Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 26 September 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection
Pre-Budget Submissions: Discussion
I welcome from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, SVP, Dr. Tricia Keilthy, head of social justice and policy, and from the National Council for the Blind Ireland, NCBI, Mr. Chris White, chief executive officer, and Mr. Darren Reid, who is a service user. I will ask Dr. Keilthy to make her presentation in a moment. She will be followed by Mr. White and then members will be able to ask questions. I understand that Deputy O'Dea is at another meeting. He was here earlier and hopes to be back. One or two other members of the committee are in the Dáil and Seanad.
I draw the attention of our guests 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 the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity, by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. 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.
I ask everyone again to ensure that they have turned their mobile phones off or onto flight mode. They interfere with the meeting as well as its transmission and recording. We have received our guests' written submissions and I now ask Dr. Keilthy to make her presentation.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul welcomes the opportunity to present our budget 2020 proposals. To give some context, our members see the daily struggle to make ends meet in households where there is not enough income to meet outgoings. It is when this struggle becomes overwhelming that families often request our help for the first time. Last year, we published a report carried out by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. The report examined the experience of families who could not afford a minimal essential standard of living. Research participants had an income between 3% and 39% below what was required to meet their basic needs. Half of the research participants were in employment and did not have an adequate income despite being employed.
The parents who took part in this study worked hard at budgeting and prioritising expenditure and tried to protect their children from the effects of poverty and low income. However, the experience of going without characterised daily life and parents were constantly saying "No" to their children, leaving them feeling guilty and ashamed.
The research showed that living on an inadequate income is very stressful and emotionally draining and can have a major impact on physical and mental health. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it is for families to see a way out. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul strongly believes that people who receive social welfare should have the means to remain integrated and participate in society. The danger of inadequate social welfare is that it can trap people in poverty and lead to greater social, health and economic costs in the future. Adequate social welfare helps people to reconnect to the world of work and allows them to live in dignity. Therefore, first and foremost, we are asking that social welfare rates are set at a level which is grounded in evidence and that is sufficient to lift people out of poverty and to provide them with a minimum essential standard of living. We are aware that reaching this goal will require action over a number of budgets and choices must be made in budget 2020 in the context of a potential no-deal Brexit. It will be crucial to focus increases in payments for those experiencing the deepest level of inadequacy, namely, households headed by one-parent, single working-age adults including those under the age of 26, people with disabilities and households with older children.
The issue of in-work poverty is a growing concern for us. In 2019, we published a report entitled Working, Parenting and Struggling. The analysis of the employment and living conditions of one-parent families in Ireland found that the living standards of lone parents are among the worst in Europe and that the rate of in-work poverty among these families more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. To reverse this upward trend in in-work poverty, budget 2020 should seek to increase the earning disregard for lone-parent payments to €166 to restore the 2010 value for hours worked at the national minimum wage. We are also asking that the hours requirement for the working family payment be reduced to 15 hours from 19 hours, in recognition of the greater difficulties lone parents face in meeting this threshold alone.
Although not directly within the remit of this committee, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is concerned that a significant proportion of the poorest lone parents will lose out under the new national childcare scheme. The average weekly cost of school-age childcare is €145. However, the maximum subsidy a lone parent will get under the national childcare scheme is €45 per week for 12 hours when his or her child turns seven. This is at the same time when they are also subject to labour activation measures. We believe that a lack of sufficient childcare hours will undo any potential budget 2020 measures introduced by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection aimed at reducing in-work poverty among lone parents. Therefore, further investment in the targeted aspects of the national childcare scheme is required in budget 2020 to ensure that the poorest families do not lose out.
With regard to energy poverty, we are concerned that energy unaffordability persists without accounting for any potential increases in carbon taxes. The combination of increased energy prices, poor quality housing and the persistence of low income impacts on the households we assist. At current levels, fuel allowance is insufficient to meet the cost of energy for people on low incomes. An additional week of fuel allowance was introduced in budget 2019. This brought the payment to €630 for the winter months. To restore the payment to 2010 levels in real terms, it should be increased to €830. Increasing the living alone allowance by €3 can also provide additional protection to older people who are more vulnerable to energy poverty.
Last month, we received more than 200 calls per day from worried parents struggling with education costs. In our submission to the Minister for Education and Skills, we ask for investment to provide all children with free school books at primary level and an end to the practice of voluntary contributions. To help alleviate some of the pressure on families, we also ask that child benefit is made payable to all children until the end of secondary school regardless of age.
The exceptional needs payment is a critical scheme for low-income households and is often a scheme of last resort for people in difficult circumstances. However, delays and difficulties in accessing services create unnecessary stress and strain on people when they are vulnerable. It is critical that front-line Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection services are adequately funded and that the total budget available for exceptional needs payments is increased by €11 million to meet unexpected costs faced by low-income individuals and families.
