Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Social Welfare Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 7, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:“Renaming of Family Income Supplement
9. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall review the operation of the Working Family Payment, including the requirement that you must be working 19 hours per week, 38 hours per fortnight, to qualify for the payment, and shall bring forward a report to the Committee on Social Protection on same within 6 months of this Bill being enacted.”.
I tabled this amendment because something could usefully be gained from what I am proposing. The working family dividend was the Government's big idea. It was suggested it was working on a wonderful system called the working family dividend or working family payment that would, at a stroke, eliminate poverty traps and ensure everybody was paid a reasonable wage and that nobody would have an incentive not to work. There is a system in place that makes it attractive for people on low wages to stay in employment, namely, family income supplement. We asked the Minister on several occasions whether, if the working family payment was introduced, family income supplement would survive in some form. For a long time we were informed that there was no decision on that matter. Eventually, the Minister told me that it would survive but as a subsection of the working family payment. Now we find that in the budget family income supplement has simply been renamed the working family payment.
In the Fine Gael election manifesto there was a paragraph on family income supplement and all of its drawbacks. While it has proved to be a useful scheme, costing the taxpayer several hundred million euro, nevertheless it has a certain number of drawbacks. In certain circumstances it creates poverty traps. My understanding, from my communication with the Minister and various committee exchanges we had, is that it is her objective to improve the newly entitled family working payment, remove some of the anomalies that make it less attractive to work and make it more attractive not just to go out to work but also to work longer hours, if in work. If the Minister produced a detailed report, over six months, and introduced it to the committee responsible for dealing with social protection issues, other committee members and I would have a number of suggestions to make on how the incentive could be improved in order that more people would benefit from it and it would really achieve what it was designed to achieve. That conversation would be useful and could ultimately result in a saving to the Exchequer. If more people are encouraged to go out to work who are not encouraged to do so now, or if people are encouraged to work longer hours, they will be paying tax, which will obviously be of benefit to the Exchequer. If we do this properly, it will probably be cost neutral. I would appreciate it if the Government accepted my amendment in order that the report could be prepared and we could all have an input and make suggestions, from our working knowledge of family income supplement, on how the benefit could be improved to achieve its intended objective.
I will be supporting the amendment. Deputy Willie O'Dea is correct. In the run-up to the last general election the working family payment was the big new idea from Fine Gael. It was nearly the only big issue on which its members were running, but there was no substance other than the name, and there was much questioning. There were no ideas, only statements to the effect that there would be analysis and that more detail would be brought forward on the payment. There was an expectation that it would be forthcoming in the run-up to the taking of the Social Welfare Bill, but all we have got is a name change from "family income supplement" to the "working family payment". There was a lot of hype and absolutely no substance whatsoever.
There is much concern about family income supplement, as it stands. In particular, there is a lot of precarious employment. There are zero-hour contracts. Essentially, family income supplement supplements employers to continue with precarious employment and zero-hour contracts, etc. Therefore, considerable issues arise. It is only when we introduce an acceptable living wage that this issue will be tackled. I will certainly be supporting the Fianna Fáil amendment which proposes that a report be produced within six months on the serious anomalies identified and what needs to be done to ensure those who need the payments most receive them.
There are serious concerns. There are some good employers, but there are also some who are exploiting workers and using family income supplement, or the working family payment, as it is now to be called, to supplement low pay levels.
I thank Deputies Willie O'Dea and John Brady for their contributions.
I do not propose to accept the amendment. Let me state why. In the context of budget 2018, it was decided to redesignate the family income supplement scheme as the working family payment scheme, which will give it more visibility as a payment aimed specifically at working families. The new name better reflects the nature of the payment and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection encourages families to determine whether they are eligible to receive it. The Department has, as part of the process to develop a working family payment, already carried out a comprehensive analysis of the range of supports available to working families with children, including, of course, family income supplement. It established an internal working group and an interdepartmental group, comprising representatives of relevant Departments, and issued an open call for submissions to inform its work. Therefore, a lot of work has been done on this issue. The results of the analysis are confirmed by the ESRI's research into the Department's existing in-work measures. The analysis demonstrates that existing in-work supports are effective and work well in assisting individuals in making the transition from unemployment to employment. The paper that resulted from the analysis of the current system concluded that the ideal approach was the introduction of a package of targeted changes to existing schemes rather than the introduction of a new scheme.
The Minister has stated it is her intention to continually review the package of supports offered to working parents to ensure they are meeting their objectives. In 2018 there will be an increase in the working family payment-family income supplement income thresholds of €10 for families with up to three children. Over 80% of families in receipt of family income supplement have one, two or three children. The name change will come into effect on 1 January 2018. It will be accompanied by a national promotion and information campaign designed to encourage as many eligible families as possible to apply for the working family payment.
While it would be useful to give time to allow for the effects of the promotional campaign to become clear – this is important – I appreciate that Deputy Willie O'Dea has specific concerns about the scheme such as the impact of the hours worked threshold. It is worth mentioning in that regard that the number of hours associated with the working family payment-family income supplement hours worked criterion has been reduced significantly since the introduction of the scheme, from 30 hours per week to the current 19. It is important to state the working family payment must not become a vehicle for subsidising unsustainably low earnings or encouraging and incentivising employers to offer minimal hours of employment. The House will be aware that for low-income workers with less than the minimum hours of employment for family income supplement who work on a casual basis for up to three days a week, the jobseeker's allowance or benefit scheme provides in-work income support through daily disregards and tapered withdrawal of payments.
I always like to end on a good note. The Minister is happy to confirm that she is prepared to bring a paper before the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within six months that will review the operation of the working family payment and include a detailed consideration of the hours worked criterion of the scheme. She has informed me that she will write to the Chairman in the next day or so to confirm this in writing. Against that background, I hope Deputy Willie O'Dea will not press the amendment because the Minister will carry out a review and notify the committee to that effect in writing.
I do not understand the logic of the Minister of State's reply. He has told me that the amounts will be raised. We know this from the Budget Statement. He has also told me that there will be an information campaign. We can have an information campaign at any time. We are saying each and every member of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection has ideas because of his or her experience of dealing with constituents and their problems on a regular basis. He or she is aware of the anomalies and knows how the system could be improved to rectify the anomalies. That is very important. The Minister of State has given me an assurance that the Minister will continue to review the position and that at some stage in the next six months she will bring a report to the relevant committee, but that is not what I am asking for in the amendment. What I am seeking is that the Minister commission a specific report on the issue and have it discussed by the committee. I have given her six months in which to do so, which is not unreasonable. I will not withdraw the amendment. I will press it because this is something we want to be sure will happen. The committee should be given that opportunity and it should be written into the legislation. I do not see what the problem is.
I do not wish to reiterate what Deputy Willie O’Dea said or go over the same ground, but the Minister of State has indicated that people who are working reduced hours over two or three days have other options. We all know that. We are concerned about the people who are working a small number of hours every day who do not qualify for jobseeker's allowance or do not have the other options to which the Minister of State referred. We are not prescriptive about the outcome. We are looking for the research and analysis because we are meeting individuals who are working part time, who are working three or four hours a day, four or five days a week. They work less than 19 hours a week and seem to be caught in a trap, which is why we are looking for a report on the specific issue to advise us. We have the anecdotal evidence and met the people concerned in our constituency offices. We are looking for the issue to be placed on a proper footing in order that we can make informed and advised decisions.
There has been a lot of analysis, which is the reason we introduced a new scheme. What is important is that we specifically encourage the taking up of employment among low-income families with children. The objective of the working family payment is to minimise the labour market disincentives for parents to take up work, to prevent in-work poverty among households with children and to tackle child poverty through the provision of income support for low-income workers with children. A lot of research has gone into the issue and the analysis shows that the existing in-work supports have been effective in assisting individuals in the transition back to work. The Minister has gone a long way on the issue. She is happy to confirm that she is prepared to bring a paper before the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection where a lot of work is done. The Minister undertakes to complete the review within six months. She will examine all of the criteria, including the issue covered in Deputy Willie O'Dea's amendment of the number of hours worked. She will write to the Chairman of the committee in that regard.
I urge the Deputies opposite to wait and see what will happen. This is a new era. Family income supplement has been in place since 1984 and things have changed since. What is most important is that we look after low-income families and encourage them to work. The Deputies should give the Minister a chance to look at the issue in the next six months and produce a report. We can work on the issue through the committee system.
Gerry Adams, Bobby Aylward, John Brady, Declan Breathnach, Tommy Broughan, James Browne, Pat Buckley, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Jack Chambers, Lisa Chambers, Michael Collins, Catherine Connolly, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, John Curran, Pearse Doherty, Timmy Dooley, Dessie Ellis, Martin Ferris, Michael Fitzmaurice, Seán Fleming, Kathleen Funchion, Michael Harty, Seán Haughey, Michael Healy-Rae, Alan Kelly, Martin Kenny, John Lahart, Charlie McConalogue, Mattie McGrath, Michael McGrath, Catherine Martin, Denise Mitchell, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Imelda Munster, Margaret Murphy O'Mahony, Catherine Murphy, Eugene Murphy, Paul Murphy, Carol Nolan, Eoin Ó Broin, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Éamon Ó Cuív, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Jonathan O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, Willie O'Dea, Kevin O'Keeffe, Fiona O'Loughlin, Louise O'Reilly, Frank O'Rourke, Jan O'Sullivan, Maurice Quinlivan, Anne Rabbitte, Eamon Scanlon, Róisín Shortall, Brendan Smith, Bríd Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín.
