Thursday, 28 November 2019
Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I should be shocked by the Department's response but I am unshockable at this stage. The Minister of State's whole speech is a disgrace. To give one example, he notes that my Bill refers to the Department's maintenance recovery unit instead of the liable relative unit. I remind him that the Bill was drafted back in 2016 when the unit in question went by the former name. In any case, what does it matter what it is called? We are living in a country which has an absolutely disgraceful rate of poverty among lone parents, which is the issue with which my Bill is concerned. I include the latest Survey on Income and Living Conditions, SILC, figures in my calculations, which show that the rate of poverty for lone parents has hardly moved at all. Is this statement from the Minister of State the best the Department can do in response to a genuine proposal to correct an oversight in the law? Doing so would help people today, as Deputy Penrose said, not in six months' time, 12 months' time or at some undefinable time in the future. The Department's response is disgraceful.
The rest of the Minister of State's statement was littered with references to hot meals, preschool childcare, Tusla and GP cards for children under the age of eight. The Bill has nothing whatsoever to do with those issues. It has a specific purpose, namely, to correct a glaring loophole in the law which arises as a consequence of a drafting error in the original legislation. The Minister of State's speech is nothing but padding. I am almost tempted to do what my colleague, Deputy MacSharry, did when, as a Member of the Upper House, he ripped up a Minister's speech in the Seanad Chamber because it was so nonsensical. The Minister of State's speech is certainly in the same category. I am looking at one sentence which states: "Adding the liable relative provision of the one-parent family payment scheme into 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." What does that mean and what possible relevance does it have to anything? If we take this to its logical conclusion, there should be no liable relative provision at all, even for children under the age of seven.
The Minister also said: "The Bill before the House does not give any recognition to the substantial work already done to support lone parents". That is especially amusing. It seems we are expected to draft a Bill which includes a section 1 setting out how wonderful the Minister is because she did this and a section 2 outlining how she is marvellous because she did that. This is an insult to lone parents and the representative organisations that have long been advocating for the change set out in these provisions. We are being told that the Government proposes to do something in six months' time because there is a judge-led group examining the matter. However, I am informed by people who have been in touch directly with the Minister that the group has not been established yet. God only knows how long it will take to produce its report and how long thereafter it will take to implement whatever recommendations are made.
In the meantime, day in and day out, people - it is generally speaking fathers - are getting letters from the Department stating that their obligations have now finished and they do not have to make any more payments. As a result, people who were paying maintenance, even on a voluntary basis, are stopping those payments, which is forcing single parents into the court system. We know the difficulties to which that gives rise, but the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is apparently oblivious. This is happening today and it will happen tomorrow and next week. People are being hurt and disadvantaged by it, people who are, in many cases, living in abject poverty. The Department's attitude is to say it will look at the issue in six months' time, when many more people will have been hurt.
The real kicker in the Minister of State's speech is the reference to best international practice. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard that. This provision has been in place since 2012. What has the Department been doing for the past seven years and what has best international practice to do with it? Nobody has ever put up a defence that the legislation in question is as it should be. Everybody accepts that a mistake was made when it was drafted. The liable relative provision applied to lone parents but lone parent's allowance was restricted to those parents whose children were under the age of seven. Parents with children older than that were moved to the transitional jobseeker's allowance and the legislation did not provide for the extension of the liable relative provision to them. What is so complex or mysterious about this? The draftsman simply made a mistake but it is one that is hurting people. The Government's blasé attitude is that they should be left to suffer and if another 50, 60, 100 or 200 people get a letter and proceed to stop making maintenance payments, it does not matter. What we should be doing, apparently, is looking to best international practice. If I ever heard a lame excuse in this House, that is the lamest.
The Government's response indicates the distance that has emerged between the Government and ordinary people and the degree to which it has lost touch with reality. That is something I am hearing from people in the course of my canvassing for the by-elections. On behalf of the lone parents who are being hurt and will be hurt in future by this loophole in the law, I have no intention whatsoever of accepting the Minister of State's proposal to defer the matter for six months. On the contrary, I will be pressing for a vote.