The greatest failure in the area of social welfare is the ongoing neglect and inability to recognise the valuable role of carers in our communities – BREEN.

November 24th, 2008 - Pat Breen

Speaking during the debate on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 recently, Fine Gael’s Deputy Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Clare T. D. Pat Breen said that “The greatest failure in the area of social welfare is the ongoing neglect and inability to recognise the valuable role of carers in our communities.”

Deputy Breen urged the Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin T.D. to take all the necessary steps to address this matter. He said that “Family carers contribute over €2.5 billion to State coffers each year. According to the 2006 census, there are 4,507 carers in County Clare alone, working a total of 99,660 hours per week. One in six of our carers still do not qualify for the carer’s allowance and there is no sign of a national carer’s strategy, which was promised by the end of 2007. It is ridiculous at this stage that an individual assessment for the carer’s allowance means test is not acceptable and that the carer’s partner’s income continues to be assessed to qualify the carer for the payment.”
Deputy Breen also highlighted the challenges facing families in the current climate saying that “One of the greatest challenges nowadays for families is meeting the costs of daily living and coping with cost increases in food, heat and children’s education. Many families will also find it difficult to keep up with mortgage repayments. As unemployment surges many families will be crying out for help. Between the end of 2007 and October 2008 the number of people in receipt of supplementary welfare allowances increased by 50%. The situation is especially acute for lower income families in which one spouse is working for low pay and the other has been made redundant. I have already witnessed an increase in the number of people visiting my constituency office to seek help and we will see more in the coming months. I urge the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to support the Fine Gael proposal and double emergency support for debt-distressed homeowners to €30 million. This money could be channelled through the Money Advice and Budgeting Service centres and community welfare officers.”
Please see details of Deputy Breen’s Contribution for your information.  
SOCIAL WELFARE PROVISIONS BILL 2008 – DEPUTY PAT BREEN T.D.

The decision to withdraw the automatic right to a medical card for the over 70s sparked the most remarkable mobilisation of elderly people in memory. The only reason there was a climb-down on this issue was because of the sizable protest on Kildare Street. I applaud these people for their actions, but this should never have happened. No matter how the Government tries to dress it up, the universal right to a medical card for the over 70s has been withdrawn. People who have worked hard all their lives and contributed so much to the country were forced to walk the streets in protest. This is a terrible way to treat our elderly people. Many questions still have to be answered, including the matter of the commitment to index link the income limits to inflation. I appeal to the Minister to rethink this decision.

The attack on the elderly in the budget however did not stop at the medical cards. Many Deputies have already referred to the €7 increase in the old age pension, most of which has been wiped out by inflation and cost of living increases. Consider what €7 could buy today. A shopping basket containing milk, a loaf of bread, a bag of sugar and tea bags costs in excess of €7. People must also buy basic essentials such as meat and vegetables in addition to these goods. How much of a difference does €7 make? I suggest it makes no difference at all because such people will still be short of money.
The fuel allowance will increase by €2 per week from January. While I welcome that the allowance has been extended from 30 to 32 weeks starting in April 2009, the increase is inadequate. The cost of home heating oil has risen by 47% in the 12 months to May this year. According to Age Action Ireland, an increase in the fuel allowance by €12 is required to cover 70% of fuel costs for an elderly person compared to the current figure of 42%. Many elderly people will cut down on fuel consumption and will not light the fire as early as they might wish.
The Government should come clean and state it will not achieve the goals in the programme for Government, one of which is a commitment to have a State pension of at least €300 per week by 2012. This will not happen. The budget does not contain a single proposal to deal with our spiralling unemployment figures. The latest Central Statistics Office figures reveal the total number signing on for unemployment or social welfare credits has reached 260,000, which is the highest level since March 1997. In my constituency, County Clare, some 1,539 workers have lost their jobs since the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen took office. In the past 12 months unemployment has soared by 57% in County Clare with a 74.6% increase in the number of people under 25 years of age signing on. Many young people see no employment and no future here and decide to go to Australia, although not by choice.
Last week the Schwarz Pharma company based in Shannon, a very good company that has invested much money in the area, announced 55 job losses. This is only the tip of the iceberg and there will be more job losses in the region. Many garage forecourts are filled with unsold cars and these firms may go out of business.

One of the greatest challenges nowadays for families is meeting the costs of daily living and coping with cost increases in food, heat and children’s education. Many families will also find it difficult to keep up with mortgage repayments. As unemployment surges many families will be crying out for help. Between the end of 2007 and October 2008 the number of people in receipt of supplementary welfare allowances increased by 50%. The situation is especially acute for lower income families in which one spouse is working for low pay and the other has been made redundant. I have already witnessed an increase in the number of people visiting my constituency office to seek help and we will see more in the coming months. I urge the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to support the Fine Gael proposal and double emergency support for debt-distressed homeowners to €30 million. This money could be channelled through the Money Advice and Budgeting Service centres and community welfare officers.

The banks must also bear a share of the responsibility. They loaned money as if it was confetti at a wedding. Providing 100% mortgages was the norm. “Negative equity” has become the new buzz word but many of us know of people who bought houses at inflated prices and who have been made redundant in recent times. Such people cannot afford monthly mortgage repayments and many are in the process of returning the keys of their houses and moving into rented accommodation. The banks must play a role by negotiating in a fair manner with the families who are experiencing difficulties.

The increase in the live register figures means more and more people are now applying for the jobseeker’s allowance and jobseeker’s benefit. It is bad enough that these people have lost their jobs, but they are penalised further by having to wait seven weeks to have their applications processed. I hope the Minister will examine this matter. I have been inundated recently with queries from many people who have lost their jobs in the construction industry. Such people now have no income whatsoever and do not qualify for assistance. Something should be done for these people too.

According to the European Union survey on income and living conditions, published by the Central Statistics Office in 2006, persons living in households where the head of household was unemployed – some 60.8% – were most at risk of poverty. By failing to deal with these issues more and more people will struggle to make ends meet.

I welcome the Minister’s decision, although it is a U-turn, to abandon the proposal to raise the eligibility criteria for entitlement to the disability allowance from 16 to 18 years of age for new claimants. Withdrawing this payment in the first place was short-sighted and would have put extra financial pressures on many families. This payment is crucial in opening the door for these young people with disabilities and to other services and allowing them to have a greater amount of freedom with dignity. For example, on receipt of this payment recipients are awarded a travel pass for themselves and a companion for bus and train journeys and a mobility allowance is also provided to enable the person to pay for taxi fares or to travel to hospital.

The greatest failure in the area of social welfare is the ongoing neglect and inability to recognise the valuable role of carers in our communities. Family carers contribute over €2.5 billion to State coffers each year. According to the 2006 census, there are 4,507 carers in County Clare alone, working a total of 99,660 hours per week. One in six of our carers still do not qualify for the carer’s allowance and there is no sign of a national carer’s strategy, which was promised by the end of 2007. It is ridiculous at this stage that an individual assessment for the carer’s allowance means test is not acceptable and that the carer’s partner’s income continues to be assessed to qualify the carer for the payment. The Minister must take steps to have this matter addressed.

Poverty is a human ill and we must fight it together. However, there is no fight left in this Government. The recent budget is a testament to this. It was an uncaring and savage attack on the most vulnerable people in society. The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is another missed opportunity to reduce the increasing gap between rich and poor. The most marginalised in this country have been asked to pay the price for ten years of neglect by the Government.