Wednesday, 20 September 2017
Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017: Second Stage (Resumed)
Is ceist phráinneach í seo. Molaim an Bille. Tá gach duine ar gach taobh den Dáil i bhfabhar an méid atá ann. We are fully behind this Bill and it has cross-party support. It addresses a significant problem that could arise and has arisen in some cases.
One of the provisions of this Bill will prevent employers stopping contributions to a pension scheme for a period of 12 months. Until the legislation is passed, there is nothing to prevent employers from abandoning schemes with no notice or minimum notice to the scheme trustees, regardless of the financial position of the scheme or the damage to scheme members' pensions. That is why this Bill is urgent, important and necessary. It will allow time, which I understand will be a 12-month period, within which discussions, consultations and negotiations can take place so that there will be a better outcome, in particular for those who paid into pensions for a significant period of time. Closing off that loophole is hugely important.
The Bill also gives power to the Pensions Authority to impose an obligation on employers to resolve pension scheme funding problems where there is no plan in place to so do. This must be done if schemes are to make their way back to a healthy position where they can pay members benefits. Obviously as people get older their health does not necessarily improve and they look forward to their pension entitlements and the security of their old age. That is what they are entitled to and that is what this legislation is supporting and making sure that, if anything acts against them in relation to their employer, the Government will take the necessary steps to ensure fair play. It also contains a provision that will allow civil partners and same sex spouses who are members of occupational schemes with marriage age rules to obtain a spouse's pension in certain circumstances and there is, again, broad support for that.
I welcome the interest that the new Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, has shown in her brief and her willingness to listen to Deputies from all sides of the House. I would like the Minister to listen to the voice of a constituent of mine, a female farmer, regarding pension equality for women. She wrote setting out her concerns about the inequality and injustice experienced by women farmers and, indeed, many women within the current pension system. Many women farmers are facing an old age in poverty because the State still fails to recognise their work as unpaid carers for both the families they have raised and for other relatives. Many more are still disadvantaged by the historic legacy of the marriage bar which barred people from working in the past. She says that the gender pension gap, which measures the gap between the value of pension payments to women and to men, is 37%. It is the fifth-widest pension gap in the EU. As our economy is improving and as more money is available, this significant inequality needs to be addressed, in particular for women. It is clear the current averaging system discriminates against women in particular who may have worked within the PAYE system for a number of years and then left due to the marriage bar, to raise a family or to care for an older relative and returned to insurable employment in later years. My constituent calls on the Government to address past injustices for Irish women at or near pension age by introducing a total contribution system in 2018 for the purposes of calculating the level of contributory pension. In addition, the pension scheme must recognise the significant and crucially important role that women play in providing unpaid care. Men also fulfil that role, and all Members know of such people in their constituencies.
When pension contributions start is determined by the age of entry to work. If one starts work at the age of 18, one's period of work until the age of 66 is much longer than that of a person who begins work at 30 or 40 years of age. However, if, having started work at 18, one leaves work for ten years to look after one's family or for whatever good reason, one is at a disadvantage compared to other people. I am sure the Minister is knowledgeable of this area, as are all Members. We need to take steps to close the gap and ensure that women in particular, and also some men, do not continue to be disadvantaged.
Contributions were changed in approximately 2012 when the country was in very difficult economic circumstances. One previously could get a pension equivalent to 98% for the yearly average of 21 stamps but that was changed to 85% without any notice whatsoever, which was unfair and unjust. That needs to be addressed because many people in that situation, women in particular, are at a significant loss of at least €40 per week, which is unfair and unacceptable as the economy improves. I was on the side of the Government at that time. I acknowledge that very difficult decisions had to be made. We must now start to address those inequalities.
There is another inequality with which I wish to deal. I thank the Minister for listening to this case and for the interest she and her staff have shown in relation to carer's allowance, which is an entitlement that only goes to those who look after family members or those in their community who are significantly ill and need full-time care and attention and need this allowance to help them cope with the cost and the effort they put in to caring for their relative. The case that has come to my attention involves a child who has been in an intensive care unit in a Dublin children's hospital for six months because the child is very ill. Thankfully, the child's condition has improved. Once the child had been in the intensive care unit for 13 weeks, the Department cut the carer's allowance of the child's carer.
It cuts the carer's allowance because the regulations governing the allowance state that if the person being cared for is in institutional care, which is understandable, or in an acute hospital setting, the carer loses the allowance. For a person from the country to have a seriously ill child in intensive care in a Dublin hospital is a cause of huge emotional and personal trauma. It is a trauma for the child, the family and indeed the whole town of Drogheda which supports this case. How is the injustice righted? If somebody spends 13 weeks in an acute hospital their carer should not lose their allowance. That bar should be removed from that family. That is fair and reasonable. I have not yet tabled a question to find out how many people have suffered in this way but I have discussed it with the Minister. I acknowledge her understanding and appreciation of the situation. It must and should be addressed in the next budget.
