Social Welfare Bill

February 13th, 2008 - Pat Breen

^ Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed). ^

13th February, 2008

Deputy Pat Breen: The Chair might indicate when I have used four and a half minutes of my time. I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. While welcoming some of the increases in social welfare payments, I take this opportunity to highlight the inadequacies in the current system and the difficulties being faced by those at the coalface of the system.

The Conference of Religious in Ireland, CORI, in response to budget 2008, stated that the problem of poverty has not been addressed with the working poor remaining a major issue. This is the core issue. In spite of the wealth created by the economy in the past decade, the changes in this Bill do little to deal with the problems of social exclusion.

While budget 2008 committed a package of social welfare measures totalling nearly €900 million, little has changed for the plight of those who are in need. Budget 2008 was this Government’s opportunity to show that it was serious about reform, reducing child poverty, improving the plight of carers and the Minister’s commitments in the programme for Government and Towards 2016, but the Minister has failed the examination.

I will turn to some of the specifics of the Bill. The increase in the non-contributory and contributory old age pension of €12 and €14 respectively is welcome but it is eaten up, so to speak, by the cost of living. Age Action Ireland claims that one in five pensioners is at risk of poverty while 18,000 are unable to pay for a winter overcoat or an extra pair of shoes. They cannot afford to buy the meat or fish that will ensure they have a staple diet.

Half of the pensioners depend on the State pension as their sole source of income and more than one third of these are on non-contributory pensions. In the programme for Government, the Government committed to increasing the State pension to €300 per week. The failure of the Government to increase the fuel allowance is astonishing, given the 58% increase in oil prices in the past 12 months, the largest increase in the past ten years. No older person should be sitting in the cold, afraid to light a fire or turn on a heater because they cannot afford the cost of fuel. The Minister should have paid more attention to this in the budget.

The greatest failure of the Government is its inability to recognise the invaluable contribution made by carers throughout Ireland. There are 150,000 carers working 3.5 million hours every week and saving the State over €2.1 billion each year, yet only one in six carers qualify for this allowance. For those who qualify, an increase of €14 is wholly inadequate.

Caring for a loved one is not just a job, it is a vocation. These are ordinary people coping in extraordinary circumstances. They suffer physical, emotional or financial stress and the majority are caring for dependent older people, children or adults with disabilities. Voluntary groups have mushroomed throughout the country to support carers. I spoke to a woman in west Clare who was struggling to cope. All she wanted was a break for an hour or two in the week so that she could go for a cup of coffee with someone. However, she does not think it will happen in the near future.

The West Clare Caring for Carers group is doing Trojan work in west Clare. The groups is frustrated by the lack of respite care. The fact that there is no one available to provide breaks is the greatest area of concern and is more prevalent in rural areas. While one can apply to have someone transferred to a nursing home for a two-week break, a person needs more than this. I welcome the increase in the respite care grant from €200 to €1,700 but some say it should be higher again. Hopefully the Minister will deal with that in the future.

The lack of home help hours and the shortage of funding for this essential service does little to assist these carers. Even if there is a person available locally to do the work, in several instances there is no funding available from the HSE to cover the hours. The national carers strategy, which the Government promised for the end of 2007 is, like all the promises made by the Government, consigned to a dustbin. The completion of this strategy, putting in place a comprehensive plan for carers, cannot be delayed further.

The year 2010 has been nominated European year for combating poverty and social exclusion. If the Government is to achieve its commitment, the provisions outlined in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008 fall well short. The Bill is another case of a little done, more to do.