Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)
It is a truism to say the best route out of poverty is through work. I am confident that the back to work family dividend will prove to be a successful initiative for out-of-work parents with dependent children. It will help people to build a better financial future for themselves and their families. As such, the Bill is intended to provide the legislative basis for the introduction of the dividend, as announced in budget 2015, to help jobseekers with families and lone parents to return to work. It also provides for a number of other changes to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, including the extension of the jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangements to all lone parents where the youngest child is between the ages of seven and 13 years. Under the transitional arrangements, certain former recipients of the one-parent family payment are exempt from a number of the conditions applying to the jobseeker's allowance scheme such as the requirement to be available for and genuinely seeking full-time employment, up until their youngest children reach 14 years of age.
Budget 2015 provided for the introduction of the back to work family dividend scheme to provide a financial incentive for recipients of the one-parent family payment and jobseekers with children who had ceased claiming their social welfare payments on account of these persons or, where applicable, those persons' spouses, civil partners or cohabitees, to take up employment, increase hours of employment or take up self-employment. In addition to family income supplement, FIS, the dividend will act as an incentive to work. It will operate during the period of economic recovery and be available to jobseekers and lone parents who take up or increase the level of their employment at any stage up until the end of March 2018.
A person who meets the eligibility criteria for the scheme will be entitled to a weekly payment for up to two years following the ending of the claim for the jobseeker's one-parent family payment.
The rate of the back-to-work family dividend will be based, in the first year, on the rate of qualified child increase being paid to that person immediately before they cease to claim the jobseeker's payment or one-parent family payment, subject to a maximum overall weekly payment of €119.20 and will be half of that rate in the second year, subject to a maximum overall weekly payment of €59.60.
While the dividend scheme will commence on the enactment of this Bill, applications are being accepted from people who have taken up employment or self-employment or increased their hours of employment since 5 January 2015. However, the first payments will not be made until the legislative provisions underpinning the scheme come into operation on the enactment of the Bill. Payments will be backdated where the date of application is between January and the date of enactment.
The Government is making significant progress in getting people back to work but momentum for this needs to be increased. Budget 2015 introduced this new and innovative scheme to help jobseekers with families and lone parents to take up employment. Essentially, it will provide a financial incentive to jobseekers and recipients of one-parent family payment with child dependants to take up employment, increase the hours they work or become self-employed. The dividend will be paid in addition to the family income supplement.
I commend the legislation to the House.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. All sides of the House should welcome legislation that makes it easier for people to return to work. Over the past few years I have dealt with constituents who have been offered short-term contracts or jobs but they did not want to take the chance of taking the offer in case they lost social welfare support. Those who did and who subsequently lost their jobs had to start all over again, which was hugely frustrating. The provisions in the legislation are, therefore, a welcome step forward.
In fairness to the Department and the Minister of State, much of what they are trying to do relates to labour activation in addition to providing social welfare payments. They want to help claimants into full-time employment, which is a welcome step. However, I am concerned about community employment, CE, schemes, which have been a huge success. I have written to the Minister of State about this in the past week and I hope to receive a response outlining what can be done in this regard. My concern relates to a cohort of CE participants who are in their late 50s and early 60s. CE schemes work and they are an invaluable resource for participants and communities. As CE has became more of a labour activation scheme and the period participants can stay on it is reducing, the focus has turned to training participants and, hopefully, moving them on to a job, which is ideal.
However, let us be honest. Those in their late 50s and early 60s will not find employment easily. They attend my clinics in Tuam and Loughrea and they are frustrated. Some of them have left schemes at the age of 62 or 63 only to go back on jobseeker's payments for three or four years before they are eligible for their pension but that is the last thing they want to do. As far as they are concerned, they have provided an invaluable service in their communities and they want to continue to do that, if possible. While I welcome the fact that the scheme is changing to mirror what we need as a country moving forward, we must address a scenario where these people are being told they are finished on the scheme, there is no future for them and they should find a job. Opportunities do not exist for them currently, particularly for those who were never trained or had skills. They may have had a job for 20 or 30 years before taking up a CE scheme. We need to be more creative in how we deal with them. For example, could we engage in some joined up thinking and move some of them on to the rural social scheme, RSS, or Tús until they reach pension age? I acknowledge there is a cost to this.
CE has more to do with labour activation than being just another statistic on the road to getting a job. Mental health is a major issue. The lives of many people changed remarkably when they joined a CE scheme because they had somewhere to go every day and they could meet like minded people of the same age. They were getting out of the house and doing work on the ground. This was of huge benefit to them. The Minister of State is well aware of these issues but I have had a number of calls over the past few weeks since I began to highlight them. CE supervisors say do not feel safe taking people off a scheme because they know what it means to them. They could be going through a tough time in their lives at a delicate age. The Department should be more creative. Labour activation is a hugely important element of CE but mental health and self-esteem are important issues. Many of the participants are unable to handle being told that they should return to a jobseeker's payment. I do not say this is easy. Members can make plentiful observations to the Minister of State and say it is easy to implement this and that but it would be nice if we could acknowledge that people in their late 50s and early 60s will not find it easy to get a job. Given what they have done on these schemes is important and their communities have benefitted, their participation on the scheme should be extended for a few years until they get to pension age. I understand the Department has a limited budget and while "labour activation" are, rightly, buzz words, a cohort of people in this age bracket need to be protected and facilitated. A little joined up thinking would make a huge difference to their lives.
Budget 2015 provided for a number of welcome initiatives, including tax cuts, an increase in the USC threshold and increases in child benefit and the living alone allowance, which were the first steps in putting money back in people's pockets with an intention to do the same in budget 2016. The back-to-work family dividend scheme is a positive development and I welcome the publication of the legislation to put that in train. The Department has changed from a State body that only makes welfare payments to one that incentivises putting people back to work over the past years. The dividend will incentivise work and it acknowledges that the transition to work is not always easy. There are added costs relating to child care, transport and so on. The dividend also acknowledges that those in receipt of social protection payments need a little extra to help them on returning to work.
The Government has a strong record of supporting job creation with 90,000 new jobs created under its watch. It has set an ambitious target for this year and there have been positive jobs announcements in many sectors in recent weeks. The plan is to provide 40,000 new jobs this year. Last year the unemployment rate was 12% but it fell to 10.1% today. When we entered office, the rate was 15% and while it is still too high, it is going in the right direction. The Department's new role in assisting jobseekers to get back to work and supporting those who are able to work to get work is welcome.
The back-to-work dividend scheme will enable people to retain the child-related portion of their social welfare payment for up to two years and it will be available to recipients of a number of social welfare schemes, including jobseeker's benefit, jobseeker's allowance, transitional jobseeker's allowance and the one-parent family payment. People on community training schemes such as RSS, Tús or Gateway will also be facilitated under this scheme. I support the comments of Deputy Paul Connaughton in this regard.
To qualify for the payment, claimants must be aged under 66, have qualified children and be habitually resident in the State. Such recipients must have been receiving payment for at least 12 months in total, and at least six months in the previous year, before claiming the dividend. The time spent on education, training and supported employment will also qualify towards satisfying the 12 month requirement. The dividend will be payable for two years as long as the claimant is not in receipt of another payment. It will be paid at a standard weekly rate of €29.80 per child, subject to a maximum payment overall ceiling of €119 and the scheme will be in place until 2021.
The authentication of identity when presenting for payment is another initiative under the legislation. Social welfare fraud may be exaggerated but those who pay tax and contribute to society want to know their taxes are being spent properly and correctly and that only those who are eligible for payments receive them.
Of course that is the case in the vast majority of cases. This strengthens the legislative provisions relating to the identification of a person who presents at a post office for a social welfare payment. These requirements are in line with the relevant procedures that have been arranged between An Post and the Department of Social Protection for those who present at a post office on behalf of themselves, those who present on behalf of another person, those who have permission to do so, those who are appointed on behalf of a registered medical practitioner and those who are unable to manage their own financial affairs.
Section 8 relates to the repayment of amounts due where fraud is committed. I would like to highlight the distinction between those who purposely go out to defraud the State and those who fail to disclose something they should have disclosed. I have come across a number of cases in which Department of Social Protection inspections have led to somebody being presented with a bill asking them to repay some moneys on the basis that they failed to disclose money or property they inherited a number of years ago. I think a distinction needs to be made between people who have failed to disclose something and people who have shown an intent to defraud the State. I welcome the initiatives that have been taken in this legislation. I wish the Tánaiste well with the passage of the Bill.
I will see how I get on. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. Before I go into my analysis of the legislation, I would like to support what my colleague, Deputy Connaughton, said about community employment schemes. I am strongly of the view that we need to be creative and radical on this issue. We have all had positive experience of community employment schemes changing the lives of vulnerable people. I urge the Minister of State to note the cross-party support for such schemes. That could be something positive. In fairness to the Minister of State, he has an open mind on this issue. I strongly endorse what my colleague, Deputy Connaughton, has said.
I thank the Chair for giving me an opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015. This debate should be about people who do not have jobs, the extremely low-paid, the many children and families that are living in poverty and lone-parent families. There can be no running away from this matter, which must be our focus. The Government needs to face facts and act in a calm and compassionate manner. Of course we have to support our approach with sound economic arguments rather than soundbites. The money that is required for social welfare, education, disability, lone parents or investment, all of which are issues that need to be prioritised, has to come from somewhere. Priority must be given to children in poverty, people on trolleys and people with disabilities. I apologise to guys and girls for pointing out that when one has such priority issues, other issues have to wait. There are other issues that can wait until we resolve the priority issues.
The most recent Exchequer returns, which were published yesterday, show that the Government has €925 million more than it had last year. It is €345 million ahead of target. I welcome that because it is important. When one examines those figures, one can see that there is room to make improvements in the priority issues I have mentioned. I will give an example of a priority issue with which I have been dealing over the last week. Child Vision provides an excellent service to blind and disabled children in Drumcondra, which is in my constituency. Over the last six years, Child Vision has sustained cuts in excess of €821,000. It has had to contend with a 20% cut in its funding in the last five years. Child Vision's annual cost of governance is in excess of €70,000. It has had to pay an additional €50,000 for HIQA registration and works. Child Vision has received no additional funding to meet these costs. In other words, costs and bureaucracy are coming at those involved with Child Vision. To date, it has seen voluntary staff wage cuts of 10%, reduced maternity pay by 50%, reduced the staff costs of lower-paid staff, stopped using agency staff, made changes to sick pay policy, reduced its number of staff members and increased its fundraising activity to meet its annual shortfalls.
I raise this today because we saw the figures and the positive news yesterday. At the same time, the HSE is seeking to impose a cut of €54,000 on Child Vision in Drumcondra. If this cut is implemented, on top of the increased costs since 2009, Child Vision will have to consider making more cuts to its services. It has completed its budget for 2015 and there is an estimated shortfall of €120,000. That is chicken feed compared to some of the figures we heard yesterday. If Child Vision does not get this €120,000, it will be forced to close a residential house which currently allows six children who are blind and have multiple disabilities to access independent living skills and education. These children will be left with no option but to leave. Six social care professionals will be cut and Child Vision will have to pay redundancy packages, the minimum value of which has been estimated to be €100,000. I raise this in the context of where the money comes from. When we are talking about social welfare, it is important to think of the welfare of blind and disabled children.
The main purpose of the Bill itself is to amend the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to provide a legislative basis for the introduction of the back to work family dividend. This measure, which was announced in budget 2015, will help jobseekers with families and lone parents to return to work. We have to ensure we protect the rights and incomes of loan parents.
