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Social Welfare Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne] It is deeply hypocritical of Sinn Féin to claim it represents the poor and downtrodden and that its members take only the minimum wage, giving the rest to the cause, as they call it, while some of their colleagues drive top cars around the area and live in mansions. The ordinary decent person on the street knows their past and clearly does not want to be part of that future.

My grandmother was an invalid for 17 years, cared for by my mother and extended family. My mother reared eight children, worked hard all her life and even found time in the evening to work outside the home to support the family. She passed away at the age of 87, surrounded by her sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For the little help we received from the hospice during her last days, we were all very grateful. She never asked for anything in her life and never expected anything, least of all that the State would keep her. Many people I know do not have the luxury of being able to depend on an extended family and it is those people we need to support in their communities. Voluntary organisations have played a most important role in reaching out to those people who live at home and need a helping hand, especially elderly people and those with a disability. I pay tribute to all these voluntary organisations.

I agree with the speakers who remarked that bankers who behaved recklessly should go to jail. As I see it, however, many former Ministers of the previous Government also belong in jail for what they did to the country. It is never easy to make hard decisions and nobody wants to ask people to put their hands in their pockets and pay more than they should have to. However, we must remind ourselves of the bigger picture and what we are trying to achieve for the future of my children, my grandchild and future generations. I hope my colleagues in Fine Gael and the Labour Party, as well as those in Opposition, will look at the bigger picture rather than complain about it.

The Minister, Deputy Burton, has the difficult task of supporting 1.4 million Irish people who are in receipt of a social welfare payment while also ensuring there is enough money in the pot to pay them year in and year out. The Department of Social Protection needs to spend more than €20 billion in 2013, while saving €390 million in the same year. This compares to an initial prediction that a saving of €540 million would have to be made. The main argument of the Opposition during the debates has been about the reductions in the respite care grant and child benefit. Given the difficult choices confronting the Minister, however, she has taken the best decisions and is maintaining core social welfare payments for 2013. These include jobseeker's benefit and allowance, carer's allowance and the State pension. There has been no reduction to the fuel allowance or the free travel schemes, speculation about which caused much hysteria in the media in recent weeks. The Department will spend €775 million on carers in 2013, some €5 million more than it did this year.

Although there have been reductions in some areas, there are also some good news stories which we should not forget. Next year, the Department of Social Protection will allocate €14 million to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to provide more than 6,000 after-school child care places for children in primary school. These will be targeted at low-income families. An additional €2 million will be allocated to the school meal programme, which will aim to provide regular nourishing food to children from lower-income backgrounds. A further €2.5 million fund will be allocated to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for its area-based child poverty initiative, which is really worthwhile. There will be 2,500 new JobBridge places, which will increase overall numbers to 8,500. In recent weeks, I have met many people who went through the JobBridge scheme, all of whom ended up with permanent jobs - I spoke to two of them only this afternoon. There will be an additional 2,000 community employment scheme places next year. On behalf of the community where I live I welcome this, because if we want to get people back to work properly we must introduce them slowly. The community employment schemes have added great value to people's lives.

The Minister is committed to clamping down on fraud and to that end additional fraud and control measures will be introduced, as well as legislation to enable greater recovery of social welfare overpayments.

An additional €10 million will be allocated to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to facilitate the delivery of social housing units, a measure that I welcome. In my constituency alone there are 7,500 people on the waiting list, so this will prove to be a good initiative. It is expected that more than 5,000 units will be provided in 2013, including 350 units for people with special housing needs and 150 units specifically for people leaving institutional care. An additional 400 permanent homes will be delivered through capital expenditure under the social housing initiative, which I welcome. I live in an area where many flat complexes have gone through a regeneration programme. It is worthwhile to put money into such a scheme to ensure that people have proper accommodation.

The Department of Education and Skills will allocate €500,000 to tackle bullying in schools. The funding will be spent in line with the action plan on bullying, which will be established shortly. I welcome this measure because in too many schools around the country young people have been bullied. Unfortunately, we have seen the consequences of that in recent months and weeks in cases in which young people have taken their own lives.

In line with the ongoing reform of the political system and the drive to cut costs across the public sector, the Government has cut the level of expenses paid to politicians and the State funding of political parties. All expenses must now be vouched. I fully support these changes.

The Government has had to make some tough but necessary decisions in this budget to ensure that we stay on course for exiting the bailout programme and continue on the road towards economic recovery. We must consider how far we have come already in rescuing our economy, pulling it back from the brink. We have worked hard to fulfil the terms of the EU-IMF bailout, without which this country would have ground to a halt. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Future budgets will not be so difficult, and families and businesses can make plans for the future with confidence.

Deputy Seán Kyne: Information on Seán Kyne Zoom on Seán Kyne I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. I believe in and understand the necessity for a social welfare system and have often highlighted the fact that the vast majority of citizens will rely on this system of support at some point in their lives. It is much more than a safety net that helps citizens through hard times.

The social protection system does not exist in isolation; the State must be able to raise the necessary resources to fund it. Much of the debate and commentary on social welfare matters is devoid of facts and figures. Social protection accounts for 37% of all State expenditure. In other words, almost two of every five euro this Government spends is on social welfare support schemes or programmes. In 2013 social welfare will account for €20.3 billion - by far the largest proportion of State spending. Given the sheer size of the social welfare budget, it is unthinkable that it would not be examined for efficiency and effectiveness at a time when the gap between our State's income and spending is so large. We are, in effect, borrowing €42 million every day just to meet current day-to-day expenditure. In spite of this, budget 2013 strives to protect the most vulnerable in our society and does so by maintaining all weekly social welfare payments. There have been no changes or reductions in core social welfare payment rates. This is vital, not only because the budget comes at a time when the State's financial position is very constrained, but also because it recognises that social welfare is a lifeline that helps citizens who have fallen on hard times. It also recognises that social welfare spending is a hugely significant economic stimulus, which crucially supports local businesses and jobs.

It is important that the State pension has been maintained at its present level because this provides certainty to our senior citizens. In addition, the retention of the free travel pass ensures that they can continue to be active in their communities.

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