a number of schemes. Included are the following: provision for actuarial reviews of the Social Insurance Fund to be completed on a five-yearly basis; changes to the recovery procedures in relation to social welfare overpayments; and an extension of three months in the period for which arrears may be paid in the case of late claims for certain occupational injuries benefits.
Some Members in the other House expressed concern about the effect of section 22 of the Bill. They were concerned that these powers might be used to seek information from providers of social welfare information, advice and assistance or from a person's solicitor, doctor or confessor.
The section amends section 221 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1993. This provision was first introduced in 1991 to enable regulations to be made to require certain bodies to provide information to the Department for the purpose of investigating title to a social welfare payment or for the control of social welfare schemes. In the seven years since then, the regulatory powers have been used to prescribe bodies in two instances — to seek student enrolment data from schools or colleges offering third level,  repeat leaving certificate or post leaving certificate courses and to seek information from nursing homes in relation to patients in receipt of, or entitled to, a social welfare payment. I can assure Members that I have no plans to extend the current scope of these regulations.
Part VI provides for the raising of the thresholds from £197 to £207 per week above which the health contribution and the employment and training levy apply. These provisions will come into effect on 6 April.
Part VII amends section 54 of the Pensions Act, 1990, to provide regulatory powers to prescribe information to be provided by the trustees of occupational pension schemes and to whom such information is to be provided.
The Social Welfare Bill before the Seanad today demonstrates this Government's commitment to look after the needs of the most vulnerable members in our community. This is more than evident when one considers the resources which have been provided for social welfare improvements in the budget, an additional £125 million this year and £225 million in a full year.
I commend this Bill to the Seanad and look forward to a constructive and informed debate from Members.
Mrs. Ridge Mrs. Ridge
Mrs. Ridge: I welcome the Minister to the House. He said it was his first visit here; I imagine it will not be his last. I hope it will not be too unpleasant because I acknowledge totally the breadth and depth of his brief. I have said before that I thought he got the biggest brief of all, from the cradle to the grave, from the womb to the tomb. Obviously, he will be relieved to hear that I have no intention of addressing all the aspects covered in his speech and will confine myself to areas of particular interest to me as a public representative and Member of this House.
I want to address particularly the aspect of social inclusion. I know it is the “in” term at present, but it is what we are all trying to achieve as elected representatives. On that basis, I obviously welcome the £5 increase for pensioners and the £3 increase in all the other personal rates for social welfare recipients.
One could not say one would not welcome an increase in child benefit, but I have a personal difficulty with a system in which the financial value of a child varies because of its place in a family or because it is an only child. Are we still operating on the Biblical concept of go forth and multiply? I am of the opinion that a higher fixed rate should apply to each child regardless of the number of children in the family or, indeed, their placing in it. There seems to be the prospect of in-built rivalry where the first child gets very little and the tenth child, if one ever gets to that stage, gets much more. I am being a trifle facetious, but would it not be preferable to support parents and their children by the provision of the child care supplement of £360 per annum, as suggested already by Fine Gael in the Lower House? The  Minister should examine that proposal to support the child until the age of five by way of supplement.
Having had a depth of experience as a former national chairperson of the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association and as a former tutor in early childhood education at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, I have a strong and deep belief that the support of the child until it enters the formal State system is of the most immense benefit. I refer particularly to the multiple benefits of what is called in America head start and home start. The studies which have emerged from that on the capability of children who have had the benefit of an early intervention at pre-school level have been most positive and scientifically appraised. They show low delinquency and high achievement levels among children who have had the benefit of the early start schemes. If we gave this supplement to the mother or parent in charge of the child, it would have the double benefit of allowing the mother the real option of staying at home with the child and equally giving the option to somebody who is in different circumstances to return to work without the crushing burden of trying to find the money the keep the child in a good child care centre. It has now got to the stage that if one does not have the money, one will not get one's child into a good centre. In addition, we are all aware of the lack of tax relief in that area. I put that proposal forward as a parent and as somebody who has experience in that field. If we are talking about inclusion, that is something which should be considered. It is an aspect which would form part of the Minister's future White Paper on the role of the statutory and voluntary agencies in this area to which he referred.
I want to talk about the problematic area of where young people leave home or say that they must leave home. The reality is that they do not live with their parents anymore. We have discussed this at committee level. These are young people who are out of work and we all know they will not receive the social welfare payment while they are still living with their families. It is becoming an even larger problem because I am convinced our policies are not helping families but are contributing to even greater social exclusion at a number of levels. The State is losing money also because most of these people will then receive supplementary rental allowance, so there will be a double payment from the State. We have reached the stage now where not only are we paying on the double but these people are taking up rented housing space which is being sought by young couples starting off in life, because there is an enormous housing problem. In 80 per cent of all these cases the single young person would be probably much happier and much more of a contributor to society if he or she had been allowed stay in the family home in the first place. I imagine that the amount of unemployment assistance or whatever social welfare payment he or she would receive would be probably less than the combined rent allowance and payment. I also  think the number to whom we would have to supply this payment is decreasing — for instance, there are a thousand jobs coming on stream in a major project in my area but to date, only 400 people have registered for them. I am convinced they are not registering because they will lose their supplementary rent allowance. If these people had not left home in the first instance, they would be delighted to obtain employment. This issue is worthy of an intense study for the reasons outlined. Money saved in the way to which I referred could be put to better use. However, I am sure the Minister appreciates the origin of my concerns in this area.
I applaud and acknowledge the many positive references the Minister made to carers and the proposed increases to be given to the people to whom he referred in his lengthy contribution. I hope the Minister will extend a special payment to carers, regardless of the need for means tests, to acknowledge their contribution. Fine Gael Members have referred to this on previous occasions and we would like to see the introduction of a £1,000 carer's respite allowance payable to everyone engaged in this work. In view of our buoyant economy and the fact that the Minister has charge of the largest ever social welfare budget allocation, we should apply ourselves to acknowledging the terrible isolation experienced by people involved in caring for others and their grave need for respite. I appreciate the increase granted in allowances but I ask the Minister to take my argument on board.
The various increases announced in the budget are welcome, but it must be stated that the wealthy have become more wealthy as a result. I am not stating that the poor have become poorer because that is not true. However, by comparison these people were not at the races when it came to the general handout in terms of what our society needs to become truly socially inclusive.
I wish to deal with another aspect of social inclusion to which the Minister referred earlier. Anyone who represents an area of urban growth — this is usually accompanied by urban disadvantage if it occurs in local authority housing schemes — will acknowledge the support given in the Bill to locally based groups. Support for such groups is extremely necessary and it is important that this continue. I am familiar with a number of local groups, most of which are led by women who are more able to acknowledge their needs. Men seem to believe it is a weakness to acknowledge such needs. The Minister should offer positive support to mens' groups, perhaps more in terms of staffing than funding. It is crucial that these supports remain in place to allow for further development.
I carried out a study over a ten year period of 17 local groups which helped improve the fortunes of an entire area. The personal and community development which arose out of support for these groups and the fact that people were allowed to acknowledge their needs, set their agenda, and complete courses based on those  needs have made an enormous positive difference and been a triumph for social inclusion.
The Minister stated that “The scheme of community support for older people, under which socially monitored alarms and small scale security works for vulnerable older people can be funded, is being continued and a further £2 million has been provided for the scheme in 1998.” Will he ensure that this is initiated as quickly as possible? It is a dreadful reflection on modern society but we have reached the stage where it is impossible for elderly people who have no family support to live alone without some form of resident warden system. The local authority of which I am a member has supplied individual alarms for people living in large housing conurbations, perhaps in single bungalows.
I cannot understand why some young people find it amusing to remove slates from the roofs of houses where elderly men livie alone, burn cars outside their homes or destroy their gardens. That is a sad reflection. It is imperative that support for elderly people living alone should be more tangible than merely putting in place mobile night patrols or connecting their house alarms to Garda stations, because it may take 20 to 30 minutes for help to arrive. We have reached the stage where warden supported housing for the elderly is required in specific areas. Will the Minister take than need on board when reviewing this matter?
Positive support for the socially excluded must be encouraged. In that context, I note the mainly positive aspects of the Minister's contribution. In view of the financial buoyancy which has crept into most people's lives, will he accept that the newly vulnerable and the widowed — be they men or women — should be included in society and not isolated? This could be done by examining the possibility of extending free travel and telephone allowances, particularly for elderly widowed people living in rural areas whose families do not live nearby?
As stated at the outset, I am no expert. However, I have referred to the areas of which I have direct knowledge. I again welcome the Minister's proposal to introduce a White Paper. The most successful systems are those where voluntary and statutory interests have worked together to produce realistic and workable proposals. I look forward to a positive response from the Minister in respect of the specific items to which I referred in good faith. I acknowledge the breadth of his portfolio and recognise the difficulties he faces. However, I look to his taking on board my realistic suggestions to include the excluded.