As I listened to the Tánaiste yesterday evening, I noted with interest how all of this is being presented. It is clear that a great deal of work has been done in the area of spin in recent times. It was amazing to hear the Tánaiste say that the way out of "poverty is fairly-paid work". While that is true, the problem we have is that work is less well paid than it used to be. Since 2008, which is almost seven years ago, many people have lost good well-paid jobs. Now we are seeing numbers increasing again, but the jobs in question are predominantly low-paid and have poor working conditions. Many people have zero-hours contract arrangements.
Throughout this episode, certain people have refused to allow a good crisis to go to waste. When the crisis hit in 2007-08, people involved in economic philosophy at the time were adamant that this was probably the death of neoliberalism. In fact, neoliberalism has probably never been as rampant. Whether the Tánaiste likes it or not, the Labour Party has signed up to a neoliberal philosophy. It is frightening because it has undermined living conditions and made life more difficult for an incredible number of people in Ireland. I would say over half the people of Ireland now find it difficult to pay their bills at the end of the month. I do not think that could have been said at any previous time in my lifetime. It was not true then, but it is true today. Not only has life become more difficult for the less well-off - life was never easy for them - but we now have a new poverty, in so far as many people who were traditionally regarded as middle class have found themselves in a very difficult place.
It is interesting to hear the statistics and analysis of Mr. Michael Taft, which is in big contrast to the Government, on the serious level of child poverty and material deprivation and how we compare with other European countries. We are struggling to look well against them. We must listen to Ministers telling us we have the fastest growing economy in Europe but that does not mean a lot of to most people if they are struggling to pay bills and life is more difficult for them. Life is so difficult for so many people.
People felt that the reason banks were getting so much money was to deal with the fact that a whole lot of people could not possibly pay back the money they owed on property because they had paid too much for it at the wrong time. They found themselves in crazy negative equity. As things have transpired, the banks are pursuing people and forcing them to downsize and forcing them out of their homes. It is a race to the bottom and there is no protection for people.
The banks are still too big to fail and too big for the Government to tell them what to do. We cannot tell them what to do. Is that a healthy situation and is it fair to the people of Ireland, who will pay for the bank bailout for many years? I am not saying it was all the fault of this Government but the previous Government was no different. A bailout was organised and the taxpayer and the ordinary citizens are paying for it. What happens? The banks now turn around and kick people in the teeth. It is too bad.
The basis of the Bill is to provide for the introduction of the back-to-work family dividend scheme. This is supposedly to help jobseekers with families and lone parents to return to work. We cannot look at this in isolation, we must look at it in the context of the virtual assault on the living standards of lone parents who have been pauperised under this Government. They have been particularly targeted and the measures proposed do not address it. In many ways, they exacerbate it. I reiterate the call of FLAC, which suggests the Government should reverse the changes to the one-parent family payment and carry out a social impact assessment of the changes to the payment to determine the extent to which changes to the scheme have had a detrimental impact on families.
We have had a lot of jargon and sloganeering about getting people off welfare as if it was like getting them off heroin. It is as if they are addicted to the poverty lifestyle that being dependent on social welfare is in Ireland. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding from Government representatives of the real lives of lone parents. This follows what went on in Britain, which was the demonisation of lone parents and playing to a stereotypical and unreal vision of lone parents lounging around in their pyjamas all day and who could not be bothered going to get jobs. Everyone knows the reality is that it is not a lack of willingness on the part of lone parents, who would like nothing more than to have a break from the family environment and go out to work, but the lack of opportunity, of decent and well-paying jobs, and affordable child care.
One of the reasons things are so bad is the policies implemented in other areas. This includes the JobBridge scheme, where companies like Supervalu are advertising for shop assistants under JobBridge. Hewlett-Packard, a wealthy multinational corporation, is looking for interns under the scheme. These schemes are replacing well-paid jobs that should be available. Lone parents find it very difficult to access the support when there is no child care. I hope the Government has read the study and survey by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul showing that people on welfare would like nothing better than the opportunity to get a decent job. As Deputy Mick Wallace said, those opportunities are few and far between.
The situation was summed up by a 31-year-old mother of three from the country who contacted us. She has a maintenance arrangement, made through mediation, of €5 a week but has never received it. She receives a fuel allowance of €20 and her total income for herself and her children is €267.60 per week. With the help of non-governmental organisations, NGOs, she has had the confidence to try to return to education. She wants to become a midwife and be self-supporting in that regard. She received a letter saying the one-parent family payment will be cut off from 1 April. Now, she spends one morning a week, at a cost of €10, travelling to an education centre. She says it might seem a small amount of money but to her it is the difference between having bread and milk, or not, on Wednesday. Nevertheless, she is investing this money because she wants to pursue her education and does not have any family support. In September, she wanted to study five days a week but it would cost €50 in petrol and 15 hours in child care either side of school hours. With the changes introduced by the Government, it would make it inaccessible to her. She asks how this is incentivising lone parents to return to the workplace.
Some people have characterised these measures as a deliberate act of structural violence against lone parents. I do not see that as an exaggeration. We are structuring a scenario where lone parents cannot access educational opportunities or decent jobs and are being allocated Springboard courses with little chance of advancement or meaningful employment at the end. We must step back. I reiterate the call made by FLAC to reverse the cuts and take stock of where we are in our dealings with lone parents rather than pursuing this project of social vandalism and the targeting of this vulnerable group once again.
I propose to share time with Deputy Pat Breen. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. We must acknowledge the latest figures from the CSO, to the effect that 4,300 fewer people are on the live register compared to this time last month. There is a decrease from 10.3% to 10.1% of the population. It remains far too high but the rate of decline is increasing and that must be welcomed.
To contextualise that, the Department of Social Protection is introducing this Bill as part of a suite of measures to make it more attractive for households to take up employment where it is available and to avoid poverty traps becoming more of an issue. More than any country in the European Union, there is a major issue with jobless households in Ireland. Figures presented by different institutes make for stark reading. The reasons for it are not clear but perhaps the Department of Social Protection has a better background on why, in the EU context, Ireland's figure for jobless households is so high and so out of sync with other European countries.
This is leading to the creation of huge social problems and is the main factor in the consistent poverty rates in many sectors of our society. This figure, when combined the figure for inter-generational unemployment, and the blackspots in this regard in both urban and rural areas, indicates there is an amount of work still to be done to address the poverty issue. This Bill which, as I said, provides, among other things, for transition payments for lone parents is one of many measures being introduced to tackle what is a difficult nut to crack in terms of getting back people into the labour market.
I am familiar with people from my constituency of Cork South-West who, in terms of their having been unemployed for years, are most vulnerable and would not at this stage, without careful coaching and nursing, be capable of returning to the labour market. We need to be more proactive in how we deal with these people. As I said, many of these people have been unemployed for so long they are in a rut, have lost all of their confidence and see nothing beyond their weekly social welfare payment. While the Department of Social Protection plays a vital role in terms of getting people off the system and back into work, employers are more inclined to take on people who are just out of college or people, who because they only recently lost a job, have not been on the register for a long time. The latter people are attractive to employ. A huge cohort of people do not fit that bill.
The recently established Intreo offices and supervisors of schemes are playing a positive role in getting people back to work. The Department could be far more proactive in identifying through the transition supervisors those people who, because they lack confidence, have an intellectual or physical disability or are experiencing other issues because of, for example, the environment in which they are living, will not, without help, ever again access work. These people must in the first instance be identified and then dealt with in a sensitive, proactive manner. Through address of this problem we will make significant progress in terms of reducing our long-term unemployment and jobless household figures. If we fail to tackle this problem the result will be a continuing albatross around our necks with respect to social protection. There are many other initiatives that could be introduced to attract people back into employment which offers dignity, an increased standard of living and hope. One such initiative is the provision of an online portal, which when accessed by people using their PPSN or a PIN would provide them with information on their entitlements under the social welfare system. The current system in terms of submission of the initial application, time spent awaiting a decision and, perhaps, the appeals process, is time consuming, unwieldy and, in many cases, far from efficient.
The minimum wage issue is being examined by the low pay commission. Many people have raised with me the issue of a possible increase in the minimum wage leading to a decrease by the labour market in work hours, which will be of no net benefit to people on low pay. This issue needs to be addressed. In an effort to combat employers decreasing work hours should the minimum wage be increased, perhaps consideration could be given to the introduction of a tiered structure in respect of the minimum wage, whereby the person working a 20 hour week would be paid a slightly higher per hour rate, the person working a 30 hour week would be paid a slightly lower rate and the person working up to 39 hours would be paid the national minimum wage as recommended by the low pay commission.
Another issue which I have previously raised in the House, which although not relevant to this legislation needs to be addressed, is that of people who have been assessed on PRSI payments made over their working lives. This is an issue that affects in the main women who left the workforce when they got married who, because they made no PRSI contributions during the period they were not in employment, when they return to the workforce are crucified when it comes to drawing a State contributory pension.
The Intreo offices rolled out to date have been a hugely positive development in the social protection system. They act as a one-stop-shop for people who find themselves in the unfortunate position of having been given their P45 by way of assisting them to get back into the workplace as quickly as possible. This service needs to be ramped up nationally. There are parts of this country in which social welfare services are very fragmented. In many cases, local offices, CWO offices and so on are located in different buildings. For example, in Bantry these services are located in three different buildings. I appeal to the Department to consider roll-out of the Intreo office template nationally. People who engage proactively with the system are dealt with positively. As I said in my opening remarks, there will always be people for whom we will have to go the extra mile in terms of encouraging them back into further education and work.
My final point relates to the high rate of over-turned decisions on appeal and whether this is the result of front line staff making the wrong decisions. This issue needs further examination. In many cases initial decisions by deciding officers in respect of claims for disability payments and so on are being overturned on appeal.
I again welcome this Bill which forms part of a suite of measures that need to be undertaken. I look forward to further progress in the coming months and years with respect to jobless households.
Like other speakers, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill, the main purpose of which is to give effect to the back-to-work family dividend scheme flagged in budget 2015. The Bill also addresses a number of other issues and clarifies the circumstances in which a person is considered as requiring full time care in respect of the application of the carer's benefit, carer's allowance and respite care grant. It also deals with the legislative basis of the means test and its application for students grants, on which I hope to comment later during the course of my contribution, time permitting.
Approximately 250,000 people lost their jobs in this country at the height of the recession. The key priority for this Government was to fix our finances and create a pro-jobs environment which would drive job creation. The improvement in our economic fortunes has not been by accident; it is a direct result of the policies which this Government is pursuing. Our unemployment rate now stands at 10.1%, down from a high of 15.1%. The positive indicator from these figures is the fact that our long-term unemployment rate has fallen. In the first quarter of 2012, 204,000 people were defined as long-term unemployed but the figure had decreased to 139,000 by quarter three of 2014, a very significant drop of 32%.
Making work pay and protecting supports has been a key priority for this Government. I commend the Minister for Social Protection on the various initiatives which she has introduced. It is important that nobody is left behind as our economy recovers. If a further reduction in the long-term unemployed figures is to be achieved, it is important that so-called welfare traps are removed. That is why the introduction of this back-to-work dividend is so important. It will help families move from social welfare into employment by providing them with financial support whereby they will receive a weekly payment for two years after they return to work. This dividend will be available to those in receipt of jobseeker's benefit, jobseeker's allowance, jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangements and one-parent family payments, as well as those in specified education, training, supported employment or work placement schemes, including community employment schemes and rural social schemes.