Budget 2020 must reflect a real commitment to tackling poverty and deliver on the goal of a fairer and more inclusive society. This will require a genuine whole-of-government approach to budgetary decisions and assessing all public expenditure against its impact on poverty. When prioritising resources, decisions should be equitable, fair and just, should protect the vulnerable, should address structural inequalities and should promote the well-being of this and future generations.
Mr. Chris White:
I will be opening and Mr. Reid will be closing.
The NCBI is grateful to the Chair and the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the opportunity to speak to it today about the issues with employment affairs and social welfare needs for people who are blind or visually impaired. The National Council for the Blind Ireland is Ireland’s national charity working for the rising number of people affected by sight loss. At NCBI, we work every day with people of all ages, from young children to those reaching their 100th birthday. The majority of people with whom we work have some remaining vision, while only a small percentage are completely blind. The 2016 census figures show that there are currently 54,810 people with sight loss living in Ireland and this number is rising. Anecdotally, we suggest that it underrepresents the actual number of people with sight loss in the country.
One of our major concerns relates to employment and the employment rate. The 2016 census found that the level of labour force participation among people who are blind and visually impaired in Ireland is only 24.4%. That means, of the 24,000 working age adults in Ireland, only 5,856 are in employment. Unfortunately, this compares poorly internationally. The employment rate in the UK is 27%, 38% in Canada and 42% in Australia. This means that people who are blind or visually impaired in Ireland are one of the most marginalised communities in the country and Irish society, one which is not identified or spoken about in any meaningful way.
In an economy which claims to have nearly full employment, with employers actively undertaking expensive international recruitment drives to attract talent, and the conversation about that, it means that both private and public employers are consistently overlooking and not utilising or capturing the skills of people with disabilities in Ireland. Not only is this a missed opportunity, it also demonstrates significant inaction in making the national workforce more inclusive. We know from users of the NCBI employment service that once given the opportunity to work, people who are blind or visually impaired demonstrate real competency and loyalty to their employers. Anecdotally, the retention rate is far higher among employees with sight loss once they are recruited than among those without a disability.
A key component in making the workplace more attractive and getting more people with sight loss into employment is the workplace adaptation grant. That is a contribution of up to €6,350 by the State. It can also be used to upgrade adapted equipment that may have been previously funded. Applications in excess of this sum will be considered on an individual basis up to a maximum of €9,543 if specialist training for assistive technology is required. The total amount of money allocated in 2018 was €87,000 from just 39 applications. If the State was to increase the allocation from €87,000 to €1 million in 2020, this would result in at least 314 people accessing the grant and taking up employment. The cost to the Exchequer from various welfare payments to those people who are currently unemployed is €3,314,000 a year. Taking these people from a benefit trap and putting them into work has a minimum net gain to the Exchequer of €1.3 million without considering any additional taxation that would accrue from their participation in the workforce.
Our requests with regard to employment are to value the community of people with disabilities and sight loss who are being excluded from the workplace and a contribution of €2 million to the workplace adaptation grant, which would pay for itself. The workplace adaptation grant should be administered consistently across the country. Various Departments and local branch offices have different interpretations of what the administration means. It needs to be extended to include the not-for-profit organisations, which cannot currently avail of grants and are expected to provide the required adaptations from their existing inadequate funding. The Department needs to fund a national awareness campaign that proactively promotes the employee retention grant scheme and workplace adaptation grant, targeted at employers who are largely ignorant of the available supports to encourage them to recruit people with sight loss and other disabilities.
In keeping with that, the free travel scheme is valued by all those who can avail of it and needs to be retained. However, not all people with sight loss are eligible for the scheme. Many are unable to obtain a driver’s licence, but also do not qualify for the scheme. An alarming 700 people use our services who have no other option but to pay for each journey on public transport to school, college, work and leisure activities as they do not have sufficient vision to drive a car but are not eligible for the scheme. Access to free travel is not a luxury for this specific cohort.
According to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the cost of the free travel scheme in February 2019 was €101 per person. Adding 700 people with sight loss to this group would cost the State an additional €70,700. Our ask is that the eligibility criteria for access to the free travel scheme be changed to include those with a long-term eye conditions, which render their level of vision insufficient to meet criteria for a driver’s licence.
I will give an example in the form of the personal story of Des Keaney. Des lives in County Leitrim. He is one of the 700 people who cannot drive but is not "blind enough" to be entitled to a free travel pass from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Des has worked all of his life and is now retired. He has to depend on his wife to drive him wherever he wants to go, otherwise he has to pay the full price for each journey he takes on public transport. Access to free travel would give Des the independence to take more journeys on public transport to bring him where he needs to go rather than relying on others to drive him.
