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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 Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle] They are even dismissing the election campaign and suggesting we should really know better about the things said during a campaign.

The performance of the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, on "The Week in Politics" on Sunday said it all. I could not help but remember his performance on "Prime Time" when he attacked Fianna Fáil for destroying the country and how he appeared to express the anger of the nation that night. We now see that it was all a performance and meant nothing. It was all part of a show, like so many of the set pieces in this House.

The Taoiseach claimed there had been a democratic revolution in the general election last year. The counter-revolution is under way and victory is almost at hand for the politics of cynicism. The Government will be responsible for the death of real change in politics. Labour Party and Fine Gael backbenchers will vote in favour of the Bill and dash people's hopes further - the hope things could be done in a different way, the hope the Government would reflect their needs and put them first, and the hope that, when they got rid of Fianna Fáil, there could be change.

The Bill should be opposed by every fair-minded person in the House. The cut to the respite care grant is a touchpaper that has highlighted what is wrong with the budget. It could have been any other cut provided for in the Bill - for example, the cut to the back-to-school clothing allowance, on which the Minister only says there is good value to be had on clothes. There is a lack of imagination to the cut to child benefit and it seems it is just too hard to tax or means-test it. There is also the imposition of tax on maternity benefit and the cutting of the period in which people can claim jobseeker's benefit. The Minister has tried to suggest this is encouraging people back to work, but where are the jobs they are supposed to be getting? There is also the issue of penalising those who have been overpaid owing to mistakes made within the Department where the vast majority of overpayments take place and not through fraud. For all of these reasons, the Bill should be opposed.

Deputy John O'Mahony: Information on John O'Mahony Zoom on John O'Mahony I wish to share time with Deputies Seán Conlan, Billy Timmins and Joe O'Reilly.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Jack Wall): Information on Jack Wall Zoom on Jack Wall Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy John O'Mahony: Information on John O'Mahony Zoom on John O'Mahony It was obvious as far back as 2009 or 2010 that the budget for 2013 was going to be the most difficult of all, whether it was introduced by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Technical Group or anybody else. At that stage, if one had looked back to the year 2000, it was a time when there was wastage and misspending and the economy was built on quicksand, with no provision being made for the rainy day, whereas now we have a torrent. In those early days of 2008 and 2009 we were being told it was just a mere blip, that there would be a soft landing and that the economy was sound. In reality, we were on a cliff and facing economic challenges that the State had never faced since its foundation.

The challenge for the Government has been as far as possible to protect the vulnerable, while getting back our economic sovereignty at the same time. This has to be done at a time when income from taxes is coming in at 2000 levels but social welfare payments need to be, as far as possible, kept near to 2013 levels. Many measures in the past couple of years have successfully protected the vulnerable in society. Some 300,000 people were made exempt from the universal social charge last year and in the past year 150,000 medical cards were issued when there was only a projected need for 105,000. The reality is that 42%, almost within shouting distance of half the population, have medical cards whereas, at the end of the time of plenty in 2007, only 27% had them. In many instances, therefore, the vulnerable have been protected.

In the budget announced last week the main social welfare rates for pensioners, jobseekers and carers were maintained and the social welfare ceiling was raised by €150 million over that which had been projected. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that there is much concern about the cut to the respite care grant which brings it back to 2007 levels. The fact is this payment is not made until June of any year and I ask the Minister to look at it again in the calm light of day, perhaps in the Finance Bill. With regard to carer's allowance in general, while I know the Minister is doing all she can, waiting times of up to eight to ten months are experienced on the ground. When applications for carer's allowance are made, we need to reduce waiting times by as much as possible.

Another change made in the budget which has a big impact in my constituency of County Mayo is to the farm assist criteria, whereby the income and child disregards will be abolished from next April. Again, as this change will not apply until next April, I hope it can be reconsidered in some way. There are 1,815 farmers on farm assist payments in County Mayo, the highest number by far of any county.

In recent days we have listened to Members on the opposite side of the House making a lot of noise about the cuts made. To return to my point about the protection of social welfare rates, carer's allowance was €220.50 in 2009, but this figure was reduced to €204 in the last two budgets of the previous Government, a cut of approximately €850 a year. Similarly, blind pension was reduced from €204 to €188, also a cut of approximately €850, and there were similar cuts to widow's pension and other payments. I had always assumed that these were vulnerable persons also. Let us not have lectures, therefore, from people who did not protect the main rates of social welfare.

Deputy Seán Conlan: Information on Sean Conlan Zoom on Sean Conlan I welcome the Minister's intentions and commitment to move from a passive to an active welfare state. Everybody in this republic has a valuable part to play in its rebuilding. I note the Minister has been active in formulating activation measures to assist people to get back to work by upskilling and retraining. I note the comments she made about the previous two Governments' utter failure to address the problems of jobless households and the alarming statistic that the jobless figure rose to reach 15% of total households at the height of the Celtic tiger when there was large inward migration to fill job vacancies.

It is welcome that the Minister's Department will be providing 10,000 new placements on unemployment schemes this year and that, notwithstanding the enormous pressure she is under to reduce the social welfare budget, she was able to protect the basic rate of widow's pension, invalidity pension and carer's allowance, which were cut by Fianna Fáil to the tune of almost €850 in its last two budgets in power. The Minister was also able to protect the rate of jobseeker's allowance.

I have concerns, however, about certain parts of the Bill. An alternative should be found to the blanket cut to the respite care payment. While I understand the Minister is under pressure to save money, I ask her to go to the Cabinet to seek approval for a review of this measure. I have sought, with some Fine Gael colleagues and through internal Fine Gael channels, a meeting with the Minister to discuss the matter. I hope this meeting can still take place. I would like to make some constructive suggestions. This payment is not due to be paid until June next. Will the Minister seriously consider leaving the carer's respite grant at its current level on a fully vouched basis? This would allow those who rely on the payment to continue to receive it. In this alternative carers could be allowed to choose between retaining the current payment on a fully vouched basis and accepting the lower amount on an unvouched basis.

With regard to child benefit, in the interests of real reform, rather than cutting the rate of payment, in the future we need to look seriously at means-testing this payment in order to ensure it is protected for those who need it most. In this alternative all income, regardless of its source, whether through work or welfare, would be regarded as taxable to ensure we had a truly progressive tax and welfare system. However, in this scenario we would have to ensure married couples were not at a disadvantage.

I find it incredible to listen to and experience the collective amnesia and rank hypocrisy of former senior Fianna Fáil Ministers such as Deputy Micheál Martin, who sat at the Cabinet table, approved and then forced through the cuts to the baseline carer's allowance payment from €220.50 in 2009 to €204 in 2011. They are now crying crocodile tears about the reduction in the respite care payment.

Deputy John Halligan: Information on John Halligan Zoom on John Halligan That does not justify this measure.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Jack Wall): Information on Jack Wall Zoom on Jack Wall Order, please.


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