Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 7 July 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection
Pensions Council and Citizens Information Board: Chairpersons Designate
Apologies have been received from Senator Paul Gavan. The purpose of our meeting is to engage with the chairperson designate of the Pensions Council, Ms Roma Burke, and the chairperson designate of the Citizens Information Board, Ms Catherine Heaney, in order to discuss their strategic priorities for their roles and their views on the challenges currently facing their organisations. The Pensions Council was set up to advise the Minister for Social Protection on matters relating to policy on pensions. It represents and protects the consumer interest and helps to ensure that the system has a far stronger consumer focus. Among the significant work it is undertaking at present, the council is currently considering the gender pension gap in supplementary pensions and is working to identify practical solutions to this challenge.
As part of the committee's work programme, we recently made a submission to the Pensions Commission in which we made 18 recommendations on pension reform. We look forward to meeting Ms Burke and the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to discuss the implementation status of those recommendations in the autumn session.
The Citizens Information Board is the national agency responsible for supporting the provision of information, advice and advocacy on social services and for the provision of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS. With the widespread issue of disinformation and misinformation and the ongoing pandemic, which has left many people in need of information from trusted sources, the role of the Citizens Information Board is crucial for citizens looking for a trusted and impartial source of information. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Burke and Ms Heaney to the meeting.
With regard to privilege, all witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely outside the precincts of Leinster House and its buildings, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses physically present do. Caution should be exercised accordingly.
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 now call on Ms Burke to make her opening statement, followed by Ms Heaney.
Ms Roma Burke:
I thank the committee for the invitation to meet it today. As outlined, the Pensions Council was set up to advise the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection on matters relating to policy on pensions. It was established under section 26B of the Pensions Act 1990 and held its first meeting in 2015. It comprises ten members, made up of six lay members, three officials representing the Departments of Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform and the Central Bank, and the Pensions Regulator. The lay members give of their time on a voluntary basis. All members are enthusiastic, experienced, skilled and have a diverse, yet relevant, background in pensions, law, actuarial science, public administration, finance and pension scheme governance.
I was glad to be appointed as a member in 2015 through the public appointments process. Led by the chairman, Mr. Jim Murray, we have worked hard and accomplished a lot since we were established. By way of example, early on we shone a light on approved retirement funds and buy-out bond charges and highlighted the very complex manner in which charges are applied and the wide variety of charging rates. We concluded that consumers can make significant savings if they shop around.
We have made numerous detailed submissions in response to relevant consultations held by the Central Bank, Pensions Authority and interdepartmental pensions reform and taxation group. We have carried out work on auto enrolment and master trusts, considered gender pension issues and presented to a joint committee on pension matters.
As the pensions environment has evolved, so has the council. While we advise the Minister at her request, we are also proactive. We raise and investigate matters that we identify as important and draw them to the Minister’s attention. That is the particular benefit of the lay members. They can bring insights to the council and Minister that may not otherwise be available to departmental officials.
We have three important work streams under way. First, we have commenced a research programme on the interaction of housing and pensions. This will be important if home ownership is less typical at retirement than it is at the moment.
Second, we are considering the gender pensions gap in supplementary pensions. By supplementary pensions, I mean income in retirement over and above the State pension. Our work with the ESRI so far has highlighted that there is a gender pension income gap of 35% and that only 28% of women have private or occupational retirement income compared to 55% of men. We are keen to identify practical solutions to this challenge, and to this end the council recently undertook a public consultation on the topic. I am looking forward to the council’s deliberations on the suggestions received and the recommendations that will come out of it.
Third, based on our earlier work on charges, as well as learnings from the UK, we are also considering whether it would be worthwhile to introduce a cost transparency initiative for pension providers in Ireland and whether this could work on a voluntary or compulsory basis. A simplified system of transparency could help to drive consumer and provider behaviour to the advantage of the consumer.
A significant amount of work has been done by the council. As the committee knows, there are several challenging, relevant and complex projects in progress. Notwithstanding that, the pensions roadmap is at about the halfway point in terms of its timeline. The committee will also be aware that substantial changes were made to the Pensions Act earlier this year as the EU IORP II pensions legislation was transposed. I expect to see the pensions environment react to this legislative change. There is likely to be consolidation of pension schemes and pension products. Some will not survive, while other pension vehicles will play a more prominent role in the future. This change will have a direct impact on consumers.
Our current chairman, Mr. Jim Murray, has done an excellent job stewarding the council. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his hard work and dedication over the past six years.
His previous experience as director of consumer affairs has certainly influenced the work of the council in a very positive manner.
The Minister has designated me as the next chairperson. I am an actuary and partner with Lane Clark & Peacock, LCP, and I have more than 20 years’ experience in the pensions industry. I currently lead LCP’s governance practice in Ireland. I was the chairperson of the pensions committee of the Society of Actuaries in Ireland from 2016 to 2018 and a member of the council of the society from 2016 to 2019. In 2020, I co-authored a paper entitled Private Pension Tax Relief: A Paper on the Irish Pensions Taxation Landscape which was referenced in the report produced by the interdepartmental group on pensions reform and taxation. I am a member of the Pensions Commission which was set up to examine sustainability and eligibility issues relating to the State pension. I am an independent non-executive director of Dublin Simon Community and I was chair of its audit and risk committee from 2016 to 2020.
