Thursday, 28 November 2019
Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words in this Bill after "That" and substitute the following: "Dáil Éireann, while acknowledging the Bill's relevance in the context of the current conditions in the child maintenance system, defers consideration of the Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018 for a period of 6 months for the following reasons:- to allow 6 months for consideration of the outcome of the current judge-led review on the maintenance system that was announced in Budget 2020 to see what can be learned from international best practice in this area;
- to allow for further consideration of the sensitive and complex issues associated with the Bill, in particular child maintenance and other elements which appear to be legally problematical."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this Private Members' Bill, which proposes to extend the remit of the liable relatives unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to include the jobseeker's transitional payment. I will explain how this may affect the overall issue of child maintenance, which is a complex area that should have the welfare of children at its centre. The current system of maintenance places the burden on individuals to seek maintenance through informal agreements or the courts. Recipients of the one-parent family payment from the Department are required to prove they have made efforts to seek maintenance. The Department places additional burdens on individuals who pay maintenance by assessing them as liable relatives. Issues relating to maintenance generally are matters for the Minister for Justice and Equality, who has responsibility for the Family Law Acts, which govern maintenance requirements. The existing Family Law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. These obligations continue to apply in cases in which the family unit has broken down.
Relevant maintenance payments can be arranged directly between the parties themselves, with the assistance of supports from the Department of Justice and Equality, such as the Family Mediation Service and the Legal Aid Board, or, ultimately, through the courts. The enforcement of the obligation on parents to maintain their children is a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality. The Social Welfare Acts provide that if 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 one-parent family payment. In every case in which one-parent family payment is awarded, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection 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. All liable relatives who are assessed with a maintenance liability are issued with a maintenance contribution assessment setting out the amount assessed.
The amount assessed can be reviewed where new information comes to light regarding the financial or household circumstances of the liable relative. The liable relative can commence or increase the current payment to the one-parent family payment recipient or make the contribution directly to the Department. Decisions on the assessed amounts can be appealed to the social welfare appeals office. The liable relative provisions cease once the youngest child reaches seven years of age and the one-parent family payment claim ceases. However, the legal obligation under the Family Law Acts to maintain the children does not cease.
This Private Members' Bill seeks to extend the remit of the Department's liable relatives unit, incorrectly named as the "maintenance recovery unit" in the Bill, to the jobseeker's transitional payment. This would extend the application of the liable relative provisions from situations where the youngest child is seven or younger to situations where the youngest child is 14 or younger. While the Minister shares some of the concerns expressed by stakeholder groups about how the maintenance system currently operates, she believes that it is timely to review these arrangements to see what can be learned from international best practice. It is the Minister's belief that the Government should await the outcome of the judge-led review and not implement piecemeal changes to the existing system prior to its conclusions.
As the Deputy is aware, the current system is not working in the optimal way for the families affected or for the State's finances. The Minister has had several discussions with stakeholders, experts and people affected by the current system. Having listened to the points raised, it is clear that the current system is not working as intended. We need to do more to help couples who find themselves in this difficult and challenging situation. For example, there were 9,000 maintenance cases to the Courts Service in 2018. The judge-led maintenance review will help to find solutions in terms of international best practice and help to identify how Ireland can achieve better outcomes in a proactive manner for children and for families. We must recognise that family structures are changing rapidly, there is a changed understanding of gender roles and, increasingly, more unmarried couples and more patchwork families. The maintenance review will look at all of these issues.
We all know that lone parents have consistently been one of the most vulnerable groups in Ireland. Even during the period of high economic growth and employment, the rate of consistent poverty for Ione parents remained comparatively high compared with two-parent families. The 2017 survey on income and living conditions shows that the consistent poverty rate for lone parent households was 20.7% compared to 3.9% for two-parent households. The current policy approach for supporting Ione parents through the one-parent family and jobseeker's transitional schemes are to provide tapered income supports as their children get older, while at the same time increasing the employment and educational supports that the Department offers.
A recent analysis by the Central Statistics Office of employment for differing household types shows that the employment rate of Ione parents is increasing steadily as the economy recovers, but it also shows that the gap between coupled and lone mother employment rates remains relatively large. The employment rate of female lone parents has increased from 48.5% in quarter 2 of 2012 to 60% in quarter 2 of 2018. This is a positive development, but there is evidence that the rate of in-work poverty among lone parent households in Ireland is high in comparison with coupled households. The Department provides three main schemes to support lone parents, the one-parent family payment, jobseeker's transitional payment and jobseeker's allowance. The appropriate scheme that a lone parent can avail of is generally determined by the age of the youngest child claimed for, subject to eligibility requirements. One-parent family payment is available where the youngest child is aged under seven. Jobseeker's transitional payment may be claimed where the youngest child is aged between seven and 13 years of age, inclusive. Once the youngest child reaches 14, standard jobseeker's allowance applies. This progression from one-parent family payment to jobseeker's transitional payment to jobseeker's allowance was a fundamental element of the reforms to the one-parent family payment scheme undertaken since 2011, as until then income support for lone parents was passive in nature and involved limited engagement by the State with lone parents.
