Thursday, 29 November 2018
Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill: Report Stage
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 12, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:
“Exceptional Needs Payment
12.Section 201 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 is amended by the addition of “which is not necessarily unforeseen” after “by way of a single payment to meet an exceptional need”.”.
This is an amendment to 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.
I want to add the words “which is not necessarily unforeseen”. In 2017, the Minister informed me that, under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, "the Department may make a single exceptional needs payment, ENP, to help meet essential, once-off and unforeseen expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of his or her weekly income". She also told me the scheme was demand-led and was costing €32 million in 2017.
I have received many complaints from constituents and I have received advice from their legal advisers to the effect that the addition of this reference to unforeseen expenditure is illegal and is not in the legislation. When one reads over it, one sees that there is no basis for adding this administrative condition regarding the exceptional needs payment. One example I encountered is where, say, a grandmother had a fatal illness and when the issue of funeral expenses arose following her death, while it may have been an exceptional expense for the family, it was not necessarily unforeseen. The test in the 2005 legislation is that payment may be made if exceptional circumstances arise but it appears the Department is erecting a further hurdle to make it more difficult to secure exceptional needs payments. The Department's interpretation of the matter is basically illegal. With regard to the definitions, the statutory test in the 2005 Act includes the word "exceptional". I am informed that to seek to add the further statutory hurdle of "unforeseen" is unlawful.
In 2016, Mr. Justice Hogan gave an explanation of the meaning of the word "exceptional" in the case of McE v. Residential Institutions Redress Board. From this decision, it is clear that "exceptional" means exceptional circumstances simpliciter, with the standard of exceptionality measured by reference to contemporary standards prevailing within the general public. To include the additional standard of "unforeseen" appears unlawful. A number of the legal advisers of constituents have pursued legal actions in respect of this definition. It is notable that those cases were settled before the matter went to court. The reason they are being settled by the Department is that the Minister does not have a leg to stand on in legal terms. She should accept the amendment and change the 2005 Act.
It appears that a gross anomaly has arisen on foot of the implementation of austerity from 2008, when the Government crushed the social protection budget and tried to, at all costs, keep it under €19 billion. The area of exceptional was most vulnerable at that time and it was where the Government made the biggest savings.
One of the major problems that arises relates to the fact that the Government does not keep records of the people who have applied. The Minister provided detailed information from 2017 and earlier this year which shows that approximately 9,000 applications per month are successful. However, the Department does not keep a record of the applications that have not been successful, particularly those that have been refused because of this additional administrative law that the House has not sanctioned. I am informed that, of the 100,000 successful applications for exceptional needs payments per year, it is impossible to know how many eligible applicants are being refused due to what is clearly an improper test being applied. As stated, the Department is continuing to apply this test and it is clear that this is due to the powers granted to deciding officers under section 201 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. The Minister's predecessor made law on the hoof during the years of austerity, which was wrong. The Minister should accept the amendment.
Yes. The Deputy is right that it was never in the law; it was never intended to be in the law. I ask the Deputy to consider not pressing the amendment on the basis that because it was never in the law, it should never have been put into the guidelines. For some reason, it was put into the guidelines. The Deputy can blame who he likes but it certainly was not me who did that. However, I removed it last January. I would be disheartened if the Deputy is able to tell me that people are still being refused exceptional needs payments on the basis of unforeseen circumstances since January because I specifically changed the guidelines at that time.
Exceptional needs payments are for the purposes of meeting exceptional needs. If people could see such needs arising, they might not be exceptional. Either way, the reason we are here is as the last bastion of a source of income for people. If they need our help, they need our help. People do not choose to have exceptional needs. It was never in the legislation and, therefore, it was never a condition. While it was put into the guidelines, I took it out last January, so it should not be happening this year.
I value the advice I get in this regard, which is from people in Deputy Penrose's profession who work hard for our most vulnerable citizens. While I thank the Minister for changing that, I would like it to be in the law so nobody can contravene it again. Unfortunately, I have to press the amendment.
I have a general question which is not directly pertinent to the amendment but is pertinent to a matter the Minister undertook to consider on both Second Stage and Committee Stage. It relates to a point raised by Deputy Penrose regarding post-2012 pensioners and the date from which the change kicks in, that is, 1 September. The point the Deputy made was that there is an argument the scheme should kick in earlier, on 6 April. If there is some rationale for it being 1 September, the Minister might explain that.
Deputy Penrose and I have been sent correspondence during the past week with regard to this particular suggestion. It does not bear any changing of the date. The introduction of the new bands happened on the date of the introduction of the new legislation with regard to the T12 project.
I also take the opportunity to put on record a point concerning an amendment Deputy O'Dea kindly withdrew from the domiciliary care allowance section of the Bill on Committee Stage. It relates to our inability, under the current regulations, to recognise that parents have new family relationship arrangements for minding children. As a result of the five-day rule in regulation, domiciliary care allowance is being withheld in the cases of some children. I am proposing to change the regulations in the coming weeks and I have correspondence to come to the Deputy in that regard. I thank the Deputy for withdrawing the amendment. I will make the amendments to the regulations in the coming weeks.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 12, between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:“Review of carer’s allowance payment
13.The Minister shall conduct a review and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the financial hardship faced by carers who must provide full-time care in order to receive carer’s allowance restricting them from taking up other work to supplement their income, examining their access to pension entitlements as well as the barriers to the labour market they face after a period of caring and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within 6 months of the enactment of this Bill.”.
We had a good discussion on this amendment on Committee Stage. There are serious issues facing carers. The rule that they have to provide care for at least 35 hours a week restricts them from getting a job because they are limited to 15 hours work a week. This is also the case for education. We see more young carers now caring for family members and others. That will have a long-term impact on them because they can study for only 15 hours a week. We know of the huge saving carers make for this State because they get only €16 above the jobseeker's payment. They save the State millions of euro. Everyone acknowledges that, and the Minister does as well.
I am asking for a review of the carer's allowance, its impact on them and the long-term impact in terms of pension entitlements because if a carer is caring for 20 years or more they will not benefit from the total contributions approach, TCA. I had proposed that a review be carried out and brought back within three months. I have reworded the amendment to have that review and report within six months. There was broad agreement that if that change was made we could proceed with this amendment.
This is a useful proposal. One in 20 people in Ireland today is a carer. It is estimated that number will rise to one in five by 2030. We have to get ready for that. There are several problems with the carer's allowance as operated. There is lack of flexibility around the number of hours a person can work. I appreciate that if somebody is to be a carer they cannot work full-time outside the home but there should be some flexibility in the eligibility conditions. In addition, Family Carers Ireland and other worthy associations have made several recommendations that would substantially improve the carer's allowance at fairly minimal cost to the Exchequer and make it much more efficient.
Deputy Brady tabled this amendment on Committee Stage and wanted a report within three months but we took the view that six months might be a more realistic timescale. He has changed it to six months and in view of that I support the amendment.