Ms Leonard Ms Leonard
Ms Leonard: I welcome the Minister on his first visit to the House. I commend him for the Bill and the straightforward way in which he has taken on his ministerial responsibilities. In the past the Minister, Deputy Woods, was a household name associated with the Department of Social Welfare. The present Minister, Deputy
Dermot Ahern, is more than capable of following  in his footsteps and in years to come he will be as renowned for his work in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.
The Social Welfare Bill begins the fulfilment of the Government's commitments in “An Action Programme for the Millennium” to address social exclusion and marginalisation. The Bill will not solve every problem because it is impossible to address all the issues in one year. However, this is the first of five Social Welfare Bills which the Minister will introduce and he has taken a giant step with this first Bill. The improvements in social welfare announced in the budget will amount to £225 million in a full year — £11 million more than was allocated last year.
For many years the elderly have been spoken of nostalgically and patronisingly. However, 50 to 60 years ago we were the poor nation of Europe and now we are envied by our European counterparts. It is only proper in times of economic success that we repay the elderly for their contribution to indicate our gratitude. I welcome the £5 per week increase for pensioners and the £3 per week in other benefits. It puts us on course to reach the £100 per week pension by 2002 as per the commitment in the Programme for Government. In addition, benefits will be paid two weeks earlier, which brings them more in line with the tax year. I am glad that the community support scheme for older people will be continued. It is important in rural areas where the level of crime against the elderly is increasing. I welcome the extra £2 million for this scheme in 1998.
The Bill provides for an increase in child benefit of £1.50 for the first two children. Listening to Senator Ridge one might have thought that the Minister was encouraging an increase in the birth rate. However, I do not think that an increase in the child benefit will encourage people to increase the size of their family. The increases provided for in the Bill are substantial. I have had experience as a midwife and I am aware that the number of multiple births is increasing with treatments for infertility. The grants for multiple births which the Minister provides in the Bill will be welcomed by many.
I welcome the provision in the Bill to calculate family income supplement on a net earnings basis and the £7 per week increase in the threshold for entitlement to it. The family income supplement was introduced a number of years ago and is one of the best social welfare schemes. It has been improved each year since but this year's provisions constitute a substantial improvement. It will continue to act as an incentive for people to take up employment. There was an idea abroad for many years that it was not worthwhile for the long-term unemployed to get out of bed in the morning. However, the improvements in the family income supplement will provide an encouragement to people to take up employment and to remain in employment. The budget was criticised as being aimed at the better off and the higher earners. However, changing the assessment basis  of the family income supplement is an important step.
The Government's social welfare plans cover a five year period and in the coming years we must address the plight of families with young children and the need for assistance with child care. The days of families having just one breadwinner are gone, especially given the price of houses in urban areas. It is now a necessity for both parents in a family to work. Assistance for child care is essential. I would favour an allowance for the person who remains in the home. An increase in child benefit has been proposed as an appropriate mechanism but many people try to save the child benefit for the child's future education. There should be a direct payment to the person who remains in the home or a tax relief for working parents. As the Minister said, we await the publiccation of the final report of the Commission on the Family later this year. He is well aware of the plight of our young people and I am sure he will deal favourably with this report when published.
The Minister announced an increase in the allocation to family services and, in particular, to the network of family and community service resource centres. Some £600,000 has been provided for marriage counselling services leading to a total provision of £1.5 million this year. Unfortunately we live in a society in which there is an increase in marriage breakdown and marital problems, so this is an extremely important provision. I am delighted the Minister has taken on board the family mediation service. It is difficult for those experiencing marital problems to have to go to a solicitor's office, which is a very formal setting. The family mediation service allows people to sit down and talk rationally about their problems. I welcome the Minister's proposals in this regard.
Another issue about which I feel strongly is the carer's allowance. I welcome the Minister's proposals where a carer may receive a free travel pass in their own right and where a carer, whose spouse was not in receipt of social welfare benefits when they passed away, will receive the carer's allowance for a further six weeks. We must be a little more flexible as regards the carer's allowance scheme. We all know a number of carer's who do trojan work 24 hour per day 365 days a year, with no respite and often with no recognition as a result of means testing. I know a few people living just above the breadline and who find things very difficult.
I know a lady who looks after her father-in-law and mother-in-law. She gets them up in the morning, feeds and bathes them and puts them to bed at night. She also calls on them a couple of times during the day. She returns to her home a half a mile away at 11 p.m. each night. Although she does not live with her parents-in-law, she provides 24 hour a day care as they have a buzzer if they need her. How do we determine who is giving 24 hour care? We need to be a little more flexible in this regard. The carer's allowance scheme is under review by the Department, which  is considering the development of the scheme and its future potential. When the Minister receives the results of the review, he will be in a better position to tackle this issue in upcoming budgets. I look forward to hearing what he has to say when he receives those results.
An issue which received much airplay in the other House was the public service card. Section 14 deals specifically with the administration of public service data and the introduction of the public service card. I do not know why there was such mystery or suspense about it. It basically replaces the social services card and changes the RSI number to a personal service number. There has been much talk suggesting information could be passed on. The Bill, however, specifically lists the agencies concerned, which include the Department, the local authorities, health boards, the Revenue Commissioners, FÁS, An Post and legal aid. It must be remembered that any extension of public services must be prescribed by regulation which must be approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
There has been a little scaremongering and I am sure lobby groups have been in touch with other Senators about this matter. Some of the misinformation spread initially was unhelpful. This is straightforward in that information may be passed only between a number of agencies. It is not as if the information is very confidential. A person's name, their personal public service number and the card number will be visible on the card, while their date of birth, gender and the expiry date will be encoded on it. I do not know why people are worried because there is no backhandedness and nobody is trying to pull a fast one on anybody.
We must remember we are living in an age of modern technology. If somebody comes to one with a problem, they want an answer yesterday. Gone are the days when one writes to a Department, gets an answer three months later and then gets back to the person. People want answers quickly. The public service card will allow for fast and efficient co-operation between the various agencies, so it is a great advance. My only problem with the card is that it should have included many more agencies. Such a card would have improved our system years ago and I am delighted it is being introduced at this stage. I congratulate the Minister on taking the initiative to improve the service.
There is a concern that the card is an invasion of privacy. I refer to my experience as a nurse. If anybody has had the misfortune of being in hospital, they will know they must first give their name, address, date of birth and other details to a nurse in the casualty department and then must go through the same rigmarole with a doctor. If they happen to be transferred to another hospital or ward, they must go through the same procedure again. The card contains straightforward information which may be passed from one agency to another. As far as I am concerned, it  allows for easy administration and greater efficiency.
We are living in an age of openness, transparency and accountability. I have come to dislike that phrase but it is apt in this regard in that I hope the card will act as a deterrent to those who believe they can defraud the State. We all want openness, transparency and accountability in this regard. The public often talks about those defrauding the State but we do not always know who they are. If this card acts as a deterrent against such practices, I fully support its introduction.
I welcome the Bill and am delighted it has paid attention to older people and, in particular, those on low incomes and in receipt of FIS. The Bill provides increases in social welfare schemes and recognises the need for improvement in the interaction between Departments and other bodies. I congratulate the Minister on his proposals.
Mr. B. Ryan Mr. B. Ryan
Mr. B. Ryan: I do not know if I am living on the same planet. This State is in the middle of a crisis of inequality on a scale unparallelled in its history. Income distribution is being skewed in the direction of the middle classes and the excessively rich by deliberate public policy. I read in The Irish Times that even Senator Ross is beginning to move to the ranks of those who recognise this inequality.
It is all very well for bleeding heart liberals like me to lament inequality, but on reading the more thoughtful material produced on the crisis in southeast Asia, it will be realised that the inequalities we are beginning to build into our society bring with them a gathering rush of the greedy and their allies which results in economic collapse. There are reasons beyond those of equity and justice for worrying about what is being done. I do not suggest this Government is solely responsible for poverty in this State, but it is interesting to read through the speech of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and not find the word “inequality” anywhere in it. I may have missed it but I read the speech carefully. Inequality is going out of fashion. We now speak of finetuning the market distribution of income using the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. The Department of Finance crudely tunes it in the opposite direction to social justice.
The Combat Poverty Agency asked certain measures of the Government in its first budget. It specifically identified personal tax allowances as distinct from the crude and unconcealed decision to hand over large amounts of tax benefits to the very rich in our society. The State did the exact opposite of what the Combat Poverty Agency requested. If that had been done with some attempt at evenhandedness, one could say the Government was keeping its electoral promises but was also trying to deal with inequality.
