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 Header Item Rural Social Scheme Administration (Continued)
 Header Item Social Welfare Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív] We set up the scheme to function in a streamlined and cost efficient way. It is administered by the Leader partnership companies which come within the Minister's remit. Unlike the community employment scheme, therefore, the number of companies operating under the rural social scheme corresponds exactly with the number of Leader partnership companies which I understand is fewer than 40. This ensured the administration was slim-line, as was the insurance.

The benefits of the scheme are clear, but I am concerned by persistent reports in various newspapers that the Department of Social Protection, instead of expanding the scheme to cover every farmer in receipt of a farm assist payment, is instead considering its cessation. It makes no sense that the Department would choose, rather than paying people to make a contribution to the community by providing enhanced services, to pay them for doing nothing. Will the Minister give a clear statement that there is no such intention within the Department, that the scheme will remain as a fundamental part of the infrastructure provided and, furthermore, that it will be expanded to include every person in receipt of a farm assist payment.

Deputy Phil Hogan: Information on Phil Hogan Zoom on Phil Hogan The Deputy clearly does not realise we are in a bailout programme if he imagines that we can give money willy-nilly to everybody in the country under every possible scheme. The rural social scheme provides income support for farmers and fishermen who were in receipt of certain social protection payments. In return, those participating in the scheme are engaged in supporting the provision of a broad range of services of benefit to rural communities. The scheme is delivered and managed at a local level through 35 local development companies and by Údarás na Gaeltachta in Gaeltacht areas. The funding provision enables 2,600 participants to work for 19.5 hours per week, supported and monitored by 130 supervisor positions.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that it is not anticipated that any change in the scheme's operation will be made in 2013. Once again, his concerns are unwarranted. In fact, the Department of Social Protection has provisionally provided €45 million to meet the costs arising next year. As with all areas of expenditure, the Department will seek to deliver the scheme for better value and proposals to this end will be made to the local development companies and Údarás na Gaeltachta in the coming weeks. Participants in the scheme are contracted annually to work their hours in a manner that meets their farming or fishing requirements. Continued participation is limited to those who maintain an entitlement to the underlying social protection payments and meet other criteria in respect of farming or fishing. While it is not intended that each participant will remain on the scheme indefinitely, there is no time limit for participation once the underlying eligibility for social protection payments remains. Eligibility for the scheme is limited to those in receipt of farm or fish assist or a range of other specified social protection payments. All participants must be actively engaged in farming or fishing and spousal swaps are permitted in the case of an eligible person not wishing to participate. Given the nature of the underlying qualifying criteria, participants are required to confirm that they continue to be eligible.

The scheme has been an important catalyst, as the Deputy observed, in the development and underpinning of a range of services in rural areas. In particular, services to older people which are widely available in urban areas could not otherwise be delivered in rural communities. Significant improvements to the rural environment are also being made through the maintenance of the built heritage, improvements to and maintenance of community amenities and support for a range of community activities which build on existing social and community infrastructure. Nearly 3 million hours of work are delivered annually by participants. While the benefits to communities are key outcomes of the scheme, the benefits to participants are wroth noting. Although the financial benefits can be relatively small in individual cases, they are nevertheless important. Equally important are the related benefits of participation for individuals who may, due to changes in social, farming practices and rural demography, be socially isolated.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív I thank the Minister for giving a good summary of the scheme I set up. I compliment him on his accuracy.

Deputy Phil Hogan: Information on Phil Hogan Zoom on Phil Hogan Unlike the Deputy, I am always willing to acknowledge the worth of initiatives introduced by other Governments.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Has a review of the scheme been carried out either by the Department of Social Protection or on its direction or by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform or on its direction? If such a review has been initiated, is it completed? If completed, did it recommend the continuation or cessation of the scheme? Will it be possible to obtain a copy of any report prepared and the recommendations made? Can the Minister give an undertaking that the scheme will continue in operation after 2013?

Deputy Phil Hogan: Information on Phil Hogan Zoom on Phil Hogan The Deputy is moving the goalposts.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív If it were to be discontinued in 2013, that decision would have been announced in the budget and there would be no budgetary provision. I accept that such a provision has been made. In the aftermath of the budget, however, newspapers began reporting that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform had recommended closure of the scheme following a review. That Department has not taken the opportunity to deny the rumours. I ask the Minister to address these very specific questions.

Deputy Phil Hogan: Information on Phil Hogan Zoom on Phil Hogan The Deputy is on his usual hobby horse of scaremongering people into believing a spending programme is to be abolished. I am pleased to confirm, on behalf of the Department of Social Protection, that this scheme will not be abolished.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív It will not be abolished in 2013.

Deputy Phil Hogan: Information on Phil Hogan Zoom on Phil Hogan Every scheme is under review in every budget. The Deputy was in government long enough to know how these matters work. Moreover, he knows why we are where we are in terms of the country's financial position. The Minister for Social Protection deserves great credit for ensuring, notwithstanding the difficult financial position for her Department, the same level of participation will be available to eligible applicants under the scheme in 2013. I hope she will be in a position to retain the provision in 2014, pending an examination of the financial position at the time of next year's budgetary process. Nobody can give a greater commitment than this at this time, no more than the Deputy, as Minister, was in a position to do so in respect of any scheme. He should refrain from seeking to reinvent the rules. This is a good news story. The Deputy should be glad that the scheme he introduced for good reason will be maintained in 2013. I am sure he will welcome the Minister's achievement in this regard.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív The Minister did not indicate whether a review was being or had been conducted.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett That completes the Topical Issue debate for today.

Social Welfare Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)

The following motion was moved by the Minister for Social Protection on Tuesday, 11 December 2012:

That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

Debate resumed on the following amendment:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
"Dáil Éireann declines to give a Second Reading to the Social Welfare Bill 2012 because it unfairly places the burden of recovery on children, carers and the low paid and having regard to the failure of the Government to consider taxing high earners and wealth instead."

-(Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh).

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett I call Deputy Catherine Byrne who is sharing time with Deputies Seán Kyne and Martin Heydon.

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. I commend the Cabinet for its achievement in facing up to the very difficult decisions that had to be made in the budgetary process for 2013. I accept that some of the changes announced are unpopular. However, it is important to remember that these changes are aimed at raising €500 million in additional revenue that will help to keep the country afloat. The bottom line is that we cannot continue to spend more money than we collect in taxes. Since taking office the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has worked very hard to protect those most in need. Having inherited the mess left behind by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government, she has already made a series of changes to reform the social welfare system and ensure greater fairness in its provisions.

I listened to Deputy Micheál Martin on radio this morning as he spoke about a "mean" budget which had failed to look after the most vulnerable. Let me remind him that when he was in office, the cream of the land were entertained in the corridors of government as if they were the high kings of Ireland. That is how the Government of which he was a member chose to spend hard-earned taxpayers' money. It is time for him to apologise to the people for the reckless spending and over-inflation of social welfare payments overseen by that Government. He and his colleagues offered no accountability or rationale for the sizeable increases in benefits they introduced, with no plan for how they were to be paid into the future. They must take some responsibility for the state in which they left the country.

As for Sinn Féin and others, if they had their way, every garda, nurse and teacher would be earning the minimum wage.

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