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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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  7 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Joe O'Reilly: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly] Schools meals can affect people's lives for the good. I say that as a former primary teacher. The implications of having school meals are considerable and I welcome the measure. It is simple and small but very real, with implications for learning, socialisation and development on every level, and I commend the Minister on it. I also applaud the 6,000 additional places that will be available for after-school care, a most significant step. In many ways, it negates the impact of what has happened in the area of child benefit, as, of course, it is intended to do. I salute the Minister because intervention that can allow people to go back to work will have real implications for the lives of the children in question. In many respects, direct interventions in the lives of children are very much in keeping with the spirit of the recent referendum about putting children at the centre of things. That is achieved here and I salute it.

We cannot avoid the issue of carers, for whom I have enormous regard, as does any right-thinking person in the country. There is a highly emotive dimension involved because we hold our carers in great regard and know the output of their work. They are the most productive sector of our economy, if one has the correct values. That is not at issue. It is a great achievement that we have maintained the headline rate for both the carer's allowance and the half-rate carer's allowance. The respite grant cut is regrettable and one of the first objectives I will bring to the Minister's attention as we get the country sorted will be to reverse it. However, there has been an enormous increase in the budget in the entire area of carers, and something had to give in order to protect the headline payments. Although the cut is painful and we do not want to do it, it is minor in the sense that we are talking about €8 a week. Given that, I salute our carers. To the Minister, I point out that just as it is crucial to have the job activation schemes to which she is committed, it is similarly crucial that during the course of the coming years we should do everything we can to augment the work of our carers and put them centre stage. They are the vehicle that provides quality of life and takes people out of alternative care.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Jack Wall): Information on Jack Wall Zoom on Jack Wall I understand Deputy Calleary is sharing time with Deputies Seamus Kirk and Robert Troy.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary Yes. Deputy Kirk and I have seven and a half minutes each, with five minutes for Deputy Troy.

I welcome the chance to speak on the Social Welfare Bill, but first I will pick up on something mentioned by Deputy Timmins and a number of other Deputies. This is madness. It is the same every year, regardless of who is outside the House. On this occasion we will spend only two days talking about social welfare cuts and then we will move on. Next year we will come back and spend another two days, but in the meantime there will be no substantial reform of the system. The debate is all about specific cuts, with no real analysis or consideration given to the system and no one asking the question of whether it is still fit for purpose as we deliver the budget in 2013. I refer, for example, to jobseeker's benefit and the difficulty involved in signing off and back on again if a person gets a day's work. Hurdles are put in the way which discourage many people from seeking part-time employment. This in turn has encouraged the growth, once again, of black-market practices. It is an area that needs fundamental reform, but it is not being discussed because of the cuts that have been proposed.

There are many other areas of concern. The Minister has made some sneaky changes in the cuts and restrictions she initiated in the community employment schemes. No longer can rental of offices be included as part of the scheme, which will have an enormous impact. I gather the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, plans to change the entire budgetary process, but it might have been beneficial if the cuts the Minister, Deputy Burton, proposed had been discussed in advance rather than in a two-day debate. We heard the Minister often enough when she was on this side of the House. If a two-day debate had been devoted to these cuts there would have been whingeing, whining and wailing, led by her. Yet here she is, satisfied to sit back and allow this Bill to be done and dusted in less than a day, when all the hours are counted together. It is just not good enough, especially when compared to the mandate her party sought. That is the difficulty. I have a lot of sympathy for the very decent people in the Labour Party. They sought a mandate in 2011 with a manifesto which, as her party's finance spokesperson, the Minister had prepared. She was in full possession of the facts about the seriousness of the country's financial situation because she had been briefed not by the outgoing Government but by the Commission and the troika. She made a great palaver about going to meet the troika. She knew the situation and yet she presented a manifesto that guaranteed no cuts would be made in many areas, including child benefit. Those genuine people who sought a mandate on behalf of the Labour Party signed up to that manifesto on the basis of a belief in the Minister, Deputy Burton, her integrity and her management of their economic policy. Now she comes into the Chamber and rams through these cuts affecting children, carers and small impoverished farmers because she did not take her responsibilities as Opposition spokesperson seriously enough in 2010 and 2011. By her actions, therefore, she is selling out many of her backbench colleagues. The Minister has set herself up as something of a little independent republic in this Government. Tonight, however, the reality is that those of her colleagues who sought a mandate on the back of her manifesto in 2011 are now being sold out by the Minister and her colleagues. They are being sold out by the Minister because she was in full possession of the facts in 2011 when she created that manifesto.

There are many areas and Departments in which the Government could have made different choices that would have allowed us not to target carers - the people who, as we speak, are giving unbelievable service to this State. We would not have had to target children, small farmers or the CE schemes had this Government made different choices with regard to those with high incomes and earnings. The Minister has made and presented her choices. I have no doubt about the sincerity of all the Minister's backbench colleagues in calling for her to examine the carer's respite grant and the farm assist payment before the cut comes in April. Tonight is their chance to force her to examine this, not by talking about it but by walking with us. The truth is that when the Minister gets out of the Chamber tonight and tomorrow she will be out of the gap and will not come back until next year. God knows what she will be doing in the meantime in the Labour Party. However, carers will have a cut in their incomes and small farmers will be destroyed because the Minister is taking the ground from under the farm payment in the Bill. I do not excuse her, although she is an urban Deputy and does not understand the issue. However, as farm assist is so utterly important, I cannot understand how the rural Fine Gael Deputies, in particular, are allowing her to do this. Children's benefit will be cut; for many families hundreds of months' worth of benefit will be cut. There are also the changes in the CE schemes.

I welcome the activation measures. JobBridge has been a fantastic success, and those who criticised it need to bring ideas to the table. The people who participated were excellent. There was an announcement of a local authority social scheme in the budget, but when I submitted a parliamentary question in order to get information on the scheme, an official from the Minister's Department contacted my office to inform me that the Department had not heard about it. Is this something for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan? I have full confidence it will be a good scheme if he has charge of it.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton I believe they have heard of it.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary The Minister might share the idea with her colleagues. It sounds like a good scheme, one that would give skills to those who want to use their talents and who, because of the construction collapse, can now give their skills to the community. That scheme needs to roll out quickly. Flexibility is needed in such schemes in order to respond to demand. One of the difficulties in JobBridge is that there are not enough places to meet the demand. The marketing behind it has been quite poor.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton There was no budget.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary This is where one must think outside the box, which brings me back to my opening point. The carers, small farmers and parents of this country are paying because of the Minister's inability to think outside the box. She is doing it the easy way, with cuts, instead of re-imagining the system. She has had 18 months to do that - to come forward, reposition and re-imagine social welfare - but we have seen nothing new from her yet. Perhaps in the course of the coming 12 months she might surprise us and present something new, but tonight, because of her failure to be imaginative and her inability to bring her Government colleagues around her in terms of re-imagining, it is the carers, mothers and small farmers of Ireland who are paying. Ultimately, it is the Minister's backbench colleagues who will pay.

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