There is a human reason: the lives of people caring for family members who are in intensive care are turned upside down. They have to travel more and spend money on meals they would not normally have to buy. They are put at a huge financial and emotional disadvantage. In the case I have raised the community welfare officer, CWO, assisted but why should somebody have to go to a CWO to get something he or she should be entitled to? If the child or adult who was in intensive care had been in long-term care the barrier as defined to me would be understandable but not when he or she is in a life-threatening situation and need acute hospital care.
I acknowledge the cut we made in the telephone allowance but it is having a serious adverse impact on services for those entitled to it. Those people would not make many calls and one might ask why they could not use their mobile phone but most of the assistance services operate from a landline. We did not appreciate the stress this cut would cause people. Of all the issues we can address that is one the Minister could consider in the next budget.
The economy is improving. There is more money available in this republic of opportunity and I welcome that in the context of tax relief. We need, however, to address the hurt visited on people who could not get up early in the morning because they were sick and on pensioners who did not have the capacity to work. When we decided in 2012 to change the requirements for the 98% pension entitlement that affected a defined number of people who could not go back to work for the period that was left to qualify because they would have reached the age of 66. The Minister should consider restoring the years which people could not avail of because that came out of the blue in 2012. Someone who was aged 64 then could not possibly address the deficit he or she faced going into their golden years, unlike someone who was aged 50 or 55 at the time.
I welcome the work the Minister is doing, her interest, knowledge and concern, which percolates through her office and staff. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is always extremely helpful. The staff available on telephone hotlines to give information and help clarify an entitlement are extremely well trained and committed to helping people. They are a beacon for how Civil Service, local government and all State services should be delivered. The service is humane, person-centred, knowledge-based and easily accessible.
This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate the Minister on her appointment. The purpose of this Bill is to provide for amendments to the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, the Pensions Act 1990 and the Civil Registration Act 2004. Fianna Fáil does not intend to oppose the Bill on Second Stage. One of the main provisions of the Bill is to amend the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 to allow for the publication on a quarterly basis of the names and addresses of persons convicted of social welfare fraud. This made the news earlier in the year. Fianna Fáil does not condone welfare fraud in any shape or form but it will not condone the perception created by the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Social Protection in launching his "welfare cheats cheat us all" campaign that there is widespread social welfare fraud. Most of those in receipt of social welfare payments, as all public representatives know, are genuine claimants. Fianna Fáil will table an amendment to this Bill to ensure that only those convicted of social welfare fraud in excess of €5,000 will have their names published.
Earlier in the year when the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, launched his campaign to much fanfare he stated that anti-fraud and control measures saved the taxpayer €506 million in 2016, a staggering sum of money. It would be particularly staggering if fraud was involved. We know however from answers secured through parliamentary questions from Fianna Fáil that just 8%, only €41 million, of the €506 million savings claimed by the then Minister is actually attributable to fraud. There is no place for fraud in our social protection system. It needs to be weeded out and it can never be condoned. As we know, however, there is a significant body of research available to the Department and the Minister, as there was to her predecessor, on the difference between fraud and error, deliberate or accidental. I imagine that the complexity of the social protection system can lead to multiple genuine errors and I have a great deal of experience of dealing with that on behalf of constituents. It is not always deliberate and I trust the Department to know the difference between the two. We need to get around that kind of misrepresentation, the headline issue, the impression given when the Minister mentioned a figure of half a billion euro that there is widespread fraud, whereas the fraud amounted to only 8% of that headline figure. It created the impression of the Department and Minister as gamekeepers, trying to catch people out whereas the role of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is to support people who need the State's assistance, generally at vulnerable times in their lives.
Yes, we need to crack down on fraud and ensure that the State's funds are used to support those who genuinely need help but we do not need to make a political virtue out of scapegoating an entire section of society.
The legislation on public service cards that exercised the Minister's mind during the summer is an interesting matter. I had sympathy for the Minster. It happened during the so-called silly season and significant media attention was focused on it but it is something on which we need to spend some time. We are not wholly opposed to the legislation but we are cognisant that there is widespread opposition to the introduction of a compulsory identity card and we will seek reassurances from the Minister that the questions raised by the Data Protection Commissioner will be fully addressed and there will be full transparency on how the data is collected, secured, who has access to it and whether it is shared with third parties, organisations or other State bodies. That is critical. Personally, the idea of a national identity card does not present any issue for me. In the age in which we live it is a very useful thing, but when one delves into the matter, it is not a simple identity card with basic details, and people need to know what personal information it holds and who has access to it. These are basic questions.
I accept the card has been in operation for those who require social protection services since 2011 and this is not the first time that a national identity card was mooted. In 2009, a report by the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs recommended the introduction of a national identity card to coincide with the development of a public services card. I accept it is not a national identity card. This is where some of the confusion needs to be clarified. I have not got mine yet. I keep meeting people who have them and I am intrigued as to why they have theirs and I do not but I assume that over time we will all have one and it will become an identity card by stealth.
The use of biometric data being incorporated into the public services card in order to eliminate the possibility of fraud and to improve the efficiency of public services is bound to bring matters of personal rights, such as the right to privacy and personal liberty, into sharp focus so it is essential that both Houses are given the opportunity to debate it and consider the human rights and-or data protection implications of introducing such a system and particularly if it is extended to being a national identity card.