Maria Bailey, Pat Breen, Colm Brophy, Richard Bruton, Peter Burke, Seán Canney, Joe Carey, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Simon Coveney, Michael Creed, Michael D'Arcy, Jim Daly, John Deasy, Pat Deering, Paschal Donohoe, Andrew Doyle, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frances Fitzgerald, Peter Fitzpatrick, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Martin Heydon, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, Seán Kyne, Helen McEntee, Finian McGrath, Joe McHugh, Tony McLoughlin, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Kevin Moran, Eoghan Murphy, Denis Naughten, Hildegarde Naughton, Tom Neville, Michael Noonan, Kate O'Connell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, John Paul Phelan, Michael Ring, Noel Rock, Shane Ross, David Stanton.
I would like to make a point of order in the interests of fairness and ensuring even-handed treatment of all Deputies and groups. Once or twice when I called for a vote the Leas-Cheann Comhairle or other Cathaoirligh asked for ten Deputies to stand to allow the vote to proceed. We just had a vote, which I believe the Government forced, the result of which was Tá, 66 and Staon, 46. Why were Deputies not asked if they would vote or what they would do? This was a waste of time.
To clarify, I said, "Iad siúd atá i bhfábhar, abraidís 'Tá'" agus "Iad siúd atá i gcoinne, abraidís 'Níl'". Custom and practice is that I say, "Sílim go bhfuil an bhfuil an vóta caillte", and Deputy O'Dea called the vote.
I accept the decision. There is a serious flaw in the current legislation under which a widow with no children continues to receive the widow's pension, whereas a widow with children must transfer to jobseeker's allowance after two years of receiving the widow's pension. This is highly unfair.
The Deputy may have an opportunity to discuss the matter at a later stage. The reason the amendment was ruled out of order is that it does not arise from committee proceedings. The decision is based on long-standing practice.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 11, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:“Exceptional Needs Payment
15. Section 201 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 is amended by the insertion of "which is not necessarily unforeseen" after "to meet an exceptional need".".
As the Minister of State will be aware, the exceptional needs payment fulfils a very important role in society. The amount of money involved amount to only a tiny fraction of the total budget for social protection. On 7 November, the Minister indicated that the total budget for single exceptional needs amounts to €31.5 million. I note that 9,400 payments were made in November 2016 and 9,100 payments were made in December 2016. The number of applicants who secured an exceptional needs payment averaged roughly 8,000 or 9,000 per month in 2016. However, statistics are not kept on the number of people and families whose applications for a payment were refused. As a result, we cannot take a global view of the payment and identify what percentage of applications are approved and rejected. This is a lacuna because the payment gives us an insight into the stresses suffered by citizens and families, particularly in the pre-Christmas period when they face additional stresses such as cold weather, additional payments for heating and clothing and so forth.
The exceptional needs payment scheme is demand led, as the Minister indicated to me in reply to a question. In my information clinics I have been finding that people with an exceptional need for their family or for themselves are increasingly being refused a payment on the basis that the guidelines issued by the Department to its officials and deciding officers stress that the need must be not only exceptional but also unforeseen. I contend that there is no basis in the legislation for such an approach.
I read over section 201 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, which states: "The Executive or deciding officer may, in any case where the Executive or deciding officer considers it reasonable, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, so to do, determine or decide that supplementary welfare allowance shall be paid to a person by way of a single payment to meet an exceptional need." My amendment proposes to add the words "which is not necessarily unforeseen" after the words "to meet an exceptional need". I do so on the basis of the recent experiences I have outlined, which I believe are shared by other public representatives and agencies working to try to protect the most vulnerable families.
One example I encountered involved a person whose grandmother had a fatal illness. When the issue of funeral expenses arose following the grandmother's death, it was stated that while this may have been an exceptional expense for the family, it was not an unforeseen expense. The test in the 2005 legislation is that the payment may be made if exceptional conditions arise. It appears the Department is erecting a further hurdle to make it more difficult to secure an exceptional needs payment. The Department's interpretation in this matter is incorrect because the statutory test is one of exceptional need. To add a further hurdle that the need must also be unforeseen is, I believe, unlawful.
In a judicial decision in 2016 in the case of McE v. Residential Institutions Redress Board, Mr. Justice Hogan gave an explanation of the meaning of the word "exceptional". It is clear from this decision that exceptional means "exceptional circumstances simpliciter", with the standard of exceptionality measured by reference to contemporary standards prevailing within the public. As such, if someone has a serious illness and needs a once-off payment for a winter jacket, his or her case is exceptional as per the ordinary meaning of the word. If the Department tries to argue that the circumstances involved are not unforeseen, it is effectively changing the rules.
The starting point for many people would be that "exceptional" and "unforeseen" are completely separate concepts. It is clear from the Oxford English Dictionary that these concepts do not overlap in their meaning. The question one must ask, therefore, is whether something can be exceptional and also foreseen and the answer, of course, is yes. This means the Department's rationale is incorrect because the statutory test is one of exceptional simpliciter, rather than exceptional and unforeseen.
Another example I have been given is that if somebody had a cancer of the knee and following surgery had to have special footwear, that is an exceptional need the person would qualify for the payment. However, the Department seems to be taking the view that if the person applied the following year for a follow-up for this exceptional need, because it was foreseen in light of the operation, it would not be provided. It is a serious matter. I note there has been a legal challenge to this in the High Court in recent days where an effort is being made to bring the Department back to the legislation that we have and not to be erecting another hurdle.
The scheme involves a small amount of funding from the Department. In my experience, it has played an important role down through the years in alleviating real suffering for citizens. I have been disappointed, particularly in the last 18 months, to find increasingly that this exceptional and unforeseen rule is being used. I ask the Minister of State to accept the amendment to the consolidated Act to return the situation to the status quo anteand to proceed on that basis to deliver the exceptional need, which may well have been foreseen, to assist constituents.
I cannot accept this amendment. The legislation providing for exceptional needs payments is set out in section 201 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, as amended, and provides that an exceptional needs payment can be paid to meet an exceptional need where the officer considers it reasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case. The legislation does not confer a statutory right or entitlement to a payment. The principal consideration in making an exceptional needs payment is to address a particular once-off and exceptional need which is not of an expected or recurring nature and is, therefore, unforeseen.
The Department has issued guidelines to staff administering exceptional needs payments to assist them in the decision-making process. However, these do not affect the discretion available to officers in issuing an exceptional needs payment to assist an individual or household in any particular hardship situation which may arise. That word "discretion" is important. The officers on the ground know exactly each individual case. They understand the cases that come before them. That discretion is available and it is important that it is used.
Exceptional needs payments provide support to those most vulnerable. To date in 2017, 94,000 payments have issued at a cost of €34 million covering varying needs from rent deposits to housing kit-outs to clothing and travel. I am satisfied that the discretion available to officers in the administration of this scheme ensures that these payments target those most in need of assistance and the proposed amendment is not required.
I will talk to Deputy Broughan afterwards. If the Deputy has individual cases of persons who are in such need, I would ask him to bring them to the attention of the Minister who will look into them for him.
I have done precisely that without success. That is the reason I tabled the amendment. The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, told me, when I raised it with her on 7 November, as the Minister of State has repeated here, that the legislation does not confer a statutory right or entitlement and that, "The principal consideration in making a payment under the ENP scheme is to address a particular once-off and exceptional need which is not of an expected or recurring nature and is therefore unforeseen." I would contend that the unforeseen aspect of it is illegal. We did not put that in primary legislation. I cannot recall who was Minister in 2005. That was not the intention.
A primary consideration down through the years with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's budget has always been keeping it inside €19 billion or €20 billion, even though we provide half of that budget through our social insurance payments. Especially in any kind of assistance payments, the funding is a significant consideration. The exceptional needs scheme is being further restricted at a time when it is needed more than ever when there are such crises affecting families.
The Minister of State mentioned, as the Minister stressed on 7 November last, that there is this discretionary power available. Many believe the quasi-judicial powers that the Department has relating to appeals etc. should be placed on a statutory basis. When I was a spokesman on social protection, that was something I tried to bring forward. The significant discretion and quasi-judicial power that officers have, that is set out in legislation but also expanded on in guidelines, can be very unfair.
It is regrettable that the Department does not keep statistics on the applications overall. It would be a useful database for the CSO and for society generally.
The key point is that the Minister is misusing the 2005 Act by adding a key legislative provision, namely, this idea of being unforeseen which was not in the legislation, which was not intended, which is new, and which this House should legislate for. I would like to legislate that it not be in the Act and that the unforeseen idea be excluded.
When the community welfare service came into the Department, there was a review. The review was used as a basis for guidelines in 2012-2013. We will keep this scheme under review and look at it again to see whether it supports those it needs to support.
