Thursday, 17 June 2010
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)
"Dáil Eireann declines to give a second reading to the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010 having regard to the failure of the Government to ensure that measures to activate jobseekers and lone parents have been backed up by genuine job opportunities and access to quality training, education and literacy improvement, child care, and relevant health supports, and further expresses concern that without these measures the cuts in support levels may simply have the effect of further impoverishing people who are already on subsistence levels of income.".
I was merely referring to our lost colleagues, and I thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for the correction.
When I spoke last night I concentrated on the lone parents' payment and I wish to make further remarks on that. I have a deep interest in all matters relating to social and family affairs. It is where I come from, politically, and I am currently Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, under the guidance and chairmanship of Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae, my good colleague from County Kerry.
I make my position clear on these issues. I have always taken the view that when all boats are rising we must look after the small boats. When all boats are struggling it is imperative to look after the small boats. I have often mentioned that I live in Tallaght. In recent weeks since the publication of the Bill, I have received calls from all over the Dublin region and particularly from my own constituency of Dublin South West. Many calls came from Tallaght but many also came from rural communities in Brittas and Bohernabreena and from Templeogue, Firhouse and Greenhills. It is important that we listen to what people are saying and report it, even from the Government benches. My place in the Chamber is, geographically, on the Labour benches but that is not my decision. I am happy here, by the way. I feel warm and wanted. I am not afraid to say the Government must continue, in all respects, to look after the vulnerable. This should not be a mere slogan. People are struggling in these hard times. People who have always struggled must be looked after. I have no hesitation in saying that. Other people should make sacrifices to ensure that social inclusion remains part of Government and Opposition policy.
I am conscious, from my dealings in my constituency, that many lone parents will need access to education, training and enabling services, such as child care provision to acquire the skills they will need to gain employment. A wide range of education and training opportunities is available through the Departments of Social Protection and Education and Skills and FÁS, for lone parents to strengthen their qualifications and skills base, maximise their chances of meeting the requirements of the modern labour market and gain employment.
Social welfare supports for lone parents should continue to be designed to prevent long-term dependence on social welfare and facilitate financial independence. They should recognise parental choice with regard to the care of young children but with the expectation that parents will not remain outside the labour force indefinitely. They should include an expectation of participation in education, training and employment, with supports provided in that regard. The reforms being proposed will help meet those social policy objectives, but the Minister must be particularly proactive to ensure they do.
The calls I receive from my constituents reflect the fact that people in this category are worried and concerned. They want to know what will be done for them and they need assurances. The Minister and the Department say the changes will not take effect for many years in many cases, but people are still worried. Yesterday, I received a letter from Green Park, in the Greenhills area. The writer wanted to know who would look after her teenage child and if her family would be safe when the new regulations are in force. Her point was a fair one and I hope the Minister understands the issues and the concerns of lone parents.
I listened to the main spokespeople yesterday. I do not want to praise them in case I get them into trouble, but many fair points were made as to how we should look after people who will be under pressure. The Minister appeared before the Select Committee on Social and Family Affairs and dealt with the Estimates for his Department. Questions were put to him by the Opposition spokespeople, Deputies Olwyn Enright and Róisín Shortall, and by my Fianna Fáil colleagues. I was glad to hear the Minister was prepared to engage with us. He made the point that he will continue to engage with the all-party committee and will come back to the committee next week to continue that dialogue. Those of us who work on the ground know it is important to listen to what people are saying and not to be afraid to represent their concerns in the Oireachtas. I say to the Minister that we must continue to care and to look after people who need our help. Those of us who are in a better position to get through the recession should understand the need to help those who are vulnerable. I hope we will continue to do that.
I have already referred to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. I am proud to be its vice chairman. With an all-party approach, the committee has launched a number of reports, including one on social welfare fraud which received much attention and raised considerable debate. Deputies Olwyn Enright and Thomas Byrne issued a comprehensive report on the high levels of indebtedness in Irish society. We took a radical approach in those reports.
I have made the point to the Minister on more than one occasion - I repeated it yesterday - that a specific category of citizens of this country is now looking for social welfare assistance. I hope the people in question are not offended when I say I regard them as the "new poor". They were doing well six months or a year ago - they were in employment, they could go on holidays, they were able to go to see Manchester United on a regular basis, they had no difficulties with their bills and commitments and they certainly had no difficulties with their mortgages. It has come as a bolt from the blue for them to have to struggle in this manner. As I have said previously, I try to bring my own experiences to my own politics. I was made redundant three times and had to reinvent myself each time. If it happens again, I will cope.
My experiences give me an appreciation of the substantial challenges faced by people who are suddenly faced with having to queue outside their local dole office, where everybody can see them. They have to deal with their bills and, particularly, their mortgages in those circumstances. I have no sympathy for financial institutions that go after such people. When the managing director of the EBS addressed an Oireachtas committee, he made some positive and radical proposals for dealing with debt. I challenge him and his counterparts in the other institutions to put their money where their mouths are by looking after people who are struggling. We need to consider the various proposals in this regard which have been made by Deputies on all sides of the House. I hope the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, is in his office watching my contribution and wondering what I will say next. When he came to Tallaght a few weeks ago, it was his first trip out into the real world after his appointment as Minister for Social Protection. We were delighted to welcome him to Tallaght.
That is fine. I have no problem with showing the way in Tallaght, which is a great example of how the job should be done. Following his successful visit to Tallaght, the Minister intends to go all over the country, including Swords. I suspect he will go to Limerick and other areas. When the Minister came to Tallaght, he met a group of people who gathered to tell it as it is. It was not a Fianna Fáil group. I am sorry if that offends anybody. We discussed what should be done about social welfare benefits and other priorities. The point was strongly made that people do not want to stay on social welfare. People want employment, education and schemes. I hope the Minister will follow through on the points he has made on more than one occasion, including at the meeting in Tallaght and at yesterday's meeting of the Select Committee on Social and Family Affairs. I refer, for example, to his suggestion that the need to prepare people to go back into the workforce will be prioritised.
The critics will say there are no jobs out there, which highlights the fact that employment is the major issue in this context. The next election may well be a case of "the economy, stupid", but it should also be about jobs. There are almost 11,000 unemployed people, including many young people, in my community of Tallaght. We need to give people hope. We should grasp the nettle when it comes to this issue, rather than merely talking about it. I appreciate that it falls under the remit other Departments, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has a clear role to play in this regard. I will continue to make these points to him, as I did to his predecessor.
The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, also has a role to play as far as this challenge is concerned. He knows it would be good for people to get back to work. He knows it would be good for the country if people did not have to depend on his Department to look after them. It would relieve the burden on the State as well. The Minister has mentioned all sorts of ideas about getting people back into work. I strongly support the community employment and job initiative schemes because it is important to give people an opportunity to do something meaningful. We all know that many jobs need to be done in communities throughout the country. Therefore, volunteerism needs to be supported. All kinds of activities, including summer camps for young people and initiatives for older people, are being pursued in our communities at present.
I listened to the comments that were made in the House last night about the proposal to reduce the jobseeker's payments of those who do not find work or take up opportunities. I hope the Minister and the Department will be flexible in this regard. If no jobs are available, one cannot penalise or punish people who cannot find work. I would never pick on social welfare staff, and certainly not the people in the fine office in Tallaght. However, the system needs to be flexible. We have to try to encourage people, look after them and make sure they are treated properly. I appreciate the courtesy that has been extended to me by the Chair. I look forward to supporting this Bill.
It is a very broad church, especially in Tallaght, where Deputy O'Connor comes from. His final remarks were magnificent. He said that if there are no jobs, we cannot impose sanctions on people who do not take up jobs. I agree that rather than punishing people, the Government should be flexible in relation to this matter. There is no flexibility in this legislation, unfortunately. It does not provide for an appeals mechanism. The flexibility sought by Deputy O'Connor has been specifically left out. I am not as happy as he seems to be that the Minister will continue to engage with the joint committee on the matter. I have not yet seen any sign that the Minister will be flexible in his engagement. I am glad he has visited Tallaght. I am sure Deputy O'Connor showed him what real life is like there.
The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010 is another example of the harsh medicine being applied by the Government. Its approach to dealing with the economic crisis is to impose austerity measures on the unemployed and the less well-off. We saw this in 2009, when two miserable budgets targeted the less well-off, the sick, the disadvantaged, the unemployed and pensioners. Believe it or not, two social welfare Bills were introduced as part of that process. I suggest that there has been a superfluity of legislation of this nature in recent years.
This Bill again puts the boot into the less well-off, including unemployed people, young people, lone parents and their children. This legislation is entirely negative. It does not contain a positive line or offer any incentives. There is not a carrot anywhere. It is all about targeting people at the lower end of the scale, who are on social welfare, by and large. They will be made to suffer as they try to move away from a reliance on jobseeker's payments. They will have to pay for the decisions of those who have ruined this economy and the lives of so many people.
It is impossible to come up with one good word for this despicable Bill. It is interesting that it was published on 28 May 2010 and will be guillotined today, 17 June 2010. It appears to have taken approximately three weeks to ram through a Bill of this nature, at a time when we have been trying to get the Government to establish a commission of inquiry into the notorious and nefarious decisions that brought about the collapse of the Irish economy.
