Dáil debates

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill 2019: Second Stage


7:15 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I apologise for being late. The Ceann Comhairle is like Speedy Gonzales this evening.

The main purpose of the Bill is to provide the legislative framework for the implementation of the social protection measures contained in budget 2020. The House will be aware that the budget was necessarily an exercise in prudent management of the public finances given the risks that Brexit poses to our economy. I hope Deputies will appreciate that, as a consequence, the scope for increasing welfare rates was limited. That does not mean, however, that we can fail to be innovative in ensuring available resources are used to effect the best possible changes for society. I am pleased we have provided for measures that will offer support to those who are reliant entirely on the support of the State, and that these measures will improve the lot of as many families and vulnerable people as possible.

The social welfare budget package for 2020, of €212 billion, includes €171.2 million in additional social welfare expenditure that specifically targets those most in need. More than 200,000 older people and people with a disability living alone will receive increased payments, with an increase of €5 per week to their living alone allowance payment. An important change in this budget is that increases to the weekly payments will take effect during the week beginning 6 January 2020 rather than the end of March, as had been the case in recent years. The increases to the living alone allowance, for example, will take effect from the week beginning 6 January 2020, benefiting more than 160,000 pensioners and 40,000 people with disabilities who are living alone. From the week beginning 6 January 2020, those receiving weekly social welfare payments with dependent children will get an increase. Families with children aged 12 and over will receive a weekly increase of €3 for each child, and those with children under 12 will get a weekly increase of €2 for each child. This builds on the increases introduced in last year's budget and the change I introduced in last year's budget legislation to provide higher rates of support for older children.

Working lone parents will see the earnings disregard increase by €15 to €165 per week from January, allowing them to earn more without affecting their one-parent family payment or jobseeker's transition payment. There will be an increase in the income thresholds for the working family payment of €10 per week for families with up to three children, ensuring that more low-income families qualify for the payment. It ensures that the families availing of this employment support will benefit from an additional €6 per week.

Jobseekers aged 25 will receive an increase of €45.20 in their weekly payment from January, bringing them up to the maximum rate payable, thereby discontinuing the reduced payment currently in place for 25 year old jobseekers. The jobseeker's allowance payment made to jobseekers who are under 25 will be increased to the maximum rate where they are living independently and in receipt of State housing support, for example, rent supplement or any of our housing assistance payments.

Some of the measures contained in the budget do not require primary legislation and, therefore, are not reflected in the Bill. These include an increase in the fuel allowance by €2 per week to €24.50 from January; extending the household benefits package, that is, the gas and electricity allowance and free TV licence, to people under 70 who have another adult living with them; €2.5 million that is being provided specifically to target job activation and training supports for groups who are most distant from the labour market or have challenges entering the workforce; the extension of the hot school meals programme; an increase in the number of hours for which a carer can work per week from 15 to 18.5; funding for important research into a question that has exercised most Deputies, namely, how best to address difficult issues around maintenance payments; and an increase in the earnings disregard for those in receipt of the jobseeker's transition payment.

I am pleased to have received Government approval for the payment of the social welfare Christmas bonus at a rate of 100% again this year. It will be paid in early December. It will benefit all recipients of long-term payments, including carers, those with disabilities, pensioners and lone parents.

I will outline the contents of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, its construction and citations, and its commencement provisions.

Section 2 provides for definitions of terms used in Part 2, which relates to amendments to the Social Welfare Acts.

Section 3 is a technical amendment that brings the definition of "confinement" for maternity benefit purposes into line with the definition used in the Civil Registration Acts.

Up to this point, a mother can qualify for maternity benefit once the child has attained a gestational age of 24 weeks. By bringing the definitions into line with each other, we will ensure that where a child is unfortunately stillborn and has a birth weight of 500 g, the mother will qualify for maternity benefit irrespective of the child's gestational age. While this is a very small change, it is a very important one for the mothers who are already dealing with a very difficult situation.

Section 4 provides that the reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance for claimants aged 18 to 24 will no longer apply where the claimant lives independently and is in receipt of housing supports. The full rate of jobseeker's allowance will be paid to these persons with effect from 1 January 2020. Section 5 provides that, from 1 January 2020, the age-related reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance will no longer apply to younger claimants once they have attained the age of 25.

Section 6 is a technical amendment and updates the legislative provisions governing entitlement to carer's allowance. The amendment confirms that the definition of a "relevant person", that is, a person who requires full-time care and attention, means, in the case of a person aged under 16, a person in respect of whom a domiciliary care allowance is in payment.

Sections 7 and 8 mirror the amendments in sections 4 and 5 by providing that the age-related rates of supplementary welfare allowance will no longer apply where the claimant lives independently and is in receipt of housing supports and that age-related rates generally will no longer apply to those who attain the age of 25.

Section 9 provides for an increase of €10 in the weekly income thresholds which determine the level of working family payment for families with up to three children. This change will take effect from 9 January 2020. Section 10 is a technical amendment to make it absolutely clear in the legislation that the payment of guardian's payment to a guardian in respect of an orphan does not affect the right of the guardian to claim welfare payments in his or her own right.

Section 11 is a technical amendment which updates section 247 of the Act to set out the payments which may not be paid concurrently with the working family payment. Section 12 is another technical amendment which brings the legislative provisions relating to social welfare payments after the death of a claimant fully into line with long-standing policy and practice. In particular, it makes it clear that such payments are made to the surviving spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the deceased.

Section 13 provides for the repeal of section 282 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 which currently provides for reduced cost life event, namely, birth, marriage or death certificates. This is a matter which is more appropriately dealt with under civil registration law and equivalent provisions in the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014 will be commenced in parallel with this repeal. The provisions will allow regulations to be made by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the purpose of setting the fees, if any, for the provision of life event certificates.