The rate of labour force participation among people who are blind and vision impaired in Ireland is only 24.4% and community employment, CE, schemes present an excellent opportunity to get back into the workforce for these people. Our ask is that the Department extend the workplace adaptation grant to those on social activation schemes, such as CE, Tús and others, and people who are blind and vision-impaired should be allowed to apply for a second social activation scheme so that they can get experience with another employer.
In another personal story, in 2015, David Kortukohun got in touch with NCBI. He had worked his entire life and wanted to get back to employment after he had experienced a reduction in his sight as a result of glaucoma. He availed of NCBI's employment advisory services, orientation and mobility service and our technology service. In 2019, David was given the chance to take up a position on a CE scheme. David needed magnification software to enlarge everything on his computer screen to take up the role. However, as the organisation offering him the job was a charity, a section 39 organisation, his employer could not apply for the workplace adaptation grant and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was unwilling to allow his application to go forward. This meant that he could not get the technology that would enable him to get work experience and get back into the world of work.
Research has been carried out by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice and the NCBI, which found the minimum for an essential standard of living for a single adult with vision impairment was 18%, or €44, more on a weekly basis than for a single adult in the main population. We call on the Department to commit to an incremental increase in the basic social welfare rate for the blind pension and disability allowance ahead of inflation to address the additional costs of living with sight loss. Mr. Darren Reid will give the committee some views on his employment experience.
Mr. Darren Reid:
I have been out of employment for ten years, ever since I graduated from college. I am a qualified social care worker but I have never been able to get a position in that field. I have tried to get work in other fields but at every turn I have been told the employer did not have the capacity to offer me employment at that time. I am either not qualified enough or the technology is not available. Whenever I tell them about it, they say they cannot afford to get the technology. On one occasion they said the technology does not exist. I told them it did but they would not do the work to find it. They were not aware of any avenue they could go down. I have been offered a position in the Civil Service, for which I had to go through two years of competition. It is not the avenue down which I wanted to go but it is a job I am now able and willing to do, because I want to work and to contribute to society. It has been seven months since I was offered the position and I am still waiting to start, because of clearance and such issues. When I am given a start date, I will have to wait for a further period before they put the technology in place. It is not ideal and employers need to be aware of what is available for them to do. The Government needs to get the word out that what has been done so far is not acceptable. We want to work but 75% of us do not. We are sitting around wasting taxpayers' money, not ours. I am very fortunate to live at home with my parents, though I do not want to do that. I want to be on my own but I cannot be. Please sort this out - members have the opportunity to do so.
Mr. Reid said he looked for employment before applying to the Civil Service and he said employers did not know about technology. Did they not understand the technology that was available or did they not understand the workplace grant? Was it both?
Mr. White and Mr. Reid may be aware that we held a joint sitting of this committee and the education and health committees during which we discussed the obstacles for persons with a disability in accessing employment. The workplace adaptation grant was raised and the Department referred to it. I was quite shocked at the low allocation to the workplace adaptation grant. Is there a large number of refusals? Is it that there is a set amount, €87,000, and once that has been spent all further applications are refused?
The exclusion of not-for-profits is discriminatory to the organisations themselves but also to the individuals, such as Mr. Reid, who want to work in social care by finding employment in the not-for-profit sector.
Mr. Reid is locked out in terms of his choice of how he wishes to contribute. Is the application from the potential employer or does it come from the individual? If I apply to three, four or five companies in a particular area, is there anything that would allow me to say I had received sanction for a workplace adaptation grant, which I could bring with me to the job?
An employer could not apply on the basis of wanting to adapt their workplace.
The way it is done, which I imagine adds pressure, is that it only comes into play if an employer advertises a role. Employers generally want somebody to start within a month or two, but there is effectively a delay which makes it difficult for the applicant and creates a reluctance. I wanted to tease out that issue because it is-----
Let me ask one supplementary question about it. I apologise for interrupting the Senator. Mr. White has cited a figure of €2 million for what is required. On what is that estimate based? Does the NCBI have some measure of the scale of refusal?
Mr. Chris White:
The figure is based on our extrapolation of demand from a sight loss perspective, although we are acutely aware that there are many other disabilities besides sight loss. It is a starting point. Senator Higgins noted the very low level of support for workplace adaptations, from which point €2 million would be a reasonable uplift. It probably needs to be multiples of that figure, but, with pressures on budgets, it is not an unreasonable point as it would pay for itself within 12 months. Any such investment should pay for itself within that period.