There are advantages. There are plausible arguments for and against this but many will vigorously challenge the possible infringements on a person's privacy. We, as legislators, must determine if the concept of mandatory cards challenges the inalienable right to individual privacy which is protected by the Constitution.
The Bill also provides for a number of amendments to the Pensions Act 1990 in relation to defined benefit pension schemes and I welcome this. During the Minister's speech introducing this Bill on Second Stage, she indicated that she would introduce amendments to the legislation pertaining to that section of the Bill on Committee Stage. This issue is particularly complex, with significant implications for employers and employees. However, given recent events relating to the closure of defined benefit pension schemes, it is clear that more needs to be done to prevent solvent companies from walking away, leaving employees who had an expectation of a reasonable income in retirement high and dry. In recognition of the problems we have witnessed with defined benefit pension schemes, where solvent and profitable companies walk away from their obligations, Fianna Fáil has brought forward a Bill which has gone through Second Stage and has been referred to the Select Committee on Social Protection to amend the Pensions Act 1990 which would provide for an appeals mechanism where a pension scheme is being wound up by the trustees of that scheme.
We need to have a serious debate on pension provision in Ireland. Deputy O'Dowd referred to this earlier where we have a situation where many people, mainly women, are being denied a full State pension on retirement. There is not an estate in my constituency, and I am sure it is the same in the Minister's, where one does not meet at least one woman who has suffered this predicament, having taken time out of service, in most cases to raise a family, she is denied the full pension. We also have a situation where people are being forced to retire at 65 years but cannot access their entitlements to a State pension until they are 66 years. We have what has often been described as the pensions crisis where the rate of supplementary pension coverage in Ireland is estimated at just above one third of the working population when the private sector is considered in isolation. Fine Gael has been in office for six years and it is well past time that this was addressed. We would welcome the opportunity to address this in the House.
The Minister mentioned a number of provisions in the Bill. I welcome that in the quarterly publication of those who have committed fraud the names of those who appeal successfully are not published. On some of the administrative changes, the Minister has had a few weeks to mull over the difference between mandatory and compulsory and I look forward to hearing her clarification on this as will the public. The Minister's remarks caused confusion among people who cannot see much of a difference between mandatory and compulsory, and her response seemed to imply that there was one. Anything I have experienced which was mandatory seemed compulsory.
Welfare fraud plays a significant part in the Bill. The press release which accompanied the publication of the general scheme of the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill stated that while the outcomes of individual prosecutions for welfare fraud are covered routinely in local and national media, the publication of a list in this way will send a stronger message to the number of people who are prepared to risk defrauding the welfare system and their fellow citizens. I deliberately left the word "small" out when I read this sentence in terms of the number of people who are prepared to risk defrauding the welfare system.
I have had experience, particularly in the last eight or nine months, of vulnerable people, elderly people and not-so-elderly people who, having applied for services from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection have had an unannounced call to the house. I understand why the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection does this, and it does so quite regularly, but it really frightens people. It intimidates many people and unsettles and distresses people who are already on the back foot. They do not know why the person has called. I have written to the Minister on this subject and she was generous and sensitive in her responses but it happens. If a social protection official arrived at my house unannounced my natural reaction would be to wonder what I had done wrong. It has to be handled sensitively. I also recognise that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection officers are handling taxpayers' money and I appreciate that but there must be sensitivity.
When we talk about fraud the context of the size of the Department's budget must always be considered. It accounts for one third of the entire public expenditure which is €58 billion. The figure for fraud amounts to €41 million. If one does a very rough and crude calculation, that means there is €20 fraud for every €29,000 spent by the Department.
The level of fraud, relatively speaking, is minute in regard to the budget. To be correct, the Minister has one third of the overall State budget.
I wish to speak on the difference between fraud and error. We have fraud and corruption, which are intentional, and we have customer and official error. It would be very helpful in the debate on this if the Minister could categorise what is intentional and corrupt and break down the amounts with regard to the figures on customer error and errors on the official side, as they have been included in the savings. The Minister may not be in a position to do so now, but she may be able to at some point in the debate. There is a significant difference between fraud and error.
Moving into the various categories, how many examples of deliberate customer dishonesty are there, in terms of undeclared income or failing to report changes in material circumstances? How many deliberate attempts at exploiting the system arise from year to year? It would be helpful to know not just the monetary figures but the number of people involved. This should be set against the context of the complexity of the social protection system. Many people from various backgrounds find the social protection system difficult to navigate. It has nothing to do with their level of education, background, upbringing or environment. It can be very complex and people can make mistakes. A narrative on this would help. Available international research shows other errors. Errors can be caused because staff have excessive workloads and very simple administrative errors can happen. Errors can also arise because of the failure of a payment system or IT system, or problematic information management. We need to know far more about this, and perhaps the Minister can address these issues, to reassure people she is not acting as gamekeeper but that she wants to ensure people are protected. This is one of the reasons I made the points I did at the beginning of the debate, to which I will return. Claimant error is quite significant.