Critical decisions were made in September 2008, almost two years ago, but the commission of inquiry has not yet been set up or its terms of reference decided. Nor has legislation been introduced to name and shame, punish or sanction the people responsible. It is sauce for the goose but not sauce for the gander. There is one approach for those at one end of the scale and another for those at the other end.
In the meantime, what has happened? The economy has been ruined and tens of thousands of householders are in negative equity, with homes they bought during the construction bubble that was created by the financial institutions. To make it worse, in the last two years 200,000 people have become unemployed. Last year 40,000 emigrated; this year the ESRI estimates that 60,000 will emigrate. That is worse, in such a short space of time, than anything we have experienced before. Now a provision has been introduced under which people must accept reasonable offers of jobs - jobs that are not available. Placements and college places are also not available. In April 2009, the Government promised to create 2,000 work placements. How many has it delivered so far? A total of 919 - less than half the number promised. There are people begging for work placements. Similarly, in 2009, 2,500 extra college places were promised for young job seekers; a total of 1,752 were created, which is nowhere near what was promised - in fact, almost 1,000 less.
We know there are no jobs. The number of jobless people is increasing, or people are emigrating. Yet this Bill states that people must take up a reasonable offer of a job. What is the definition of a reasonable offer, especially if there are no jobs in the first place? Why produce legislation in a vacuum? Why not stimulate the economy in certain areas to facilitate people with certain skills who are unemployed? These people could get back to work quickly. Let us create these jobs, placements and college and back-to-education positions, and let us fit people into them, rather than adopting an inflexible approach of applying sanctions with no consideration for the reality of the situation.
Deputy O'Connor put it well when he asked why we should impose sanctions on people who refuse job offers when there are no jobs out there. This legislation, in sections 17, 18, 23 and 24, targets people in a cold fashion. For example, let us consider sections 17 and 18, which deal with the jobseeker's allowance. In last year's budget, this allowance was halved for young people between the ages of 18 and 21. Now a quarter of the allowance has been removed again, so that it has been brought down to €100 and then to €75 from the 2004 level - a drastic reduction. It is difficult to see active young people surviving on that. They need money for clothes and activities; even when looking for jobs they will need money for bus fares and so on. It is not realistic.
The further reduction for those aged 22 to 24 is €35, while for those over 24 it is €46. Thus, the entire category of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 has been targeted. The idea is to push them out to find work that is not there. If they do not find the work that is not there, we get rid of them - get them out of the country. Around 100,000 people have left the country in the space of two years. They are brightest and best. We are exporting them again as we did in the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1980s, but this time it is more concentrated, and legislation has been introduced to force them out. We are shunning the young people of our country in a crude fashion. We are telling them they are not wanted; that they are a burden on the State. We are telling them to get our or starve. That is the message that is coming from this legislation.
We are justifying this based on a refusal to accept a reasonable offer of employment, although reasonable offers of employment are not forthcoming. There is nothing in this or any other legislation that works pragmatically towards job creation or stimulation, or the provision of opportunities or placements for education and training. Community employment schemes have been cut even though increasing numbers of people are seeking them. Lone parents can no longer get onto CE schemes even though they should account for 10% of such schemes. That is not the case any longer.
We have seen cutbacks in so many areas, including funding for librarians in disadvantaged areas - although, thankfully, the Department of Finance has reversed this decision. A small number of disadvantaged schools were benefiting from the new library project, but the information was that great progress was being made by youngsters, particularly in literacy and numeracy but also in terms of educational confidence. The project has been operating successfully in a number of schools in my own constituency. I am pleased that in the last couple of days the Department of Finance has agreed to make the required funding, which had been cut entirely from August of this year, available in the coming year.
Like Deputy O'Connor I will mention my own constituency, Dublin Central, where there are quite large numbers of unemployed people and lone parents. Youngsters are coming out of school seeking employment or training, but they cannot find it. For example, one of the things I did myself was to set up, last year, a soccer club in Liberty House for 20 to 30 young men aged 18 to 25 who have nothing to do and want to do something useful. The club won the league and got to the cup final, so it did extremely well. Such a project keeps young people off the streets when there is nothing else to do in an area. Dublin is the European capital of sport this year, and funding was put into sport to give people - especially young people, who are full of energy and action - alternative activities. Particularly in disadvantaged areas, this prevents them from hanging around with nothing to do all day every day. All the Government is offering them is a reduction in their jobseeker's allowance for not taking up employment which is not available to them in the first place. It is a disaster.
I received documentation from the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent's on the Navan Road, which provides services for people with intellectual disabilities. They have just been informed, in the middle of 2010, that €4 million is being cut from their funding by the HSE.
At the beginning of the year the organisation expected to have €4 million more than it has. It must channel into a six-month period the cuts that were announced suddenly. The cutbacks will be sharper because they were not told at the beginning of the year that this would happen. Some 56 posts must be cut by the end of the year. There is also the threat of an additional sanction of 5% if they do not comply. Care for senior citizens and respite care for the intellectually disabled will be curtailed, family support hours will be significantly reduced, collect after school clubs will be significantly reduced, summer camps will not be supported, there will be no transport for children with intellectual disabilities, a skills development programme will have to close for weeks and staff have been told they must take a week off at their own expense or be deployed elsewhere. This is very heavy, coming in the middle of the year.
These cutbacks are taking place all the time. This type of legislation is targeting young people and lone parents and is making a wonderful statement through the publication of fraud in the social welfare system. Names, addresses and the amounts of fines will be published. Would it not be great if we had this across the board so that it applied to all companies and all people exploiting the system? For example, the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, is constantly finding companies, businesses and personnel exploiting people in the workplace. Would it not be great if we had the same commitment in the legislation to a monthly publication of the names, addresses and the amounts of fines for those people? That is not done but we will have that in respect of social welfare as if this was the one major crime. The amount of social welfare fraud committed is much less, on a relative scale, than the fraud committed by larger operators in terms of employees, businesses, hotels and so on. Let us have this measure implemented across the board. I am entirely in favour of naming and shaming those exploiting the system through fraud but let us not just target those who are less well off. Let us target the heavyweights in the economy, the so-called pillars of society and ensure they are named and shamed. This should be done on a regular basis. NERA identifies people in its annual report each year and is in a position to do so because it has been put on a statutory footing. NERA should produce a monthly publication so we can see in the newspapers a list of the great and the good of Irish society and how they behave.
I refer to the most unkind cut of all, in the one parent family payment, which will now end when the youngest child is aged 13 years. Where did that cut-off point come from? The 13th year is the first year as a teenager, the bridge between primary school and second level. Children are particularly vulnerable at this point and need all the support they can get, as do parents. Why is this inexplicable instrument used at this time? What will it do and what will it affect? It will not create employment for the parent. What will it do for the child? Will it force a child out of school? It beggars belief that proposals of this nature can be made. It is anti-child, anti-mother and anti-family.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has some experience of the constitutional protection of the family. There is a strong case to be made about the constitutionality of this measure. It targets the children of lone parents, as though there is some stigma. They are being hit at an early stage. At present, the lone parent's allowance continues until 18 years of age if the child is in education and continues until 22 years of age if the child is in third level education. Reducing the age from 22 to 13 is a considerable cut, nine years. The chance of that child going to third level education is now nil. There is no chance if the lone parent's allowance will not be made from the age of 13 years. This is negative legislation and is not what we need at this moment. It would be best if this legislation was withdrawn and the Minister went back to the drawing board.
Táim buíoch duit as deis labhairt ar an mBille seo. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I have listened intently to Deputy Costello. As a Fianna Fáil backbencher, I am very proud of the record of the Fianna Fáil Governments over the past 12 years on the issue of welfare benefits. The current budget is almost €21 billion. When we consider inflation was of the order of 40% over those 12 years, the State old-age pension benefit increased by 120%, unemployment benefit increased by 130% and child benefit increased by 330%. That is a phenomenal record and rather than being critical of Fianna Fáil-led governments, Deputy Costello should recognise that Ireland is way ahead of its European counterparts.
For example, the state pension in the UK is £95 and our benefit is €230. There is a substantial difference, which was highlighted in the recent British general election. In the first leaders' debate, a question was asked from the audience whether any candidate would consider increasing the benefit. Effectively, the answer was that they would not because they believed it was reasonable and that the country could not afford an increase. Criticising the Irish Government and a Fianna Fáil-led Government for having the highest level of State benefit in Europe is farcical.
My view on State benefit is that no Government should consider reducing it. Our senior citizens built up our country and paid taxes. They brought Ireland where it is and the Minister should not countenance a reduction, notwithstanding the severe budgetary deficit that leaves us borrowing another €20 billion this year to bridge our finances.
Regarding child benefit, and considering the resources available, we must consider whether people earning high incomes should receive the same level of benefit as those without a job. I make this point to broaden the debate.
From meetings at clinics in my consittuency two issues of concern arise, namely, fraud and the issue of child benefit to single parents. The discussion we are having now is worthwhile and it is correct for us to have an informed debate and get the facts. In regard to fraud in the welfare system, last year more than €100 million was saved through the actions of the staff and officials of the Department, which is very welcome. It is what taxpayers and the public at large expect us to do. I congratulate the Department and exhort the staff to continue that work. In any aspect of our society fraud should not be permitted and I want to see scarce resources going where they should go.