However, there is no mention of those who are in receipt of carer's allowance. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that matter in her concluding remarks. I have come across cases several involving constituents whose time as a carer had come to an end, sadly in a number of cases due to the death of their loved ones, only to meet with road blocks in their efforts to get back into work. For example, if a person who was in receipt of carer's allowance wants to participate in the momentum programme, time spent in receipt of that allowance is not considered and they are deemed ineligible. Carers make an invaluable contribution and they should not be penalised for something that is no fault of their own. They should be supported to get back into the workforce and I ask the Minister to consider including time spent on carer's allowance in the qualifying criteria for access to this payment.
Part 2 of the Bill provides clarity on the operation of the carer's benefit, carer's allowance and respite care grants. Under the current system, a person requiring full-time care is assessed and medical evidence is provided from a registered medical practitioner to the Department. The deciding officer makes a determination on the basis of all the information which received, including all relevant medical evidence and if the application is refused there is a system of review and appeal. Section 3 changes the current system so that the deciding officer will have regard to an opinion provided by the Department's medical assessor as well as the medical evidence submitted by a registered medical practitioner. I ask the Minister to clarify this section and the implications the change could have for existing applications or in cases deemed unsuccessful by the deciding officer. What will it mean in terms of appeals? At present further medical evidence is usually submitted with the appeal but if the deciding officer will now take into account the Department's medical assessment and the medical evidence submitted, who is going to review the appeal and will the appeals format change? I am dealing with a number of cases for constituents who have submitted carer's allowance applications last year and are still awaiting a decision on their cases decided. This is a difficult situation for the applicants, as well as time consuming for the secretaries in our constituency offices and staff in the Department. I am concerned that if the deciding officer has to wait for the medical assessor to make a determination, there will be further delays in processing times.
Sections 12(2) and 1(2)(b) specifies the various types of income regarded as assessable means for the purpose of calculating means for social assistance. In the area of student grants, given the changes in the family types which now exist there is an anomaly in the current system in the assessment process for cohabiting couples in the assessment for third level grants. When a cohabiting couple apply for a top-up grant for their child, their reckonable income must include an eligible long-term social welfare payment. The problem arises in cases where the social welfare payment for the entire family unit is in the name of the partner who is not the legal guardian. They will not qualify for the top-up grant because the social welfare payment is not actually being claimed in the name of the parent with whom the partner and child resides even though the parent is receiving a long-term unemployment payment in the form of a qualified adult payment. I raised this last week in the context of the Child and Family Relationships Bill 2014. A change in the criteria is required in order for SUSI to be able to award a grant in these cases. I ask the Minister here today to facilitate these genuine cases.
The thrust of this legislation is well intentioned. The saying, "a rising tide lifts all boats" is still true. Overcoming the obstacles that prevent the long-term unemployed from getting back into the workforce is critical if everybody is to share in our economic recovery. Other speakers have referred to issues such as child care, which is a prohibitive cost for many people trying to return to work. While time does not permit me to speak in detain on that issue, I hope something is done to address it in the budget. I understand the issue was raised at the Labour Party conference last weekend.
The introduction of the back-to-work dividend is an important step in supporting families to get back into work and in time I have no doubt that it will contribute to a further decrease in our long-term unemployment rate. This Government's goal is to achieve full employment by 2018. We are heading in that direction. There was great news today in that regard, with our unemployment rate down to 10.1%. The news will be even better when we get it down to single digits. I commend the Ministers and Ministers of States in the Departments of Social Protection and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on their efforts in this regard.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill, which gives rise to a number of issues.
The Government has appointed Mr. Bobby Kerr to review the post office network nationally and to establish how more Government work could be put through it. The single biggest income source for the post office network is social welfare payments. It is important that this issue is developed. It is an issue I raised with Deputy Pat Rabbitte when he was the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and I have raised it with his successor, Deputy Alex White, also. It came to my attention recently that when the Revenue Commissioners introduced the local property tax it spent over €500,000 putting a paper-based system in place to collect it. It would have made far more sense to let the sub-post office network operate the paper aspect of that system rather than to require the Revenue Commissioners to put a separate system in place. People could have gone to their local sub-post offices where sub-postmasters could have inputted their data into the system and electronically transferred it. Payments could also have been made at local post offices thereby saving the taxpayer €500,000 in administrative costs.
That is just one example. The Department of Social Protection has plenty more. The cost of processing the physical paper forms that must be submitted to the Department is high. As there is a great deal of personal information on some of those forms, I could understand that the Department would not want it being processed through a local sub-post office. However, it is important to remember that postmasters sign the Official Secrets Act. They are the only people outside the public service who sign it and they are in a unique position to deal with many of the schemes that are there at the moment. Significant savings could be made by the Exchequer across the board as we would not have to put an alternative paper-based system in place if we used the services already in place in local communities through our sub-post offices. It is a win-win for everyone.
Another bizarre situation that arose involved the new driving licence system which 40 offices across the country are now administering. One must either go online or physically present oneself in one of those offices to make an appointment. For a lot of people that is not possible, particular older people. They are left in a situation where they have to make two journeys; one to make the appointment and the second to go back and fulfil it. Why could that not have been rolled out through the post office network? The technology exists already within the post office network to facilitate it. It would have brought the service to a far more accessible network of sub-post offices across the country, putting more business through them and providing services in communities. Instead, we have made it much harder for people to access.
I hope the Minister of State will talk to his colleague in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and postpone any decision to close any post office until Mr. Bobby Kerr's report is published. While I understand the Government is doing that, it should back-date decisions on publication of the report to cover any of the sub-post offices which have been closed since the Government announced this initiative last December. I include in that a post office just outside my constituency at Cappataggle in east Galway. It is well known to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle who will support me on that.
When the Minister of State comes back to me, he will make the point that An Post signs a contract and must guarantee that 95% of social welfare recipients can access their payments within a 15 km radius of their homes. The Minister of State will say that gives a guarantee that we will have a network right across the country. However, that requirement relates to 95% of the population. If the Minister of State takes his mobile phone and travels to parts of my constituency, he will see that while there is more than 95% coverage for most mobile networks, it is far short of that as he goes west through my constituency and out further. It is easy to meet the criterion of 95% coverage when one is talking about large population centres like Dublin, Cork and Galway. However, people in rural communities who have to travel are looking at round trips of 30 km, or 19 miles, to collect a social welfare payment.
While I am on the issue of round trips, I received a letter today from the Midlands North West Division where again we are seeing the closure of more community welfare officer clinics. The community welfare officer provides a very valuable service. The system is meant to be flexible, particularly for people who are in difficult financial circumstances. They may be accessing social welfare payments but also an emergency payment for a financial crisis a family faces. In rural Ireland, people will not go to a community welfare officer or, as they were known historically, relieving officer, unless they really need to. They just do not go to the relieving officer unless they have to. With the closure of these clinics, Keadew in County Roscommon is now being closed, for example, and relocated to Boyle, which is a 44 km round trip. It is the same as asking someone with no money in his or her pocket here in Dublin city centre to go to Wicklow town for assistance. However, there is no public transport to get there and the person must either get someone to assist with a lift or borrow money to get a taxi. I guarantee the Minister of State that when one goes to the community welfare officer, he or she will not give financial assistance to pay for the taxi needed to get there in the first place to make the case that one needed money for a particular emergency. That is the type of twisted logic we have at the moment.
I received notice today that three clinics are about to be closed at Keadew, Ballinlough and Roosky, respectively, in County Roscommon. We should be expanding clinics in some of these rural communities by making them available if not on a weekly basis, then on a fortnightly basis. Instead, we are seeing a reduction in clinics making them less accessible at a time when public transport is being cut. We had an announcement last week from Bus Éireann which is now looking at reducing the bus service from Athlone to Westport. That will directly affect the people in Ballinlough who want to access the community welfare clinic in Castlerea. We are making it far more difficult for people in rural Ireland to get the support they need. I urge the Minister of State to reassess the decision on these and other clinics across the country.
I was interested today to see the breakdown in relation to delayed discharges from hospital. People are stuck in hospital who are trying to get out and they are usually older people. Many of them are trying to get into nursing homes while others want to go back to their own homes but cannot because no grab rail is provided or it is not accessible without small works. One of the barriers in this context relates to carer's benefit. It is an issue I raised with the Minister of State before Christmas and I thank him for his assistance in that regard. The delay in processing a carer's benefit application is currently three months. This is an application on behalf of a person who has paid his or her PRSI over a long number of years and wants to take a period out of employment in order to care for an older or disabled person. He or she applies for carer's benefit, having had to give notice to his or her employer of his or her intention to leave work. Usually, a person will tell the employer he or she will be leaving in four weeks given that the case is black and white in terms, for example, of a mother's complete disability and an uncontested medical assessment. Given that the person has been paying PRSI for 20 years, for example, he or she will consider that there is no issue in relation to the required contribution. Nevertheless, it takes 12 weeks to process that application. There is no justification for that period of time. The reason, of course, is that the handful of staff in Longford is inundated by the volume of applications.
Only a handful of staff is available to process these applications and no additional resources have been provided for them. In fairness to them, they are more than accommodating in trying to facilitate people, particularly in emergency cases, but all cases are emergencies and the staff can only do so much. I urge the Minister of State to provide the resources required. There is a lack of joined-up thinking between Departments and also the problem of silos. The Department of Social Protection and the Department of Health are not joined. For example, because carer's benefit or carer's allowance has not been approved for a person, his or her elderly relative cannot leave hospital and it is costing the State €850 a night to keep him or her in a hospital bed because we are not prepared to process an application for €230 a week in order that he or she can return home, have some dignity and remain there for as long as possible. In the interests of those poor human beings who are in Guantánamo, in accident and emergency departments across the country, in the interests of those patients who are lying on trolleys or who, sadly, do not even have the opportunity to lie on a trolley and are queueing to be given a chair in an accident and emergency department, I ask the Minister of State to please prioritise this issue, release beds in order that patients in accident and emergency departments can be given hospital beds. This problem has arisen because we are not providing the resources needed to process applications for carer's allowance or carer's benefit and it would make far more sense to do so.
I will make one further point on the issue of the need for joined-up thinking. There are many thousands in low paid employment who do not know that they are entitled to a top-up payment from the Department of Social Protection in the form of family income supplement. If they have children and are financially better off on the live register rather than working, the Department has a very innovative and positive scheme - family income supplement - but there is a significant problem in increasing the uptake of the scheme. Rather than waiting for people to apply for the payment, I ask Department staff to pick up the telephone and call the Revenue Commissioners to ask for a list of those on low pay. The Department could write to them and ask if they have children and if they are in low paid employment and in such cases that they may be eligible for family income supplement. The Department could identify such families by linking child benefit payments with those in low paid employment through the PRSI database. Revenue and the Department have improved their data sharing in cases in which people are claiming benefits while in employment and paying PRSI. We should make efforts to encourage people to stay in employment by offering the possibility of a top-up payment which would makes things manageable for them and help them to make ends meet. We could be proactive and employ joined-up thinking instead of having departmental silos where the Department of Social Protection will not talk to the Revenue Commissioners and where the Revenue Commissioners will not talk to the Department of Social Protection. This would ensure access to the scheme for those who need it.