One-parent family payment was originally available until the youngest child was 18. The non-conditional nature of the payment, coupled with its very long duration had, over time, engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among many lone parents and their children. Research has shown that being at work reduces the at-risk-of-poverty rate for lone parents by more than half. The purpose of the one-parent family payment scheme reforms is to maximise the opportunities for lone parents to enter into and increase employment by providing them with enhanced access to the wide range of education, training and employment supports that make up the Department's Intreo services. In 2004, at the height of the economic boom, lone parents were over four and a half times more at risk of poverty than the rest of the population. The 2017 survey of income and living conditions shows a significant improvement, although lone parents are still almost two and a half times more at risk of poverty than the rest of the population.
It is important to take this opportunity to set out the range of measures put in place by the Government to support children and families, including lone parents, in budget 2020. These include payment of a 100% Christmas bonus in December 2019 to recipients of a long-term social welfare payment, including one-parent family payment; extension of the schools hot meals scheme from September 2020 to 35,000 additional school children; a €3 increase for qualified child dependants aged 12 and over in all weekly payments; a €2 increase for qualified child dependants up to age 12 in all weekly payments; an increase in the working family payment threshold by €10 per week for families with one, two or three children, benefitting some 55,000 families at a cost of €19 million from January 2020; and an increase in the earnings disregard for working lone parents receiving one-parent family payment or jobseeker's transition payment by €15 to €165 per week from January 2020, benefitting some 16,900 families.
There is a wide range of supports for children and families, including Ione-parent families, across Government and beyond the social welfare system. Extra funding of €54 million has been allocated to child care services for the introduction of the national childcare scheme, to meet the continuing cost of the early childhood care and education programme, to fund the access and inclusion model and to support the introduction of a sectoral employment order setting the statutory minimum pay and conditions in the childcare sector. The maximum hours under the national childcare scheme for preschool child care will increase from 40 to 45 hours per week for working parents and from 15 to 20 hours per week for low income parents not working or studying. The maximum hours for school age child care for low income parents who return to work will increase from 17 to 22 hours per week with effect from September 2020. Additional funding of €29 million is allocated to Tusla to continue work to reduce the number of children awaiting the allocation of a social worker and address cost pressures in residential and foster care.
The Government also plans to extend free GP care to children under the age of eight and to provide free dental care for children under six with effect from September 2020. Stakeholders have highlighted that child maintenance poses serious personal and administrative blocks within the social protection and legal systems. Delays in legal proceedings have the potential to over-burden the Courts Service and cause significant delays and hardships for the parents and their children. Requirements for seeking maintenance and liable relative provisions may also cause issues between the parents over and above the difficulties and hardships they already face. Adding the liable relative provisions of one-parent family payment scheme to the jobseeker's transitional payment may also cause the extension of any issues already arising between the parents in terms of adversarial legal proceedings and legal costs incurred in pursuit of maintenance. The Minister shares some of the concerns expressed by stakeholder groups about how the maintenance system currently operates. We believe it is timely to review these arrangements to see what can be learned from international best practice.
The Minister has held meetings with some of the stakeholder groups and will continue to engage with them on this matter in the future.
As part of budget 2020, €150,000 has been allocated to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to examine international best practice in respect of maintenance payments by liable relatives, and how Ireland can achieve better outcomes in a proactive manner for families. The Minister is currently making arrangements to establish a judge-led group to progress that work as a priority.
The Government is taking on board the concerns of the stakeholder groups regarding child maintenance and the wider issues for lone parents. The Bill does not give any recognition to the substantial work done to support lone parents and the significant commitments set out as part of budget 2020, nor does it recognise that the Minister is consulting stakeholder groups and has secured funding to undertake research in this area as part of a judge-led group. She has moved to find effective solutions and, in the recent budget, to build on the supports we are providing to vulnerable families. On that basis she proposes a timed amendment to the question that the Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018 be read a second time, to allow six months for consideration of the outcome of the current judge-led review on the maintenance system that was announced in budget 2020 to see what can be learned from international best practice in this area.
Maintenance is a delicate, sensitive and complex area that should have the welfare of the child at its centre. I assure the House that the Government will continue the important work that has been undertaken over several years to support lone parents, work that has been recognised and welcomed by groups representing children and families in Ireland. I am keen to explore the possibilities for making improvements to the existing costly, confrontational and adversarial system based on best practice internationally, to the benefit of all concerned. I look forward to hearing from Deputies on this issue.