I would also like to know where is the fraud. Can it be broken down into particular categories? Is it predominantly in pensions? It does not seem to be, because internationally people over the age of 65 are least likely to commit fraud. Is it in income or employment supports? Is it with regard to illness, disabilities or in the area of carer's allowance? Does it concern children's payments or supplementary payments such as rent supplement?
The Minister will appreciate we are dealing with people who are in a vulnerable position, particularly new entrants to the social protection system. They can be at a new phase in their life, in terms of claiming the State contributory pension, but payments with regard to a disability, having lost a job or an illness benefit are related to a time in a person's life whey they are particularly vulnerable. This means we are dealing with the most vulnerable of people.
Perhaps I will table a parliamentary question on the system of departmental officers calling to people's homes and the rationale for this. People need to know about this and it needs to be explained to people that they can expect this, not as part of a systematic approach to fraud or error but as part of the process. The Department needs to call to a home to know people are real and exist and that they live at the address.
We support absolutely the concept of eliminating fraud from the system. We have demonstrated through parliamentary questions that the level of fraud in the system is quite minor, so only the names of those convicted of fraud in excess of €5,000 should be published on the register, and we would like the Minister to take this on board in her consideration.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I did not get a chance to speak before the summer recess. The Minister and her predecessor stated it was their intention to try to get the Bill passed before the summer recess. It was being pushed and rushed through, and at the last minute it was decided to stall the process and we are back here today. The social welfare Bill affords an opportunity for the Minister and the Government to address issues of concern in the social protection system. Certainly there is no shortage of issues to choose from in the social protection system.
The Bill before us is completely different from the general scheme of the Bill presented to us in pre-legislative scrutiny a number of months ago. I genuinely question the motives for this substantial difference. If the Bill before us was what came before us in pre-legislative scrutiny there would have been a totally different reaction to its content. After the contents of the Bill were broadly welcomed in pre-legislative scrutiny it was changed, and much of what was welcomed was subsequently removed without notice or notification. This certainly does not look like, and is not, new politics.
The glaringly obvious changes refer to the removal of a number of provisions regarding defined benefit pension schemes. It was the intention of the Minister, who has left the Chamber, to introduce amendments to this area of the Bill on Committee Stage because it was not possible, given the complexities involved, to have these amendments included earlier. I do not buy this. The issues regarding defined benefit schemes are not new. They were identified a number of years ago. They have been widely spoken about, debated and publicised. Issues on direct benefit schemes have been affecting employees for years. There is no excuse for these provisions not to be in place at this stage.
Any amendments to direct benefit schemes must tackle the root of the problem, which is healthy companies choosing to walk away from direct benefit schemes and choosing to renege on their pension obligations to employees. Timeframes are well and good but they do not deal with the substantive issue. They simply allow time to deliberate and debate when, in some cases, the direct benefit schemes simply should not be wound down or allowed to be wound down in the first instance. We can take Irish Life as an example of this. Its scheme has a huge surplus and has never been in deficit. It is moving to close the direct benefit scheme and move to a defined contribution scheme. This certainly raises serious alarm bells. Many other profitable companies are actively progressing to close down their direct benefit schemes.
The provisions in the Bill will do nothing for employees. It will not act in their interests and it will not protect their pensions. I ask the Minister who, unfortunately, is not here, to have a look at a Bill I introduced to the House in January when she is drafting her amendments.
I will be submitting my own amendments to reflect the Bill I introduced to the House.
This Bill consists of a number of tidy-up measures in various areas. I welcome some of those measures. I welcome, in particular, the changes being made for those in receipt of a disability allowance or the blind person's pension to remove the rule allowing the disregard of earnings only where employment is of a rehabilitative nature, as confirmed by the general practitioner. I note this is in line with the recommendations from the interdepartmental report Make Work Pay. I wholeheartedly welcome this move.
Another issue I want to raise concerns the provisions in the Bill on publishing the names of those convicted of so-called social welfare fraud. There has been a lot of talk about this issue, much of it brought on by the current Minister's predecessor at a very opportune time when he was going for election in his political party. As we know, that campaign, Welfare Cheats Us All, was based on all sorts of incorrect figures, offensive perceptions of jobseekers and calculations of savings based on assumptions. I do not want to get into the numerous flaws and inaccuracies in that campaign but there were certainly very many. It was very interesting to read some of the freedom of information material released to a journalist over the summer. It showed the concerns of senior officials in the Department on the use of language, the material and the figures. I and many others who saw this campaign for what it was saw the real motives behind it. It was not about dealing with fraud, which my party and I want to stamp out, be it in respect of social welfare or the white collar sector. There is substantially more fraud in the white collar area. It is not being tackled or dealt with, and there have been no high-profile campaigns initiated by the current Taoiseach or his predecessors.
The flaws in the campaign have been well highlighted and discussed. I wish to register my opposition to the publication of names, on the Department's website, of those who commit welfare fraud. The actual evidence shows it is minimal. First, there is no need for a second list of convictions. The data are already provided. There is no need for them to be duplicated. Second, I am concerned about possible data protection breaches if this legislation is to be passed. It is alleged the list will be left online for up to three months before being removed. There is no stopping it being copied and used elsewhere. Has the Data Protection Commissioner been consulted on the potential ramifications of such a measure? The Minister has previously said that the names published will relate only to welfare fraud in excess of €5,000, as put forward by her friends and colleagues in Fianna Fáil. Again, I see no need whatsoever for the duplication of this list.
