Dáil Éireann - Volume 654 - 14 May, 2008

Priority Questions. - Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the large increase in supports requested of St. Vincent de Paul by members of the public in Dublin in the past 12 months; and the way she will respond to ensure that low income groups and individuals receive adequate welfare and pension support. [18626/08]

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has a proud tradition of supporting and championing the rights of the poorest members of our society. I am aware it recently expressed concerns about increased demands on its supports and services in the Dublin area.

[348] I draw attention to the fact that people who are experiencing immediate financial emergencies can avail of the community welfare service which operates the exceptional and urgent needs payment schemes on behalf of my Department. Improvements in social welfare supports are normally introduced by way of the annual budget. Following budget 2008, overall social welfare spending in 2008 is projected to be just under €17 billion. This is an increase of €1.5 billion, or more than 10%, over 2007.

Budget 2008 provided for increases in welfare rates of payment which are ahead of the projected increases in prices for 2008. These included: an increase in the maximum personal rates of contributory pension of €14, or 6.7%, per week, bringing them to €223.30, and an increase of €12 per week, or 6.5%, in the lowest personal rates of payment, bringing them to €197.80.

Over the last five budgets, the lowest social welfare rates have increased by 58% compared with cumulative price increases of 17% in the same period. In 2004, the lowest social welfare rate of payment equated to 24% of gross average industrial earnings. In 2008, this rate will equate to 30%.

In addition, a wide range of improvements for families with children were also announced. Following the budget, total child income support for a welfare dependent family with one young child will be €87.77 per week, or an increase of 7% over 2007. The level of increases introduced this year clearly demonstrates the Government’s determination to fully protect the most vulnerable in our society and to make real progress towards achieving our commitments for pensioners, carers, people with disabilities and all others relying in whole or in part on a welfare payment.

I look forward to making further progress in this regard in the years ahead and I will certainly take into account the views put forward by the society and other welfare organisations in this regard.

  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I am filling in for Deputy Shortall. Does the Minister agree the alarm bells are ringing for the most deprived and those on low incomes in our society? The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which I agree does outstanding work, has had a 70% increase in requests in the Dublin area alone since the beginning of the year. Looking at the consumer price index for April, does the Minister agree a major problem is developing for those on low incomes? According to the Central Statistics Office, the price of milk has risen by 30%, the price of bread by 17%, the price of beef by 9% to 10% and the price of eggs by 14%. Rents have risen approximately 11%, the cost of mortgage interest has risen 16% and liquid fuels are up 31%, with diesel alone accounting for 16%. These are astonishing increases on the costs of essentials for people on low incomes. We know the cost of energy for such people generally accounts for 10% plus of their income and basic foodstuffs account for approximately 30% to 40% of it. Does the Minister not agree a dire situation is developing? We have, perhaps, just entered the Cowen recession where people are desperately trying to make ends meet.

In my constituency, and probably in the Minister’s, the Saturdays of May are ones on which young children make their first communion. First communions take place in all parishes and many low-income families must deal with the extra costs involved. As we are now in a recession, does the Minister not agree that she needs to take urgent argent to index link social welfare awards and allowances to what is happening in the real economy?

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: I urge anybody who requires exceptional or urgent need payments, such as expenses relating to children, to seek the assistance available. Some €76 million has [349] been set aside in this year’s budget for that type of hardship payment. I hope people do not feel they have to depend on an organisation like the St. Vincent de Paul for that assistance.

Food inflation has been significant over the past year, but in the past month it was significantly less, down to 0.1%. Hopefully, the situation has stabilised. Inflation relating to clothing and footwear has also declined over the past year. We are conscious of the increase in the cost of fuel and as a result the fuel allowance has doubled in the past three-year period. The period covered by the allowance has also been extended by a week in recognition of the difficulties some people have.

Provision is made to support people on low incomes and social welfare through the budget. The budget rates have increased substantially, this year included, to well over the projected rate of inflation. It is a major priority of Government to try to ensure we keep ahead of inflation for our social welfare recipients and the moneys available are well targeted for that reason. We see the results of this in international studies showing the decline of the number of people here in consistent poverty. We must continue to improve in this area. I thank Deputy Broughan for his good wishes.

  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: This is the Minister’s first day answering questions on social and family affairs, but like all of us, she is aware of the issues. She mentioned community welfare assistance, which is valuable, but usually, when the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is called upon, this means people have not got the necessary support from community welfare, whatever the reason or their personal circumstances. Given the huge price increases and the rapid increase in unemployment, should the Minister consider a supplementary social welfare budget before the end of this session in July?

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: There is no need for a supplementary budget at this stage. We encourage people, if necessary, to approach their community welfare officer to ensure they are getting the full benefit of schemes such as the family income supplement. Although there has been an increase in the number of people taking up family income supplement, it has not been adopted to full capacity yet. Perhaps some of the people in difficulty have not applied for it and could benefit from it. The same is true with regard to the opportunity to avail of other schemes, like rent supplement. I will meet members of the St. Vincent de Paul society this week to discuss their concerns.