Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Social Welfare Benefits
Question 114: To ask the Minister for Social Protection the progress that has been made on the single working age payment process; if she anticipates reductions in social welfare assistance through the creation of this model; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28096/12]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 114 and 144 together.
The single working age assistance payment or single payment is a proposal to create a single social welfare payment that would cover all people of working age including those who would be currently classified as unemployed, with a disability or parenting alone. The Department of Social Protection has been considering the option of a single payment for some time. In 2009, under the previous Government, the Department examined the desirability and feasibility, both from a policy and operational perspective, of introducing a single social assistance payment for all people of working age - broadly speaking, those aged 18 to 66 - with the objective of improving the outcomes for this group. This examination drew, inter alia, on work carried out by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and reflected in its report, The Developmental Welfare State, which it produced in 2005. The report highlighted the need for greater interaction between services, income support and activation measures, and saw these as developmental for families, communities and the economy. A recurring theme in the NESC report is that the current contingency-based payments to people of working age can operate to confirm a person's status as someone outside of the workforce rather than as an unemployed member of it.
In November 2010, the then Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív approved the publication of the Department's review of the Report on the Desirability and Feasibility of Introducing a Single Social Assistance Payment for People of Working Age. This report examined the current system of social assistance payments against the background of the broader policy rationale for a single payment, which was based on the policy that people are given or directed to the supports or services they need in order to return to or take up work or other training or educational opportunities. It is also based on the rationale that the outcomes for people from a poverty and social inclusion point of view must be improved, and also that any changes to the current system must ensure that work pays.
On foot of the publication of the Department's feasibility report, the Department held a consultation seminar with relevant stakeholders in July 2011. The purpose of this seminar was to brief stakeholders on the findings of the feasibility report and to listen to their views in regard to the proposed development of a single payment. Mr. John Martin, director for employment, labour and social affairs at the OECD made a presentation to the seminar on his response to the Department's feasibility report.
It must be stressed that the development of supports and services is a necessary precondition for the introduction of a single payment. In that context, the Department of Social Protection, through an interdepartmental group, is working to assess what services and supports would be required to support the introduction of a single payment, should it be decided to proceed with its introduction.
I thank the Minister for clarifying that last point because I was concerned that people in receipt of carer's allowance would be included in this. The Minister also said it appears that people in receipt of disability and one-parent family payments may suffer the most.
More importantly, while I listened with interest to the nice run through the history from 2009 and 2010 until, eventually, there was a consultation seminar in 2011, the Minister might give us her own view. Is she in favour of this? Does she think it is a good issue? I detect zero urgency from her in regard to progressing it and, if she is not going to progress it, let her tell us so and we can put it off the shelf and move on to other business. There is no indication whatever as to any view the Minister might have. Is it one of her key priorities to implement it this year or next, or is she determined to do it at all during the course of this Government's term of office? She might explain where she sees this heading or whether the matter should be shelved.
I recommended to the Government that carers would not be included in this group, because somebody who is caring full-time is not available for work. The key concept is to make provision for the expectation that most people would be in a position and be anxious to participate in some appropriate way in the labour force. Therefore, since becoming Minister I have introduced a number of additional options, for example, for people with a disability to take part in work and to encourage the development of supports for them to take up work. We must, however, remember that we are talking about making provision for people in a way that best assists them, taking into account their family circumstances.
The critical issue identified in the committee report, of which Deputy Ó Snodaigh was rapporteur, was that if we introduce a single age working payment, a prerequisite of the introduction of such a payment is the availability of appropriate supports and services. There may be a significant cost factor in that and there is ongoing examination of that issue in the Department. Since becoming Minister, I have had a look at all of the previous reports published and commissioned by the previous Government and I am examining the options carefully as to how to proceed. I am also taking into account the views of the Oireachtas sub-committee in its recent report on the matter.
Does the Minister agree with one of the points made in that report, which was also made by an official, that this is the wrong time to make all categories of social welfare recipients of working age actively seek work, considering there are already 50 jobseekers for every job vacancy according to the European Commission's figures?
The programme for Government committed the Minister to maintaining primary social welfare rates and we already know this is an extremely minimalist commitment, given that cuts have already been implemented in terms of secondary benefits and means test rules. The joint all-party committee report on the single working age payment, which was endorsed by all parties, also recommended that with any reform the value of the existing earnings disregards, the secondary benefits and means or capital allowance should be maintained. This recommendation did not just come from me, but was endorsed by all represented, including Labour Party backbenchers. Will the Minister take heed of this recommendation? In particular, will she offer a commitment today to maintain the value of the secondary benefits that currently exist in any change or move towards a single working age payment later this year?
As the Deputy knows well, I cannot make any commitment in advance of the budget being framed for next year. I am being honest with the Deputy on that. I do not know if the Deputy is asking me to make budgetary commitments for next year, but I am not in a position to do that. However, following my examination I have proposed to the Government that carers are not appropriate to be included in the strategy. This was also recommended by the committee. The objective of ensuring that everybody of working age has an opportunity to work, particularly people on the live register who are fully available for work, should be encouraged in so far as possible. Last year, over 140,000 people left the live register. Therefore, it is not true to say there is no movement in the job market. There is a considerable number of people unemployed, over 300,000 and we have large numbers of people in part-time employment, over 80,000. A considerable number of people are involved in various programmes, including JobBridge, Tús and the community employment schemes, and in educational schemes. It is sometimes depressing for people to hear Deputies say there are no opportunities out there. There are opportunities, and last year more than 140,000 people left the live register to take up employment. It is important that we encourage and provide avenues for everyone on the live register to take up employment.
With regard to people with disabilities, I have undertaken a number of initiatives to make specific additional supports available which will, I hope, assist people with disabilities who are interested in getting employment - of whom there are many - in entering the labour market. That is very important. The employment situation is particularly difficult for them in the context of the current economic difficulties.