This is an important amendment because carers are the people who are keeping this country running, apart from those who are working. Carers work extremely hard and get nothing for it. They get only a pittance that does not come anywhere near the minimum wage. I heard an example this morning of a lady who has come back from England. She is 50 odd years of age. She worked for 30 years in England and bought a house, which she sold. She brought home approximately €200,000. She is now at home looking after her father, keeping him in his home. She does not want anything from the State except a GP visit card. I asked her what about the carer's allowance. She said she was not entitled to it. I told her of course she was because if her dad had to go into an institution, it would cost €1,200 or €1,500 a week, or more in Dublin. In the country, it is an average of €1,000 or €1,200. She said she would have to go through the means test. It is abominable. This lady is not in my constituency but carers have been a personal crusade of mine since the day I came in here 26 years ago. It is time to abolish that means test. It is deterring a person like that lady who is obviously entitled to it. She is now sending the money she got when she sold her house in England. A trip to the doctor costs €60 or €70.
The problem in this situation is that the demands of caring affect the health of the carer. I saw my uncle doing it many years ago, looking after his elderly mother. It is some demand. I am very proud of people, in-laws, sons and daughters and other relatives who look after people in their own homes. We should salute them.
When I was a councillor I was abused for advocating rural planning. One of the reasons for this was that the son or daughter, nephew or niece could get a house near people in their own area. The great environmentalists said I was an environmental vandal. I was very proud to be an environmental vandal if it meant keeping people in their own place. This is one of the reasons for a review of the carer's allowance.
Deputy Brady is right that the conditions are very restrictive, namely, 15 hours outside the home. I will give an example of his point. I remember a man who had a small farm. He had approximately 25 head of cattle and with a feeder he could feed them in an hour and a quarter every day. I had to go to an appeal with that man. First, there was no understanding that 25 or 30 head of cattle could be fed with a front loader in 20 minutes. They did not accept that and said he had 30 acres. There would not be room to rear a snipe on 30 acres. They did not know but I gave them a bit of agricultural knowledge and let them know that horse was not going to trot. The man won his appeal, and rightly so.
There is a view within the social welfare system that if a person has something, the person will be milking the system by getting something else which is critical. I support this amendment unambiguously. It is a great amendment because nothing has been done for carers since I prepared my report in 2002 or 2003. It is time to consider it again. There were 15 recommendations in that report and we implemented seven. We kept consultants out. Forget about those boyos coming in looking for €50,000 and €60,000 to sit down and look at us. They do not have an ounce of knowledge compared with the people giving the money. This is good. The Minister should not have any consultants, rule them out. We do not want any of them near this review. We will do it ourselves in a committee. We will bring in the Care Alliance Ireland and all the other people involved. Let us get the best way of working this forward. It is an excellent amendment.
I do not know how long I will be here but when I leave this place, I would love to see the means test for carer's allowance abolished. I know it cannot be abolished forever. The caree qualifies on medical grounds. That is the most important parameter. After that, one gets into the nitty-gritty of the carer's allowance. The State is giving only €200. That works out at less than €3 an hour. The State is not being robbed - in fact, it is being subvented because after two to five years of caring, the carer can end by being more ill than the caree. I would say the Minister's heart is in making more improvements for the carers. We acknowledge the improvements made in recent years. The carer's grant is not a lot but it is a lot better than what is available elsewhere. I have done much research on this and it is good.
Many people do not get the carer's allowance but get the carer's grant and that is important. I have been involved with some of those people over the years. I know the Minister does not have a limitless pot and must spread it out. She provided for qualified children this year, which I acknowledge. It is a poverty issue. If she continues in the job, and best of luck to her if she does, this is the area on which I appeal to her to focus because carers are our unsung heroes. As I said on Second Stage, €100 million is needed for part 2 of the national carer's strategy. It is not a question of whether we can afford it because if we do not look after carers, we will end up in trouble. We will pay the price in our accident and emergency departments and in other institutions if we fail to look after them.
I support Deputy Penrose strongly in his remarks. I also support strongly the amendment in the name of Deputy Brady. Day in, day out we come across the many constituents we have who are in caring roles. They are often women in their 30s or 40s caring for two parents in their mid to late 80s. While it is great that people are living longer, there is no question that those carers are saving the State countless millions every year. I recall that when I was a member of his party, Deputy Penrose and I launched a report entitled Caring for our Carers in which we tried to lay out a step by step approach to recognise caring as a job of work and to look after carers adequately. Very often, it is traumatic for the person who has been carrying out the work when the caring is over. Supports are withdrawn and the person may have missed out, like women returners, on access to various schemes.
A closely related matter is the welcome news that we will look at the cost of disability. The Minister was awarded €300,000 by the Minister for Finance to do that work. When will it start and when can we expect a report? It is something that was in our charter and part of the Caring for Carers document I referenced earlier. All parties have prepared similar documents and this is something we all want. When will it happen?
I endorse the amendment. We discussed at the joint committee the importance of carers and the role they play. This report would be very revealing and helpful to analyse what is going on in a layer of society at which no one really looks. Very often, these are women. In most cases, they are women who work into their 50s and 60s to look after an elderly parent or an elderly or ill sibling. They often then find themselves incapable of entering the workplace due to their age. Technically, there is no such thing as ageism as that is illegal, but in reality it exists and it is often very difficult for those older people to access the labour market. I congratulate Pensioners for Equality which has achieved a great deal, with the Minister complying to remove the denial of the years of service of home carers, which is related to this issue of caring at home. It is not just about caring for children. It is also about caring for adults and parents. The pensioners who fought so hard to reverse that injustice can celebrate the passing of this legislation as part of their achievement. I congratulate them.
It is kind of a technical point, but when I was in prison 15 years ago for political activity, many people did work in the prison. I did not commit a crime, it was a civil action, in case Members think I am a robber. Some people work in prison to pass the day given the huge boredom they face. We all got an allowance of €2 per day, but those who worked in the prison got an extra €2. Subsequently, someone I know was imprisoned for protesting at Shannon over the war and for breaking a warplane. He volunteered to work in the kitchen and was given his extra €2 a day. He is now taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights to vindicate what he believes is his entitlement to have been paid the minimum wage for performing that work on behalf of the State in the prison to prepare and serve meals. Technically, a carer could argue the same point. I have worked as a carer and carers perform work on behalf of the State. If they did not, people like my mother or someone else's sister or father would end up in a hospital, home or other institution. As such, carers provide a safety net for the system. Technically, one could argue that carers should be paid the minimum wage for the 168 hours of care they provide every week. A carer is still caring for someone at night when he or she goes to bed. That may be a tall story and a tall argument, but the case could be taken because instead of being paid the minimum wage, the maths indicate that carers receive less than €2 per hour.
The amendment does not ask for that or anything like that. It asks simply that we look at the restrictions and the barriers and that a report be laid before the House by the Minister. Those restrictions and barriers include limitations on access to hours of work and the way means testing impacts on the life of a carer who reaches a certain age after the person being cared for passes away. People's lives are being left almost empty because they cannot access the labour market. The proposed report would be a very useful and insightful one on the lives of the women who, in the main, do the caring. It would contribute a great deal to the Department and to everyone who lives in Ireland.
