Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 28 September 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection
Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection Remit and Legislative Agenda: Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection
I welcome the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty - it will take a little time to get used to that title - and I thank her for attending. She is accompanied by Mr. John McKeon, who was recently appointed Secretary General of the Department; Mr. Tim Duggan, assistant secretary; Mr. Ciarán Lawler; Ms Roshin Sen; and Mr. Tony Crean. They are all very welcome.
Members have been circulated with the opening statements and I will ask the Minister to make her opening statement shortly. Before that, I wish to draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Once again, I remind colleagues to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode. We have received the Minister's opening statement and I invite her to speak. I will then allow colleagues five minutes each to put questions; I will be strict on that time today. If there is time remaining after that, I will allow them follow up questions but to be fair to everybody, I will give them five minutes each at the outset.
I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to meet with them today. I look forward to working constructively with them in the weeks, months and years ahead. As they have requested, I will outline my priorities in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, including those arising from the expansion of the Department's remit into employment affairs. I will also, as is normal at this time of the year, outline how the Department is performing against the 2017 budget allocation, but I am keen to listen to members' views and what they see as the key issues for employment affairs and social protection in the years ahead.
It would be useful, in the first instance, to outline the scope and scale of the Department’s expenditure and its importance for millions of citizens in our country. An allocation of €19.85 billion was provided for the Department this year. This represents 37% of gross current Government expenditure. To the end of August, expenditure was just over €13 billion and is very close to target for the year to date.
Each week, about 1.35 million people, including pensioners, people with disabilities, people on maternity or sick leave, carers, and jobseekers, receive a payment from my Department. In addition, over 626,000 families receive child benefit each month for almost 1.2 million children. What is significant about these figures is not just their scale, but what they represent, which is a social contract where the State, on behalf of all our citizens, provides supports to those of our citizens who, for whatever reason, need help at certain times in their lives.
As the members are no doubt aware, there can be a misconception that most welfare payments go to the unemployed. That is simply not the case. The biggest single block of expenditure in 2017 will be on pensions, which will amount to approximately €7.3 billion or 37% of overall expenditure. Expenditure on working age schemes comprises two programmes, income supports and employment supports, which combined account for about €4.6 billion or 23% of total expenditure. Income supports, including jobseeker's payments, one-parent family payments, and maternity and paternity payments, account for almost €3.7 billion or 18% of overall expenditure. Expenditure on employment supports, including community employment, back to education-enterprise and various employment programmes, amounts to just under a €1 billion or 5% of my Department’s expenditure.
The next biggest expenditure subhead relates to illness, disability and carers' payments, which will amount to just over €3.8 billion or 19% of expenditure in 2017. Expenditure on children and families will account for nearly 13% of expenditure or €2.6 billion, of which €423 million will be spent on the family income supplement, FIS, paid to low income working families. Expenditure on supplementary payments like rent supplement, agencies such as the Citizens Information Board, CIB, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and miscellaneous services accounts for €863 million or 4% of our expenditure. Almost all of the expenditure incurred by the Department is demand led. The demand is driven by demographic trends, including an ageing population and economic factors such as developments in the labour market.
As we all know, Ireland has experienced a recovery in employment that has been much more rapid than even the most optimistic analysts projected. There are now more than 2 million people in employment, with over 48,000 net new jobs added in the year to the end of the second quarter. As a result of this growth in employment, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, data shows that the unemployment rate estimate stands at 6.1% for August, almost nine percentage points lower than its peak level of just over 15%. Long-term unemployment stands at 3.1%, which represents a great reduction of 27,000 people over the year. Youth unemployment has fallen to 16.5%, down from a peak level of over 30%.
These trends in unemployment have fed into the live register, which now stands at just over 248,000 people. There are now over 42,000 fewer people on the live register than the same time last year and 84,000 fewer people than this time two years ago. The ongoing fall in the live register is freeing up resources we need to meet rising demand in other areas, for example, pensions, people with disabilities and carers. We estimate that we will need another €180 million in 2018 for increasing numbers of pensioners as our population ages.
The question I and my Government colleagues are now considering is how we build a sustainable budget over the coming weeks that will benefit all our people, young and old, rural and urban, and to do so in a way that it does not spread resources too thinly so as not to make any difference.
There are a number of developments in 2017 that I would like to mention. The back to school clothing and footwear allowance was increased this July by 25%, from €100 to €125, for children between the ages of four and 11 and from €200 to €250 for children aged 12 years and over. That brings the total allocation for the allowance this year to €47.4 million, an increase of €10 million on what was originally proposed for 2017. The total number of families who have been supported under the scheme this year to date is 139,170. The scheme remains open until 30 September and the Department is continuing to process applications.
A Government decision was made in June to increase the weekly rate of direct provision allowance for children from €15.60 to €21.60 per week, while the weekly rate for adults increased from €19.10 to €21.60 per week. These increases took effect in August.
As was the case in the past three years when, due to the continuing improvement in the State's financial position, the Government was ultimately in a position to pay a Christmas bonus, there is no provision for a bonus in the Department's allocation for 2017 currently. However, I will continue to monitor the financial position and consult my colleagues, and I am hopeful that we will be in a position to pay a Christmas bonus again this year.
The Taoiseach announced to the Dáil on 15 June that labour affairs and labour law responsibilities would transfer from the then Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the then Department of Social Protection. At a national level, the following employment policy and legislative functions have transferred to my Department: employment rights policy and legislation; the Low Pay Commission; and legislation on the national minimum wage and related areas. At EU and international levels, the following employment policy functions are now the responsibility of my Department: a lead role in, and co-ordination of, the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council, EPSCO; the Employment Committee, EMCO, and the EU semester process; the response and input to the EU pillar of social rights; engagement with the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Eurofound; and the Council of Europe and co-ordination of responses on the Social Charter.
The details of the employment legislation that transferred to my Department following the Government decision are set out in the Labour Affairs and Labour Law (Transfer of Departmental Administration and Ministerial Functions) Order 2017, SI 361 of 2017. The transfer of functions involved 11 pieces of primary legislation in the area of labour affairs and labour law. The Department's name has changed to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to reflect these new responsibilities.
The transfer of these functions to the Department reflects the close linkages between the welfare and activation remit already in the Department and the operation of the labour market. As members of the committee will be aware, the conditions for receipt of in-work income supports, unemployment benefits, illness and disability payments, and pension and child support payments reflect and influence how the labour market operates. Bringing responsibility for employment affairs and social protection together under one Minister recognises this reality and will help to ensure, for example, that developments in respect of minimum rates of pay, working hours and illness absences within the workplace will be co-ordinated with the relevant State welfare supports. This will be a new challenge for our Department and is one that I am looking forward to leading in the months ahead. I am pleased to say that 13 staff from the former Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation joined us this week. I welcome them and hope that they have a long and happy time with us.
In the immediate term, my priority is to publish the employment Bill, which is being drafted. The committee is aware that the Bill is in response to a commitment in the programme for Government to tackle the problems caused by the increased casualisation of work and, in particular, to strengthen the regulations pertaining to precarious employment. The proposals contained in the Bill are the result of extensive consultations. They include public consultation following the University of Limerick study of zero-hour and low-hour contracts, in addition to detailed dialogue with ICTU and IBEC for several months. I have met IBEC and ICTU in recent weeks to hear first hand their concerns and ideas. The Bill aims to address a number of issues that have been identified where current employment rights legislation can and must be strengthened to the benefit of employees, particularly low-paid and more vulnerable employees, without imposing unnecessarily onerous burdens on employers and businesses. That is the trick that we must get right.
Looking ahead to the budget in the next couple of days, the programme for Government contained a number of commitments on employment affairs and social protection. These include increasing payments, such as pensions and carer's and disability payments, in line with inflation. We have already met this commitment through the increases granted in the 2017 budget, but we will review what more can be done in the context of this year's budget parameters. Any change in this regard will have to take account of other priorities, including improving payments to working families on low incomes and tackling child poverty, particularly in single-parent households.
In finalising proposals, I will have due regard to the output from the Department's annual pre-budget forum, which we held on 21 July in Dublin Castle. The forum enabled me to listen directly to the concerns and views of more than 45 NGOs, including advocacy and representative organisations. This was worthwhile from our perspective as well as theirs. It provided useful information to my officials and afforded me a great insight into the competing priorities in the welfare spending and employment affairs parts of our portfolio.
Although the fiscal space available for budget 2018 is yet to be finalised, the summer economic statement indicated that there would likely be less than €500 million of fiscal space available for new expenditure initiatives across all Departments' budgets in 2018. In this context, it is worth noting that a €5 increase in all weekly payments would cost €350 million, which would absorb most of that fiscal space. As such, I would welcome input from the committee as to what it believes are the main two or three priorities that my Department should be concentrating on in budget 2018. I look forward to this dialogue and to hearing members' suggestions and inputs.
I thank the Minister. Before I turn to the first questioner, Deputy Brady, I wish to mention that the committee has submitted a number of reports. The Minister commented on them and mentioned how she would welcome the committee outlining a number of priorities. Some of those priorities are contained in the reports. She will get more detail in a moment.
I wish to ask the Minister two questions that may help the committee in future. The Minister set out the Government's fiscal space and mentioned how much it would cost to grant €5 across all heads. On the other hand, she did not say what savings might be inherent. For example, she mentioned at the outset the reduction in unemployment. One must add that into the equation. If she has those figures, they would be helpful to the committee. It is not just a question of more expenditure. Are there inherent savings that will accrue that should be considered in the process? I will revert to the Minister on that point in a moment.
One of the reports that we published was on the issue of pensions, with which the Minister is familiar. She and the Minister before her, the now Taoiseach, clearly indicated that there would be a move away from an annual average pension system to a total contribution one. Our committee examined that matter, reported and made a number of recommendations. One of those recommendations had to do with the cohort of people - primarily women, but not exclusively - who had been caught in the transition and were now on a scheme that was introduced in 2012. Effectively, they are receiving significantly lower weekly payments than they would have had they qualified for pensions a number of years ago. The problem is that they had no control over the situation. They got to pension age and this is where they are now. Someone with an annual average of 25 contributions would, under the old system, have received €233 per week. Now, that person is getting €202. There are substantial differences.
