Thursday, 28 November 2019
Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Bill is being introduced to extend the power of the liable relatives unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to make a District Court application for a payment order in respect of jobseeker's transitional payment to one-parent families, thereby enabling the State to recoup from a liable relative a contribution towards the cost of providing this payment. I would like to explain the rationale behind the Bill, which was first put on the Order Paper in December 2017 and introduced in the Dáil on First Stage in January 2018. Under current legislation, when the child of a lone parent turns seven, his or her parent moves from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's transitional payment and the legislative power of the liable relatives unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to issue payment orders, and have them enforced by the District Court if necessary, ceases. This Bill addresses this issue by extending the liable relative provision to recipients of the jobseeker's transitional payment. At present, the liable relatives unit cannot pursue an absent parent after the child has turned seven and the primary caregiver - the mother, in the majority of cases - has moved from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's transitional payment. Nevertheless, there is an onus on mothers to seek maintenance. Many women who are signing on have told SPARK, the lone parents' organisation, that they have been informed that if they do not have proof of seeking maintenance by their next sign-on date, their payments will be terminated. This is deeply unfair.
While this Bill will not address all the issues regarding maintenance, it will address a gap in the legislation and may go some way towards assisting lone parents, who are one of the household types most exposed to poverty and social exclusion. The reforms to the one-parent family payment that were made some years ago had a detrimental effect on lone parents. They increased the likelihood of lone parents being at risk of poverty and created a gap in the relevant legislation. I am seeking to address this gap by bringing forward this legislation. The liability to maintain the family scheme is managed and administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The Social Welfare Acts provide that where certain welfare payments are in place - specifically, the one-parent family payment - an assessment may be made against a liable relative requiring him or her to make a contribution towards the cost of the one-parent family payment. In every case in which the payment is awarded, the Department seeks to trace the other parent or liable relative to ascertain whether he or she is in a financial position to contribute towards the cost of the payment. In practice, the Department contacts the liable relative and assesses his or her ability to contribute towards the maintenance. If the liable relative wishes to pay maintenance directly to the lone parent, the lone parent will be able to hold on to 50% of it. His or her lone parent's allowance, therefore, will be reduced by 50%.
I would like to explain the unfortunate position that has arisen as a result of a lacuna in the law. When the child of a lone parent is aged seven, the Department tends to write to the liable relative - it may be obliged to do so - to inform him or her that he or she is no longer obliged to make the payment I have mentioned. As a result of this, some people who were voluntarily paying maintenance simply stop doing so. That cannot have been the Government's intention when it was drafting the appropriate legislation. Fianna Fáil welcomes the announcement by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection that moneys will be allocated for the establishment of a judge-led group to examine all issues relating to maintenance and lone parents. We also support the recent efforts of this House to establish a statutory child maintenance agency to address the issue of maintenance. However, we still believe that the Bill I am introducing is necessary to close a loophole in current legislation. This simple measure, which can be implemented easily, will extend the liable relative provisions that apply to the jobseeker's transition payment and other relevant payments.