Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Family Support Services.
Question 106: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if his Department has concluded consultations on the proposed new parental allowance as outlined in the Government discussion paper, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents; if he has received the final National Economic and Social Council report on its research into a proposed second tier payment; the plans he has to introduce both these new payments for low income families; the proposed timescale for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32084/06]
The Government discussion paper, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, put forward proposals for the expanded availability and range 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; improved information services; and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low income families with young children.
The new social assistance payment being developed by officials in the Department will have the long-term aim of assisting people to achieve financial independence through supporting them to enter employment, which offers the best route out of poverty. Although the formal consultation process on the Government discussion paper has concluded, my officials continue to be in contact with lone parents' representative groups, whose views continue to feed in to the development of the proposals.
I fully realise that the proposed new payment cannot be introduced without co-ordinated supports and services being put in place by other Departments and agencies. This is why the Government has instructed the senior officials group on social inclusion to draw up an implementation plan to progress the non-income recommendations in tandem with the development of the legislation required in my Department to introduce the new payment scheme. Once the implementation plan has been successfully drafted, it is my intention to bring proposals for legislation to the Dáil.
As regards the National Economic and Social Council report, the council was asked to examine the feasibility of merging the family income supplement and child dependant allowance into a second tier child income support. Such a payment would be aimed specifically at targeting child poverty by channelling resources to low-income families without creating significant disincentives to employment.
While waiting for the structure for the new second tier support to be finalised, a range of other reforms, increased welfare supports and expanded child-centred services are all combining to make significant progress in tackling child poverty. The most recent figures show that at least 100,000 children have been lifted out of deprivation and hardship inside the last decade as a result of targeted measures and supports.
These include substantial increases in each budget in child benefit rates which directly benefit over one million children; increases of from €21 to €282 a week for families on family income supplement, which is being claimed by almost 19,000 families; some 80,000 families are benefiting from the €40 per child increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance; over 350,000 children have qualified for the €1,000 a year early child care supplement, a third of whom are the children of lone parents; and 41,000 child care places have been created under the €500 million equal opportunities child care programme.
What is the Government's target for child poverty levels by 2007 and what will it achieve by then? Perhaps the Minister might confirm whether it was 2%, but it is now way beyond that figure. There are two payments to be considered here, the parental allowance and the second tier payment. Again, the Minister might recall that in his 2005 budget speech, made almost two years ago in December 2004, he spoke about the targeted second tier payment. Will he tell the House when he plans to introduce it or bring forward solid proposals in this regard? That is a fairly straightforward question. We have been talking about this for two years. When will we see action, or at least concrete proposals before the House, on the second tier payment?
The same question arises regarding the parental allowance. When will concrete proposals regarding this new allowance be brought before the House? It is like the pensions issue — there is a lot of talk, reports, discussions, reviews and bodies, but we do not see any action.
——back to school allowances, early child care supplements and equal opportunity child care programmes, etc, have been put in place. Last year, those improvements stood at well over €1 billion. Much is happening in tackling child poverty and poverty generally. The facts and figures I have make clear that it is having a major impact.
To return to the Deputy's question, I do not have a specific percentage in mind regarding a target for reducing child poverty outside the general poverty target. The general poverty targets depend on whether one uses the approaches for measuring relative poverty used by the CSO or Europe, or the more sensible approach of measuring consistent poverty. It ranges from 5% to 20% depending on the figures with which one deals. The figures available to me indicate that approximately 240,000 people have escaped from the poverty trap in the past decade or so. The percentage of those in poverty is reducing steadily.
As regards the NESC report, while I am committed to the second tier payment, it is not the only tool against child poverty. It was trumped somewhat by the child care payment of €1,000 to children under six. This skewed the pitch a little in regard to payments directly to support children. The NESC tells me that it is a complicated issue and it is continuing its work. I have told it to continue its work, and I will move quickly on its proposals. I have been tackling poverty, including child poverty, through increasing family income supplements, child benefits, clothing allowances and early child care supplements. We are not waiting for that single tool. While it will be a valuable tool, it is not the only one.
I hope the lone parent family legislation will be brought before the House in the coming months. While consultations with the various groups have been completed, it is not yet drafted. We promised to put an implementation plan together to deal with the non-income element of the reforms, such as access to education, training and child care. As well as my other proposed reforms, the groups feel strongly that those three elements must be organised. We will try to progress them together.
Given that so much money is involved, will the lone parent allowance legislation have to be brought forward as part of a budgetary process? Does the Minister agree that this new child care payment was designed to cover child care costs and not child poverty per se? Will the Minister supply us with the figures for child poverty levels, his targets, and the current status?
It is my intention that the legislation will be separate. There may be financial aspects of it that will have to be dealt with in a budget, but the legislation would have to be separate because it is a new scheme and there are considerable legislative reforms involved.