The committee's recommendation was that the 2012 change should be suspended and people should revert to the old system until the new total contribution system was introduced. This is not just about the amount of money, but equality and the fact that the cohort of people who were caught had no other option. The Minister might try to address this matter in her response.
For the rest of the meeting, I will allow two members at a time to put their questions so that we can get detailed answers.
It was probably remiss of me not to thank the Chairman for the amount of reports that the committee had sent me in recent months. I hope that members will see that I have read them and have taken heed, given my public utterances about my intentions regarding some of them.
I must say that I found the reports published by this committee to be very valuable, particularly those on lone parents and on pensions. I would like to thank the committee for those reports and I should have mentioned that in my speech. The first question concerned savings. There are obviously some savings in the budget for our overall spend this year. I am reliably informed, however, that although the savings are made in our Department we do not own that money. It goes back, rather, to the Department of Finance before the end of the year and it is at that level that the Department of Finance decides where that money does and does not get spent. While I will be fighting very hard-----
Absolutely. At the end of the day there is a greater reduction in our unemployment figures, which has obviously made some savings. A large chunk of that has however been eaten up by the increase in people of pensionable age. To be clear then: there will be savings at the end of the year but they will go back to central Exchequer funds and will be distributed in accordance with whatever decisions are made within the budget parameters next week. I will be fighting very hard to address the specific issues raised by this committee over the past few months, and which I also hope to hear again today.
The issue of pensions has been raised. As I have said on a number of occasions, this is one of the most contentious issues that arises in my own personal constituency office in County Meath. It is not possible to address the pensions anomaly on a stand-alone basis. Firstly, it would probably take as long to do this as to address the overall reform of pensions, which is what we are currently carrying out towards a total contributions approach. I very much value the fact that this committee agrees with the Department's approach on this. To reverse this and go back to what the Chairman has suggested would in fact cost millions of euro, and that money is not available in the current budget. I am more concerned with fixing the anomaly, which has a very strong voice in our communities, in the context of moving towards a total contributions system as soon as we can. Our ambition is to reach this target by 2020. That is two years away and will not be fast enough for some people. I want, however, to address the entire pensions system by moving it to a fairer and more sustainable model sooner rather than later. We will address any further anomalies in the system at that stage.
I will conclude on this point, which I do not need the Minister to answer. We are disappointed that the anomaly is not being addressed through a short-term measure. The Minister is right: it does cost millions. The problem is that it is a relatively small cohort of pensioners who are paying those millions. The anomaly is disproportionately affecting this group. It is having a much greater impact because they are not losing €3 or €5 a week; they are losing quite a substantial amount. I ask the Minister again then if she could go back fully to the 2012 situation, while I absolutely understand how much that would cost. Perhaps she could go partially back. She has clearly indicated that in a few years time we will have a new system. In the meantime, however, it is the view of this committee that that particular cohort is not being treated fairly? I will leave it there but the Minister might reflect on that.
I will now take the questions of two colleagues at a time. Members have five minutes each and I ask them to respect that time. We will have direct answers after that. If there is further time after that we can come back for a second round of questions. The first questioner is Deputy John Brady.
My first point concerns the gender pay gap. The Minister's refusal to look at this is disappointing when there has been so much talk of the gender pay gap. The changes introduced in 2012 are unacceptable and the impact that these have had on 40,000 people, most of them women, is disgraceful. A change in this situation will cost money, absolutely, but we in Sinn Féin have been able to find the money in our alternative budget to address this. I again ask the Minister to have a look at this matter. It is totally unacceptable that women, for the most part, will have to wait until 2020 before we move to the proposed total contributions system.
Still on pensions, the other cohort that is currently being discriminated against by the State are those who, due to the nature of their employment contracts, are forced to retire at 65 years of age. They are then forced onto a jobseekers' payment for 12 months before being able to claim the State pension at 66. These people are down approximately €40 a week. I ask the Minister to have a look at this matter. The State transition pension was done away with but needs to be looked at again. This is a discriminatory practice in the Department and needs to resolved.
I want to touch on a number of other areas briefly. The previous Minister told this committee here last year that he was unable to take on board proposals put forward both by myself and by Age Action to bring forward a bulk payment on the fuel allowance. I welcome the fact that the Department has now rolled these proposals out. Could the Minister give us some detail on this matter? How many applicants have come forward at this point? How is the scheme proceeding? It is a welcome development.
I also have questions on the live register and specifically on labour activation measures such as JobPath. More than 150,000 people have now been referred over to Turas Nua and to Community Training and Education and Education Centres, CTEC. Last week I asked the Minister about the nature of these contracts, with particular regard to the initial focus for the long-term unemployed. I have all of the evidence for this and I will give it to the Minister. I ask her again whether the contract is solely to deal with the long-term unemployed and what provisions are made for people engaged in part-time work, many of whom are also being hounded by Turas Nua and CTEC. This is particularly true of teachers who, by the nature of their employment, cannot get permanent contracts and have to sub instead. I would like some information on that.
There are a number of priorities that I would like to see included in this year's budget. The Minister referred to this committee's report on lone parents. She will also be aware that I got an amendment passed to the Social Welfare Act 2016. This amendment, which was welcomed, mandated the Department to carry out on independent report on the changes made to the lone parent payment in 2012 and the impact this has had on lone parents. The Taoiseach told me yesterday that that report has indeed been carried out and that the Department has it. I would have hoped that this committee would have had seen it by now as it was to have been in published in June, well in advance of the budget discussions. Where is that report now and when will we get to see it? We know that 26.2% of children growing up in lone parent families live in consistent poverty.
My next point concerns discriminatory practices in the Department. There is discrimination towards young jobseekers under the age of 26. The Minister was quoted at a conference yesterday as saying that she would find it very difficult to live on €193 a week. I think she meant-----
We will not get into that. She said at any rate that she would find it difficult to live on. Our young unemployed people are expected to live on €102.70 a week. I ask the Minister to examine this and to end the discriminatory practices in the Department-----
I have asked the Minister about discrimination towards young jobseekers many times, including in the Chamber just last week. She replied that any young unemployed person who engages in any kind of training or upskilling will get the full payment. Some of these people have Masters degrees, Minister, and we now expect them to engage in further upskilling. They do not need upskilling. They need proper, sustained employment, not to be sent over to JobPath or whatever. They need jobs and this discrimination needs to end.
I concur with many of Deputy Brady's points on discrimination in the Department. Discrimination is one of the main areas that the Department will have to deal with in the future and if there is blatant discrimination then there is a problem.
A Department not having proper standards does not reflect well on other sections of society. One cannot stand over that. The Department has to work to resolve the pensions issue, particularly the gender gap issue. It was probably one of the worst cuts during the austerity years. No one really knew it was happening. It was brought in but it was three years later when people thought they would get the full pension €233 that they found out they were €30 short because of the changes in the bands and credits.
I am not au faitwith how the budget process works in the Department. I have a bit of an idea but do not know the full details. The Minister says she got €19.85 billion in her Department's budget last year. Is she expecting it to be the same this year? Is it cut to the cloth of employment and unemployment figures? Is the Minister not fighting to keep that €19.85 billion on the basis of discrimination in the Department? That is an argument that could be made to the Minister for Finance. We could gain something from dealing with this issue.
I agree with the strong points on young people made by Deputy Brady. We talk about money going into the Department. I also want to raise the issue of RCT, relevant contracts tax, on building sites and self-employment. The Department is losing crucial PRSI payments which could be used to offset some of the areas I have raised. It is a key area of work which has to be addressed. Looking at the numbers, there is little money coming into Revenue or the Departments from RCTs. Why is that? There are plenty of them out there. Why have the moneys not accrued to the Department? There is something wrong there. For example, people are getting paid on the two-year back to back to work scheme. They are on site and get grants but we are not seeing that money come back in again. There are issues with other self-employed workers such as English language teachers in private schools and workers in the film industry who do not get whole-day pay. As a result, moneys are not coming back into Revenue or into the Department of Employment and Social Protection in PRSI. That is one of the biggest areas of work that the Department has to examine. Significant sums of money in stamps and payments are being lost to the taxpayer. The conditions and pay of the workers in these industries is also an issue. It is right across the board with pilots in Ryanair and people in the film industry. We have had a number of people telling us how they cannot get full-time work in the film industry but only as a trainee with short-term employment. This is an issue that must be examined by the Department, as well as by the committee.
Legislation on banded hours must move on to Committee Stage and not be left behind. Deputy Cullinane’s Banded Hour Contracts Bill 2016 is quite advanced and we should work together to get it passed as quickly as possible. In August, the trade union, Mandate, was in the Labour Court about Dunnes Stores and banded hours. It was told to wait until the legislation came through the Houses of the Oireachtas which makes it more urgent.
Obviously, we will be looking to keep the moneys we have and I do not anticipate that our budget will be reduced next year. It will be in line with what we had this year. As I said, just because there is a drop in one column does not mean it is not taken up in another column. We anticipate we will have the same amount of money next year.
I am not sure we can call the pension issue discriminatory. I heard what the Deputy said about the cohort of people affected. It is not all women but it is women in the main. I am going to fix it but it will be in the context of overhauling the entire pensions system. I have a more ambitious aim to do that quicker than we had originally envisaged. I know matters are complicated and we must get a new IT system to put that new platform on. However, we are going to work exceptionally hard over the coming months to ensure the total contribution system model comes in, as soon as is physically possible, to address the issue of the pension gender division raised by the Deputy.
The people who are affected by this are not the most vulnerable pensioners we have. If they were, they would qualify for a non-contributory pension at €233 per week. That does not excuse the fact there are still people getting less than they potentially could have or would have expected. We are going to address it in the overall total contribution model which we will move to as soon as we physically can. We will have to have some public consultation around that to ensure we use the right platform and there is a large awareness of what we are moving towards when it comes in for new entrants in 2020.
