As it is not possible for me to deal with the complexities of the Social Welfare Bill 2010 in the limited time available to me, I will instead address what I consider to be the most important points.
We have a significant problem with truancy and it is high time that the child benefit is linked to school attendance. A universal payment could apply until children reach school age but the most effective way to arrest the problem of school drop-outs would be to link entitlement to child benefit with school attendance records. We could have a win-win situation with a bit of creative thinking between the Departments of Social Protection and Education and Skills. Most people accept that payments should be targeted at those who are most in need. Child benefit is paid universally regardless of recipients’ income levels. There is considerable anger that we pay approximately €15 million to people who are outside the State. I accept that cuts both ways and that Irish citizens are entitled to payments in other countries but by linking child benefit to school attendance we could address two problems at once. We need to start thinking outside the box. People who leave the country continue to receive payments which are often greater than the average weekly wage in the new accession states to the EU.
I acknowledge the Minister has set substantial targets in regard to fraud. The problem of fraud needs to be tackled aggressively because it betrays those who are in receipt of meagre payments as well as the taxpayer generally. We could afford to be more generous if we eliminated fraud. One of my constituents continues to runs a bone fide construction company employing three or four workers despite being hammered by large companies for which the only obligation in respect of contracts is a tax clearance certificate. He tendered for a small job worth €11,000 but was undercut by two people on social welfare who offered a price of €5,000. Why do we not oblige the sponsors of construction projects valued at more than €3,000 to notify the Revenue Commissioners? As tenders will thereby know Revenue is in the loop, they would be encouraged to operate within the law. Such a measure would be simple to introduce. Given that we own the banks, we should also direct them not to issue payments where people cannot produce tax clearance certificates.
Fair play to the pensioners. There is a consensus in this House that they should not be touched but this comes at a cost. A married couple with two dependent children currently receive €385.70 per week in social welfare benefits. It is not easy to live on that amount of money. These people are the real poor in today’s Ireland and this budget continues to hammer them. Many of them have lost their homes or are paying mortgages on negative equity. They are worse off than any pensioner. A married couple will receive a pension of approximately €440 in addition the household benefits package. Where is the justice for people who are trying to raise their children? Deputy Gogarty made some solid points about the education system but children are going to school without a good coat or proper shoes for the current inclement weather.
The Minister’s intentions in revising the entitlements for disability payments has caused fear among my constituents. I have tabled a parliamentary question on the issue because I an anxious to have it addressed in more detail. I urge him to make haste slowly in this area because we should not dismantle the current system without certainty that its replacement will work.