Thursday, 10 November 2016
Social Welfare Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
A number of social welfare issues have a major impact on people's lives. One which has been to the forefront in the lives of many people in my constituency is the plight of self-employed people and the fact they get very little out of the PRSI they pay, except when they come to the end of their working days and are entitled to pensions. Many people who have fallen on hard times or have fallen ill need to have a proper PRSI package in place in order to ensure they can avail of various services. While we have gone some distance on that, the system is nowhere near where it needs to be.
I refer to the various programmes in place for people in receipt of jobseeker's benefit or allowance. A woman in my constituency came to see me recently. She is separated and is 62 years of age. She was on a Tús scheme for a year. When she finished it she was delighted because she was working every day in her community and was involved in the tidy towns committee, such as planting flowers and painting. She loved her work and wanted to continue doing that. She had hoped when this work had finished that she would be able to go onto a community employment scheme. She was about to be accepted onto one, when she received a letter from JobPath. The shutters came down and she is unable to go anywhere else. The truth is there are very few jobs for anyone in rural County Leitrim, particularly for those who are 62 years of age.
A woman in her early 60s is in a similar situation. She lives in a rural area and does not drive. For the past number of years she has looked after her elderly parents and now that they have passed away she has been refused disability allowance, despite being in poor health. She ended up in receipt of jobseeker's allowance and received a letter from JobPath telling her to go to Carrick-on-Shannon twice a week. It is almost 40 miles away from where she lives and she cannot drive. She is expected to write CVs and prepare for jobs that do not exist. The scheme is totally out of kilter with reality.
A man in his mid-50s runs a small farm and is in receipt of farm assist. He is in a similar situation, in that having completed a scheme he hoped to get onto another community employment scheme. Such schemes are in place for people in rural Ireland, fit into their lifestyles and are very progressive. The man to whom I refer has a low level of educational attainment but now finds that he is expected to work on computers and learn how to write CVs.
I struggled with these situations and phoned Seetec, the company which runs the programme in our area. It was like beating my head off a brick wall. It is a private company which has been hired by the State to carry out the service. It is simply a means of humiliating, putting to one side and dehumanising people. It is totally wrong.
I went to see a film, "I, Daniel Blake", yesterday. It is based on the social welfare system in Britain. Everything I have been told by the people in my constituency was in the film. It is about a man who lost his job as a carpenter and entered a system that was designed to dehumanise and frustrate him at every turn. It is never good to tell anyone the end of a film, but the man dies from despair. That is the reality of the situation. The film was symbolic of our system. We have copied a model which has failed in Britain. We are privatising what is supposed to be a service for people. It is the most retrograde step in the social welfare system of the past number of years. We have developed a model to destroy people's lives.
Every Deputy has examples of people in a similar position to those to whom I referred and have come up against the machine of Seetec and JobPath. It is a machine that blocks, wears down, destroys and dehumanises people. In the past, many references were made to raging against the machine. We need to rage against this machine. I implore the Minister and the Government to rethink their position. Other schemes were recognised as failures. This is another scheme which simply does not work and needs to be taken asunder.
The reality is that there are no jobs for an awful lot of people in my constituency. There are certainly no jobs for people in the later years of life who need assistance. They find that the current system is blocking, frustrating and destroying their lives. It is time that, above all else, this scheme was eliminated. A vast amount of taxpayers' money has been used to employ a company to run a scheme which simply does not work. It is time to recognise that at an early stage and dismantle it immediately.
I concur with Deputy Kenny. JobPath is shambolic. It is destroying our people and it needs to be put to an end as soon as possible.
I am very disappointed that the Social Welfare Bill makes no attempt to address the spiralling cost of sending children back to school. It is an issue which has been raised in the House for many years. A 2013 report on tackling back to school costs is still sitting on a shelf. We need action on this issue. Every year it affects thousands of households across the State, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It makes a mockery of our so-called free education system. The Bill provides no assistance to those families. It does not increase the back to school clothing and footwear allowance that was slashed under previous Governments. It does not increase funding for the school book grant scheme, despite evidence that one third of secondary schools in the State do not provide a school book rental scheme. I welcome the €3 million increase in the school meals programme. However, this is insufficient to increase the service to the level that is required.