I am interested in the Deputy’s view on precarious employment, banded hours contracts and the low-paid in insecure situations. I have said that one of my priorities is that legislation in this area is drafted and published before Christmas. I have an ambition to bring it to the House before Christmas. I met with ICTU which expressed its views in strong terms. I agree 100% with its suggestions. I also met with IBEC but I do not 100% agree with the concerns it raised. Our job as a Parliament is to introduce legislation which protects the most vulnerable people. That is what we are going to do and my aim is to do that before Christmas with the Opposition's help.
When I got this job, I was under the impression there were significant amounts of social insurance receipts not being paid by particular employers. It is not as large as I would have thought originally, however. I will extend the rights that exist in the social insurance scheme to all self-employed people, so they enjoy the same social insurance rights as employees. I know this is an issue Senator Butler has been championing since the first day he got here in 2011. With this particular legislation and other matters we are considering, I will ensure the rights of those self-employed who work for somebody else will be enshrined in legislation to ensure they enjoy the same employment rights, terms and conditions as an employee does. Having said that, there is still something inside me that says it is not fair to allow employers, particularly sectorial small employers who are employing contractors, to not pay some sort of social contribution towards those. To that end, I recently had an interesting discussion with the Revenue Commissioners and we will work on that. If the Deputy has any ideas how we can address this, I would be interested in hearing them. This is not off the table. It is definitely a work in progress for me.
Deputy Brady spoke about the gender pensions issue too. As I said, it will be addressed in the overall reform of our pensions system with regard to moving to the total contribution method. He alluded to the fact they were the most vulnerable people. In actual fact, that is not necessarily the case. As I said, if they were, they would be entitled to a non-contributory pension of €233 per week.
The transition from when people retire to when they go on to a pensionable age does not just affect people who are 65. There are many people who are older who are on the live register. Our ambition is not to put them on the register. It was the Parliament which made the decision several years ago to extend the pensionable age from 65 to 66.
I believe everyone is aware that we will move to an age of 67 in a number of years and then on to an age of 68 by the 2020s. That decision was democratically accepted by the Parliament and we are not going-----
The legislation went through all Stages of debate, as do all items of legislation, so there was ample debate on its passage. I will try to find employment for older people who want to work. That the legislation was passed is an acknowledgement that people are living longer and healthier and perhaps we must get industry to recognise that 65 is an arbitrary retirement age and people of 65, 66 or 67 are often willing and able to stay in their jobs. We need to start that discussion and get the magic number of 65 out of employers' heads and that will be considered by the Government.
I thank the Deputy for his welcome for the changes to the fuel allowances. It was one of the simplest things to do and arose from the suggestions of others. It has been exceptionally well received. In excess of 50,000 people have asked for their bulk payments to be made twice a year and as people talk with their feet, the measure obviously is being welcomed.
The Taoiseach did not yesterday say that we have the lone parents report on which he engaged with the Deputy last year because we have not yet received its final draft. As soon as it is issued to me, which I hope will be within the next week, it will be laid before the House and I will send a copy to the committee. Members are very aware that the significance of the findings made by the committee in its report on lone parents were not lost on me and the report reinforces my belief that it is difficult enough to bring up children when there are two parents in the household. Whatever the State can do to enable lone-parent families, which are mainly led by working mothers, to keep more of the money they are earning when they go back to work will be a very large priority for me, as I have said previously.
As I told Deputy Brady last week, the Government is not discriminating against those who are under 25. There are a variety of methods for a person between 18 and 25 who needs to take home €193 every week to so do. Back to education is only one option.
The ambition of the Department, the Government and most Deputies in Dáil Éireann is to get the unemployed or under-employed into full-time employment. JobPath was an ambitious programme launched by the previous Minister for Social Protection and it has hit the money. There was a target of finding full employment for 8% of the 120,000 people sent to JobPath in the past 18 months. Both Seetec and Turas Nua have exceeded their targets and found work for 15% of those people. It is working exceptionally well. It looks after the long-term unemployed and long-term under-employed. Those people who are in part-time work, to whom the Deputy specifically referred, and who are also claiming another welfare payment from the State are classified as under-employed. Their ambition is to be in full-time employment and the vast majority of them welcome the opportunity to work with JobPath. We conducted a survey of the 120,000 people who have gone through the doors of JobPath over the past 18 months and only approximately 300 people had a complaint. The vast majority found it exceptionally worthwhile and I suggest the 15% who have found full employment would speak about it in glowing terms. It is a project that has worked exceptionally well. Members are aware that it is going to come to an end but we will be reviewing what we do, how we do it and how to ensure that all the activation programmes we run are in the best interests of the unemployed or under-employed in finding full-time work.
I welcome the Minister and offer my congratulations to Mr. McKeon on his appointment as Secretary General. I apologise for my croaky voice. I thank the Minister for her presentation and authentic engagement with the reports produced by the committee. I will not go over the ground again in terms of pensions but perhaps it is not an adequate solution to talk about the non-contributory pension because the issue at hand is a matter of economic independence for women. Because the non-contributory pension takes account of household costs it would not be an option for many women. It is also discriminatory because there are situations whereby a person who has made the same amount of contributions as another is disadvantaged by the averaging system. It has been acknowledged by Governments for many years that the system disadvantages and discriminates against some people who have made the same contribution as others. We are moving to total contribution because the current system is flawed. The problem with the 2012 changes is not solely what was done then but that they were changes on top of a system that was acknowledged to be flawed. As was very ably said by the Chairman, it will cost millions to amend the changes that were introduced as austerity cost-saving measures but the cost will not disappear if the system is not amended in the budget and, rather, it will be carried by women and is a very systematic disadvantaging of women. We are trying to strengthen the Minister's hand in addressing this issue. It is a concern for all of Government because the Government has a commitment, for example, to gender and equality proofing of the budget. That is a key point because there is no clearer issue that addresses concerns of gender and equality. Extra money should be found to address this anomaly because it is an all-of-Government concern. The Minister should make that demand and I urge her to do so.
There are several other anomalies in respect of pensions and I engaged with the Minister's predecessor on some, such as voluntary contributions. There are also questions regarding anomalies for carers but perhaps they can be addressed at another time as I do not want to go into too much detail on them.
When considering the new system and auto-enrolment, the Minister has emphasised she does not wish to see discrimination based on income . The current tax credits and Revenue system in terms of tax relief for private pensions is discriminatory as it gives a higher protection to those on the marginal rate and therefore there is a concern in that regard. I welcome that the Minster is committed to trying to address it in any new system. I would like her to assure members that she will also address the issues of care and how care credits may be given or care recognised within any new system. The issue of care will not only be addressed in terms of auto-enrolment but in terms of a total contribution system when that is commenced. I again thank the Minister for her engagement on that issue but it needs to be further addressed.
I very much welcome the Minister's statements over the summer regarding lone parents. She is committed to the issue and has responded to it. There is a very strong mandate from society and from this committee in its report to address the issue while bearing in mind issues of gender and equality because the figures in terms of poverty and deprivation in respect of lone parents are quite shocking, as the Minister is very aware. Perhaps she could expand on some of the recommendations made by the committee and her thinking on them. Some do not have a direct cost but probably would have a knock-on cost. One such recommendation involves re-arranging the qualifications for various options for lone parents. There are specific recommendations in areas such as maintenance, housing and education and I will not address all of those issues. However, recommendations I will mention are an increase in the qualified child payment for teenage children in particular given the evidence the committee has seen - evidence funded by the Department through the Vincentian Partnership - of the higher cost of teenage children, ensuring the income disregard is restored for both the one-parent family payment and jobseeker's transitional payment and ensuring return to education as an option is not compromised by hurdles in respect of the rent allowance or SUSI.
There is also an anomaly relating to FIS where, for example, 15 hours of child care is available but 19 hours of work are required to be entitled to the payment. That can be particularly hard on lone parents.
Another crucial question relates to separating activation supports from conditionality and developing quality part-time employment services. A key element is people remaining on the jobseeker's transitional payment until their child reaches the age of 18. They could access the supports without conditionality. That is a wider question. I acknowledge the Minister is piloting a scheme with jobless families but many more of the hidden unemployed could be brought into employment if, for example, the requirement for full-time availability was removed and the message of conditionality separated out with the focus instead on empowering people who want to voluntarily seek employment and widen access to employment supports.
I hope to communicate with the Minister in respect of the citizens information services and the public services card. I compliment her on putting the public duty relating to equality and human rights into the strategic plan and I would like to engage with her further on that as well.
I thank the Minister for attending and I congratulate her on her new role. I also congratulate Mr. McKeon on his new role. My ears perked up when the Minister mentioned that all social insurance benefits would be extended to the self-employed. Can she confirm whether that will include illness benefit? Will that be announced in the budget or did I hear her incorrectly?
A minor issue which has been raised time and again in my constituency clinics is the income threshold for the fuel allowance. Deputy Brady raised a separate issue relating to the fuel allowance. A small adjustment could be made to the threshold but it would be meaningful for people who are not eligible for the allowance. There are ancillary benefits in various areas around the county when someone is in receipt of the allowance. Certain HSE areas give home insulation grants to private homeowners. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on it.
She and other colleagues have raised the issue of the retirement age and the lacuna whereby people who have worked all their lives must sign on for a year on foot of a stipulation in their employment contract that they have to retire at 65 years. Has the Department considered legislation to make that stipulation null and void and, for example, to apply a red hand rule to such a stipulation to make it less onerous on employers? Currently, an employer has to point out to the employees that they must retire at age 65 and then sign on. This should be considered given the proposed changes to the retirement age coming down the tracks. People seem quite shocked that they have to sign on when they retire. They do not mind but they cannot believe they have to do it. If they knew about it in advance, they might be able to plan for the few years they have to sign on. Many of them have worked all their lives and the idea of not working is strange to them.
