Dáil debates

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)

 

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

6:00 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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Deputy McLoughlin was in possession when the debate adjourned. I understand he is sharing time with Deputies Conway and Buttimer. I remind the House that the Minister will be called to wrap up the debate at 6.30 p.m.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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Are we not getting any time?

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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No, unless one of the other speakers wants to share some time. There are 16 minutes remaining in this time slot.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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We are being silenced.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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The Deputy should stand up and give out.

Photo of Tony McLoughlinTony McLoughlin (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps there will be some time remaining after Deputy Conway, Deputy Buttimer and I have spoken. Section 3 of this Bill provides for an increase from 260 to 520 in the minimum number of paid PRSI contributions that are required if one is to become eligible to become a voluntary contributor. This will bring the number in question into line with the minimum number of paid PRSI contributions that are required to qualify for a contributory State pension. Legislation that was enacted in 1997 provided for an increase to 520 in the minimum number of paid contributions required for the contributory State pension, in the case of applicants who reach pension age on or after 6 April 2012. The minimum number of paid contributions to qualify for the contributory State pension has always been mirrored in the voluntary contribution scheme. The scheme is aimed at ensuring that individuals who have already established future entitlement to contributory State pension upon reaching retirement age can maintain their social insurance record by making voluntary contributions in the intervening period. This is more evidence of the reform which is badly needed to ensure Ireland's social protection budget is streamlined. I applaud the Minister for this.

I commend the Minister on the measures in this legislation that are aimed at tackling fraud prevention. Some commentators have estimated that social welfare fraud costs the Exchequer over €700 million each year. It is hard to estimate its real cost. We know it is happening. It is right and prudent that new measures like the introduction of the public services card with key security features, including a photograph and signature, will be used to authenticate the identity of individuals. One of the advantages of the public services card is that it will help to reduce fraud and errors resulting from the incorrect identification of claimants. The Minister's proposal will provide for the introduction of a new condition for any new claim for social welfare payment, to the effect that the claimant must satisfy the Department as to his or her identity, including allowing for electronic capture of photograph and signature. I believe this significant measure will strengthen our checks and balances. I commend this Bill to the House.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I would like to make a point of order now that Deputy McLoughlin has concluded. I did not want to interrupt him. The arrangements for the conclusion of this debate are absolutely disgraceful. I understand they have been affected by the votes that took place earlier. As a Parliament, we are supposed to vote. It is not acceptable that Opposition speaking time on this Bill is being reduced as a result of votes that took place earlier.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I accept that.

Photo of Tony McLoughlinTony McLoughlin (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I remind the House that I started my contribution last Thursday.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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There are 13 minutes remaining for Deputies Conway and Buttimer. Perhaps they will share their time with the other Deputies who wish to speak.

Photo of Ciara ConwayCiara Conway (Waterford, Labour)
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I will share my time with Deputy Buttimer.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Buttimer is silencing us.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Deputies are silencing themselves.

Photo of Ciara ConwayCiara Conway (Waterford, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. Since the publication of this Bill, I have been engaging closely with a number of groups that advocate on behalf of lone parents and families who find themselves in difficult circumstances. I have first-hand experience of that. During the time I have been so kindly allotted, I would like to focus on the changes to payments that will be made as a result of this legislation. The changes in question are an unfortunate legacy of the squandering of money by the previous Administration. Previous Governments were often very good at manipulating the social welfare system in the run-up to budget time.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Ciara ConwayCiara Conway (Waterford, Labour)
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In horrific economic circumstances, the Minister has been able to safeguard basic social welfare payments.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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Seven year olds are being cut off.

Photo of Ciara ConwayCiara Conway (Waterford, Labour)
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I commend her on being able to do that.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I am surprised at the Labour Party.

Photo of Ciara ConwayCiara Conway (Waterford, Labour)
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The reform of the social welfare system that is being provided for is long overdue and is necessary in the interests of those who find themselves in unfortunate economic circumstances, for example having lost their jobs. It is right that we are engaging with them in a meaningful way, rather than tossing them on a heap and putting them on a course or giving them some sort of null opportunity that does not allow them to go on and engage in the workforce. I have seen that happening at first hand over many years. I commend the Minister on her endeavours in this regard.