I welcome the recent announcement that jobseekers under 26 years of age will receive the full rate of the back to education allowance, but this is long overdue. I am glad the Government has finally seen sense and has taken action on this issue.
The Government had options.
In its alternative budget Sinn Féin set out an increase of €50 per child in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, an increase of 30% in the school meals programme and an increase of 40% in school book grant funding, but the Government did precious little to assist children from disadvantaged backgrounds to access their constitutional right to an education. My party cannot stand over this.
There are differing views on the budget, but its biggest failure was that there was no attempt to address areas in society such as health, education and housing that clearly were broken. Spreading a few euro here and there does not address them. The same applies to the Social Welfare Bill which we are discussing. Budget 2017 failed to tackle poverty and the inequalities throughout society. It failed to bring about fairness and address in a meaningful way those trapped in poverty. While some elements of the Bill are welcome, in its present form, it does not do anything to address the inequalities inherent in society. That is the big weakness of the Bill. The budget further marginalised young people, lone parents and those who lived alone and had no vision to move people from being dependent on social welfare payments towards education or meaningful jobs.
Older people living alone are among the most vulnerable in society and many of them rely on the State pension. They face unique pressures because of their limited incomes. For instance, increased prescription charges are a huge burden, yet the Government and Fianna Fáil seem to think a simple pension increase of €5 per week will resolve the difficulties they face. These are the people who, in many cases, worked all their lives to bring about and support the society we have today.
The Bill fails to address the significant inconsistencies in the pension system. In Ireland there is a 35% gender pension gap. There is something wrong with the system and it is not solely the result of different wage levels. There was a marriage bar that affected women. There are also those who were involved in child rearing or took a caring role in the home. This impacts on many of those who attend my advice centre. Other changes introduced by the previous Government and the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, a Labour Party Minister, are also having a negative impact on those applying for pensions. A person was able to receive a pension when he or she had 260 contributions, but now 520 are required. A caller to my advice centre told me that she had started work at 13 years of age and worked until pension age, but there were gaps in her employment history. Some of these gaps were used to rear children and look after someone at home, but they now mean that she is being told she is not entitled to a full contributory pension. Then there are those who started work much later in their lives. They may have stayed at school for longer. Their work history is minuscule compared to that of others, yet they are in receipt of a higher pension payment. The argument is made that this is to protect the State, but the system is inherently wrong and unfair.
As Deputies, we are all aware that there is an added difficulty for those who reach 65 years of age. In many cases, for contractual reasons, they have to retire at 65 years of age, but they must be 66 to receive the pension. For the first time in their lives, many of them are being forced to sign on for a year. Anyone who has advocated for senior citizens has argued that the system needs to change and that we should not be forcing the people concerned into community employment schemes or onto the dole. It is undignified for those who have worked all their lives to be pressurised into doing this. There has been no attempt to address this difficulty.
Fuel poverty is a serious problem faced by the country. I am acutely aware, as we go through a considerable cold spell, that 28% of households throughout the State experience fuel poverty. Ireland has one of the highest levels of excess winter mortality in Europe. People in this country are dying from the cold, yet there was no attempt in the budget to address the problem. People are freezing to death in their homes in the 21st century. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, yet some citizens are dying from the cold and budget 2017 did not attempt to address the problem.
Budgets are about choices and the Government had fairer options. In its alternative budget Sinn Féin proposed an older persons' package which would have been worth more than €410 million and provided for a three week extension to the fuel allowance scheme, a €9.50 increase in the living alone allowance and the reinstatement of the transitional pension for those aged 65 years of age, as well as further measures to address the inconsistencies within the pension system. People only become aware of the difficulties when they apply for their entitlements. The Government should amend the Bill because the House needs to address the huge difficulties which are being experienced every day.
