Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Social Welfare Benefits.
Question 61: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of families eligible for the family income supplement; the number of families in receipt of the family income supplement; if he is concerned about the low uptake of the family income supplement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15454/10]
The family income supplement is designed to provide support for people with families who are on low earnings. This preserves the incentive for them to remain in employment in circumstances where they might only be marginally better off than if they were claiming other social welfare payments. FIS is a central element of a strategy targeted specifically at addressing child poverty.
The Department has consistently publicised the FIS scheme in order to maximise uptake by qualified families. Significant improvements in the qualifying income limits and ongoing awareness campaigns have resulted in a strong upward trend in the level of new and renewal claims. Some 25,956 people are in receipt of a weekly FIS payment. In 2009, more than 46,258 new and renewal claims were received compared to 42,940 in 2008 and 36,900 in 2007. In 2010, some 14,088 new and renewal claims have been received to date compared to 14,646 in the same period last year.
The Department undertakes a number of measures to ensure that people are aware of possible entitlement to FIS. These include the publication of information on FIS on the Department's website, making information available through the citizen's information service and through the Department's network of local offices. Furthermore, an extensive advertising campaign for FIS was conducted in 2006.
With regard to the level of uptake, it is not possible to estimate from administrative sources the number of families who would be eligible but do not apply for their FIS entitlements. In this regard, the Department commissioned a research project in 2008 to examine factors behind the level of uptake for the scheme. The research found that overall awareness of family income supplement among potential recipients is high with almost three in four claiming to have heard of the scheme. Despite high levels of awareness, there was a lack of awareness and understanding of the eligibility requirements with only one in three claiming to be aware of the qualifying criteria for FIS.
The report recommends that the Department ensures that information about the scheme is advertised in a focused way with the eligibility and qualification criteria communicated as clearly as possible. The Department is addressing this by ensuring such information is highlighted as part of its ongoing publicity and advertisement campaigns.
What changes have been made in advertising since the report was given to the Department? When was the report made available? I do not believe it has been published. Perhaps the Minister might let us have a copy of it. FIS was to have been the saviour for people on low incomes who had their child benefit payments reduced in the budget. How many people became eligible for FIS as a result of the changes in the child benefit payment?
For some time I have tried to get to the bottom of how many people should be eligible for FIS but have not made much progress. When the concept of FIS was first raised, surely the Department carried out a study to ascertain approximately how much it would cost us. Surely there was an estimate at that time of the numbers of people who might be eligible for FIS. With the possible exception of the farm waste management scheme, generally it would not be possible to set up a scheme without knowing how many people might be likely to apply. Some information must exist as to the total number of people who should be eligible for FIS. That information should be available from the Department or the Revenue Commissioners. If people are eligible, they should be made aware of it and get the supplement.
I can never get my head around this matter. I do not know how many people are eligible. I do not know if there is any way to find that out. Presumably the nearest we would get to it would be through an assessment through, for example, a labour force survey. It depends on household income which requires knowing both incomes of a couple to do the calculation. We must try to ensure that people know they are entitled to it. The concept is very good because it keeps those on low incomes in work. It means that people who do not have a full week's work are entitled to FIS. That is much more attractive than having such people on the live register. I will certainly review all these schemes to ascertain how we can make work attractive for families.
The Deputy asked about child benefit. To my memory, child benefit is not included in the assessment and never was. Therefore, the change in child benefit will not change eligibility.
At the time when families on low incomes had their child benefit payment reduced, the Minister said they would be able to get FIS in order to balance things out and help them not to feel the pain as much. People have found that it has not made any great change.
If my memory serves me right, the amount of money was increased by increasing the level. It is 60% of the difference between a person's income as assessed and the guide income. The way to increase FIS is by increasing the guide income. Therefore, it should have potentially made more people eligible for FIS. That is a fact.
In addition, for people already in receipt of FIS, following the increase in the threshold income, if their incomes stay the same, 60% of a higher threshold also increases by the same amount.
We all agree with the concept of FIS. However, the scheme is just not working at present. The Minister could do worse than making the reform of FIS his first priority in his new role. At the moment there is a serious problem with the incentive to work for families, especially those with young children given that the early child care supplement has been halved. The Minister talked about FIS being increased. While it has been increased, that was only done to compensate for the cuts in child benefit; there has been no net increase. The Minister's priority should be that as far as possible individuals and families are facilitated in moving from welfare to work. Does the Minister accept that he should make the reform of family income supplement a priority?
FIS has numerous problems. The way the self-employed are treated is ridiculous. It makes no sense that self-employed people are excluded. The 19-hour rule makes no sense and represents a disincentive for people to work. There is no allowance for typical family costs as applies with eligibility for a medical card, including the cost of child care and the cost of participating in work, such as transport and so on. In addition, there are very strict regulations in regard to the length of time the job must be available. All of these issues are placing barriers in the way of people who want to work. Will the Minister make it a priority to ensure that those barriers are removed and, as it operates in an archaic way at present, that FIS is modernised and made fit for purpose for current issues in order to assist as many people as possible to move from welfare to work?
Moving people from welfare to work has been a life's mission with me, and I have done quite a bit of it in my time, long before I entered this House during which I got a very good knowledge of the social welfare system. As a young person going to work and creating employment in a community co-operative, I was appalled to find out how penal the social welfare system was given that, growing up, I had no personal dealings with it. I was appalled to find that every euro earned in self-employment took a euro off a person's social welfare income. Since I found that out many years ago as a young person, I have been determined to try to change it.
I assure the Deputy I would be more than interested in discussing ways to address this issue, not only in regard to FIS but also in regard to social welfare interaction with self-employed people. While I am not sure that FIS as we know it is the best model in that case, I am more than willing to debate that with the Deputy.
With regard to the means testing for people on jobseeker's allowance and so on, I am more than willing to engage in a detailed debate on all of these issues in committee. I would look forward to invitations from the committee and we can spend afternoons going through this in detail. Members will find me very open to ideas and suggestions as to how we can improve all of these schemes.
There are huge limitations with regard to finance but I believe we can spend the existing money in a much more constructive way that will create the incentive to do things rather than, as social welfare has often worked in the past, being a total disincentive to activity. I look forward to a detailed and intense debate with the Deputy and to examining all of the proposals she might put forward in this regard.
He is not in a new Government, however, as the Government has been in power for 13 years. He cannot come to the House and say he will look at, debate and discuss the issues. He shares the responsibility for the failure to improve these schemes of his predecessors.
Will the Minister attempt to get the figures in regard to the number of people who should be eligible for FIS? He can work with the Revenue Commissioners to examine the details of the scheme. When it was set up, somebody must have tried to examine the number of people who were eligible because it would be irresponsible to set up a scheme without knowing how many people would be eligible for it. Will he commit to trying to do that?
It is difficult but, if it is possible to get the information I will do so. I have no problem giving information but there are many difficulties in accessing it accurately. There always seems to be a perception that there is an under-claiming of FIS. Again, I do not know the exact explanation for that and whether we can get to the bottom of it. Huge improvements have been made in the social welfare system in the past 20 years.
As a new Minister, it would be rather strange if I did not come to the House with the view that there were issues which I thought were wrong in the past but on which I did not manage to get my way, and which I would like to tackle now that I have the responsibility. It is about collective Government; it is not about one-person Government. There have been huge improvements, particularly in terms of rates and schemes. The Labour Party was in Government, as was Fine Gael. As Deputy Shortall noted, there is a problem of disincentive to activity rather than incentive in many schemes. I look forward to a radical and progressive debate with the Deputies on how we can tackle these issues.