As we all know, the reality is that the Department of Social Protection is one of the highest spending Government Departments. Some of the changes that are proposed in this Bill could be mitigated if we were to adopt certain measures, particularly with regard to lone parents. These workable low-cost measures have been suggested to me by the One Family group, with which I have been engaging on a continuous basis in recent weeks and months. Such measures, which could help lone parents to return to the workplace, require support across Government Departments. It is worth making the point that the Department of Social Protection is not the only Department that should get involved when people such as lone parents become unemployed and are unable to access work. I suggest that the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Education and Skills and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation should be involved in a joint approach to helping to solve such problems. Crossdepartmental and interdepartmental efforts are needed to support such women or men as they try to return to work. A degree of flexibility should be provided for when lone parents transition to jobseekers' payments. If it could be negotiated between the Departments that they would not have to work full-time, but could instead be allowed to work for 15 hours a week during school hours, I believe it would be very workable.

As highlighted last week, we need to examine issues associated with child care, specifically child care before and after school, and we need to engage with the Department of Education and Skills, if necessary. The many buildings available throughout the country often lie dormant after 2.30 p.m. We need to examine the infrastructure in communities and determine whether we can work cross-departmentally and with community groups to allow schools to be used to supply after-school care for children.

We need to encourage staff in Solas and the social welfare offices to consider carefully the needs of lone parents who want to re-enter the workplace. They must ensure that when the Pathways to Work programme is implemented fully across the country, the specific needs of lone parents will be taken into account. The staff should interact on a one-to-one level with lone parents so there will be a good outcome, but not only for the parents. If a parent is working or completes his or her education, his or her child is 80% or 90% more likely to complete his or her education and engage in employment. I hope the staff in the social welfare offices and Solas will take this into consideration in this time of transformation and reform.

We should monitor the circumstances of lone parents engaging with services and getting involved in education. We should determine where we can make useful low-cost changes. Lone parents who have engaged particular services may not have had the outcome they desired for themselves and their children. We need to pay particular attention to this to determine whether we can change and be flexible in order to meet the needs of people who present in our offices, rather than have a one-size-fits-all approach. We live in very different times from those of 15 or 20 years ago and, therefore, we need to have flexibility built into the system. We are often criticised for the stringent and inflexible approach applied to those who find themselves in difficult circumstances.

We can work together to change attitudes among employers with regard to their openness to and acceptance of lone parents in the workplace. I refer once more to social attitudes and flexibility. It need not cost vast sums of money to address the problem, and an improvement and openness in work culture could certainly benefit parents who are struggling by themselves.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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This Bill is very important. I commend Deputy Conway. The Government is focusing on the protection of all citizens and defending their rights, and it undoubtedly faces considerable challenges. The Members opposite were asleep for 13 years. In the last year of their regime, they had no choice and had to make changes. One step they took was to examine social welfare. Former Minister Deputy Ó Cuív became Minister for Social Protection. "Protection" is the key word. I refer to the protection of all citizens, on which the current Government continues to focus.

One of the most important things we can do as politicians and legislators is ensure we tackle the issues of poverty and social exclusion. Throwing money at the problem does not work. The Bertie Ahern model failed. Pouring out money before general elections does not work, as Deputy Conway stated. The fabric of society must be considered in the context of the 14 years of Fianna Fáil's rule. While Fianna Fáil can point to sports capital programmes and big edifices across the country, it failed to establish what we are as a people. We should not use its model as the benchmark.

Whether Deputy John Browne likes it or not, we must encourage people to remain within the education system. When I taught at applied leaving certificate level - I was very proud and privileged to do so - I derived great professional pride from seeing young people stay in school and then set out on a career. Recently I met a past pupil who is now a member of An Garda Síochána. If the alternative to the leaving certificate were not in place, this person would not have got that job. I would hate to think of what could have happened to him. We must encourage people to stay in school and then move to work or further education.

As somebody who was involved in education, I very much commend many of our citizens on returning to education, formal or informal, and getting a second chance. I refer to up-skilling and learning anew. The Government is about offering opportunities; it is not a question of merely throwing money at people. We have not got the money in any case. The boom is gone and the bubble has burst.

Contrary to the rhetoric of some in this House, but not the Members in the Chamber at present, the Government is not making any class distinction between lone parents, their families and children because they comprise a very important part of society. Every public representative meets people from different strata of society every day and makes no distinction between them. It ill-behoves people on the other side of the House to do so in this Chamber.