A related issue is highlighted by a conversation I had this week with an employer in my constituency. This employer offered work to four people at a rate of €10.75 an hour, which is higher than the minimum wage. Each of these individuals was receiving between €340 and €370 a week in social welfare payments and each of them refused the work being offered. They were quite willing to take the job if they were paid cash in hand, but they were not prepared to take it if it was to go through the books. One of the issues raised was the loss of the medical card, while some of them were not prepared to take up full-time employment. These anomalies need to be removed from the system. The employer took on an employee under the JobsPlus scheme; the person concerned had been unemployed for seven years. The employer only recently became aware of the JobsPlus scheme and is very happy with the employee. The opportunities for that individual to find paid employment would have been virtually nil without access to the JobsPlus scheme. Schemes are available, but in many cases employers do not know about them. As is the case of family income supplement, employers need to be made aware of them.
I refer to the barriers in taking up employment. Another employer told me that he was offering a job for five half days a week, but he could not find anyone to take it. This is understandable because anyone who takes up the offer will lose his or her social welfare payments because of the regulation that a person who works five days a week is not entitled to such payments. That aspect of the system needs to be changed. People are being precluded from gaining access to employment because of this rule and employers are precluded from offering part-time employment which might turn into a full-time job in time.
I welcome the announcement today of possible tax changes for the self-employed. This is a very positive development. Self-employed persons are the risk takers, the ones who are prepared to take a gamble, take on additional employees in the hope they can make things work while developing the business. However, the self-employed do not have a safety net. The Tánaiste spoke about making changes to the long-term disability or illness benefit scheme, but nothing has been announced to date. Those who are prepared to take a gamble and ready to grow their business and, by extension, the prospects for others to gain employment are the real drivers of the economy. They need to have both a short-term and long-term safety net if they get sick. If a business goes to the wall, the employees will have a safety net, but the employer will not. This needs to change.
My final point is topical as it relates to the proposals to be put in the same-sex marriage referendum. One of my constituents worked with a major catering company and then moved to work in her partner's business. She continued to pay PRSI class A contributions until she walked up the aisle to get married. She walked down with far fewer rights, as she could no longer pay class A contributions purely because she was married. The fact that she was in a relationship with her partner had made no difference until her date of marriage, but once she got married, she could no longer continue to make these contributions. She was blatantly informed that, in the view of the Department of Social Protection, her husband should provide for her from that date forward. This is an anomaly in the system and it is one of those marriage bars that have historically been in place in the social welfare system. This question will arise again for many more people should the referendum be passed later this year. I ask the Minister of State to remove this anomaly because people should not be discriminated against because they happen to get married.
I welcome the Bill and support its provisions generally. I will deal first with the two clarifications provided for in section 3 in respect of qualification for carer's benefit, carer's allowance and the carer's respite care grant. These clarifications are necessary and should be welcomed, even though, on the face of it, it seems they might make eligibility more difficult. In reality, all of us who live in families give some level of care, at some time, to other members of our immediate or extended family. This is as it should be and most people do it gladly and with no expectation of payment. The majority do that caring work in conjunction either with work in the home or in a place of employment. Having been a carer, I am aware there is a continuum of care required, depending on the level of need. At one end of the scale would be people with a minor dependency which requires a minor level of care while, at the other end, there are people who are totally dependent on their carers. I clearly recall the debate leading up to the introduction of the carer's allowance. It was specifically envisaged as a maintenance payment to people caring for individuals with a level of dependency such that no remunerated employment was possible for the carer. It was never intended as a compensation for people who provide the type of caring most of us do at some point and which people always did in the past.
There is a cohort of people, however, as identified by Deputy Harrington, who fall between the two stools. These people are not so involved in caring that it takes all of their time, but nor are they free to take up employment in the way most of us are. Identifying these people and the particular disincentives to employment they face is important if we are to support those who genuinely want to return to work while, at the same time, continuing to provide some level of care. The clarification of the level of care and attention required for eligibility for the carer's allowance as it exists now and provision for the verification of that eligibility by a medical assessor from the Department are essential to ensure the scheme remains viable, is not abused and will remain available to those who are giving full-time care and are genuinely dependent on the payment.
Moving on to other aspects of the Bill, I particularly congratulate the Minister on the provisions in sections 4 and 6. Both of these measures give long overdue recognition to the trap that exists for people who have been out of the workforce for extended periods. The Minister has targeted these issues in the past and the various anomalies that exist. These provisions serve to change the role of the State from one of providing payments for unemployment to one of providing incentives to employment. As Deputy Harrington noted, it is very important to offer people who have been long-term unemployed the opportunity to improve their standard of living, avail of the dignity work brings and give them and their family some hope for the future. When one has been out of the workforce for years, there may be real financial barriers to returning to work, particularly where the opportunities for employment, initially at least, are in low-paid jobs. In addition, at the outset, it may be that only part-time employment can be entertained, particularly in the case of lone parents. We are gradually addressing these barriers, which traditionally have made unemployment more rewarding financially than a return to work. Deputy Naughten spoke about how the loss of a medical card, particularly for families with children, can represent such a loss that the possibility of taking up employment becomes a real challenge. Tackling those anomalies by, for instance, the introduction of free GP care for children under six, is a vital step in assisting people to return to work. Where there are several children in a family, having a medical card can be crucial.
In addition to the financial considerations people will take into account when contemplating taking up a job, there are psychological disincentives. Being out of the workforce for a long time can mean people lack confidence or their skills, particularly technical skills, are out of date. This can rule them out of the running for jobs for which they might have been qualified in the past. An especially welcome aspect of these measures is their recognition that there are multifaceted issues for people moving from dependence to employment. The provisions seek to deal with those issues, in so far as the State can do so. Sometimes, of course, it is necessary to acknowledge that the State cannot do everything. The provision that part-time or temporary work arrangements will not preclude qualification for the jobseeker's transitional allowance for lone parents is a crucial measure. For parents who may well have been out of the workforce for many years and may in the past have never even considered going back to work, this is a real incentive to contemplate so doing.
The back-to-work dividend is targeted particularly at families, and rightly so because it this cohort for whom a return to work can be a particularly costly undertaking. Deputy Naughten observed that some people have turned down jobs simply because benefits, particularly their eligibility for a medical card, offer such an advantage relative to those available from low-paid work. By allowing welfare payments people receive while unemployed to remain in place for two years, these measures provide a cushion for families in that crucial period when parents are returning to work, and will apply equally to jobseeker's benefit, jobseeker's allowance, jobseeker's transitional payments and one-parent family benefit. As Deputy Breen noted, however, this provision does not apply to people coming off carer's allowance. I expect this is an oversight and I ask the Minister to review it. By any assessment of fairness, those people should be included. In addition, the Bill recognises that returning to work may require access to certain specified training, supported employment work placement schemes and so on.
There are other disincentives to returning to work, each of which the Minister is tackling gradually. One that comes to mind because I was discussing it earlier with several colleagues is the difficulty that arises for people as they transition from a weekly welfare payment to a monthly salary. The challenges this presents can actually preclude people from taking up employment because they simply cannot survive for a month without any income. The problem is exacerbated because community welfare officers cannot use their discretion to assist people who are in employment. That is another anomaly we should examine to see whether anything can be done to address it. Certainly, the ability to help people in those circumstances should be included as one of the areas of discretion for community welfare officers. It is not an issue for everybody, but for those without back-up family support or the ability to borrow from a credit union, for instance, there would be a much better chance of their returning to employment if that facility were available. Deputy Áine Collins mentioned a case she was aware of where a person gave up a job recently because she had borrowed so much and put herself so far behind in her first month of employment. That is tragic. Jobs are not yet so plentiful that we can afford to have people falling into that type of trap. Having said that, the figures released today showing falling unemployment levels right across the country are very welcome. Now that we are beginning to see more new jobs available month on month, the measures in the Bill are timely.
The legislation includes measures to deal with social welfare fraud. For as long as I can remember, this has been a major issue. I congratulate the Minister on her efforts to tackle it, which have led to a significant improvement in this area. We owe it to taxpayers, who fund all the benefits people receive, to do so. We also owe it to those who are in genuine need of support. If benefits are to remain available, it is imperative that it is not seen as speaking out of turn to report instances of suspected fraud.
It is absolutely essential that fraud be wiped out of the system and that the system is perceived to be absolutely clear and fair. Otherwise, taxpayers rightly will object to a system that is not perceived to be entirely fair and is not a system in which every possible effort is made to ensure there is no fraud.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on this important Bill. I acknowledge and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, for being present today and wish to raise a couple of items. Part of me was somewhat reluctant to comment on community employment schemes because of the contribution by Deputy Connaughton, for which I was present in the Chamber. However, another part of me wished to speak in support of his comments. I am approaching this issue from a real-life experience, having worked in an earlier life as a FÁS community employment scheme supervisor for eight happy and quite rewarding years. On taking up that post in 1995, which now is 20 years ago, one thing I appreciated deeply from the outset was the value of a community employment scheme for many people, including some who probably would never find themselves in mainstream employment. In my community in Lucan, a number of those community employment schemes were wound up over the years because full employment was about to be reached and I had hoped that at least one scheme would remain for the very reason I have identified. Through networking with other schemes and supervisors over those years, I gained a further appreciation of the importance of community employment schemes because many people who participated in such schemes probably would never aspire to employment as most of us would know it. Moreover, it had a value in keeping some people out of pubs, bed or bookmakers' offices and in keeping others out of hospitals and off medications. It was a real benefit to the quality of life of some of those who participated in some of these schemes nationwide. At that time, I found myself with a deep appreciation of the value of community employment schemes and I suspect that value still remains today for those people. I acknowledge the Minister and the Department of Social Protection are very much constrained and restricted because of the financial circumstances but I make the point that it is important to maintain focus on, as well as interest and investment in, community employment schemes for some of those reasons.
The other point I wish to make pertains to post offices. A number of Members have referred to post offices, including Deputy Naughten for whose contribution I was present. Sometimes does not get the full picture. I acknowledge there have been financial restrictions and reconsideration of the locations of post offices. As for my own community in Lucan, however, on becoming a Deputy four years ago, I engaged with An Post in what I thought was a meaningful fashion and I acknowledge and thank An Post for that. The net result of this work over the past three and a half to four years has meant the opening of a new post office in Lucan. As someone told me recently, we probably are bucking the trend in this regard. Nevertheless, the point I wish to make is that where there is real engagement and the putting forward of a proper case study, in my experience I have found An Post to be fair and amenable. In this case, such engagement marked the agreement to open a new post office, which hopefully will take place within the next few weeks.
Reference was made to social welfare. I have engaged with the Minister, Deputy Burton, and her Department over the past four years. Lucan, for example, is the fastest growing community in Ireland but does not have a social welfare office at present and I ask the Minister of State to make note of this point. I acknowledge there are particular issues relating to the acquisition of the suitable modern facility that is required but because of the particular circumstances in Lucan, I believe there is a definite need for a facility. Finally, I congratulate the Minister and her Departmental officials on the work they have undertaken on fraud over the past four years since the Minister took office. There has been significant improvement in this regard. While more is needed because outstanding issues remain, there has been remarkable effort and investment, which is to be welcomed. I wish the Minister, her officials and the Department continued success. Members may be aware of the old story from years ago about when someone got on a bus. From my earliest days, I can remember hearing people tell the bus conductor "here are a few pence, go ahead". What was happening was the person concerned was paying under the rate and the bus conductor then pocketed it. However, the net result was the fares were increased for the rest of the people. For as long as fraud continues to take place, the people of Ireland are paying for it. Everyone will benefit in wishing the Minister every continued success in her efforts, as well as those of her Department, to eradicate the scourge that is fraud.