I have a final question about an issue on which the committee has placed a strong focus before and which is worth teasing out. As the delegates will be aware, my colleague in the Civil Engagement group, Senator John Dolan, works with the Disability Federation of Ireland; therefore, there is an overlap. As we push forward and make a case, it would be useful for us to have a sense of the numbers from the monitoring of persons, even if it is informal. We would then be able to say whether there were 50 or 100 cases of people whose potential employment was effectively refused because of this issue. If the grant allocation is exhausted by February, we need to be marking this politically. Persons with a disability who are seeking a workplace adaptation grant for the rest of the year have effectively been denied the opportunity to work. It is similar to the gender pay gap in that there is a point in the year at which the disparity comes into play. We will be looking at gender inequality proofing which is a requirement for all Departments during our hearing on the Estimates for the social protection budget. We should raise the issue of inequality proofing with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection because of the differential in the offers being made.
We have not discussed the other issues, but I thank the delegates for raising them. The point about the blind pension was well made and is taken, as is the one about expansion of the free travel schleme. I would like to move towards blanket free travel, much wider access to and the promotion of free public transport owing to other imperatives, including energy, but this is yet another area where it is important.
Mr. Chris White:
Only 6% of people with disabilities use public transport. If one looks at issues of sustainability and access, people with disabilities are generally unable to take up opportunities to avail of public transport. They are not able to use it effectively because the transport system is not user-friendly for people with disabilities.
I read the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's budget submission with great interest, as it includes a number of strong proposals. I was glad to see a focus on private rental accommodation and particularly those who are dependent on either rent allowance or the housing assistance payment, because there is huge vulnerability. A few issues were mentioned in that regard, including energy poverty. It is a key concern because persons living in private rental accommodation are dependent on State support for their private rental payments. They are clearly in an economically vulnerable position, as they are not necessarily in a position to minimise their energy bills, as the power and control rest with landlords. We need to ensure landlords bring buildings up to standard in order that the cost of heating them is not disproportionate. As we know, it will increase in parallel with the price of carbon. However, we must do it in a way that will ensure rental security. I have teased out this issue before and proposed amendments on it in relation to part IV tenants, for example. Homes being retrofitted for energy security purposes should not be regarded as being within the definition of refurbishment in the way we often see it being used as a rationale for the ending of secure or part IV tenancies. It is a genuine concern. I have spoken to many people who are afraid to raise concerns about the properties they are renting because they know that refurbishment would result in their losing their tenancies. In that sense, it is a trap. That is just one issue, in which I am interested because the submission identifies that danger and I wanted to tease it out a little more. We need to figure out how to build in that security while ensuring energy poverty does not become an issue. In yesterday's debates we heard that energy or fuel poverty was defined as fuel costs being 10% of one's income. However, in its submission the Society of St. Vincent de Paul notes that for private renters, in many cases, 40% of their income is spent in putting a roof over their heads.
I was also interested in the focus on lone parents and income disregards. Income disregards were substantially cut back in 2012 and have since been incrementally restored, although not increased. According to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's measurements, how close are we to full restoration? Research into minimum essential standards of living highlights the huge costs associated with older teenagers. However, the jobseeker's transitional payment terminates when a child is 14 years old, while the one-parent family payment terminates when a child is seven. Between the ages of 14 and 18 years, lone parents effectively lose the benefits of the jobseeker's transitional payment, which means that they also lose the income disregard. As well as increasing income disregards, do the delegates think it is important to increase the level of the jobseeker's transitional payment to ensure the income disregard would continue until a child either reaches 18 years, at a minimum, or leaves school? That case is made elsewhere in the document.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
The Senator is correct about the challenge in ensuring the private rental sector achieves minimum energy efficiency standards. The split incentive is a huge challenge in that landlords are unlikely to upgrade homes because they do not see an initial benefit, while low income tenants do not have the means to do it themselves. Many of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment's schemes are only available to low income homeowners. There are no schemes available for those who are renting privately. The uptake of the better energy homes scheme by landlords is less than 3%.
There are not enough incentives to encourage landlords to upgrade their properties without it having a negative impact on the supply of rental properties or rents in order that they will not be increased. Landlords who have made this investment may want to increase the rent the charge. While there are challenges, there is a huge opportunity if measures are designed properly. If there are incentives for landlords that are conditional on security of tenure, that is, where a landlord is willing to rent his or her property to a HAP tenant for a long tenancy period of five or ten years, they can access grants to upgrade their properties. That is something we have put forward and it would require a long lead-in time. We have suggested that by 2030 all private rented accommodation have a C building energy rating, BER, or above. It is a long-term ask and would require incremental changes over a number of years to reach it.
The State is the landlord of approximately 140,000 households. It is a very straightforward way of upgrading the stock of housing. Social housing tenants are as much at risk of being in energy inefficient homes as those in the private rented sector. These are two issues that need to be looked at in the climate action plan and considering how we will tackle energy poverty. This is very important, particularly if carbon taxes are to be increased.
Before we move to the issue of lone parents, I completely agree with Dr. Keilthy that the idea of undertaking the work needed on every property that the State owns incrementally seems foolish, as we pay for it in our carbon fines. The refurbishment of local authority housing seems to be extraordinarily slow.