In my role as chair of the council, I intend to successfully conclude and report to the Minister on the current workstreams that are under way. We will also undertake new projects on pensions matters that are important to the Minister, particularly the impact of the amended Pensions Act on the pensions environment. Following in the footsteps of my predecessor, I hope to ensure that where change occurs, it will be to the benefit of consumers. It is important to clarify that this ultimately means financial benefit through encouraging people to save more for retirement, lower costs, greater certainty of benefits at retirement or higher investment returns. There is a significant amount of work for the council to do and, in my role as chairperson, I am looking forward to encouraging council members to raise issues, guiding the discussion, developing reports and, ultimately, influencing the pensions environment so that more people enjoy a decent standard of living in retirement. I am happy to answer any questions members may have.
Ms Catherine Heaney:
Go raibh maith agat. Is pribhléid dom a bheith os comhair an choiste inniu. I thank the committee for the opportunity to present before it.
As members will be aware, the position of chairperson was advertised through the Public Appointments Service, PAS, process. I was informed of my appointment by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in June. I am honoured to have been selected and I pledge my utter commitment to the role for the next five years.
Ahead of making this presentation, I was advised to focus on two areas, namely, a run-through of my career background to date and an outline of some objectives for my term of office. I am pleased to do so now, within the time available to me.
As regards my background, I have always been committed to a sense of social justice, public service and human rights. This has underpinned my career choice and voluntary work to date. After I graduated, I began my career on a community employment scheme with the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed. In the role of press and information officer, I supported the development of the first edition of Welfare to Work, a guide that many members may use at constituency level. That guide is now in its 27th edition and its publication continues to be supported by the Department of Social Protection. I moved on to other press officer roles but my career shifted to a broader leadership role when I was appointed as chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association. A particular achievement of my tenure in office was the roll-out of the national non-directive pregnancy counselling service across the regions. In the past 15 years, I moved on to build DHR Communications, a strategic communications practice. The company works on public interest campaigns, with clients drawn from the public sector as well as community and voluntary sector organisations. Last year, I took a step back in the business and appointed a replacement managing director. In addition, I have undergone a process of devolving my shareholding to staff in the company.
Beyond my day jobs, I have always committed myself to voluntary and advocacy work. I have served on the boards of the National Union of Journalists, Women’s Aid, Connect Ethiopia, the Heritage Council and the Liberties Business Forum, which covers the area from which my business has operated. In the past three years, I have chaired the corporate social responsibility, CSR, stakeholder forum at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I have just completed a five-year term as chairperson of the National Museum of Ireland. On invitation of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, I have agreed to serve a further two-year term in this role, ensuring continuity in board transition.
I have constantly invested in my personal education and learning. I have undertaken post-graduate studies in criminology, employment law and strategic communications, as well as undertaking refresher courses in corporate governance on an ongoing basis. I am currently completing an MPhil in public history, with my dissertation focusing on how the heritage of communities that have been engaged in turf cutting and peat extraction will be considered in the just transition. I have noted the activity of Senator Murphy on this topic in recent Oireachtas committee debates.
It is my hope that I can bring the learnings from my career, as well as my lived experience, to the table when I commence in the role as chairperson of the Citizens Information Board. However, I will be closely guided by the provisions set out in the mandating legislation of the Citizens Information Board, CIB, namely, the Comhairle Act 2000, the Citizens Information Act 2007 and the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008. I will also be guided by the code of practice for State boards and, importantly for me, I will turn to the public sector equality and human rights duty set out under the Human Rights and Equality Act 2014.
When applying for the role of chairperson of the Citizens Information Board, I focused significantly on its role as an information giver. As a communications professional, I am acutely aware of the growing importance of trusted sources of information, as alluded to by the Chairman, particularly against a backdrop of growing disinformation and misinformation. Members will be aware of the recently published Reuters Digital News Report which was supported by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The report demonstrates the growing public desire for trusted sources of information. Although people continue to access social media in increased numbers, trust in these platforms is falling. At global and domestic levels, people want news and information that is impartial and from trusted sources. As members are aware, most people now use their smartphone to access information. Members probably do likewise. These insights probably come as no surprise, but they place an onus and pressure on organisations such as CIB and all its associated services to ensure it remains a trusted voice and continues to be agile in communicating in order that information gaps do not arise. I am especially conscious of those who experience disadvantage and ensuring they are communicated with in formats that suit their needs.
During the pandemic, I was deeply impressed by how the CIB and all its services maintained and increased capacity. The instigation of a call-back service, the introduction of a web-chat service for the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and increased social media presence are among the initiatives undertaken to remain available to people while face-to-face appointments were restricted. I was also pleased to learn that work was done by CIB to challenge disinformation, particularly as this related to Covid and the vaccine. This agility took place during a concurrent shift and rise in public need for information, particularly as it relates to job and income loss. I understand the organisation saw increased contact through the National Advocacy Service, particularly for people with disabilities who became more isolated during the pandemic.