Deputy Conway made reference to the legacy of the previous regime and she is absolutely correct. We must now reform our social welfare system. The members opposite would agree it is absolutely necessary. As policy-makers, we have a duty to consider how we might assist with the social protection of citizens, empower them and offer support. It requires all of us to be honest. If we really want to empower people and give them an opportunity, let us engage meaningfully. Let us move away from headlines and sound bites and debate properly and with integrity.

The Government must encourage people and facilitate participation in employment. We must also recognise that there are difficulties in gaining employment. This is why it is important for us to assist people in not becoming welfare dependent. They must derive value from having a job and we must ensure this is the case.

I will happily allow Deputy Browne or Deputy Calleary a minute of my remaining time in the spirit of bipartisanship in the House.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Buttimer.

The primary difficulty with this legislation is one shared by the Minister for Social Protection. She came into this House last Wednesday evening and said she agrees entirely that seven is too young for anyone to seriously contemplate any of these things without there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place. She promised on that evening that she would talk to her colleagues in Cabinet. The budget was on 5 December and it is now nearly 5 May. Has the Minister not spoken to her colleagues since December? The groups that are campaigning, including those behind the "7 is TOO YOUNG" campaign, which are doing such wonderful work, have issued a statement this evening implying exactly the same, namely, that the Minister cannot offer what she called the Scandinavian model or pull the support, which she proposes to do by Thursday when this Bill is to be rammed through committee.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for having the courage to stand up to the Minister.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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That is not fair.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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She is ramming this Bill through, taking the supports away and implementing legislation she herself disagrees with. That is why it is so wrong. The Minister is not convinced about her own policy. She comes to the House and lands her colleagues, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, in it in order to get something out of them. That is not the way a Minister should act. Deputy Conway is correct; there are so many ways we can proceed, not just by using schools. There are so many empty departmental properties nationally that we need to use better. We have invested so much in child care, including in the early childhood scheme. We all know of amazing community child care facilities, some of which are open after 3 p.m. Much of the physical and capital model is in place for what the Minister wants to do. Let us put the extra bits of the jigsaw in place. It should not cost much money. Deputy Conway is right. Since I came into this House, I have seen the silo effect with Departments not giving a damn what other Departments are doing and it is part of the reason we are where we are. That has to stop.

Let us postpone the change. The Minister agrees with us that the change is wrong so she should postpone it and spend the next year getting all the extra bits of the jigsaw in place in terms of child care. Much of it is done but what we need are heads to be knocked together in Departments to get the extra bits in place.

We must have some respect for the organisations dealing with the situation on a daily basis and for every Member of this House who is also dealing with the situation on a daily basis and knows the impact it will have on people. If we set a deadline to put the final bits of the jigsaw in place, in terms of child care, then we can actually achieve something out of this.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Ba mhaith liom mo bhúiochas a ghabháil ag gach Teachta a ghlac páirt sa díospoireacht seo. Ba mhaith liom mo bhúiochas a ghabháil go h-áirithe leis na Teachtaí a thug a dtacaíocht do na reachtaí éagsúla sa Bhille. I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate and I would especially like to thank those who gave their support to many of the measures contained in the Bill.

I listened very carefully to what was said by those who spoke on the provisions contained in the Bill and on other social protection issues. I appreciate the depth of feeling and sincerity of those who have criticised the measures now being proposed. However, I would like to make it clear that these measures result from budget 2012 and the need to reduce overall social welfare expenditure and to reform the social welfare system, both of which were given as specific commitments to the IMF when the country entered the EU-IMF programme in late 2010. The amendments are also driven by the need to make the social welfare system better by encouraging people to move closer to the world of work and away from long-term social welfare dependency.

I will now respond to some of the points raised in the debate on the Bill and related Committee Stage amendments, to which I also referred during my opening contribution. Opposition Deputies have argued that the measures contained in this Bill are targeted at specific groups, such as women, self-employed people, home-makers and rural groups. This is not in any way true. Equality and fairness are important tenets of our social welfare system and ones which I uphold vigorously.