It is not something that should be done as part of a ten-year plan, rather it should be done in the next two to three years. We should look at the entire stock of housing. Is Dr. Keilthy proposing or outlining the possibility of a carrot and stick approach being taken, whereby there would be an incentive for those who offer long-term tenancy security, that, in effect, there would be a stick in that at a certain point, if a private rental property was below a certain energy rating, it is something which might need to be marked, noted or penalised in some way? If someone does not want to offer long-term tenancy security, he or she would have the choice to reach that standard privately.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
It might involve a gradual phasing out of BER F or G-rated properties such that one would have to upgrade them in the first instance before reaching the C grade. Reaching the C grade would be quite a leap in the case of a lot of rental properties. The shallower measures such as attic and cavity wall insulation can help in some ways and are not as costly as deeper retrofits which should be prioritised in the case of local authority housing.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
It is of real concern considering that survey on income and living conditions, SILC, data show that the incidence of in-work poverty among this group is increasing. A survey of income and living conditions has been conducted up to 2017 and there have been some incremental improvements in the last two budgets in supports for lone parents at work to undo the effects of some of the cuts implemented during the austerity years. We hope to see an improvement in the figures once the new data are released towards the end of the year. The earnings disregard was increased to €150 in budget 2019. In nominal terms, it was higher than it was before being cut, but in real terms because of the number of hours worked and the national minimum wage, it was below it. It needs to be increased to €166 per week to reflect the increases in the national minimum wage in order that the same number of hours can be disregarded as in 2010.
The Senator is 100% correct on the jobseeker's transition payment and jobseeker's allowance. There is a very complex system in place that a lone parent needs to navigate if he or she is working part-time. If someone is working part-time and on the national minimum wage, when his or her child reaches the age of seven years, he or she will have to choose between keeping the working family payment or using the earnings disregard attached to the jobseeker's transition payment. Either of these options will leave the person concerned approximately €80 less well off every week. This issue has to be looked at. We have recommended that the working family payment be made payable with the jobseeker's transition payment to ensure people would not lose out in the transition phase.
When the youngest child reaches the age of 14 years, the earnings disregard changes, such that the person concerned can spread the hours over five days, but if someone is on jobseeker's allowance, he or she can only work his or her hours over three days in a week. That is the difference. He or she will lose out and the earnings disregard is a lot lower also. We agree and have it included in our proposal that the jobseekers' transition payment period be extended until someone's youngest child is 18 years. It is a critical point that there be investment in training and education supports for those furthest from the labour market to enable them to make the transition to sustainable employment and decent work once their youngest child is 18 years old.
Last year was the first time the State recognised the additional costs faced by parents with older children when the qualified child increase for children over the age of 12 years was introduced. It was largely based on the work of the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice which showed that the cost of supporting a teenager was significantly higher than that for younger children. There is a mechanism in place, but the increase needs to be a lot greater to meet the total cost of raising a teenager. It also needs to be increased in the budget.
I will ask my last question and then pass over to the Chairman or anyone else who wishes to ask questions.
I concur on the issue of income adequacy. I would have preferred to have seen the word "adequacy" included in the terms and conditions of the Low Pay Commission. I regret that it was not. It is the fundamental test of pay.
On the working family payment, under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, the figure is 15 hours. Does Dr. Keilthy agree with me that those who are entitled to 15 hours of free early years education are required to be working 19 hours a week in order to qualify for the working family payment? Does she have any comment to make on the disjoint? It affects those who may be working 15 or 16 hours a week and who may need to work for 19 to qualify for the working family payment.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
This is one area in which it is very important to have joined-up thinking. As I outlined in the opening statement, the national childcare scheme is going to see the poorest lone parents lose out if it is implemented in the way intended. If there is a gap in the childcare subsidy, the benefit of any increase in employment support could potentially undone if the subsidy is not responsive to the needs of lone parents.
On the adequacy piece, it is important to say there has been much discussion about indexing social welfare payments. There are many options in that regard, one of which is indexing payments in keeping with the consumer price index. Another is indexing wages. We hold that the majority of social welfare payments are below what is adequate to achieve a minimum standard of living. If people are below that standard and one indexes without reaching the benchmark of adequacy, essentially one will copperfasten poverty in that increases will be based on what is an inadequate income. Payments need to reach that benchmark and one indexes from that point.
I thank the Senator. I will come to Senator Conway in one moment. Let me, please, put one or two points to Dr. Keilthy to seek clarification. Was the proposal in respect of the working family payment specifically aimed at lone parents or was it to apply across the board?
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
Yes because lone parents have to reach the figure of 19 hours alone, whereas a couple can reach the threshold together. There is a similar issue with the thresholds for receipt of the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. The threshold for a one-parent family is much lower than for a two-parent family. Equalising the thresholds would allow more lone parents to access the allowance.