This morning, I read with some interest the Minister's contribution to this debate. I must confess that even after everything that has happened since 2011, I am surprised by how condescending and how out of touch was the Minister's speech, its tone and some of the nuanced language here this afternoon on certain aspects of social welfare fraud. I found that clearly, there is an increasing detachment on the part of the Government with respect to the reality of people's lives. The Minister, clearly understanding the changes she proposes to make to the payments to lone-parent families mainly will have an impact on women, stated "As a woman, I simply do not understand why [receiving welfare payments] would be a more attractive option than becoming involved in education or training". All the lone parents who have approached me with their concerns have been women. They are approaching me, are contacting Members' offices and are in distress about the Labour Party's proposed changes with respect to the lone-parent family payment. They are mystified as to how the Minister seems to have deliberately ignored the concerns of these women but in particular, has ignored the child care costs. Not one welfare dependency has been discussed in this House today from a Government perspective without dealing with the main block in this regard. Members can talk about training and employment opportunities but not once have they heard any talk about the Scandinavian model of child care that has hundreds of women attending the offices of Members of this House about the impending changes to lone parents' payments. Once upon a time, the Minister would recall a different reality for women on low incomes because in 2012, she declared she would introduce a Scandinavian style of child care. There have been three successive austere and regressive budgets and one still discerns a rarefied attitude on the part of the Government about the area of child care.
Child care costs remain as the elephant in the room of this debate in terms of enabling women - it is primarily women - to engage in employment, training or education. Last week, my colleague, Deputy Troy, presented a roadmap for the provision of adequate child care needs of families in Ireland. I acknowledge it was expensive and no one believes it can be delivered as a yellow-pack proposal. However, Members must begin to move on this issue if these changes are to going to be sustainable. I wonder whether the Minister or her colleagues really believed that the Scandinavian style of child care she promised would ever be delivered; I doubt it. I got my answer in the headline of today's edition of The Irish Times, which states the recovery allows for income tax cuts. That is the core of this issue because the Government is not interested in extending State services in child care.
It is only interested in protecting existing services or running them down to prioritise tax cuts for the well-off but some Government Deputies, however, claim they are social democrats. There has still not been one proposal on how we will enable women to re-engage, retrain and reskill to get back into the workforce.
What exactly is the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection’s problem with women? Of the 38 cuts, changes and reductions in entitlements, totalling €1,431 million, which she has imposed on low-income families and individuals, eight of them, totalling €438 million and almost one third of the total, have been targeted at payments that predominately affect women and their children. That figure does not include the vicious attack on maternity payments introduced by the Government. Lone parents, again predominately women, are the main target of this Bill. It is beyond understanding how anyone concerned with poverty rates could focus cuts and deprivations on this cohort in society and vote in favour of these measures.
Since 2012, the consistent poverty rate among lone-parent families has increased from 17.4% to 23%. The deprivation rate now stands at over 63%. The cuts the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection has imposed have contributed to this increase. The measures she now proposes in the absence of adequate child care provision will only increase them again. Will she postpone this proposal until clear front-loaded investment is made in child care provision? Yesterday, Deputy Willie O'Dea outlined to the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the monetary effect her proposals will have on the domestic circumstances of the most vulnerable people in our society. She must take heed of his statement of these simple mathematical facts and radically amend this Bill on Committee Stage.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection’s assumption, explicitly stated in her Second Stage speech yesterday, that lone parents can simply increase their working hours at will is evidence of her detachment from the reality of the lives of those affected. As I said yesterday during the debate on the issue of family home repossessions, I have a sense that I am looking across the Chamber at a Government that no longer sees ordinary individuals and their families at the end of their decisions. The Government sees euro and cent, percentages and statistics, pluses and minuses but it fails to see any interest in the reality of what is occurring in people's lives. Contrary to her claims yesterday that there had been proper consultation with representative organisations of lone parents, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection must listen to them properly.
The stakeholder group, One Family, states the issues relating to lone parents have been known since 2012 and lack of planning and implementation in respect of such parents is of major concern. It finds it quite astonishing that research on labour activation among lone parents is only being commissioned now and will become available in June when 39,000 lone parents are due to be activated on 2 July. The major concern for One Family in this regard relates to the lack of planning, support and information provided and responsibility taken by the Department of Social Protection in these actions. Along with SPARK, Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids, One Family also states child care is one of the main barriers to entering employment. A two-parent family will spend 34% of its income on child care but a one-parent family will spend 53% of net income.
There needs to be affordable, accessible and quality child care, underpinned with a sense of urgency, to facilitate those affected, mainly women, to return to the workplace. All stakeholders observe that lone-parent families are already among the poorest in society and are not in a position to withstand any further cuts to their incomes. FLAC, the Free Legal Aid Centres, called for the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection to carry out a social impact analysis of this Bill's measures. There have been debates in this House on the need to equality-proof such measures. While I welcome any proposals with respect to this that may emerge in the near future, we need to equality-proof this Bill and the proposals for payments to lone-parent families this summer. The rhetoric must be put to one side and such an analysis carried out. As it stands, this Bill is a retrograde and austere initiative which will affect the most vulnerable in society, the very people holding on by a thread.
Another measure missing from this Bill is a move to reverse the cuts to jobseeker’s allowance imposed on those under the age of 26. The Labour Party passed a proposal at its annual conference last week to reverse this cut. Leaving aside the issue of discrimination against the young, there is another discrimination that in other contexts would rightfully be forbidden under equality legislation, namely the indirect impact of such measures on minority groups such as the Traveller community.
Last Monday, I had an example of such a case in my constituency office, one which I know will resonate with the Minister of State opposite, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, because he too is connected to the front line. Many Travellers marry young and this has left many of them and their families in a precarious situation. My case this week involved a young man who is an amateur boxer with 17 provincial medals representing his province, nine national titles and three silver medals representing his country at European level. This young man, his wife and their two children have been reduced by this Government's social welfare policy to living with his parents-in-law and sister-in-law - seven people in total - in a three-bedroom house. These are the cuts that have forced people to make sacrifices that should never happen in any modern decent society. He and his family have been four years on a housing waiting list while their rent allowance and other social protection payments have been cut. Good people who have represented their country at the highest sporting level are forced to make such decisions.
Was it equality-proofed, no more than the decision to attack women in this country? I ask the Minister of State to suspend this initiative, leave it to one side, equality-proof it and stop using this fake language. The language used has been pathetic; we would not hear it from the Tories. What is going on in this Chamber? The Labour Party has not protected core social welfare payments and its own youth wing has confirmed it. Appalling language is used in the most draconian attacks, whether on the under-26s or lone parents. It is unacceptable. The language used this morning by the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, in her comments on the Bill was also appalling. She has morphed into the Taoiseach and lost her touch with people. No right-minded person would proceed with this measure in June and July this year, discommoding thousands of families on the edge. I ask the Minister of State to listen to the stakeholders who have spoken about this and say it is insanity. Where are the other Labour Party Deputies? Where are the troops on this one?
I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, is very hardworking. He is the salt of the earth and knows what I am really talking about. He hears the same stuff in his clinics. I know him to be assiduous, which is not in dispute. I am asking him to do the right thing and not to attack the most vulnerable. There is no argument that can equal those set out by Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, and the Social Policy and Aging Research Centre, SPARC. The impact on vulnerable persons can be addressed by the Minister of State in providing for a pause. I ask him to go to the committee and start amending this legislation. In the interests of social cohesion, I ask him not to let the legacy of the Government be the continual attacks on the most vulnerable in society.
I was appalled this morning when I looked at The Irish Times. It is now cheerleading on the issue of tax cuts. We are going to cut taxes for the well-off and continue to attack and fry the most vulnerable. That is appalling. Where are the social democrats?
The Minister of State's job was to protect them. It will be a very sad day if we cannot have a debate in the House and acknowledge that what we are doing is wrong. The Minister of State knows deep down that it is wrong and he should not let these Tories twist his arm. He can do the right thing and leave a proud legacy. He was put into government to protect the most vulnerable and this is an opportunity to do so.
The Minister of State should think about the consequences for families, mainly women, who are already struggling. The impact on their pockets will be significant, no matter how we do the maths. This is going to leave a distasteful legacy among many other very difficult decisions the Government has had to make and it is completely unnecessary. It does not add to anything in terms of progression. I hear people in the corridors asking if the Labour Party has done a deal to sell Aer Lingus. Let us not politicise this issue. The Minister of State should man up and protect the people in question. There is a wonderful opportunity to slow down this measure on Committee Stage, listen to stakeholders and do the right thing.
I understand the purpose of the Bill is to provide for the back to work family dividend announced in budget 2015. This scheme will allow some people who have ceased claiming jobseeker's allowance or the one-parent family payment by moving into or increasing their hours of employment since 5 January 2015 to hang on to their qualified child payments for the first 12 months and half the amount for a further 12. Collectively, most of us in the House welcome this provision and on that basis will not be opposing the Bill. However, as other speakers have said, the Bill is a missed opportunity to do much more to improve social protection which has come under strain from the Government's two-tier recovery project, as all sides of the House would agree.
The back to work family dividend, though a welcome development, fails to compensate for the incremental cuts already made for lone parents, a point that was touched on by the last speaker, nor does it take into account the changes that will be made this July when the cut-off age for receipt of the one-parent family payment scheme is lowered to seven years, with a significant consequential loss of income for lone parents in work on low pay.
At the beginning of February the Central Statistics Office, CSO, published its annual survey of income and living conditions and the findings pointed to the rocketing rates of deprivation amongst lone parent households. We were all concerned about the figures, which seem to be following a pattern. The CSO has reported that 63% of lone parent households are now living without basic necessities and additionally are strained by the absence of affordable after-school care. Many of us have been arguing about the crisis in this sector for years. This should have been a wake up call for the Minister for Social Protection and another reason for her to abandon her proposals to lower the cut-off age for receipt of the one-parent family payment. If this savage cut goes ahead on 2 July, almost 12,000 lone parents will suffer a financial loss of up to €86 per week. Even for those from a wealthy background, taking €86 from someone's income represents a huge loss, particularly so for those already suffering from deprivation. Children in lone parent households are being forced to go without heating in their homes, or a warm coat or sufficient food. How many more children will be forced to go without new clothes, a joint of meat or a birthday party this summer when their mother's or father's weekly income suddenly drops by €30, €50 or even €86?
The figures from the tenancy protection service which was set up as an emergency measure to protect families facing homelessness in Dublin show that more than 60% of households seeking urgent assistance are lone parent households. We received figures the other day for the numbers of people facing homelessness who were being forced out because they could not afford the rent in much of the accommodation available in Dublin. Does the Minister of State agree that the cuts will lead to greater deprivation?
They will result in more families facing homelessness. I again take this opportunity to urge the Minister to abandon her plans to lower the cut-off age to seven next July.
I call for the deletion of section 3, which concerns eligibility for caring payments, such as the carer's allowance, the carer's benefit and the respite care grant. The Government presented this as a benign change of a technical nature but FLAC, the independent law centre, said it does not seem to have any other purpose except to make it more difficult for carers to access income supports. In what direction are we going? It seems to be part of the process to make it more difficult for people to access what they are entitled to. FLAC believes this to be the case because it alters the conditions for eligibility by introducing a presumption that claimants are ineligible unless they can prove otherwise. This constitutes an unacceptable shift in the burden of proof placed on the applicant. I am putting forward weaknesses in the Bill. I hope the Minister of State is listening and can come up with some changes.