In recent months I have been told of a number of instances of people flying in from Europe as daytrippers to collect their payments. The suggestion is that these people are not entitled to the money. If they are then they are entitled to collect it but if not they should be stopped. It was suggested to me that in the same way that Revenue and other sections are at the airport checking out people coming into the country, the Department of Social Protection should put officials with laptops there who would be allowed to question people coming off aeroplanes in order to establish whether they are coming here on holidays or for what people regard as a rip-off situation. I make that suggestion to the Minister and his officials so that it might be investigated as we endeavour to cut down on fraudulent payments. I believe it is worth a try and hope the Minister will consider it.
Along with my colleagues in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party I have had a number of discussions with the Minister and am particularly interested in trying to utilise the skills of self-employed people who, unfortunately, are on dole queues at the moment. They get no automatic right to benefit at present and, having talked to a number of these people, I am of the opinion they would be willing to contribute to the system and pay a bit more on the basis that they would be allowed claim benefit if they got into the unfortunate situation of being out of work. As other speakers have noted, there are a number of activities in all our constituencies around the country at present where work is not being done. These highly skilled self-employed people, whether carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers or whatever they may be, could do invaluable work. I believe they would be ready, willing and able, as the cliché has it, to carry out that work if the system permitted. I would like the Minister to investigate ways whereby some of these people might do 19 and a half hours' work, or perhaps longer hours, carrying out works for the benefit of their community.
This would have a dual effect. First, well-needed works could be carried out in localities at no cost to the State in return for the welfare payments. Equally, it would give some self respect to those unfortunate people who have no work at present and who feel bad about having to stay at home with nothing to do. I say to the Minister and his officials this is an issue we should fast-track and whatever laws, rules or regulations need to be changed we should get over them because of the dual benefit, both to the people who are claiming benefit at present and the communities where work is badly needed. I could speak for the next hour about works all around my constituency which need to be done and which I would like to see done.
Deputy Costello castigated the Government on this Bill but, again, he has not compared the Irish situation with our European counterparts. When one examines what is happening throughout Europe, and across the water in the United Kingdom, one sees that the proposals planned by the Government are more than reasonable. In the UK, to which we are often compared in many respects, from September the benefit for a lone parent will cease when the child reaches the age of seven. This came about under a socialist Government and I have not heard that the new Tory-Liberal Democrat Government plans to change it. There is realism, and keeping people at home, unemployed and drawing benefit, is not the way forward. What the Government is planning is reasonable and pragmatic.
Equally, if one compares Ireland with European countries, Norway, Sweden and Germany cease benefit when the child reaches the age of three. Our proposal is for the age of 13 and I have an open mind about whether the age should be 15. However, when one looks at the UK situation which will reduce the age in question to half what we propose, and at Norway, Sweden and Germany which have the age at a quarter of what we propose, it is not unreasonable that we should consider this measure.
I say this for two reasons. First, we need to prioritise upskilling, training and education for single parents. This is the best way forward in meeting both the needs of these people and those of society. I have met many single mothers and have a great deal of sympathy for those who find themselves in a situation with a child, no job and without family back-up whereby if they could get a job they might take it up. There is no financial incentive for people to take up a job if, as at present, they are able to claim benefit. That financial bottom line makes one much better off. We must consider the needs of society and of the person. Asking any young mother to get more education and upskill herself in a particular trade or business is for her own benefit and also for the benefit of society in general. It uses resources to better effect.
In the overall welfare situation, carers, pensioners and disabled people need maximum Government support and we must target our resources more effectively. In this regard I wish to reiterate the great record Fianna Fáil has had with regard to benefits. If we compare the State benefit of €230 versus that in the UK, it shows we are way ahead of Britain and Europe. Last year, the Government reduced the jobseeker's benefit to €150 where those persons would not take up job offers, or would not undergo training and up-skilling. I welcome that move because people need a financial incentive to make a choice. Do they stay at home and draw the dole or do they further their education, engage in training and up-skilling to be in a position to obtain a job?
I welcome the move to bring FÁS and all its training programmes under this new Department of Social Protection. Every aspect of welfare, be it payments, training, up-skilling and so on, should be under one umbrella and the Government has made the right decision in bringing the responsibilities under two previous Departments into the Department of Social Protection. Challenging ourselves to cut down long-term unemployment must be the aim. It is not good for the individual to have nothing to look forward to when he or she gets up every morning.
We need to make the right decisions to deal with the long-term unemployed. Incentivising people to up-skill, to educate themselves and to retrain is necessary because if we are not given an incentive to do something, we will take the easy option. This Bill is going a long way towards that. The financial penalty is the best way incentivising a person. The reduction in the jobseeker's allowance from €196 to €150 is one way of giving the person a choice to go out and get retrained or to sit at home and draw the cheque.
Statistics on poverty show that children from single parent homes are four times more likely to remain in poverty when they reach maturity. They are likely to fall into the same traps as their predecessors. That must be a concern of any Government for the future. The new rules in respect of 13 year old children will come about in 2024. Thirteen years is a reasonable timeframe for a single parent to re-educate, up-skill and retrain. If the single parent has gained a qualification in education at the end of the 13 years, then that is good for the parent and for society. A six year lead in for existing customers is a reasonable timeframe to up-skill and retrain.
I welcome the Minister's plans on the new community child care subvention. In any situation involving lone parents, child care is a very important facet. Anything that has labour activation focus has to be correct and I welcome that. Part of the Bill deals with the after school services and the home care clubs. People need that back-up service and it is a particularly important aspect of the Bill.
The Home-Start service is currently available in Clondalkin, Lucan and Blanchardstown, and it has recently been introduced to Swords, where one manager and a core number of volunteers help people in need, including single parents. They work on a minimum budget and they provide excellent value for money to the State. The salaried manager and the volunteers do fantastic work and the Minister should consider extending the services of these groups, fund the facility in Swords, and we will get value out of it.
This Government's claim to be introducing measures to discourage people from defrauding the taxpayer might carry more weight were it not for its actions in other areas. Only yesterday, the new management at Anglo Irish Bank admitted that we are unlikely ever to see a return on much of the money that has been pumped into repairing the criminal negligence of those who were there before the State had to intervene. It is ironic that this Government seems to have no problem nationalising banks and having the State pay for the mistakes of incompetent members of the so-called elite but is embarked on a moral crusade against public service workers and those on social welfare, including many who have directly lost their jobs as a consequence of that incompetence.
The lesson clearly is that if one was lucky enough to be a member of the so-called golden circle of criminally incompetent financial and property speculators, then one can expect have one's tab picked up by the taxpayers, but those who directly lost their jobs as a result of the manner in which those people destroyed the economy then will have to do with even less than that to which they are currently entitled in social welfare.
The former leader of Fianna Fáil was wont every now and again to describe himself as a socialist. The former Deputy Joe Higgins was quite amusing about that, but perhaps he misunderstood what Deputy Bertie Ahern was referring to. There are many different types of socialism and clearly what we have here is a socialism of the failed millionaire class.
I am not arguing that there is no such thing as social welfare fraud, nor that people who are guilty of defrauding the system ought not to be brought to book. People who defraud the system are committing an offence and directly impacting on those who are genuinely entitled to support. We have seen many people imprisoned in the past for small amounts of social welfare fraud, but we have not yet seen the bankers, developers or the golden circle of the political elite brought to book for their crimes against the Irish people.
The Bill makes cuts to the lone parent payment scheme. It seems the Government now wants to punish families who have growing teenagers. The Minister has claimed that the changes are aimed at addressing the high number of lone parent households in poverty. I would welcome steps to address this level of poverty, but sadly this Bill is not an anti-poverty measure. It is the opposite. It is an unscrupulous, penny pinching measure, primarily directed against the less well off in our society.
This Bill is not about moving people off welfare and into paid employment because the job, education and training opportunities simply do not and will not exist on the basis of current Government policy. It is about moving lone parents from one welfare payment and onto another less flexible, less supportive and unsuitable payment. This will also have severe and counterproductive consequences for lone parent claimants in low paid part-time employment. There is no denial that the lone parent payment scheme is in major need of reform. The Government's own 2006 report, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, contained a range of recommendations including a recommendation that the age of qualifying children be lowered. However, that report clearly stated that any such move must be accompanied by ensuring that child care supports are available. Even the Minister has admitted that the availability of after school and summer supervision support is patchy at best. The 2006 report also stated that the selection of a particular cut-off age is a matter for decision by Government following a consultation process.
Where was the consultation process? Why pick 13 years as the cut off age? Research conducted by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice into the cost of a minimum essential standard of living clearly demonstrates that households with adolescents spend more on food, social inclusion and education than households with younger children. What then is the logic behind this? Does the Government expect all single parents to rush into marriage before their children reach the age of 13? Perhaps it envisages a situation where all 13 year olds will, in a few years time, be able to get full-time jobs working for its gombeen friends overcharging people for coffee and breakfast rolls, if and when the economy ever recovers.
The Minister might think he will make savings with these penny pinching, but he should not kid himself; over the longer term if parents are forced to cut spending on these essentials, he is storing up far more costly problems for society in the future. However, that thinking seems to be completely absent on the Government side, where the whole focus appears to be on how to take more from those who have the least. That is what underlies the proposals to cut social welfare, and also what lies behind the earlier signalled intent of the Government to allow employers to opt out of agreed minimum wage rates.