We do not really understand why there are two different thresholds for that because the costs are the same regardless of whether there is one or two parents in the household.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
At present,100,000 people are working and are below the poverty line. We are a strong advocate of the living wage and have made submissions to the Low Pay Commission on the issue. We need to increase our national minimum wage in order that it bridges the gap with the living wage but it is also about ensuring that people's costs of living are low. That is that whole-of-government approach regarding housing costs as well, in order that people who are working also have a decent standard of living.
I was taken with one comment Dr. Keilthy made. I went off on a tangent, but she talked about restoring the lone-parent payment of €166 to its 2011 level. She referred to the minimum wage and the number of hours worked. One of the challenges and one of the key things to keep an eye on in a social welfare budget is that when somebody is given an increase in whatever the allowance might be, there is not an unintended consequence in that he or she misses something else - for example, the threshold for a medical card. It is important that that type of proofing goes into a budget as well.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
I absolutely agree and we have been making that point in our interactions with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Last year, for example, the national minimum wage went up but the thresholds for the working family payment did not increase, so the benefit of that increase to people was not being maximised. It needs to automatically-----
-----in order that there are no unintended consequences. As I said, with the medical card, one could qualify one year, get an increase of a fiver and all of a sudden be over a threshold or whatever it might be.
I wish to ask Mr. White one question and then I will come to Senator Conway.
Mr. White mentioned something I was taken with and never really understood. He said there are 700 people who do not have sufficient vision to be able to drive but who do not qualify for the free travel scheme. His words were that they were not "blind enough" to drive.
It is great to be here. I think it is my first time at a meeting of the committee since Deputy Curran took over as Chairman. I believe from colleagues that he does a very good job. I am delighted just to sit in on the discussion. I apologise for being very late. I was the lead speaker at a housing committee meeting and I could not leave. I became aware that this committee had guests whose opening statements I would have liked to have heard but I am very familiar with a lot of the content, certainly of the presentation made by Mr. White, who is very welcome, as is Dr. Keilthy and Mr. Reid.
To pick up on a point the Chairman made, and I have discussed it with the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, a couple of times, part of the problem is that one must be permanently certified as not being capable of driving; for life, as such. There are some discrepancies that I believe are being looked at. It is frightfully unfair. Even if people are not in a position to drive because of their eyesight, they should be issued with time-dated travel passes such that in, say, five years' time, if whatever treatment they may go for renders their sight possibly suitable for driving, the passes would become void or whatever. There must be a way around the whole permanency issue.
Overall, the big issue I have with social protection - and we need to start looking at it - is where the welfare system prevents people from having the motivation to go out to work, not because of core payments but, as the Chairman said in his comments, because of the additional benefits that are critically important to people such as medical cards and similar services and important supports. What I would therefore like to see is a move away from a budget process and model whereby we give a €5 across-the-board payment to everybody - including old-age pensioners and contributory pensioners, even if they have alternative sources of income and other pensions - to one which front-loads supports to the areas of greatest need. One such area is to ensure people with disabilities hold on to core benefits when they go into employment. They can get a job for which they have worked hard and suddenly lose a whole raft of benefits. That is not a progressive employment policy, and the thinking in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection must move away from across-the-board payments, full stop, whether in childcare, child benefit or pensions. Supports need to be front-loaded in an effort to get people out of welfare who are well capable of doing so but are terrified of the prospect of losing key benefits, as they would see them, particularly medical cards.
Regarding the National Council for the Blind's budget submission, it had a very successful engagement across the road in Buswells about a month or six weeks ago, probably more at this stage, which many Members attended. The level of unemployment in this country among people who are visually impaired or blind is totally unacceptable, and the advocacy work that Mr. White and his colleagues - Kevin Kelly and others - are doing to try to address that is particularly impressive. I appeal to the Chairman and other Members of the Oireachtas to become more engaged with the work the National Council for the Blind does. I am on its board and I see its work at close range. It is starting to make a difference. With some extra supports at Government and political level, a huge amount could be achieved.
Again, I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak and apologise for being late. This initiative from the committee is very worthwhile.
Mr. Darren Reid:
I agree completely with what Senator Conway has just said. That has been a fear I have had ever since the opportunity to go into employment has been there - that I would lose my medical card benefit, my free travel benefit and so on. A constant fear in the back of my head is by how much I will be in deficit relative to what I have now. While I will go up in how much I earn, by how much will I go down in the cost of travel and medical insurance? I am a permanently disabled person. How much will I be charged for medical insurance? I need to pay for this kind of thing. My medical card will go away eventually, will it not? I do not know.