FLAC is in no doubt that this will have the effect of increasing the number of legitimate claims that are rejected which will, in turn, lead to a corresponding increase in the number of appeals submitted to the social welfare appeals office. This is completely unacceptable because according to the social welfare appeals office report in 2013, an average of 58% of those appealing decisions in respect of carers payments were successful. We have a situation where it is almost part of the system for someone to apply for the grant, to be turned down, to appeal and to perhaps wait two years after which he or she possibly gets the grant. It is a crazy system at which we again need to look. It prevents people who are entitled to the payment from getting it.
In addition, the appeals process can take six months, although at one stage it took up to two years. The proposed amendment would increase the rate of appeals and cause further delays in processing appeals, resulting in undue hardship and distress for claimants who are entitled to this payment. We have all had individuals come to our advice centres to talk about their personal circumstances and how this is impacting on them.
Unfortunately, the Bill does not reverse the Government's policies, which are based on low paid, insecure and precarious work and actually increase the need for social welfare to subsidise poverty wages into the future. The Government needs to end measures which actively drive down wages, including JobBridge and the soon to be commenced JobPath. The Minister of State is a cheerleader for those schemes but my experience has been the opposite of his. I am sure some people swear it has worked for them but, unfortunately, it is the opposite in the majority of cases with which I am dealing. Although some individuals have had a positive experience, the scheme leaves thousands of jobseekers vulnerable to exploitation. Last week's damning report on JobBridge by the National Youth Council of Ireland confirms this viewpoint. Some 44% of those surveyed in the report believe they were treated as free labour. How can we treat people like that in a fair society? People believe they are being exploited. Key stakeholders and unions unanimously agree that the JobBridge scheme is failing young people by displacing paid work and compounding unemployment. The scheme maximises the benefits to the employers through free labour and the Government through lower live register figures, while minimising any real benefits to workers.
Sinn Féin is committed to bringing about a fair recovery. It is focused on getting people back to work and bringing our young people home. My colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, brought forward an alternative, which was launched two weeks ago. This alternative envisaged a substantial increase in the range of apprenticeships available. The model Sinn Féin proposes would not displace apprenticeships, paid in-work training or jobs but it would afford those genuinely in need of some work experiences with meaningful opportunity. Tailored internships would be developed sector by sector in full co-operation with trade unions and the education training boards. Employers would be supported to be the best mentor that they can be. Sinn Féin's proposals will maximise decent pay for decent work. We will support the Bill but we have concerns in regard to elements of it.
Tá téarnamh geilleagracht Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre agus Fhine Gael bunaithe ar phá íseal agus tearcfhostaíocht. Bhí deis ag an Aire na fadhbanna a bhaineann le JobBridge agus pá íseal a réitigh sa Bhille seo. Is trua é gur shéan sí an deis sin agus is léir go bhfuil sí ag leanúint bhóthar Thatcher agus ag brú síos ar tuarastail na ndaoine. Léiríonn dearcadh ardnósach an Aire ar thuismitheoirí aonair agus iad siúd atá ag fáil íocaíocht leasaithe an turas fada atá Páirtí an Lucht Oibre tar éis taisteal óna luachanna traidisiúnta. Tá pá íseal agus poist neamhshlána fite fuaite go daingean sa mhargadh fostaíochta anois. Léiríonn na figiúirí ón bPríomh-Oifig Staidrimh a foilsíodh inniu go bhfuil duine as gach cúigear in obair pháirtaimseartha nó in obair ócáideach. Nuair a thugtann tú na daoine atá ar phoist gníomhachtú san áireamh dúblaíonn an figiúr.
Tá ceann de na rátaí is airde de dhaoine ar phá íseal san Eagraíocht um Chomhar agus Fhorbairt Eacnamaíochta in Éirinn agus tá ceann de na rátaí is airde tearcfhostaíochta ag an tír seo i measc na 28 tír san Aontas Eorpach. Níor tharla sé seo trí thimpiste. Is toradh é de pholasaithe an Tánaiste agus a páirtí. Nuair nach bhfuil rogha ag daoine óga ach idir JobBridge, pá íseal nó saol dífhostaithe, fágann siad an tír seo. Is í sin an taithí atá ag aos óg na tíre seo. Dar leis an bPríomh-Oifig Staidrimh, tá líon na ndaoine atá idir 20 agus 30 bliain d'aois ag titim bliain i ndiaidh bliana. Bhí titim 14,000 ar an méid daoine a bhí fostaithe san aoisghrúpa seo sa bhliain seo chaite. Tá an teip seo ag leanúint ar aghaidh, bliain i ndiaidh bliana. Ón toghcháin ginearálta deireanach go dtí seo d'imigh 60,900 duine idir 20 agus 34 bliain d'aois as an méid a bhí fostaithe sa tír seo.
Tá an méid céimithe atá ag fágáil na tíre seo ag éirí níos airde le sé bliana anuas. Léiríonn na figiúirí ón Údarás um Ard-Oideachas gur tháinig méadú ar líon na céimithe atá atá fostaithe thar lear i mbliana. Tá 12% de iarchéimí 2013 tar éis an tír seo a thréagean agus tá siad ag obair thar lear, i gcodarsnacht leis an mbliain 2008, nuair a thréig 5% de chéimithe na bliana sin an tír. We have the Low Pay Commission which we are told will be a panacea for tackling issues around low pay but the Labour Party has fundamentally undermined the remit of the group's work by simply limiting its remit to the minimum wage. This was a wasted opportunity and it failed to take into account the lessons learned by the British Low Pay Commission.
An independent report on low pay, which was endorsed by the Labour Party's sister party in Britain, called for a strengthened role for the Low Pay Commission in tackling poverty and a new role across sectors where low pay is prevalent. There is not a single mention of inequality or low pay in the legislation that will underpin the work of the Low Pay Commission and the Government has taken no action in regard to zero hour contracts. It is currently waiting for a report to tell it what everyone knows. It could have received the necessary data if it had simply tasked the CSO with collecting data on zero hour contracts as part of the quarterly national household survey. This is done currently by the Office of the Central Statistics in Britain.
The sad fact is that the Government, of which the Minister of State is part, has deepened inequality in our society and insecure and badly paid work is now embedded in the labour market.
The sad fact is that the Government Labour has been a part of has deepened inequality in our society. Insecure, badly paid work is now embedded in the labour market. Half of all Irish workers will earn €25,000 or less this year and will only make ends meet by relying on social transfers from the State. That is a breathtaking statistic. Seo oidhreacht an Lucht Oibre i Rialtas na tíre seo.
This Bill has many shortcomings and is disappointing in many ways. The new system of allowing those returning to work from the jobseeker's or one-parent family payments to hold on to qualified child increases for 12 months will make a difference to those it applies to. The main purpose of this Bill is to provide for the back to work family dividend announced in budget 2015. This scheme will allow some people who cease claiming jobseeker's allowance or the one-parent family payment by moving into employment or increasing their hours of employment from 5 January 2015, to hang onto their qualified child increases of €29.80 per child for up to four children, for the first 12 months and half that for a further 12 months. In that respect I welcome the Bill but it is a missed opportunity to roll back on the less favourable moves by this Government in regard to social welfare payments and the social welfare system generally.
This Bill will affect all too few people because we still have a lack of good jobs, regardless of what the Government would lead us to believe. The jobs a person leaving unemployment can obtain today are generally low paid, insecure and precarious. The maintenance of certain social welfare payments is all the more necessary because if a worker was to take one of these positions without those payments they would be disadvantaged by taking up the jobs. They would be disadvantaged not, as some Thatcherite voices including the Tánaiste might claim, because they are lazy and they do not want to work and just live on the meagre pittance of social welfare payments. They would be disadvantaged because they would lose that pittance and have it replaced by another pittance for the pleasure of working for a company that does not see fit to pay its workers enough to live in any level of comfort.
The Tánaiste and this Government have clearly set their goal for the social welfare system to be a crutch to exploitative employers who would rather not pay their workers for the work they do. We see this in the exploitation of young workers with the JobBridge, Gateway and First Steps schemes, which seek to undermine that principle that a part of Labour should strive to uphold and protect, that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day's pay. The idea that young people, some with degree certificates, diplomas and apprenticeships, will be forced into a free labour scheme which provides no training in many cases is scandalous and something the Labour Party, if it does not cease to exist in the near future, will look on with great shame in years to come. There are people being threatened with a cut to their entitlements if they do not take up a role as a trainee chip-cutter, juicer or labourer. The JobBridge site is full of ads for recruitment companies. The irony seems to be lost on them. It would not be lost on the intern getting €50 on top of their dole to work getting other people paying jobs. The businesses that exploit this are an insult to the people who run their company and pay their workers for work done. What is equally shocking are the ads for highly specialised workers who have worked hard and trained already for their qualifications. The prevalence of universities like Trinity College advertising for research assistants when they already underpay PhD students, who are overworked in labs doing important research, is truly shocking and an utter disgrace.
Through this and other cuts to exceptional needs payments and supplementary supports the Government is creating a two-tier social welfare system, which barely supports the unemployed while propping up exploitative businesses and promoting low pay. Who would want to believe that the Labour Party would be such an active cheerleader for driving down wages, displacing workers and undermining organised labour? The point of social protection is to protect those worst off from poverty, not to place everyone from the unemployed to low paid workers into a pit of poverty. This Government must cease all measures that actively drive down wages including JobBridge and the about to be commenced JobPath. The dividend in this Bill is welcome but it does not come close to compensating for the myriad cuts already made to the supports lone parents depend on. This July we will have another one when the cut-off age for the one-parent family payment scheme is further lowered to seven years with significant consequential loss of weekly income for lone parents who are in work, but on low incomes.
I must also oppose strongly section 3 concerning eligibility for carer's allowance, carer's benefit and the respite care grant. This will make it more difficult for people to successfully apply for these payments and so there will be more appeals and more delays. We already have people waiting up to one year for an appeal. If anything, these criteria are far too strict. It is an utter disgrace that we are paying €5,000 a month in some cases to private homes like the one owned by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, but the State seems to do everything it can to deny €800 a month for a carer to look after their loved ones in their home.
I think there are only two of us.
There has been a lack of trust in politics. Part of the reason for that is that what is said does not match the reality in people's lives. They can see that very well. Terms like "protecting the core rates of social welfare" are used. The core rates were protected, but many things were lost, for example, in the case of pensioners there were losses of things like the telephone allowance, the electricity allowance and things like that, which did matter for people's income. People know that the language of Government is different from their reality. The one type of legislation I will always examine in an almost forensic manner, is legislation coming from the Department of Social Protection, because it is, by a mile, the worst offender. I am not referring to the Department itself, rather to the Minister. I regret that this is coming from the Labour Party. This Bill comes at the time of the mantra, "the age of austerity is over". There were good numbers yesterday in terms of tax take. That is to be welcomed, but when it comes to redistribution, it appears that will be on the tax side rather than on the investment in services side.