I refer to stopgap payments. When people in receipt of a jobseeker's payment take up full employment, they will not be paid for, perhaps, a month and sometimes they are left without an income for that period. Discretionary payments were available in the past but they would not apply to them because they are not in a bad way. They are in a better position because they have taken up full-time employment but they have no income for a month. The Minister should examine this.
Will there be an increase in the old age pension? I fully agree with Senator Higgins regarding gender and pension inequality and she has been championing this issue since I first met her in the Seanad.
Has the Minister considered an increase in the hours people are permitted to work while receiving various supports from the Department, including FIS, in order that they are encouraged to work while still receiving State support?
It is not just my ambition to extend the same employment rights and social insurance rights to the self-employed as enjoyed by those who are employed. Senator Butler has been talking about this for years and work on this was started by the previous Minister. It will not all happen in this budget and I am sorry if I gave Senator Ardagh that impression. Last year, hearing, eye and dental benefits were extended to the self-employed while the invalidity pension will come online at the end of the next month for them. I hope over the next few years, as the economy recovers, to provide equal benefits for both PAYE workers and the self-employed. That will be based on the actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund and how it is determined that will be funded and spent. I would, therefore, not get too excited about the upcoming budget.
I have not considered the income threshold for the fuel allowance. Changes to the allowance would be part of the overall budgetary considerations we are making and will make in the future and I have not considered it. I will, however, keep it in mind.
The Senator referred to the retirement age. First, there is no mandatory retirement age of 65 in law.
The practice has been embedded in people's minds for donkey's years and we need to change that. The only way to change that is to lead by example. If we can do something as a State to change people's mindset and, for example, encourage them to put off their retirement by incentivising them, a separate body of work will need to be done. The State will have to lead by example because it is not as simple as just bringing in legislation that says people have to retire at 65 because employee contracts have standing in law, and no law states people have to retire at 65. We, therefore, need to lead by example on that.
The stopgap payment suggested by the Senator is a super idea but we already do it. I am not sure if she has encountered people who have experienced difficulties. If so, she might send me information on that but we provide these payments, particularly for people who take up paid employment and who were used to a weekly payment from the State and who may have to wait a month for their wages. People cannot live on fresh air having taken up a job. We currently work with people and give them stopgap payments.
That is no problem.
The Senator also raised the old age pension increase and the increase in hours for social welfare recipients. Changes to the schemes we operate or payments we make will be considered in the context of the budgetary negotiations we are having and input is very much welcome from people. She will see the fruits of those negotiations in the next ten days. Fingers crossed that all goes well.
I am at pains in response to Senator Higgins to emphasise that I did not say it is a cop-out to say people can take the non-contributory pension. I totally recognise the issue that has been raised not just by her but by the entire committee. What I said was in direct response to Deputy Brady's comment that these were the most vulnerable pensioners. In most cases, they are not but that is not to suggest what she said is invalid. I agree with her. I would like to be clear that my comment on the non-contributory pension was in direct response to Deputy Brady. It is not a panacea for those who take home less on a weekly basis because of the current situation. There is not an ideological issue here where I say the Senator is wrong and I am right. I would love to be able to fix it but there are many competing good causes in the overall budget, which will not increase this year given the fiscal space is so low.
However, I hear the Senator loud and clear and I do not disagree with her.
I acknowledge the valuable work that carers do. Whatever we can do, as a State, to recognise the work they do and the contribution they make, over and above what we normally do in our normal daily lives with our children and our parents, in particular those who have exceptional needs, we will do. I want to acknowledge very clearly and be appreciative of the work that carers do. It is hard work, and I recognise that. Anything we can do to improve their situation is something I would be very keen to look at.
On the overall context of the report on social protection and lone parents, which I believe the chairperson gave me either on the day or the day after I was appointed, I reiterate that I do not need to be sold on this. I have huge admiration for anyone in this country, whether a man or, as is mostly the case, a woman, raising a family on his or her own because it is bloody hard work. Anything we can do, as a State, to support people in their endeavours to provide a better family life for their children and themselves, I am already sold on. The individual recommendations made in the report are all under consideration in the context of the budgetary discussions. I will do my very best to make sure this budget has a significant impact on people who are rearing children and families on their own. That is not just to talk about extra money but also about extra services. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, is equally and keenly aware of the difficulties, particularly with child care and the child care hours. In her deliberations, she will be taking into consideration the inputs from this committee through its report, which was very valuable.
I welcome the Minister and wish her all the best in her new job. I also welcome Mr. John McKeon. During the recession we had the self-employed disaster where, basically, the self-employed suffered big-time. We had to lower threshold levels to try to get people to become self-employed and, thankfully, the Minister of the day, Deputy Joan Burton, and the then Government did that. It was an absolute nightmare. One of the issues I found was that people who could have been paying an S class stamp did not know their entitlements. I asked a couple of years ago whether, when people get a P60 or P45, it could not be printed on the document exactly what that stamp entitles them to. Is it a big secret that they are not meant to know what they are entitled to because they might come looking for it? Could we look at that issue? It is not a big thing to say what a stamp entitles a person to, no more, no less.
It is wonderful that we have 2 million people in employment. I would say that 360,000 to 400,000 of them are self-employed and the number is growing. We have come a long way since I was elected to the Dáil and the Seanad. At a previous committee meeting I was told by somebody from the Department that a new stamp for a self-employed person would be at least 30%. That is on the record. The Mangan report was published subsequently and it stated we could set up a new stamp at 5.5% that would automatically give sick pay and disability pay to the self-employed, and we could introduce that over a period of perhaps 12 months, 18 months or two years. At the moment the self-employed person pays 4% and basically it gives a contributory pension when they come to pensionable age.
I know this is a priority for the Government and I thank Fianna Fáil, along with Fine Gael, for putting it in the programme for Government. I hope it is one of the main priorities for the coming budget. I would like to see this being mandatory but I will be happy once self-employed people are recognised. Whether it is mandatory or voluntary, I will be the happiest man in this country come budget day if we see a new stamp for the self-employed, because self-employed people have been discriminated against since the beginnings of this State. We are talking about something that should have been done 30, 40 or 50 years ago, but there was no voice for business people and the self-employed, and they were just left there, as it were. We then saw the disaster of the recession.
I welcome the new PRSI benefits for dental and hearing related treatment, and it is fantastic to see that coming back on stream with the S class stamp in order that there is no charge to self-employed people. We are the only country in industrialised Europe that does not have cover for the self-employed through social protection, a point that bears repeating. It varies in different countries from voluntary to mandatory and it is done under different schemes, but there was nothing in Ireland except the pension when the person came to pensionable age. Self-employed people do not want anything for nothing. They will pay for their new stamp, they will pay for a safety net and they will pay for security.
Last but not least, I welcome the increase in the back to school allowance. The Government in which I was involved cut that and it was a very hard pill to swallow at the time, so I welcome that it is going back up. I would also like to see the Christmas bonus going back up because it is huge for local businesses, local shops and the local community, in particular in helping keep small shops going over the Christmas period, given those who get their Christmas bonus will spend it locally.
I welcome the Minister and her officials. I want to put on record my appreciation for the work, dedication and professionalism of the Department and its officials, given I and my office are in contact with the Department multiple times every day. I welcome the changes that have been made in that there is a good fit between employment affairs and social protection. I note the Minister in her opening address said 30 new staff have just moved over. In regard to the reforms necessary to establish this new Department, how far have those progressed or have they concluded? Is there a timescale for that work to be finished?
I welcome the improvements in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and the introduction of the fuel allowance bulk payments. With regard to paternity benefit, which was also introduced by this Government and which I welcome, what are the Department and its officials doing to try to drive take-up? We need to get the message out that this payment is available. I have tried to publicise it locally in Clare and I am sure the Department has some sort of public relations campaign. However, we need to get the message out as I believe the take-up could be a lot greater.
Senator Butler referred to the Christmas bonus. I agree that the reintroduction of a 100% Christmas bonus would be very welcome. It has obvious benefits for the recipients and the economy and would give a huge boost to people who really need it at that time of year. I agree with Senator Butler on that.
I also echo the Senator's sentiments in regard to the self-employed. I recognise the improvements that have been made and urge that further improvements would be made to improve the lot of the self-employed. I will not go over the other points that have been made.
If Senator Butler does not mind, I will respond to the questions in reverse order. I will also talk about self-employed people in the context of what Senator Butler raised, if Deputy Carey does not mind, starting with the Christmas bonus. As I think I said to other Deputies, that will be discussed in the context of the overall budget. Those deliberations will not be concluded for the next couple of weeks but we have an ambition in that regard. As I said yesterday, regarding the social contract that exists between the State and people who need support at various stages in their lives, I very much recognise how difficult it is to live on a fixed income, so anything the State can do, it is our responsibility to make sure we do it.
I will tell Deputy Carey about paternity leave. I hear the points he makes, and we have struggled with this because there has been a lower uptake than we would like. To that end, we ran a national advertising campaign in August of this year because it was the first anniversary of the introduction of the payment. We did radio, online, social media and we even had the ad in which Mary talked to Johnny. We did everything we could on that anniversary to highlight paternity leave. I fear there are probably other fundamental reasons behind our male colleagues in Ireland not taking it up in the same numbers as our ladies do, but we will look at it again. Sometimes I wonder: there are so many positive benefits that come out of this Department, yet one still meets people who say they did not know about this or about that. It is a constant struggle and we are very much aware of it. We are trying to make it as easy as possible to deal with the people whom we are here to serve.
I echo what Deputy Carey said in his opening remarks. I worked in the Taoiseach's Department earlier this year, and the people there are absolutely deadly; they are great. I have never come across such a bunch of people - both the people sitting around me and the wider range of people I have met - as those with whom I have had the privilege to work in the past couple of months in the Department of Social Protection. I have genuinely never seen the ethos, the energy, the passion, the commitment, the enthusiasm and the particular grá for looking after people who are more vulnerable than others in society that exist in this Department. It is a real honour for me to be able to work with them and I totally echo the remarks Deputy Carey made about the Department.