I rise to support this very good amendment. As previous speakers said, it does not demand anything, albeit if anyone could or should make demands, it is the carers of Ireland. They are the unseen heroes. However, the amendment does not do that but is instead a carefully couched proposal for a timely review to consider the impediments to carers seeking to enter or return to the job market, including to do part-time work. Indeed, people on social welfare should be allowed to some bit of light work. Last week, the annual awards ceremony of Family Carers Ireland was held in Dublin. I attended the Tipperary awards and we had a contestant at last week's awards from the O'Keeffe family. I salute Family Carers Ireland and Catherine Cox as well as the regional manager for Carers Ireland in my area, Councillor Richie Molloy, who is also a colleague. They do tremendous work.
As Deputies, people trying to access carer's allowance come to us regularly but we cannot do much to help them. We try and we engage, but the process is too slow. The Minister knows that. There are too many regulations and too much ruaile buaile. As Deputy Penrose said, someone who qualifies medically should qualify under the means test unless he or she is a millionaire. The means test is so cruel and short-sighted because it is blind to the huge savings made in the health system, in particular. Accident and emergency queues are out the door and step-down facilities are non-existent. There have been cutbacks after cutbacks. The weekend respite which used to be available from district hospitals like St. Patrick's in Cashel is almost impossible to get now.
The carer may be a spouse, a brother or a sister. I remind Deputy Bríd Smith that many men do it well. I had a frightening reply to a parliamentary question recently which set out the number of children who provide care. Young boys and girls in their teenage years should be at school during the day and after school they should be allowed to interact with their families and engage in sport and other social activities. They should have fulfilling childhoods, engaging with the world and being out with their friends rather than bearing an onerous burden. It is great for them to help. It is a wonderful experience and a good grounding in life to understand people who get ill. However, it becomes very punitive when the child is a carer.
I do not have the figures with me but it is quite shocking and staggering to see the amount of people who are in this situation and it should be looked at.
This amendment asks the Government to look at that and to lay the results before the joint committee. It is more than timely with the large budget that is going into health and with fewer outcomes every year. There are many good outcomes in health but if older people do not have someone to advocate for them, they are abandoned and even with advocates it is not easy.
Care Alliance Ireland put on a lot of training and valuable further education and training awards council, FETAC, courses of different grades for people who are caring. It is a supportive organisation and I attend as many of their coffee mornings as I can on issues such as that. Those involved love for people to listen to them because they do this out of love and the goodness of their hearts to help their siblings, loved ones and parents and it can engross their whole life so it is important that they get respite and that the person who they are caring for gets respite. It is important that they have a chance to go out for an hour or so to engage with others and to share the different ideas they have and their good and bad news. A natter, a chat and an engagement break the monotony. The area of getting access carers is nearly impossible. As others have said, qualification should be on medical grounds and means testing is a cruel weapon in this regard. Carers themselves might be pensioners or be on social welfare and their means might not be wonderful anyway so why do we have to keep them waiting for 12 weeks or 4 months with so many back and forth exchanges because it is so difficult and obstructive a process for them? It is way too bureaucratic.
Often times a carer will just give up the ghost and do it alone quietly and unknown with no allowance and no help because they cannot cope with the system and the bureaucratic regulations and the obstacles that are put in their way. This request for a root and branch review and to bring that review back to the committee to deal with it is over time. It is timely but it is over due because people should get it. Without the carers we would be a much poorer society. Ní neart go cur le chéile is the old proverb that I like and they do it, they put their shoulder to the wheel and keep it there 24/7. It was mentioned that if we were to pay them, even when they get the carer's allowance, they are there night and day, they are on call and they are expected to be on call. That bond is there but the reassurance is also there that they can be called by the person they are caring for 24/7. They are earning less than €2 per hour if they work 168 hours per week. It is criminal.
We give out about people not paying the minimum wage and having proper statutory wages but this is something that we are getting. It is a great process that we have in our nation and it is a wonderful culture to foster, but why do we not show respect for it, support them and make it less onerous and cumbersome to try to avail of this and not have them looking over their shoulders? We should allow them to keep their finger in the job market so that when their loved one passes on they will not have the bigger void of unemployment and getting back into the job market after they have been caring for their loved one 24/7. We need to have a root and branch examination and I wholeheartedly support this amendment.
It is very good of the Acting Chairman to give me an opportunity to speak. I will not reiterate all of the points that were made but I support this amendment.
It is noticeable the number of times that the issue of carers and carer's allowance has been raised by Members in this House, particularly in the past year. It has been on Leaders Questions and we have had motions on it. We are becoming more and more aware of the role of carers, particularly as we have an ageing society.
This may be slightly tangential but it gets to the point. How frequently have we heard about the issue of somebody who is either in hospital or is about to be discharged and they cannot get home support services or a carer and we have delayed discharges as a result? The level of support that comes with a home support package is quite minimal and in many cases, family members become full-time carers and they play a huge role. When we talk about it in this House, I often feel that we speak about it in the abstract and we do not realise how much it impacts. I look at my wife who became a full time carer on two occasions. She became a full-time carer to my daughter when she was unwell and in more recent times she was a full-time carer to her mother. When I observed it, I saw that it is all-consuming when one becomes a carer.
Deputy Penrose referred to a woman who said that she did not want the carer's allowance and that is down to the hassle and intimidation around means testing, which makes people feel so bogged down. This review is important and I also want to mention that it is not just the carer's allowance as Deputy Brady has specifically said, but a number of people will have been in the workplace and gone out on carer's benefit and it is the transition that affects them because carer's benefit runs out and they may not qualify for carer's allowance. They are then left in a bind because the person they are caring for still needs the care because they may not have passed on or they may not be in residential care. Their daily life will not have changed but just because they do not meet the means test does not mean that they can afford to live without carer's allowance. We need to have a look at this full picture.
We also have to be cognisant of people being work ready and getting them back to work, which the Minister often mentions, but if a person is out caring for an extended period, he or she loses those work skills. It is important to recognise that and to afford people who are carers an opportunity to work to ensure that when the time comes, they have the opportunity and the work skills to revert back to the workplace.
The amendment arose on Committee Stage and as Chairman of the committee I did not say anything. The Minister was asked to change the three months to six months. I hope the Minister accepts the amendment and while the six months affords her more time to do so, I am also conscious of the fact that it then proposes to revert to the committee and that brings us towards next summer so I ask the Minister to accept the amendment, not to wait for the Bill to be enacted and to commence this work as soon as possible so that the committee has it and can make meaningful recommendations to the Minister on a cross party basis in the run up to the budget. If recommendations are to emanate from this report that are meaningful, we should have them in the committee in time to have them seriously considered for next year's budget. That would be useful work from the Minister and from an all-party committee subsequently.
I am happy to accept the amendment, not just because of the contributions that the Deputies have given - I am quite sure the gentleman Deputy Penrose spoke about got the successful outcome from his appeal because he had a good barrister looking after him - but because of two issues which it would be remiss of me not to mention.