As I stated, it is important that the social welfare officers on the ground use their discretion in exceptional cases, such as those the Deputy mentioned. There are exceptional cases because 94,000 payments have issued to date in 2017 at a cost of €34 million. There is a major cost but no doubt it is important for those who are in dire straits. As I stated, if the Deputy has particular cases, he can bring them to the attention of the Minister.
Gerry Adams, John Brady, Tommy Broughan, Pat Buckley, Thomas Byrne, Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pearse Doherty, Dessie Ellis, Martin Ferris, Michael Fitzmaurice, Kathleen Funchion, Michael Healy-Rae, Martin Kenny, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Carol Nolan, Eoin Ó Broin, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Louise O'Reilly, Jan O'Sullivan, Maurice Quinlivan, Róisín Shortall, Bríd Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín.
Maria Bailey, Pat Breen, Colm Brophy, Richard Bruton, Peter Burke, Seán Canney, Joe Carey, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Simon Coveney, Michael Creed, Michael D'Arcy, Jim Daly, John Deasy, Pat Deering, Paschal Donohoe, Andrew Doyle, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frances Fitzgerald, Peter Fitzpatrick, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Martin Heydon, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, Seán Kyne, Helen McEntee, Finian McGrath, Joe McHugh, Tony McLoughlin, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Kevin Moran, Eoghan Murphy, Denis Naughten, Hildegarde Naughton, Tom Neville, Michael Noonan, Kate O'Connell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, John Paul Phelan, Michael Ring, Noel Rock, Shane Ross, David Stanton.
Bobby Aylward, Declan Breathnach, James Browne, Mary Butler, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Jack Chambers, Lisa Chambers, John Curran, Seán Fleming, Seán Haughey, John Lahart, Marc MacSharry, Charlie McConalogue, Michael McGrath, Micheál Martin, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Margaret Murphy O'Mahony, Eugene Murphy, Éamon Ó Cuív, Jim O'Callaghan, Willie O'Dea, Kevin O'Keeffe, Fiona O'Loughlin, Frank O'Rourke, Eamon Scanlon, Brendan Smith.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“17.The Minister will publish the report on the effects of the 2012 pension bands and rates changes immediately after it has been considered by the Cabinet.”.
This amendment reflects the problem that was created by the changes introduced by the former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, back in 2012, which basically created a two-tier system of contributory pensions, depending on when a person was born. It has given rise to several anomalies which have been well thrashed out, both in the committee and in this House.
The Minister first commissioned a report within her Department and that report is to be referred to a Cabinet sub-committee, which will examine it and send recommendations to Cabinet. What I am simply proposing here, to keep this thing moving along and in order that we will not have to wait until the next budget for changes in this vital area, is that the report and recommendations be published immediately they have been considered by the Cabinet. This is a reasonable amendment and is along the lines of a commitment already given by the Minister. I urge the Government to accept it.
I have put forward amendment No. 15, which is very similar to amendment No. 12 in the name of Deputy John Brady. On Committee Stage we agreed we would table a similar amendment to ensure the Minister comes back to us with that report - or a paper, as she put it - on the 2012 changes and what they mean for these women, in the main, and men.
We have gone through a long process and do not wish to repeat ourselves. However, I reiterate that what was done to this cohort of pensioners was one of the most brutal attacks on older women and men in this country. The then Minister, Deputy Burton, was standing where the Minister of State is now, defending the indefensible while slashing lone parents' payments, in particular the access of children of eight, nine and ten years to such payments, as well as slashing disability payments and pensions. The list goes on. There is no protection, given this was done in the pure knowledge of the Department. In March 2013, the journalist Conor Ryan wrote that the Department of Social Protection was aware that thousands would lose out but implemented the policy regardless. The Department, with Deputy Burton as Minister, offered some measure of restitution by introducing a homemaker's credit scheme but responsibility for this was passed to the Department of Finance, which thus far has insisted the money is not there for a scheme.
The Minister for Finance has called what has happened "bonkers", a word which has been used quite regularly. I cannot understand how the Minister was so surprised given that he came into the Dáil and voted for this change to the pensions in 2012 and voted for all the other cuts in the 2012 budget. If this is not resolved, and if this paper does not come back with a clear trajectory as to how it is going to be resolved within a clear timeframe, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will suffer. Fianna Fáil had a chance to make a difference to this budget. It could have insisted this was changed but it simply came back later on with a Private Members' Bill and is only now making an issue of it. It will be held accountable by the elderly people of this country and its members are familiar with the wrath of those elderly people who do not take it lying down when they are literally walked over.
I urge the Minister of State to accept this amendment and that in the name of Deputy Brady - the Deputy will speak on it himself - and to revert to us as quickly as possible with a transparent strategy.
I support the amendment tabled by my colleague, Deputy O'Dea. Some of us have been raising this anomaly since 2012. It is not this year alone that we have raised it or the difficulties that have been caused, in particular to women who left insurable employment to take up full-time work at home caring for children, elderly parents or siblings. We all know of many individuals and families who have been caused hardship by the method of calculating pension entitlements. Many of us know of people who worked alongside a colleague who, despite having made ten full years of 52 contributions per year prior to reaching pension age or a yearly average of more than 48, is now on a reduced pension.
I recently encountered a case. Back when a person was young and about to emigrate to England to take up a particular trade, his family got him two weeks work in a similar business in Dublin through a contact. It was done to give him some experience before emigrating to London to start an apprenticeship. When he retired, he returned to Ireland some years subsequently, having paid his insurance contributions over many years. However, his entitlement is now calculated starting from the two insurance contributions that were credited to him when he was young. He did not even know that his employer, who did everything above board, had paid those contributions. Following the Department assessing his entitlement, he has a much reduced pension because the employer paid two stamps for him, followed by a long time lag before he returned to Ireland.
My colleagues, Deputies O'Dea and Curran, have made strong cases on Second Stage and Committee Stage. I strongly support Deputy O'Dea's recommendation and ask the Minister to revert quickly with a report with a view towards enacting measures to eliminate anomalies and ensure that people are not denied their entitlements.
I support Deputy O'Dea's amendments as well as the other Deputies' amendments. As has been rightly pointed out, this problem has affected people - mostly women, but some men as well - across the country. The Dáil has debated this matter previously. It has been called bonkers and several other things. At the end of the day, however, many people have been treated as second-class citizens in terms of their pensions. What was done in 2012 was wrong, so the Government should address the matter, particularly when it and everyone else in the House recognises that there is a problem. There is no good in claiming to be giving things to different parts of society if people are still getting the wrong pensions. It is intolerable.
We have discussed the slogan "Keep the Recovery Going" and how it is good to see more people working, but this matter should be given priority. I will back the amendment 100%.
I have a great sense of déjà vu. Last year, we tried to pass a similar amendment. That amendment called on the Minister to produce a report within three months. That was amended by the then Minister for Social Protection, the current Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, to the effect that he would produce a report within six months. One year later and there is no sign of that report, but I remind everyone that that is probably because Deputy Varadkar was busy trying to become the Taoiseach and running a social welfare campaign declaring that welfare cheats were cheating us all. In fact, pension cheats cheat us all. That is what the Taoiseach has been guilty of. In the ten months since promising to do so, he has failed to produce a report on the matter.
I am all for supporting this and the other amendments on producing a report, but I will not hold my breath for the current Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, or the Minister of State sitting opposite to deliver. However, I am encouraged by the Minister's utterances about wanting to see this changed, that she is going to deliver on it and that, although she does not have the money now, she will find it within 12 months, if not sooner. She has acknowledged that the pensioners are protesting and kicking back, albeit in much smaller numbers than they did when Fianna Fáil withdrew their medical cards. They are beginning to mobilise, and I thank all of the Deputies who came out to the gates to speak to them, encourage them and show solidarity with them more than a week ago.
It is not good enough to say "I will, I will, I will" any more. I am sorry, but I do not believe it. The proof is in the pudding. The pudding in this case is the Taoiseach and his behaviour, for example, that he is doing all of this for those who get up early in the morning. I am encountering many pensioners who got up early every morning for many years only to be told that they were not worth the full whack when they came to pension age. The new bands, which were introduced as an austerity measure at the behest of the troika and encouraged by those who were prepared to co-operate with the troika and bail out the banks at whatever cost, are now impacting on people - mainly women, but also men - who have worked for all of their lives and are now being told that they are not worth a full pension and will have to accept less.
It is extraordinary that we can pay millions of euro to lawyers in Europe so that we do not have to accept Apple's tax but we cannot look after our pensioners, those who worked hard for all of their lives. Many of the people we met outside the gates last week were testament to that. Not only did they work, but they also reared their families and looked after the elderly.
Later, I will speak on amendment No. 7, which deals with the question of the homemaker in particular. That is a slightly separate issue, although it has been grouped with these amendments. It impacts more profoundly on women than just the making of the bands.
-----I will not allow any separate discussion on amendment No. 7. The Deputy still has three minutes left and can speak for a further two later. If the Deputy wishes to speak on amendment No. 7, she should please do so now.
I thank the Deputies for explaining that. I just lost a minute to that explanation, so I will take it back.
