Thursday, 28 November 2019
Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
A wide range of important matters have been raised in the course of this debate, including the social welfare system for supporting families, the legal system and the Courts Service, as well as how these have an impact on family lives. I welcome the useful contributions and discussion with my colleagues, Deputies O'Dea and Penrose. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is focused on how Ireland can achieve better outcomes in a proactive manner for families with child maintenance. It is important to acknowledge the significant efforts made to enhance the position of families and children, including lone parents, across a range of Government initiatives, including social protection, childcare, health and education.
The Family Law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply and relevant maintenance payments can be arranged either directly between parties or with the assistance of the Department of Justice and Equality, such as through the family mediation service, the Legal Aid Board and, ultimately, the courts. This Private Members' Bill seeks to extend the remit of the Department's liable relatives unit to the jobseeker's transitional payment and, in effect, this would extend the application of the liable relative provisions from cases where the youngest child is seven or younger to cases where the youngest child is 14 or younger.
The Minister is keen for a review of the maintenance system to be carried out, including an examination of the system's effectiveness and how accessible it is for those seeking to recover maintenance. Maintenance is a delicate and complex area, as colleagues have noted, and it should have the welfare of the child at its centre. It is essential we recognise this. A number of issues have been raised concerning the current arrangements for maintenance in respect of liable relatives, including the availability of accessible advice and self-assessment information from amicable child maintenance arrangements, questions around age-appropriate child maintenance payment rates, the need for mediation services and the need for a whole-of-government approach in dealing with child maintenance.
This is a highly sensitive and complex issue that cuts across areas of family and social welfare law. It is about much more than law, however, and it must take account of the sensitive and delicate human emotions in the area. It is therefore important to have a detailed examination of approaches that have been successful in other jurisdictions in order that we can ensure that our system in Ireland is informed by best international practice and is well placed to serve the needs of affected families across the country. For that reason, the Minister is in the process of establishing the judge-led group to examine the sensitive and complex matter of enforcement of child maintenance payments. It is expected that this group will be set up very shortly.
The composition of the expert group will reflect the key parties that have an interest and engagement in this area, including solicitors and barristers who deal with the issues on a daily basis. The group will shape and influence the terms of reference for its work based on its experience and expertise in this sensitive and complex area. We are keen to explore the possibilities for making improvements to the existing costly, confrontational and adversarial system, based on best practice internationally and for the benefit of all concerned.
While the Minister acknowledges the relevance of Deputy O'Dea's proposals in the context of the current issues with the child maintenance system, I ask the House to defer consideration of the Bill for a period of six months. That timeframe will allow for consideration of the outcome of the judge-led review of the maintenance system to see what can be learned from best international practice in this area. In addition, a six-month referral would allow for further consideration of the sensitive and complex issues associated with the Bill, particularly the child maintenance and other elements which appear to be legally problematic. I ask colleagues to accept my proposed deferral.