Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Priority Questions

Social Welfare Benefits.

3:00 am

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Question 89: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if he proposes to introduce reforms to the family income supplement regarding the eligibility criteria, the amount of the payment, and the way he now intends to increase its low uptake. [37931/06]

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Family income supplement is designed to provide support for people on low earnings with child dependants and provide the incentive for them to remain in, or take up, employment. Recent improvements to family income supplement include the change of assessment from a gross income basis to net income, the increase to €20 per week in the minimum payment and, in budget 2006, the refocusing of income thresholds to include additional gains for larger families. This resulted in increased payments of between €11.40 and €169.20, depending on earnings and family size.

In addition to significant increases for families on FIS, other reforms include substantial increases in each budget to child benefit rates which directly benefit 1 million children. Approximately 80,000 families benefit from the €40 per child increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. More than 350,000 children qualified for the €1,000 a year early child care supplement, one third of whom are children of lone parents and 41,000 child care places were created since 2000 under the equal opportunities child care programme.

With regard to the level of take-up on FIS, it is not possible to estimate with certainty from administrative sources the number of families which may be eligible but do not apply for their FIS entitlements. However, research undertaken by the ESRI in 1997, based on the results of the Living in Ireland survey, suggested at that time that fewer than one in three potentially eligible claimants had made a claim and been awarded payment of FIS. Since those with a higher entitlement are more likely to avail of the scheme, the take-up in expenditure terms was then estimated to be somewhat higher, at between 35% and 38% of potential expenditure.

To establish an up-to-date view of the factors influencing the level of FIS take-up, my Department will commission a specific research project with the objective of designing and undertaking a proactive take-up campaign for a sample of parents who may have earnings within the FIS income thresholds. The project will also examine whether access barriers exist and, if so, how they can be addressed.

In addition, it will assess whether alternative mechanisms to enhance take-up of FIS can be implemented and whether access to the scheme can be improved. To ensure families are made aware of the FIS scheme generally and of recent improvements in particular, my Department undertook a nationwide awareness campaign recently to promote and encourage a greatly increased take-up of FIS for working families on low incomes.

I was very pleased with the response to the campaign as a total of 10,357 new FIS applications were received in the first nine months of this year compared with 5,489 for the corresponding period in 2005.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

As of last Friday, 11 November, 21,427 customers were in receipt of FIS compared with 16,356 this time last year. This increase in the numbers of persons receiving FIS is a positive development and we will build on it to ensure families eligible for FIS are encouraged to apply for the scheme and every opportunity is taken to promote awareness of the benefits of the scheme.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. The only part of the question not answered was on whether he proposes to increase the amount of the family income supplement. Many people consider that, through FIS, the State subsidises employers who pay low wages while others consider it a support for people on low wages. Does the Minister accept that having a job in itself is not a guarantee that one lives in a poverty-free household? Approximately 14% of households in poverty are headed by people in low-paid employment. Therefore, it is imperative schemes such as this are taken up.

The Minister can assist the working poor by increasing the thresholds of the family income supplement and I again ask him to do so. Did the Minister examine the eligibility criteria? It is part of the question. One of my constituents job-shares and works 35 hours over two weeks. She receives €530 per month but she is short three hours' work per week to qualify for FIS, which requires 19 hours work per week. She pays €50 per week for child care. Does the Minister accept that flexibility could be introduced for people such as this? The woman also pays for fuel, food, mortgage, maintenance on the house and transport to and from work. She does not have much money for herself and her family.

The Minister said that take-up of the scheme is extremely low. I welcome the higher take-up in Dublin detailed by the Minister in his reply. Many people consider we have two approaches to this matter. The Department chases those who owe it money from welfare over-payments, and rightly so, but the same energy is not used to chase those owed money.

Many people in low-income jobs come from low educational backgrounds. Perhaps part of the reason for low take-up of the scheme is that people are not aware of it. As well as advertising the scheme, a proactive campaign by the Department is also necessary. Perhaps the Department will telephone those workplaces where people are on low incomes and inform the wages clerk or the workers that the money is available.

In many cases people are frightened to take up FIS because they fear they may upset their employers or that they will lose a different benefit. With publicising the scheme, all those fears, imagined or otherwise, must be addressed.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Family income supplement is an important scheme. It is targeted as it supports families on low incomes. In answer to the Deputy's question on increasing the supplement, we made strong moves on the family income supplement in almost every budget. We will certainly consider making similar improvements in the coming budget. I am committed to the scheme and hope to continue to improve the number of people taking it up and the amount of the benefit.

To qualify for FIS one must be in full-time employment, work at least 19 hours per week, have at least one child and have an average weekly income of below the designated income threshold for the family. Last year the threshold for a family of three children increased from €497 to €565 per week and that for a family of four children increased from €522 to €630 per week. This allowed 21,000 people to apply for FIS. The scheme cost the Exchequer €106 million this year and it is a major instrument.

We will continue to improve thresholds and will examine re-running the publicity campaign we held last year which brought in 10,000 new FIS applicants. As more and more people become aware of how the scheme works, the numbers availing of it increase substantially.