As we start to envision a post-pandemic society, CIB emerges with an expectation of a return to in-person contact. However, I anticipate the public will also require continued high levels of telephone and online services. Furthermore, the pandemic aftermath will leave new scars of indebtedness and further effects of isolation of which I am sure all members are aware. Finding the sweet spot will be a challenge for CIB. All services require capacity and CIB is committed to ensuring consistency of service across the country. However, continued support in the 2022 budget Vote will be critical to supporting the vital work that CIB does.
Beyond being an agile and responsive organisation, there are several immediate issues facing the board of CIB. As I understand it, a periodic critical review of CIB by the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is set to commence shortly. This will be an important and welcome opportunity to evaluate the efficiency, efficacy and accountability of CIB, especially in the context of its relationship with its parent Department. I look forward to engaging in this process.
As members will likely be aware, periodic critical reviews are provided for under the code of practice, so it is a very welcome measure that is taking place. Their purpose and remit are set out in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's guidelines for such reviews. The results of the periodic critical review will be extremely timely and important in informing the development of a new strategic plan for the organisation. The current strategy is due to expire at the end of this year. Following the retirement of CIB's chief executive, Angela Black, a recruitment process for a new leader of the executive will commence shortly. This is a very important task for the board that will involve a significant time investment.
In taking on these challenges, I intend to use the following weeks to become more fully briefed on all issues relating to the board of the CIB. In addition to executive briefings, I also intend to make time to meet individually with board members, many of whom have given great service to the CIB and are highly experienced and committed people. In particular, I note the commitment by Sean Sheridan, who has been acting chair in recent months. He has been particularly welcoming and supportive of me and he has already briefed me on the role.
Furthermore, I am looking forward to meeting with officials from the Department of Social Protection next week. As with other boards, I hope to demonstrate strategic leadership and to offer an approach that is both collaborative and effective. I very much see the relationship between the board of a statutory organisation and that of the relevant joint Oireachtas committee as a two-way process. I would be very pleased to provide regular briefings and to establish systems of information exchange with members that are appropriate and useful. The committee can perhaps engage with me further in that regard.
In reporting to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, it is my experience that she is extremely responsive and supportive and makes herself available in a timely way. I know she has appeared frequently before the committee. I look forward to working with her and her officials as I embark on this new role. I again thank committee members for their time today. I look forward to continued dialogue with them all.
I welcome both witnesses here today and congratulate them. They are two very bright, intelligent people who are taking up very important roles and I wish them well in their endeavours.
I welcome Ms Heaney's stated intention to have a review of the operations of the board of the CIB. One issue in particular keeps surfacing. I am from County Clare. Correspondence has been received by this committee on numerous occasions and I received information myself on possible under-resourcing of the service in County Clare. The service has been incorporated into a north Munster structure and it does not operate on an individual county basis. I ask that she look at that issue as it is not going away. County Clare deserves the same resources as any other county in the north Munster network of MABS. Could Ms Heaney ensure the periodic review that is under way looks specifically at the resources and the footprint of MABS in County Clare in terms of the resource available to the public? The resources dedicated to County Clare should be made available in line with other counties. I would welcome a response from her in that regard.
Ms Catherine Heaney:
I thank Deputy Carey for his comments and his welcome today. The Department's periodic review is not a root-and-branch review of the CIB. It is a corporate governance review that will take place to examine the board, governance and corporate activity. However, it is important to say that new service level agreements are due to be agreed with the CIB companies. That is probably the best vehicle in which to review the funding of local services. I note the concerns raised by Deputy Carey today and I will make it a priority to examine the background. I will correspond with him on the issue in the very near future.
I will put a question to both witnesses. We are in a very different context today than we were 18 months ago in terms of Covid-19. The dynamics of the delivery of services will be very different. The Citizens Information Board is very upfront and visible. Something that would be extremely useful would be to look at a one-stop-shop for the public. All of us as public representatives use the CIB website on a daily basis. It is a great resource for us all.
There are 130-odd Government agencies and bodies providing supports to small businesses across the country. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has established an SME small business tool website which lists the various supports and schemes available when one puts in one's business details. It would be useful if something proactive could be done through the Citizens Information Board. It would allow the information and services to be available to a far bigger cohort. What I mean is that it would not just be limited to people who have the technology available to them but that public representatives or the local postmaster or postmistress could put in the data for an individual and tell them what schemes they would potentially be eligible for. I would like the CIB to explore something like that, in particular in the context of Covid-19.
While I know the Pensions Council is not a customer-facing body, it has a consumer advocacy role. Unique challenges have been brought about by Covid-19 and the change in the working environment with remote working and so forth. There will be many more challenges and people could potentially slip through the cracks in terms of pensions or pension contributions. The one that we see as public representatives on an ongoing basis is people in employment who are paying PRSI, who lose their job, possibly start a small business and do not continue to make voluntary contributions, which impacts on the State contributory pension down the road. With Covid-19 a lot of people are reassessing how they are going to work and many more people are going to move into self-employment. There are going to be challenges as a result of that. In terms of Covid-19, the dynamic and change in society as a whole, how do the witnesses see their role in bringing their organisations around to addressing some of those challenges? Perhaps Ms Burke could respond first, followed by Ms Heaney.
