Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Social Welfare Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
Last night, I referred to the failure of the Minister to adjust the caps applicable to family income supplements, which had some negative consequences for people. For a parent working for 40 hours per week on the minimum wage and with one child, his or her pay is increased by €4 per week. The family income supplement will be cut by €2.40, from €87 to €84.60. This implies the Minister has done nothing for those families on low incomes who rely very much on this payment. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, might let is know whether it is still Fine Gael policy to abolish the family income supplement. In the general election campaign, it was proposed that the working family payment would replace this. Is that idea now scrapped?
We welcome the increase of €5 in the disability allowance and the decision to grant medical cards to all children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, on achieving that. There was no provision for an increase in the domiciliary care allowance payment, however. As the Minister of State will know, the cost of living for people with a disability, especially children, is much higher. That argument is indisputable.
The universal child benefit has a major impact on poverty in Ireland. It goes to all parents and is simple to administer. It is universal in nature. Like all other child-related payments in this budget, no increase was provided. I hope the Minister will seek to address this next year.
An issue the Minister could also address next year is child benefit for those in second level education who have turned 18 and who have not finished their leaving certificate yet. If there are financial pressures at home, there is a disincentive for teenagers not to remain in secondary education if they turn 18. There are also major costs associated with the last year of school. Qualification for child benefit could end after the school year. Those concerned could be allowed to finish their education. A gesture like this would make a real difference for many families in meeting school costs.
With inflation now increasing, the Minister provided no extra money for meeting the costs of parents with school-going children. Across six payments that help families with young children and directly address child poverty, there was no increase in this budget. With regard to child benefit, the domiciliary care allowance, the qualified child increase, the back-to-work family dividend, the family income supplement and the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, the Minister did nothing. One must ask what this Government has against children.
There was one measure to help children. We welcome the extra €5.7 million for school meals but the Minister might outline where that extra funding will be used. Will schemes already set up in schools be able to expand? We are told the money will fund meals for 50,000 additional children. Will it be for breakfasts, snacks or lunches? I hope the funding will be used to extend the scheme in DEIS schools and to facilitate the provision of breakfast clubs in other schools from September 2017. As the Minister will know, those schools that do not offer the school meals already have issues with access to canteens and preparation areas. Has the Minister any plans to ensure all DEIS schools will offer the meals programme?
It is disappointing for many older people that the increase in the pension will not come into effect until 10 March. We had to wait a number of weeks to get the date. The budget did nothing to increase the living-alone allowance or provide an increase to the fuel allowance, with the cost of coal, peat briquettes and many other forms of fuel increasing.
On the eve of the budget, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, and his Independent Alliance colleagues were in a last-minute strop seeking the restoration of the bereavement grant. It looks like he was not able to deliver on that despite generating a lot of heat and headlines in advance of the budget.
Deputy O'Dea and his party, Fianna Fáil, also generated a lot of headlines in the summer. That was, of course, until the Minster for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, snookered him by implementing Labour's pre-budgetary proposal for increases in all weekly social welfare increases. I recall Deputy O'Dea calling in August for a lot more than a €5 increase in the old age pension. He said making changes for lone parents was a priority for Fianna Fáil in the budget. He might let us know where he now stands on this.
I was and am of the view that the changes and reforms affecting lone parents were totally premature in an environment where the child care issue had not been addressed and where job opportunities were limited. Transport opportunities were certainly curtailed. The issues pointed out in a recent independent evaluation report need to be addressed without delay. Outcomes are different from those anticipated. Let us accept the reality. If there is an error or mistake, it should be addressed, and we should ensure that anomalies and unintended consequences are addressed without any further delay.
In the interest of accuracy, I must put on the record that Labour provided a bigger increase for pensioners in 2016 than that provided in the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael budget. When one adds up the figures announced in the budget, it is clear that pensioners have been sold a pup. Taking into account the increase in the Christmas bonus from 25% to 75%, the €2.50 per week increase in the fuel allowance and the weekly €3 increase, Labour in government ensured the average older person benefited by a total increase of €336.10 in 2016. Let us compare this with 2017. The 10% bump in the Christmas bonus and a €5 weekly pension increase from 10 March will be worth a total of €240.60 for the average older person. Fianna Fáil spent a lot of time calling last year's increase an insult. It should let us know whether it believes the smaller increase this year is also an insult?
As a spokesperson, I have always focused on widows and widowers. No budget has done very much for them over the years. Widows comprise a long-forgotten group in social welfare terms. They are at increased risk of poverty, and no person wants to find herself in that situation. In future budgets, the Government in power might consider how the household benefits package and other key supports could be extended to widows under the age of 65. Very often, they may find they have lost the main breadwinner. They may have two or three young children and experience a significant loss of income and additional responsibilities at a time of vulnerability. We should be exploring ways of ensuring the benefits of the household package are available to them at this critical time. I would like to see this.
I welcome that the Minister accepted the Labour Party proposal to provide the back-to-education allowance at the full rate to those aged under 26. I ask him to clarify his intention to continue to address youth unemployment and to implement the youth guarantee.
Let me turn to JobPath, Seetec and Turas Nua. The Minister will be aware that the roll-out of JobPath is ongoing and that it is causing significant distress in communities across the country. I have a number of examples to hand. I have received many complaints and queries about the impact of JobPath on community employment schemes, as has my colleague and party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin. The schemes are taking all the people. There will be nobody left in community employment in rural areas. I refer to people want to gain valuable skills and receive training. I have questions about how Seetec and Turas Nua go about their business. They are under contract in the Department. It is time the Minister told them to pull in their horns. Could the Minister confirm whether it is covered by law that a person who has been referred to JobPath may not apply to participate in a community employment scheme?
