Thursday, 28 November 2019
Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
Deputy O'Dea introduced the Bill in January 2018 to provide for the extension of powers of the maintenance recovery unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to make a District Court application for payment order in respect of jobseeker's transitional payment to one-parent families. One can see where Deputy O'Dea is coming from. There may well be a lacuna in the law, which the Bill would rectify and enable the State to recoup from the liable relative a contribution towards the cost of providing the said payments. Maintenance is a significant area. The Minister of State and I concur with the view of his senior Minister that it is a complex area, which invites many issues to be addressed. Unfortunately, in Ireland securing maintenance often ends up in confrontation and an adversarial approach is taken. It is important that the people who should pay maintenance are made liable for it and do not escape scot free. It is something on which the public focuses; people are concerned about the issue.
This seems to be an anomaly in dealing with it, as Deputy O'Dea noted. I spoke to him about this and he informed me of the situation where a child turns seven years, which is the critical point. That is when the parent moves from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's transitional payment. It seems that there is a hole in the bucket where the Department's recovery unit is not in a position to chase into the District Court to seek an enforcement order for maintenance that might be due. If it was incorporated into legislation, it might well extend this to the wider jobseeker's transitional payments.
When the child turns seven years and the parent moves from the one-parent family payment to the transitional payment, the onus remains, mostly on the mother, to seek the maintenance payment. The Bill seeks to remedy this by targeting the particular gap in the law. As Deputy O'Dea and others said, this is a legitimate issue. Were the Bill to be enacted, the jobseeker's transitional payment would come under the definition of "allowance" under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and it would be added to the definition of "competent authority" under the same Act.
The effect of this would be to extend the competence of the Minister over this payment, as well as the one-parent family payment, when it comes to Part 12 of the primary Act, which relates to family maintenance. The core issue is that single parents, typically women, are being asked to prove they are seeking maintenance payment from a former partner by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is nub of the matter.
With the one-parent family payment, former partners are required to pay maintenance to offset some of the costs of that payment. It must be recognised that it will be only some of the cost. It is very important that maintenance is paid in this respect. Deputy O'Dea might agree that the Department is very often quick to assess or compute the amount of maintenance that a person should be getting and often exceeds the maintenance that is being provided. While that is an argument for another day, imputation should not be a way of addressing this matter.
As I stated, this Bill would close the loophole and jobseeker's transitional payment would be included in the definition in the primary Act. The Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids, SPARK, group has sought this change for a while and, like Deputy O'Dea, a number of us in the Labour Party have met representatives of that organisation. It does good work for single parents and it was probably involved with the genesis of Deputy O'Dea's Bill.
There is a debt recovery section in the Department and if I am right it costs approximately €600,000 to operate while the recovery amounts to only approximately €200,000 or €250,000 per annum. We can see from the balance that it is not easy but every recovery unit should at least make the effort to pay its way at a minimum. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has made the point that the Department already has power in the regulations it operates under but Deputy O'Dea and I have been around long enough to know that perhaps primary legislation has greater weight than secondary legislation.
The Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, has indicated that a judge-led review will be put in place that will engage in a comprehensive examination of this maintenance issue involving necessary and relevant stakeholders. Otherwise it would not be effective. I hope that arising from that there will be a significant set of new rules on maintenance recovery that will become part of the rules of court. That will set a floor when it comes to recovery. There are other elements to this. For example, how much should be paid for a child who is younger than 12, as more maintenance would be required for older children? These issues should be set out and the recoupment process should operate in an efficient and effective fashion.
It is time to carry out an overall review of the payment of maintenance and Deputy O'Dea's Bill could be a central part of this if it is passed into law. Not alone is it appropriate and timely to examine maintenance issues, including consultation with all relevant stakeholders but there is much international best practice that we could also examine, notwithstanding the complexity or difficulties of the matter. Statute-based solutions are far better than regulations.
I was listening to the beginning of the debate in my office and I understand the Government's proposal is to postpone consideration of this Bill for six months, pending a full review of family maintenance that will be done as part of a judge-led review. I understand that rationale but in that case, the loophole identified by Deputy O'Dea will continue to exist in law for another six months and possibly for longer. Let us be clear, as the Acting Chairman and everybody else knows, the probability of having a general election in the next six months is higher than not. This amending legislation would be further delayed with a transition to the next Dáil. Although I do not anticipate it will take 70 days to form a Government next time, as we have a system that should shorten the process, that will depend on what the electorate says. Notwithstanding the fact that I agree with the Government's view, as relayed by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, this is a complex and difficult matter. I wonder why there is a need to wait until after the review to accept the Bill. If it was passed, it could form part of the review and if any inconsistencies arose within the review, it could be fixed.
The Labour Party sees the proposed legislation as achieving a significant and worthy objective that has exercised the minds of various organisations, including SPARK, in remedying or fixing the loophole. It is difficult to see what argument the Government can sustain, as it certainly has not put forward one to satisfactorily contradict the claim that there is a loophole in the current law. As it stands, I am minded to recommend to my Labour Party colleagues that we support the amending legislation. In the case of a review, there is a touch of "live horse, get grass" but the horse might not live and there might be no grass for anybody. This is timely and I compliment Deputy O'Dea on bringing it forward.