There seems to be no understanding that by driving people, including more people who are working, further into poverty overall society is damaged, and all for the purpose of ensuring that a small number of people at the top will continue to make money. It is not just a short-sighted policy, it is an anti-social one, and one that I suggest would not have gone down well with previous Fianna Fáil Cabinets which were attacked not for cutting social welfare payments and programmes but for increasing them. They were attacked by the very same sort of people whose interests Fianna Fáil now seems to have as its priority. These were the people who in the 1930s claimed that they could not afford to take their money out of London's Stock Exchange and banks and invest it here because the tenement dwellers of Ireland would have no incentive to work for buttons if they were given outrageous luxuries like proper housing, schools and hospitals. We now hear the very same arguments from people who are of the opinion that the only way to get the economy working again is to force people to work for a few hundred euro a week and as part of that to reduce social welfare far below what it is now.
In theory this may make sense but it overlooks a few important facts. Do these people realise that low income earners, social welfare recipients and single parent payment recipients spend every cent in the local economy, and by doing so they create employment? Much of the growth during the Celtic tiger was in highly skilled and well paid employment and a large proportion of that came from overseas investment in technology and other sectors. The economy did not grow on the basis of employing demoralised brow beaten poorly educated people on low wages, as IBEC and ISME and their cheerleaders in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have us believe.
The greatest contribution of some of our native entrepreneurs was to piggyback on the genuine growth in the economy by charging us exorbitant amounts for everything from mortgages to rents to pints of lager and paninis, while being careful at the same time to ensure they paid as little as possible in tax or wages. These are the patriots whose bacon the so-called republican party proposes to save by imposing a massive drop in living standards on the decent people of this country, whose only crime was to work when there was work only to suffer the indignity of unemployment when the work was gone. Unlike many of our great elite, they could not avoid the obligations of citizens by departing into tax exile. Perhaps more of them ought to have followed the elite's example and engaged in the anti-national and criminal activities that have brought this country to its knees. It seems this is what earns one the respect and help of the Government.
I call on people to oppose the measures proposed in this Bill. Not only will they not contribute anything towards the objectives claimed by the Minister, but they will make things much worse by contributing to a further undermining of the social fabric. The measures also contrast to the manner in which the Government has mollycoddled those responsible for the scale of the current mess in which we find ourselves.
I wish to share time with Deputy Niall Blaney. I am pleased to speak today on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010. Yesterday, I listened with interest to my friend and colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, outline the main provisions of this important Bill. I am very aware of the work of his Department as it impacts on almost every person in the State on a daily basis. It is a proactive Department, the workings of which I am very familiar with through my constituency office. The Department administers 50 different schemes and services with more than 1.5 million people benefiting from weekly payments and more than 580,000 families receiving child benefit in respect of 1.1 million children each month. Fianna Fáil is proud of its record of supporting those most in need in our society. As the Minister said yesterday in his address, over the past 12 years, we have increased pension rates by approximately 120%, unemployment benefits by almost 130% and child benefit payments by more than 330%. The cost of living has increased by approximately 40% over the same period.
There are a number of elements in the Bill which I would like to touch on briefly. One of the changes which I believe will be tabled as a Committee Stage amendment is a very practical transfer of work schemes across to the Department of Social Protection, so that the Minister can have a focus on job activation. The Minister will also introduce an amendment to provide him with the necessary statutory powers on the employment services and community services programme of FÁS. I welcome this joined-up approach to looking at job activation in its wider context with income support. There are real and particular provision needs in communities that we could address through these schemes. One of the great challenges faced at present, not just in my area of Longford Westmeath but throughout the country, is where families have gone from having two incomes to one, or worse, from one income to none. It is important that we have work opportunities for people caught in this situation.
What struck me in particular about the discussion on the one-parent family payment is the fact that statistics show that many lone parents are in poverty. This is despite significant State spending by successive Fianna Fáil Ministers on one-parent families as well as improvements made to the one-parent family payment over the years. The latest EU-SILC figures show that in 2008, 17.8% of lone parents experienced consistent poverty compared to 3% of two-parent households and to 4.2% of the population as a whole. The cost of the one-parent family payment scheme in 2009 was €1.12 billion. When other supports are taken into account, including child benefit and, where appropriate, rent supplement and family income supplement, total expenditure in this area exceeded €2 billion that year.
If, after all that investment, lone parents are still in a cycle of poverty then we have to change our way of assisting them and improving their quality of life.
In general, the best route out of poverty is through paid employment. It is recognised that work, and especially full-time work, may not be an option for parents of young children. However, it is believed that supporting parents to participate in the labour market once their children have reached an appropriate age will improve their economic situation and their social well-being and that of their families. The current arrangements, whereby a lone parent can receive the one parent family payment until their child is 18 years of age or 22 years of age if he or she is in full-time education without any requirement for them to engage in employment, education or training, are not in the best interests of the parent, their children or society.
Under the new proposals, the one parent family payment will be paid until the youngest child in the family reaches 13 years of age. It was initially proposed in the Government discussion paper on proposals for supporting lone parents in 2006 that a parental allowance would continue until the youngest child reached 7 years of age. For existing recipients, payment will be phased out over a six year period. I welcome this phasing out period. It is important to say that this is a phased change and recipients should not have anxiety about this change.
When the youngest child reaches 13 years of age if the parent is still in need of support he or she will be entitled to claim jobseekers allowance, or if in low-paid employment of 19 hours or more per week, family income supplement. I welcome also that notification to existing recipients will be put in place advising them of changes to the scheme and a reminder will issue to relevant recipients when their youngest child reaches the age of 10 encouraging them to avail of educational, training and back to employment opportunities.
I am very conscious that many lone parents will need access to education, good quality relevant training and child care to acquire the skills they will need to gain employment. There are a wide range of education and training opportunities available through the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Education and Skills and FÁS for lone parents to strengthen their qualifications and skills base and thus maximise their chances of meeting the requirements of our modern labour market. Currently, all lone parents who use FÁS employment services are provided with a one-to-one guidance interview with an employment services officer. As part of this process, lone parents are advised on current job vacancies, suitable training or employment programme places and may be referred to other FÁS supports.
A new support approach, the social inclusion model, to help people to overcome barriers and to increase their opportunities to access training, employment programmes and, ultimately the labour market, is currently being tested by FÁS with lone parents. This model involves a number of agencies including lone parent organisations and includes outreach information and recruitment and a "paving your way to work" programme concerned with the provision of information supports regarding welfare to work, budgeting, education and work options. The programme is aimed at individuals who are parenting alone. It is eight weeks in duration, is delivered from 9.30 a.m to 1 p.m. and mirrors calendared school holidays.
I am aware that good progress has been made on the provision of child care. The Government invested €1 billion over the past decade in developing a child care infrastructure under the national child care investment programme 2006-10 and, prior to that, the European Union co-funded the Equal Opportunities Child Care Programme 2000-06. As a result of these programmes, some 65,000 child care places will be available this year. This investment has made it possible to introduce the free early childhood care and education, ECCE, year for pre-school children.
In addition, the community child care subvention scheme, CCSS, funds community child care facilities to enable them to charge reduced child care fees to disadvantaged and low-income families. Almost 1,000 community services are now in the CCSS, the number of full-time equivalent children attending is almost 30,000 and the number of parents using the services is nearly 18,000.
I wish to add my voice to the debate on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010. There is no doubt that we are experiencing changed times which naturally triggers a need for changes to our social welfare payments. The economic downturn has left people in situations that they never dreamed possible. Ireland experienced unprecedented levels of employment in recent years, which left us in a situation whereby those on social welfare benefits were truly those that were in need, such as carers, pensioners, people with disabilities and so on.
During those times this Government dramatically increased levels of social welfare payments, a point which was outlined by the Minister and many of my colleagues. Over the past 12 years we have increased unemployment benefits by almost 130%, child benefit by more than 330% and pension rates by approximately 120%. In contrast, the cost of living has increased by about 40% in the same period. The generosity of our welfare system was demonstrated in recent times when many people from Northern Ireland unlawfully claimed welfare in Border counties such as Donegal. I very much welcome the measures introduced by the Minister to clamp down on such activity. It highlighted the enormous variation in welfare payments between here and the United Kingdom.
Many people are now experiencing difficult times for the first time, especially our younger generations. Others are experiencing difficult times for the first time in quite some time. Currently we have a situation whereby many people in receipt of social welfare payments truly want to get back into the workforce or education and training. We have new graduates fresh out of college who cannot obtain work, even though they are eager to put their knowledge to use. There are solicitors, teachers, accountants, architects and many more professional people finding themselves in need of support.
This leaves us in a situation where we not only have to consider those that are unable to participate in employment or education but also those that are willing to do so and fail to secure employment, education and training. We had a situation recently in Letterkenny where a local cafe advertised a job for a dishwasher and received more than 400 applications. That demonstrates the willingness of our people to work and we must assist them effectively.