People should have that option. Turas Nua operates in the south east, including Wexford where my party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin's office has received numerous complaints about its operation. We are discussing vulnerable people, but there seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach. There should be a bespoke option that suits people's skills and attributes. Compelling them into positions for which they are not suitable knocks them back rather than helping them to advance. People are being expected to turn up for interviews and jobs, even though they do not have the life or work skills to do what is being asked of them.
A lack of sympathy and compassion is being displayed by those operating this compulsory element of attendance for JobPath opportunities and other job activation measures. They are not opportunities; rather, people are being forced to accept whatever jobs become available. Dignity and respect must inform all job activation measures where people are compelled to attend. It is demoralising and having a different outcome than was heralded.
A number of people have contacted me about the operation of Seetec across the midlands. I have numerous examples of its modus operandiin my constituency, with which I take issue. For example, a number of people, particularly women, who are older than 60 but under 62 years of age, the cut-off point, have effectively been notified of the requirement to attend courses that are incompatible with their life skills. Some are over 61 years of age, have limited education, worked in various jobs as shop assistants and cleaners and are still seeking that type of work. They are located in remote rural areas with no transport of their own. One lady only has a bike and is 8 miles from Mullingar, but there is no public transport available. The people concerned must find a way to attend the courses. If they do not, their social welfare payments are docked. This is State-backed bullying and harassment of the worst kind and a stop must be put to it without delay.
Seetec and Turas Nua are results driven. It is my understanding they are paid on the basis of outcomes, but that should not be the case. The experience of applicants and their levels of satisfaction with the process should be the basis for any payment. In my experience, that means the companies would get damn all. It is time to review the process. A contract is involved, but these operators do not allow qualified people in their areas, particularly rural areas, to participate in local CE schemes where they acquire on-the-job training, evaluation and practical skills. Instead, they are prevented from participation in the community employment scheme by regulation or otherwise when selected for JobPath scheme participation. It is a bureaucratic monster that should be beheaded without delay as this approach is no longer required. It is wrong and does not accord with the principle of decency or encourage people to embark on schemes that are suited to their life skills and abilities, especially where they are over 60 years of age. I have no compunction in saying these companies should be told to pull in their horns.
A major issue is the victimisation of women under the social welfare code in terms of their entitlement to a contributory pension. This arises where a woman's contribution record commenced on the date she entered employment and she had to leave later because of State policy, for example, the marriage bar or other reasons. She returned to employment 20 or 25 years later, but the calculation of her average contribution has a severe and negative impact because it extends over her entire working life, that is, from the date on which she first entered employment. This anomaly must be addressed because it is being visited on people unfairly compared to others who entered employment for much shorter periods at later dates. This problem could be solved by imputing a credit for those who were compulsorily removed from the workforce because of the marriage bar which was State policy and so on. They are entitled to this change which would increase their average contributions and entitle them to receive a pension at higher rates. They should not be deprived in this way. I hope the issue will be addressed sooner rather than later.
When an industry is under pressure, it is important that we try to help it. This is particularly the case where the pressure is as a consequence of Brexit. The mushroom industry is under severe pressure. At one time there were approximately 600 growers, but that number has dropped to approximately 60. They employ many people in rural areas where job opportunities are limited. There are a number in my county, but they are being wiped out. One of the first casualties of the United Kingdom's decision in June on Brexit and the consequential fluctuations in sterling was the mushroom industry. Four significant farms have gone and more will follow. More than 90% of farms' mushrooms are exported to Britain. The Minister of State can see the problem. It is clear that the impact on the industry is serious and will wipe it out. It is important that temporary assistance be rendered to this exposed industry to help it get to over this problem and secure its future. If it gets over it, it will undoubtedly survive. For example, there could be a temporary reduction in employer's PRSI from 8.5% to 4.2%. This measure was implemented successfully in 2012 and 2013 for other industries. We must show some ingenuity if we are to protect jobs, get people over the hump and retain employment at a time when the industry is under pressure.
Regardless of whether we like the idea, the level of pension coverage must be addressed. The matter has been studied. For example, the former Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, initiated a review. Some 48% or 49% of people have no pension coverage. This will become a major issue. When we are young, we do not look ahead to our mid-60s. It never means much. When we raised this issue many years ago, organisations that represented employers, in particular IBEC and ISME, were against a mandatory contribution scheme, but in expressing that opposition they did not represent the views of many small employers or employees we met on the ground. There must be a mandatory scheme. One has operated in Australia and another is being adopted in the United Kingdom. It works. If people want to opt out, fair enough, but otherwise it should be mandatory. There would be auto-enrolment. It should not be the case that people who retire experience a significant drop in income because they have no pension entitlements. People have found themselves in this serious position.
A cross-party group is examining the compulsory age of retirement. Numerous people have asked me when it will be addressed for those who reach retirement age and want to continue in employment. It would be done on a voluntary basis. If people want to continue in employment beyond the mandatory retirement age in the public service and their health allows them to do so, we should give them that option. If they do not want to avail of it, grand; let them retire at that age, but many people with a great deal of experience are being forced out of the workforce. Just the other day I read that gardaí were being forced out of the workforce when they had much more to give and wished to do so. People should have the choice. We have entered an era in which, if people want to continue, we should allow them to do so. There should be no regulations to force them to leave.