The question of inequality for pensioners has been well rehearsed in the House. Each of these amendments asks for a report. Can we have that report? Can we not for once walk away from the Chamber having been told that we will get it and then actually get it? I do not know how many times this issue has been raised by various Deputies during Questions on Promised Legislation throughout the year only for there to have been no response. The then Minister could conduct a campaign against what he called welfare cheats, most of whom were found not to have been cheating at all, just to ensure that he got the leadership. They were probably over-claiming by errors that were often made on the part of departmental staff.
I wish to discuss the women who suffered because they made their homes prior to 1994. It is a bit like saying that they were worth something after 1994 but were worthless before it, even though they were doing the same job, namely, rearing and washing children, cleaning, cooking, looking after children's health and ensuring that there they were ready to go out into society as the next generation of workers. They made their homes and looked after the elderly, the sick and the disabled. If they did that after 1994, the State will look after them. If they did it prior to 1994, they can go to hell. We all know why. It was carefully mapped out by civil servants and the troika so that the impact of people retiring would hit immediately by 2013 or 2014 under this measure whereas, for those who retired in 1994, it would be many years before it would hit.
It is all about saving pennies at the expense of ordinary people for no other reason than to bail out the banks.
There is a longer-term ambition on the part of the Government to reduce pensions and the awards received by people who have worked all of their lives, to lengthen people's working lives and force people away from a transitionary year so that they have to sign on for jobseeker's allowance. There was a little bit of good news today, whereby public servants can, if they choose, work until they are 70 years of age, but that must remain a choice rather than a compulsion. We would argue that the transitionary pension has to be restored.
I do not know if it will be possible to address all of those issues, because they are all a result of what happened in 2012. The question of the transitionary pension, people being forced to work longer and having to sign on for jobseeker's allowance and being worthless prior to 1994 as a homemaker but valued afterwards all need to be addressed. The Bill is a mechanism to penalise a sector of society in order to save coppers. This has to be utterly condemned. It is a clear case of discrimination on the grounds of gender and age.
As I said to the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, should we be in a position to take a case to a European Court, I have no doubt that we would emphatically win it. I hope we do not have to do that, but I would encourage all pensioners to help the Minister to find the money. She said she would find the money within 12 months, if possible. They should get outside the gate on a date in the new year and protest again. That will help the Minister to find the money. She will listen, her eyes will open and she and the rest of the Cabinet will find the money somewhere to address this grave injustice.
I am speaking in support of amendment No. 12 in my name. I will also support the other amendments. We are discussing one of the biggest crimes the Fine Gael and Labour Government perpetrated on our older citizens. We know over 42,000 older people are directly impacted by the heinous cuts made in 2012 in the full knowledge of their consequences and impact on older citizens. The cuts were made without any consultation or debate whatsoever, and we are now living with the consequences. It is predominately women who are affected, but a sizeable number of men are also directly impacted by the changes. We know the impact that cuts of €35 or €40 per week can have on our older citizens.
Sinn Féin and others have raised this issue continuously since 2012. One of my first actions as a newly elected Deputy was to move a motion on this issue last year. It was a major issue in my constituency clinic and I brought forward a motion which, unfortunately, did not get full support across the House. However, it raised serious awareness of the issue. Fianna Fáil moved a similar motion recently. It is bizarre that in its budget negotiations it did not see fit to address this serious problem facing our older citizens.
This matter was dealt with extensively in the Joint Committee on Social Protection and there were amendments on Committee Stage. The Minister, Deputy Doherty, under questioning on Committee Stage said a report had be commissioned and carried out. She said a number of weeks ago that she hoped to bring the report to a Cabinet sub-committee in the near future, but did not give a date - she may have said it would happen this week - and would then bring it to Cabinet.
I tabled an amendment calling for the report to be published within a three-month timeframe. The Minister said she is serious about the issue and wants to make the necessary changes to reverse the cuts made in 2012. She is using similar language to that of her predecessor, the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar. She has referred to winners and losers in the process. The easiest way to deal with the issue is a total reversal of the 2012 changes.
The Government has referred to a lack of money. Reversing the cuts would cost €70 million. Sinn Féin included the measure in its prebudget submission and showed exactly where the money would come from. It comes down to political choices. In their budgetary negotiations neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil saw this as a priority. However, it is a priority for the 42,000 older citizens who are being discriminated against by the Government.
I referred earlier to the fact that Labour Party Deputies are not present. In votes on previous amendments only one or two Labour Party Deputies were present. We are dealing with proposals to try to rectify the faults of the previous Government. One of the main architects of that was the former Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, who is absent. That is despicable, given that she was the Minister who brought in these changes in the full knowledge of their impact on older women, in particular, and other citizens. She is not present for the debate and is not acknowledging the failures over which she presided. She is not working on a way forward to reverse the cuts.
We are getting mixed messages from the Government on this, even though there is a spin unit which costs the taxpayer €5 million. While the current Minister, Deputy Doherty, talks about hoping to put in place measures in the near future to deal with this in the run-up to next year's budget, the Taoiseach is talking about 2021 when we move to the total contribution system. We need a clear message from the Government. It is either serious about this or it is window-dressing.
The key to all of this is the report which examines the changes made in 2012 and, more importantly, what will be done to reverse them. I will conclude with a word of caution. There can be no losers in terms of rectifying the faults. The solution is a total reversal of the changes made in 2012. There can be no more losers; there has been enough losers up to this point. Some 42,000 of our older citizens have lost out as a direct consequence of the decisions of this Government and previous Governments.
I may be naive or foolish, but I am taking the Minister, Deputy Doherty, at her word when she says she will bring the report to a Cabinet sub-committee and then to Cabinet. She said that would take place before Christmas. My amendment calls for the immediate publication of the report following its presentation to the Cabinet so that we can see the impact of the 2012 changes and, more importantly, what is being done to rectify the situation and put money back in people's pockets. We cannot afford to wait until next year's budget. The numbers are increasing year-on-year. In the last year alone, 8,000 or 9,000 older people have been directly impacted by the cuts. The matter needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. Kicking the issue down the road for another year simply will not wash with our older citizens.
I support amendment No. 4 in the name of my colleague, Deputy O'Dea. It is an issue I have raised constantly in the Dáil and Cork County Council, of which I was a member when the change was made in 2012. It was a very harsh cut which was slipped in under the radar. It appeared that it only impacted on a small number of people initially, but as people reached pension age more and more were hit by the change. As we know, many lost out by up to €30 a week.
It is cutting people who stepped outside the PRSI net when they were perhaps doing caring or family homemaker roles. The cut was as much as €30 per week. It is not just this week but every week for the rest of their lives. This needs to be addressed.
The fact that this is discriminatory by age has been mentioned and I should reinforce it. People with the very same record of contributions have different pensions just because one person reached pension age after 2012. That discrimination by age is not right and it should be dealt with. I have raised the matter before with a previous Minister responsible for social welfare, the now Taoiseach, who said at the time that there would be winners and losers. We know that right now everybody is a loser and the matter must be dealt with. We understand a report has been commissioned and it is due before Cabinet soon enough. There is no reason to hold back and once the information is available, it should be let out in order that we can get working on the solution. There is no need to allow this to continue any longer if there is a way of dealing with the problem. I encourage the Government and all Deputies to support the amendment to make this information available. We know there is something wrong and there is no reason to hold back. We should get on and deal with solutions.
I will move amendment No. 14 when I get a chance. It calls for urgent action and a report on this incredible injustice that was done to a major cohort of our citizens in the 2012 budget when there was a change from four to six bands. This was based primarily on financial grounds, with the supporting documentation projecting so-called savings of approximately €45 million over a number of years. This followed the unfortunate cuts that were made by the Fianna Fáil Government from 2008, with changes made to the qualifying number of social insurance contributions. There was an effective doubling of these, from 250 to 520. This matter was part of that grotesque attack on some of our most vulnerable citizens.
I raised this with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, in February this year, arguing that it penalised the women of his own generation of people born in the late 1940s up through the 1960s who had to take a period out of the workforce to rear their children when we had very little crèche infrastructure or support for working mothers. After 2012, they found themselves in this devastating position. Like the previous speaker, week in and week out I have spoken to women approaching 66 who have said they were astonished to find, having worked for a considerable portion of their life, that their pension was going to be so much lower than they had expected.
A very fine report was done on this by Age Action Ireland at the turn of the year. The researcher, Ms Maureen Bassett, set out very clearly the major impact that the cuts had on people and particularly those on the lower levels of contribution. She specifically outlined the effect on those with a rate of ten to 20 average contributions. Those with an average of 29 contributions ended up with just 85% of the maximum, and those with an average of 15 to 19 contributions ended up receiving a 10% lower sum than they had before 2012, down to 66% of the maximum. The bottom band with an average of ten to 15 contributions also received a 10% lower sum, leaving them with 40% of the maximum amount.
The clear injustice of this was best expressed in this House by Professor Alan Barrett of the Economic and Social Research Institute who said the Government changed the rules of the game in the middle of the game. There was a system where women thought they were working towards a particular pension, but arbitrarily in 2012 the Government did this. The public relations spin at the time was that there were no cuts in the social welfare rates. The reality was that the then Minister, Deputy Noonan, had a very savage impact on an entire generation of women workers in particular, as 66% of the affected workers are women. It is a cohort of 40,000 plus and it is growing, and they feel very angry. I heard many of these senior and retiring citizens saying this deserves a serious legal challenge based on the exact point made by Professor Barrett and it cannot be allowed to endure.