Constituents have to wait staggering lengths of time for benefit claims to be processed. One constituent had to wait more than eight months to be awarded carer's allowance. She needed to give up work to look after her father who had bowel cancer and she faced severe financial difficulties as a result of the long delay. Another caller to my office had waited more than six months for a non-contributory pension claim to be assessed. A reply to a freedom of information request I had submitted stated the average waiting time for a carer's allowance claim to be processed was 40 weeks. That is totally unacceptable. The reply also stated the overall waiting times for other benefits included 27 weeks for a non-contributory State pension claim to be processed and 21 weeks for an invalidity pension claim to be assessed. At a time when people are most in need and may be drained emotionally and, in many cases, financially, the State is failing them by their having to wait unreasonable lengths of time to receive their entitlements. I call on the Minister for Social Protection to instigate an investigation into the unacceptable delays and to increase resources in order that claims can be dealt with more efficiently and within a more acceptable timeframe.
Waiting times for some carer's allowance applications are scandalous and unacceptable. Something needs to be done to address the problem and this will require more resources. The Bill does not address the difficulties many of those in receipt of social welfare payments face. In addition, there are no pathways available to those who are trying to access the system.
I propose to share time with Deputies Aindrias Moynihan and Fiona O'Loughlin.
Under the confidence and supply arrangement agreed by the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties, my party secured a commitment that available resources will be allocated on the basis of a ratio of at least 2:1 in favour of public expenditure over tax cuts. This ratio has been exceeded in budget 2017, with a 3:1 split between spending on services and investment in citizens, on the one hand, and reduced taxation, on the other.
The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has demonstrated that the least well-off will benefit most from budget 2017 in proportional terms. That being said, the gains arising from the budget are modest and nobody will be substantially better off as a result of it.
The budget and Social Welfare Bill provide for an increase of €5 per week to core welfare payments. The Fianna Fáil Party secured agreement on increases to the State pension in the confidence and supply arrangement. We welcome the increases in weekly welfare payments to carers, the disabled, lone parents and the unemployed. It is imperative that the benefits of a growing economy and improving public finances are distributed to all those who depend on the State for a significant proportion of their income needs. Excluding the State pension, this is the first increase in weekly welfare rates since 2009 and it will go some way towards ensuring the social welfare payments these groups depend on to maintain their income keep pace with the modest inflation which has occurred in the past seven years.
A core objective of social welfare payments is to provide recipients with a minimally adequate standard of living in the context of that which prevails in society as a whole. Therefore, subject to the continued improvement of the economy and public finances, we should aim to ensure the relative position of welfare recipients keeps pace with increases in average earnings in future.
Fianna Fáil also welcomes the increase in the Christmas bonus to 85% of a person’s weekly social welfare payment. This will assist individuals and families in receipt of long-term social welfare supports with the additional costs of Christmas expenditure.
On the free travel scheme, in June 2014, Age Action Ireland felt compelled to launch a campaign under the slogan "Hands off our free travel pass". A working group comprised of representatives of the National Transport Authority, Department of Social Protection and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform wanted savings to be made to the scheme. Options considered included a restriction on the hours of use of the free travel pass, the imposition of a small subscription charge and the introduction of restrictions on the use of one mode of transport. Thankfully, nothing came of these deliberations in budget 2015. Nevertheless, pressure from civil servants and others to modify the free travel scheme will continue and we must be vigilant in that regard.
While the free travel pass is a small benefit, it has a significant impact on the lives of elderly people. It allows them to get out of the house, travel to all parts of the country and engage in social activities. It does more than anything else to combat social isolation. The scheme's effects were revolutionary when it was first introduced and it should not be touched. All Deputies should support Age Action Ireland when it proclaims, "Hands off our free travel scheme".
Community Law and Mediation, formally the Northside Community Law Centre, is an independent community based organisation that works to empower individuals experiencing disadvantage by providing free legal representation, education and mediation services to the community. At a national level, the organisation seeks to have a wider impact through its campaigns for law reform and by acting as a resource for other advocacy organisations. Community Law and Mediation is part-funded by the Department of Social Protection and this funding from the Department regularly comes under threat. The Minister will launch the organisation's annual report on 30 November 2016. Its funding should be maintained and increased because it provides an invaluable service.