The 13 staff have already moved over. The transition was absolutely seamless. They have been integrated into the organisational structure for a number of weeks at this stage. Their remit and authority regarding specific items of legislation have not necessarily changed but their structure has been very much welcomed into Áras Mhic Dhiarmada, Store Street, they are now part of a larger and wider team and, as I said, they are very welcome. The budget, which is just €1.6 million, has been transferred and, as I said earlier to Senator Higgins, the first legislation we will publish will be the employment rights Bill. I am absolutely adamant not only that it will be published before Christmas but also that, with the good help of all members, we will get it into the House and get it started to make sure we enshrine those people's rights in legislation.
Apart from what came in the budget last year, there have been welcome changes in the Department, and I acknowledge Senator Butler's acknowledgement of the fact that we have increased by €10 million the back-to-school allowance. It has helped 137,000 families. Therefore, it is not small change; it is a significant increase of 25%. One would hope to be able to bring it back to the same levels at which it was before the recession took place and the country fell off a cliff. The size and amount of reductions that have had to take place over the past number of years have struck me. People felt those reductions; they were real and again, from our perspective, our social contract is to try to return whatever fruits the growing economy brings to those who need it the most. The increase in the back-to-school allowance is particularly welcome. We are now spending just over €47 million on it. I wish to acknowledge the fuel allowance changes that Deputy Carey welcomed. When one considers the fact that 57,000 people are availing of it, the changes made common sense, were easy to do and were the right thing to do, and I acknowledge that.
Regarding self-employed people, we are exceptional in this country in that Irish people have a much higher rate of entrepreneurial genes in our bodies than other countries' populations have. There are thousands and thousands of enterprising self-starters in this country. Senator Butler is right in this regard, and Deputy Carey alluded to it too. They are some of the most hard-working people who had the initiative not only to set up and create their own jobs, but also to employ other people in this country over the years. They were one of the groups of people hardest affected during the recession because not only did they lose their jobs, they also did not get access to the same support services that were available to all other groups unfortunate enough to lose their jobs, as they did in their tens of thousands over the past ten years. Thankfully, that has changed now and that corner has been turned. We welcome that a survey done of more than 20,000 self-employed people suggested they would be willing to pay a higher percentage of social insurance. We are doing an actuarial review and that will be taken into consideration. The review will be issued to us in the coming weeks. We will use it to form part of a much larger deliberation as to how we improve the Social Insurance Fund over the coming years but, more importantly, what it delivers for the people. I think the committee is well aware that the Taoiseach wants to improve the delivery of that social insurance contract with Irish people and it is my job to make sure that extends to people with self-employed status. Personally, I do not favour having to ask self-employed people to pay any more but I am only one voice at that table. However, it is acknowledged, and it is welcome, that the survey of self-employed people has found they would be willing to pay up to 5.5% more. The difficulty, as the Senator Butler knows, is that it is all in or all out; it cannot just be the people who want to pay in. It is all or nothing. There are industry difficulties in this regard and some self-employed people do not want to pay in, but my determination, as well as that of the Department and the Taoiseach is to make sure we extend the same benefits to people who are brave enough to provide their own jobs for themselves and for others as those for people who go to work in other employment scenarios.
Senator Butler acknowledged the Mangan report. That was a very large body of work. It did not just recommend the 5.5% increase; all the other recommendations will form part of whatever the new social contract, which will be arrived at over the course of the coming months based on our deliberations, will be. The Senator's suggestion about putting one's entitlements on one's P60 is interesting. I think An Post would be delighted if we did that because there would probably be about 20 pages in every envelope.
A huge amount of information is available to everyone on our website, and I am not saying this just because I am in company, but it is a really easy website to navigate. There is a huge amount of pictorial elements to it. It is not a difficult website to find or navigate, but our challenge is probably to get people to go to the website in the first place. I have had a similar issue with our Twitter account over the past couple of weeks. My Twitter account has more followers than does the Department's account and that is a bit odd, given we deal with millions of people weekly and monthly, so there is a challenge. We need to make sure the information we have is exceptionally easy to get and to navigate. It is just a matter of trying to bridge that gap between people not knowing what their entitlements are to when they are entitled to them and when those entitlements kick in or start to wane. That is a challenge but it is one I am aware of and one we will look at. Again, I acknowledge Senator Butler's keen expressed interest that we would continue to give the Christmas bonus to people, and he is right. People spend it in their local communities and on things they need. I was at the launch of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, INOU, booklet yesterday that the Department funds. It is an exceptionally valuable resource and outlines in a really simple way every single scheme that exists within the Department, how one gets on to each and one's entitlements. It is a deadly booklet. I was very struck yesterday by something a lady said to me. Someone asked why we are wasting money printing the booklet and said we should just put it on our website. The lady said to me that in order to access broadband, she needs €50 a month to be able to give to Sky, Eir or whoever else provides broadband, and not everyone on a fixed income has that €50 a month. Another lady mentioned the fact that even an ink cartridge costs €80. When people make sweeping statements about people on fixed incomes, these are things they do not acknowledge or recognise, namely, that there are additional expenses to being able to access information. That is why we fund a booklet as valuable as Working for Work that was published yesterday by the INOU and we will continue to fund it. I acknowledge the Senator's wish for the Christmas bonus to be paid this year and acknowledge the increase he welcomed in the back-to-school allowance.
I apologise for my late arrival.
I congratulate the Minister and welcome her to the committee. Like other members, I extend my thanks to the staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the courtesy and consideration which they always afford me when I have to contact them, which I do very regularly. Many of the points which I wished to raise have obviously already been raised but I would like to zone in on a few.
Deputy Brady mentioned the report on lone parent's allowance which we were promised by the previous Minister. The reality of life is that the 2012 changes definitely worsened the position of lone parents. I was very heartened to hear what the Minister said about how damned hard it is to raise a child on one's own. The Minister who brought about the changes to the lone parent's allowance said that the reason for the change was to encourage such parents to work. It must have been the first time in the history of the universe that people were encouraged to go out to work by being penalised for doing so and by having their situation made worse in respect of their lone parent's allowance. I suspect that the report will uncover all of this. I hope it does. The Minister says that she expects to see the report in the coming days. Will she see it in time to feed its recommendations into the forthcoming budget, or at least into the social welfare Bill which will follow the budget? One should look at the number of parliamentary questions on lone parent's allowance which are tabled in the Dáil. In the context of the total social welfare bill, the cost of some of the changes which we, and which this committee, have suggested, such as increasing the amount one can earn and so on, is quite low. There is also the additional benefit that when more people are encouraged to work, money comes back in the other direction.
On the self-employed, I heard what Senator Butler said. I believe the Senator was talking about the compulsory system and the voluntary system. In effect, the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, had to make a choice, and last year he decided that he would use neither the compulsory nor the voluntary system. He extended the entitlement to the invalidity pension to the self-employed, which we all welcomed, and paid for it out of the taxpayers' money. That is also a valid way to do it. People do not have to be compelled to pay any more.
The Minister indicated to me on a number of occasions in the Dáil that he was also favourably disposed to extending social protection in the form of jobseeker's benefit to the self-employed, which employees get. He also indicated to me that, speaking personally for himself, he was reasonably well-disposed to the idea of doing that on a voluntary payment basis. The Minister, Deputy Doherty, favours the all-in system, which would be a somewhat different approach. I welcome the extension. From December, self-employed people with a certain amount of contributions will be able to get the invalidity pension for the first time. That is progress. There are other entitlements with different criteria which employees can get, such as illness benefit. Employees can also get jobseeker's benefit and so on. Will the Minister indicate whether there will be any new movement in the budget towards the extension of those benefits to the self-employed? What is to happen in December was announced and provided for in the last budget. Will there be any improvements in this budget?
I also wish to ask the Minister about the forthcoming legislation on banded-hours contracts, and I welcome her intention to introduce this legislation quickly. I noted carefully what the Minister said in reply to one of my colleagues, I believe it was Deputy Collins. She said that she had spoken to both ICTU and IBEC and that she more or less agreed with ICTU's approach. ICTU has also approached me about this issue. I am sure they have approached everybody here. ICTU have recommended and suggested to me that the legislation should contain a provision whereby, when a banded-hours contract is introduced, there should be a review to see the reality of the situation. In other words, if the band was between 20 and 25 hours, instead of zeroing in on the lower end, that is the 20 hours, there should be a review to see what the actual performance was. If the actual average, over whatever period, is agreed as having been 23 hours, for example, it should be regarded legally as a 23-hour contract. Is it the Minister's intention to accede to that? It must be if she is saying that she agrees with ICTU, because that is precisely what it is proposing.
Senator Ardagh raised a question about stop-gap measures for people waiting for social welfare benefits. I know that in theory and on paper there is a thing called supplementary welfare which one can supposedly get at the discretion of the local community welfare officer when one is waiting for a benefit to come through. I can tell the Minister for a fact that in the case of somebody in Limerick who is waiting for jobseeker's allowance or some other allowance, it would be easier to rob a bank with a water pistol than to get supplementary welfare allowance. They keep telling us that the money is not there or that the claimants do not qualify for it. I could give the Minister a whole variety of reasons as to why they do not qualify. They are left at the mercy of their families. The supplementary welfare allowance system needs to be looked at radically.
We had an exchange on the question of Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS and Citizens Information centres the other day. I received a copy of the cost-benefit analysis, which I confess I have not yet had the opportunity to read. Has the Citizens Information Board signed off on that? Is there agreement among members of the board on that document? That is the first issue.
Perhaps the Minister will comment on the second issue. I remember when the representatives of the Citizens Information Board were before the committee advocating for the changes. They said that the present system was cumbersome and that the new system would result in savings which we would be able to use to assist clients. It is my understanding that the Citizens Information Board has sought €4 million extra in this year's budget to help implement the changes. That would seem to contradict that assertion. Will the Minister comment on that?