The Combat Poverty Agency recognises, as does the Minister's Department, that one of the  great social justice scandals in a country which has had paroxysms about children at various stages of their existence is that it has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe and nothing is being done about it. The Combat Poverty Agency's modest proposal was for a £7 per child increase in child benefit. The Government's decision came nowhere near that and likewise with the agency's proposal to extend the top rate of payment to the second child. In a time of plentiful resources and with a Government dominated by a party which is more than enthusiastic about protecting children and the family, the greatest internationally recognised opportunity exists for alleviating child poverty: payments to the mother by the State of high levels of child benefit. We decided not to take the opportunity.
It was argued for years that certain measures could not be taken because this was a poor country. The reality is that by the year 2000, according to EU figures, this will be one of the richest countries in Europe; yet we are introducing an ethic and political culture which suggests we cannot afford to take children out of poverty. The proportion of children in poverty is somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent, using international comparisons based on a measure of children living in households with an income below 50 per cent of average income. If a comparison is made with other countries using this index, 5 per cent of children in Denmark live in poverty. We manage to find a way to enrich ourselves collectively as a society by between 6, 7 and 10 per cent per annum for the past seven or eight years and yet we manage to leave our children behind. We also manage to do many other things which are socially reprehensible and economically daft, such as halving capital gains tax, something most people other than those who have a vested interest in it recognise as being the daftest economic decision a Government has taken in recent years. Another similar decision is loading income tax in one direction when it should have been heavily loaded in the other. We then say we cannot afford to look after our children although one quarter of them live in poverty.
It is better to do something than nothing and the Government has increased welfare rates and is attempting to alleviate poverty among old people. However, all this should be put into perspective. The stock market increased by the best part of 50 per cent in the past 12 months. That means the free share options of senior executives of public companies have increased by 50 per cent in the past 12 months. We decided that they were so hard up that we would halve the amount of tax they would pay when they realised their share options. Housing prices in this city have increased by 90 per cent in the past five years. Interest rates have decreased dramatically and will reduce further. We decided to reward property speculators by halving the tax they pay on their speculative profits. At the same time, we still say we cannot afford the £120 million the Combat Poverty  Agency stated as the total sum required for its increases in child benefit. The truth is that for the first time in history this State can afford to take the measures it has always wanted to take, the difference being that we no longer want to take them. We have subscribed to the culture of greed, which states that those who make money within the law have an inalienable right to all the money they make, irrespective of social need.
We have built our success on the extraordinary responsibility of the Irish trade union movement. In one case, we have watched that responsibility being kicked in the face by a certain agency. We have advocated and told the workforce that there must be flexibility in work practices. This is a wonderful phrase and it is particularly appropriate to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. People think flexibility means one can do simple jobs at work instead of having to call an expensive craftperson to do them. In fact, it usually means people must be prepared to work a seven day rota. Often they must be prepared to accept Sunday is not different to any other day in terms of time off.
That is what flexibility means. That impacts directly on every family which must deal with it. It gives rise to difficulties in parental contact with children. The extreme position exists in the United States where the majority of teenagers under 16 come home to an empty house in which there is no responsible adult after school. We do not have to speculate hard to imagine the consequences of that, yet we put together legislation and a social ethic which makes that a good thing, instead of finding ways to facilitate people, not just women, who believe their families are important and who want to work and look after a family with equal time and flexibility in terms of taxation, income support, housing support to enable them to do both. We do the opposite. We encourage gross speculation in housing, which means any young couple, even young professionals on £25,000 per annum each, are going to have to work for at least 15 years each simply to pay for the price of the house in which we as a society have decreed they must live.
We have done this in a society which is becoming more unequal. The national income is almost 100 per cent higher than it was eight years ago, but eight years ago, according to the Revenue Commissioners, there were 600,000 people with incomes of £10,000 per year or less. Two years ago we still had 600,000 on incomes of £10,000 per year or less. Within society 45 per cent of the workforce have incomes of £200 a week or less. In the same period the number of people who earn £50,000 a year or more has risen from over 6,000 to more than 50,000.
We have loaded income in one direction. You can see it in central Dublin: there are many people with large disposable incomes looking for places to spend their money. I enjoy the winebars and so on, I am a great believer in good living and the pleasures of life, but I do not believe I should be rewarded for my enjoyment of the  pleasures of life by continuing to reduce taxation which allegedly encourages me to work harder. It does not, it encourages me to enjoy myself more. There was ample evidence of that in studies carried out in Britain when they reduced the top rate of tax. It did not encourage people to work harder. They enjoyed longer and better holidays, ate out more and spent more time with their families. That is what people on high incomes in Britain did when the top income tax rates were reduced. This information comes from a paper produced at an IPA conference seven years ago.
When we could deal with inequality, when there was a choice between moving in the Scandinavian direction or towards the outdated, disastrous British experiment of the last five years, what did we do? We made a political decision to go in one direction. The tragedy is that we will not have any flexibility in future because, as sure as night follows day, we are already under pressure from our European partners to run a substantial budget surplus next year. The revaluation was part of the European determination to ensure we do not have high levels of inflation. The next stage of that package is obviously a demand for a substantial budget surplus next year. This means the resources to address these problems will not exist and neither will there be the resources to end the anomalous situation of people on low incomes paying proportionately more of their income in tax than they paid seven years ago and people on high incomes paying less. You cannot separate welfare and taxation. Our poverty trap is based on high taxes on low incomes and low welfare payments. That is the tragedy of this Social Welfare Act. Nowhere does it reflect the resources which are potentially available because those resources were given away by the Minister for Finance to people who did not need the money.
I want to talk about the idea of data sharing and a public service card. The Minister states that it is the opinion of the Attorney General that the proposals for data sharing are not inconsistent with the European Convention on Data Protection and the Data Protection Act, 1988. It is an eloquent omission from the Minister's script that the opinion of the Data Protection Commissioner on this topic is not mentioned. The Attorney General is not the statutory officer in this State in terms of data protection. The Data Protection Commissioner is the person who was appointed to look after issues of data protection in accordance with the legislation which passed through the Oireachtas. Maybe he is happy with what is being done, but I find it extraordinary that, if he is, the Minister has not said so. This is not scaremongering, as Senator Leonard said. This is the statutory official appointed by the State to look after data protection. His blunt views on data sharing are on record. He sees data sharing as the necessary consequence of the public service card followed by the recording of electronic recording of data on that card.
He quoted an eminent British judge who said that if the information obtained by the police, the  Inland Revenue, the social security offices of the Health Service and other agencies were to be gathered together in one file, the freedom of the individual would be gravely at risk. According to this judge the dossier of private information is the badge of the totalitarian state. That was a little over the top, but it is a long established principle that information should only be used in the place where it is supplied. The fascinating thing about this proposal is that essentially it applies only to the poor. Nobody is saying this public service number should be applied to bank accounts, making the ownership of large accounts very easy. Nobody is saying it should be enshrined in the Companies Office to identify the beneficial owner of every company registered there. Nobody is suggesting it should be applied to the Land Registry. If the logic of the Minster's position were to be carried through all those things should follow. If it was simply to facilitate administrative efficiency, there would be no reason not to have such information available in all those places. We are really saying this sort of efficiency is a great idea when we are dealing with the poor and the supplicant.
Only in some cases do we deal with the supplicant. The Minister specifically mentions the administration of the higher education grants scheme, but there are other grants for which people's means must be assessed, particularly in the area of agriculture, but the clout of the farming organisations means that their grants will not be assessed on this central means database the Minister is proposing to set up. They would kick up such murder that the security of the Government would be threatened. They will be left off the database.
I notice FÁS is mentioned, not specifically in terms of data sharing but in relation to the use of the card. The Minister mentions that any information on the card must be available to the carrier. He adds that that right will be further strengthened by the coming into being of the Freedom of Information Act. FÁS is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. It is designated as a public body under the Act; it is not one of the bodies currently designated and is exempted. I would like FÁS to be covered by the Act as many of us would like to know what it is doing. FÁS would have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the ambit of the Act.
There is one annoying anomaly in the social welfare code which is not of special interest though it happened to a late relative of mine. If an old person on a non-contributory old age pension is compensated for a road accident that capital sum is regarded as assessable as part of the means test for their pension. I have no idea of the logic behind this measure. This money is compensation for damage and should not be regarded as assessable as means under the social welfare code. This is a small matter which would not cost a lot of money to rectify but it should not exist. Compensation for damages brings people back to  a level plateau. It is wrong to then take part of their income away as a result.