Ms Roma Burke:
That is a really good question. There is no doubt the environment in which we have had to live over the past year or so has had an enormous impact on the way people go about their business and daily lives. We have all learned an awful lot from it.
One thing I think people have learned - this has come through in some surveys - is that saving and putting away money for the longer term is important. Where that money goes into retirement savings it is particularly important to help people understand what they are doing, making sure they make the right decisions for themselves and their families. Pensions has a name to it that can be a little more intimidating for people than other investments and financial products. Pensions are complicated. One thing I have found over the years is that where you can help people understand and gain confidence in what they are doing, they take things on with both hands and are embracing of this. A big item for me will be helping people to be more confident in their saving for later life, including through understanding the various tools and options available to them. The Chairman mentioned that if you stop work and do something else, there is an opportunity to continue your PRSI contributions. That is a very valuable part of the options available to us and should be encouraged. There is also understanding how much you need to save for retirement, how you go about it, what options are available when you get to retirement and managing expectations. I think a big part of our role will be to help consumers and people saving for retirement understand and be comfortable with that part of their financial planning journey towards retirement. I think that will be a big focus. This is not just technical stuff for technical people; we have to make it accessible to everybody.
Ms Catherine Heaney:
In many ways I regard the Citizens Information Board website as a key instrument with which to engage with the public and to help people such as the committee members to navigate social services and to provide coherent, trusted and clear public information. The Chairman is bang on the button as to what the post-Covid society may want or require. We are still travelling through much change and do not know how the dust will settle but we have to be cognisant in looking at our future planning and how we respond to how society is interacting and how people get their information. I would emphasise the importance of trust in everything we do to ensure we maintain that reputation and trust in order that people know where to turn to. As a point of information, Citizens Information had about 15 million hits to its website in 2020, which shows that people are looking for information and turning to Citizens Information. We have to make sure we do everything to be visible and available to all our publics, including people who, as was said, do not have immediate access to certain technologies, are not digitally literate or may not even have effective broadband technology to be able to take part in the likes of the chat function. Making sure we remain accessible to all citizens and remain that trusted voice has to be our priority as we embark on our strategic plan.
I thank Ms Burke and Ms Heaney for their presentations and for being here. I wish them both all the very best as they set out in their new roles. I am sure it is an exciting and very proud time for both of them, so I offer them my congratulations and best wishes.
I have just a couple of brief comments and questions about the work of the Pensions Council. The point about the work it is now undertaking on transparency on fees and charges is really important because a lot of the time pensions is such a complex world and for an awful lot of people it is really important we have that transparency on fees and charges. That will be particularly important as the new auto-enrolment system rolls out. Ms Burke might be able to tell us about the level of engagement or work the Pensions Council has on auto-enrolment, whether it plays a role in any of that and what that will look like. Auto-enrolment is really important because we know that so many people rely on the State pension and do not have the supplementary pension to allow them to enjoy a decent or basic standard of living in retirement. I hope that when we see auto-enrolment set up it will be transparent, we will have the likes of an app on our mobile phones and we will be able to see what our contributions are coming to in a pension pot. That is really encouraging for people. You can be paying off bits and pieces through your wages, various taxes and everything else; you do not really know where they are going. It is really important we can see where our pension contributions are going, see throughout our working life where we are with our pension pots and see the fees and charges we are paying. All of that will play a role in encouraging people to set up their pensions for later life.
I note that Ms Burke is a member of the Pensions Commission. If appropriate, she might tell us where the report the commission will bring forward is. It was to be published at the end of June. That has not happened. That is fine, but is there any update on that? It is a critical piece of work, as Ms Burke will know.
I thank Ms Heaney for her presentation. I hope I am not repeating what has been said, but she mentioned, I think, something about a review of MABS, which is a really important service for people the length and breadth of the State. Ms Heaney will know that when regionalisation was proposed, this committee in the previous Dáil had brought in the CIB and members of MABS and did a report that recommended that that regionalisation not go ahead at that point. It did go ahead, and it is really important that that be reviewed and that we see how that regionalisation has worked for the services on the ground because the work they do is so important.
Ms Catherine Heaney:
I will outline again that the periodic strategic review relates to the governance of CIB. Any reorganisation process is a process rather than an end in itself. Regarding the regional structures and how CIB is operating now, the changes, as I understand them, have been quite effective in helping to consolidate oversight. One of the advantages, as I understand them, is how the organisation has been able to manage during Covid. The ability to put in place new structures and services, particularly at the level of MABS, has been very effective. The callback service, the chat service and those new functions have been much easier to roll out in an organisation led by 16 as opposed to 93 companies. However, I would be interested to hear members' feedback on how the roll-out has been going. We are embarking, as I said, on a new strategic plan. As a publicly funded organisation, we have a duty to be accountable, to evaluate and to review, and that has to be part of our ongoing mandate as a board. Once something happens, it is not the end of it. We continue to look at enhancements and ensuring that the public are best served by public funding.
Ms Roma Burke:
Deputy Kerrane asked a couple of questions. Our role is an advisory one to the Minister. Effectively, what that means at the day-to-day level is that where the Department of Social Protection is working on various projects such as auto-enrolment, the Pensions Council is called on to provide input, whether expert industry insights or just generally being practical about something.
