Thursday, 28 November 2019
Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill, which aims to right a wrong done to lone parents who are impacted by Government decisions at every turn. Lone parents were not only subject cuts to their primary payments during the economic downturn, the Government actively took decisions that made their lives and those of their children more difficult. The consequences of those decisions were not unintended or unknown because many remain in place. The changes to the one-parent family payment in 2012 is one example. They reduced the cut-off age to seven years with disastrous consequences for lone parents. They could not leave a seven year old child at home but could not afford childcare so they were locked out of taking up employment or returning to education. Research commissioned by the Government, and undertaken by Indecon, concluded that the 2012 changes made life harder for lone parents. The Minister of State should be proud of that. Lone parents were locked into poverty without affordable childcare; they were trapped. The Government knew that was going to happen, as it was told at the time. To add insult to injury, the Department began to issue letters to non-custodial parents when their child turned seven to tell them they were no longer obliged to make a contribution as the one-parent family payment had ceased. A letter such as that should never have issued to any parent. To do that is shameful. The Minister constantly reminds us of the legal obligations on parents to maintain their children. The letter issued to non-custodial parents does not reflect that. It is not good enough, and the practice of issuing that letter must stop.
This Bill fixes only one loophole for lone-parent families. The wider issue is the non-payment of child maintenance. Unfortunately, when it comes to maintenance payments, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is only interested in recouping the money it pays out in one-parent family payment to cover its own costs, rather than to give children what they deserve and to assist lone parents in making this happen. The Department cannot even get that right. In 2018 and in this year to date, the Department's liable relatives unit has examined 18,078 cases. Of those, 2,174 people began making payments, but the vast majority paid nothing. The Department may refer to its enforcement powers but these may as well not exist. Since 2016, only 19 cases were referred to obtain an order directing that contributions be made, which is pathetic.
There are many reasons we need the urgent establishment of child maintenance services, but the main one is that court rooms are no place for child maintenance payments to be determined. That is the bottom line and that has to change. More important, the payment process involving the Courts Service does not work. Lone parents are obliged to seek maintenance. In cases where they have to go to court to do this, the eventual granting of a maintenance order does not guarantee that the maintenance will ever be paid. It is a ridiculous situation that does not work for the child or the children who should be central to the payment or maintenance. In every country where statutory maintenance arrangements are in place, child maintenance plays a role in reducing poverty, something the Government has failed to do. It will not come anywhere close to meeting its target of lifting 95,000 children out of poverty by 2020, and that is by its own admission. Establishing a child maintenance service would help to lift children out of poverty but, more than that, a statutory child maintenance service would protect women who seek maintenance. It would support them and provide them with advice and assistance. For the first time, it would put the child first. In this year’s Budget Statement, the Minister for Finance announced funding for research into child maintenance. My colleague, Deputy Brady, asked him previously about this and what it involves. It was good to hear some clarification in the Minister of State’s response and, while he did not read all of his speech into the record, I read it. We ask that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection publishes the terms of reference for her new judge-led group and exactly what it will examine. If it is guidelines, it may as well not bother wasting its time because guidelines will be pointless. We need a new statutory child maintenance service. While the Bill is important and should be supported by every Member, we have much more to do to give lone-parent families the support they need and deserve.