One key area for which the Social Welfare Bill does not make provision is the need to increase equality of access to the contributory State pension for a considerable cohort of women. A number of women have been in contact with me in recent months highlighting their inability to access the full State pension. Under an anomaly in the system, a woman who exited the workforce prior to 1994 to look after her children or a relative is not entitled to disregard years spent outside the workforce when her social insurance record is being calculated for pension purposes. The effect of this is that many of the women who took time out of the workforce prior to 1994 may not have sufficient contributions to access the full State pension. In contrast, those who have left the workforce since 1994 to raise a family or care for a relative are entitled, under the homemaker’s scheme, to have up to 20 years of time spent in the home disregarded when it comes to calculating their yearly average social insurance contribution, thus making it easier to qualify for the full pension.
The Government should move towards a position in which women who exited the workforce prior to 1994 have the same pension rights as those who currently benefit under the homemaker’s scheme. A concerted effort to end the unfair treatment these women experience would make a strong statement that this country values the social contribution of everyone who took time out of work to care for their family. It is essential that future budgets move to ensure that women who have taken time out of the workforce to care for children or a sick or elderly family member are not penalised when it comes to calculating their entitlement to the contributory State pension.
Through our responsible approach to Government formation, Fianna Fáil has achieved a greater emphasis on fairness and improving public services after years of underinvestment. While we have experienced a considerable improvement in our economic fortunes in the past three years, a sustained commitment in future budgets is required to guarantee a social recovery for all of our people.
The Social Welfare Bill has been tabled by a Fine Gael-Independent coalition Government. While the budget was not a Fianna Fáil document, my party did not sat on the fence but instead played an active Opposition role and influenced the budget from the outside. After five years of harsh, punitive and regressive budgets under the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, we are finally beginning to see an element of fairness restored in the social welfare system as a result of this Fianna Fáil influence.
While the steps taken in the Bill are small, they are moving in the right direction. The Government is changing the direction in which it and its predecessor were moving and it is being forced to reverse some previous cuts. I understand, for example, that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, acknowledged that this is the first socially just budget in years.
Increasing the pension was a key commitment in the Fianna Fáil Party manifesto. Our aim is to increase the payment by €30 over the five-year term of the Government. This increase has been provided for in the confidence and supply arrangement agreed earlier this year. The increase of €5 in the pension is a small step in the right direction and a positive move.
Despite claims to the contrary, older people were not protected in the five regressive budgets introduced by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government.
They suffered cuts to secondary benefits such as the electricity and telephone allowances, with increased taxes, including property and other charges such as house insurance, while their incomes were capped.
While the budget is a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done. Of those aged 65 years and over, 10.3% are at risk of poverty, while 14.3% experience deprivation. A source of major concern is the contributory pension as a result of changes in banding introduced by the previous Government in 2012. They introduced age discrimination and an unfair cut for those with reduced pension contributions. Two people with the same reduced number of pension contributions could receive different pension payments if one of them had retired before 2012. Take, for example, the case of two people who had made 28 contributions. The person who retired before 2012 received a pension of €225, whereas the younger person who retired after that year received €196, or over €35 a week less for each week of his or her life. That is a significant difference, despite both of them making the same number of contributions. Many people, especially women, had a reduced number of pension contributions because they were in the home looking after children or caring for a elderly family relative. Owing to the way the banding was changed in 2012, they have seen their pension entitlements significantly reduced.
The home carer allowance only extends back to 1994 and is payable in respect of children under 12 years. This issue needs to be addressed. When I raised it recently with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, he told me he would have to take into consideration the number of winners and losers before any change could be made. Right now everybody is losing and the issue needs to be tackled sooner rather than later.
Another aspect of the pension system that needs to be addressed is the situation of those who are forced to retire at 65 years of age but who cannot receive their pension for a further year. They have to sign on for jobseeker's benefit for the year, which means that they will be on a reduced payment of €188. If that is not bad enough, many of those affected have highlighted to me that they have to claim to be searching for work when they are not. They just want to get on with their retirement. While all of the improvements will not happen in one go, they need to be tackled in the forthcoming year.