There has been much discussion on various details of auto-enrolment and how it might work in practice. It is absolutely right that one of the key things is not just putting the whole mechanism and machine into operation. It is getting people to understand what is going on and take an interest in it and feel it is something worthwhile to do. Being in a scheme like this is very worthwhile. People benefit from it. They benefit from employer contributions and a State contribution. There are various ways of disclosing information to people. There is disclosing it and there is making it engaging. At present, while a lot of information is available to people saving for retirement it is effective to a certain extent. Where people get a statement on an annual basis and charges are expressed in terms of a percentage a couple of pages into a document, it is not particularly conducive to getting a handle on what is going on and understanding how it will impact retirement goals. The other side of this is using tools such as apps and the Internet, and using clever people such as those we have in this call today who are good at communications, to make this connection with individuals.
Something coming out of the IORP II directive is that until now pension benefit statements used to have to be issued on a paper basis. People got a piece of paper in the post. From now on this can be done electronically. Email addresses and other ways to communicate with people saving for retirement give opportunities to undertake other initiatives to get the message across effectively to people. This is something that should certainly be encouraged. It is a very cost efficient way of communicating with people. If the State is putting the effort into helping people save for retirement it should want to put in something people are proud of and think is good to do. This is something that will feature. It has been raised at our discussions in council meetings. It is not just about providing information. It is making it engaging to the people who are using a system such as auto-enrolment and other retirement savings vehicles.
A question was asked about the commission. I am a member of the commission and today I am here in my role as a member of the Pensions Council. The commission has done its work in line with its terms of reference. The report is due to be issued to the Minister, it is almost there. When she gets it I am sure she will have some thoughts on it and we will share it with everybody else. An awful lot of work has been done by the commission and I am very glad to be a member of it.
I have been very impressed by the two presentations from Ms Burke and Ms Heaney. I missed part of Ms Burke's presentation because I had to rush out for a few moments. I endorse the comments made by the Chair and Deputy Kerrane on pensions. I will not repeat all of them. An existing problem I find is where one of two partners who are both on pensions dies, the income reduces from almost €500 to €250 but the same electricity bill has to be paid as do all of the other bills such as refuse. The bill for food does not change much really because the consumption of food by older people is lower. This is a huge area. I get up to half a dozen representations a year, which is significant, from people who all of a sudden find their income has been cut by half and they have no reserves. They find themselves in real difficulty. It is a very sad situation. Even though these people have wonderful families and wonderful sons, daughters and grandchildren who would help, in their pride they do not want to ask their children or grandchildren. This is a very important issue. I know it will be taken up with regard to getting the message across to people to put in place extra savings or pension for such an eventuality. I would like to hear the comments of both witnesses on this.
Deputy Kerrane referred to the deficit in Ireland regarding explaining the importance of preparing for pension time. Admittedly, people, including me, are careless for years about it because it does not bother us. We find at some stages in our life that we cannot afford it and it is not a priority. It has already been said this morning, and all of my Oireachtas colleagues know it, that when people come to us with a pension issue they want to hand us the paperwork and ask us to deal with it. They do not want to deal with it. This is not a criticism of people. As has been said, many people do not understand the structure of pensions. Is there any way we can simplify it to brass tacks so it would be easier to explain to people? The letter from the Department can be rambling. Sometimes it decides not to send out a letter but to make a phone call. I have to say I find the Department and the Minister very helpful but rambling letters do not make sense to people and frustrate them more. Simplifying it would be very important.
Would Ms Burke be willing to make presentations to local authority members? They make representations to me on pensions. I am thinking about how to get the message out. Would this be something worth examining? I know Ms Burke will have a lot of work to do and this would involve communicating with many local authorities. Would it be an idea that she could make a short presentation to local authority members?
I thank the witnesses. Listening to the paths as to how they got here is very enlightening. We have two excellent people in the positions and I mean this sincerely. I thank Ms Heaney for her observations.
Ms Roma Burke:
The Senator has raised very interesting questions. It is not something that comes up a lot but it can be a shock to people when one partner in a relationship passes away and all of a sudden people are not just dealing with the loss of somebody close to them but also a change to their financial circumstances. When we think about it, pensions are made up of a number of pillars. I called them three legs of a stool. One leg of the stool is the State pension, the second leg is a workplace pension arrangement that provides income in retirement and the third leg is saving extra on a voluntary basis. This becomes more important to people the closer they get to retirement.
Starting with the first leg of the stool, when one person passes away there is a living alone allowance that kicks in. Just like the comment on continuing PRSI contributions if working arrangements have changed, it is key that people understand their rights and entitlements in the event of a change to their family circumstances. One way to deal with this is to ensure people know what they can apply for in the event their financial situation has changed.
With regard to the second leg of the stool, which are occupational pensions, there are two types of pensions. There is the defined benefit pension where people get their pension based on their salary and service. There is also the defined contribution pension where people save a pot. The defined benefit pension is good to the extent that once it comes into payment it is guaranteed for life. It is very predictable. It generally has a survivor's pension attached to it. If the person who earned the pension passes away there can be a benefit to the spouse, which is typically 50%. There is a drop and I will come to this. On the other side of the equation, the other workplace pension is the defined contribution pension. In this situation people build up a pot of money to the point of retirement.