Mr. Lydon Mr. Lydon
Mr. Lydon: I was impressed by Senator Ryan's speech which raised some interesting questions and concerns. I welcome this Bill in which the Government has given a commitment to increase social welfare spending. However, this raises philosophical questions. I wonder how we are going to balance these concerns. Senator Ryan stated that we are developing a culture in which people who earn a lot of money presume that they have an inalienable right not to have to share that wealth beyond paying taxes. However, a large number of people still need social welfare and the only source of this funding are those who create wealth. It is only by taxing the rich that we can provide for the poor. At the same time we should be encouraging people to be self sufficient and the Bill goes some way towards meeting this objective. The cost of social welfare is very high. Successive Ministers for Social Welfare have stated how pleased they were to increase spending in this area. This is good in that it helps the needy; however, we seem to be developing a hand-out society.
The Government's action programme identifies four main areas: securing the future of older people; improving the real value of social welfare payments; developing family and community supports; and investing in employability. No one could disagree with these objectives. It is very important to secure the future for older people. I attended a meeting in the ESRI, from which the press was excluded, at which a speaker intimated that in the near future Governments may no longer be able to pay pensions. It was suggested that the Belgian Government might be the first to face this problem. We have an increasing elderly and young population but very few wealth producers — about 420,000. As people live longer with better medical care, there will be a huge pensions bill. It is incumbent on the State to support the elderly. I am glad that the Government intends to increase the old age pension to £100 per week. However, this is not enough. When one reaches 65 years of age things are not as easy as they were when one was 20, 30, 40 or 50. It is harder to get around or to get people to deliver items to one's home. One needs more medical services. The commitment on pensions is welcome but it should go much further. The elderly have worked all of their lives for the good of the country, some in the home, and they should be guaranteed at least £100 per week. I know many old people who live alone. There are 14,000 people living alone in Dublin and I do not know how they would manage if it were not for societies such as the St. Vincent de Paul and the Legion of Mary.
The Minister has stated that the Department has a new name which stresses the importance of the family. This is a welcome and important departure. The Minister also spoke about the role  of fathers, which is often forgotten. More and more mothers are now bread winners and the role of the father needs to be assisted. I welcome the extra money being allocated to the Family Mediation Service, which is needed more and more. I also welcome the additional £600,000 for marriage counselling services, which brings the total to £1.5 million. However, I would like to see this expanded to £100 million. There is not enough preparation for marriage. Everyone should be obliged to attend a pre-marriage course. One is not allowed to drive a car or own a gun without a licence. Any job or profession requires training. The provision of psychologists or counsellors could help prepare people for marriage. Marriage is sometimes a long and difficult road, but much pain could be pre-empted by the proper provision of courses. However, we have made a modest start which I would wish to see increased significantly. Ministers are subject to the demands of Cabinet and only have certain amount of money available to them. The Minister is doing the best he can with the resources available.
The Celtic tiger should be able to help disadvantaged groups. The Minister is placing a welcome emphasis on grants supporting families and parenting. In my work I continually see people with no parenting skills and more and more courses are being run for parents. People should attend these courses before they become parents.
I look forward to the White Paper on the voluntary sector later in the year. The Minister stated that the community trust concept was not replacing Government funding. The word he was looking for was “complementing”. I hope this is the case. If it works well, and I hope it does, there are great possibilities for generating extra revenue from the private sector.
I will raise the issue of carers on Committee Stage. Senator Leonard mentioned them and said she would like to see more help being provided for them. She also described circumstances in which people act as carers but are not classified as such. Nothing could compensate those who care for somebody with a disease, particularly Alzheimer's — the 36 hour illness — for the work they do.
I was very interested in what Senator Ryan said about the personal public service number. I am not too worried by it. Everybody should be assigned one number from birth to cover everything from library cards to membership of clubs, swimming pools, etc. People who have nothing to hide should not be too worried by it. What difference will it make to those who have no money hidden away or who are not breaking the law? From experience I know there is no such thing as total confidentiality and that any good hacker can access information. The Minister said that the Bill included specific penalties for any unauthorised use of the proposed personal number. He also spoke about protection of confidentiality, but a good hacker can access any system, something which will neither worry nor bother most people. 
Senator Ryan quoted an English judge in the context of why we might be frightened by the provision for such a number. We must always seek a balance in society and ensure we do not go too far to the right or left. I was one of the few people who, together with some Independent Senators, raised concerns about the Europol Bill which was recently passed by the House. That legislation gives rights to the new police force which would frighten the life out of those who read them carefully. The credit rating of those seeking a loan is immediately established, while files are immediately opened on those who get into trouble with the police. If a person has nothing to hide, the personal public service number should not worry them. However, I look forward to seeing how the concept develops.
The Minister said that “corrections to existing information will also be shared” by Departments. This is a simple provision which, I have no doubt, will happen, though I wonder how. There are many Departments and I wonder if, for example, an update to information pertaining to a medical card will immediately be sent to all other Departments.
The Minister said that “the holder of a public service card may, at anytime, request a copy of the information encoded on their card and this information may be read only by specially programmed computer systems”. I have much experience of computer systems and I do not believe information can be encoded so as to make it entirely confidential.
In general I welcome the provisions of the Bill. The Minister has done a reasonably good job. He has emphasised four areas which are very important. I am particularly impressed by his emphasis on helping the elderly and on raising their standard of living.
Senator Ryan said that up to 25 per cent of children live at a poverty level. If true, this is a frightening statistic which must be addressed. I am unaware of these figures, but I know from experience that Senator Ryan is up to date in what he says and I have no doubt but that what he said is true. This and other matters raise a number of philosophical issues regarding the best means of taxing the rich and distributing it among the poor. We must also ask how much tax the rich will bear: if we tax them too much they will leave for a place where they can pay less. This has happened with a number of our richer people who are now domiciled abroad and who are even taxed on money they bring into the country, something I do not understand although I am sure there is a reason for it.
I welcome the Bill. Despite all my reservations I believe the Minister has done a very good job, something I hope he will continue to do in the programme he has set himself for the next four or five years.
Mr. Cosgrave Mr. Cosgrave
Mr. Cosgrave: The Social Welfare Bill brings us back to earth by highlighting the fact that there are still many people who depend largely on State  support for their existence. We should not forget this when discussing progress made in other areas. People support the increases and we would like to see bigger ones. None of us would be deluding ourselves by self congratulation in supporting these increases. Our target, particularly in relation to employment, is to reduce the numbers in receipt of social welfare by helping people return to real jobs. This will allow us increase payments to others, particularly the elderly, who have given their best years to rearing families, etc., and who should receive sufficient support in their old age.
In the context of securing the future of our older people, I am concerned that many elderly who were prudent and accumulated some savings, received support from relatives or inherited money have been contacted by social welfare officers who visit them and make inquiries into means. This might be a natural occurrence for those who are used to dealing with public bodies. However, a person who gets a letter saying an official will visit them to make inquiries may feel they have done something wrong. Perhaps the person has built up money, but a pension should not be reduced because people accumulate money through, for example, compensation following an accident. I ask the Minister to ensure a sympathetic view is taken, as a person in their seventies or eighties can be concerned and frightened by the prospect of an official visiting them. The inquiry may be normal and natural. The elderly person may have funeral money in a post office or building society account. A sympathetic approach from the Department of Social Welfare would help greatly.
I welcome the measures in the Bill which help carers. Carers of the elderly, who are often women, have tended to be forgotten or taken for granted. We must continue to review the level of the carer's allowance. Often, elderly people can remain in their own home for a longer period if a carer is available, and it is important that the carers' role be recognized.
We must also constantly examine the problem of those whose income is just above the means test level for social welfare benefits. Such people, if they are offered work, may find that taking the offer of employment would cause them to lose benefit. It should be our constant aim to encourage people to get back to work and a realistic approach should be taken. Employment, even when it is not very remumerative, can lead to greater dignity and perhaps better paid work. A sympathetic approach should be taken so that social welfare recipients are not discouraged from taking up employment.
Opposition Senators support many measures in this Bill. We would like to see some measures go further. I hope, as each year passes, that more and more people will come off the list of social welfare recipients. I support the Bill in principle and I hope that some of the suggestions I have made will be accepted by the Minister.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
 Mr. Connor: I welcome the Bill. Social welfare spending is now £4.8 billion per year. It is important that one of the largest areas of public expenditure which affects the lives of so many people is adequately debated in both Houses.
Members on both sides of the House will welcome the Bill while seeking improvements in many of its provisions. I welcome the Minister's announcement of the increase in old age pensions, which is more than 6 per cent higher than the rate of inflation, and of his plan that by the year 2000 every pensioner will receive £100 per week. I would like to see the qualifying age for the old age pension brought down to 65 years. It has rested at 66 years since about 1974.
The means test for the contributory old age pension allows for disregarded income of, I think, £7 per week. This figure should be reviewed. The figure was set in the 1970s and has not been increased at all since then.
