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Social Welfare Bill 2012: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages (Continued)

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Joan Collins: Information on Joan Collins Zoom on Joan Collins] They need this money. The cost of living has gone up, in particular for electricity, gas and bus fares. Many would have travel passes but the fact is people are finding it more difficult to live and they need that protection and support. We are not asking for increases at the moment. We are asking the Minister please to not cut the respite care grant.

Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea I listened with interest to the e-mail read out by Deputy Ó Snodaigh. I have also received numerous messages and it is distressing just to read them, let alone try to imagine the distress those unfortunate people and those they are caring for are enduring.

I appeal to the Minister. People outside the House who watch the exchanges, clashes, debates and interaction here would be surprised at how many things we privately agree on. If all of the 166 Deputies were asked privately, off the record, what their opinion of this change was, I suggest they would all be of the one view, whether they were Government or Opposition Deputies. They would simply be of the view that it is a mistake, it is unfortunate, it looks very bad for the Government and it is a pity it happened.

I am not attributing any superhuman qualities to the Minister for Social Protection. We are all human and we all make mistakes. I am nobody to lecture anybody on mistakes as I have made more than my fair share. However, I have learned in life that the best thing to do when one makes a mistake is to acknowledge it, correct it if possible and move on. It was George Bernard Shaw who said there was no shame in admitting one has made a mistake; it only means one is wiser today than one was yesterday.

To anticipate some of what the Minister might come back with, one of her central defences of the social welfare provisions in the budget is that she has not cut the basic rates. The fact is that everybody in receipt of carer's allowance is entitled to the respite care grant, so their income is not just the €204 per week, it is €204 plus the total of the respite grant which, divided by 52, comes to €32.50. Therefore, it is €204 plus €32.50, which makes €236.50, in effect. As a result of this change, they will come out with €6.50 a week less.

There are a minority of people who, for one reason or another, do not qualify for the carer's allowance, perhaps because their spouse's income is too high or over the limit. Nevertheless, they are doing a tremendous job of caring on a full-time basis for somebody who is disabled or ill. In return for that work, they get a measly €32.50 per week from the State, and that is now being cut to €26.50, a 19% cut for that particular category. Incidentally, we should bear in mind that carer's allowance is a means-tested payment so people who qualify for the carer's allowance are certainly not the rich. They must pass a means test, and while this is more generous than the ordinary social welfare means test, it is restrictive enough nonetheless.

The Taoiseach told us on the Order of Business in recent days that the Government is spending over €780 million on carers this year. I accept that and I acknowledge it is a fair chunk of money. However, the contribution which carers are making to this State, if the State had to pick up the tab for the work they are doing, is estimated by independent economists at approximately €5 billion per year. This is the only category of social welfare where we are getting back a multiple of what we are giving out. As somebody said recently, carers are the only recipients of social welfare who are actually working for the money they are getting. God knows, even as it stands, it is paltry enough for the amount of work.

There is nobody in this House, or nobody I know outside it, who works harder than a full-time carer - that is a fact. My mother died earlier this year. She was in a nursing home and two of my sisters took turns to visit her and stay with her. Even that - taking turns and visiting somebody who was being cared for by somebody else - really exhausted them. I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like caring for somebody on a full-time basis.

As I said, the State gets back six or seven times what it puts into carers. The amount of money involved here is €26 million, which is a drop in the ocean in a budget adjustment of €3.5 billion. We are told it cannot be changed but nobody has explained why. Last year, there was a bigger adjustment in regard to disability and it had to be changed and was changed. Ministers came out and said they had got it wrong, and they were respected and admired for that. There were a few journalists who wrote headlines about U-turns and so on, but people appreciated the fact Ministers saw they had made a mistake and were good enough to stand up and change their minds in regard to a much bigger amount.

We are also told that if the €26 million has to be found, it has to be found elsewhere in the social welfare budget. Why? What particular rule of accountancy or arithmetic dictates this? In any case, while I am sure the Minister could find it elsewhere within the social welfare budget, she does not have to. Some €26 million is less than €2 million across each of 14 Government Departments. If the 14 Departments are so strapped they cannot find a sum of less than €2 million each to make this up, then the slightest adjustment to the taxation system would provide €26 million without affecting the budgetary arithmetic at all.

The commitment to the troika, as I understand it, was to come in this year at a deficit of not more than 8.3% of gross domestic product. The Government has pointed out, as it is entitled to do, that it is coming in at 8.2%, which is under what is required. The sum of €26 million will not change that arithmetic one iota.

Like other Deputies, I met carers outside Leinster House last week and many of them have been in contact with me in recent days. The one issue that was really distressing them was the chasm between what they were experiencing and suffering and the stated views of certain Members in here. One Minister of State said they could stay in a top hotel for €700 a week and told them to get on with it. It is very easy for a junior Minister to express sentiments like that because a junior Minister is being paid 13 times per week the basic rate of carer's allowance. A junior Minister could earn the €325 which is being cut from the respite care grant in less than a day - their basic earnings are approximately €380 per day, before expenses and other ancillaries such as drivers, free telephones and so on. What a crass, unfeeling, unsympathetic approach to take from someone who is doing so well.

The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, when on this side of the House used to throw moral imperatives like lollipops, with several per day and three or four at lunchtime. He said this was a "modest" reduction. It might be a modest reduction for the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, because he is earning €169,000 a year or 17 times the basic rate of carer's allowance. He earns €470 per day, seven days a week. By 3 p.m. today, Deputy Rabbitte will have earned the equivalent of the cut in the respite care grant. In general, I find that if one believes one is going to subtract from rather than add to the sum of human knowledge when one speaks, it is better not to speak at all.

Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly Will Deputy O'Dea please watch the time?

Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea I will conclude on this point.

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