There are two particular elements in this Bill, which is presented as a family dividend. That presents it in a very positive light. When it comes to July, it will not be at all positive for those who will be losing a great deal of money, for example, if a person has a seven year old and does not happen to have a family member who can support them. There is a presumption that everybody has family members to support them. The stereotype that was presented in the Minister's speech last night of the age cohort that constitutes lone parents does not mirror the reality. It goes across a wide age range. What does one do with a seven year old if one has no option but to go to work? What does one do if one does not have family to fall back on? The €29.80 per child per week works out at about €120 or €130 per month. Child care costs about €800 to €1,000 per month.
There is little in the way of community child care services. They are patchy.
Let us consider what happened in Britain. One need not look at the Scandinavian model. Like many others, I was in the Chamber when the Tánaiste asserted that this change would not happen until child care services were in place. She could not have been more categoric. In Britain the Labour Party's sister party used several clever approaches to support lone parents in returning to work while providing child care services. Many were offered places on accredited child care training programmes, effectively creating a child care workforce. The UK Government provided tax credits in respect of child care costs. It used EU money, a fund that was open to Ireland but not availed of by us, to send people on employability courses. It was called the Train to Gain programme. Although some of it has, unfortunately, been rolled back and significantly restricted by the Conservative Party, one would have expected a similarly progressive approach to be adopted by the Government.
For some, there are many poverty traps that do not just make work unattractive but unaffordable. It is not only a question of child care provision, although that is the major one. If one works more than a certain number of hours, one loses rent assistance and the housing assistance payment, HAP, has not been rolled out everywhere. The Minister of State knows all of this. That is why it is so difficult to fathom why this change is proceeding. While Deputies will not want to vote against the family dividend, it will reinforce the policy of returning people to work when their children reach seven years of age. For that reason, I cannot support it. If a seven year old was left at home on his or her own, the HSE would be sent in and the child taken away from the parent, rightly so, because he or she would be too young to care for himself or herself. If someone does not have family to rely on or money, what is he or she to do?
My second concern about the legislation relates to an issue that smacks of the same redefinition that occurred in the case of special needs assistants, SNAs, where the reclassification meant reduced numbers and the work being done was subsequently deemed to be minimal. I am referring to the redefinition of those who are considered to be in need of full-time care. It appears that the Bill will tighten the definition. Such issues can be complicated and every one is unique. My fear is that there will be wholesale refusals. I am not talking about armageddon, but wholesale refusals are typical in other contexts.
It is alarming that the decision has been moved from the medical assessor. The Department has had a difficulty in retaining medical assessors. I have asked numerous parliamentary questions on this matter. The new deciding officer will essentially be an administrator who will second guess the letters of proof for which people have paid consultants and the like. Applications will be refused by people who do not have the medical qualifications to make such judgments. Moves such as this can be found throughout the changes made by the Department of Social Protection. Wherever there is a long-term obligation, the Department tries to determine whether an application can be refused or changes the rules to refuse it. I realise that, although matters are improving, money is still tight, but there is a presumption of refusal now rather than of entitlement. Often, people suddenly find themselves acting as carers. They must leave work and getting decisions is difficult, even though they need them quickly. If they are to be refused wholesale, the decision-making process will be stretched. Invariably, judgments favour those who appeal. As such, we should be concerned about making this change, which I cannot support.
The legislation could have done a great deal more to roll back on certain measures. Recently, I spoke to a young woman who had left care at the age of 18 years to live with a parent. Her parent died within months, something that had formed part of the reason she was in care. She is entitled to €100 per week. It is difficult to get one's head around this next point, but her income is too low to enable her to qualify for a medical card. It is not the first time that I have encountered such a case. When a constituent contacted me previously about getting his property tax deducted from his social welfare payments, the Department of Social Protection told me that it could not do so because he would have found himself below a level that would have been insufficient on which to live. Anomalies such as these show what can occur in a system that has been designed like ours. The Government's approach to lone parents will have long-term consequences because families will have to struggle with poverty and do without if they are to look after their children. When the effect on children is known, people will ask who made the decision. Unfortunately, it is the party that they believed would protect them in government.
I am delighted to have time, for which I thank the Technical Group, to contribute to the debate on this Bill. According to the Government, its main purpose is to provide for the introduction of a new back to work family dividend, as announced in budget 2015, to help jobseekers with families and lone parents to return to work. "Back to work family dividend" are lovely words; I wonder who the scriptwriters were and I mean do disrespect to the staff of the Department.
I am shocked that a Labour Party Minister would introduce this Bill. I have great time for the Tánaiste who has done much good, but she should see that this is a failure and not go ahead with it. I sat on the Government benches for a number of years before the current Government took office. I heard the Tánaiste while she was on this side of the House make many good and passionate pleas for single parents and those on lower incomes. I listened carefully to Deputy Colm Keaveney who was part of the Labour Party's platform at the last general election. He spoke passionately about the ideals the Labour Party had put before the people and from whence it had come. The Labour Party was founded in my town of Clonmel more than 100 years ago. It has a proud record of service, including by a former Ceann Comhairle who is still alive, Mr. Seán Treacy, and others. It is now the mud guard of a regressive and repressive Government, peddling this so-called legislation and, worse still, voting for same. Where is its social conscience? What has happened to it in four years? It knew where the books were before it entered government. It was going to burn the bondholders. The fires of Hell were not going to be as hot as the ones the bondholders would make. The Labour Party was going to do everything. It sought and saw the books from the Department of Finance before entering government. This was faciliated by the late Brian Lenihan. The Labour Party knew what the situation was; therefore, it cannot blame everything on the last Government. Where is its moral compass when it comes to ordinary single parents who are struggling? This comes from a small businessman who has employed people. Many good single parents of both genders are working or trying to find work. It is not that they are all at home watching big screen televisions, as the former Tánaiste once said.
That could not be further from the truth. If I heard that coming from the Fine Gael benches, I would say, "Fine", because they were never interested in the little people or the ordinary people in my constituency. It is the ranchers and the people with the daffodils and tree-lined avenues that they are mainly interested in and we know who lives in those houses.
More than 30,000 single parents will lose their one-parent family payments in July, according to the Department. Groups representing lone parents told the joint committee that the forthcoming changes will hit the incomes of impoverished single parent families and make it harder for them to work because of the way the new social welfare supports are structured. Work is at the kernel of this. Every day we hear plaudits about the unemployment figures but we have to unshackle the bureaucracy and allow people to work and allow the self-employed in my constituency and elsewhere to take them on part time before, hopefully, migrating to full-time employment. This will benefit them and the community. There is nothing more demoralising than to be unemployed and to be unable to secure work. The Government parties have lost all context and vision in supporting these people.
SPARK says the youngest child aged over seven and under 14 years will transfer to the jobseker's transition, JST, payment. This is another lovely acronym. However, the problem is getting an appointment. I say nothing against the staff of the Clonmel social welfare office. I salute the work they do but people cannot walk into the office and get an appointment. They must have an appointment before they go in. Community welfare officers who always advised people on the ground have been withdrawn. One would not think the Labour Party was part of the Government. Instead of rolling out CWOs, they have taken away their services.
Claimants must apply by May, engage with job activation and attend a seminar. This is wonderful stuff. I heard on the news that the Department does not have enough staff to deal with the conversation grant relating to Irish Water. The Department does not have enough staff to do what it has to do, yet there will be seminars, transitional payments and so on.
On JST, lone parents can keep a part-time job. However, as the income disregard is only €60, they will lose money from their incomes. It is nothing short of a con job. I am surprised the Minister of State would peddle this kind of stuff. It is a con of the highest order, as are most other schemes like this. Siblings and parents are trying to support lone parents with young children. What kind of families will we have? In the same breath, the Government talks about marriage equality and equality in everything else, yet we are rushing through legislation to victimise these people. It is regressive and it will impoverish single parents. It beggars belief that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing in the Government. The parties are anxious to introduce liberal legislation yet they are passing regressive legislation in tandem with it, which is an attack on single parent families and their young people. Where will these people go? The Government has offered a few hundred places but 40,000 people will demand them.
If someone currently works less than 19 hours in a part-time job, he or she will have to choose between living on jobseeker's allowance or income from part-time work. That will lead to confusion for the prospective employer and the new employee because no one will know where they are. There will be more schemes and seminars. The self-employed who might employ these people part time do not have time for the Minister's seminars, fancy acronyms and descriptions and, above all, for the codology and tomfoolery she is engaging in. It is sending the fool farther.
Lone parents who receive half rate carer's allowance together with the one-parent family payment must change to full carer's allowance when the youngest child turns seven. This equates a loss of €84 per week. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste said that a charge of €2 per week for water was not much but these people will lose €84 a week. What planet are they living on? Why will the Minister of State not listen to the groups representing one parents if he will not listen to them in his clinics? Only 500 affordable after school places will be made available for approximately 40,000 one-parent families this year. What good will that be? They will be in the Minister of State's clinics and my clinics out of frustration and they will be depressed in doctor's surgeries and so on. In tandem with this, the Government will introduce free GP care for those under the age of six in spite of the fact that there no services for anybody else and the doctors and parents do not want it. Lone parents want this because their children will be sick as they themselves will be sick and depressed. It is a mean-spirited, lousy and shabby attack on single parents and as soon as the Minister of State sits up and smells the coffee in this regard, the better. Groups representing lone parents have said this. Social Justice Ireland and anybody else one cares to listen to are saying it.
The Minister promised she would not go ahead with these changes unless a Scandinavian child care model, about which we hear so much, was in place. We have a scandalous child care service, not a Scandinavian model. Only 500 after school places are on offer but 40,000 lone parents will be affected by these changes. They are deprived and under-privileged enough and have been affected enough by all the cuts. On one occasion the Labour Party called the cuts introduced by the former Minister for Social Welfare, Charlie McCreevy, the "dirty dozen". The Government has introduced countless dozens of cuts. There has been attack after attack on ordinary working class families and single parents, the people the Minister of State's party was proudly set up in my town of Clonmel to represent. However, it has abandoned them because it entered a Thatcherite and Tory-light coalition and got into bed with the Taoiseach and company.
When the Taoiseach was asked a question about agriculture earlier, he talked about a scheme that he was not asked at all about. Ministers have so many spin doctors around them that they do not know what the questions are about and have no answers and, therefore, they give an answer to a different question.
Shame on the Minister of State as far as this change is concerned. Thousands of one-parent families will be pushed into extreme poverty. It is important that we reach out to single parents to fights these cuts. Where are the so-called social democrats with social consciences who are supposed to represent them? The Minister of State has lost it. He has gone so far down in his psyche that he has no hope of regaining it. I would not like to be him approaching doors during the next election. Shame on him if he goes through the lobby to vote in favour of legislation such as this that is being pushed through. It is a disgraceful attack on young families with small children. Many resource centres are under attack and community services are trying to support these people. Together with the withdrawal of CWO services, it is an absurd, disgraceful attack by the so-called Labour Party. It is not entitled to carry that brand anymore. It should hand it up and give it to somebody else.
I often find that my head is spinning following a contribution by Deputy McGrath. I will enlighten him regarding Intreo offices. They are working well and the group engagements have been beneficial to those who have participated in them, as they have led to progression plans and so on. We are active in County Tipperary engaging with employers to make sure they are aware of all the schemes, benefits and 80 additional steps to help SMEs. I hope the Deputy will assist us in making sure employers know about the benefits of JobsPlus and so on. A number of employers are participating in the scheme but it needs to be promoted more and perhaps the Deputy will play an active role in this. We doubled the number of JobsPlus places in budget 2015 from 3,000 to 6,000 and more than 2,000 people have taken up a place.