We are living in difficult times but, given the current signs I am confident of an upturn. Things are progressing. Meanwhile, we must assist those in receipt of social welfare payments to prepare to take advantage of employment opportunities when they arise. Some €20.9 million will be spent by this Government in 2010 on social welfare provision, an increase of €500 million over 2009. While we are under pressure in budgetary terms, we are also conscious of the massive increase in numbers of those in need of help at this time. This Bill is a commendable endeavour to address the requirements of the most needy.
We are also extremely conscious of discouraging long term dependence upon social welfare. This can be a scourge in any country and I commend the Minister's measures to curb it in this Bill. We are not in the business of making any individual or family suffer hardship or poverty, rather, we are ensuring that our social welfare system takes care of those in need while encouraging people to improve their skill set with a view to securing employment at all times. This is where the focus must and should lie.
In terms of jobseekers allowance, reductions were announced in last December's budget for younger members of society. External factors were considered before introducing this measure, such as the comparisons drawn between the rates available here and in other jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland.
This issue is very close to my own constituency in Donegal.
Becoming unemployed can have a negative impact on young people's general outlook on life and it is vital that they are encouraged to stay in the labour market. Idleness among young people is hazardous and for this reason it is credible to increase the financial incentive for participating in education and training. Young people have an enormous ability to learn new skills. This must be encouraged because the labour market demands flexibility and one can never learn enough. Evidence that the reduced rates of social welfare have incentivised young people to participate in education and training vindicates the measures introduced.
The social welfare payments of people in receipt of jobseekers' payments who refuse to participate in activation measures such as education and training will be subject to various financial penalties, with the exception of those who have a plausible reason for not participating. These measures will work in tandem with the integration of FÁS functions into the Department of Social Protection and will actively discourage unnecessary long-term dependence upon unemployment payments. Currently, a full disallowance may be imposed if a recipient is not genuinely seeking work and the Bill strengthens that provision by imposing a full disallowance where a recipient has refused an offer of suitable employment. Only primary payments are affected and rates for child and adult dependants, where applicable, will remain unchanged if a claimant is subject to a penalty rate. Furthermore, these reduced rates will only apply where the primary social welfare payment relates to jobseeking activities.
Significant changes to the one parent family payment are also provided for in this Bill. Considerable thought was given to this issue and it is believed that the availability of the one parent family payment until a child is 18, or 22 if in full-time education, without a requirement on the recipient to engage in employment or education and training is not in the best interest of anybody involved or, indeed, of society. The focus should be on encouraging people into employment or education and training at every available opportunity. Unfortunately, the child of a lone parent is four times more likely to be in consistent poverty than the overall population, in spite of improvements to the one parent family supports available over the years. The current payment also encourages long-term dependence on social welfare for many people who are otherwise capable of participating in employment or education and training.
With this in mind, it is sensible to encourage lone parents to participate in education or training in the event that employment will be available. These new measures aim to improve the economic situation and social well-being of the recipients and their families. This measure has been criticised from across the floor but let us compare our one parent family payments with what is available in other jurisdictions. The Minister is proposing that from 2011 all new customers will receive the one parent family payment until their youngest children reach 13 years of age. Existing customers will enjoy a six year phasing out period to enable them to access education and training with a view to securing employment. In the UK, lone parents are required to seek work when their youngest children reach ten years of age and this limit will be reduced to seven years later this year. Norway, Sweden, Germany and Italy impose a work obligation when the youngest child is three years of age. It is generally believed internationally that the provision of long-term lone parent payments prevents the reduction of child poverty. The countries that are achieving the best outcomes in terms of reducing child poverty are those which combine strategies aimed at facilitating access to employment and enabling services with income support. That is the direction we must take and it is vital that we do not regard this as a measure to force lone parents out to work when their children are still young. This measure will increase income, self-belief and financial independence for many families.
If a lone parent is still in need of income support when his or her child reaches 13 years of age, jobseeker's allowance or other appropriate income supports payment may be made available or, if the individual is in employment, he or she may qualify for a family income supplement. Child care provision may also be an issue for many lone parents.
This Bill is thorough, fair and forward thinking. We are undergoing changing times and it is vital that we adapt our social welfare provisions accordingly. I note the Minister's intention to table a number of amendments on Committee Stage. Among these is the sensible proposal to transfer the rural social scheme and the community services programme to the Department. This measure will provides the Minister with the necessary powers in respect of the employment services and community services programme of FÁS and, subsequently, to transfer the related funding in order to focus more effectively on labour activation measures. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Acting Chairman. Important business awaits me across the road but I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, on his appointment. I have known the Minister for many years and, particularly in his last role as Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, he introduced a number of initiatives with the intention of improving the quality of life for people in rural Ireland, encouraging people to return to the workplace and ensuring rural people have the same access to services as their urban counterparts. I welcome the transfer of the rural social scheme to the Department of Social Protection and I hope the Minister will bring his common sense with him to his new role.
I will address the good parts first and be critical later. The rural social scheme was one of the best measures ever introduced because it gave people opportunities on two levels. People who were unemployed for years or never had an opportunity to join the workforce were enabled to participate while benefiting their communities. It did not undermine the work programmes of the OPW or local authorities and a great number of projects would never have been completed but for the rural social scheme. Taxpayers are getting great value for the money they invest in the scheme and, in light of the number of unemployed people in this country, I encourage the Minister to seek further funding in order to expand it. Community employment schemes have also been transferred to the Department.
In these extraordinary and difficult times, I urge the Minister and his officials to explore ways of allowing people to rejoin the workforce, whether through community employment, the back-to-education scheme or the rural social scheme. Rules and regulations should not hold people back. Several of my constituents will not qualify for the back-to-education scheme until next October or December but they want to start college in September. They do not qualify because they have not been unemployed for sufficient time but they are being debarred for another year. I recognise it is not easy to change the rules halfway through the lifetime of a scheme but we are in extraordinary times and discretion should be applied.
I recently wrote to the Department regarding a girl who applied for two jobs, one of which was on a community employment scheme. She had a Garda clearance certificate and all the necessary qualifications but because of the notional value of the property she owned, she was unable to qualify for a social welfare payment. She will qualify for social welfare shortly if her circumstances do not change because she is unable to sell her property and the State will have to support her. If she cannot get assistance from the Department of Social Protection, she will have to seek the help of the community welfare officer. Would it not be preferable to investigate ways of allowing this person, who is depending on her savings to survive, into a community employment scheme rather than force her into a social welfare trap further down the road? If she had qualified for the scheme, she may have done valuable work in the community over a period of years. An employer will often offer employment to people who find themselves in such circumstances. Will the Minister examine this matter because there is nothing worse for families?
I know the family in question well. Both parents work and the couple have children at college. Their business collapsed as a result of the economic climate and they did not expect that they would have to apply for social welfare. The Minister and Acting Chairman, Deputy Charlie O'Connor, as practising politicians, will have experience of similar cases. A large number of those who visit our clinics have never been in a politician's office or social welfare office and do not know their rights and to what benefits they are entitled. They never sought benefits but now need to draw them down because they do not have a job and are under tremendous pressure. I ask the Minister to facilitate such people.
I raise the issue of those who believe community welfare officers have made the wrong decision in their case. I ask the Minister and his officials to address the appeals mechanism. It is wrong to deprive people of benefits and have them wait eight or nine months to have their appeal heard. Will the Minister ensure measures are taken to speed up the appeals process? I am pleased to note he appears to be indicating that such measures are included in the Bill. I hope the necessary resources and manpower will be provided to address this issue. It is wrong that incorrect judgments are made in cases where individuals believe they are entitled to a social welfare payment.
I am impressed by the number of decisions the social welfare appeals office has overturned in recent years. I compliment it on adopting an independent view, taking on board all the facts and making the correct decisions in most cases. I hope the Minister will provide the resources needed to ensure delays in the appeals mechanism are addressed.
I have discussed the proposal on the rural social scheme and wish to discuss work training. While I want work training to be effective, there is a small group of individuals who, for one reason or another, are not employable. I ask the Minister to send out a message to community welfare officers that this group must not be targeted on the ground that they are unable to take up training. These are lovely, decent people of simple nature, many of whom come to my office, who are unable to work. That is the way life is for them.
While I have been critical of the manner in which the Department treats some people, it was a highly efficient operation until recently. I believe matters will improve again now that the industrial relations dispute has been called off. I am aware that departmental staff are under tremendous pressure, work hard and take a compassionate and reasonable approach. I compliment them because they treat most people properly. I hope that will continue in this black economic period. For this reason, community welfare officers must treat the small group of people who are not employable in a proper manner. They must not remove €35 or €40 from their social welfare benefits on a pretext. We do not want more appeals or visits to our clinics.
The Minister has made a radical proposal on lone parents, about which I am concerned because I do not want single parents to be targeted. There is a widespread and incorrect view that lone parents do not work. Recipients of lone parent benefit are permitted to work a certain number of hours every week and many of them do. They pay taxes and make a valuable contribution to society and the tax base. I hope the message goes out loud and clear that it does not pay to be on lone parent benefit but it pays to work.
We often forget that some one parent households are headed by men who are looking after their children. Lone parents, particularly women, try to be at home when their children leave for school in the mornings and return from school in the evenings. They make a major contribution and try hard.
Something must be done about rent allowance because the current position is untenable. I have heard it said that rents are falling but that is not always the case. Landlords must live in the real world. If they continue to insist that they will not reduce the rents they charge, we must act to ensure they do and, failing that, we must enable tenants to find cheaper accommodation. In doing so, we must assist tenants rather than pressuring them.