When one reaches retirement, one can choose to secure an annuity, that is, a pension with an insurance company, or to secure an approved retirement fund. The latter is simply a post-retirement account from which one draws down money when one needs it. The good thing about an approved retirement fund is that the pot of money stays there regardless of whether one person has died. That is a plus on that side. The negative side is that if one is drawing money from a pot, there is a risk of running out of money. There are pros and cons. This is what makes pensions complicated. These are big decisions relating to big pots of money after one has worked a full working lifetime. If people are concerned about their financial situation after retirement, there are ways to address that issue.
The third leg of the stool is encouraging people to put more money aside. That is done through pension campaigns. Several years ago, there was a pensions week but that is less prevalent now, although there are other measures. A campaign such as that to encourage people to save into a very long-term rainy day fund to ensure they are self-sufficient would be of benefit. The Senator mentioned that many people are too proud to approach their sons or daughters for financial help. If one can start early and make provision for oneself, one will have the confidence that one will not need to approach one's sons or daughters. The third leg is about being proactive and saving money. The State provides very valuable tax incentives to do so. It is very worthwhile. There is significant encouragement to put money away.
The Senator referred to presentations to local authorities. One of the positive things to come from Covid is the increase in virtual online communication. One no longer has to physically attend meetings. Part of my day job involves meeting groups of employees who are members of pension plans to explain what they should be doing, why it is important, the tax reliefs available and so on. In a single day, I was able to give presentations to almost 500 people through a series of sessions. The new online environment means we can do that with local authorities or any other organisation. Where we can help to facilitate that, we would be more than happy to speak to the CIB if it needs any sort of expert input in that regard. It is not really a big deal to do so now because we are all able to use these tools to communicate with each other.
Ms Catherine Heaney:
I do not have very much to say on the whole area of pensions because, obviously, it is Ms Burke's area of expertise. On the core question of people knowing in advance and having good and clear information, that is where the CIB can play a role, particularly through MABS and the Traveller MABS services we operate. I am very conscious of the fact that many people who access, in particular, MABS, the Abhaile service and our advocacy services are often income disadvantaged. There is a cohort who simply do not have the capacity to save but their understanding the system and their rights and entitlements is absolutely important, particularly as they move through later life, when health issues, living alone and other factors come into play.
To follow up on the comments of Ms Burke, there are opportunities for collaboration and information sharing. We are all in this together. Everybody present at this meeting is here because we have a sense of commitment to society and making sure public information and public services are fully understood. If we can play any role in that regard, we will be more than happy to do so.
I am late coming in so many of my questions have been asked already. I thank our guests for their presentations. It can be fashionable to denigrate people who decide to work in the service of the public but the quality of the presentations by our guests shows there are good people who work in this sector and do so for all the right motivations. Very high-quality people are being attracted into this type of work.
Ms Burke and Ms Heaney both have very difficult jobs in terms of trying to communicate complex ideas in a simple way. These are often complex ideas about which people do not wish to think. I do not wish to think about my pension because I am going to be 25 years of age-----
I was planning on being 25 forever, so I have no intention of thinking about my pension. I am not sure whether that merited being said a second time. Both our guests have very important jobs in terms trying to communicate complex ideas in a simple way, often on topics about which people do not wish to think. People do not necessarily wish to think about their pensions. In the case of the CIB, there is so much information that is difficult for a layperson to interact with. It is very often the case that those who go to the CIB do so because they are in a difficult situation. The roles of both our guests are incredibly important in that regard.
To build on the remarks of Deputy Kerrane regarding PRSI contributions, not just as they relate to pensions but also ongoing PRSI entitlements, I have an imperfect understanding of PRSI entitlements based on the various stamps. A way of simplifying that and communicating it to the public would be worthwhile. Many people believe it is just a tax that disappears because they do not necessarily understand the social insurance aspect and their rights and entitlements in that regard. That is the case in respect of ongoing entitlements and pensions.
My next question is specifically for Ms Burke. We know the pandemic affected incomes in two ways. Some people ended up significantly worse off as a result of the pandemic but a large cohort ended up significantly better off because their work continued and their outgoings lessened. In the context of what has been described in some quarters as a savings war, should people be encouraged to put some of those savings aside? I have a nagging concern that there may be a temptation to just unleash those savings on the economy for some sort of economic bounce through a significant jump in consumption when there may be an opportunity to take a longer-term view in the context of those savings.
Ms Catherine Heaney:
The Deputy's question is very focused around pensions but to pick up on the point in respect of PRSI contributions and the public understanding thereof, CIB provides a comprehensive and clear breakdown of what comprises one's PRSI contributions and the benefits available as a result. If the Deputy is picking up that this area is greatly misunderstood area, it may be an issue at which we need to look from the point of view of public communications and making that information more visible to those who contribute to PRSI. I have noted his comments in that regard.
Ms Roma Burke:
As regards the question on PRSI, that probably falls more under the remit of the Pensions Commission and the Pensions Council but it is certainly an issue of which I am aware through my role on the commission. It is valid to observe that people wish to know how the contributions they are making are being allocated.