People who receive sickness or disability benefits must present themselves from time to time for assessment as to their fitness to work or unfitness to draw their entitlement. Approximately 70 per cent of cases who present to medical referees appointed by the Department of Social Welfare are found to be fit for work. I remember a man in receipt of disability benefit who was declared fit for work and who died a week later of a heart attack. Perhaps the shock of this declaration of fitness hastened his demise. Medical referees often declare a person fit for work when they are quite clearly not fit. Most of these people then go before an appeals officer and in the majority of cases benefit is re-instated. The Minister must look again at the work of medical referees, their criteria and standards. Do they take note of the fact that most of their decisions are overruled by appeals officers? I have mentioned this question many times but I see no evidence of an improvement in the situation.
I live in a part of the country where small farming is a prevalent economic pursuit and where, despite EU income support, many small farmers must rely on the support of social welfare benefits. The means test criteria for such people is full of faults. Many years ago the Department used a notional system of means testing. This was replaced by an actual/factual method of assessing means by which the income and outgoings of a person are recorded and one is subtracted from the other to calculate the person's net income. One then got the person's disposable income.
However, if a small farmer determines his income for income tax purposes, he is allowed to claim for many more items and expenses than if he is claiming for social welfare assistance. He can claim capital allowances for the rundown of fixed assets like offices, roads or fences on his farm that would surely put him well outside the scope of the tax threshold. Members will be aware that these items cannot be claimed in relation to social welfare. When the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs decides the farmer's income is a little low, however, it  returns to the old notional system, saying “The farmer's sales only amounted to x in this year”, as sales of animals or produce comprise the major part of the gross income. The Department then determines that the farmer's yearly average sales amount to a certain figure. Accordingly, there is a dual system in which the factual/actual method is used when it suits the Department. When that does not suit the Department the notional element is reintroduced, which is not fair. The rules must be re-examined.
I wish to discuss those who qualify for retirement pensions, or social welfare contributory pensions for those who work until the age of 65 or 66. They then become eligible for contributory old age pensions. However, they may be asked to continue working or may be unaware of their entitlements, and they may not have claimed their pensions at the qualifying age as a result. This matter was the subject of a lengthy Ombudsman's report to the previous Minister for Social Welfare. If a person found out that he or she had been eligible for a pension four or five years previously which he or she had not drawn down, the Department rules held that one received one's pension from the date one lodged one's claim with the Department. The Department offered a backdated payment of six months, or occasionally 12 months, in such cases. Those rules had no proper legal standing, according to the Ombudsman, who investigated three specific cases of people who had made late claims. In each case the Ombudsman recommended that a full backdated payment be made in each case and recommended compensation for loss of pay in one case.
This matter and the Ombudsman's report should have been dealt with comprehensively in the Bill. The spirit of the Ombudsman's recommendation was that where good reason could be shown for a person not claiming his or her pension in time, all their back money should be paid to them. Certain conditions would have to be fulfilled, but the general principle was that the entitlement should be recognised. That entitlement is based on people contributing to their pension fund during their working lives. If I go into the private sector, buy a pension and make contributions to it, I am entitled to draw that down from the company concerned, which has invested the money for me. The same principle should apply when the State takes contributions, though it does not invest the money. The State has a legal obligation to pay those pensions, a point echoed by the Ombudsman's report.
The best that can be offered now, according to Department regulations issued last January as a result of some changes in the 1997 Bill, is one year's back pay and some pro rata payments for the remaining years with the exception of the first year. If one became 65 five years ago and did not claim one's pension, one would receive one year's back pay, pro rata payments for three more years and nothing for the first year. That is wrong and this regulation should be changed. I recognise that there is a high cost involved, but if these  people had claimed their pensions on the date they were entitled to them, the money would have had to be found in any case.
There is a legal and moral right involved here, and the Government must respond to this more adequately than it has done in this Bill. People have contributed all through their working lives. They should be asked why they did not claim their pensions, and one finds usually that the reason is a lack of information or fear. Many people do not have the concept of being entitled to a pension; they look on the pension as a gift from the State and that if they have infringed a rule they are not entitled to their pension. The State must accept that these are full entitlements and should be backdated to the date of qualifying age.
I accept that it will be costly, but we should remember what happened because of inadequate social welfare payments to women in the mid-1980s. The State was found guilty in the European Court of Justice and had to find the £300 million to make those payments. I hope officials note my comments.
Mr. Lydon Mr. Lydon
Mr. Lydon: Would it be possible, with the permission of the House, to allow Senator Connor to finish and the Minister to conclude, rather than bringing him back at 2 o'clock?
Acting Chairman (Mr. Costello) Acting Chairman (Mr. Costello)
Acting Chairman (Mr. Costello): We must follow the agreed procedure of the House.
Mr. Lydon Mr. Lydon
Mr. Lydon: How long did the previous speaker have? Was he sharing his time?
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: No.
Sitting suspended at 1 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: Before the sitting was suspended I was referring to people who had made contributions but, for one reason or another, did not claim their pension by the qualifying date. The Ombudsman made a report on this matter to the Minister's predecessor. I am sorry to see, however, that the recommendations of the Ombudsman have not been acted upon comprehensively, although there has been some movement towards meeting the problem outlined. The provision whereby someone has no claim unless they claimed before January 1997 should be removed. As far as possible, a person who, for good reasons, did not claim their pension on the qualifying date but made all the contributions entitling them to claim their pension, should receive their entitlements.
The carer's allowance has been improved and the scheme is an excellent one but the regulation obligating the carer to live with the person they are looking after should be changed. There are many reasons a carer cannot reside with the person for whom they are caring. An elderly person living alone does not qualify for a carer because  of that regulation. The matter should be re-examined closely.
The usual outcome is that the person who requires care is removed to a welfare home or hospital which costs the State far more than a carer's allowance. That is happening in thousands of cases throughout the country. The Department may say there is a heavy financial implication in this but the broader financial implication of people who cannot qualify because they do not have suitable accommodation for a carer to reside with them, should also be examined.
There may be other practical reasons a carer cannot live with the person for whom they are caring. For example, a member of a family may live only a few doors from a parent they are looking after and in such a case it is not practical to reside with them.
The regulation is an anomaly in an otherwise good scheme. While it may be impossible to change it this year, I would ask the Minister to take due notice of the point I am making so that, hopefully, we will see such a change in next year's Social Welfare Bill. It would address a problem for many hundreds, and probably thousands, of people around the country.
Ms O'Meara Ms O'Meara
Ms O'Meara: As the Minister said earlier, this is the first Bill he has introduced to the Seanad. However, I found his speech disappointing. It reflected a similar disappointment across a broad range of opinion with regard to how the Government is tackling social exclusion and coping with marginalised groups in our society. Reading the Minister's speech it is hard to find any great realisation of the extent of poverty in our society. We hear a lot about the Celtic tiger, how our economy is doing so well that we will become a net contributor to the EU budget and that we are among the best performing economies in Europe, if not on a global scale. However, we have failed to deal adequately with the underlying causes of poverty. While a start was made by the previous Government, there has been widespread disappointment and dismay about how the current Government is squandering an opportunity presented by our current economic growth to make structural changes, invest and make resources available to tackle long-term unemployment and poverty.
This Government and its recent predecessors have been able to change thinking about how our social welfare system operates. The system is no longer seen as one for making direct payments to people on a short-term basis. The social welfare system has become a complicated, highly involved and totally bureaucratic structure with a series of schemes and allowances. This has largely grown out of a desire to ensure that direct payments by the State to individuals and families are made in a targeted fashion. The view has grown that by using the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs one can play an interventionist role. One can construct a situation whereby the resources being spent by the Department  are generating change on the ground. Rather than putting money in people's hands to help them cope with poverty, one can generate a system of income distribution as well as investing in the community and the family.
In that context, one must welcome the growth in funding for community and women's groups. There is a growing realisation that making direct payments to people is not the solution to poverty. The attitude displayed in the Bill shows that the Government only believes in a certain amount of intervention or simply continuing what the previous Government had begun while not adding more structural changes. That is a pity because underlying structural changes are needed to cope with a changing society rather than just tinkering at the edges by adding more allowances and correcting some anomalies. One should have, instead, an overall set of principles and a philosophy for dealing with a two tier society.
It is possible to live in Dublin and never encounter a poor person. It is possible to send children to middle class, middle income schools and move in circles which do not include poor people. However, other parts of Dublin are totally blighted by long-term unemployment rates which are so high that some families' experience of work is a distant memory. Their dependence on the State is total and as a result a dependency culture has grown up. It is the responsibility of Government to closely examine whether the social welfare system is adding to a dependency culture and, to some extent, even contributing to the growth of a two tier society.
The Government must have a more imaginative, active and interventionist role beyond the good work it is already doing. The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Woods, was particularly innovative in putting together new schemes, including support for community structures and women's groups. Anyone who has seen that work on the ground knows its value, but it is only a start and it does not go far enough.