The Minister must examine the rent allowance scheme on which we spend €600 million every year and about which I have been critical in recent years. In 75% of cases the allowance is drawn down on a fair basis. However, a percentage of recipients should not receive it. The time has come, therefore, to examine the spiralling cost of the scheme because we cannot afford to spend €600 million on it every year. This money should be spent on the health service, housing and education rather than on paying landlords, some of whom are charging exorbitant rents. I look forward to having this matter addressed on Committee Stage. As I am not my party's spokesperson, it may be one of my colleagues who takes Committee Stage.
The Department has not done a bad job on fraud in recent years. More and more people are becoming angry about people working while drawing social welfare payments. They are no longer afraid to complain to the Department which has dealt well with such complaints in recent years. Those who defraud the Department must be dealt with, particularly given the times in which we live and the scarce resources available. The resources necessary must be provided to those dealing with fraud because it takes money from all our pockets.
We have a lost generation of young people who have been out of work for the past two or three years. Some of them are in their 20s and if the current position continues, they will find themselves unemployable. The National Youth Council of Ireland has called on the Minister to be sympathetic to the plight of young jobless people. The individuals affected are unemployed through no fault of their own and need help and support. We must ensure young people do not feel deprived and depressed because we know what follows. We must encourage, assist and support them and make them feel wanted. For this reason, I ask the Minister to produce proposals to help young people find job placements and give them some hope and confidence. It is in all our interests to keep young people in the country and offer them hope. We cannot allow them to believe there is no hope. The Department must do everything in its power to give young people opportunities through retraining.
One cannot expect couples in cases where one or both partners has lost employment to keep two or three young adults in pocket money. Such couples are under extreme pressure as they try to pay mortgages and bills. We do not want people to be compromised and doing things they do not want to do, in other words, breaking the law. I am talking about breaking the law or getting involved in things. We have had that in the past with people joining organisations when there was nothing else to do. We do not want to go back to the old days.
I have a concern over rent allowance that is not easy to address. The biggest single complaint the Minister, the Cathaoirleach and I get is about anti-social behaviour in rented accommodation. Some penalty needs to be put in place. We need to deal with people who are getting rent allowance and are disturbing their next door neighbours who have bought their houses and are paying their mortgages. There are certain powers which are not being used by the State, the Garda or the local authorities. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune. If we are paying rent allowance to these people, there needs to be some accountability on community welfare officers. They cannot be allowed to hand out rent allowance to criminals and allow them to have parties and to make life a misery for other people. Somebody needs to support and help them. Given the amount of rented accommodation we have, people are frustrated and feel they have no support or backup and that there is nobody there for them. I feel a bit that way, myself, at the moment.
It will be a while yet before the decision so I will be all right for that.
I hope the Minister will be compassionate. These are difficult times for people. I do not want to see the weak and poor further disadvantaged. The social welfare budget is approximately €20 billion. We have given €22 billion to the banks. While I accept there needed to be a cut in every Department, it is the Minister's duty and mine to ensure we protect the weak, the sick and others who are in need at this time. We need to give them the resources to ensure they have some quality of life and are able at least to fend for themselves and their families.
It is very difficult for single people. They are not working and are around all day. There is a cost factor to that in itself. I hope the Minister will come up with new schemes to retrain people and to keep as many of them as possible on these schemes.
I cannot say anything more. I look forward to Committee Stage.
I thank all the Deputies who have made significant contributions and in the main have been very constructive in their contributions. Since Deputy Ring is here and he could be in other places, I would like to address some of the very valid issues he has raised. I have spent a lifetime trying to create employment and a better life for ordinary people in an area the Deputy knows very well because it borders his constituency. I have become convinced that people have a need to work. Work is not just about earning money, but is something to which people aspire. The need to work seems to be inbuilt in us. The greatest challenge we face is the creation of job opportunities for our people.
In my experience the majority of people who are unemployed at present are more than willing and able to go to work and they want to work. If it is offered they will take it. As the Deputy mentioned, I was involved in the rural social scheme. Responsibility for the rural social scheme with 2,600 people, the community services scheme with 2,700 people, the community employment scheme with 25,000 people and the jobs initiative with something less than 2,000 on it is transferring into the Department of Social Protection. We are basically counterpointing the €4.2 billion, which we pay to people on condition that they are available for work but are not working, against the money we spend on activation. There is no point in talking about doing that if we do not consider the third issue we need to address, an issue the Deputy touched upon, which is the small number of people - all Deputies complain about this - who are working and drawing social welfare at the same time. They are in unfair competition with people who are working legitimately and paying their taxes. The State must have the ability to question and disqualify people who are not available for work if that is not genuinely the case.
I am delighted to hear that. Issues were raised about reasonable offers. That is an issue we can discuss at length on Committee Stage. In order to make the activation part possible I need the ability to weed out those who are not entitled to social welfare. I have great sympathy for the point made by Deputy Ring that there are people whom I would define as being unemployable. There is also a category of people often overlook who are employable in the long term on social schemes but who will never - regardless of the amount of training they are offered - get jobs in commercial enterprises. When we designed the rural social scheme we purposely did not put a finite number of years on the scheme. As well as training schemes, we need work schemes for those who are unlikely ever to get commercial employment. My objective is to try to ensure that as many people as possible, who are now on the live register and are very anxious to go to work, will get that opportunity.
An issue was raised about young people. I have met parents of young people who have not allowed them to sign on to unemployment assistance because they did not want to get them into the habit of getting money every week and doing nothing for the money. They are very anxious that those same young people would be given the opportunity to start somewhere with work. I have great sympathy for those people. I sometimes find it difficult to ask them to sign on and start to draw so that we can get them into the various schemes. Many parents are mortally afraid that once a person gets the taste of the cheque every week, it might become an easy way out. I do not believe many of our young people would succumb to that, but it is a fear that has been expressed to me by parents. I know parents who discourage their young people from signing on to get their entitlements as a result.
We should take the Bill as a totality including my proposed Committee Stage amendments to transfer the schemes to the Department of Social Protection. The purpose of the scheme is to activate people, to weed out those who should be and are not entitled to or for some unspecified reason are not available for work, and to use the savings to activate people and to give places to people who are anxious to work.
I wish to touch on social welfare appeals. I accept it is necessary to speed up the appeals process. We used to have 5,000 appeals outstanding at the end of any year which has now risen dramatically and we are expected to get as many as 30,000 appeals this year. We need to deal with those. At the end of last year we had 16,000 appeals on hand. Everybody knows that if 30,000 and 16,000 are in hand, some 46,000 appeals would have to be dealt with in the year.
In 2009 18,000 appeals were dealt with, so if we continued last year's rate we would wind up with 28,000 appeals left at the end of the year. We have taken a number of initiatives and the moment I arrived at the Department I sought to address the issue. In fairness to my predecessor and those in the Department, they were already working on it. We have assigned two additional appeals officers and there has been an increase in productivity and better work methods.
We have looked at how the work is being streamlined; in a simple appeal where somebody has an issue with the number of contributions, which is a black and white issue, there can be streamlining. More complicated appeals involving means testing and so on can be in a different stream so we can make more decisions on a summary basis, improving the process. There is also significant investment in IT enhancement.
These measures have already had an effect. By the end of April the number of appeals in hand had gone to 20,000 and two and a half months later it has stabilised at that figure and there has been no increase. We intend to appoint for two days a week eight retired appeals officers, which will give us three full-time equivalents. As they are experienced these people can get to work immediately. It is a stop-gap effort and we hope to get back to 16,000 appeals on hand by the end of the year.
We must go much further to ensure that people do not feel the necessity to appeal the decisions and that where there are appeals, they would be finalised in very good time. During my time as Minister I will work hard to ensure that the resources and systems exist to reduce waiting times for appeals. There is a provision in the Bill to deal with that issue.
In the short term we will employ retired appeals officers because an extraordinary knowledge of social welfare and other laws is required. It would take too long to train people to work this year.
We have already appointed two extra appeals officers. I will work towards a position where in the normal way appeals officers will be promoted from within the system, and we have a sufficient number of trained appeals officers to deal with the backlog. There is much work to be done on the way the appeals system operates as some are more complicated than others. There must be a fast-track system for the black and white appeals, allowing us to go through to the oral hearings for more complicated examples.
I will work on the issue and we can discuss it in further detail on Committee Stage. We must try to ensure that within Department resources of full-time public servants, we can keep the number of appeals at an acceptable level and deal with appeals expeditiously. In the context of where we are with the phenomenal growth in the number of appeals, it would take too long to train people and have people waiting in the meantime. People are entitled to a certain service.
Absolutely. The number of decisions appealed in the first place is approximately 2%, so 98% of decisions are accepted. However, the figure for successful or partially successful appeals at 40% is high on the face of it. We must examine the issue. I have often written appeals for constituents and gone to appeals hearings with them, although this changed when I became a Minister. I got more information from the client in the appeal than what was in the final information available to the deciding officer in the first place; the appeal might not have been necessary if such information was always available.
This seems to happen with medical certification in particular. If people are refused a benefit on medical grounds they are told to go to a consultant for a long explanation of the medical condition.