In debating the Social Welfare Bill and in putting questions to the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, and her predecessor, the current Taoiseach, I heard mention of working towards a position in 2021 and having some sort of restoration. From the figures supplied by the Minister, there does not seem to be any serious approach to doing that. We seem to be left with a position where, effectively, the suffering of these women workers, and some men, will go on as a gross injustice. The time has come for the Minister to come forward with a plan for restoration.
My simple approach would be for the status quo antefor these workers, along with restoration of losses. We heard a fairly positive report today from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, whose representatives appeared before the Select Committee on Budgetary Oversight. They outlined the budget surpluses we hope to have in the next few years, barring a Brexit disaster, and one of the uses of those surpluses should be to do justice to this cohort of women workers who have reared their families and worked so hard. We are all sympathetic in this regard but the Minister has the power to implement change. It was a reprehensible decision in 2012 and the Bassett report demonstrates quite clearly that people knew this would have a very disproportionate impact on women workers. Unfortunately, a woman Minister for Social Protection let that go through in budget 2012, inflicting that suffering on those women.
The Bassett report quotes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations. We ratified and signed it in 1995. We gave a commitment through the homemaker's scheme and the then regime for women's pensions that we would try to uphold that convention. I know the Bassett report also refers to the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 14 of which explicitly prohibits discrimination in how all the other convention rights should be enjoyed. This includes the equal enjoyment of all the rights of the European Convention on Human Rights. This includes pension rights for women workers. I urge the Minister to accept these amendments. I hope she will come forward and provide justice in this area.
I support the amendment put forward by my colleague, Deputy O'Dea. Many of these amendments are very similar and it is worth pointing out they arise from the Committee Stage debate that we had. We withdrew the amendments on that Stage with a view to having amendments that reflected what the Minister said. This is important, as I am not bothered about the amendments but rather the action the Minister has said she will take. That is the key. Most of these amendments were written around what the Minister said on Committee Stage.
This matter has been around the committee dealing with social protection for well over a year.
There was an extensive debate on Committee Stage of the Bill, at which point talk emerged of a report. The proposal put forward was that the anomalies which have arisen as a result of the 2012 changes would be dealt with as part of the move from a total averaging system to a total contribution system. The then Minister spoke about bringing forward a report, but the report he envisaged was on a new pensions total contribution system.
Significant progress has been made on this issue in the past year in so far as the Minister, Deputy Doherty, has identified the 42,000 people who were affected by the 2012 changes, two thirds of them women, and undertaken to deal with them as a specific individual cohort, separate from the roll-out of a new pension scheme. That is a significant advance on what we were looking at 12 months ago. There is now clarification that this is a stand-alone issue which uniquely impacts those people who were affected by the 2012 changes. We often talk about winners and losers when discussing a particular provision or measure, but there are no winners among these people. It is clearly unfair that they should be entitled to less than those who qualified for their pensions earlier. We cannot contemplate a system where there is an unfairness that leads to a large cohort of people losing out.
The Minister appeared before the joint committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection several weeks before the budget. In the course of our discussion, she asked members to identify a number of priority issues that she might be able to effect in the budget. As Chairman, my concluding remarks to her, after a long debate, were that the two issues of most importance were those on which we had issued reports to her, namely, the position of lone parents and the anomaly in entitlement to the contributory State pension. These were clearly identified as the two most significant issues that had emerged during the course of the committee's work. I was consequently disappointed when budget day came and the issue of the anomaly, which we had specifically raised, both in the Dáil and in committee, was not addressed in any way. I am glad that progress has since been made such that this group has been identified and the Minister has given clear indications that she will progress a solution for the group separate to the rolling out of a new total contribution pension system. That the matter is to be dealt with separately, as a stand-alone issue, is a vital consideration.
To clarify, the Minister said specifically at the committee meeting that she would present a report on the matter to the next relevant Cabinet sub-committee, following which she would take it to the very next Cabinet meeting and thereafter publish it. It was in this context that members of the committee who were in attendance did not press amendments and undertook to draft new proposals that would reflect the undertaking given by the Minister. We do not want to wait three months or six months for that undertaking to be delivered. The Minister was very specific in giving us that commitment and, as such, her reputation is on the line. She gave a clear public undertaking to the committee and to individuals members and we wish to hold her to account for it. The issue has gone on too long. Part of the reason for her proposing to present the report to the sub-committee, the Minister told us, was that additional moneys would be required to implement its recommendations. That was clearly set out as a consideration in the timeframe she proposed for dealing with the matter.
These amendments are reflective of that timeline. The Minister was to take the report to the relevant sub-committee and immediately thereafter to Cabinet. We hope the report she presents includes specific recommendations and will facilitate immediate change. On the question of more money being required, the reality is that, most years, savings are made in the Department. We cannot wait until the end of this year or until next year's budget before addressing the unfairness that was imposed on these people. A timeline must be set out for how they can recover the money they have lost. Parity must be re-established such that they are receiving the same level of funding as are those who retired before 2012. While publishing the report in the timely fashion the Minister has indicated she will do is important, the content and detail of that report are of equal importance. It must clearly show how we are to bring people up to the level of payment they would have received had the 2012 changes not been made. The committee was very specific in its report that the first step should be to suspend the 2012 changes, after which a discussion can take place on how to restore parity.
I urge the Minister of State to accept amendment No. 4, because it is exactly reflective of what the Minister has said she intends to do. There is no conflict between what she has proposed and what is in the amendment. The Bill that is passed by these Houses should reflect what is not just the will of the Oireachtas but also what the Minister has committed to doing.
I support the points made strongly by colleagues regarding the 2012 changes. Those changes were made at a particular time, when a series of harsh decisions was implemented because of the problems facing the country. Many of those decisions were wrong, however, and some of them are being reversed. The anomaly we are discussing here is a case in point. It is discriminatory and wrong and requires immediate reversal.
Colleagues have given examples of how people were caught out by it. Those people, predominantly women, who took time out for caring duties should not be penalised for having done so. They did it before the homemaker's scheme was in place and their contribution in caring for children or dependent older adults must be recognised. Equally, people should not be penalised because they started working very early, in many cases when they were still in school or college, and those early stamps are now distorting their entire record of contributions. It is wrong that one person should have an entitlement to a full State pension simply because their years of working were continuous while another person who might have more contributions but also has a gap in the middle is penalised. This is a glaring anomaly that must be addressed quickly on the grounds of fair play.
When the Minister finally realised there was a problem, which took some time, she gave a strong commitment to close the anomaly. She was expressing her determination in this regard right up to budget time but, since then, it has changed to a determination to produce and publish a report. My concern is that there seems to have been an intervention by the Taoiseach, who, consistently and in spite of what the Minister said, has indicated his preference to address this issue by way of the move towards a total contribution model in 2020. That is not an adequate response to the women who find themselves facing discrimination in retirement. Introducing a total contribution scheme may have merits in its own right, but it will not address the problems faced by the 42,000 people who were caught by this particular austerity measure.
I fully support the points made by colleagues and I urge the Minister of State to accept the amendment on behalf of the Minister. The latter must be held to account for the commitment she gave to address this issue.
I do not intend to accept these amendments. I wish to point out that the current rate bands applying to the contributory State pension were introduced from September 2012, replacing previous rates introduced in 2000. The rate bands prior to 2000 were less generous and the improved rate bands introduced in 2000 were a feature of the economic and political environment at that time. The economic crash changed the focus and while other payments were reduced as a result, the core rates of the pension, on which many pensioners were solely dependent, were maintained. Instead, the rates for new pensioners who had additional means and lesser PRSI contribution records were reduced.
The 2012 rate bands more closely reflect the social insurance contribution history of a person than those in place between 2000 and 2012. However, the current rate bands still provide pensions to people that are more generous than strictly proportionate with their level of contribution. A person with only 20 years of contributions over nearly 50 years will still get an 85% pension. This is an extremely good outcome for those people. It is estimated that to revert to the previous bands from January 2018 would result in an annual cost of well over €70 million in 2018 and this annual cost would increase by an estimated €10 million to €12 million each following year. The precise cost is difficult to arrive at as there would be new contributory pension claims made by people currently in receipt of either a non-contributory pension or an increase for qualified adult, IQA, payment.
Most countries have a contributory pension and there is nothing anomalous about those persons who have fewer contributions having lesser entitlements to contributory benefits such as a pension. Outcomes under our State pension system are more equal than in most EU countries with average payments of State pension payments to men and women at about parity, unlike the significant disparities which exist in many other countries where lifetime earnings are part of the pension rate calculation. The Department is examining in depth various options that would provide some relief to those who would have a higher contributory pension had the rate bands not been amended in 2012. If there are equitable changes that target such relief to those who were particularly affected by anomalies under the yearly average system, particularly if they had homemaking periods prior to the introduction of the homemakers' scheme, the Minister will ask the Government to consider if and how these might be financed.