On the public services card, regarding which there has been much confusion, largely brought about by the Minister herself through her use of language over the course of the summer, we are still awaiting clarification. There are numerous concerns raised by experts in the field, even including the Data Protection Commissioner and legal people. I wish to ask the Minister in her absence about the 49 questions submitted by the Data Protection Commissioner in regard to the public services card. They are critical because many of the concerns revolve around people’s personal data. It would be helpful if the Minister released and made public the 49 questions. More important, how will she respond to the serious concerns that were raised by the Data Protection Commissioner?
The provisions included suggest the card is a national identification card. I refer to the inscription of the date of birth and the confirmation of identity. Big questions have been raised by many about how all the personal information will be stored, who can access it and the legislative basis on which registering for the card is required. None of these questions has been answered. There has been no debate on any of this whatsoever. If this is an attempt to introduce a national identification card by stealth, it will be rigorously fought and opposed, certainly from these benches.
We have yet to see a comprehensive statement from the Government setting out in full the collective Government plan for the rolling out of the card and the legislative basis for its requirement across multiple Departments and agencies. It is ridiculous that we are still waiting for answers on these provisions, yet we are being asked to support this legislation.
In regard to enabling certain social welfare payments and benefits to be awarded online, can the Minister clarify exactly what payments and benefits are being referred to?With the domiciliary care allowance and the current waiting times in mind, I have written to the Minister. Unfortunately, I am still awaiting a reply on what action is being taken to deal with the matter. When we talk about the domiciliary care allowance, we are talking about the most vulnerable children in the State, those aged under 16 with a severe illness or disability. The current waiting time for the processing of the domiciliary care allowance is 20 weeks, or five months. I raised these concerns in May, at which time the waiting time was 18 weeks, which had jumped up from 15 weeks. I raised this with the current Minister’s predecessor, the now Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and asked him what measures would be put in place to tackle the serious delays in processing this critical allowance. It is very apparent that nothing has been done to tackle this issue because the waiting times are increasing. To me, that stinks. It is appalling that the most needy children in the State and their parents and families, all of whom need this payment, are left waiting for five months or more. I ask the Minister to revert to me, acknowledge the correspondence I sent to her and, more important, let me and the families who have been waiting for five months or more know what is being done to process the applications.
Having spoken to many families who are waiting and trying to obtain information on this, it now appears that the telephone lines for the domiciliary care allowance have been closed since last month, meaning that applicants can get no information whatsoever. There seems to be a shut-down of all systems. There is a blanket refusal to give any information to me or the families who have applied. Answers are needed, and they are needed straight away.
I listened to Deputy O’Dowd, who is not present at the moment, and found myself strangely nodding in agreement when he spoke about the inequality in our pensions system, particularly gender inequality.
We know that it was his Government which brought about that inequality, along with his cohorts in the Labour Party and the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, who made the changes to the PRSI bands in 2012 which have impacted mainly on women.
We know that since those changes were introduced in 2012 over 40,000 women have been directly impacted by the inequality measures. They are receiving reduced pensions. We know why that is the case. It is mainly women who take time out of their working lives to raise families, look after elderly family members and so on. I agree with Deputy O'Dowd that measures need to be put in place to change that.
Unfortunately, there is hypocrisy in the Chamber because Deputy O'Dowd, along with his colleagues in Fine Gael, voted against a motion my party brought forward in December 2016 to deal specifically with this issue which, as he rightly said, is affecting many women in the State. The motion would have brought about a change to the inequality which exists. Unfortunately, Deputy O'Dowd spoke out of one side of his mouth in the Chamber and did something completely different when he had an opportunity to do something.
The budget, which is coming up in the next number of weeks, provides another opportunity to address the matter. The current Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection acknowledged earlier that there is a serious problem, but said the Government does not have the money to deal with it. In the same breath, Fine Gael is able to talk about giving tax breaks to the wealthy in society who do not need them. It is able to create the perception that it cares about the women which its policies have directly affected. In our pre-budget submission last year, Sinn Féin showed that, using the same money the Government had at its disposal, we could bring forward measures to end inequality and reverse the bands that were introduced in 2012 which have directly impacted on over 40,000 women.
The National Women's Council of Ireland, Age Action Ireland and many other organisations have called for change over a sustained period of time. They called on Deputy O'Dowd and his colleagues in Fine Gael to support the Sinn Féin motion last December to end this inequality. That obviously fell on deaf ears.
I will conclude on a number of points. The Taoiseach said he wants to build a republic of opportunity. The Bill is an opportunity to deal with inequalities and issues across the social welfare spectrum which are having a negative impact. Unfortunately, the Bill, as presented to us, does not deal with those issues and is, essentially, a lost opportunity.
There are many issues within social protection and the provisions in the Bill ignore them. The Bill is about naming and shaming individuals and a useless and unnecessary public services card - even the Government is unsure as to its purpose.