The Minister mentioned the need to change our mindset about people retiring at 65 and so on. I could not agree with her more on that issue, but the problem is that it could take a generation to change people's mindset, as the Minister knows. There are two Bills on mandatory retirement, one from Deputy Brady and one from myself. The Minister says that contracts are in place and that they cannot be overruled by legislation. My advice is the opposite. My advice is that, if it is in the public interest, legislation can overrule existing contracts. I ask the Minister to advance consideration of that Bill.
I wish the Minister and the Chairman well in their new positions. I will be very brief because most of the questions I had have been addressed. I have one question in particular relating to the Minister's predecessor. Her predecessor made a huge public relations own goal with the campaign "welfare cheats cheat us all". Will the Minister be continuing that culture in her Department? In our opinion, and I believe I can speak for most of the members of this committee, it was a pretty vile move by the Minister's predecessor to have the Department target a small section of social welfare expenditure. It was extremely unfair and a public relations disaster for Deputy Varadkar and the Department. That is one question.
I have another question, which is perhaps not a question. I saw a film over the summer called "I, Daniel Blake". I am not sure if the Minister has seen it. It is a film by the English director, Ken Loach. It is a really good film. I am sure the Minister has heard of Ken Loach. He is a really good director. If the Minister watches it she will see what the film relates to. There are parallels between what is happening to the social welfare system in Britain and what is happening in Ireland, particularly with regard to Seetec. I think the Minister will enjoy the film. Perhaps when she has seen it we can touch base with one another.
I thank the Chairman. I will go backwards again and address Deputy Kenny's points first. I know last year's campaign was new, but the practice employed by the Department to seek out people who are claiming benefits to which they are not entitled is not.
We have always had officers and inspectors to spot check or follow up referrals made to the Department from people in communities. They give a relatively accurate measure because there is a very large number of people who, when they are investigated arising from those reports, are found to have been claiming something to which they were not particularly entitled. While there were issues being bandied around about differences in numbers over the last while, the current figures are in the high €40 millions. It is not small change. That will continue to play out and the people who do that work in the Department will continue to do it next year, the year after and the year after that. Whether one will see ads on the sides of busses is another day's work. It is not something I have in my plans for the next couple of months. We have 19 gardaí seconded to the Department who work with our inspectors and that is not going to change. It is right, given that it is taxpayers' money and we have to ensure it goes to those to whom it is supposed to go. That is a fair system. If it results in savings, I get to use that money and the members get to suggest how to help people who are more vulnerable than others. I hope that answers that one.
I will watch the movie.
I already know I will not agree with what Deputy Kenny thinks, but I will watch it and come back to him.
In reply to Deputy O'Dea, my advice is that the legislation would not overarch any current contract law, but I will ask again. I am not opposed to doing it and I do not think anyone else is either. It would be easier than the method I would have to employ in my head, which is to lead by example in the State. However, I very much want to try to encourage people to stay working if that is what they want to do. That usually involves incentives. That is the way we should do it in our Department, leading by example. There are other Departments which could provide other measures but I would hope that will be employed. Certainly, I will check it out and come back to Deputy O'Dea because I am not opposed to doing it.
To answer the questions on MABS, it has started to restructure. I met with the CEO only this morning. The changes which were mooted on foot of the consultation process initiated by MABS earlier this year are starting to be put in place. MABS will continue to consult with the people with whom they are working and, ultimately, serve. They are starting that. As such, the direct answer to the question I was asked is "Yes, the board has signed off on it".
I am concerned by what Deputy O'Dea said about our supplementary welfare allowance because it has actually increased in value this year by almost 15%. If the Deputy has reason to believe people are being turned away, that would genuinely concern me because it is not the practice we employ. The reason it is there is to help people in in-between scenarios.
I thank the Deputy because that is not the will of the Department. The reason it is there is to ensure that we support the people who are receiving a welfare payment while working. The whole ethos of the Department is activation for people who can work part-time or full-time. It is certainly not to see people stuck for a few weeks. That makes no sense. We empower our Intreo offices and the vast proportion of people who are face-to-face in the Department are engaging with people to help them get full-time or part-time work. As such, it would make no sense that we would say that if a person has work, he or she is off the list. We must support people to stay in work because the last thing we need is for someone to have to live on fresh air for a month which prospect would cause him or her not to take a job. If the Deputy has-----
The Deputy might let me know. The contract that exists between this taxpayers' money and those who need help at certain times is there to support them, not to make their situations any more difficult than they are already.
Without answering the question Deputy O'Dea asked on the specific legislation, the best thing for me to tell him is that I am currently seeking advice on the information that was requested of me with regard to what he suggested. Certainly, I do not want to see a stand-over scenario where we bring in legislation that allows someone in a casualised or precarious environment but who has an established and practiced work pattern of, for example, 25 hours a week for the previous 12 to 18 months to find himself or herself given a contract for 20 hours a week. That is because the purpose of introducing the legislation is to allow that lady or gentleman to bring that contract to the bank regarding a mortgage or whatever else. The Deputy knows what I am talking about. The very last thing we will allow to happen is for somebody with a practiced and established pattern of work to be given a contract that is for fewer hours. The Attorney General is looking at that for me and I will certainly revert to the committee with his view. My aim is to do what the Deputy aims to do. Perhaps we will talk about that again.
On self-employment, I do not favour the compulsory approach. If I gave that impression, I apologise. I favour recognising the entrepreneurship that exists among the hundreds of thousands of self-employed people in this country by extending to them whatever rights the State can, in particular employment rights. That is our priority. It will not be viable to do it all in this year's budget, but that is the overall ambition. It is to try to obtain an equilibrium for someone who is in a self-employed position as opposed to being in an employed one. It costs money. It is not going to be cheap, but they are no less deserving than those who are in employment situations, in particular since they have been brave enough to provide their own employment and, as I said, employment for others in a lot of cases. The actuarial review of how we fund the Social Insurance Fund going forward, the potential to merge USC and PRSI, and a future social insurance contract are all in the mix. What I will certainly not do is have a scenario where some self-employed people are paying in while others are not. It is either all in or the State pays for it. That is the scenario that is on the table. Deputy O'Dea is well aware that if we only had the people who were paying in, it would create increased risk for the Social Insurance Fund, which is not a tenable situation for us.
I am not sure I already know what is in the report on lone parents but it does not take a genius to figure out some of the changes that need to be made. I have been very vocal on them in the last couple of weeks and I will state them again. I recognise completely that it is far more difficult to raise a family alone than it is when there are two people in a household. We are going to do whatever we can to improve that. I am going to do whatever I can to ensure that is raised at the highest level to which I can bring it. It is certainly the ambition of the Department to improve the take-home pay of people who are single, working and raising families. As to whether it will feed into the budget, if I get the report today and it strengthens my hand, I will be happy. The report is only days away but we can all probably guess what will be in it. I thank Deputy O'Dea for his support, which I really appreciate.
I will stay away from certain areas. I have specific questions on banded-hours contracts and that whole area. The Minister referred to the Bill she and the Taoiseach want to fast-track. She will know that last year a Bill sponsored by Deputy David Cullinane was published which dealt specifically with banded-hour contracts. It received cross-party support and ended up in the jobs committee. In fairness to the committee, it undertook a huge amount of consultation work with the University of Limerick, trade unions, IBEC and ICTU and the matter was thoroughly scrutinised. The committee published a very comprehensive 50-page report with 21 recommendations arising from its hearings. Deputy Cullinane has agreed to accept all of the recommendations and I understand he intends to move his Bill again next week. As such, the consultation work has already been done. Why, therefore, is the Government bringing forward another Bill which will slow down the whole process?
The Minister will be aware of a Labour Court case involving Mandate and Dunnes Stores. It has agreed to suspend that case for six months pending the legislation Deputy Cullinane has brought forward. That Bill needs to be progressed as quickly as possible. Why is the Government introducing an alternative Bill, which will ultimately slow it down? The heads of the Government Bill have only been published; we have not seen the Bill.
I have a number of concerns over the heads of Bill. The Minister spoke about the need to address the concerns regarding casual workers. Head 10 of the Government Bill proposes to ban zero-hour contracts but makes an exception if the work is of a casual nature. That contradicts what she has said here about wanting to address the issues for casual workers. I ask the Minister to explain the provision in the heads.
Head 11 refers to an initial reference period of 18 months. Deputy Cullinane had initially proposed a six-month period and after consultation at the committee, it was extended to 12 months. It received cross-party support at the committee to move it to 12 months and the Minister is now proposing moving it to 18 months. That will give employers such as Dunnes Stores 18 months to do absolutely nothing other than muddy the waters for people in precarious employment, as well as in zero-hour and banded-hour contracts.
Head 8 proposes that an employee can seek redress from the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. I presume that is through the Labour Court within the WRC. That head would make it an offence for an employer to ignore the Labour Court's ruling. There has been much legal argument on that area. What is now regarded as an infamous Supreme Court ruling in 2013 means that what the Minister proposes under that head would be unconstitutional. The WRC is a voluntary body and does not have the remit to set legislation and set wages. The ruling from the WRC is not legally binding. The Minister is now proposing to make it an offence for an employer to ignore the Labour Court's ruling. Essentially it would be unconstitutional. What the Minister is proposing in the Bill is crazy.
I ask the Minister to look at the Bill. Why is she not supporting Deputy Cullinane's Bill? Why is she trying to muddy the waters? I ask her to address the specific concerns on heads 10, 11 and 8 of the Bill she is proposing.
I welcome some of the signals the Minister has given in respect of employment. It is very clear that poor employment practices create a cost for the State. Not only do they deny revenue but they also create huge pressure in respect of supplementary payments. I understand she is addressing those. I urge her to engage with the ideas that come from many other Opposition groups, which have made some very good proposals. In the past the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, has been willing to engage constructively with Opposition proposals. For example, there is a valid concern in respect of the 12 months versus 18 months. The Minister should be open to engaging because there is cross-party concern on these issues and I believe we can move forward on them.