So that everybody is absolutely clear, the contributions that Deputies have made and their wishes for what a report might look like will not arise from this report because it will specifically concentrate on financial hardship. I know where Deputy Brady is coming from but it is reflected in all of the contributions that the scope of this conversation should be much larger and wider, rather than one that is just around financial hardship because there are probably tens of thousands of people who I would not be looking towards if I were just to do a financial hardship review. We need more and the people who we all represent and think so much of probably deserve more so I am happy to accept this and there is no pushing it but I may tweak an amendment when it goes to the Seanad to go a little bit further and add other stuff to it, but I will talk to Deputy Brady about it and I will not do anything mad.
It would be remiss of me if I did not put on record how much the State values the work that carers do, not just those who get an income support from us but all of those who do it for absolutely nothing other than the love of their family member. We have strived in recent years to give three or four years of increases in the carer's allowance and the means testing element of it is there because there have to be conditions for a scheme, wherever those conditions begin. Of all of the schemes that are available to the State, the conditions for this scheme are the least onerous, but it is difficult to administer. We have worked long and hard with Care Alliance Ireland to try to bring in a new form to try to address all of the issues that the recipients are telling us about around the difficult journey of getting the carer's allowance.
We have increased the respite grant and services to carers through the carer's support grant. As recently as this week, I looked at the possibility of issuing dormant accounts money to particular carers organisations to extend the services and supports, the bereavement counselling and the back to work training that is required. We all know what is needed but it would be useful for us to put it down in one document so that we can address it line by line and find the money. It may not be found in one year because it is such a large cohort of people. As Deputy O'Dea said, it is an increasing cohort of people, therefore, it needs planning and thoughtfulness in the coming years.
On that basis, I am happy to accept the amendment, do the work and come back to the committee thereafter. We can then work towards putting a plan and a roadmap in action to look after the carers in our society who are the backbone of community and family care in this country.
I thank the Minister for agreeing to accept this amendment. She said she will not do anything mad in tabling an amendment when the Bill goes to the Seanad but I hope whatever she brings forward will strengthen provision in this area because a considerable volume of work needs to be done regarding all the issues facing carers. With respect to Family Carers Ireland, what I have touched on encapsulates their priorities set out ahead of the recent budget in their pre-budget submission. I would be the first to say there are more complex issues facing carers across the board and that we need to examine all of those. The Minister said she will not do anything mad but I hope that will not delay this review and report that is so badly needed.
To echo what Deputy Curran said, we need this ahead of next year's budget. Hopefully, it will come before the joint committee in a timely manner. When the Oireachtas joint committee takes on a job of work it is very thorough and produces excellent reports. I am sure the Minister would be the first to acknowledge that in case of the one-parent family report we published. She took on board some but not all of the measures outlined in it. She did not go far enough on some of them but she acted on others and that is to be welcomed. Hopefully, the same will be the case with this report. There are major issues in this area, on which all of us have touched. I am conscious there are also many more issues. It would be a very useful report that, hopefully, would bring about major changes that would benefit not only the people in receipt of care but the carers. Let us get this done. There should be no delay in doing this. This report will be a major item of work for the members of the committee to consider in its engagement with the organisations Let this report be the start of a comprehensive job of work that will ultimately benefit those who need it most and who are saving this State not only millions of euro but providing a fantastic service.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 15, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following:
"Review of means testing of maintenance payments
19. The Minister shall conduct a review and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the financial effects of the consideration of maintenance payments as household income in the means test for various social welfare payments and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within 6 months of the enactment of this Bill.".
This amendment proposes a review of means testing of maintenance payments. We had a comprehensive discussion on this on Committee Stage and there was agreement on the timeframe for it. Initially, I had asked for a report and a review within three months to be brought before the committee. There was an issue with the placement of the word "child" in the amendment. I have amended the proposal, changed the timeframe to six months and removed that word.
There are major issues with maintenance payments being assessed as household income. It is not only in the case of social welfare payments in that it involves broader issues. Some local authorities take maintenance payments into consideration for the differential rent scheme and others do not. There are issues across the board regarding maintenance payments. I do not consider it, nor should it be considered, as a household income. It is an income for the child.
We know the figures on poverty rates among children in one-parent families and all the evidence shows that maintenance payments should and could be used as a means of lifting children out of consistent poverty. We know there are major issues relating to maintenance payments and the process involved for parents who have to go court to try to get the payments. I touched on that issue in a previous amendment, which, unfortunately, was ruled out of order. My party and I brought forward proposals on the creation of a child maintenance service, which we discussed extensively in previous committee hearings. The Minister would say that is an issue for the Department of Justice and Equality but, unfortunately, there is no desire on the part of the Minister or the Department to push that forward. The creation of a statutory child maintenance service to deal with maintenance payments is another important piece of work that needs to be done.
The amendment deals with the means testing of maintenance payments, and the implications and ramifications of that for welfare payments. It would be a useful report and review on all the impacts of that across the board. I have amended the Committee Stage amendment in respect of the timeframe and the removal of that word and I hope, as indicated previously, this amendment will be accepted.
This is an ongoing problem we are all familiar with because we come up against it on a regular basis in our constituency offices. The first question that arises is whether maintenance should be means tested at all. The statistics for poverty among lone parents and, by extension, their children, are exceptionally high. I understand the latest figure indicates a 51% deprivation rate. If our objective is to target poverty levels, removing the means testing of maintenance would considerably enhance the income of those lone parents and help lift them out of poverty. There are a number of technical problems with the current means test. For example, the same formula is used if the maintenance is being received by a single parent with one child or a single parent with seven or eight children. It is the same means test but surely that cannot be correct.
Where somebody sues, goes through the horrors of the legal system and secures a maintenance order, if the recalcitrant party - the party against whom the order is given - does not pay, the Department still insists on counting this notional income as maintenance, which is unfair and a major deterrent, and people would not want to take the risk. Why finish up collecting a lower rate of lone parent's allowance or none at all while not getting paid maintenance, which the court has ordered to be paid? There is a good deal of work to be done in that regard.
The other anomaly is that with the change in the regulations relating to lone parents and the reduction of the age of the relevant child to seven, the State can step in to help somebody who has a child up to the age of seven. Even though he or she is still a single parent, once the child reaches the age of seven, the benefit payment changes from lone parent allowance to a jobseeker's transitional payment. Once the child is a day over the age of seven, the single parent is on his or her own. It is impossible to justify that. It is simply a lacuna in the legislation.
What we need - and we see this in other jurisdictions so it is not a question of reinventing the wheel - is a statutory agency to pursue this matter. We have discussed that with the Minister and she has pointed out that the Department of Justice and Equality also has to be involved, which I accept. However, I would like her to indicate where we are in respect of these matters when she is responding. This was proposed by way of an amendment on Committee Stage. We thought the three-month period was a little short and undertook to support it on the basis that the three months be changed to six months, and there would be another slight amendment to the proposal, which has been done.
We would be disposed to support this amendment. I think it calls for a report. It deals with a problem which we will ultimately have to face up to, so the sooner, the better.