There is nothing in the Bill to assist lone parents or young jobseekers who are discriminated against based on their age. There is nothing in the Bill to tackle the growing levels of child poverty which exist in the State. There is nothing in the Bill, as it currently stands, to deal with pensions, in particular defined benefit pension schemes which are being closed by profitable businesses as I outlined earlier.
The mantra coming from Fine Gael is that it wants to build a republic of opportunity. It should go back to the drawing board on that because it is presiding over something which is not a republic but, rather, a society of inequality.
Sinn Féin will bring forward a series of amendments when the Bill goes to Committee Stage to deal with all of the inequalities and issues around defined benefit pension schemes. We need to address those issues as soon as possible. Profitable companies are actively winding down defined benefit pension schemes as we speak.
The advertising campaign which lies behind this Bill blared, "Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All". It was designed to be a launch pad for the then Minister's successful dog whistle campaign for Taoiseach. The Bill gives backing to one of the most cruel and cynical attempts to whip up the idea that there is widespread welfare fraud and in doing so to create a cynical and self-serving narrative that would justify increased repressive measures against those who claim welfare payments as well as justifying cuts to welfare.
The Bill is not about welfare fraud. Rather, it is about portraying the then Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, as tough on welfare cheats and those who fail to get up early in the morning. People within his Department disagreed with him on the use of the word "cheats" and the figures on which his campaign was based were completely bogus. It referred to a supposed €500 million last year, when in reality the figure was just over €50 million, or one tenth of the figure, according to a fact check in the journal.ie. That is out of a total expenditure by the Department of €20 billion.
Former welfare fraud inspector, Bernadette Gorman, estimated the fraud level to be lower again at €41 million, which is in line with the Department’s fraud initiative report which found that the rate of fraud was 0.127%. Who is the cheat? Is it people who are in receipt of social welfare? I do not think so. I think it is the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and Fine Gael who are cheating. They were cheating in terms of the figures and cheating us all in terms of using public funds to have what was, in effect, a State-sponsored election campaign aimed at Fine Gael members which cost us over €200,000.
If one believed the propaganda one would think that the level of fraud is skyrocketing. However, the actual level of overpayments due to fraud has been declining in recent years. It was €41 million in 2016, €49 million in 2015 and €52 million 2014. The loss in State funds from overpayments is minimal and is largely due to genuine errors. The Department’s fraud initiative progress report backs up the theory that error rather than fraud is the main reason for overpayments.
Total overpayments for last year were €110 million, with customer error contributing €46.7 million to the amount. The Taoiseach and then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, said his Department recovered €82 million in overpayments last year. This shows that where mistakes happen people, in the main, pay back the money owed.
Let us contrast the massive resources and propaganda around the detection of welfare fraud with the resources put into detecting underpayment of tax by business. For example, of 385 audits on companies in 2013, additional liability was found in 77% of cases resulting in a total of almost €6 million. Revenue got €61 million from 276 of the 800 hospital consultants who were audited this year. Despite consistently bringing in large amounts of undeclared tax, Revenue’s risk-based audits have decreased 30% since 2012.
The criminalisation of the unemployed and the sick is graphically seen in a project currently under way in the Department to share data with the RSA in order to link car registration data with welfare records. It is an attempt to be able to set up Garda checkpoints, with Department officials on hand, to use driver licence data to check if a person is claiming benefits. It would be a scandal if this was allowed to continue. It has significant civil liberties implications, as does the public services card, and is a major waste of Department and Garda resources.
Another section of the Bill which Solidarity and the Socialist Party are strongly opposed to is that relating to expanded automated decisions.
This is clearly about reducing staff levels. The Minister says it is already in place for simple requests such as increasing child benefit for the second or subsequent child. However, this Bill would see it extended to more complex decisions. It will lead to a poorer service and would almost definitely result in people under-claiming or leave applicants open to being overpaid due to errors being made in applications and then being accused of fraud. It will especially be the case for those who have literacy issues or who do not have access to computers.
The Minister claims that where a decision is made to reject a claim, it must be made in person. However, clearly, it will initially be rejected by a computer - computer says "No" - and that decision will have to be reviewed. In the context of staff shortages and the pressure of work, one can imagine a situation where, in many cases, it will involve a rubber stamping rather than a real review.
What is this about? It is about two things. It is about the immediate short-term advantage of Varadkar appealing cynically to a right-wing base as part of this "get up early in the morning", "republic of opportunities", "people on the minimum wage are middle class" nonsense-----
It was about the Taoiseach's short-term benefit but it was also about a deeper process of shifting responsibility for unemployment onto the unemployed. It is a repeat, or the implementation, of the Thatcherite notion that there is no society; there is no societal unemployment. There is no unemployment caused by the crisis, bankers or developers. Instead, there is only the lazy, the work-shy, those who cannot get up in the morning. A key part of this that has become very clear over the summer is JobPath, the so-called employment activation scheme into which people are being pushed on a very widespread basis. It involves private companies getting paid on a results basis of getting people into some form of employment. Apparently, the Taoiseach went to see "I, Daniel Blake" a few months' ago. He must have seen it because he seemed to get ideas from it. In fact, he copied wholesale the same ideas and implementation that are graphically condemned in that film and brought them here. It is that notion of privatised employment activation with coercion and sanctions that is behind the horrific stories told in that film. Not just that, the Taoiseach brought the same companies to operate here - Seetec and Working Links, the parent company of Turas Nua, that are involved in scandals, including allegations of fraud in Great Britain.