As soon as the report is finished, the Minister intends to bring it to the next Cabinet committee on pensions, in which Members appear to be interested, which takes place just after Christmas on 18 January. Following that she will bring proposals to Government for consideration. This is a priority for the Minister and the Department and I do not consider it necessary to insert a statutory obligation and a timeline on a piece of work that is already in progress. The Minister made a commitment on Committee Stage of this Bill to take these steps and to publish the final report. There is no need for these amendments. Including a reference to "Cabinet" is not good legislative practice because there is an obligation on the Cabinet to be confidential and the word is normally not used in legislation as it could create a risk of ambiguity across the Statute Book. The Minister has given a commitment and this will go before the Cabinet sub-committee on pensions on 18 January. As soon as the Cabinet meeting is finished she will publish its considerations and the option papers. I ask Members to reconsider their amendments given that the Minister will do this when the Dáil returns after Christmas.
The Minister of State mentioned Cabinet confidentiality but Cabinet confidentiality has nothing to do with this. We are looking for a report which went to Government to be published after the Government has considered it. We are looking to bring about something the Minister promised and I tried to draft the amendment to reflect exactly what the Minister said in committee. I do not distrust the Minister and I take her at face value. She once said she did not trust us but I do not reciprocate that distrust as I believe what she says. If she is sincere about it, what is the problem with the amendment? Deputy Bríd Smith referred to an unfortunate experience when we were promised certain things that did not materialise.
It is unfortunate that it was deliberate. If something is specifically written into the legislation it cannot be avoided and I am just trying to write into the legislation what the Minister specifically promised in committee. I cannot see any real difficulty with that.
What the Minister, Deputy Doherty, is saying now, in her absence, amounts to a rowing back on her commitments given on Committee Stage. We were told the paper was ready and would be presented at sub-committee level, and hopefully at full Cabinet level, before Christmas but now we are being told it is being pushed back to a sub-committee on 18 January. As she had indicated previously that it would be presented in November, this already means it will be three months later and it has not been published. I changed my amendment to reflect a commitment given by the Minister. The previous amendment was to hold Government to a three-month timeframe for the report, which has been finalised. We were told a comprehensive analysis of the data, paper and computerised, had been done but now we hear Cabinet confidentiality put forward as an excuse. It was the Minister who gave the rock-solid assurances that, if Members withdrew their amendments, she would bring it forward before Christmas.
I will push my own amendment and support the other amendments. As Deputy Curran said, the Minister's reputation is now on the line. My patience is starting to grow thin. Maybe I am naive but I have given her the benefit of the doubt as a new Minister who seemed sincere. However, the timeframe is starting to drag on and the amendments have to be pushed.
The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, went out to battle on RTÉ's nine o'clock news programme in the run-up to the budget for additional resources and she did not really deliver so I am also a bit suspicious. I do not have the honour of being on the social protection committee but I used to ask the current Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, about this issue a lot when he was the relevant Minister and he understands the injustice that is being done. The current Minister, Deputy Doherty, answered a parliamentary question recently to the effect that restoration would cost €70 million and it would be a further cost of between €10 million and €12 million annually. She told me what she told the committee but it does not seem to be leading to a resolution. I asked Deputy Varadkar, as Minister, if he could make changes to the homemakers' scheme so as to give the same resources to the women who were most affected.
The Minister, Deputy Doherty, mentioned this in her recent reply to me but she did not give any indication of the way in which she is going to address it. She went on to speak at length about the total contributions approach. My gut feeling is to support all the amendments and to move my own amendment. Will the Minister of State give us any encouragement tonight with regard to the thinking of the Minister as to how this matter could be resolved to bring about a fair restoration and remove this injustice which we all see every week?
I support my colleague, Deputy O'Dea, and indeed all the speakers on this matter. We all know a terrible wrong was done which affects up to 40,000 people. I believe the Minister is sincere about tackling it but, a few short weeks ago, in late October I think, she said that there would not be a new system in place until 2020 and that a new contribution system would be in place by then. I would be afraid that this would be pushed out along the line and there could be a longer time for consultation. In reality, I do not think we can allow this matter to go on. We need to have it brought to a conclusion within months, if that can be done. I urge the Minister to deal with it as quickly as possible and the amendment must be supported. It was a dreadful mistake by the Labour Party at the time, as a part of the Government, to allow this to happen. That is history now., but we have to try to rectify it. I fully support the amendment from Deputy O'Dea because we all get people coming into us about this in our clinics all over the country. It is a big issue.
I add my voice to those who are concerned that there has been a retreat by the Minister from the commitment she gave. I do not regard it as just a personal commitment from the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, but all of these things are parliamentary parlance. People say things to get others to move on, and make commitments that they do not believe they can actually stand over. The Minister might disagree with me but, if that is the case, we need an explanation as to why she is not able to stand over that commitment. Was there an intervention by the Minister for Finance at a Cabinet meeting or did the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, say not to mind it since he got away with it for a whole year without issuing a report so the current Minister did not need to stick to her commitment? We need the figures, a report and we need to be able to verify what is being said about the cost of this and how and where it will be provided. Even if the figures of €70 million and €250 million or whatever it is are accurate, it is a drop in the ocean compared to what the State, and this and previous Governments have done and are prepared to do to bail out banks, pamper the rich, and look after developers and vulture funds. I could go on, but I will not. The Minister of State knows what I mean.
I meant what I said earlier. We cannot let up the pressure on this issue. People need to get outside the Dáil to protest about this issue. It is not good enough just to leave it to pensioners. I am hurtling towards pension age as are many other workers. Unless we address this now, we will all find that we are impoverished by the time we reach 66. I believe the trade union movement and all NGOs that are concerned about the elderly should take this up as a mantra and ensure that the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, finds the money.
I wish various Deputies would take the Minister's word. We have a date of 18 January. That is when the Cabinet committee on pensions is meeting. We all know that an injustice has been done and the preparation of a report is ongoing in the Department. It is looking at the various options. I ask Members to acknowledge that the Minister has given a date on this. It will go to Government immediately and she will bring the proposals to the House. She has no problem issuing the option papers.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:"17.The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall review the impact of removing income generated from rent-a-room relief from the means test for those in receipt of the One Parent Family Payment and shall bring forward a report on the same within 6 months of this Bill being enacted.".
This amendment requires yet another report, on the impact of removing income generated from rent-a-room relief from the means test for those in receipt of one-parent family payment. The Minister will be aware that we have a scheme called the rent-a-room scheme for tax purposes. It means that if somebody rents out a room in his or her house, that person can earn up to €14,000 per annum tax free. Unfortunately, a reciprocal arrangement does not operate for people in receipt of social protection payments. People in receipt of means-tested social welfare payments are means-tested on every cent from that rental income.
I am focusing on lone parents in particular and of all the different groups, the poverty statistics among lone parents are very dramatic indeed. According to a small calculation I did, if a single parent looking after three children is earning €350 per week and renting a room for €80 per week, that person will only gain €35 because of the means test. This is a disincentive for people among the poorest group in society to earn a little extra income which they badly need. It is a classic poverty trap. I want a report to be done so that it can be referred to committee and we can point out, as I am sure we will be able to, that the financial consequences of this will be minuscule because, due the means tests that exist already, one will find that very few single parents rent out a room in their house. In many cases, they do not have any room to rent out. In other cases, the disincentive is so strong that it is just not worth their while to do it. Such a report would be worthwhile and we can work out the financial implications and discuss that at committee with a view to removing that anomaly and difference in tax treatment between renting out a room and the social welfare treatment when people are in receipt of means-tested social welfare payments in next year's budget.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“Review of Bereavement Grant
17.The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within 6 months after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas reviewing the abolition of the Bereavement Grant and setting out the options for restoring those grants.”.
This is a worthwhile amendment but I apologise because I do not want the Minister to come back from Brussels or wherever she is and find that she suddenly has to write about 172 reports. We discussed this on Committee Stage and there were two things missing from my proposal then. One was a timeline so I have rectified that and put in six months. I think the Minister suggested on Committee Stage that I should have been more specific in what I was seeking but, for whatever reason, that does not appear to have happened.
The loss of the bereavement grant resulted in €25 million being taken away from assisting people in the event of a death. I was talking to somebody at the weekend after a sad funeral in Limerick, and I assure Deputies that it was a no frills funeral. I imagine it was the cheapest possible funeral but when a member of the family volunteered to me how much it cost, I was absolutely shocked. It is getting more and more expensive to die. My own family had a sad bereavement recently and it brought home to me that when a family member dies, one has grief, anguish and pain. In that situation, one does not want to be going around to credit unions seeking to borrow money or, worse again, going to some vulture of a money lender who will clean out a person looking for money. I have come across problems at constituency level and I am sure others have also. There is a gap between the amount the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is prepared to pay towards the cost of funeral expenses and the cost of the funeral.
We will have to focus on that next year. Due to the lack of specificity, if that is the correct word, in my amendment, I will not press it.
I warmly support the amendment tabled by Deputy O'Dea. This relates closely to the earlier discussion about exceptional needs payments. The explanation at the time was that undertakers' fees, etc., were being inflated because families were getting this support. It was helpful to families who had very little savings down through the years. As Deputy O'Dea said, people have to scramble around and go to the credit union and so on to try to come up with what seems to be an increasingly costly sad occasion. It is timely for us to begin to think about bereavement grants.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on State Contributory Pension
17. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on including claimants for the State contributory pension who raised families prior to 1994 in the Homemakers Scheme.”.