Deputy O'Dea highlighted the issue of somebody who is deemed to be in receipt of payment but is not getting it, yet it is taken into the calculation. I have seen cases like that where a person's maintenance payment is calculated and he or she gets a reduced payment as such, even though the payment is not coming through. The amendment is quite narrow in that it talks about financial contributions and financial issues. The issue relating to maintenance is larger and we probably need a much bigger review of how maintenance works. In my experience, quite a number of people who are told to seek maintenance for one reason or another are not in a position to do so. They either cannot make contact with a former partner, or they are afraid to, or whatever. The idea of establishing some sort of management agency to deal with these claims for maintenance seems to make sense. This motion is not calling for that specifically.
Another anomaly that arises is as follows. I recently had a gentleman in with me who is paying a prescribed payment from the court, following a court settlement, which reduces his salary considerably but his reduced salary does not come into the calculation for his eligibility to apply for social housing for himself. We need to have a joined-up view. I have often said that it spans more than the Minister's Department but if maintenance payments are to be meaningful and fair, across the Departments of Justice and Equality, Housing, Planning and Local Government, and the Minister's Department, she needs to talk to her colleagues about it. It is not envisaged in this amendment but it needs to be done. People have an obligation to make maintenance payments and should make them but they need to be recognised across Departments. I urge the Minister to accept this amendment as is.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 15, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:“(3) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Minister will prepare a report for the House on the situation of lone parents who foster children but who are not the legal guardians of the children and therefore do not presently qualify for lone parent payments. This report shall examine any cases and provide costings of providing payments in such circumstances.”.
I hope the Minister keeps to form and agrees to pass this one too. I am sorry I missed the earlier ones. I am sure others have come across this before. It arises from a woman who was in receipt of lone parent payments. She had two children of her own who have since grown up and technically passed out of her responsibility, according to legislation. She is no longer entitled to lone parent payment but has two foster children in her care. She receives payment from the HSE for the children in foster care but she has been told by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection that she has to sign on as a jobseeker. How can she be a jobseeker and mind the children? If she is a jobseeker, she has to be available for work. If she is minding the children and has to make herself available for work, she will have to surrender the children according to the law here because she is not entitled to claim jobseeker's allowance unless she is available. This amendment seeks a report on this conundrum that will hopefully allow somebody in her position to continue to claim the lone parent payment in the circumstance where she is parenting foster children. That is being asked for here.
I cannot accept this amendment because I cannot give the Deputy the report that she wants. Now that I know exactly what she is looking for, the difficulty is that I do not have the data about why people would be unsuccessful in applying for something. We do not keep records if one applies for something and does not get access to it. If that lady applied for lone parent payment, she would not qualify because she is not the children's parent. I cannot correlate information between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which makes the foster parents payment, because there is no legal ability to share the data between our Departments. Even if I was to try to get all of the names of people who have applied and been unsuccessful, I will not know the reasons why they have been unsuccessful. I have no way to cross-reference them with the people who are currently in receipt of foster care payments because of data protection. I do not want to refuse the Deputy but do not know how to give her what she is looking for because I do not have access to the information, unless she can think of another way.
It is not that she applied for lone parent payment for the foster children but that she came looking for assistance about what to do. She said she was removed from lone parent payment because her own children no longer qualify but she is still a parent because she fosters two children, and social protection services are now telling her that she has to sign on for jobseeker's allowance.
This is probably not the best way for us to have this conversation. If the Deputy does not mind, maybe we will have it offline and I will help. She must have been on a payment before she became a foster parent. Coupled with that, the foster parent's payment is much more than what she would receive as a lone parent.
Let us have a look at that. If we can fix that, maybe I can identify other people in similar situations and might be able to address them. I do not know how to give the Deputy a report because I have no way to know who in my Department would have refused lone parent payment because a person was in receipt of a foster payment and have no way to cross-reference with foster parents to see if I can match them.
I know I had a bee in my bonnet last week at the committee. We have got into a habit of providing for reports in legislation. This is much more serious. If we accept this in legislation, then I am committing to doing it. I cannot do what the Deputy has asked me to so I cannot commit to doing it. If the amendment goes ahead, I will have to vote against it. I cannot put in legislation an agreement to do something that I physically cannot do because then I will break the law and I will not agree knowingly to be not able to do something.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 16, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:
22.The Minister shall review the issue of bogus self-employment and its consequences, including the cost to the Exchequer and the implications for those who have been wrongly designated as self-employed and shall bring forward a report on the same within 3 months of this Bill being enacted.”.
Perhaps I am being a bit ambitious in looking for this to be done in three months but I think it should be looked at. I do not want to reiterate all that has been said in the Chamber in the context of this Bill and another Bill we are dealing with about bogus self-employment. Bogus self-employment should be combatted by the State for a number of reasons. The obvious one is that employees have gained many rights, largely due to our membership of the European Union. Miscellaneous legislation on the Statue Book protects workers' rights and ceases to operate once a worker becomes self-employed.
At a stroke of a pen people who are really workers and who are forced to designate themselves as self-employed unilaterally surrender all these hard won rights.
There are also revenue implications for the State. In a situation where somebody is actually a worker but is forced, and we are speaking about people who are forced and not people who opt to be self-employed, to designate themselves as self-employed then payment of employers' PRSI is lost to the State. As I understand it, this phenomenon started in the construction trade and has spread to other areas including retail generally and high-tech areas. Let it be said and put on record that the State itself, in the shape of State and semi-State companies, is among the worst offenders in this regard, or at least it is beginning to be among the worst offenders. Something needs to be done about this.
The Minister will recall that I tabled an amendment to the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that was passed by the House. While we were waiting for the Bill to be progressed to the Seanad I got intimations from the Department that the Minister could not proceed with the Bill unless the section introduced by the amendment was removed. I also received correspondence, which I have with me, from ICTU asking me not to oppose this removal on the basis the other basic protections in the Bill were badly and urgently needed and had been awaited for a long time. On this basis I told our Senators not to oppose any proposal by the Government on Committee Stage to remove that particular provision as it would delay much needed reforms for people in precarious employment. I understand Committee Stage is being taken next week. Of course, this does not make the problem go away. We still have the continual problem with bogus self-employment. I receive complaints about it and instances of it literally every week that passes. I do not care about reports that state the problem has stabilised or the numbers are not as big as elsewhere or as big as we suggest. Anecdotally I see it on a constant basis and I hear about it from my colleagues. Sometimes when I read official reports I wonder whether we are living in a different world down in the midwest. My colleagues, not just in Fianna Fáil but in all parties, have confirmed to me that it is a persistent and continuing problem and something has to be done about it.
I have moved the amendment mainly to give the Minister the opportunity to outline, now that we have agreed to remove the section of the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, what precisely are the Government proposals in this regard. Will it bring forward its own legislation? Does it have definitive proposals? Has it thought about this or discussed it? There will be an ongoing discussion on it by the committee but in this regard the power lies with the Government and I am very anxious to know where the Government stands on it at this juncture.