The improved Christmas bonus is a positive step, especially at what is an expensive time for families. The at-risk poverty rate in rural areas is 19.1 %, almost five percentage points higher than in urban areas, where the rate stands at 14.6%. Changes to the farm assist scheme introduced by the previous Government in the budgets for 2012 and 2013 saw the figures in the assessment of means from farming raised, while the disregards for children were halved and then discontinued. The Bill rows back to the position before 2012, a move I welcome. Income from farming and off-farm self-employment will now be assessed at a figure of 70%, down from 100%, with an annual disregard of €254 for each of the first two children and €381 for the third and subsequent children. This is a welcome move which will benefit many farm families in north-west Cork.
We need to see further improvements in the provision of social welfare services. Unfortunately, in my area service provision is being restricted. Due to departmental retirements, those accessing social welfare services in Macroom and the wider Lee Valley area have a reduced service, available three days a week in a small office in which one could not swing a cat. These changes in the service could have been foreseen and dealt with for the benefit of people living in the wider Macroom area. The Department of Social Protection has been engaged in a continuous service delivery improvement programme, the aim of which is to provide a high quality and proactive service for customers. "Proactive" means moving first. When the Department knows that personnel are due to retire, it should be able to put in place adequate replacements and provide temporary services for the people of Macroom rather than waiting until the last minute, reacting and leaving people with a service that is not adequate.
I concur with many of the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Deputy Aindrias Moynihan. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, maintains budget 2017 is the first socially just budget in years. However, he needs to redress the wrongs many retired persons or individuals who are due to retire are experiencing because of previous budget measures. Many of them have been adversely affected by the anomaly in how entitlement to the State contributory pension is calculated. I have been presented with a large number of cases where individuals, all women, have been penalised for having made a small number of PRSI payments during what effectively amounted to a previous working life before 1994. They took time out of their working lives to rear their families or look after elderly parents, essentially peforming important social caring duties to the benefit of society. Having spent a great portion of their lives in providing these socially vital services, they are now being penalised on the double. Not only have they secured no private pension entitlements for this period of their lives, they are being denied a full State pension. While I welcome the €5 increase in the State pension, many will only receive a portion of it because of the discriminatory method of calculation. Clearly, this must change. It is clearly unfair and requires urgent action. It would certainly move the budget in a more just direction.
I was disappointed that the back to school clothing and footwear allowance was not increased. This payment was ravaged by the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government and is wholly inadequate to cover back to school costs. The previous Government halved the allowance which is a vital payment for low-income parents in meeting back to school costs. Budget 2017 did not offer any relief to parents with back to school costs. Some 42% of parents who answered the 2016 Barnardos back to school costs survey told how they had to forgo paying household bills or cut back on daily expenses to afford their child's school costs. This lack of foresight for young families deprives many of the equality all children deserve to achieve their potential and contribute to a strong community and economy. I have also been asked by constituents to address the collateral effects of the reduced allowance. Many school suppliers are being put in a difficult position in trying to produce uniforms for schools that come in under the inadequate allowance.
It is disappointing that the budget failed to address the introduction of a cost of disability payment in recognition of the higher costs faced by those with a disability. This was a central plank of Fianna Fáil's disability policy in its manifesto. It would have been a welcome measure in the budget.
The family income supplement thresholds were not increased in line with the increases in the national minimum wage and reductions in the universal social charge. Consequently, the full benefits of the increase in the national minimum wage will not be felt by households with children.
I have two points on older people. Although I welcome the €5 increase in the old age pension, it is a shame that the budget did not increase the living alone allowance to acknowledge the higher costs faced by those who live alone. Independent research has consistently highlighted the additional costs faced by those living alone and reliant on one income or State support. A one-person household generally faces the same heating, electricity and home insurance costs as a two-person household. There is a considerable inadequacy in this regard that needs to be examined.
Budget 2017 did not increase the fuel allowance, the period for which was cut from 32 weeks to 26 weeks by the previous Government. While the cost of energy decreased in 2016, it remains 16.7%, on average, above the level of 2010. Not addressing the reduced purchasing power of the fuel allowance leaves long-term social-welfare-dependent households particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty, particularly as we face into a tough and harsh winter.