The whole concept of JobPath kills two birds with one stone for the right-wing ideologues in government. It blames and demonises the unemployed for their unemployment and it simultaneously privatised a key aspect of social welfare. Unsurprisingly, it has its roots in the Troika memorandum of understanding with its call for "the application of sanction mechanisms for beneficiaries not complying with job-search conditionality". I met two women a month and a half ago who got these so-called letters of invite. These are threatening letters telling people they have to turn up. Well, they invite people to turn up but if they do not turn up, they may lose social welfare payments or have them cut. The women turned up to the meeting under that threat. Their story of being infantilised, of being treated like idiots, of pointless travel, of being forced to sit there and apply for jobs in a room with people supervising them when they could do it more effectively at home and of soul-destroying experiences is typical. Good articles on rabble.ieand broadsheet.ieillustrate that typical story.
In addition, like a certain number of other people affected by this scheme, they had community employment scheme offers which were likely to lead to real jobs but which they were unable to take up because they went into JobPath. Effectively, because Seetec would not make any money from it, they were blocked from taking up a position that could have led to a real job. They are imprisoned in this so-called JobPath. The entire system is perverse. The private companies get paid a registration fee for every so-called personal progression plan and then they get more fees for a time when someone is employed for 13 weeks on the basis of 30 hours per week or more, i.e., they have an incentive to meet that amount but no more - to get them into some type of job even if it is a job that will go nowhere or is only for 13 weeks. The case of two women I spoke to illustrates the point perfectly. It is not about the best outcome for people on social welfare. It is about profit for a company and meeting their incentives. It is a crucial part of this race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions - forcing people into low pay and low-security jobs.
Let me finish by warning the Government. When we started the ScamBridge campaign to expose JobBridge exploitation, the Government responded confidently. It had its Indecon report and huge success rates and everything was great in the same way as it sometimes points to a 99% success rate for JobPath. It claimed everything was rosy. Through people's experiences, and let us remember that over 100,000 people have been pointed in the direction of and forced into JobPath, and through it being exposed continuously, it was undermined and eventually the Government was forced to scrap it. The same will happen here as part of people getting organised and rejecting the Government's ideological demonisation of the unemployed and its policy of privatisation and Thatcherism and fighting for a socialist society where people have an opportunity to have decent, meaningful jobs and properly-funded public services.
I want to address the issue of the public services card. Section 5 of the Bill allows for the public services card to have dates of birth on it at the request of the cardholder. The card can then be used as ID with non-State bodies, banks, etc. Currently, the card does not have a date of birth and cannot be used as ID with non-State bodies. We oppose the use of the public services card as ID as it can become another step towards a national ID card by the back door. This provision is a definite step in that direction as it will explicitly allow the card be used as ID. The comments of the law lecturer, T. J. McIntyre, are interesting and worth noting. He said, "Our position would be that the Public Services Card has been introduced as an identity card by stealth, and that it isn't allowed by law."
The public services card contains very sensitive data, including sensitive data such as biometric information, date of birth and PPSN. The databases behind the card are linked to, or will be linked to, a variety of important public services. Therefore, the databases behind the card will have highly sensitive information such as address and previous addresses, family information, tax information, medical information, applications for grants and so forth. Who will have access to this information? Thousands of people could potentially have access, which increases the chances of abuse of the data and increases the chances of leaks.
The data is so sensitive that if a leak did occur, it would give access to permanent data such as biometric data on people. There is also no guarantee that the data will not be transferred to outside agencies, private companies and so forth that are supplying public services, which leads to further security risks. Data is also big business. In Ireland alone, €445 million was spent on digital advertising. Having information on potential customers is vital in this context. Can we see a situation where this data is traded as a commodity like any other? In the UK, an NHS trust in London sold information on patients to DeepMind, a subsidiary of Google. The data included sensitive patient records. This was found to be illegal in the courts. However, it shows the potential abuses that could be happen.
Data protection legislation contains the principle that data should only be collected that is proportionate to its use. The public services card is far from this. There is no need to collect the range of data that is collected in order to prove one's identity when availing of a public service. For example, there is no need for biometric data in order to avail of a driving test or to get access to the Revenue Online Service. Another principle is that data should not be held indefinitely.
Normally, in data protection laws, data need to be deleted when no longer needed. This is not the case with the card where the data is held indefinitely after first use. Another principle is that it should only be used for a defined purpose. It has already been flagged that it will be needed for a whole extra range of services. A list reported in thejournal.iewhich comes from an internal survey of Government Departments says many services have been flagged, including Revenue, SUSI grants, motor tax, health patient verification and even visitors to prisons. International experience is that the use of cards expands over time. For example, Belgium is currently expanding its card for use in libraries.