I refer to the different ways in which people's financial situations have changed due to the impact of the pandemic.
There was a report in the newspapers a couple of days ago that was carried out to ask financial advisers if people were saving more for retirement or if things were continuing as is. I do not know how scientific or otherwise it was but the findings of the report were that people were putting more aside and that they were, in some cases, putting it into pension savings. Is there an opportunity to encourage people to save for retirement, given they might have a bit more cash because they have not been out spending it? There definitely is. Think back to the special saving incentive accounts, SSIAs. If pensions are complicated, the SSIAs seemed to be very easy to understand. People really got it. I loved the way in which Irish people understood it, embraced it and took advantage of a very innovative initiative at the time. Particularly in the context of auto-enrolment, AE, if the message can be delivered in a way which is similar to the SSIA, though obviously this is on a much longer term, and if people can understand the benefit to themselves and their families in a simple, easy-to-understand manner then they will take action and save.
The second element is the hurdle of getting people to save in the first instance. It is sometimes easier to save if you are already in a pension scheme and if you can increase your pension saving simply by emailing the HR department. If is more difficult if that initial step has not been overcome. If a person is not saving at the moment it seems to be quite a big hurdle for them to actually work out how to save for retirement and how does this whole thing start off. That is where some more time and effort could probably be spent on making that bit of the pensions journey easier. The hardest bit is getting going. I certainly take on board the Deputy's comments and we might have a think about how to do that. Perhaps it has not been considered as much as other areas have been, once you are on your journey towards retirement.
I too want to be associated with everything that was said about Ms Heaney's and Ms Burke's presentations. They were very informative. I have a couple of questions. I was particularly struck by the gender imbalance Ms Burke mentioned in her presentation. The figure she gave was 28% of women versus 55% of men. What can we as a committee do to address that imbalance and indeed what is the Pensions Council doing to address it? It is very important for the Oireachtas to address this. Ms Burke might just come back to us on those figures again because they are a worry and were very striking in her opening presentation.
Turning to Ms Heaney, I want to be associated with the Chairman's comments. The Citizens Information Board is a daily tool for every public representative in this country. Without it we would all be lost. There is not a day goes by when I do not refer to the board's website. I have a couple of questions around that. How has social media affected that? I know the board is on Twitter and Facebook. Yesterday I was looking at one of its presentations on social media on derelict houses. There seemed to be a lot of interaction with people through social media. Is that changing the focus of the board? As I said it is a huge resource for us but has social media changed the way the board is interacting with the public? On the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, which does terrific work throughout the country, there was an issue with waiting times for it over the last number of years. Will Ms Heaney comment on that? They differ across the country but the terrific services MABS offers should be availed of by as many people as possible as quickly as possible. It is a most difficult time for people as well. Are those waiting times coming down? Have they been affected by Covid?
Ms Roma Burke:
Ensuring women are saving for retirement is something that is very close to my heart. Going back to the previous question and the comment I made, the act of starting to save for retirement at the outset is key and auto-enrolment is helping to address that. It helps because a person is brought into a pension system, he or she is set up for saving and must elect to step out of that system. It is the principle of inertia that people tend to stay in something. Saving for retirement is important and by making it as easy as possible it encourages more people to save. Auto-enrolment also has a role in encouraging more women to save for retirement. Men and women sometimes have different priorities and are focusing on different things. It is a fact of life that women do not have as much retirement savings as men. Where they are automatically enrolled into this new system, it will encourage them to start saving. I wish I had done the numbers on it but there is a really big impact to saving a little over a long time and not trying to do the whole lot in the last run up to retirement. It is about small, steady saving from the day a person leaves school or college and is in his or her first job. It is about building that over time and that is what auto-enrolment does. The Citizen's Assembly said auto-enrolment should be gender-proofed. Women are sometimes in a lower salary bracket than men. There is a lower limit that on the level of salary a person is automatically enrolled into the system on. If that salary level is brought down it means more women are brought into the net. That is one thing we have discussed at council meetings, that is to say, if the salary threshold for joining the AE system is moved up or down it will impact on gender balance. We have brought that to the Department officials and they are considering that.
Ms Catherine Heaney:
I thank Senator Wall for his comments. There are a couple of questions here. On the one about social media, it has certainly become a bigger agent of communication for the board, particularly over the pandemic. It is something we all must be cognisant of because there is a whole generation which does not consume information the way we all do. Thankfully, there has been growth in the number of people going back to trusted sources of news, such as broadcast news media, for instance. At the same time, the huge growth and the huge interaction is on social media. It is an area where CIB has invested more time and resources, particularly during the pandemic. That presents challenges in itself because as I said in my presentation, while people are using social media more they trust it less. Thus it is really important for us as an organisation to consider that when we are putting out information on social media we are also dealing with misinformation and disinformation on social media. That whole job is becoming bigger and is something we will have to look at resourcing and developing, so I am glad the Senator raised it. It also points to something the Cathaoirleach said on the notion of a one-stop shop and ensuring we are accessible to everybody. As I understand it, CIB ran a pilot last year on an app for people with disabilities and that has been a great success. If pilots are a great success then we must mainstream them and ensure we continue with them. The ways we communicate and the platforms we communicate on will have to extend. We must also ensure people who need face-to-face are getting face-to-face.
