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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 Seán Kyne: Information on Seán Kyne Zoom on Seán Kyne] While recognising the financial constraints on Government spending, the changes to the household benefits package also recognise that the State is no longer the provider of electricity and utility services and has a duty to taxpayers to obtain the best value possible for public money. Further work will be required in this regard in order to assist citizens to shop around for the best energy deals in the marketplace. It is apt to note that there has been no change to either the rate or duration of the weekly fuel allowance.

Social welfare must be more than just financial assistance. There must also be non-monetary supports which are more important in the long term. These include labour activation measures, whereby the Department of Social Protection, in partnership with the Department of Education and Skills, assists citizens in reducing and then ending their dependence on social welfare.

I welcome the new initiatives introduced by the Minister, including the €14 million which will be provided for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for the provision of 6,000 after-school places and the additional €2 million for school meals programmes which will cater for those children in disadvantaged areas and ensure they receive regular school meals of good quality. I also welcome the 2,500 additional places allocated under the Tús scheme, the 2,500 new places being allocated under JobBridge and the 2,000 additional places being made available under community employment schemes. I particularly welcome the initiative to provide 3,000 places under a new social employment scheme that will operate within the local authority system. Local authorities have been obliged to deal with job losses owing to embargoes, the non-replacement of staff, etc., and this initiative offers them a great opportunity to provide people with valuable work experience.

I am concerned by all cuts contained in the Bill. When money is taken from people's pockets, difficulties can arise. Cuts to child benefit, respite grants and farm assist payments are difficult. While the cuts to child benefit will hit all areas equally, the cuts to farm assist payments are particularly and obviously anti-rural. I appreciate that the headline rate is being maintained and that farm families with the lowest incomes will be least affected by these changes. I also welcome that the farm assist payment will remain flexible, that changes in income will be taken into account and that farmers can ask community welfare officers to review their claims where their circumstances change. There is no change to the disregards in respect of income under the REPS and the AEOS, which is welcome. Child benefit payments have been the subject of debate for many years. There is no doubt that a simple across the board cut is the easiest to administer. There are significant costs associated with means testing, but the introduction of such testing should be considered in the future.

Overall, I acknowledge the difficult decisions the Minister was obliged to make. I hope a return to economic growth will reduce the requirement for such a large social welfare budget. If we get people back into employment, we will ensure their reliance on social welfare payments will be reduced.

Deputy Martin Heydon: Information on Martin Heydon Zoom on Martin Heydon I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare Bill. I intend to focus only on a number of the measures it contains because, given that it is so wide-ranging in nature, one cannot deal with all of them.

It is welcome that core social welfare rates are being protected. There are those in the Opposition who will demean and belittle that achievement. However, it is worth noting that basic social welfare rates were hit in budgets introduced by the previous Fianna Fáil Government. I refer in this regard to reductions in carer's allowance, the blind pension and the widow's pension. In one of the most difficult budgets in the State's history the Government has managed to avoid reducing the core rates. There is merit in this. Sinn Féin has not been slow to use the respite care grant as a political football. In Northern Ireland where it is in government the weekly rate of carer's allowance is £58.45, which is the equivalent of €72. In the Republic carers are paid three times that amount, namely, €204. Perhaps Sinn Féin is of the view that carers in Northern Ireland do not work as hard as their counterparts in the South. There is a huge disparity in this regard and it is worth highlighting.

In the context of the cut to the respite care grant, the one item of information which has not made the headlines is that in 2013 we will spend €5 million more on carers than in 2012. The overall amount relating to carers will increase from €770 million to €775 million, a fact which has become lost in the debate. That said, the cut to the respite care grant does not sit easily with me. I worked very closely with the Carers Association in the past, particularly in getting the carers strategy published. I acknowledge the huge sacrifices carers make for their loved ones and the knock-on benefits this has for the State. For this reason, I request that the method relating to how this cut is being imposed be reviewed. Considering that payment of the grant is not due until June, it would be possible to consider alternative and more targeted ways of finding the saving of €26 million required. We must also consider the possibility of putting in place an appeals mechanism for those most in need. The respite grant is not means tested and we must, therefore, ensure cuts are imposed on those who can cope with them. I ask that the debate on this matter not finish with tomorrow's vote. Last year changes to community employment schemes were announced in the budget, but a review of the matter led to more targeted changes being introduced. The process used in this regard was a great success. This is something which should be borne in mind.

I welcome the Minister's move to create 10,000 new places on employment programmes in 2013. She has visited most of the community employment schemes in south Kildare and those elsewhere throughout the country. She understands and has acknowledged the impact these schemes have in local communities. The increase in the number of places on the community employment, JobBridge and Tús schemes is welcome. I also welcome the new social employment scheme relating to local authorities. What is being done in this regard will have a real impact.

On the redundancy rebate, I am very cognisant of the significant shortfall in the social insurance fund. Some wealthy companies used the relevant scheme to subsidise moving their operations out of Ireland. I reiterate the point I made on previous occasions in the House, namely, that there is a need to differentiate between small businesses and very large companies such as TalkTalk which moved out of Waterford at the drop of a hat. I am concerned about the impact the removal of the redundancy rebate will have on small firms which have a small turnover of €700,000 or €800,000. I accept that there is an inability to pay mechanism, but what will be the position of an employer who has four staff and needs to let two of them go in order to keep the other two on? We should consider introducing some form of exemption in next year's budget. This could be similar to the current audit exemption for small companies which is based on employee or turnover levels. Such an exemption would provide some protection for small businesses, while not encouraging large firms to pull out of Ireland.

I acknowledge the fact that the headline rates for farm assist payments remain unchanged. Some €108 million was spent on this scheme in 2012. I have seen at first hand the value of this assistance to small farm families and rural communities. I request that the cuts announced to the farm assist scheme be carefully monitored. There is an estimated saving of €5 million in any given year in respect of these cuts. I hope the position will be monitored in order to ensure even more money will not be taken out of the scheme. Such a development would be detrimental. I accept the Minister's point on the flexibility of local welfare officers. Such flexibility is crucial, particularly in years such as this when the weather is very bad.

I acknowledge the fact that the Minister has found an additional €2 million for school meals. The allocation in this regard will increase from €35 million to €37 million. I have witnessed the impact of the school meals programme in my constituency. The provision of an additional 19,000 breakfasts or 6,000 hot dinners will be of benefit to 189,000 children in over 1,000 schools throughout the country. This is a real example of a targeted measure being introduced where it is needed most.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett I call Deputy Billy Kelleher who is sharing time with Deputies Éamon Ó Cuív and John Browne.

Deputy Billy Kelleher: Information on Billy Kelleher Zoom on Billy Kelleher I intend to repeat some of what I said last evening during the debate on the motion of no confidence in the Government tabled by Sinn Féin. It is incredible that, in the light of what has been said since the budget was introduced, Ministers and Government Deputies do not appear to understand why there is so much palpable anger among the people. The reason for this anger is that neither the budget nor the Social Welfare Bill bears any relation to what those now in government said in the period between the introduction by the previous Administration of its final budget in December 2010 and the general election in February 2011. There is no point in Members trying to put a spin on matters and stating that in some way the budget protects the vulnerable. Any critical analysis of the budget and the Social Welfare Bill will clearly show the opposite is the case.

  The Government passed a regressive budget last year and this fact has been acknowledged by many independent organisations in the interim. In other words, last year's budget saw to it that those who had paid least gained the most and vice versa. Unfortunately, the budget introduced last week magnifies the position in this regard. We can argue about the make-up of the Government and whether Fine Gael is dictating matters from a policy perspective or whether the Labour Party is surrendering its policy positions.

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