Seanad Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees) – Statement on the Social Welfare Bill 2012
I welcome the Minister to the House. I wish to make the following statement as leader of the Independent Group of Taoiseach nominees, namely, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, Senator Martin McAleese, Senator Mary Ann O’Brien, Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell, Senator Katherine Zappone and myself.
We are aware of the difficult decisions that successive Governments have faced in recent years. However, we have a number of concerns with regard to some of the choices made in the Social Welfare Bill. As a group we have met and discussed the Bill that is before us today. We are, as everyone knows, a group of Independents who come from a wide range of backgrounds including civil society, NGOs, the arts, education, business and human rights.
Each of us has our own unique perspective and it was for this reason we were nominated by the Taoiseach to the House.
The Seanad was established to give a voice to different and challenging opinions of Irish society. We are doing so today. As Independent Senators we all have a role in offering our particular opinion based on our experience and to challenge the Government and the Dáil in decisions they have made. Each one of us has taken time to reflect on our individual viewpoints. In the past week I have had discussions with each of the colleagues in our group. I was struck by the fairness and empathy of their considerations regarding the matters before the House. We had hoped for, and would have supported, reform of the social welfare system. However, we are faced with a proposal to make cuts instead of fundamental reforms.
We have difficulty in supporting some specific aspects of the Bill. We have tabled three amendments which can be summarised as follows. In regard to the respite care grant, we cannot underestimate the importance of this grant to brave carers and the people for whom they care. The proposed cut is inequitable and goes to the heart of our values as a nation. In regard to child benefit, we are concerned about the absence of any measures to cushion families on low incomes against these cuts. Can the Government consider counteracting these cuts for low-income families by increasing the family income supplement and the qualified child allowance or by implementing a second tier payment? In relation to section 13, we agree that measures should be put in place to recoup over-payment but the manner in which this is done is important. Recoupment should be phased or staggered in such a way that the relevant person maintains a minimum income threshold throughout the period of repayment.
We do not plan to hinder the passage of the Social Welfare Bill today as it moves from Second Stage to Committee Stage. On Committee Stage tomorrow we will give our individual viewpoints on the amendments we have tabled. We will listen carefully to the Minister’s response and reflect, and on that basis determine how we will vote. We have a diversity of experience and perspectives in our group. We do not impose a whip on group members. There have been times in the past and I have no doubt there will be times in the future when we will not all vote in the same way. However, on this occasion we anticipate acting in unison.