The Government position on whether it is compulsory or obligatory is positively Orwellian in its language. Over the summer, Deputy Regina Doherty stated, "Let’s be very clear. Nobody is required by law to have a card. So, therefore, it isn’t compulsory, but for my Department it's mandatory." There are severe consequences for not availing of the card. It would result in no welfare payments, no passport and no driving licence. Therefore, it is obligatory unless one is rich enough to never need a welfare payment and does not wish to drive or leave the country. There have been media reports about how a woman in her 70s had her pension cut off as she did not avail of the card. It was cut off for 18 months, costing her €13,000. That was reported in The Irish Timeson 23 August. The woman said that she felt bullied. Age Action said that it was very concerned that the new mandatory requirement for the card would lead to older people losing their entitlements. We want to put those arguments against it and those objections on the record. The Dáil will hear more from us with regard to this issue if that proposal is not put where it belongs, which is in the bin.
I want to comment briefly on ESRI proposals to increase the pension age to 70. The pension age is already 68, or is in the pipeline to be 68 by 2028. The argument that is used to justify this is that people are living longer. If there was an economic system which was healthy, progressive and creating more wealth on a year-by-year basis, it would take life expectancy in its stride and handle pensions on the older basis. It is a sign of a stagnating, regressing economic system, a stagnating, regressing capitalism that it cannot absorb increased life expectancy within the framework of the old pension system, and puts forward proposals such as this, which serve to drag society backwards. What would the impact be on workers in stressful jobs having to keep working until the age of 70? What would be the position and the impact on people who have to engage in hard physical labour as part of their jobs, who would retire at 70 if this proposal comes through? What impact will it have on unemployment and unemployment levels for young people? It is negative in all respects. Therefore, we would like to issue a clear call to the trade union movement to join this debate, take this issue up and campaign strenuously and seriously against these proposals, which are backward and offer nothing by way of progress for society or ordinary working people.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this particularly important Bill, having over the years and always, like everybody else in this House, experienced first-hand how a certain number of people, obviously, need the support of social welfare. It is a very large number of people, in fact, be it pensions, various social welfare payments, unemployment alleviation measures or whatever. I listened to the comments of other speakers relating to welfare fraud. I think we need to be very careful not to give the impression that we tolerate fraud, whether it is welfare fraud or any other fraud. The word fraud suggests that it is deliberately set about or deliberately done, and is acceptable in some circumstances. In actual fact, it is not. It deprives other people who are entitled to a particular payment, for the purposes of this exercise, and makes it more difficult to fund the services that are provided for them.
However, my experience has been that most overpayments that I have come across - I have come across as many as anybody else - come as a result of the individual not knowing what he or she was supposed to do in particular circumstances. In some cases, in fact, the Department has been informed, for example, that the person has gone back to work, presuming that as a result of that the arrangements were made to ensure that no further welfare payment was forthcoming. That does not always happen. I do not know why that is. It should be fairly simple. In today's age of modern technology, it should be very simple. One should be able to press a button and, presto, it takes place. There is a need for an improvement of this system whereby when people tell the Department that they do not qualify for a payment anymore because of a change in circumstances, it should automatically follow that they do not have to undergo any further examination or penalty with regard to that, which very often revolves around repaying, over a period of time, a sum that is quite beyond their ability in some cases. I know there is a 15% minimum deduction, but it is a disincentive to going back to work. The person who is back to work is still worse off by virtue of having to repay. I am not suggesting for a moment that they should not, but I am suggesting that earlier intervention and recognition by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will result in there being no need to go that route at all.
The other issue that needs to be dealt with and is ongoing, which I have spoken about many times before in the House as have others, is the question of self-employed or partners of self-employed people, be they shopkeepers or professional people or their spouses, who by virtue of their professions are self-employed and have a spouse who works with him or her in the course of the employment. The Department has to decide whether a partnership exists. It does not always follow that the Department will approve that partnership, which it should to allow both respondents to avail of a contributory old age pension in view of the fact they have made their contributions. I know a provision was made some time ago by the previous Minister to address the issue of those who have made contributions and are short. However, it did not address the issue in its entirety. It addressed part of it. A person who was one or two years short of contributions which would enable him or her to qualify for an old age contributory pension found himself or herself still short by a small number of contributions. I know there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, but there is one point that I am absolutely certain about and it is this. If deductions are made to somebody, self-employed or otherwise, in respect of his or her old age pension or whatever pension, then if he or she is not going to get a payment, he or she should get those deductions refunded. It is as simple as that. That is about to happen in law too.
There are other issues that need to be addressed. One that has come up in recent times is where Intreo staff interviews the recipient and says that he or she has to go back to work. Say it is a mother with three children. She cannot go back to work. It is as simple as that. If she goes back to work, she has to get child minders to mind the children while she is at work. She cannot go back to work. The result is that her payment is cut off. As a result, a serious situation naturally arises, particularly if they live in private rented accommodation. The private rented accommodation means that if the spouse is at work on low pay employment, they suffer serious difficulties and a serious disadvantage as a result of being in that particular situation and are dependent on social welfare for rent support, which they probably will not get.
I realise that I will have another opportunity to pursue this particular issue a little further.