Ireland's expenditure on social welfare is the lowest in the European Union, apart from Portugal. We have a significant child poverty problem. Since 1996 the percentage of Government expenditure on social welfare has decreased from 36 to 34.5 per cent. Of course some people would claim to be proud of that; in fact, the number of social welfare recipients has increased in the same period.
The increase of 5p per day in child benefit in the budget is insulting given the resources which are available currently. The child dependent allowance of £13.20 per week has not been increased for the third year running, which shows again the low value placed on children.
Three-quarters of social welfare expenditure does not go on unemployment. The 1996 statistics, for instance, provide a sectoral breakdown which shows that old age pensions take almost 23 per cent, family income support over 33 per cent, illness almost 13 per cent, unemployment just  over 25 per cent, administration 4.5 per cent and other matters 1.6 per cent. Therefore, as we are already aware, most of the new wealth which is being generated at present in the current economic boom is going to those who are already better off, so the gap between poor and well off is widening rather than the opposite. We are simply not using the opportunity created by our economic wealth at present to ensure that social justice and equity underlie the principles of our economic policy and particularly social welfare spending.
The poverty gap, as has been pointed out by groups such as the Conference of Religious in Ireland and the Combat Poverty Agency, is widening dramatically. There is a widespread concern and dismay at how current Government policy will generate more inequity rather than deal with it. As a society which has prided itself on social justice in the past, an increasing number of people are dismayed, shocked and anxious about that particular trend.
It is hard to take it in but some facts need to be restated in the current glow of economic boom rather than have us fooling ourselves into thinking that we are on the road to solving all our problems. The fact is that there are more people with incomes below the poverty line today than there were a decade ago. While the depth of some people's poverty has been reduced in recent years — some people would say there is no such thing as a poor person anymore but, obviously, I would not accept that — it has been done largely at the expense of the less poor rather than the well off.
While long-term unemployment, which has been one of the most intractable problems the country has faced and which is obviously linked directly with poverty, is being addressed to some extent, the number of long-term unemployed fell by only 17,000 in the past year. The reason being that it is obviously much more difficult for somebody who has been out of work for a number of years to get back into work rather than for a young person or a recent graduate. There are actually 3,000 more people unemployed now than there were in 1990 and there are obviously many more people on schemes such as the community employment scheme. This is not to say that the Government is not doing much good work through innovative schemes, but the fact of the matter is that a Social Welfare Bill such as this is a grim indicator of Government policy, particularly taken side by side with the Finance Bill which the House is also debating this week.
One of the elements of this Social Welfare Bill which stands out from the crowd is the proposal to bring forward an identify card for social welfare recipients to which we, in the Labour Party, are totally opposed. We consider it is unfair and unjust to single out welfare claimants in this particular legislation as the group to be liable to the most rigorous scrutiny for fraud. Obviously, any level of fraud is unacceptable, but the notion that only social welfare recipients are guilty of fraud is an unjust, unfair and totally inaccurate one to  put around. The introduction of identity cards to stamp out fraud among social welfare claimants stands in stark contrast with the Government's decision not to actively pursue information on the millions of pounds invested in the Ansbacher accounts to avoid tax. The public can draw its own conclusions from that.
The Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, was critical of a proposal made by a predecessor of the Minister, the then Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy McCreevy, when he proposed the introduction of identity cards but she has obviously changed her mind since. If it is necessary to introduce identity cards, I would have thought in the context of any sense of fairness that they should be introduced across the board. Indeed, there would be some merit in considering that proposal when one takes into account that there are calls from some groups, for instance, to introduce identity cards to stamp out underage drinking.
One of the most worrying aspects of the introduction of identity cars has been the concerns expressed by the Data Protection Commissioner, the opinion of whom by any objective analysis must be taken on board and respected. Of all people, he would be the best versed in the implications for any individual of an introduction of identity cards. He has recommended that a White Paper on the sharing of information be published. I would have thought that would be the way to proceed in the first instance — in other words, discuss the issue and tease it out before proceeding with it. However, the Minister has obviously chosen to ignore the advice of the Data Protection Commissioner. It is a point which deserves much greater debate in this House and I was sorry to see that the Minister did not take on board the views expressed in the Dáil on this matter. We are still left with the same issue.
It will require massive investment in computer facilities across a range of Departments. While computer modernisation is always essential and ongoing, we are told that certain elements of the Social Welfare Act, 1997, cannot be implemented because there are inadequate computer facilities to do so. If there are computer facilities available to introduce this card, why must the introduction of the sickness allowance, for instance, which was provided for by the last Government and which everybody in this and the other House supports, be put on hold because of inadequate computer facilities?
Other speakers have referred to the carer's allowance. When the budget was announced a number of months ago the dismay of those groups representing carers in society was probably the deepest because their expectation of the provision of greater resources to the area had been certainly raised, particularly before the election, by the Minister's party. If such a measure had been introduced it would have received all-party support. We know that this group, which is hidden, vulnerable in many ways and unable to make itself heard as loudly as other groups, in many cases because of the great responsibility which it  bears, has not shared in the benefits of economic prosperity. It deserves to do so, but it has not been catered for in this legislation, which is extremely disappointing. The Minister has simply failed to move sufficiently in this regard.
The area of carers, as it has developed over the past number of years in particular, is one of great concern to me and many public representatives because we see how people are doing their utmost on a day to day basis to care for elderly relations in particular. It is not just that. They themselves are confined to home and they must bear their burden sometimes on a 24 hour basis. The Labour Party had attempted in the Dáil to provide some respite so that a carer would not necessarily have to live in the same residence as the person for whom he or she was caring, and to allow the carer's allowance to be transferable so that the carer would be given some respite by way of a holiday or break during the summer.
The carer's allowance needs to be reviewed. Together with the need for the allowance to be transferable, there is a need for amendment to allow somebody living nearby — possibly on the same farm or down the road — to claim the carer's allowance rather than oblige the person to live in the same house. In farming, for instance, it is quite common now for the son — as it is the son who usually inherits the farm — to build his house near his parents' house. When the parents get old, sometimes it is his wife or a sister or a close relative who lives nearby who is left with the major burden of care. Unless they are all living in the same house, they cannot qualify for the carer's allowance.
It is time consideration was given to how carers are treated by society because this is a measure of how, in terms of economic prosperity, we deal with our most vulnerable citizens and those who are carrying the burden. When one considers changes in family structures, it is apparent that we have relied mainly on women in the home to take on the burden of caring for elderly relatives or neighbours. That is changing because many women are going out to work. There is also a recognition that it is not fair to expect someone to take on the caring burden alone.
There is a growing expectation that the State, the wider community and society should pick up the tab for the care of elderly people. Everyone is aware there is an increasing number of elderly people in Irish society. I do not believe that those who are saving the State large amounts of money at present by taking on their family responsibility will be available in the future, particularly because of economic modernisation and changes to lifestyles, work practices and family structures. This issue will assume grave importance in the near future and I urge the Minister, in the context of an aging population, to consider the wider area of caring.
Our aspiration is that people should be cared for within the community to the largest extent possible and at minimum cost to the State. We must discover ways to ensure that carers are financially  rewarded. However, we must also ensure that greater incentives are given to those who care for relatives in their homes or in the community rather than their being obliged to place these people in nursing homes or in long-stay hospital care, which is more expensive for the State.
The Minister and the Government have applauded themselves for increasing welfare payments. However, they were obliged to do so under Partnership 2000. Perhaps we have become used to it but there is a level of flexibility in budget allocations at present. How that money is spent is a mark of any Government or Minister. We are now seeing how that money is spent. There is a growing gap between the rich and the poor and there has been no great attempt to deal with the underlying structural problem of unemployment. We are basically advocating a “more of the same” policy which is a lost opportunity and a great pity. In the future it will probably come back to haunt us.
Dr. Fitzpatrick Dr. Fitzpatrick
Dr. Fitzpatrick: I welcome the Minister and I thank him for the work he has done since taking office less than a year ago. I welcome the increase of £5 granted to people on old age pensions. Even more welcome is the aim to increase the minimum old age pension to £100 at the end of the current five year cycle.
I am a member of Dublin Corporation and I represent an inner city area and I am struck by the extent to which the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has assumed responsibility for housing people in my local authority area. Through its rent allowance scheme, the Department is probably a greater provider of housing than Dublin Corporation. I would like the scheme to be more closely integrated with local authorities because, if it is not carefully monitored, there is a danger that the character of entire areas will be changed.
We have reached the stage where, due to advances in the areas of medicine, health and housing, elderly people are obliged to care for each other. For example, senior citizens are caring for their aged parents. It is not unusual for 60 year olds caring for parents in their late 80s or early 90s. Perhaps the Minister will consider putting in place support structures for these people in his next budget.