I spent time in County Tipperary recently. The Deputy referred to resource centres being under attack and so on. I visited some good centres, which are playing a positive role. I have worked on the CE and Gateway schemes and they have an important role in the county. That is evident in the Tidy Towns scheme as people progress from it.
I certainly hope the Deputy will go back to Tipperary after today's debate and encourage small and medium-sized businesses to get involved in their local Intreo and Department of Social Protection centres and thereby make sure people on the live register have an opportunity to get back into work. I was keen to reply to the Deputy immediately and in his presence because I knew he probably wanted to head off because he is busy with engagements.
I thank many of the Deputies for their contributions to the debate on this Bill, which provides further help for welfare-dependent families through the introduction of the new back to work family dividend. This will help jobseekers with families and lone parents to return to work or to increase the number of hours they work. We are also enhancing the support for lone parents with children between the ages of seven and 15 by extending eligibility for the jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangements and making changes to the eligibility for families with lone parents. I am using the term "jobseeker's allowance", rather than referring to it as "JA", to assist Deputy Mattie McGrath with the jargon.
All of these improvements have been made possible as a result of the many sacrifices that have been made by the Irish people and the difficult choices that have been made by this Government. This is delivering an economic recovery that is gaining real momentum, as highlighted in the latest quarterly national household statistics and the live register numbers that were published today, which show that the standardised unemployment rate has fallen to 10.1%. In my early years in this House, when we rolled out our plan to get the unemployment rate back down to single figures, we were shouted down by those who said it would not happen within five years and we would not see single-figure unemployment in this decade. We are now at 10.1% and I expect to see us below 9%, or in 9%, within the next couple of months. When that happens, it will be due in large part to the sacrifices of citizens throughout the country.
Deputy Catherine Murphy mentioned the increase in taxation when she spoke about the revenue returns. We need to peel away the statistics to look at what was happening at an earlier stage of this country's limited recovery, which unfortunately continues to be based around many of the urban areas and has not stretched out beyond them. Deputy O'Dea, who has joined us, will agree that there has been some recovery in the main urban areas like Dublin, Galway, Cork and Limerick, but that has not yet been rolled out substantially into rural areas. We have to work on it. People have rightly pointed out that when we first started to see an improvement in the job numbers, much of it related to part-time work. In the latest figures, we are seeing much more full-time employment, thankfully, which means that more people are on good, decent wages. The revenue returns mentioned by Deputy Catherine Murphy show that wages are actually improving.
Deputy Tóibín mentioned in his contribution that in 2008, just 5% of postgraduate students emigrated, whereas that figure increased to 20% more recently. I hope we can encourage many of those postgraduates to come back into the Irish economy. We are now showing that we have skills gaps. I look forward to seeing many of my friends and their children coming back to work in Ireland. We have one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU. It has been quite difficult to reach this point. As I said earlier, many commentators said we would never reach it. They said unemployment would keep growing and we would face another bailout. Thankfully, we have proven those commentators wrong. I know Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland are actively trying to encourage some of our emigrants to come back and take up the well-paid jobs that are starting to appear in our economy.
Many Deputies raised issues relating to the impact of the age-related reform of the lone-parent family payment scheme. I reiterate the point made by the Tánaiste at the start of this debate that despite the strong welfare support given to lone parents over the years, the results have been disappointing in poverty terms, even when the economy was doing well. That is why these reforms are essential. They will address the passive nature of the scheme, which results in welfare dependency, while protecting the entitlement of lone parents with young children to jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangements. These reforms will also protect those who are caring by extending their one-parent family payment until their youngest child reaches the age of 16. They will incentivise lone parents to increase their employment by allowing them to access the family income supplement and the back to work family dividend. They will support those moving to jobseekers' payments by giving them activation support and access to education, training and employment programmes. The revised structure will help lone parents to return to work and build a better financial future for themselves and their families over time. I am committed to these reforms.
I would like to respond to Deputy O'Dea's comments about the reform of the one-parent family payment. I know there are those who argue that lone parents should be given the one-parent family payment until their children reach the age of 18, or for even longer. It is clear from the poverty rates that this approach adds to the welfare trap for lone parents. It is important to recognise that since the commencement of these reforms, a number of interventions have been introduced further to assist the support of lone parents. These include the introduction of jobseeker's allowance transition arrangements, which give lone parents with young children the flexibility to work part-time or engage in full-time education, enable them to access subsidised child care through after-school child care schemes and community employment child care programmes and allow them to access the back to work family dividend.
The Tánaiste announced yesterday that lone parents will be able to retain their entitlement to the one-parent family payment and will be able to receive a half-rate carer's allowance payment until their youngest child reaches the age of 16. These are significant supports. Unlike other jobseekers, people in receipt of jobseeker's allowance transition arrangements can also avail of full-time education. As such, these customers can receive the maintenance portion of the SUSI grant. This flexibility has been in place since the introduction of jobseeker's allowance transition arrangements in 2013. Recipients of one-parent family payment who are participating in training and education can also move back into educational allowance schemes when their entitlement to the one-parent family payment ceases. However, I am aware that this can result in a financial loss if these customers are currently in receipt of a SUSI grant. I think Deputy O'Dea highlighted this point in his contribution yesterday.
I was listening to it very closely. I think Deputy Clare Daly might have read from a similar e-mail when she was making her contribution. The eligibility rules that govern payment for student maintenance grants are matters for the Department of Education and Skills. However, I am mindful that the principal aim of the reform of the one-parent family payment is to support customers in education. For that reason, this issue is being considered by my officials and by officials from the Department of Education and Skills. Deliberations on this process will conclude very shortly.
We heard a number of contributions on various aspects of the JobBridge scheme, which was introduced to target people who were at a distance from the labour market. The qualification for it was that one had to have been unemployed for six months. I know from my own community that when people drift into unemployment and move past the six-month period, it is very difficult for them to get back into work. Equally, it is difficult for people to get a job for the first time after leaving school. Highly critical remarks have been made about the JobBridge scheme, but the figures stand up for themselves. I have spent a great deal of time over the last six months talking to JobBridge participants and interns who have actually gone through the process. The vast majority of them are extremely positive about it. They say it gave them the experience which got them back into work. I met a man in Waterford who had worked for Waterford Glass in quite a niche area. He got an internship with a local employer and that led to a managerial role in an area in which he never thought his career would go. He thought he would never get back into employment, but he got a JobBridge internship and that led back into employment.
Another young lady came from abroad and her argument was why she should have to wait six months being unemployed because she knew that JobBridge would lead to her gaining experience that would lead to her finding a job. The robust investigations that take place when the Department receives complaints show a tiny minority of employers take advantage, but the complaints are dealt with. Just under 40,000 positions have been advertised since the introduction of JobBridge and 458 complaints have been made, all of which have been thoroughly investigated. Deputy Dessie Ellis referred to a recent survey of 87 people, which is not a good sample size, but the majority of it was positive about JobBridge.
Many of the schemes we operate in the Department of Social Protection help people to gain experience and get back to work. Persons who are unemployed for two years can get into the practice of good timekeeping, which has been helpful in people getting back to work. I do not take lightly the criticism of the scheme because I have seen dedicated individuals become involved and it has led to work. I visited one Gateway scheme in River Valley in Swords where I talked to participants. One young man said it was the first time he had felt he was contributing to his community and that he was very proud of the work he was doing. He believed it would lead to full-time employment because he had never experienced working in an outdoor setting and saw it as a real career move. He can contribute to his community.
The back to work family dividend forms the main part of the Bill, but it was the subject of little discussion. I welcome the broad support of Deputies for it.
Deputy Willie O'Dea raised a number of issues, including the reason the dividend should be withdrawn if workers qualified for illness benefit for more than six weeks and why the welfare status of a child would impact on entitlement to the dividend. The dividend is based on the concept of supporting families exiting the welfare system. If a person returns to the system, whether an adult family member or a child, the dividend may be reduced or withdrawn. This makes the scheme simple and easy to understand. In the case of illness benefit, the benefit paid may be less than the wage and the dividend is, after a period of 36 days, withdrawn. Support must be withdrawn if people return to welfare payments. Otherwise, the scheme would not incentivise people to exit the system; rather, it would have the opposite effect. Children's support will be withdrawn if people are engaged in a programme under which they are paid an allowance. This is logical and will also protect against double incentives.
Deputy Willie O'Dea mentioned something that struck a chord with me. He said people received a full payment for the first year and a half payment for the second. I believe he reported that people had asked him why they should work if they would lose the payment after two years. I think I took him up correctly, but perhaps it was he who was saying this.
The intention behind the dividend is to encourage people to go back to work. When they go back to work, other opportunities arise from networking, promotion and overtime. I always encourage people to go back to work.
Deputy Denis Naughten raised various issues about post offices. I would like to see further services being given to the post office system. Mr. Bobby Kerr will come forward with good suggestions, but one of the downsides, although it is a pleasant unintentional consequence, is that the number of people going back to work means that payments to postmasters will reduce over time because postmasters are paid according to the number of transactions. We must be conscious of this.
The Deputy also mentioned community welfare officers and the closing of clinics. I will be happy to discuss that issue with him at a later stage. My information is that in the areas in which offices were closed the level of usage was low. Community welfare officers are available on the telephone and will call to people on appointment, especially in rural areas. The Deputy referred to the lack of staff in Longford. We must best utilise the staff we have and I will be quite happy to discuss the issue with him later. Community welfare officers are a resource and we must maximise their use. We have facilitated a telephone or call-out service where clinics close locally.
A number of Deputies referred to appeals. Deputy Willie O'Dea published a Private Members' Bill dealing with the issue. We have reduced considerably the length of time involved. One of the points that prolongs the appeal mechanisms is that at every stage the applicant is entitled to provide additional information. I would not like to change the system because the applicant should be entitled to do so at every stage. Our colleagues overseas do not allow this facility and I would hate to go down that route. We must continuously improve the length of time it takes to complete appeals.
Many Deputies referred to small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurs. Deputy Mattie McGrath referred to the gaining of social welfare allowances should a company go bankrupt. In principle, I have no problem with entrepreneurs or the owners of small and medium-sized enterprises being able to draw down unemployment benefit, but they must contribute at the same rate as everyone else. They contribute at a lower rate of PRSI and it cannot be done on a voluntary basis because it would have to be universal. Further studies must be carried out.
Deputies Peadar Tóibín and Sean Crowe referred to low pay and zero hour contracts. While the Bill does not deal specifically with that topic, the Low Pay Commission has been set up and will report very quickly to the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash. It is expected that we will receive the first report early in the summer. It is much better that it is focused. The Labour Party and Fine Gael restored the €1 reduction Fianna Fáil had taken off the minimum wage. I am proud that the Labour Party was able to do this and influence it at an early stage in the life of the Government. There is a need to increase the minimum wage and the Low Pay Commission will probably make similar findings.
The Deputy is very good at sitting on the fence and making criticisms. On very few occasions have I heard anything constructive from him, whereas I can point to many Deputies on various sides who make contributions in a positive manner. Perhaps my hearing is fading, but I have never heard positive suggestions from the Deputy. I am sure he will correct me at some stage.
- Tom Barry
- Richard Bruton
- Joan Burton
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- Jerry Buttimer
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- Emmet Stagg
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- Joanna Tuffy
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- Joan Collins
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- Catherine Murphy
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- Denis Naughten
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- Willie O'Dea
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- Shane Ross
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