This is a bugbear. Some time ago, the Minister brought us back a report, which she had independently commissioned, that stated this is not as big a problem as we had outlined. I do not want to be at odds with reports because I am sure they are done in good faith but sometimes we receive reports that may not directly address the issue we feel is important. This has been a bugbear for a long time. It represents huge losses to the individuals who are in artificially contrived bogus self-employment. It is bogus and it is contrived in order to deprive people who are, in effect, employees of what would be a significant corpus of employment law. This is the idea. It is all right to be self-employed. People pay everything themselves and the differentiation between an employee and a self-employed person is well laid down in law and has been determined over a long period of time by the courts, in particular the High Court. This brings us into schedules D and E.
In this case, it effectively means people lose the right to time and a half or time and a quarter, the right to a proper basic wage, the right to holiday pay and superannuation and the most important right of all, which is the PRSI contribution. We meet people in our clinics who were on the lump, particularly in England. We have dealt with many people who came back after working all their lives in England. Because they were on the lump they might as well have not existed. It is no use looking for the snow that fell last winter and telling people they must have something on what they earned in 1972. It does not work like that. The important thing is that people have a contribution.
The PRSI contribution in the most valuable thing. I have always exhorted people to pay it even when they were under the limit. People had to have £2,500 back in the 1980s. The Minister will remember this because she was self-employed. I was an agricultural consultant and before farmers came into the net in 1986 I used to beg them to make voluntary contributions. Some of them were very slow, I might as well be honest. They were still slow in 1986 but then it became compulsory. Now they are very thankful because it is a great saving for people who may have very low incomes to have a pension now. This is how critical it is.
Any artificial contriving of the nature of employment to classify it differently to what it is certainly means a significant deprivation of people's entitlements. Unfortunately, some people may be left in a position whereby they must accept the employment because it is put in such a way that if they do not take it they will not be given the job. We had a big rush on this back during the boom times and we are heading a bit that we again. Deputy O'Dea is attempting to pre-empt this. This horse has already had a good spin around one track and it will not start to run around loose a second time. We want to lock this horse back in the stable. Perhaps the Deputy will agree to six months more, in fairness. The Minister is looking at it and it is very important.
At the other end, the Minister wants PRSI contributions and she would get more this way, and the tax contributions would be far better. We are losing at every end. Significant losses are accumulating and I have no doubt the Minister wants to curtail them. Over the years, thousands of people have been very grateful to the 300,000 genuinely self-employed people for the jobs they have created. There are villages where many spheres of activity would have been wiped out only for them and we are very grateful to them. It irritates ICTU and its various constituent unions that people are artificially worked into bogus self-employment, as Deputy O'Dea has described. They have been making significant noise about this for a long time. Generally unions move on and they go to the next issue but they keep coming back to this.
The State gives out big contracts and perhaps we will find people are being compelled into a self-employment situation not of their own making but because of the construct they face and because they are told to take it or leave it. In any major contract there will be subcontractors but it is very important that we keep an eye on this to make sure it is done in a proper fashion.
This is a reasonable amendment. I agree that we cannot have legislation by reports and I appreciate this. People will take a reasonable view. Deputy Brady's earlier amendment was legitimate, as is this.
We have a good social protection committee. I am not a member of it but I have been accepted to the meetings when I sought to attend by the committee's excellent Chairman, Deputy Curran. I would certainly attend for either of those matters and make a contribution from the knowledge I have garnered over the years.
Although we do not wish to load the Minister with too many reports, I hope she will see a way to do this. I appeal to my colleagues not to load the legislation with too many more reports. If we get a couple of them, we would be quite happy.
I will try to be brief but this is an important issue. The Minister is aware that the joint committee, under its Chairman, Deputy Curran, has started a comprehensive consideration of bogus self-employment. Our first meeting was fascinating. It was with officials from the Department and they appeared to think that this is a non-issue and that it is not as extensive or rampant as is the case. There is plenty of evidence, including that of an anecdotal nature, dating back over many years. Reports indicate that bogus self-employment is costing the State €600 million in the context of the Social Insurance Fund. I am sure the Minister would love that money to be spent on social protection and other necessary measures. Of course, the people who are forced into bogus self-employment are missing out on the net that would be provided if they were engaged in proper employment, as they should have been from day one, and their entitlements to holiday pay, illness benefits and other benefits.
There are major issues here in terms of the State not doing what it should. There are massive State contracts for housing, schools and other infrastructure projects, with massive amounts of money going to major developers who are forcing people to register as self-employed. There have been instances where some companies have faced serious financial difficulty and ended up going into examinership, and the people who were forced into bogus self-employment arrangements have been stung for tens of thousands of euro, if not more, because when they go through the examiner procedure all they are ultimately offered is 3 cent in the euro. If they had been employed properly, however, they would have received all their entitlements. These are important issues.
One of the fascinating, and probably more worrying, things to emerge from our first engagement with the Department's officials is that while they acknowledge that inspections are happening, which is welcome and no more than what we should expect, they do not keep records. On the one hand, they say this is not an extensive practice but, on the other, the Department rolled out what has now proven to be a useless PR exercise during the summer. Even the officials would say that they were disappointed with the level of engagement from people in these arrangements. It certainly was not worth the money spent on it in terms of what the Department expected to get from it. However, it is a serious problem that the Department does not keep records in this regard. We know it happens in the construction sector but it also happens across the board, with even Ryanair pilots being forced into situations where they have to register as self-employed. It will be a huge and very useful piece of work for the committee.
Regarding the Department producing a report, I agree with Deputy Penrose that there are a lot of reports sought in the amendments. Unfortunately, however, our hands are tied in that we cannot bring forward amendments that will have a financial impact on the State. The Minister will be aware that People Before Profit has brought forward legislation to deal with bogus self-employment, so there is legislation available to tackle this serious problem immediately rather than us having to table amendments requesting reports on it. On Committee Stage, I asked the Minister if she had examined that legislation. Certainly, my party supports it fully. If the Minister is serious about addressing this matter, she would not just examine that legislation but move it forward to ensure this practice is stamped out immediately, that people who have been forced into bogus self-employment will get their full entitlements and that the State will get the PRSI contributions it should receive to be put into the areas where they are badly needed.
I support the amendment, although I would have preferred a six-month timeframe.
I was unable to be present for the Committee Stage debate and I did not table any amendments to the Bill. However, I support a number of the amendments tabled on Report Stage, particularly this one. We know this practice has been ongoing since the late 1990s. It particularly affects couriers, delivery van drivers and those in the construction industry. A recent State project in Dolphin's Barn had subcontractors in self-employment. The workers came forward and said it was bogus self-employment and that they were trying to get it dealt with. It is occurring increasingly in the area of English language teaching where people are being forced to register as self-employed. It is happening across the board. Whether it is 1% or 15% of the workforce no employment of this nature should be allowed to seep into the workplace. It is soul destroying for the workers. They cannot plan for events such as birthdays, first communions, Christmas and so forth. It has a huge impact on them because they do not get paid for the period they are off work. They have no holiday pay. The more the issue is raised and discussed in the House and the more we try to get to the bottom of it, the more employers might start thinking that they will have to change their practices in their workplaces.
Another area where should be more investigation, and perhaps it can be done by the committee, is the number of decisions made by the Scope section that were in favour of workers, holding that they were directly employed, and how in the majority of cases the social welfare appeals office generally went against those decisions and overturned them. That should be examined. Workers have the wherewithal to come forward to the Department and go through the process, yet employers are able to use the social welfare appeals office to make their case that these workers are self-employed. I support the amendment.