Gerry Adams, John Brady, Tommy Broughan, Pat Buckley, Michael Collins, Catherine Connolly, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pearse Doherty, Dessie Ellis, Martin Ferris, Kathleen Funchion, Martin Kenny, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Eoin Ó Broin, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Maurice Quinlivan, Róisín Shortall, Bríd Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín.
Maria Bailey, Pat Breen, Colm Brophy, Richard Bruton, Peter Burke, Seán Canney, Joe Carey, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Simon Coveney, Michael Creed, Michael D'Arcy, Jim Daly, John Deasy, Pat Deering, Paschal Donohoe, Andrew Doyle, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frances Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzmaurice, Peter Fitzpatrick, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Michael Healy-Rae, Martin Heydon, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, Seán Kyne, Helen McEntee, Mattie McGrath, Joe McHugh, Tony McLoughlin, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Kevin Moran, Eoghan Murphy, Denis Naughten, Hildegarde Naughton, Tom Neville, Michael Noonan, Kate O'Connell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, John Paul Phelan, Michael Ring, Noel Rock, Shane Ross, David Stanton.
John Brassil, Declan Breathnach, James Browne, Mary Butler, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Jack Chambers, Lisa Chambers, Barry Cowen, John Curran, Seán Fleming, Seán Haughey, Billy Kelleher, John Lahart, Marc MacSharry, Charlie McConalogue, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Margaret Murphy O'Mahony, Eugene Murphy, Éamon Ó Cuív, Jim O'Callaghan, Willie O'Dea, Kevin O'Keeffe, Fiona O'Loughlin, Frank O'Rourke, Anne Rabbitte, Eamon Scanlon, Brendan Smith.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:"Report on Jobseekers Allowance
17. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the impacts on young people under 24 and 26 years of age of the reduced levels of jobseekers allowance applicable to them and report further on reversing these reduced allowances.".
This amendment speaks for itself. It seeks a report on why this Dáil continues to discriminate against young people. This Dáil probably does not believe it discriminates against young people but, under the legislation that is about to be passed, there will be different rates of social welfare payment for young people than for others, depending on whether those young people are under 24 or under 26. Although the amendment is only seeking a report on the impact of discrimination against young people, because of the reduced level of jobseeker's allowance applied to them I am sure it will meet the same opposition as the amendment seeking a report into the effects of the implementation of the homemaker's scheme and the denial of the associated benefit to people, mainly women, who made their homes prior to 1994. In a similar vein, we are discriminating against young people, young people under 24 in one bracket and young people under the age of 26 in another. Neither category is entitled to equality.
The Taoiseach talks about a republic of opportunities. The affected young people are the very people to whom we should be giving opportunities but we start by being totally miserable with the payments they receive while they are dependent on social protection. That might seem like nothing to us in this House, as we earn very good money, and it may seem nothing to some who do not even know how much they earn because they are so wealthy. For young people who are entirely dependent on the jobseeker's allowance, it means an awful lot. An extra €10, €15 or €20 per week could make a huge difference in their lives.
I want to ask an obvious question: does anybody really believe young people get a cheaper bus fare, cheaper rent or cheaper food than those over 26 or that it is easier for them to buy a pair of runners or raincoat than it is for those over 26?
The entire measure is a nonsense. If one is unemployed and if one is available for work and is seeking work and cannot find it, then one should be treated the same as everybody else. That is an absolute necessity. The report is required because it would explain the thinking of the Cabinet and, in particular, the Ministers for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Finance who say that the measures are necessary in order to balance the budget. I would like to hear what they believe in terms of discrimination against elderly people, older people or pensioners - whatever is the politically correct term - on the one hand, and young people who are the future of this country, on the other.
I support the amendment. I spoke already this evening about the discrimination that is ingrained in the social protection system. This is a further discriminatory practice. I do not know any young people who are unemployed and who want to be on social welfare. They want to get work.
The former Minister for Social Protection spoke at a committee meeting about young people getting off planes from foreign countries. To paraphrase what he said, "How can they get off planes here and get work?" He was questioning what our young unemployed people in this State are doing. Unfortunately, that is the mentality we are dealing with here. Young people should be treated with equality. What is happening is totally wrong.
When the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection was questioned on this issue on Committee Stage, she said a report is being compiled and it is hoped that it will be forthcoming. Perhaps she is not aware that the report, which was compiled by NUI Maynooth, has been published. I think it was published in April. It is not acceptable for the Minister to say on Committee Stage that she is waiting for a report when it is ready for her to view.
The Minister also said a review of the cuts is being carried out by the Government and that it will be published in the next year. I tabled a question to the then Minister for Social Protection in May regarding the review and he said it was ongoing and he was hopeful that a report would be produced before the end of the year. We should have all of the information but, unfortunately, we do not. This is a continuation of a previous debate we had on discrimination against older people in which we were promised report after report but they were put on the long finger. It seems the work has been done on the report into the discrimination imposed on young jobseekers, which is compounding problems for them right across the board. Short of seeing the reports that have been compiled, it is critical to accept the amendment in order to put a timeframe on getting a report and seeing the impact of the discriminatory cuts that were imposed on young jobseekers.
The Dáil has ordered that we conclude at 10.15 p.m. and the Bill has to go to the Seanad tomorrow. I would love if we could complete it. All the points that are being made are vitally important but I ask Members to try to be succinct as possible so that we can get the business done by 10.15 p.m. If people want, we could come in next week and sit extra days.
I will be brief. I strongly support the amendment. We have been talking about discrimination against a cohort of citizens most of the evening in terms of women and pensioners. Even after the budget, the 18 to 24 years cohort just receive €107.70 and that is most discriminatory. The policy should be reconsidered. For example, more than 700 young people who are signing on at the two employment exchanges in my constituency are affected by this policy.
I can inform Deputy Brady that the report has not been published in full. Initial results were published in April. We hope the report will be published in the coming weeks or months. We do not have an exact timetable for it yet. NUI Maynooth is undertaking research, the purpose of which is to examine the effectiveness of the reduced rates in encouraging young jobseekers to avail of education, training, employment programmes and other opportunities. My Department has not commissioned this research. Rather, as part of an effort to encourage and promote research, it has facilitated the university with access to the data in order that it might undertake the research. Initial results were published in the form of a working paper in April and that is available on the university's website. The Department is currently considering the contents of that research. Among the initial findings is an indication that the reduction in jobseeker's payments for 18 and 19 year olds in 2009 led to reductions in the duration of unemployment, although only the effect on 18 year olds is statistically significant.
Under Pathways to Work 2016-2020, my Department is committed to review and report on the impact of the reduced payment rates for jobseekers aged between 18 and 25. The review will be finalised shortly and will take account of the results of the NUI Maynooth research. Jobseekers under 26 years of age who have qualified children and those who were in the care of the HSE immediately before they turned 18 are not subject to the reduced rates of jobseeker's allowance. Similarly, those transferring from disability allowance or jobseeker’s benefit are not paid at the lower rates. Furthermore, should a young jobseeker on a reduced jobseeker's allowance payment participate on an education or training programme, he or she will then receive the maximum personal rate for jobseeker's allowance. In budget 2018, we are providing for an increase of €5 per week in the maximum personal rate of jobseeker's allowance for recipients of all ages. Those aged under 26 will also receive the €5 increase. This means that a jobseeker's allowance recipient aged 18 to 24 will, from March 2018, receive €107.70. For those on the maximum rate, their payment will increase from €193 to €198 per week. Also as part of budget 2018, I announced the introduction of the youth employment support scheme, which is targeted at young jobseekers.
I will conclude on this point because we are all anxious to finish the Bill tonight. The Central Statistics Office figures on unemployment are encouraging. They show that unemployment fell to 14% in October. That is a significant decrease of almost six percentage points, from 19.7%, in the past 24 months. The overall unemployment rate fell to 6%, which is very encouraging. I ask Deputy Bríd Smith to withdraw her amendment.
I will not press the amendment to a vote. I do not see the point in doing so because I know it will be defeated. However, I wish to comment on what the Minister of State said. His opening remarks are shocking. The implication is that if one pays young people practically nothing and cuts their dole to the minimum, it will force them out the door to work. That is not true. I would love to get my hands on the completed report. We should insist on a full debate on it when it becomes available because it will be discovered that at the same time as the cut to the social protection measures, there was a move to push young people into other labour activation measures. We will discuss this matter at the committee tomorrow.
There are many problems with JobPath and the other initiatives that were taken. Deputy Catherine Murphy did a very good exposé on some of the private companies that are being engaged to work with young people and often push them into bogus self-employment contracts. There are significant problems with the way we are treating young people in terms of future jobs and their prospects in this country. It stems from the idea that one pushes them out the door, cuts their pay and forces them into any old job they will take. That does not take cognisance of what is emerging and neither does it take cognisance of the number of young people who have been forced to emigrate because it is unbearable to try to live on that level of income support. The Minister of State should try to live on that amount.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:"Report on changes to State Contributory Pension
17.The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, report to the Houses of the Oireachtas on reversing the changes to the bands for the State contributory pension that have resulted in over 40,000 pensioners having their contributory pension reduced compared to what they would have received under the old bands.".