I welcome the ongoing study on the family. One does not have to be a doctor or a politician to realise the changing pressures being exerted on families. I look forward to the study the Minister has committed to bring before the House.
The Minister is, in the last resort, responsible for tackling poverty. Many people seem to believe that this problem can be eliminated by throwing money at it. Lack of money causes poverty but there is a more fundamental problem which has not been considered, namely, how is it that certain families with reasonable incomes — mainly from social welfare payments — remain  dependent on the St. Vincent de Paul and other non-governmental agencies? Consideration must be given to the social and psychological aspects of poverty.
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern) Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern)
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I thank the Members who contributed to the debate. I apologise for leaving the House earlier but I had to attend an important meeting. However, my officials took copious notes of what was said.
I was taken by Senator O'Meara's criticism of the Government and the way it has addressed this issue since coming into office. While she was speaking I was reminded of an article I read in one of the national newspapers about the previous Administration — of which her party was a member and in which her esteemed leader, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, was Minister for Finance — in which a leading union member berated the performance of the Labour Party in Government.
Ms O'Meara Ms O'Meara
Ms O'Meara: With Fianna Fáil.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: The individual in question remarked on the attitude of the Labour Party toward the people it purported to represent. He stated that the Labour Party's action was well in excess of what the so-called conservative parties would have done in that respect. Criticism from the Labour Party, which only left office a few months ago, is rich given that it had an opportunity to take more positive action.
I remind Senator O'Meara of the previous Government's record in power. I am aware the Senator was not a Member of the House in 1995 but if she had, she would realise that my predecessor, Deputy De Rossa, was rightly berated for a paltry increase——
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: He had to redress the dirty dozen cuts.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: The Minister without interruption.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: ——in respect of old age pensions. My party's Front Bench heard rumours regarding the contents of the 1995 budget before it was announced. In those days everyone knew what would be in the budget. The information leaked because there were so many programme managers and spin doctors involved. That is not the case in respect of this year's budget. On the morning before the 1995 budget was announced, I recall a conversation between members of my party's Front Bench when one individual stated he could not believe what the then Government was about to do. We were advised to remain silent——
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: The Minister is now leaking information.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
 Mr. D. Ahern: ——in the meantime in case there was a change of mind before the afternoon.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: The news was so good.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: We could not believe that a Government comprising the Labour Party and Democratic Left would increase social welfare payments by 2.5 per cent when the rate of inflation for the year was 2.5 per cent. The then Minister, Deputy De Rossa, and the Government parties were lambasted for such a paltry increase.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: They also paid equality arrears.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: It did not improve in the intervening years. In 1995 the budget package was £90 million, in 1996 it was £80 million and in 1997, an election year, the package was £113.8 million, whereas in the December 1997 budget the package was £125 million, an £11 million or 9 per cent increase. Senator O'Meara referred to spending on social welfare. If one examines the figures for the budget increase against the CPI for recent years the best year by far will be 1998.
The Government made a policy decision on entering office to assist those people over 66 years of age receiving social welfare payments. The tax provisions of the budget assisted them, which some people tend to forget. Naturally enough, they hone in on the unpalatable elements. The real increase in the old age pension in 1995 was nil — inflation was at 2.5 per cent and the increase given was 2.5 per cent; in 1996 the real increase was 1.3 per cent and in 1997 it was 2.6 per cent. However, in 1998 the real increase will be 4.3 per cent, an all time high.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: How can the Minister say that when the year is not over yet?
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: The Minister without interruption.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: The Minister should not give misleading information. The year is not yet over.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: In the budget we gave a £5 increase to about 300,000 people and £3 per week to about 566,000. The best budget of the previous Government gave £3 per week across the board. It is no harm to make that point because, although I can accept criticism of elements of the budget, Senators will be aware that one cannot always do everything one wishes. In the budget package for which I argued and which I secured I was glad to be able to acknowledge the contribution made by the elderly to society.
With regard to child benefit, Deputies Quinn and Noonan objected to what they considered paltry increases. It is worth noting that the total increase this year will be £38.27 million whereas last year, an election year, the most the then Government could muster was £32.89 million — almost £5 million less. Those who say that the increase given this year is an insult must have  been very vociferous when the previous Government proposed its 1997 budget.
Senator O'Meara referred to the fact that child dependant allowance has been frozen for the last three years. That is the case. On foot of many reports the previous Government decided correctly that child benefit is one of the most effective means of tackling child poverty and I have decided to continue that approach. The child dependant allowance may be a disincentive to taking up work but child benefit, which is universal and goes mainly to the mother, is the correct way to channel money to where it is needed in the home.
The family income supplement may also be used to assist low paid workers. In accordance with a commitment in Partnership 2000 which was not fulfilled by the previous Government, although the agreement was only a year in operation at the time, we are reforming the family income supplement so that it will be calculated on a net income rather than a gross income basis. This will put extra money into people's pockets.
Senators will be aware that the report of the Commission on the Family will be out soon. There are interesting findings in it with regard to childcare. As I said in the Dáil yesterday, this is an issue which all parties need to address. We need to adopt a focused approach. Childcare concerns men and women. I listened to a radio programme yesterday on which five women discussed childcare and it was interesting to hear the different viewpoints expressed. It highlighted the need for interdepartmental work and the involvement of the social partners and the private sector. The report of the Commission on the Family will be available shortly and it will feed into the expert working group established under Partnership 2000 operating under the auspices of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I look forward to the publication of the report.
The Programme for Government considered this matter and decided that a number of taxation issues were important. One was granting a tax allowance to a stay at home spouse and to a married couple, both of whom were working and needed the benefit of crèche or childcare facilities. Those commitments are being considered by the working group looking at this area. In the interviews he gave subsequent to the budget, the Minister for Finance indicated his hope that he would be able to progress this issue in the next budget.
A number of Members raised the issue of benefit and privilege and the social welfare incentive which gets people to leave home to qualify. A number of reports have been put together on this matter, including “Pathways to Adulthood in Ireland” published by the ESRI in 1993 which, while not directly addressing the issue as to whether children leave home to gain from the social welfare system, looked at the rate over time at which young people moved out of the family home. It found that leaving the family  home was a very complex process with different facets, including the pattern of full-time education participation and nature of employment sought. Most interestingly in this context, the research found that unemployed people were the slowest group to move out of the family home.
More recently, the review group on the role of supplementary allowance in relation to housing in its 1995 report considered the issue of how benefit and privilege provision, as it is called, might be contributing to young people leaving the family home to claim rent supplement. While the group found it was a possible effect of benefit and privilege and was one of a possible range of factors which could have contributed to the growth of the rent or mortgage supplement since 1989, it was not able to establish the relative importance of any individual factor. I accept there is anecdotal evidence, which we all hear. The issue of benefit and privilege has been looked at over the years, but no moves have been made to change it because we are not convinced by the case made.
No public representative or political party has the monopoly on the issue of or assistance to carers. I remind Senators on the other side of the House that a Fianna Fáil Minister and Government introduced the carer's allowance. Deputy Woods, one of my predecessors, brought in the carer's allowance because he believed it was an area in which State assistance was needed for people caring for elderly or incapacitated persons at home. It was a welcome move on his part, but he acknowledged at the time and has since done so that to a certain extent we are only scratching the surface in terms of the health and well-being of those who are not able to help themselves. It is for that reason the outgoing Coalition Government decided to set up an interdepartmental review group comprising my Department and the Department of Health and Children to look at the future role of the carer's allowance in the context of care for the aged, infirm and incapacitated in their homes.
It is not, however, an issue for my Department only. I do not want to give a hostage to fortune and I am not saying I or my Department are trying to get rid of the issue of the carer's allowance; but now that it is nearly ten years in existence, there was a correct view in the Department last year that we should stand back somewhat and look at this issue from here on in and that we should bring into play other interests and Departments, particularly the Department of Health and Children.
The review of the carer's allowance is ongoing. For that reason I addressed a number of small issues in the budget. The Carer's Association very much welcomed the granting of a free travel pass in their own right to those in receipt of the carer's allowance. Approximately over 10,000 people are getting a free travel pass as a result. There has been a real increase in the payment, which was one of the commitments in our Programme for  Government which we put together with the Progressive Democrats. We said we would progressively relax the qualifying criteria for the carer's allowance to ensure more carer's may benefit from the scheme and that we would increase in real terms the allowance, which we did.
I met the Carer's Association subsequent to the budget and offered them the possibility of inputting into the review being carried out by my Department and the Department of Health and Children so that they, as representatives of carer's in our society, would have a direct input into the review. That was something for which they did not ask and which was not offered to them when the interdepartmental group was put together over a year ago. I undertook to meet with the Carer's Association on a more regular basis and I have set that in train. I hope to meet them sometime next month for a second time and a number of times between now and the end of the year.