I have discussed it at length with the chief medical officers and there is a system in place. There may be a way to get the information from medical practitioners as most of the medical examinations are done from desks; the assessor does not see the person and only information is provided. Methods are being developed to bring in more information, which would make it easier to make a decision based on available medical evidence.
I do not know if Deputies have found the following to be a problem. Often people confuse the statement of the medical condition with the issue that the law requires. For example, this applies in the question of whether a person is capable of working. Stating that a person has a certain medical condition does not necessarily equate to them being incapable of work, as there are issues such as education and the type of work and so on. We must consider this system and improve it until the system is streamlined and we reduce, as far as possible, the need to appeal. Any appeals should be based on giving more information the second time around than the first.
In some cases people can be reticent about means and they must be encouraged to get bits of paper together. In rural areas there is an issue with farmers getting receipts together and so on. Quite a bit of work can be done in this regard and we will work on such issues.
Deputy Enright raised the issue of the carbon tax and a group is set to make recommendations over the summer. There appears to be some misunderstanding, although I accept the original speech could be read ambiguously. It was always the intention for the issue to take in the winter period and that is still very much on the cards.
An issue was raised about the certificate of death abroad. I recently met a delegation of people with regard to the issue in consultation with the chief registrar. There are a number of technical complications and other issues arising but we agreed a timescale. It is a long process and provisions cannot be made in this or the next Bill. It is planned to bring in a civil registration Bill at some time and Deputies can rest assured that the issue has not been parked. A process has been agreed with families on how we will consider the matter and it was a positive meeting. I was happy that there was good engagement and we agreed how to work on the issue. I understand the difficulties but there are also challenges from a legal perspective.
Deputy Costello raised an issue concerning section 23 and I confirm my intention not to proceed with the section. It involves the publication of names. The people would be brought into open court anyway and reporters can attend such courts; we have seen reporting of cases of serious fraud of the social welfare system. It is my intention to propose that the provision be deleted.
Deputy Shortall raised several interesting issues, although some were more related to tax. I heard the Deputy's comments. There are proposals to change the taxation of pensions, for example, but she raised other issues such as tax relief in pensions, employers and the overall tax pot. I would not know people in that tax position.
I know but the allegation is often made that we know these people. I certainly do not know them. I accept what the Deputy says and, like every aspect of fiscal policy, the issues in question are all worthy of consideration.
The Deputy also referred to reimbursements being made to the Department by insurance companies in the context of social welfare payments deducted from awards of special damages in respect of loss of earnings. In 2002, the Law Reform Commission recommended the introduction of a system modelled on that which obtains in the UK. I am extremely interested in giving consideration to this matter because any source of money would be welcome. However, quite a number of issues would have to be addressed before such a system could be introduced.
I was somewhat disappointed when I researched the position with regard to the UK's compensation recovery unit. The UK operates a slightly different tax year to Ireland but in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 tax years the unit raised between £138 million and £142 million. Given that the population is approximately ten times the size of Ireland's, it would appear that if we established such a unit we could take in €14 million. At one stage it was suggested that up to €88 million could be raised here. In light of the major amount of work that would be involved, I would be much more interested in taking in €88 million rather than €14 million. I will certainly be giving consideration to this matter. However, it does not appear to be quite as good a source of revenue as one might have envisaged.
There has been a great deal of debate on the issue of one-parent families. I hope Deputy Ó Snodaigh will come in and go mbeidh sé i láthair ar Chéim an Choiste. Cuirtear líomhaintí inár leith, development cronies, agus rudaí den sórt sin. Tá a fhios ag an Teachta, chomh maith is atá a fhios agam, cé hiad na daoine a bhfuil aithne agam orthu, daoine ar nós a athar féin. Is ball den Rialtas mé agus tá a fhios ag an Teachta cén stair oibre a bhaineann liom, nár oibrigh mé riamh don earnáil phríobháideach, gur oibrigh mé in eagraíochtaí Gaeilge i dtosach báire agus gur oibrigh mé ina dhiaidh sin do chomharchumann pobail. Tá a fhios aige freisin go bhfuil mo shaol caite agam ag obair do na gnáth-dhaoine agus don ghnáth-phobal. Tá díoma orm nuair nach bhfuil daoine sásta breathnú ar cheisteanna agus ar a laghad iad a phlé go hoscailte gan bheith ag tabhairt maslaí ar dhaoine eile. Is cuma cé chomh minic agus a thugtar an masla, tá a fhios ag muintir na Gaillimhe Thiar, an dream a vótálann ar mo shon, cé hiad mo chairde, cé dó a oibrím, cé hiad na daoine a bheidh fail acu orm nuair atá anró nó cruatan orthu agus cé dó a sheasaim. Is cuma an méid cáinte a dhéantar agus an méid iarrachta a dhéantar bréag a insint-----
Ní bréag é má tá mé ag caint faoin Rialtas ina iomláine, sin atá i gceist. Is ball den Rialtas an tAire agus tá sé ag cur an ruda seo i láthair mar bhall den Rialtas sin. Tá na líomhaintí a rinne mé fíor ó thaobh an Rialtais de.
Níl sé fíor. Níl aon bhunús leis. Na leasuithe atá molta, pléifear iad leis na grúpaí a dhéanann ionadaíocht do theaghlaigh aontuismitheora. Tá mé sásta dul isteach sa choiste; rinneadh pointí maithe sa díospóireacht agus pléifear iad go mion.
Níl aon bhaint ag na moltaí le sábháil airgid. Duine ar bith a chreideann go bhfuil seo á dhéanamh chun airgead a shábháil, caithfidh sé cuimhniú go ndéantar amach gurbh é an tsábháil a bheidh ann an bhliain seo chugainn ná €900,000 as €21 billiún. Is ionann sin agus 90 cent a shabháil as €21,000. Tá bealaí i bhfad níos fusa chun airgead den chineál sin a shábháil ná dul agus leasú mar seo a chur ar Bhille. Tá a fhios ag an Teachta go bhfuil an cheist seo á plé chomh fada siar leis an am go raibh an Teachta Séamus Brennan mar Aire, am go raibh fuílleach airgid sa tír. Athrú struchtúir atá i gceist anseo, ní athrú ar mhaithe le hairgead a shábháil.
The position in respect of the one parent family payment is that we have put forward a proposal. I accept that any such proposed change will not work unless support services are provided. I return again to the circle I wish to create. There will be a need for after-school services in order to achieve the proper results. There will also be a need to encourage young people, regardless of whether they are from one or two-parent families, to become involved in many more activities and to provide them with a greater level of support than that which obtains at present.
I reiterate what I said earlier with regard to activation. We must avail of the services of those whom we currently pay to do nothing but who wish to do something. We should enable these individuals to work by encouraging them to become involved in providing the required services. There is an opportunity for parents, including those who are parenting alone, to provide the services to which I refer. People, particularly those who live in urban disadvantaged areas, who like much more comprehensive services to be provided in respect of young people in order that they will not be encouraged around the streets but that they might become involved in art, music, sport and many other activities. The way to do this is by providing after-school support.
When I was involved with the RAPID programme, I came to the conclusion that the cycle of disadvantage that affects urban RAPID areas is often related to fact that the extracurricular activities enjoyed - and almost accepted as a right - by children brought up in more affluent areas are not available to their counterparts in the areas to which I refer. I have always believed that the lives of young people can be affected in an extremely positive way by their involvement in extracurricular activities.
I will be willing to discuss these various issues on Committee Stage. I reiterate that the changes to which reference has been made have been long discussed and that they relate to considering ways to obtain the best outcomes for diverse groups of people. There is a need to engage in a mature discussion on these issues rather than trading insults in respect of them.
Cé mhéid ama atá fágtha?
We accept that. I would like to engage with Members in respect of the proposal relating to one-parent families on Committee Stage. I listened carefully to many of the points raised in respect of it during this debate. As already stated, the proposal is part of a much wider package. I fully accept that if we are going to take this route, what we are doing will not work if we do not provide the necessary support services.
There is one aspect of this matter to which reference was not made. As a number of Members indicated, many single parents are in full-time employment. I accept that these people face a struggle each day.
It is not only a question of providing backup services to those who might go to work or are doing so part time but of continuing to provide services for those who are already working full time and have to spend considerable money on the provision of care-----
I consider the people who are unemployed and would like to make a contribution to be a resource. I view them not as a problem but as a huge resource which, if mobilised, could assist us in providing services not currently in place and to continue to improve backup services.
Is the Minister aware that his colleagues are cutting back on funding to community crèches, which cuts directly impact on low income families, in particular lone parents, who are struggling in terms of going out to work?
I have clearly stated that the community employment scheme, rural social scheme and community service programmes, which are important, are being transferred from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation to my Department. I want to examine the total funding being spent on these schemes and unemployment payments to see if we can do a better job than we are currently doing for society and recipients of those payments.
We are speaking about the 13 year old group as being a major problem. It is not child care in the conventional sense that one provides for 13 year olds. This is certainly the case in respect of the 13 year olds I know.
We are working to bring about improvements in that regard.
The issue of branch offices was raised. Plans are in train to commence devolving, on a phased basis, certain decisions to branch offices. The process will begin in three or four of the larger branch offices to identify if there are training or other issues that need to be addressed before this is rolled out to all branch offices. The branch offices will deal with four categories of claims, including JB claims with full contribution histories, unlimited payments between 65 and 66 years of age, credit cases, second and subsequent children where entitlement to full or half rate increased where qualified childhood has already been established.