The Minister is well aware of the issues regarding bogus self-employment, the potential loss of revenue to the State and the loss of entitlements for workers. Whatever they are now, the potential for the future is even more alarming, especially as the Department introduces auto-enrolment for pensions in which a worker will have to be clearly defined as an employee. At this point, we do not know if the self-employed will be allowed into the scheme. Leaving that aside, however, by not being an employee, a worker will not benefit from the employer's contribution and so forth.
As we move forward, it will become even more important than it is now. This piece of work is very important. The committee received an opening statement from the Department, which was quite informative. It will help the committee to set out the terms of what it does.
Deputy O'Dea's amendment states:
The Minister shall review the issue of bogus self-employment and its consequences, including the cost to the Exchequer and the implications for those who have been wrongly designated as self-employed and shall bring forward a report on the same within 3 months of this Bill being enacted.
It specifically refers to people being wrongly designated as self-employed. As far as I am concerned, that information resides with the Department. I refer to the decisions of the scope section in this regard. While the amendment calls for a report, it will not be a particularly comprehensive one. We are looking for the raw data. Those who have been through the scope section and, as Deputy Smith stated, dealt with the subsequent appeals-----
I apologise to the Deputy. She referred to appeals. Many decisions have been overturned by the appeals section.
Another matter arose at the meeting of the joint committee from the Department's point of view. I am of the view that the report should cover this because it sets out the efforts that the Department has gone to, whether it was through its relationship with Revenue via inspections or through publicity campaigns. That would give a sense of the activity in which the Department was involved and the return this yielded. Regardless of whether the Minister accepts the amendment, as Chairman of the joint committee, I am in a position to state that I and all the other members of the committee would really appreciate the provision of this information in a timely fashion. We will be commencing hearings early in the new year and I do not believe the technical requirements of the amendment are very prohibitive. I do not think that the information sought is particularly difficult to correlate. It would be extremely useful. I will not name any sectors or companies because I do not want to reveal the work the committee is going to do. The factual information we receive is going to be very important. It is not hearsay or innuendo and it is not the case that somebody said such and such. We want to deal in facts and try to reach a determination. I am quite clear in that.
The officials from the Department indicated recently that the percentage of people who are classified as self-employed is diminishing. However, I informed them that it is diminishing as a percentage but increasing as a number because the workforce is growing. It is still a substantial number of people. In the context of the information being sought, and regardless of whether she accepts the amendment, I appeal to the Minister to give a commitment to deliver the relevant information within the suggested timeframe. It would be really helpful in the context of the work the committee has commenced..
On the second part of his request, the Deputy table a parliamentary question today and he would have the information to which he refers next Tuesday.
On the first part, I say to the Deputy, to everyone else who has contributed and to Deputy O'Dea who tabled the amendment , that it really would be a valuable piece of work and should be done. I ask Deputy O'Dea to reflect on what he stated in respect of the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I did not say - I hope to God that nobody told him I said - that I would not bring the Bill to the Seanad unless the section to which his amendment to that Bill gave rise was removed. As I stated at the end of the summer when the amendment was accepted by the House, it is my view that I would not bring the Bill to the Seanad until I had completed comprehensive of work in respect of self-employment and bogus self-employment, particularly as these are issues I am very serious about tackling on a number of levels.
In recent years, the Government has sought to equalise the offerings of the schemes that are available from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for people who are employed and those who are self-employed in order to provide equality of access across all of our schemes for employees and for the self-employed. We have gone a long way towards doing that this year with the introduction of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed. The last outstanding measure is illness benefit for self-employed people. I hope do something about that next year. It is a testament to how much this section of society responds that when I come to the Dáil next week with the Department's Revised Estimate, Members will be able to see - positively I hope - that the one area of my budget in which I am overspending is that relating to treatment benefits. This is due to the tens of thousands of self-employed people who have come forward - over and above the numbers we thought would - in order to avail of the dental, aural and optical benefits we put in place in the budgets for last year and the previous year.
We know these people are out there and we know that when we look after them and provide parity of access, they take it on board. I also know that the industry is rife with people who are being maligned. There is a cohort of people who qualify and who want to be self-employed, and that is great. Yes there is a loss to the Exchequer but we can deal with that another day. There are vulnerable people in certain sectors and industries, which we can all name, who are being manipulated and maligned. They are losing employment rights. They are losing wages for the days for which they are not being paid. They are losing holiday entitlements and much of the time they are losing quality time with their families because they are being told when they have to work and they do not actually have the freedom that real self-employment should provide for people. A huge body of work needs to be done and I will do it.
The Deputy asked Deputy Brady to withdraw two of his amendments in the spirit of goodwill in order to give me six months to compile the reports. However, Deputies O'Dea and Curran have added three requests for reports and included three-month timeframes for all of them. Notwithstanding that I am privileged to work with an entirely professional body of civil servants, they are not infinite in number and they are the same people - in the main - who the Deputies ask to compile the same reports year in and year out. I will tell the Deputies that I will compile this report, but there is not a snowball's chance in hell that it will be completed in three months. I can accept the amendment today, which is no problem, but I am not going to adhere to the three-month period because it is just not physically possible. I would end up giving the chairman of the committee a report that is not worth anything. It would not be meaningful. If we, as a Parliament, are to address this issue in a serious manner, the research has to be sound and we must have exact, measured data in order that we can implement the legislation to provide the protections for the people who are being made vulnerable and to ensure that tax is collected from those who are avoiding it otherwise.
The vast majority of employers are good but the scope section of my Department recognised that there are some who are not. This is why we changed our practices this year in order to have proactive inspections. We are targeting specific industries including security, construction, deliveries and hairdressing. There are so many sections of society that need to be inspected.
I am happy to accept the amendment. However, when we have this conversation - which has happened frequently in respect of this Bill and during the debate on the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill - people inform me that they have buckets of anecdotal evidence. When I ask for referrals from the Members they never, ever arrive. They do not make it into the scope section either. I reiterate that if Members know of vulnerable people who they believe are being made to declare themselves as being self-employed, then they give the details to me and I will investigate. Without factual evidence, however, I can do nothing except look at general data. If we do not have tangible results in specific areas arising from inspections performed by my Department, then all we will ever have is anecdotal evidence and we will still be talking about this matter in ten years' time, when the world of work has changed completely and when precarious types of employment that we have not yet even thought of will have been created. We will still be looking backwards and trying to reflect on how to make it better.
I thank the Minister for her offer and I will certainly take her up on it. I have a number of cases that I can refer to her straight away.
In the context of what was said to me, I was informed that the Bill could not be brought to the Seanad during this session. I was also informed that it could not go to the Upper House unless we agreed to support the removal of the new section. In order to alleviate the distress being suffered by countless people who are on short-term, precarious, if-and-when types of contract, I agreed to do that in the interests of getting this substantive legislation onto the Statute Book straight away.
