Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

3:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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Question 108: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress being made regarding the introduction of the reformed lone parent support measures. [31783/06]

Photo of Michael NoonanMichael Noonan (Limerick East, Fine Gael)
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Question 122: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if the new education, training and employment support measures to be introduced to enable lone parents to return to the workforce under the parental allowance will also be available to older women who have been out of the workforce for a lengthy period of time as a result of care and family duties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31844/06]

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Question 151: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position regarding the Government's and his Department's proposals for reforming the one parent family payment; and the way in which this will affect lone parent families. [31809/06]

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Question 175: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when he expects to introduce the new parental allowance; if his Department has concluded consultations with representative organisations and individuals regarding the parental allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31835/06]

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Question 196: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if he will provide details of the wide package of reforms of State aid for lone parents that he is currently considering; when he expects to have this package complete; if he expects it to be in place before the end of 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31731/06]

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Question 201: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if, in view of proposals to reform the one parent family payment, there are plans to conduct research into the reason 40% of lone parents are not working. [31813/06]

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Question 203: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his views on whether child care availability and affordability pose a barrier to lone parents entering employment; the steps his Department has taken to improve access to child care for lone parents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31849/06]

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 108, 122, 151, 175, 196, 201 and 203 together.

The package of reforms and initiatives aimed at supporting lone parents is based on the Government discussion paper Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, which I launched in March this year. The discussion paper sought to address the increased risk of social exclusion and poverty faced by lone parents and parents on low income. It put forward proposals for the expanded availability of education and training opportunities for lone parents, the extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents, focused provision of child care, an improved information service for lone parents and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low income families with young children.

Long-term welfare dependency in the case of a person of working age is not in the best interests of parents, their children or society in general. Any new social assistance payment must have the long-term aim of assisting lone parents and parents on low incomes to achieve financial independence through supporting them to enter employment, as it is employment that offers one of the most important routes out of poverty.

While conditions are being suggested for receipt of payment, it is proposed that supports will be offered in a structured and systematic manner to the persons concerned. It is only in this context that continuing payment would be made conditional on engagement with the support services.

The discussion paper suggests that activation measures would commence when the child reaches the age of five. Concerns have been expressed in submissions and at meetings that this could exclude lone parents from accessing supports earlier should they so wish. That matter is now being further examined.

Activation, as referred to in the proposal, is positive in nature. It encompasses interview-advice meetings and access to education and training, thus providing people with the skills to enable them to achieve financial independence and a better life for themselves and their children. Activation supports will also be available to many older women at risk of poverty who are currently categorised as qualified adult dependants of husbands in receipt of social welfare income.

I fully realise that a new form of payment cannot be introduced without co-ordinated supports and services being put in place by other Departments and agencies. That is why the Government has instructed the senior officials group to draw up an implementation plan to progress the non-income recommendations in tandem with the development of the legislation required by my Department to introduce the new payment scheme.

Work on the development of this implementation plan is under way. Issues including access to child care support, education, training and activation measures and options for further research, all of which impact on the large number of recipients of the one parent family payment who are not working, will be considered.

As soon as I am convinced that we have reached conclusions that are equitable, with a fully workable implementation strategy, it is my intention to bring forward proposals to the Dáil as soon as possible. In the meantime, my officials continue to be in contact with the lone parents' representative groups for whose ongoing support I am grateful and whose views continue to feed into the development of the proposals. I thank all those agencies concerned.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
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I noted the Minister's response to the earlier priority question and sense from it — perhaps the Minister will agree — that it is unlikely the measures introduced on foot of this consultation process will be in place before either of the social welfare Bills that will follow the budget this year or before the general election. In that case, will the Minister indicate the alternative measures he intends to put in place subject to a new payment being introduced? Has he noted the pre-budget submission of the Combat Poverty Agency, which referred to changing the rates of child dependant allowance that have been frozen since 1994 as an interim measure? In light of the consultation process and concerns that were expressed by lone parent groups such as One Family and OPEN about the possibility of a group of lone parents being worse off under the initial proposals, have changes been suggested and are they being accepted in that consultation process? The fact that 40% of lone parents choose to remain at home with their children indicates a conscious decision on the part of many of them that the role they have chosen for themselves is to be actively involved in the upbringing of their children, and changes in the payment system may irredeemably affect that choice for lone parents in the future.

4:00 pm

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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As I said, it is my intention that we will have separate legislation on lone parent reforms. That does not rule out the Minister for Finance making preparatory type changes in a budget, as he has done in recent budgets, by adjusting guidelines and limits, increasing amounts and putting in place a framework in anticipation of the legislation. While it will be a specific Bill, the budgets and social welfare legislation will anticipate it and make the necessary preparation for it. I intend, with the Minister for Finance in our discussions before the budget, to revisit the matter of the child dependant allowance. I will examine whether this is the correct way in which to proceed. In the past two budgets I was convinced that it was not and that we should reform the family income supplement and the child dependant allowance together and that we should continue to increase child benefit and the flow of funds to low-income families. I will revisit the matter of the child dependant allowance as I prepare for the budget.

Regarding the Deputy's worries that lone parents are worse off under new reforms, the initial financing figures show that the cost to the State increases in the first couple of years. Assuming that the reforms are successful in the medium term the cost should decrease as lone parents opt to participate in employment. I have no motive to hunt people out to work where they have chosen to be with their children. That is not envisaged in these reforms. Considering the profile of lone parents, the education attainment levels and the age cohort, it is not beneficial to the 80,000 people involved or to the country to deny these people access to education, training and employment in a structured way.