The issue of refund of health contributions was also raised. The refunds will apply in respect of contributions made over a four year period. On incapacity supplement, there are 114 recipients of incapacity supplement aged 66 years or over. Of those 114 people, 20 are qualifying adults aged 66 years or over. Many Members raised issues in regard to the one parent payment and so on. In an ideal world, were we not where we are, we would have one working age payment. This matter is being considered in the Department. There are many challenges in terms of moving from the current system to that type of system. The challenge is to ensure we do not go backwards. I am interested in this concept. I have long criticised the meanstesting system in the Department. Now that I am Minister for Social Protection I will be actively examining how we can achieve the type of social welfare system I would have always liked us to have. There is a huge amount of work to be done on issues such as how we count days in respect of casual work and so on. We must first decide our long-term goal and then work towards it in small steps.
The issue of data matching was raised. Data exchange with the Irish Prison Service commenced in December 2004 and in this respect data is exchanged on a quarterly basis. Data is received in secure format and is matched to relevant live claims. Where these matches indicate clients that require investigation the cases are referred for control and follow-up. I dealt yesterday in the House with the issue of electronic certification. I am often amazed how when people add one plus one they get three. In this regard I refer to the notion that people will be able to text the Department from anywhere in the world in respect of signing on for unemployment benefit. I want to clarify this matter. What I said was that there will be a certification process by mobile phone. A mobile phone has many uses, two of which are to speak to or text another person. What is involved in respect of electronic certification is voice telephony and voice recognition. If the correct person does not ring the Department the voice recognition technology will pick up on this and discontinue the call. If a person rings from outside the State the computer system will also recognise this and discontinue the call.
There is a huge programme of technology development going on in the Department. I am glad I have Deputies' support for the use of technology. I would like if forms and information systems were dealt with in this way given the frustrations in this regard of which I am sure Members have had experience. What I find frustrating is when a person applies for OAP and is asked for all his or her employment records. One would imagine all of this information to be available in the Department. I have discussed these issues and would like to see much more user-friendly technology being used in this regard. I believe also that it should be rolled out as fast as possible. However, we must in rolling it out ensure that existing technology continues to work until the new system is in place. I am told the electronic certification technology is tamper proof and is not as portrayed in the media.
This brings me back to the other equation in regard to the need to ensure people are genuinely available for work. I am examining this in the context of activation. I fully accept what the Deputy is saying.
It will free up front-line staff, who deal with thousands of people simply signing on, to look at high risk customers and see if they are working. We will have human resources to track down high risk customers.
I believe strongly in activation, by offering people positions in schemes and then tracking those people who suddenly become unavailable. Every time we engage in the national employment action programme we find that people disappear very fast when they are asked to come for an interview. We need to put more resources into front-line staff to check on what those people are at and why they disappear when they are asked for an interview. It is a matter of putting a whole package together.
It does not make sense to tie up a huge number of officials dealing with the honest, ordinary people in a bureaucratic process. We should focus their efforts where there is a risk. It all comes back to risk analysis.
I can get it for the Deputy. Any reasonable technology expense is worthwhile if it gives better outcomes. When I ran community businesses I often said human beings, if not used productively, have a much higher cost than equipment. In any process, if something is repeated ad nauseam to hundreds of thousands of people it makes sense to invest in the technology to automate the process and use resources to better effect, as Deputy Enright has suggested, in looking at high risk people and ensuring they are not working and drawing at the same time.
Deputies Mary O'Rourke and Ulick Burke raised the issue of the back to education allowance and the higher education maintenance grants. Those in receipt of the one-parent family payment are entitled to the higher education grant and will continue to be so. They are not, however, entitled to rent supplement. On the other hand, those in receipt of the back to education allowance will not, under the new regime, be entitled to two maintenance payments. They will be entitled to rent supplement.
An issue has arisen as to why people in receipt of the one-parent family payment cannot get rent supplement. That warrants examination. Some people who are in receipt of the back to education allowance are using their higher education grant to pay for child care and travel expenses. I discussed this issue with the Minister for Education and Skills and I met the Union of Students in Ireland. I am looking at the issue to see if there is a way of addressing it.
The issue of mortgage interest supplement is under review. It is being looked at in the context of personal debt. A committee, under Mr. Hugh Cooney, is looking at this whole question. I see the mortgage interest supplement issue being addressed in that context.
The evidence does not bear that out. I accept that there is a serious issue. I am anxious that these issues be brought to a finality. The committee will issue a report and it will be brought to Government.
The very valid issue of rent subsidy was also raised. We are paying €500 million on rent subsidy. Local authorities must be more proactive with the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and put people into longer term tenancies than is possible under the rent supplement scheme, which was never meant to be a long-term solution to people's housing needs. I recently met Focus Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Threshold and the Simon Communities and I have offered to meet those groups again before the end of July. I intend meeting them on a regular basis to examine the whole issue of rent supplement.
We have no direct relationship with tenants, but the properties being rented must be of an adequate standard. This is something I would like to do some work on. It is warranted because the State has a major investment in the rent supplement scheme. I am very anxious to ensure that every landlord would provide a PPS number. Much work is being done on data matching. I understand the vast majority of landlords who have had their tax affairs checked were found to be compliant.
The Deputy is correct in that. However, we provide all the names and addresses of landlords and they are data matched by the Revenue Commissioners. Revenue has done a sample survey to see how many landlords are compliant.
Yes, I understand we can get those figures for the Deputy, and it is a very high number. If a person receives a grant of €10,000 and uses it to pay for a service, the person who provides the service, and gets a payment of €10,000 or more, should produce a tax number. That seems to me to be fundamental. The Deputy's figure of 20% is correct and it is not satisfactory. In achieving 100% compliance, I do not want to put tenants in awkward situations. I will be working with the groups I mentioned to get us from where we are to where everyone would like us to be, without having tenants lose out. I will work with the various housing groups to ensure that we get there as speedily as possible. I will not suddenly take action without considering unintended consequences or discussing it with the groups I have mentioned. That is the proper way to proceed.
Many issues were raised during the debate. I look forward to the debate on Committee Stage when, I hope, we can go through many of the points raised in detail in the structured format of a committee stage debate. I will listen carefully to all suggestions. Despite belonging to different parties there is much agreement in principle as to where we are going, despite argument about how we go there. There is much more agreement in principle about where we would like to go and the shape of the society we would like to create than might be apparent from debates in the House.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 70 (Bertie Ahern, Dermot Ahern, Michael Ahern, Noel Ahern, Barry Andrews, Chris Andrews, Bobby Aylward, Niall Blaney, Áine Brady, Cyprian Brady, Johnny Brady, John Browne, Thomas Byrne, Pat Carey, Niall Collins, Margaret Conlon, Seán Connick, Mary Coughlan, John Cregan, Ciarán Cuffe, John Curran, Noel Dempsey, Jimmy Devins, Timmy Dooley, Michael Finneran, Michael Fitzpatrick, Seán Fleming, Beverley Flynn, Paul Gogarty, John Gormley, Noel Grealish, Mary Hanafin, Mary Harney, Seán Haughey, Billy Kelleher, Peter Kelly, Brendan Kenneally, Michael Kennedy, Tony Killeen, Michael Kitt, Tom Kitt, Brian Lenihan Jnr, Conor Lenihan, Tom McEllistrim, Mattie McGrath, Michael McGrath, John McGuinness, Martin Mansergh, Micheál Martin, John Moloney, Michael Moynihan, Michael Mulcahy, Éamon Ó Cuív, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Darragh O'Brien, Charlie O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, John O'Donoghue, Noel O'Flynn, Rory O'Hanlon, Ned O'Keeffe, Mary O'Rourke, Christy O'Sullivan, Peter Power, Trevor Sargent, Eamon Scanlon, Brendan Smith, Mary Wallace, Mary White, Michael Woods)
Against the motion: 66 (Bernard Allen, James Bannon, Seán Barrett, Joe Behan, Pat Breen, Tommy Broughan, Richard Bruton, Ulick Burke, Joan Burton, Catherine Byrne, Joe Carey, Deirdre Clune, Paul Connaughton, Noel Coonan, Joe Costello, Simon Coveney, Seymour Crawford, Michael Creed, Lucinda Creighton, Michael D'Arcy, John Deasy, Jimmy Deenihan, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Olwyn Enright, Frank Feighan, Martin Ferris, Eamon Gilmore, Brian Hayes, Tom Hayes, Michael D Higgins, Brendan Howlin, Paul Kehoe, Enda Kenny, Ciarán Lynch, Kathleen Lynch, Pádraic McCormack, Shane McEntee, Dinny McGinley, Joe McHugh, Arthur Morgan, Dan Neville, Michael Noonan, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Fergus O'Dowd, Jim O'Keeffe, John O'Mahony, Brian O'Shea, Jan O'Sullivan, Maureen O'Sullivan, Willie Penrose, John Perry, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, James Reilly, Michael Ring, P J Sheehan, Seán Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Joanna Tuffy, Mary Upton, Leo Varadkar)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies John Curran and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe.
Question declared carried