Senator Higgins alluded to the fact that the committee sat jointly a number of months ago with two other committees to look at the difficulties faced by people with a range of disabilities in not just accessing but remaining in the workforce. We considered why people were getting jobs and the whole area of loss of supports and benefits. As Mr. Reid rightly said, just because one gets a job does not mean the disability, whatever it might be, does not remain. We were quite clear that those supports need to be maintained in employment as in unemployment. We made that point very specifically.
Mr. Chris White:
Mr. Reid is well able to express the fears people with sight loss have. I thank Senator Conway for his contribution.
The sight loss community is very large but it has been very much overlooked and taken for granted, although not in any deliberate manner. We are conscious of that and of the fact that sight loss is a growing area and people with sight loss can make a significant contribution. We are looking at massive inward investment from the likes of Google and Facebook and from other European and US multinationals. They are always on the hunt for talent. They talk about talent attraction and talent retention. They talk about the lack of talent in Ireland yet we have this outstanding pool of talent that, if enabled, supported and understood, can make a significant difference. It can make a contribution to the quality of life of people with sight loss and other disabilities. They can make a contribution to their families and to the workplace balance. They can make a massive contribution to the work that is being done. We have an opportunity in Ireland to stand out and to be front and centre of how disability and sight loss should be dealt with by employers. We should be pushing IDA Ireland to make sure all the companies it is supporting with Government money have targets around employment for disability. We should make sure those targets are upheld and that when $6 billion goes into Intel in Leixlip, some of it results in employment for people with sight loss, multiple sclerosis and other disabilities. It is a fantastic opportunity to make a difference to how we do work in this country.
Mr. White has put it very strongly, in terms of the large companies coming in, that this could be one of the conditions attached. I just want to ask a really specific question on the issue around workplace adaptation grants. As well as the increase in budget for workplace adaptation grants, is there a difference to be made in policy whereby somebody can hold provisional approval for a workplace adaptation grant or a company can be provisionally been approved for a grant? The paperwork could be front-loaded so it becomes something that companies and maybe individuals hold while the recruitment process is under way. The company can say it has already gone through the paperwork that would be required if it happened to employ a person who had a disability, sight loss or whatever it might be. Similarly, a person would be able to go to two or three different employers and know that this is something they had. That might be effective as a policy shift, as well as the increased budget, which is definitely needed. My last question was about macular degeneration and the issue of medication. Is there progress in this budget on the exclusion of that from the increased high VAT rate that was attached to macular degeneration supplements?
Mr. Chris White:
That is a really good idea. It would mean people or corporates having a tranche of funding allocated to them. They would still have to prove that they actually have the people, but certainly being pre-approved for certain numbers of workplace adaptation grants is a good idea. In the health services, personalised budgeting is coming down the line, where the money follows the person. We could have an allocation of a workplace adaptation grant to, say, Mr. Reid, so that whether he works in the Civil Service, in the Garda or in Intel in Leixlip, the allocation would be to him as an individual. That actually has a lot of merit in it. I fully endorse the Senator's view and it is something we might take away. We were supposed to be educating her but I would certainly take that as a really good idea.
On the issue of VAT on supplements for macular degeneration, there has been a moratorium on that and it has been pushed back so I think it has been addressed. We are delighted that is not being placed as a barrier or additional cost to people trying to prevent it.
Dr. Tricia Keilthy:
The point Senator Conway made about how we determine how social welfare increases are implemented is really important. We have been advocating for it being grounded in evidence and that the evidence base is provided by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. As that minimum essential standard of living is used by the Insolvency Service of Ireland to determine living costs, it has stood the test of the courts. It is accepted by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in that the qualified child increase, QCI, for older children was increased last year based on that research. It not only provides where the needs are greatest but it also provides that whole-of-government framework because we can see where costs need to be reduced. For example, if primary and secondary school were genuinely free, the rate of the QCI would not need to be increased by as much as the cost of living would be reduced as well. It is a really important framework.
There is a challenge in terms of the cost of disability and how it is determined. The NCBI mentioned the work that was undertaken by the Vincentian partnership to outline the additional costs faced by someone with a visual impairment but the cost will differ based on the disability. There is quite a broad-ranging piece of work that needs to be done but it is very important. In terms of the transition to employment, in research that we conducted last year fear of loss of the medical card came up increasingly. There is a campaign to be done to help people understand what benefits they can retain if they do take up employment. As Mr. Reid pointed out, there is that three-year cliff and the uncertainty around what happens there. It is important to state that the thresholds for the medical card have not increased since 2005 so they are still well below all social welfare rates. That needs to be looked at but obviously the overarching goal is universal health care in order that there is no means testing and it is just available to everybody based on need, not based on income.
I would like to talk a little bit about Brexit because we are really concerned about the impact it will have on the people we are assisting. We know that if there is a no-deal Brexit, we are going to see an increase in food and energy prices that will disproportionately hit people on low incomes. In terms of budget choices, it is really important that those on the lowest incomes are safeguarded. We do not want a repeat of the previous recession where those on the lowest incomes, particularly low-income women, took the hit for austerity. In the forthcoming national action plan for social inclusion, we need to be ambitious around that and ensure there are safeguards in place if we are faced with another recession.