On the question about waiting times, I do not have detail to hand on that.
There are a couple of issues worth bringing to the committee's attention. One of the experiences of CIB during the pandemic was that volunteers, on whom we heavily rely, were not in a position to provide services. We are yet to see how things will pan out with the return of volunteers to local services and how they can support them. That is one thing that may impact on our service and we have to ensure that we have consistency of services and that there is no rolling back. Now there are additional platforms that we have to be available on. I already pointed to one innovation, the web chat service. I would be interested to know if it has been effective in dealing with people's queries because there is a whole generation which does not like speaking to people in person or even on the phone. It is about making sure that we are available to people in all formats. I am conscious that increased availability online and with the call-back service may be able to impact on any potential waiting times.
As members will be aware, CIB did make submissions to the Oireachtas during the pandemic. One issue, to which Deputy Ó Cathasaigh already alluded, is that some people suffered greatly in their financial means, including people already on social welfare because the payment pattern changed. That affected budgeting and maintaining basic quality of life at home. As my submission mentioned, as we move out of the pandemic there may be legacy issues around indebtedness. That is something we are very conscious of and we keep a close eye on. Early intervention is the best intervention, a bit like Ms Burke's policy on the pensions, the earlier that you start the better. In money management, the earlier someone gets to grips with their financial situation the more manageable it is in the longer term. I will return to the committee on waiting times.
I congratulate Ms Heaney and Ms Burke on their presentations and wish them the best in the future.
I think the Chair asked about class K PRSI earlier. There are no great benefits for people paying the class K contribution. I would ask Ms Burke to look into the class K contributions and benefits. Take an Oireachtas Member who loses their seat, perhaps after two or three years service, their contributions for pension purposes is broken. The class K they paid on their Dáil or Seanad salary does not qualify them for anything. They cannot even sign for credits afterwards. It is an area that should be looked into.
The other issue around PRSI contributions relates to those who continue to work over the pension age of 66 years or whatever it is or will be. They still pay PRSI on pension charges if they continue to work over the age of pension. I would like some clarity on that. It might be something Ms Burke can look into. I wish both guests the best and thank them for their presentations.
Ms Roma Burke:
A couple of pieces of legislation are coming into the discussion here. It is probably worth reminding the committee that the focus of the Pensions Council work is the Pensions Act. That is in the realm of supplementary pensions, namely, saving for retirement through an occupational arrangement or personal retirement savings account, PRSA. PRSI is important. It provides a person with a range of benefits both while working and after retirement age when they becomes eligible for a State pension. It is not directly related to the council's work but there are certainly valid comments coming out of today's discussion. I will relay the Senator's comments to the Department and make sure that he gets a comprehensive response on the status of both PRSI class K and the status of PRSI after 65 years.
I thank both witnesses. I ask Ms Burke to bring one thought back to the Pension Council for its deliberations. During the term of the last Dáil I was directly involved in the fossil fuel divestment legislation that was brought through the Houses in terms of the State divesting from investment funds that were involved in companies that were focused on fossil fuels. There needs to be far more engagement with the public and pension funds about divestment in fossil fuels. As we all know, money makes the world go around and pension fund money makes the world go around. It has a big role to play in how investments are focused on an international level. It is important that pension funds and contributors to pension funds become far more conscious of the detrimental impact to our environment of particular investment approaches that are not just about the short-term financial return but also the long-term impact on our climate and future generations. I would like Ms Burke to take that back with her.
Finally, both witnesses are women taking over pretty significant roles in public bodies. Both have a very important role to play in encouraging more female participation on State boards. The existing rules state that 40% is the target for gender balance on State boards. When I was Minister, trying to make appointments to State boards, my biggest difficulty was the lack of applications being submitted by women in the first instance. I openly put this challenge out. Hopefully some of my successors in the current or future Cabinets will be left in the position where they are forced to appoint a man to a State board to bring about that 40% threshold. That should be our objective. There is an important role that both of our witnesses can play in encouraging more women to apply for State boards and to go on them. I would call on the public and my colleagues to actively encourage women to register with stateboards.ie. The numbers are quite small and the more women who apply provides far greater opportunities for every woman to actively participate in State boards and bring about what is a very important balance on boards that helps break down the group think that sadly, in no small way, led to the economic recession we saw in the decades past. I hope the witnesses will take that away with them today.
I would also like them to consider the now stated Government policy that by the end of 2021, 20% of staff in the public sector and public bodies will be working remotely, whether from home, a hot-desking facility or a blended form of working. I hope that as chairs of their respective committees, they will actively encourage and help to achieve those targets within their own bodies but also more generally across the public and private sectors. I sincerely thank both Ms Heaney and Ms Burke for putting their names forward for these particular roles.
They are eminently qualified for both roles and will bring a huge amount of expertise and knowledge to the boards of both organisations. I hope that you will be hugely successful in your endeavours over the coming years. Thank you most sincerely for giving your time and providing your expertise to public bodies, which are ultimately about delivering for each and every citizen across this State.
We have finished with questioning, so I again thank Ms Burke and Ms Heaney for attending today, and for their constructive engagement with the committee. I wish them well in their roles.