I said in my budget speech and repeated it during Report Stage of the Bill in the Dáil last night that this is an area in which more can be done. After the results of the review, I would like to think that I would be able to do more for carer's in future budgets, obviously with a rider in relation to budgetary constraints. This issue crosses a number of Departments and is one which will need to be looked at by those Departments.
On free schemes for widows and widowers, some of the Opposition called for the extension of such schemes to all widows and widowers. This would entail additional expenditure of £25 million which, taken in the context of overall spending of the budget package of £135 million, shows the extent of the cost. Senator Connor raised the issue of the number of cases referred for medical examination and found capable of work. The following figures of disability benefit and invalidity pension cases examined by medical assessors may be of assistance. In 1996, 34,500 people were examined and 6,665 or 19.3 per cent were found capable. In 1997, 37,884 people were examined and 7,158 or 19.9 per cent were found capable. Of those found capable of work by a medical assessor, about 50 per cent appealed the decision to the appeals office. These customers receive a second medical examination by a medical assessor and those still found capable may continue their appeal to the oral hearing. For 20 per cent of those who appeal, decisions are successful at the appeals stage.
Senator Connor also raised the issue of late claims. I would like to correct the statement he made that people who apply late lose payment for a full 12 months. He is correct in that primary legislation provides for 12 months payment. However, any period in excess of 12 months is paid on a proportional basis as a result of changes I made.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: I did not say the first part.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
 Mr. D. Ahern: I accept that. This measure is in keeping with the recommendations of the Ombudsman.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: It is not.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: There is no 12 month gap in payments, if that is what the Senator meant.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: No, there is not.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: I accept that. I also made provision in the recent regulations to provide for back payments in full in certain cases, such as incorrect information issued by my Department, incapacity, financial hardship or force majeure. Despite these provisions, I am anxious that individuals be encouraged to make their applications for social welfare payments in good time.
Some speakers found fault with ISSS. Integration of State agencies has been long called for by both sides of the House. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended progression of these issues in the report on ISSS on which these proposals are based. Senator Ryan was concerned that I mentioned the Attorney General's confirmation that the proposals comply with the terms of the Data Protection Act but did not mention the Data Protection Commissioner's opinion. The Attorney General is the legal adviser to the Government and is the only person qualified to advise on whether the provisions comply with existing data protection obligations. With regard to the Data Protection Commissioner's views, I assure the Senator that there were ongoing consultations with his office during the drafting of the Bill. Many but not all his suggestions are incorporated in the Bill. While he expressed reservations with regard to the scope of application of a person's personal public service number and card, he was happy with the scope of the data sharing arrangements. However, most will agree that the use of the number and card across the wider public service to give easier and faster access to those services is desirable.
A number of Senators mentioned a White Paper on the issue. Social services cards were introduced in 1992 by the now Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General also raised the issue of a public service card as regards means testing. The ISSS report issued by the Committee of Public Accounts, published in August 1996, and the Data Protection Commissioner's annual reports for 1996 and 1997 also mentioned this matter. There is no great of evidence of any significant appetite among the general public for a prolonged debate on the issue. People do not differentiate between public service agencies and have expressed concern that they are requested to provide similar information many times. They expect Government agencies to share information.
I find the attitude of some of the political parties hard to take. When I became Minister the  1996 intergovernmental report which brought forward this specific proposal was on my desk. The then Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, issued a comprehensive statement in September 1996 stating he was launching the report which set out a radical new system for the operation of social services. He went into great detail about the type of proposal which is now included in the Bill and how he was nominated on a decision of the then Government to promote and progress the proposal. He said an early recommendation of the interdepartmental group was about to be implemented now that the report had been published. It recommended that the administration and payment of disabled persons' maintenance allowance should be transferred, and that was done. Deputy Durkan went on to say that a system which served the customer would also serve the taxpayer well and this was very evident from the report. He also said it would be important to achieve a good and fair balance between a clearly understood and accessible system and one which protected the individual's right to privacy. He said he would set up a management group responsible for the implementation of the report's recommendations.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: I hope his wishes were carried out.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: This issue was discussed at great length in the Dáil where the Labour Party indicated it was against it. That is what it said at the start but as the debate progressed, it was pointed out that the Labour Party was part of a Government which had decided to promote and progress the issue. The day before the recent by-elections, Deputy Stagg was present when I was answering questions, although this is not his area of responsibility — and I commiserated with him for that. He said it had been a decision of the parliamentary Labour Party that this proposal should not and would not be progressed with. I said that was very strange and asked him if I had misheard him. He repeated that it was the decision of the parliamentary Labour Party a number of years earlier when it was in Government not to progress with this proposal. However, I was able to quote from a fine interview given by the then Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare, then Deputy Joan Burton, to The Sunday Business Post on Sunday, 7 November 1993:
Joan Burton, Minister for Social Welfare, plans to issue an encoded tax and social welfare card to everyone in the country as part of the Department's drive for efficiencies in the system. Civil liberties groups need have no worries because the information accessible by the card will be covered by the Data Protection Act and its use will be for tax and social welfare purposes only.
I said to Deputy Stagg that perhaps the parliamentary Labour Party made the decision subsequent to that interview; perhaps it was annoyed  with the interview. While that may be true, when
I examined departmental files I found that, in the intervening years between 1993 and 1996, the Government of which the Labour Party was a senior partner decided to promote and progress this proposal. For better or worse, the proposal is now before us. I found it difficult to understand the changing attitude of that party to this——
Mr. Costello Mr. Costello
Mr. Costello: The Minister will find that the Labour Party's position is not to promote or progress that proposal.
Acting Chairman (Mr. Dardis) Acting Chairman (Mr. Dardis)
Acting Chairman (Mr. Dardis): This is not Committee Stage.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: I accept what the Senator said but there is the issue of collective responsibility in Government. Labour Party Ministers sometimes absented themselves from Government meetings as was their wont. Perhaps they were not present at the Government meeting when it was agreed to promote and progress that decision. However, I have stated the case and I find it difficult when people make a major U-turn in Opposition from their position in Government.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
Mr. Connor: The Government has not done a bad job at U-turns; I would call them somersaults.
Mr. D. Ahern Mr. D. Ahern
Mr. D. Ahern: I give credit to my predecessor, Deputy De Rossa, although he made an effort last night on Report Stage in the Dáil to delete all the sections from the Bill which dealt with this issue, despite the fact that he was the previous senior Minister in the Department. However, we did not reach the amendment in time.
I enjoyed listening to the Senators' views and I look forward to meeting with them again on Committee Stage. I accept the statements from both sides of the House that people would like to do more. However, the figures speak for themselves. If you look at any criticism of the budget in the last number of months, people have forgotten the good things and tend to criticise what they perceive as the bad things.
In relation to social welfare, it was the largest increase in the budget for many years. The highlight  of the budget, and I believe we should be given credit for this, was that for once we positively discriminated in favour of those people who, through their work over the years, have helped the younger generation to have a better society today. It was time for the Government to pay its respects to those people who are over 66 years of age. The increases are well ahead of inflation. Some speakers on Report Stage in the Dáil tried to suggest that these were not hedged against any increase in the anticipated rate of inflation for the coming year. The anticipated rate and the budget was based on a 2 per cent inflation rate. The increases in the old age pension range from 6.5 to 7.4 per cent. Even if inflation went above the anticipated rate, it would not approach 6.5 or 7.4 per cent.
In our first budget we decided to assist old age pensioners. We gave the bulk of our budget package in general increases and increases for pensioners. I look forward to working with the Seanad, Dáil and the Committee on Social, Family and Community Affairs over the coming year to bring forward other initiatives. Neither I nor my Department officials have a monopoly on wisdom on initiatives in this area. I look forward to Members from all sides of the House coming forward with suggestions as to where changes for the better could be made, but people have to be realistic. In the Dáil last night there was a long wish list of things we would all love to do, but at the end of the day it boils down to what resources are available.
It is a major concern of this Government that the area of social inclusion be addressed. I do not accept any criticism from the far side of the House in that regard. They do not have a monopoly of wisdom as to how to proceed on this issue. I know the Taoiseach, who set up the first subcommittee on Social Inclusion and Drugs, is committed to a resolution of this area. That committee has met many times since the formation of this Government; indeed, it is meeting tomorrow to progress a number of initiatives we have in this area.
I thank all Senators for their contributions and look forward to a constructive debate on Committee Stage.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 24; Níl, 15.
Tellers: Tá, Senators T. Fitzgerald and Keogh; Níl, Senators Costello and O'Meara.
Question declared carried.
Committee Stage ordered for Friday, 27 March 1998.
Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.
Seanad Éireann 154 Social Welfare Bill, 1998: Second Stage.