Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Social Welfare Benefits.
Question 60: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his plans to introduce a partial capacity benefit scheme for people in receipt of illness or disability payments; the details of the way in which this scheme will operate; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15645/10]
Work on draft proposals for a partial capacity scheme is currently under way in my Department. The Deputy will be aware that the structure of welfare provision in Ireland for people with illnesses or disabilities reflects a view that people can be categorised as being either capable of full-time work or incapable of full-time work. The fact is that a strict binary approach fails to capture the reality that people with a disability may have the capacity to engage in the open labour market. While partial employment capacity may be difficult to assess, the absence of such a system means that people with substantial work capacity may exit the labour market prematurely.
As has been noted by the OECD in its report on "Sickness, Disability and Work: Breaking the Barriers", which examined the structures of welfare provision for people with disabilities in Ireland and in a number of other OECD countries, the focus within welfare systems on incapacity rather than capacity carries negative consequences at a personal level for people with disabilities and their families.
I welcome the theory behind this idea and it is important. The present system whereby a person gets permission from the Department to do 20 hours work for a year or up to three years and then that permission is suddenly removed is not ideal. Some people can do only approximately 20 hours or part-time work. Will there be an element of compulsion in the scheme or will it be voluntary? Assuming it is a success, people return to employment and savings to the Exchequer are made, how will those savings be used? I was not convinced by the earlier answer on FÁS but I suggest we still need to build up the facilitation service that exists, particularly for those with disabilities.
I tabled this question with regard to people with mental health difficulties in particular. I have spoken to Amnesty International about this and I feel there is a real difficulty in the assessment of mental health under the structure for the disability payment at present. People with genuine mental health difficulties find it more difficult to prove their cases than a person who walks in with a physical difficulty. This problem needs to be addressed. Suggestions have been made that there should be stronger liaison between the Department and community mental health teams and GPs with regard to people with mental health issues. When will it happen and will the Minister consider beefing up the service to assist those people? If they are to try to go back to work they will need supports to enable them to do so.
The Department is very keen to proceed with this. When they came to me they were all very anxious with regard to timeframes. I would like to see the draft scheme first. No more than what I stated to Deputy Shortall earlier, I like to see what I am being presented with as a Minister prior to jumping in to make a decision. The principle is simple and I do not think anyone could argue with it. However, the practicality and the detail - often the devil is in the detail - are where I see the challenges. Many people on illness benefit might feel threatened that they would receive only a half payment or a quarter payment. However, many others in the working economy might - if I may put it bluntly - see an opportunity here. I would like to see the scheme and then have an open debate with Deputies to examine it from every angle to ensure we are doing the right thing by people who genuinely have a disability.
As Deputy Enright pointed out, all of us have faced huge challenges with regard to illness claims in constituency clinics because two people could have the same disability but depending on one's job, education and capacity, one's ability to find employment might be very different from that of another person. This is where it gets complex. I would like to move forward with this but I do not want unintended consequences arising. I am more than willing to engage with Deputies, and perhaps through the committee would be best in order that we can tease out the best way forward. The Department proposed to me that we do it in the form of the Bill. I am not convinced that we should not do so prior to the Bill and give it time to get the best results for those with a disability and to have a scheme to deal with the problems of the existing system, which I do not think is satisfactory. A person receives permission to work 20 hours a week and inevitably it is rehabilitative but often it is not rehabilitative in getting that person back into full employment because he or she will never have the capacity for full employment. I do not think I can tease out the details of the challenges I see in it in the House today but I am more than willing to engage with Deputy Enright on the matter.
I welcome that. In the proposals put to the Minister by the Department how was the scheme thought up? Was it devised as a mechanism to save money from illness benefit payments or was it devised as a mechanism to assist people to get back into the workforce? There is a big difference between them. The thought process behind it could inform us very much prior to the next debate. Does the Minister have a timetable for the introduction of the scheme? There were suggestions from the Department of a pilot project. Has any progress been made in that regard? What would be the practicalities of that?
There was talk about putting it into legislation, starting from the beginning of next year. I have not seen the detail; the devil is always in the detail of these things. The concept is fine. I am not going to commit myself here to doing that because I will not introduce a scheme unless I believe it is robust. I understand the idea of the scheme is to facilitate participation in the workforce by those with a partial capacity who might at the moment find it very difficult to participate in the workforce. There is no expectation in the Department of major savings from this scheme. I hope to get the scheme in the very near future and that we would have an opportunity to discuss it and review it from every angle. I am sure there will be a significant input from people like the Deputy who have knowledge of this area to ensure we do not rush headlong into a scheme that does not work. On the other hand I do not want to delay matters indefinitely. I will be pressing that I will get the scheme very soon. I will review it and make my comments. I will be robust in my critique of it. We can then look at the best way to tease out how such a scheme might work. Sometimes schemes are introduced with one view and operate very differently on the ground because people see them in a different way from the way that the person who designed the scheme thought they would see them.