The higher rates of consistent poverty experienced by lone parents and their children, in comparison to the population generally, are acknowledged. The fact that they have remained at these levels, despite more than €1 billion being spent on the one parent family payment annually, indicates that the long-term income support, which the one parent family scheme provided up to last year until children were aged 18, or 22 if in full-time education, to lone parents without any requirement for them to engage in employment, education or training was not effective in addressing the poverty and social exclusion experienced by some of these families.

Social welfare is a hand up not a hand out. A key objective of this Government is the activation of people of working age in receipt of income support, including lone parents. This is reflected in the development of the national employments and entitlements service with a move from passive income support to active engagement with social welfare customers of working age. That is from roughly the time people leave school, or complete their education, to the time they come to retire. This involves the identification of customer needs and the provision of co-ordinated supports to support them into education, training and employment.

As I said at the start of the Second Stage debate, the availability and affordability of child care is central to enabling parents move from social welfare dependence to work and financial independence. While there are services in place in regard to pre-primary school care, more services are required for afters school care. Child care supports available to lone parents include: the early childhood care and education programme, which is open to all children aged between three years three months and four years six months in September of each year and to all parents. It provides a free year of part-time care and education; the community child care subventionprogramme, which funds some 1,000 community-based non-profit child care facilities nationwide to enable them to charge reduced child care fees to disadvantaged and low-income families; and the child care education and training scheme, which is implemented by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on behalf of FÁS and the VECs. Under the scheme, parents who are FÁS-VEC trainees and who need assistance with child care costs to access education and training courses in order to enter or return to employment, do not have to pay for child care.

Reform of the one parent family payment and activation policy in regard to people parenting on their own and of working age poses challenges. These challenges will require a whole of Government response with regard to the provision of appropriate education, training and employment supports and the child care and especially the provision of after school care that all job-seeking parents will require. In advance of leaving the one parent family payment, lone parents may apply for the back to education allowance and the back to work enterprise allowance and, if they are in employment of more than 19 hours per week, they may claim family income supplement. The rate of jobseeker's and qualified child increases are exactly the same for one parent families and general jobseekers.

I have listened to, and been part of, the debate on child care and preschool and after school education for more than 25 years. We really have to change the system. To quote Rahm Emanuel, sometimes a crisis is the best time to make changes which the previous Government agreed with as it brought in the early childhood education provision which I supported in opposition because I thought it was a good move.

I refer to voluntary contributors, to which a number of Deputies referred. There are some misconceptions about this scheme. The total number of participants in the scheme is currently 3,200. Some people who commented seemed to feel that this applied to tens of thousands of people. It is actually a very small specialist number of people. The number of new applications in 2011 was 1,720. It does not primarily affect women - 62% are male and 38% are female. I think Deputy Ó Snodaigh said it affected women but that is not true. It affects former self-employed and employed people, with 25% being former employed contributors and 75% being former self-employed contributors. It is estimated that 100 cases would be affected by the change in 2013, with a further 100 cases annually from 2014 onwards, but it will not affect existing cases. The principal purpose of the change in the scheme is to support the change in the minimum number of paid contributions for the State contributory pension to 520. Failure to increase the voluntary contributor scheme minimum number to 520 would undermine the savings arising from the change in the pension.

In respect of fraud and control measures, Deputy Sean Fleming asked how savings were calculated and why the savings figures were high year after year. Control savings are an estimate of the value of the various control activities across the Department's schemes. They represent an estimate of the value of prevented future social welfare expenditure on fraudulent claims that would have been incurred if the control work had not been carried out. Control savings are used as a performance indicator for year-on-year activities and do not include any case of departmental or clerical error or any case where the customer voluntarily told the Department of a change in his or her means or circumstances resulting in an adjustment to the customer's rate of payment.

My Department has a process of continuous review of claims. By the end of 2011, €645 million in control savings were recorded and in excess of 982,000 cases were reviewed. The control savings target for 2012 is €645 million, with a target of reviewing 945,000 individual welfare claims.

Ports and airports are the subject of an amendment and have arisen for discussion on Second Stage. While social welfare inspectors have a range of existing powers of inquiry, this does not include any specific power of inquiry at our ports and airports. The amendment will allow my Department's inspectors to make inquiries at ports and airports where they believe or are aware a social welfare offence has or is being committed by an individual, that is, where they have reasonable suspicion or evidence that an individual is entering the jurisdiction solely for the purposes of continuing to claim social welfare payments to which he or she is not entitled. This is an important additional power. As Deputies are probably aware, there has been considerable commentary on this issue from time to time.

