I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this Bill and acknowledge, as Deputy Billy Timmins did, her practical compassion in a very difficult situation. That compassion is reflected throughout these proposals. We cannot address the Bill without placing it in its proper context, namely, the requirement that €3.5 billion be taken out of the economy in accordance with the requirements of the EU-IMF programme and the inescapable fact that the country this Government inherited was effectively bankrupt. Every budgetary provision must be viewed in that context. I respectfully challenge Members opposite, such as Deputy Shane Ross, who urged that certain measures be rescinded on the basis that the savings forgone can be made elsewhere. Will they clarify precisely where this money can be found? It behoves anybody in this House who offers legislative proposals to be very clear in that regard. I address this point to Deputy Ross in particular.

The major achievement of this Bill and last year’s Bill is that they have maintained headline social welfare rates, in real terms and every other term. These are the fundamental payments across the entire spectrum of social protection. There is no taking from this achievement in the context in which we are operating. I congratulate the Government on that success and am proud to be associated with it. This is not to say that I am not aware, or anybody else on this side of the House is not aware, that we are in very difficult times and that many people are in a very dark place. I know that from my work, from extended family and from everybody I deal with. People are undoubtedly suffering and nobody is suggesting the contrary. However, the maintenance of headline social welfare rates is a huge contribution to the alleviation of that suffering.

The effort of the Minister to achieve job activation, to create an opportunity whereby persons on jobseeker’s allowance can truly be viewed as jobseekers, is a wonderful development. I encourage her to continue on that path. In this regard, I welcome the 2,500 additional JobBridge places, 2,500 Tús places, 2,000 additional community employment scheme places and 3,000 social employment scheme places. These amount to 10,000 extra places to assist jobseekers to make the transition to work.

The additional €30 million allocation for education and child care is of great significance, including the €2 million for school meals. Schools meals can affect people’s lives for the good. I say that as a former primary teacher. The implications of having school meals are considerable and I welcome the measure. It is simple and small but very real, with implications for learning, socialisation and development on every level, and I commend the Minister on it. I also applaud the 6,000 additional places that will be available for after-school care, a most significant step. In many ways, it negates the impact of what has happened in the area of child benefit, as, of course, it is intended to do. I salute the Minister because intervention that can allow people to go back to work will have real implications for the lives of the children in question. In many respects, direct interventions in the lives of children are very much in keeping with the spirit of the recent referendum about putting children at the centre of things. That is achieved here and I salute it.

We cannot avoid the issue of carers, for whom I have enormous regard, as does any right-thinking person in the country. There is a highly emotive dimension involved because we hold our carers in great regard and know the output of their work. They are the most productive sector of our economy, if one has the correct values. That is not at issue. It is a great achievement that we have maintained the headline rate for both the carer’s allowance and the half-rate carer’s allowance. The respite grant cut is regrettable and one of the first objectives I will bring to the Minister’s attention as we get the country sorted will be to reverse it. However, there has been an enormous increase in the budget in the entire area of carers, and something had to give in order to protect the headline payments. Although the cut is painful and we do not want to do it, it is minor in the sense that we are talking about €8 a week. Given that, I salute our carers. To the Minister, I point out that just as it is crucial to have the job activation schemes to which she is committed, it is similarly crucial that during the course of the coming years we should do everything we can to augment the work of our carers and put them centre stage. They are the vehicle that provides quality of life and takes people out of alternative care.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website