I thought that three months was a more appropriate timeframe for the report in order that its publication might coincide with emergence of the study being done by the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I take the Minister's point and I fully understand that three months would not be sufficient time in which to compile a proper report. Is the Minister giving an unequivocal commitment that she will compile such a report and that she intends to carry out this research?
I hope I am not out of order. I would like to make a brief point and I am not being smart about this. The Minister indicated that some of the information could be got as handily from parliamentary questions. However, now that she knows the questions, she can see they are simple. They concern the numbers in terms of the scope section and appeals; details of the various campaigns and operations that have been run such as when the Minister worked with Revenue - she talked about hairdressing and whatever; and the number of inspections and what they yielded. If that factual information could be sent to us in advance of the report it would be helpful to the committee's work.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 16, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:“Eligibility criteria for CE schemes
22. The Minister shall review the eligibility criteria for CE schemes for those aged 55 and over and, in particular, give consideration to allow those age 55 and over participating on the scheme do so on a continuous basis, until they reach State pension age. The Minister shall bring forward a report on same within 3 months of this Bill being enacted.”.
The position here is that community employment, CE, schemes have done a lot of good. They are valuable, particularly to elderly people. Well, when I say elderly, I refer to people who have passed the age of 55 or so.
The older one is, the harder it is to find work, obviously. We all know people who have lost their jobs or become redundant. Their skills are no longer relevant in modern society and they are in their 50s and into their 60s. They are simply rotting away, drawing social welfare, out walking trying to fill the day. Several people in that position have been accommodated by the community employment schemes. They give them a reason to get up in the morning and something to do. They give them a goal. It is done at very little cost to the State - €20 per week on top of their social welfare payments. It is doing an awful lot of good in that regard.
There is a second good they are doing. The results of the activities of community employment schemes are clearly visible all around us. Certainly in my area they have done fantastic work which has enhanced the physical environment tremendously. They also do wonderful work in building up and helping to run GAA clubs, soccer clubs and other local clubs, reinforcing the sense of community in their areas. All I am asking is for the Minister to have a look at the current rules which I accept have been relaxed from what they were, to see if people over the age of 55 could avail of these schemes until they are at pension age.
In the spirit of collegiality, I am happy to accept this and the next amendment. However, that absolutely does not mean that I agree with either amendment or with the Deputy's view. I am not being a smartarse and am not here to split hairs with the Deputy. It really makes me sad that he thinks somebody from the age of 55 is elderly. I am nearly there myself and it is far from elderly I am.
It saddens me that we would have so little ambition for people of 55 years when they are 12 years away from retirement. Does the Deputy think it is okay for somebody to stay on an activation scheme for 12 years?
The people who are already 60 have the ability to stay on it. We already relaxed those rules earlier this year. That is why I say with sincerity that it fills me with sadness that the Deputy would have so little ambition for people who are only in their mid-fifties. This morning at the Committee of Public Accounts the Government was being lashed because we are sending people for a second year on JobPath, yet some people are quite happy, week in, week out, to beg and plead for an extra six, seven, eight and nine years on CE schemes. Now the Deputy wants 12 years. These are activation tools, methods of training people to give them new skills because their old skills do not fit in the current economy, to pass them on to new careers and employment opportunities. If we want to have a conversation about CE schemes as a valuable resource in communities and the public services they are providing in the gaps where the State is not providing them, I would gladly have that conversation with the Deputy because they are a very valuable resource. My God, though, let us be more ambitious for those in their fifties and sixties. The sixties are the new forties. At any rate, I am happy to conduct both reports as provided for in amendments Nos. 11 and 12.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 16, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:“Tús scheme
22. The Minister shall review the operation of the Tús scheme, in particular, the possibility of allowing Tús scheme participants to extend their participation on the scheme beyond one year with their host group whilst also participating on Jobpath. The Minister shall bring forward a report on same within 3 months of this Bill being enacted.”.
I note the Minister's comment on the CE schemes and that she has said she is accepting amendments Nos. 11 and 12 in respect of the CE schemes and the Tús schemes. We are not suggesting for a second that just because someone can stay on such a scheme, we have no ambition for them. I have discussed the Tús schemes with the Minister and her officials before. The point is that after a year, they have to leave the Tús scheme and go onto JobPath. They are on JobPath to help them find full-time employment but they can do JobPath for maybe two hours a week and still participate in their Tús scheme. That was the whole principle behind this. It was not about not having ambition for the person at all; it was completely the opposite. We are asking for flexibility to allow people to go onto JobPath when they finish the Tús scheme after a year but, because they are only doing that for two or three hours a week, for the balance of 15 or 16 hours they could continue to do their Tús scheme. This is of benefit to them, to the community and to the host. That gap has always existed in society and probably always will. Those people like making a contribution. There is a social side to it and it is a good contribution to the community as well.
Being allowed the flexibility to stay on the Tús scheme while engaging with JobPath would not make people any less ambitious than anybody else. If they are offered or see full-time employment being advertised for which they are eligible to apply they will do so. The Minister knows the notion that allowing people to stay on a Tús or CE scheme for longer than a year or X number of years makes them lacking in ambition and that they will stay there and will not bother seeking full-time employment is simply not true. I have discussed it with her outside the Chamber. She knows it is not fair to say because it is all individually driven. If a person wants to seek full-time employment he or she will work day and night to do it. While they are doing that they should have the support of JobPath and the flexibility to extend the Tús scheme beyond a year to benefit themselves and the community.
There is nothing in that equation that cannot happen by allowing them that flexibility. It is all benefit and all positively driven. That is what Deputy O'Dea is asking the Minister to consider. Because of the level of unemployment, which the Minister acknowledges to be at about 5.5%, there are fewer participants coming through the Tús schemes to fill posts. We end up with a person doing JobPath for two or three hours a week and doing nothing the rest of the time. They are looking for full-time work but they are not engaged in a community scheme such as Tús. The host group, the local athletics club or whatever, is left without that position filled and there is a loss to the community and the individual. This is about flexibility. Everyone benefits and it is in no way holding back anyone's ambition or being negative at all. It is completely the opposite.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 19, line 5, to delete ", or in respect of,".
As the House will know, section 22 of the Bill introduces measures to deal with the small cohort of cases where the member of an occupational pension scheme could not have satisfied the rules of a scheme regarding entitlement to spousal pension because same-sex relationships were not legally recognised in Ireland on or before the date he or she reached a specified age of retirement. There are a number of circumstances where contributions may be required to be paid to the scheme by the scheme member in order to be able to obtain entitlement to a spousal pension benefit. The provisions of section 22 set out the procedures in this regard.
The need to pay contributions could arise, for instance, where contributions paid into the scheme in respect of pension benefits payable to spouses were refunded to the scheme member at the time of their retirement since they could not then or at any time qualify for the spousal benefits.
I am introducing a minor technical amendment to these provisions which simply clarifies that what is at issue in those circumstances relates solely to the scheme member's contributions. In ordinary course where the Pensions Act 1990 refers to contributions, the words "or in respect of" are generally interpreted as meaning the employer's contributions. The removal of that phrase just ensures there is no ambiguity in this regard.