Regarding rent supplement and landlords, there are almost 95,000 rent supplement recipients, requiring a provisional expenditure outturn of €503 million in 2011. The Estimate for 2012 is €437 million. We are paying for approximately 40% of the private sector rented accommodation. Although there are existing powers that allow for the general investigation of rent supplement claims, these do not include any specific power of inquiry to investigate a landlord of a premises where a rent supplement is being paid to ensure that the supplement is being correctly paid in respect of the person living in that accommodation.

The measure relating to jobseeker's benefit was announced at the time of the budget and will not affect any person whose sole income is from social welfare, for example, the headline rate of €188 per week for a single person. People who are currently in receipt of jobseeker's benefit who are working three days per week receive €94, or 50% of their jobseeker's payment, in addition to their income from employment. The income from employment will vary according to rates of pay and amount of time worked each day. However, as jobseeker's benefit is not means tested, no regard is given to this when paying the €94. There have been some suggestions that this weekly mix of income from employment and some jobseeker's payment has resulted in some employers experiencing difficulties in getting staff to return to or avail of full-time work. The effect of this measure will be to reduce the contribution from jobseeker's benefit to the weekly amount of total income - welfare plus wages combined - and help towards a reduction in the reliance on the welfare system among those who avail of a mix of welfare and earned income.

We are moving jobseeker's benefit from a six-day week to a five-day week. An estimated 18,000 jobseeker's benefit recipients will be affected in a full year. It is important to note that they may opt for jobseeker's allowance, which is subject to a means test. If a person normally works full-time but his or her employer reduces the number of days worked on a permanent basis, the person may receive jobseeker's benefit for the days he or she does not work. For each day that a person is unemployed, one sixth of the normal rate of jobseeker's benefit is currently payable. For example, if a person takes up part-time work for two days, he or she can get four sixths of the normal jobseeker's benefit payment for the week. The measure in the Bill proposes that, from July 2012, the benefit will move to a five-day system as opposed to a six-day working week basis.

Question put:

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 82 (James Bannon, Joan Burton, Ray Butler, Jerry Buttimer, Catherine Byrne, Eric Byrne, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Paudie Coffey, Michael Conaghan, Seán Conlan, Paul Connaughton, Ciara Conway, Noel Coonan, Joe Costello, Simon Coveney, Michael Creed, Jim Daly, John Deasy, Jimmy Deenihan, Pat Deering, Regina Doherty, Robert Dowds, Andrew Doyle, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Anne Ferris, Frances Fitzgerald, Charles Flanagan, Terence Flanagan, Eamon Gilmore, Brendan Griffin, Noel Harrington, Simon Harris, Tom Hayes, Phil Hogan, Brendan Howlin, Heather Humphreys, Kevin Humphreys, Derek Keating, Paul Kehoe, Seán Kenny, Seán Kyne, John Lyons, Eamonn Maloney, Peter Mathews, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, Dinny McGinley, Joe McHugh, Tony McLoughlin, Olivia Mitchell, Michelle Mulherin, Dara Murphy, Eoghan Murphy, Gerald Nash, Dan Neville, Derek Nolan, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, John O'Mahony, Jan O'Sullivan, John Perry, Ann Phelan, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, Michael Ring, Brendan Ryan, Alan Shatter, Róisín Shortall, Arthur Spring, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Joanna Tuffy, Liam Twomey, Brian Walsh, Alex White)

Against the motion: 40 (Gerry Adams, Richard Boyd Barrett, Tommy Broughan, John Browne, Dara Calleary, Joan Collins, Michael Colreavy, Seán Crowe, Timmy Dooley, Dessie Ellis, Martin Ferris, Luke Flanagan, Seán Fleming, Tom Fleming, John Halligan, Séamus Healy, Michael Healy-Rae, Billy Kelleher, Michael Kitt, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Charlie McConalogue, Mary Lou McDonald, Finian McGrath, Mattie McGrath, Michael McGrath, John McGuinness, Sandra McLellan, Michael Moynihan, Catherine Murphy, Patrick Nulty, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Éamon Ó Cuív, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Jonathan O'Brien, Shane Ross, Brendan Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Mick Wallace)

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Question declared carried.