At present, a child of a lone parent may reach 18 years of age before any arm of the State offers more education or a return to employment to the lone parent. This matter is at the heart of these reforms, with the removal of the cohabitation rule. The House will agree that the latter is old-fashioned social policy and has no part in modern Ireland. It is not my intention that anyone be worse off after these reforms. In the medium term, lone parents and the country will be better off if we take a sensible approach to helping these people, who are a resource for the country, to play a full role in the employment market if possible.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Does the Minister accept that the existence of the discussion paper is an admission of a comprehensive failure by Government in this area? Compelling lone parents to undertake employment will not solve poverty problems. No one wishes to live in poverty and the key area is the implementation plan. When will it come about? There is a need for a co-ordinated strategy and effective co-operation between all Departments. Will we force people into low-paid employment? Will necessary training be provided? Will a child care package and flexibility in work be examined? We can have all the grandiose views of today but the implementation plan is the key. We have failed lone parents in the past and the worry is that we are about to fail them again. Tinkering with the system will not work. Compelling lone parents to go down a particular road is a major worry. Does the Minister agree that lone parents should be given a choice to pursue education or employment? No one wishes to remain in poverty but that is the situation in which most lone parents and their children live.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Crow is correct in stating that we must get this right and I have no monopoly on wisdom in this area. Senior officials in my Department, researchers and various bodies involved have been undertaking this study for more than three years. I have picked up the ball and run with it in an effort to get it across the line. I seek to distil the wisdom around me. There is no financial agenda because I have received no letters from the Department of Finance instructing me to reduce the moneys spent on lone parents. This initiative attempts to create better social policy. No one seeks to compel people to work but if it was a member of our family we would prefer that he or she would speak to agencies about improving education, training and job opportunities.

The reforms envisaged allow for a considerable period before any pressure is applied. It is done substantially on a voluntary basis although pressure must be applied at some point. However, this will not happen before many years' notice has been given. This initiative is designed to assist people to enter employment or education and deal with the cohabitation rules. In parallel, an implementation plan will address child care, flexible working hours and access to education and training.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister agree that 32% of lone parents are living in consistent poverty, as stated by the CSO and the EU SILC last year? Does he agree it is a disgrace that so many people are under so much pressure in this day and age? Does he agree that the lack of affordable and accessible quality child care is the greatest barrier to work for lone parents? Regarding the implementation plan and the senior officials group, when were the senior officials asked to formulate this plan? When does the Minister expect to receive the completed plan?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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For some months a group of officials have been working on the implementation plan. It arose from our consultations with lone parent groups who made it clear that income was one aspect of the problem. Aspects such as flexible working hours, child care and access to education and training, as mentioned by Deputy Crowe, should be addressed in tandem. We committed to developing proposals and plans in those areas to complement changes made in legislation with regard to income. Rapid progress is being made and we should have legislation, including an implementation plan, before the Houses in the coming months. Deputy Stanton and I do not agree on this matter. The country must make substantial changes in this area. It is not a political issue and anyone who wishes to take a cheap shot and wreck these proposals can easily do so. All one needs to do is to return to the shibboleths of the past.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Who is doing that?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I am not accusing anyone in the Chamber. Everyone here is being responsible about it but I am thinking in the context of the next election. Dealing with these social issues in a political cauldron is most difficult. It is easy to whip up fears. I accept that Deputy Stanton is not doing this but it is easy to do so and I wanted to be careful and ensure that we progressed the matter with the maximum amount of consensus as quickly as possible. I will try to introduce legislation in a few months.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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It was a very worthwhile attempt to explore a utopian solution but it has considerable limitations. The age limit for children is the first of these. I ask the Minister to examine the report produced by Camille Loftus for the One Parent Exchange and Network. This excellent report exposed all of the limitations, particularly those relating to workplace flexibility, the availability of child care and the marginalisation of people who end up worse off. People did become worse off. Ms Loftus gave three or four examples which clearly indicated that this was the case.

I wish to raise the case of a young girl I encountered who was a lone parent and returning to education. I was given an assurance by the Minister in this House and I consider such an assurance to be equivalent to a solemn oath. The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, destroyed many schemes. She was the worst ever Minister for Social and Family Affairs and tried to emasculate every scheme she got her hands on. She increased the qualifying period of unemployment for the back to education allowance from six months to 15. A number of spurious reasons were given for this decision, which was an attempt to implement the Thatcherite agenda of the former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy. However, that is another matter. The current Minister for Social and Family Affairs reduced the period to 12 months but gave a solemn assurance on the floor of this House that because it would only cost a few million euro, the period would be reduced to nine months.

I met the young girl in question in August. She had come to the end of the nine-month period but no longer qualified for the scheme because she had not been unemployed for 12 months. This young girl was ready to return to education, obtain a qualification that would be of some use to the country and improve her lot. What the Minister has said is highfalutin nonsense. It is great theory. He is the Minister for reviews. However, unless a review produces something positive for people, it is useless. I recall the reference to the nine-month period in this House because I badgered the Minister in a possibly uncouth manner. However, I was doing my job.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I did it.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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This person was refused admission to the scheme. People can accuse me of being many things but I am not a fool. I was extremely disappointed. I knew the Minister made a commitment in this House but departmental officials insisted on the 12-month period. The nine-month period applied to disadvantaged areas but I never knew about this and thought it applied across the spectrum. Could the Minister furnish me with advice from departmental officials stating that the nine-month period operates across the country?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Penrose asked me to reduce the qualifying period from 15 months to 12, which I did. He then asked me to reduce the period to nine months.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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Correct.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Subject to an examination by me of the matter, I am certain I did so. In respect of the clause Deputy Penrose is thinking of, we reduced the period to nine months but introduced a FÁS assessment so that FÁS would have a role in assessing the back to education requirement. As far as I am concerned, I did what Deputy Penrose asked me to do on the floor of this House.