Dáil Éireann - Volume 654 - 14 May, 2008

Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on whether the top rate of maternity benefit, currently €280, is an amount that new mothers, during perhaps the most expensive times of their lives, can be expected to survive on. [18569/08]

[435] Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on increasing the maximum rate of maternity benefit to an amount that would provide an acceptable living standard for new mothers. [18568/08]

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if there are plans to oblige employers to make contributions to their employees’ maternity leave payments, in order to increase the payments. [18570/08]

Deputy Arthur Morgan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has plans to introduce paid paternity leave. [18566/08]

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: I propose to take Questions Nos. 95, 104, 105 and 131 together.

The Maternity Benefit scheme has been significantly improved, notably in the last few years, in terms of both the duration of the payment and the level at which it is paid. Budget 2006 provided for Maternity Benefit payments to be extended from 18 to 22 weeks. Following further extension of 4 weeks in Budget 2007 the period of Maternity Benefit payments rose to the current level of 26 weeks. Under Maternity legislation women may also choose to take a further 16 weeks leave without payment of benefit.

In 2000, the rate of maternity benefit payable was the equivalent of €219.41 per week over 14 weeks — or €3,071 for the duration. Maternity Benefit is now paid at a weekly rate of €280 over 26 weeks — or €7,280 for the duration. This represents an increase considerably ahead of the rise in average industrial earnings.

Some employment contracts may allow for additional periods of leave to be taken or for an additional top-up payment to be made above the normal entitlement to Maternity Benefit. These arrangements are discretionary private contractual arrangements agreed between employers and workers and, as such, are outside the realm of social welfare legislation.

Provision of a social insurance funded payment for paternity leave would be contingent on an underlying entitlement to statutory paternal leave which is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

I am satisfied that the rates and duration of maternity benefit in Ireland represent a reasonable response to the income needs of women on maternity leave.

Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recent report by Focus Ireland, Rental Systems in Ireland: The case for change; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18698/08]

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on Focus Ireland’s recent proposals that the housing income system of supplementary welfare allowance needs to be radically reformed and redesigned into an integrated housing benefit system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18705/08]

Deputy Shane McEntee asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recent submission by Focus Ireland in relation to the review of the adequacy and effectiveness of rent supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18704/08]

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: I propose to take Questions Nos. 96, 100 and 101 together.

[436] The rent supplement scheme is administered on my behalf by the community welfare service of the Health Service Executive. The purpose of the scheme is to provide short-term income support to eligible tenants living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source.

In response to an invitation from my Department, Focus Ireland recently made a submission in relation to a review of rent limits currently being undertaken by the Department. Rent supplement is subject to a limit on the amount of rent that an applicant may incur. Rent limits are set at levels that enable the different eligible household types to secure and retain basic suitable rented accommodation. The objective is to ensure that rent supplement is not paid in respect of overly expensive accommodation having regard to the size of the household.

The current rent limits were set in January 2007 and applicable to 30 June 2008. The limits were set following a review which resulted in rent limits being adjusted upwards for a number of household types at annual cost of €13 million. A consultative process is being used in the current review of rent limits, to ensure that the views of all relevant parties, including non-governmental agencies, are taken into account. The views put forward by Focus Ireland in this context are being considered and will form part of the review. Any adjustments to rent limits, resulting from this review, will be effective from 1 July 2008.

On the issue of the adequacy and effectiveness of the rent supplement scheme in general, the scheme works well in providing income maintenance support where required in particular circumstances by tenants in the private rented sector. However, the rent supplement scheme has, over the years, developed beyond the original objective of providing short-term assistance with accommodation costs. A significant number of people have now come to rely on rent supplement for extended periods, including people on local authority housing lists. Of the 62,000 people in receipt of rent supplement, almost 32,000 rent claims are of over 18 month’s duration.

The rent supplement scheme was not designed to meet long-term housing needs.

One of the measures introduced to address the issue of long-term rent supplementation is the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS) which gives local authorities specific responsibility for meeting the long-term housing needs of people receiving rent supplement for eighteen months or more.

Almost 13,000 people have been transferred from the rent supplement scheme to RAS since 2005. The objective is that local authorities will complete the transfer of all 32,000 rent supplement recipients with long-term housing needs to their care in time.

I am anxious that all avenues are explored as regards ways of providing support for those on long-term rent supplementation. This is being considered in the context of overall housing policy, which comes within the remit of my colleague the Minister for the Environment Heritage and Local Government. That Department already provides a range of housing supports through local government initiatives, including traditional social housing and RAS, both of which provide tenants with the benefit of Differential Rent. They also include shared ownership and affordable housing schemes.

Any further initiatives in relation to mortgage support will be framed by that Department in the context of its “Delivering Homes — Sustaining Communities” housing policy statement and “Increasing Affordable Housing Supply” published in 2007. I consider that it would be preferable to deploy resources directly in the housing support system rather than through the social welfare system. In the meantime the Department will continue working closely with [437] the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government in ensuring the success of RAS.

Overall, I consider that the current range of housing supports, together with the enhancements that may emerge from the current public consultation in relation to affordable housing, provide the potential to meet long-term housing needs in an appropriate and sustainable manner.

Deputy Seán Sherlock asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the supports in place to farm operators suffering from a disability in view of the fact that the average age of farm operators experiencing a disability is only 52 years old; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13066/08]

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: My Department currently operates a range of schemes for people with an illness or disability including the insurance based illness benefit scheme, the occupational injury benefit scheme for those who are unable to work because of an accident or illness suffered at work and the means-tested disability allowance scheme.

Farm operators normally pay Class A social insurance contributions and therefore, subject to satisfying the contribution and medical requirements, would be entitled to the full range of illness and disability payments. Should they suffer from a specified illness related to their employment or an accident while at work they can apply for injury benefit which would be paid for a period of 26 weeks.

A person who acquires an illness or disability outside the work environment, or who is still unable to work after 26 weeks of receiving injury benefit, may qualify for illness benefit. They must meet certain medical and contribution requirements in order to receive this payment which can be paid for a period of 52 weeks or, if more than 260 contributions have been paid, may continue indefinitely. A person who does not satisfy the contribution conditions for illness benefit, and whose means are below a prescribed level, may qualify for disability allowance instead.