Does the Minister believe she will be able to contribute in some way to the right to work for those in direct provision? While there has been a small increase in payment, a key step would be to move on the right to work, especially given the ruling.
I have some interest and background in the EU semester processes. I would like to engage with the Minister on that separately. I will give some thought to that process.
Points have been made about the difficulty of living on fixed income. Those difficulties are compounded by persons with a disability in terms of the costs they can face. I strongly endorse some of the work done, for example, by the Vincentian Partnership on minimum essential standards of living, to which the Minister has indicated sensitivity and which consider the real costs different cohorts of people face. People on different payments may have very different costs and we need to address that.
I wish to signal two issues of concern to which I believe the committee will return. There are many questions on the public service card. I will not now go into all the concerns over identity cards, the data breaches which have been covered, the question of biometrics or even some of the concerns over costs and benefits. However, I believe the committee may end up looking at them. I certainly believe the committee will want to know both the responses the Minister and her Department may send to the Data Protection Commissioner and to be assured the latter is satisfied with the responses given. I will flag two issues of concern. One is the important legal principle that if a person gives data for a specific purpose, consent for other usage cannot be assumed. If an individual shares data with the Department and legislation subsequently adds new specified bodies, there is a question as to whether the person can be assumed to have given consent to use of those data by these subsequently added bodies.
Another key concern is why we are effectively rushing this process. I know we will be told it started in 2005, but there appears to be a rush to issue almost 3 million cards just months before the new EU general data protection regulation, GDPR, will come into force in May 2018. I believe we are rolling this out in a somewhat heavy-handed manner just before these new regulations come in. I may share an interesting article with the Minister on the matter. Based on legal opinions, the way it is being done at the moment seems to be contrary to the spirit and letter of the GDPR. There is a question whether data are freely given when there is pressure, for example, on someone's income, someone's freedom to travel or someone's education being in the balance.
We only received correspondence from the Minister this morning in respect of the forced restructuring of the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and the citizens information services, CIS. That letter reiterates the same line we have heard from the Citizens Information Board, CIB. People have written to the committee and the Department indicating that this has shaken their faith in the democratic process. There has been an overwhelming vote by the Dáil, and a very clear and detailed report from this committee. MABS and CIS representatives have been very clear that this restructuring has been thrust upon them. There are many other outstanding concerns but consultation after the fact has been largely inadequate and covers implementation rather than the actual restructuring.
In her response, the Minister has indicated that she has a mandate in respect of policy direction but not in regard to a specific decision such as the restructuring of CIB's governance arrangements. However, in our analysis the committee was clear that this is a question of policy direction, which contradicts clear Department policy statements made previously, for example the assurances made when MABS was integrated with the CIS and previous policy statements on the CIS. It is a matter of policy and not a matter of day-to-day administration. It does not relate to the CIB's governance arrangements but to the governance arrangements of numerous independent boards. It is effectively a decision to exert financial pressure on those boards to dissolve themselves. This cannot be seen as a day-to-day issue; it is an exceptional thing. It is also a pressure on them because clearly these are independent boards and are not part of CIB. The CIB is deciding to exert pressure on those boards, which is a policy decision.
Will the Minister give one overall comment on gender and equality proofing? I recognise that the Department, and Ms Sen, who has worked in these areas before also, has given a lead in the past in areas such as poverty proofing. Does the Department intend to have clear gender equality proofing?
I was going to raise some further issues about the public services card and the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, situation but Senator Higgins has done so. I wish to flag to the Minister that we will have to come back and engage in further discussion on both these issues. In the meantime, I have a specific question. The Minister is aware that as the number of people at work, thankfully, grows, it is more and more difficult for people who are running community employment schemes to get people to involve themselves in such schemes, which have done a lot of very useful work locally. There is a rule that exacerbates this difficulty. If a person is put onto JobPath, he or she is tied up for 12 months and even though he or she might be available for a local community employment scheme, he or she is not entitled to go on it. Some of the local community employment schemes are under threat because they cannot access people like that. Is it the Minister's intention to change that rule?
I share the sentiments expressed by Deputy O'Dea. There is an issue there. I also believe there is an issue in this regard for people who are over 55. Birdhill won the national Tidy Towns award, and congratulations to them. They attributed a lot of their success to CE schemes. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing people who are over 55. Their time runs up, they just get one crack at the scheme now and schemes are falling apart. This issue should be looked at. Equally, if a person is on JobPath, he or she cannot transfer over to a CE scheme, even if the scheme is in jeopardy of falling apart. This should be examined.
Turning to the processing times for payments, such as those for illness, disability and carers, there have been delays in such payments in the past. Does the Department have any targets to reduce the processing times for those payments?
The Minister has a number of issues to deal with that colleagues have raised. I reiterate the point that in relation to the restructuring of MABS in particular, there are bundles and bundles of documents - I have no doubt the Minister and her Department officials have them - but one of the key points that comes across as being the core of the problem is the consultation aspect. There were meetings and minutes and attendees of meetings and so on, but those meetings did not constitute proper consultation in advance of the decision. In actual fact, if anything, the decision was hurried as the committee began its deliberations and work. The real engagement is now about process, not about what a new programme should have been. The people who attended the meetings, and who were supposed to be the representatives of the various organisations, have stated categorically to the committee that they were not entitled to discuss the contents of the meetings they were at. There was no evidence of real and meaningful discussions and contributions in advance of the decision being made. That was the frustration the committee found. The Minister is quite right in acknowledging that meetings are now going on, but they are about implementation rather than about deciding upon a new programme. That is the kernel of what is going on here. We could find no support for the view that the consultations were meaningful. Person after person who appeared before the committee was of that opinion. I know others have raised the issue of MABS, but I want to be clear on what was presented.
I will deal with that issue first, and I know other people raised it. There were five years of consultation before the decision was made. People are stating that it was rushed through or they were not consulted. For five years the boards of MABS and CIB consulted with their members and volunteers over changing the process. With regard to the consultation that is going ahead now, and which started in May - I believe I have said this on the record before - there were many meetings and 378 people attended. I do not need to give the details again, but the consultation that is now coming to an end is around the process of changing, on the basis of the decision that was made after five years of deliberations.
The point that members and I are making, collectively, is that the five years of deliberations were not meaningful negotiations. Representatives of the organisations, who attended this committee in this room, said that they had attended consultation meetings but there were restrictions on what they could say to the bodies they were representing. That is our point.
There are bundles and bundles of documents and reports, and I ask the Minister to specifically look at it again so she is satisfied that what has been presented as consultation is real and meaningful consultation. It was very clear from the witnesses we met that this was not the way it was described to members.
I am not being disrespectful to the Chairman, but there are a small number of representatives who are upset with the changes. Given the large numbers of volunteers and people who work in the two organisations, the overwhelming majority of people accept the process changes that are being made. They recognise the reasons those changes are being recommended by the board, having spent five years deliberating over them, and are welcoming and are engaging in the changes to the process. The one thing I will refer-----
I direct members to the organisation, which will tell them that, in their consultations since May 2017, hundreds of people have sat down and consulted and are overwhelmingly in support of the changes that are being made.
On the basis of what was asked of me a number of months ago, which was to interfere in the operations of CIB and MABS, I do not have the authority to interfere in the operations of CIB or MABS. The reason this process was undertaken was because of the concern about their governance and accountability issues in the form of their annual reports, which must be satisfactory to the Department because ultimately it is our Department that gives the money to fund these services on behalf of the taxpayer. This is the reason the governance issues have been changed and it is the reason the processes are now being changed. Much and all as I might like it, and I know that Deputy O'Dea has made suggestions to me before that I should interfere, I do not have the statutory authority to interfere, encourage or cajole anybody in an independent agency while they are making changes to their governance issues.
It does not matter. The Minister spent most of her time in the Dáil the other day telling me that she could not do it because of the Attorney General. Now she is telling me that it does not matter what the Attorney General thinks. Even if the Minister had the power to do it, she would not interfere anyway.
Through the Chair, will the Minister comment on the concern that this is not a routine and operational matter and that it is a matter of policy direction? If it is a disagreement, so be it. The concerns of the Comptroller and Auditor General were also looked at in our report and the concerns do not direct towards this particular restructuring option, as expressed by the Comptroller and Auditor General. If it is a disagreement, so be it.
There is a very real concern on the ground. May I make a genuine request to the Minister, as the Chair has said, to consider revisiting not only our report but the source documents for our report because I believe the Citizens Information Board is out of step?
I will respond to questions on community employment schemes. Community employment schemes are probably the backbone of every single town and village in this country and there is not a town or village that is not benefiting from the services provided under those schemes, which probably should be provided by the State or by Departments. That work is of major value. In response to questions from Deputies Joe Carey and Willie O'Dea, a review of the community employment schemes is currently being undertaken. Community employment schemes are currently recognised in the guidelines as being employment activation schemes. Under that criteria, people on the community employment schemes have a relatively low rate of finding work after their time on the scheme. Therefore I am of the mind that if there are schemes that are socially inclusive and are providing valuable services in our towns and villages, that perhaps we should call them socially inclusive schemes and change the guidelines from what one would expect under an employment activation model. At present, one is only allowed to spend six years on the community employment scheme, but if the purpose was employment activation, six years is questionable. If one has not secured a job from an employment activation course after a much shorter period than six years, then it is not as effective as it should be. What I favour is that in the course of the review we look at the socially inclusive schemes and call them socially inclusive schemes and change the guidelines to be more in line with the rural social scheme, RSS, and that we work more with people on schemes that are genuinely geared towards employment, that provide the training, the skills and the certification at the end of a certain period of time in order to ensure that those schemes have a higher success rate of getting people who have been through them part-time or full-time jobs. That review will be conducted in the coming weeks and months and afterwards I will come back and look for further guidance and advice.