I apologise for arriving late. I am not a member of this committee and am trying to bilocate and trilocate today. I will look at the witnesses' submissions. I wanted to take the opportunity to ask one particular question of the witnesses from the NCBI. They may have seen some of the parliamentary questions I have been submitting about the situation in Dún Laoghaire and I hope Mr. White can shed some light on it. Certain staff members were removed from the office in Dún Laoghaire and there was a possibility at one stage that the office would be closed altogether. The service users were very distressed by that. Despite assurances that the services would not be adversely impacted in Dún Laoghaire, the service users are adamant that they have been and that the drop-in service in particular that used to be available there is effectively gone. Telephone calls to the office are now being answered in Dundalk and many of the small but important services that were available before the staff member was removed are just not there any more. They are extremely worried and are not terribly happy with the responses they have got from the HSE or the NCBI. I would like to ask about that and whether the full range of services can be restored.
The other thing people asked was about membership for service users of the group company. They feel that services should be service user-led or at least heavily influenced by service users. That seems to me a very reasonable proposition. They point out that in the Irish Wheelchair Association, service users can have membership of the group company and they see no reason that could or should not be the case in the NCBI. Finally, on the expenditure on the new Tallaght headquarters, I do not know all the merits and demerits of it but there is a feeling among the service users in Dún Laoghaire that the expenditure on that is really what has impacted adversely on services in Dún Laoghaire. I would like to hear some responses and comments on that.
I have pointed out that it is not relevant to these proceedings and that the witnesses were invited to appear to deal with pre-budget submissions. I afforded the Deputy a degree of latitude to make his point. If the witnesses are in a position to respond, they may do so; if they are not, so be it.
Mr. Chris White:
I am happy to respond. It is a difficult issue. It is not easy to keep everybody happy about everything. We have made commitments. We were planning to merge our office in Dún Laoghaire with a new office in Tallaght. The Dún Laoghaire office gets €104,000 per year from CHO 6. The cost of running the CHO 6 service is €420,00 per year. As an organisation, we struggle for funding. We only get approximately 70% State funding to provide our services and raise the rest of the money ourselves. As would be expected on a value-for-money basis, we do the best we can with the money we have. There was a proposal to move our Dún Laoghaire service. Following discussions with, and demonstrations by, a small group of service users, we agreed to keep the office open. It will remain open five days a week. People still drop in to it. The drop-in service to which the Deputy referred was never officially provided. We do not operate such a service in any of our other 34 offices. More people are now using our service in Dún Laoghaire, more services are being delivered and the quality of service is improving. We are offering more services to more people at a higher quality and we have evidence to back that up.
On the Tallaght Cross move, we were originally located in Clondalkin. As I pointed out to Senator Higgins, it was completely inaccessible to our service group as the transport links were very poor. We moved office at our own expense with no Government support to Tallaght Cross. The office is beside the Luas and Tallaght bus hub and affords easier access to a greater number of people throughout south Dublin. We fully take on board that it is not the easiest place to get to from Dún Laoghaire, but only a small number of the approximately 2,000 people who avail of our service in south Dublin live in the Dún Laoghaire area. That is not to say that those living in Dún Laoghaire do not wish to access our services. The Dún Laoghaire office remains open. From our perspective, the service has improved. We have added capacity and service quality in Dún Laoghaire and also offer services in Tallaght Cross.
On being a membership organisation, there are approximately 2,500 section 39 agencies and approximately 10,000 charities registered with the Charity Regulator. A minuscule number of those have open membership, the Irish Wheelchair Association being one example. Open membership sounds great but it is not representative of the need to listen to people and what they want. It ends up with a big set-piece AGM held in Dublin and attended by people who want to be in Dublin, but it does not allow people in Tralee, Galway, Letterkenny or Athlone to engage with the organisation. We have committed to launching an advocacy engagement strategy under which panels will be created. I and members of the board will engage with the panels locally and that will feed up nationally to a service user representative panel. We are more actively looking for people's views about what the service should and should not be. We are going out of our way to invest in enabling people to express their views and we are seeking to implement those views in terms of what the NCBI should be doing.
I fully understand the views of the group in Dún Laoghaire. I have met its members on several occasions and corresponded with them. I know where they are coming from. If I had unlimited funds, I would happily have a service such as that in Dún Laoghaire in every part of the country, but I do not even have enough funds to run our current service. We are one of the most underfunded big organisations. We have experienced a 16% cut in funding since 2010, like many other organisations. I acknowledge the frustration of the group, but we are doing a range of things to mitigate it. Fundamentally, the office is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week to provide services.