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on Employers’ PRSI Contributions
17.Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Minister will lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on increasing employers’ PRSI contributions with special regard to the models and levels of employers’ contributions in other European states.”.
We often have big discussions. Many on this side of the House are advocating for more equality in social protection. I can hear the question ringing in the heads of those looking at me. They are asking where the money will come from. This amendment tries to deal with one aspect of that question. There are many ways to skin a cat and there are many ways to get money in this capitalist society in which we live. The amendment tries to deal with one of these ways comprehensively.
I am going to press the amendment. It calls on the Minister to lay before the House a report on the increase in employers' PRSI contribution and the levels of contributions that are paid in other European states.
The proposal formed part of our alternative budget submission. We were able to show that if employers here paid the same level employers pay in France, then we could raise a further €16 billion per year. That is merely an example in financial terms of how comparatively low employers' PRSI contributions are here as against the average throughout Europe. The employers' contribution to social protection is 42% of the EU average. Is it any wonder that we have less decent public services?
If a patient goes into a clinic in Germany, she gets seen right away and only pays €15 for medication and the visit to the doctor. When a patient goes to an emergency department in this country, she could be left waiting and the hospital seeks €100 for the visit. The patient probably does not get treated properly or receive the right X-rays either. That is simply an example of a public service that is underfunded and inefficient because we do not collect the resources available.
We need to look carefully at why three times the level of employers' PRSI is charged in other countries compared to Ireland. The amendment calls on the Minister and the Department to produce a report on the matter with cognisance of the European average.
I do not propose to accept the amendment. In addition to the PRSI paid by employees, PRSI is payable by employers on the basis of the salary paid to their employees. Most employments fall under PRSI class A. The rate of employer PRSI under class A is 8.5% where weekly earnings are €376 or less and 10.75% where weekly earnings exceed €376.
It is generally recognised that the rate of employer PRSI payable is lower in Ireland than any other EU countries. Ireland is the 11th lowest in the list of OECD countries for employer social security contributions, while employee contributions are the sixth lowest. However, it is important to note that in many countries there is either a cap on employer social security costs or a reduced rate above a certain income threshold. In Ireland, a flat rate is charged on the full salary. In these cases, direct comparisons of rates would not provide a realistic basis for assessing the effective rate of employer contribution.
Consideration of increasing the rate of PRSI charged to employers is part of the larger debate on policy development of social insurance in the years ahead. The findings in the recently-published Actuarial Review of the Social Insurance Fund at the end of 2015 will serve as an important input to the debate. As the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, indicated at the time of its publication, the review provides Government with an evidence-based and timely opportunity to consider reform of how our social insurance system is financed. The Minister also stated that she intended to consult widely on these reform options. In light of the Minister's intention to undertake a review of our entire system of social insurance, it would not be appropriate to consider changes in only one aspect of social insurance, that is, the rate of contribution paid by employers, in isolation. That would not amount to good practice. A commitment to increase the rate of employer PRSI would be premature given the requirement to take a broader perspective on changes to social insurance.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on the pension bands and rates
17.The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the issue of the 2012 changes to pension bands and rates, including possible solutions and the associated costs involved, immediately following its presentation to the Cabinet.”.
The Government has essentially accepted this amendment given the fact that it supported one put forward earlier.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on fuel poverty in Ireland
17.The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the impact of cuts to the fuel allowance given the increase in fuel costs and examine the impact that partial restoration of the fuel allowance would have on fuel poverty and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within six months of enactment of this Bill.”.
I will be brief because I spoke extensively on Committee Stage. It is a serious issue that needs to be examined. We know a cut was made to the fuel allowance from 32 to 26 weeks. There has been an increase up to 27 weeks, which is welcome. Fuel poverty is extensive. It is rampant throughout our State. It is estimated that more than 400,000 households throughout the State experience fuel poverty of one level or another. It is estimated that there are more than 3,000 excess winter deaths among those over 65 years in the State. Between 2005 and 2009, it is estimated that 400 of those deaths were directly linked to temperature inside the home. That is a stark figure.
Unfortunately, we know the cuts to the fuel allowance have increased fuel poverty throughout the State. We have all heard the evidence. Elderly people have come to my constituency office saying that they have to make choices between turning on the heating, putting food on the table or buying clothing. That is a terrible situation for anyone to be subjected to.
I welcome the fact that the Minister made changes on foot of amendments that I brought forward in last year's Bill to give out bulk payments. There are two bulk payments under the fuel allowance. Certainly, that has helped our elderly people in particular. They can buy in advance and avail of any special deals or offers.
The entire issue needs to be looked at. I have laid out the statistics. They are stark and real. We need to examine the impact these cuts have had. We need to examine the benefit of increasing the fuel allowance from €22.50 per week over the 27-week period in which it is paid and the benefits in terms of lifting people out of fuel poverty. All of this needs to be looked at. That is why I am asking for a report to be compiled and brought back to us to see what changes can be made.
This very day I was talking to a senior constituent. For a good part of the day he wears his coat at home and tries to conserve energy as much as possible. We had some recent reports on energy cost in Ireland - I realise it is not directly the area of responsibility of the Minister of State. We seem to be coming out as the second highest in the OECD. The level of energy costs is incredible. I have never found the Commission for Energy Regulation to be very effective. I know one of two colleagues would have invigilated the commission down through the years. I gather it is now called the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. It never seemed to give us any serious competition in the delivery of energy.
As Deputy Brady has said, a considerable cohort of our population has been deeply affected by the cuts in this area. Obviously, it is something the Government should address urgently.
Earlier today, at the Committee on Budgetary Oversight I heard the leader of the Green Party refer to the necessity for more carbon taxes. Of course he was in government previously. He propped up two Fianna Fáil taoisigh for a lengthy period – I am referring to Mr. Ahern and Mr. Cowen. During that time we had a major energy poverty problem but we did not see it being addressed then. Yet he is calling for new impositions in terms of the carbon taxation. Such taxes would, as always, impact most heavily on the poorest cohort of our population.
It is especially untimely. I support the amendment because it is a matter that we should be conscious of and address in social protection legislation.
I thank Deputies Brady and Broughan for their contributions. I do not propose to accept this amendment. Fuel allowance is just one element of the Government's strategy to tackle energy poverty, which is a complex matter. In 2016, the Government launched a comprehensive strategy to combat energy poverty. This followed extensive public consultation and the strategy builds on the progress and experience developed over the four years since the publication of the first Government strategy on affordable energy. It expands the reach of existing energy efficiency schemes and commits the Government to developing and piloting new measures to find more effective ways to focus energy efficiency efforts on those most at risk of energy poverty. It puts in place the structures and the accountability to ensure the challenge is effectively addressed at every level of Government and across the public service.
The fuel allowance scheme assists pensioners and other welfare dependent householders with meeting the cost of their heating needs during the winter season. The payment is made to more than 376,000 of the most disadvantaged households, including pensioners, who are most at risk of energy poverty. In recent years, there have been increases in both the amount and the duration of the fuel allowance. In budget 2016, the fuel allowance rate was increased from €20 to €22.50 per week, which represented a 12.5% increase in the rate of this payment. This increase was estimated to cost €24.5 million in 2016. In budget 2018, it was announced that the number of weeks the fuel allowance will be paid is to be increased from 26 to 27.
In 2017, the estimate for expenditure for the fuel allowance is €229 million, a substantial amount. The Department also pays the household benefits package at an estimated cost of €232 million in 2017, of which €177 million relates to the electricity or gas allowance element of the household benefits package. As of the end of October this year, 432,711 households were in receipt of the electricity or gas allowance element of the household benefits package.
We are constantly reviewing the rate of payment of fuel allowance and we have an important strategy on energy poverty in place. I do not propose to accept the amendment.
It is unfortunate that the Government does not acknowledge the need for a report on this matter. The Minister indicated she was prepared to examine the issue and that it would be useful to do so. It is not right that the payment of €22.50 should remain static for the 376,000 people who depend on it and are, as the Minister of State acknowledged, among the most needy in the State. In real terms, the value of the allowance is being reduced every year by inflation. This issue must be examined to determine if €22.50 is an adequate weekly payment. In my view, it is not adequate because fuel costs are increasing every year.
A comprehensive report on the issue is needed. While I acknowledge that the issue is cross-departmental and does not only relate to the Department of Employment and Social Protection, nevertheless, the Department deals specifically with the fuel allowance. For this reason, I ask that a report be commissioned on the impact of the decision to cut the duration of the payment from 32 weeks to 26 weeks. While I acknowledge that it has since been increased to 27 weeks, it should also be noted that the rate of payment has remained static for much too long.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on the restoration of pension bands and rates
17. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas within 3 months of the enactment of this Bill indicating the impacts of the 2012 Social Welfare Act changes in bands and rates on State pension recipients and indicating how these pension losses and the original bands and rates may be restored.”.
I move amendment No. 15:
15. In page 13, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on pension bands and rates
17. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the issue of the 2012 changes to pension bands and rates, including possible solutions and the associated costs involved, immediately following it’s presentation to the Cabinet.”.