I do not think there is a town or village that has not been enhanced by the services provided through community employment schemes. We really value the contributions that they have made. The last thing we want is to upset people by making changes that are not going to be welcomed. A number of people have told me that there are insufficient people to fill the places on a community employment scheme and there are empty places on it. We are not going to change other activation methods that are successful because community employment schemes do not have access to people. There are 250,000 plus people on the live register. While we have a number of vacancies on community employment schemes, we need to look more closely at those on the live register and match the skills they currently have with the vacancies on community employment schemes. I am open to doing that.
On the issue of the public services card, I disagree with the Senator who thinks we are rushing the uptake of the cards through before legislation will be enacted in the summer of 2018. The project started in 2011 and some 3 million public services cards have issued, but they were not issued in the past number of weeks. They have been issued in the past six to seven years. The main aim of the card is a by-product of an authentication process that was enshrined in law in 2011. When for example the Senator is invited to come for a public services card, we as a State must be 100% guaranteed that she is Alice-Mary Higgins and that she is getting the entitlements to which she is entitled and nobody else is claiming, either using her name or any of her identification data set. When she has gone through the process with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, given that we are the largest Department that has a social contract and make payments on a weekly and monthly basis, then she does not have to give all that information again and get authorised again when she wants to get a driving licence, a SUSI grant or a passport or all the other services that we are allowed share the data with as defined in the legislation. The rules of the card, which is the by-product of the authentication process is to try to make life simpler for people and not to be in some misguided way trying to catch the person out or give the information to people who are not entitled to it. Its purpose is to make our services more efficient so that if one has already satisfied the authentication process with one Department that one should not have to go through that whole process with other Departments. That is to put it in a nutshell.
I know people have concerns and we will address them, not least the concerns of the Data Protection Commissioner, whom we have met in the past number of weeks. That office has issued a number of questions to us and we will be replying to it before the end of this week. The Data Protection Commissioner will get a response to her 49 questions. Obviously we will then await her response to our replies. The aim of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and my aim as Minister is to ensure that the data are protected; that we comply with all of the obligations under the law; that people are absolutely reassured that there is no ulterior motive with regard to this card other than it is a card that will help the individual to access public services with more ease so that one does not have to give all the information that we required under the Safe 2 authentication process, again when the person wants to access any of the other State services.
I am very clear that if there is a need for reassurance, or if things need to be clarified, we are absolutely willing, ready and able to do so. Let me repeat that the response will be sent to the Data Protection Commissioner this week and I look forward to her response. I hope we will come out with a ten out of ten score card.
I want to acknowledge that officials from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection have approached me as Chairman of this committee and have suggested that if we want to follow up on the public services card, they will make themselves available. That is a matter for our work programme. We may well avail of that offer. We will be looking at it as part of our future work programme. I wish to acknowledge and thank the officials for that offer.
We held a briefing session on Tuesday of last week for Oireachtas Members, where we invited all Senators and Deputies to come and meet the officials in the audio visual, AV, room to discuss their concerns. The officials of my Department did that last week. We are willing to answer questions.
There is an acknowledgement that there is extra expense on people with disabilities. I believe what we should be doing is providing services for those with disabilities as opposed to a €5 differentiation in their weekly payment compared to what other people receive. The State has gone some way to doing that but there is a long journey to travel on that road. If there were extra money, I believe that is where the money should be spent, as opposed to increasing a weekly payment. The Senator is aware that the structure grant that was given is under consideration in the Department but there are other services that are provided through the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Health, Education and Skills and are all part of the discussions that are ongoing on budgetary constraints. I believe that rather than differentiating between the weekly payments, that it is the services we should be providing for those with disabilities that recognise there is an extra cost to people who have a disability over and above those who are on jobseeker's or on illness benefits.
I agree with the Minister that we need a joined-up approach and I hope we will move towards ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCPRD. That is crucial. I note that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has access to very important research that it has supported around those costs and that information could be shared with other Departments.
That is a valid point.
The ruling on direct provision arising from the court's ruling. A working group was established by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, a number of months ago to look at the outcome of that ruling. My officials sit on the working group, simply for the fact that whatever action comes from the working group has to acknowledge that with employment rights also come other rights. We need to be able to afford to be able to extend those rights to people. We will await the report of the working group.
The reason we are doing it is we acknowledge that if people get extended rights in one element it will impact on their rights in other elements of their daily lives. I will come back to the committee once that report has been issued and we might have a conversation about it.
The Senator said something I have been saying for years. We started this new phase of new politics in March last year. While it has received a lot of bashing over the past 18 months there is huge merit in recognising that nobody in this parliament has a monopoly on wisdom. I have said it before and I will say it again. Bringing forward legislation is Government's responsibility and role. I come back to the point Deputy Brady made about Deputy David Cullinane's Bill. Regardless of who is in government, if a Government ever finds itself in a position of not listening to the suggestions made by Opposition Senators or Deputies to improve the quality of legislation it brings forward, it is an exceptionally sad day. There is nobody in this House or the Seanad with a monopoly on wisdom. As long as I am in the privileged position of being able to bring forward legislation, I will make sure we listen. If there is ever a stage where we cannot do something that is being put forward, members will get an explanation as to why we cannot. We might not agree with each other but I will not be shy about explaining why and defending the reasons why we are doing what we are doing.
To come back to Deputy Brady's concerns, there are parts of Deputy Cullinane's Bill we do not agree with. It was elegantly expressed by the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, when the deliberations of that committee were held. The engagement with University of Limerick was commissioned by my predecessor with responsibility for the employment law aspect, Senator Ged Nash. The results of that committee formed the deliberations on where we are as a State going forward with legislation to make sure we provide security for people in precarious and casualised employment situations. That is what this legislation will do. I will invite all parties and none to bring forward discussions, thoughts and views on potential amendments to the legislation once it is drafted and published towards the end of this year. My priority is to make sure the legislation is published and passed and that the people in those casualised and precarious working situations enjoy the same employment protections that other people in far more structured settings do. That is the aim of the Bill; it is certainly not to preclude real casual work which is what the Deputy's suggestion would do. I do not want to bring forward a law that would outlaw the kind of work done by the average 17, 18 or 19 year old who is getting a couple of hours work here or there or some work in the summer, which is genuinely casual work. I do not want to outlaw the kind of work that the vast majority of our younger people and students rely on to get them through college.
I welcome the committee's deliberations. We will deliberate the legislation in committee once it is drafted, either this committee or the jobs committee, under its new name of the Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
It was interesting that the Minister opened up that contribution by talking about the era of new politics. We have become so used to that term over the past 18 months or so but the proof is in the pudding. The Opposition brought forward legislation to deal with a serious problem of banded hour contracts. It came to the jobs committee, a cross-party committee, which did exhaustive work on it. It scrutinised it, brought in expert witnesses from across the board, made 21 recommendations and endorsed the legislation. The Minister has not referred to any of the heads of Bill where there are either serious concerns-----
This cuts to the chase. The Minister is either ignorant of the realities or just turning a blind eye. If we want to deal with zero-hour contracts then we must put in place the legislation. We cannot bring forward a Bill that bans zero-hour contracts yet makes an exception if the work is of a casual nature. By definition that is what zero-hour contracts are. The Minister is talking out of both sides of her mouth. She is either serious or she is not. In an era of new politics, to use the Minister's own words, why is she not supporting the Opposition Bill that has cross-party support?
It is typical Sinn Féin style to attack the man or woman. Its name-calling last week was pathetic. It is classic Sinn Féin. When it is losing an argument because it does not have an argument, it resorts to personal attacks.
Is it the Sinn Féin mantra to keep interrupting people? Is that what its Deputies and Senators receive in their briefings in the morning? Are they told "Go on out there, boys and girls, and make sure you interrupt all day"?
The Bill the Deputy is talking about went through extensive scrutiny by a committee last year. The Bill does not focus on low paid vulnerable workers because it requires that every worker in every sector of the economy be given additional hours on request unless the employer can prove there are financial difficulties. That goes no way to addressing the current situation which I am absolutely well aware of. What we are going to do in this Bill, which will be a well thought out and considered one after we come back to this or the jobs committee to do pre-legislative scrutiny on it, will be to ensure that banded hour contracts are enshrined on the basis of what is currently the practice. We can debate whether it should be six months, 12 months or 18 months when we come back and I will take on board the will of the House. We will make sure there are no zero-hour contracts except for casual work so as not to preclude our young people from being able to get work. The aim of the Bill is to enshrine in legislation employment rights for people who are in precarious situations or casualised work situations. It is the aim of this Government. I thought it was the aim of the Opposition but obviously I am very much mistaken in that.
I thank the committee for having me here this morning for this engagement. I genuinely accept most of the contributions that have been made by the committee's members this morning. I value the input even of those I disagree with and I look forward to working with the committee in the future.
I have a number of quick comments to make. The Minister alluded to legislation a number of times. I assure her that any legislation that comes before this committee will be dealt with efficiently and effectively. We are not here to frustrate or prolong the process which the Minister will have seen with the pre-legislative scrutiny of another Bill. The Minister should be assured the committee will work effectively to carry out its responsibilities.
I will not reiterate what the Minister said in her opening statement but she said she would welcome input from the committee on what it thinks should be two or three main priorities for her in the budget. I will not go over the contributions made but the Minister has listened to them. We reflected significantly on the reports we produced which were on lone parents and pensions. While the Minister has spoken about the change from 2010 and said she cannot deal with it, I think she needs to have a look at it again. The two reports that have budgetary impact, the lone parents and pensions report, are priorities of this committee. The recommendations are there. It was cross-party and unanimous. The Minister needs to reflect on how those reports can be effected in the budget.
I thank the Minister for her attendance and wish her well over the next number of weeks. The outcome of the budget will have an impact on the people we represent. I know horse-trading goes on so I hope the Minister is successful and that the issues we have identified are in some ways addressed. I thank the Minister's officials. They got away lightly today because the Minister was able to do all the answering herself. I thank my colleagues for their attendance. It was a useful, worthwhile and informative meeting.