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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 Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien] These people have no alternative. They either care for their loved ones or they do not do so. That is not a choice they can make. Those to whom I refer do not have the luxury of alternatives or of choosing not to care for their loved ones.

The Minister has the opportunity to make a different decision in respect of how to obtain the €26 million at issue here. I appeal to whatever sense of decency and humanity she may possess and I plead with her not to proceed with this proposal. The saving involved is €26 million out of total savings of €3.5 billion. These are just figures. My mother and the other 77,000 carers throughout the country are not interested in figures, they just want to be given the resources and to have the capability to do what is right by their loved ones. If the Minister proceeds with this cut, she may be denying some mother, father, son or daughter the ability to care for a loved one in their own home. In my book, that is just immoral. I appeal to the Minister not to proceed with what is proposed.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this proposal. When one considers the latter in conjunction with what is happening in the Department of Health, one can see that a combination of things are affecting carers. Sadly, the Minister is caught in the middle of the storm. That statutory two weeks respite to which elderly people are entitled has been removed. Even though there is statutory provision, people cannot avail of this. The cuts to home help hours represent a clawing back of the supports available to people in their own homes. There are those who increasingly rely on the respite care grant to subvent those cuts that are being made by the Department of Health. This highlights the fact that it is not possible to deal in isolation with an issue which has implications across the entire budget.

It is extremely frustrating that for one third of those who are in receipt of it, the respite care grant is the only State recognition they get. These people do not receive medical cards or many of the other allowances and entitlements that are available. Those to whom I refer feel really hurt in the context of the proposed cut to the grant. If one considers this cut in tandem with the delay which exists in respect of carer's allowance applications - this currently stands at approximately 11 months - and the impact this has in the context of delays with regard to the processing of the respite care grant, it is obvious that what is happening is placing an additional administrative burden on the Minister's Department and leading to overpayments of supplementary welfare allowance. Efficiencies could be achieved by streamlining the process to which I refer and these, in turn, could give rise to savings.

The Bill also contains a proposal in respect of farm assist and I am of the view that this will actually cost money rather than give rise to the saving of €5 million that is envisaged. I have put forward proposals to the Minister regarding how we might save €50 million in respect of the child benefit budget by addressing the issue of fraud and non-resident children. A number of suggestions have also been put forward by other Deputies in respect of the changes to pension relief. If these were brought forward, the savings to which the Minister refers could be made.

I accept that the Minister is in an extremely difficult position in the context of the proposed cut to the respite care grant. The saving involved - €26 million - is relatively small in the context of her Department's overall budget. In light of the fact that this proposal will not be implemented until next June - when the respite care grant is due to be paid - I suggest that there is a window of opportunity available to the Minister during which she might reconsider the position. A second social welfare Bill is normally introduced in the spring. In that context, will the Minister postpone what is proposed here and, during the window of opportunity to which I refer, ask the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection to consider the views of and suggestions put forward by those in opposition and come up with an alternative - within the Department's budget - to the €26 million cut to the respite care grant? I am of the view that it would be possible to make savings within the Department of Social Protection's budget by improving efficiencies.

The Minister should provide the window of opportunity to which I refer in order that we might take the time to deal with this matter. The provision in this regard will not kick in until the middle or the end of June. Rather than dividing the House on this issue, all the Members should work together to arrive at a workable solution in respect of this matter.

Deputy Noel Grealish: Information on Noel Grealish Zoom on Noel Grealish I will not rehearse what previous speakers stated. Everyone is aware of the tremendous work done by carers and of the money they save the State by keeping people in their own homes. Like Deputy Nulty and others, I would like to know why the Labour Party dropped a proposal it put forward in the context of the budget to the effect that there be a 3% increase in the universal social charge. Such a move would have brought in €365 million. I gave an interview on my local radio station-----

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock It would have brought in €71 million.

Deputy Noel Grealish: Information on Noel Grealish Zoom on Noel Grealish Well €371 million, there is not much difference.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock No, the figure was €71 million.

Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea It would have brought in €200 million if the self-employed were taken into account.

Deputy Noel Grealish: Information on Noel Grealish Zoom on Noel Grealish I stand corrected. My figures are wrong in this regard. I gave an interview on my local radio station this morning in which I stated that I would have supported such a proposal if it had come before the House, particularly as it would have removed a number of difficulties for the Minister's Department. I am of the view that the Minister does not believe in what is being done here and that she is going against everything for which she stands by introducing these cuts. Perhaps she will indicate why the proposal to which I refer was dropped and why it was voted down by Fine Gael.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall I add my voice to those of others who have objected to this proposal to cut the respite care grant, which is probably one of the most mean-spirited aspects of the budget. We are all fed up listening to representatives of the Government speak about the budget. Those to whom I refer stated - prior to its introduction - that the budget would be tough but fair and they continue to say this. As the Minister is well aware, the budget is nothing like fair. As previous speakers stated, if it had been the case that the Government had no choice but to make these draconian cuts, people would have faced up to the reality involved. The truth is, however, that the Government had several options open to it. For example, it could have increased the universal social charge or introduced a solidarity levy. God knows we need solidarity now more than ever before and if we had introduced a 5% solidarity levy in respect of people with incomes in excess of €100,000 - in the context of the element of those incomes that is above that amount - we could have raised €320 million.

I put it to the Minister that a majority of the Members of this House would favour a solidarity levy. Such a levy was first mooted by a number of Fine Gael backbenchers last year - I believe they still support it - and I am of the view there is widespread support within the Labour Party and across the Opposition benches for such a measure. A levy of this nature is necessary because we need those who are wealthy and who have been fairly well protected from the cold winds of the recession to show solidarity with people who are desperately badly off and really struggling. If a solidarity levy had been introduced, it would have negated the need to bring forward any welfare cuts in the budget. Unfortunately, the Government has chosen to hammer people on low and middle incomes. That was a very definite choice that was made within Government. As already stated, it had options.

The Government could also have tackled the inequalities relating to the pensions regime. Last year it stated that it would do so this year and now this year it is saying that it will perhaps take action next year. That is just not good enough. There is an obvious target in this regard, namely, making the pensions regime much fairer and thereby saving a considerable amount of money. If the Government had done that this year - as should have been the case - it could have raised €250 million and there would not have been a need for any of these awful cuts which are going to place enormous pressure on the poorest people in our country.

The Government had options. In such circumstances, its members should stop saying that the budget is fair. Will the Minister, the Tánaiste and their ministerial colleagues please stop saying that they have protected the vulnerable? They have not done so. They had the option to do it. They could have given effect to that aspiration but they did not do so. They chose instead to leave those in the protected sectors - namely, those who are much better off - alone. Again, these people will not be expected to contribute anything this year. I am already on record as stating that this has something to do with the fact that the 12 or 15 people who drew up the budget behind closed doors are all in receipt of a minimum of €160,000 per year.

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