Section 14 provides for amendments to the provisions in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act relating to the recovery of certain benefits where a compensator, typically an insurance company, is also paying compensation in respect of the same injury, accident or disease that gave rise to the claim for a social welfare payment in the first instance. First, it adds supplementary welfare allowance to the list of specified benefits which may be recovered and second, it adjusts the period within which a request for a statement of recoverable benefits must be issued to a compensator from four weeks to 25 working days.

Sections 15 and 19 are perhaps the most important sections of the Bill, since they provide for a €2 increase in the rate of the qualified child increase for children aged under 12, from €34 to €36 per week, and an increase of €3, from €37 to €40 per week for children aged 12 and over. These sections also provide for an increase of €5 per week in the rate of the living alone allowance. Depending on the scheme involved, these measures come into effect on dates between 1 and 10 January 2020.

Section 16 provides that the blind welfare allowance, a payment that is currently made by the HSE, will be disregarded in the means test for certain social assistance payments, and in particular for disability allowance payment. This measure comes into effect from 10 January 2020. Section 17 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payment from €150 to €165 per week, with effect from 9 January 2020.

Section 18 is another technical amendment which updates references set out in the means-testing provisions contained in table 2 of Schedule 3 to reflect both changes in structures, for instance with the establishment of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and changes in practices, by recognising that certain payments may be made by agencies contracted by the HSE, as well as being made directly by the HSE itself.

Part 3 provides for amendments to the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 and the National Training Fund Act 2000. First, section 20 amends section 10D of the National Minimum Wage Act to provide that, where the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission has not been implemented, the Minister of the day may nonetheless subsequently issue an order. This amendment is designed to cater for situations such as the current uncertainty surrounding the timing and effects of Brexit. Second, the final section of the Bill, section 21, provides for a 0.1% increase from 0.9% to 1% in the National Training Fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in class A and class H employments with effect from 1 January 2020.

Finally, I wish to advise the House that I intend to bring forward amendments to address issues raised in a Supreme Court judgment which found that provisions of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act relating to the entitlements of prisoners were unconstitutional. To put it simply, the court has found that the automatic disallowance of entitlement to benefits for prisoners is unconstitutional since it represents a secondary or extrajudicial punishment. Again, the issues involved are quite complex but need to be addressed. Work is under way at present on drafting the necessary changes to the Act and, if they are ready, I hope to introduce them as amendments to the Bill.

I wish to re-emphasise that the Bill before us today demonstrates our commitment to providing a better deal for families, as reflected in particular in the increased rates of payment for qualified children and the enhancement of the working family payment and the one-parent family payment. We have also paid particular attention to older people living alone. Even in the context of a budget which had to be constrained due to the potential consequences of Brexit, I hope we have built on the significant increases of recent years and maintained the focus on the groups in society who are at most risk and are most vulnerable. I commend the Bill to the House.

7:25 pm

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Curran.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for her presentation but I must confess that I am no great fan of the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill. We will not vote it down and plunge the country into a pre-Christmas election, which I am sure nobody would want, but neither am I a great fan of the deal negotiated under the confidence and supply agreement. However, even since the budget was negotiated, the parameters in regard to Brexit have shifted. I will come back to that in a moment.

According to Social Justice Ireland, the budget and the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill, which is an integral part of the budget, "betrays the vulnerable". That is a pretty damning indictment but, as I understand the budget and the Bill, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that Social Justice Ireland is in fact correct because the budget both increases poverty and increases inequality. I read an analysis recently from a Mr. Michael Taft of SIPTU, who said that taking the headline figure of inflation into account, in order to just stand still pensioners would need to get €168 per annum on a projected 1.3% rate of inflation.

That is bad enough if it told the full story but of course it does not. I made the point time and again that for people who are just living from week to week and existing on the basic necessities of life, inflation runs at two or three times the headline rate of inflation. I will give an example. Across all social strata in this country, the average household spends approximately 14.5% of its budget on food but the lowest 40% of the population, the four lower deciles, in income terms, the figure shoots up to 20%, which means that increases in food prices bear down hardest on those least able to afford them. The same can be said of other basic necessities such as the cost of heating, public transport and other such expenditure.

I did make a statement in advance of the budget that I did not know how certain people occupying certain positions could accept a €1,700 increase, while at the same time we were providing nothing for social welfare recipients. That did not make me particularly popular among my colleagues.

I should probably not have singled out Deputies because they are part of a group subject to the national wage negotiations within the Civil Service, but they are not the highest paid group. Many said to me that when tax, PRSI etc. are taken into account, the actual net rise only compensates them for inflation, but at least they are being compensated. If one looks at the trajectory of wage rises in the private sector, it is different, though not in the entirety of the private sector since it is a very diverse sector. Some of the wage rises in the private sector more than adequately compensate people for inflation. The reality is that if somebody is on €100,000 a year and one gives that person a pay increase of €2,000 per annum, while somebody else is on €203 per week and receives a pay increase of €5 per week, one is increasing inequality. If one gives the guy on a €100,000 salary an extra €2,000, with nothing for the guy on €203 per week, one increases inequality even further. The net result of that is that vulnerable people will see their standard of living drop and they will fall even further behind the rest of society. Speaking for myself, I see no justification for this. It is not only unfair, but it fatally undermines social cohesion in the country.

One in every six people, some 760,000 people in the country, live below the poverty line. The majority of those who are welfare recipients will now live in even greater poverty because welfare increases have failed to keep pace with increases elsewhere in the economy. An analysis of the budgetary figures has shown that the least was given to welfare-dependent households and those on the lowest earnings. That is hardly something to be proud of. The Minister has included a section in this Bill to enable her to increase the minimum wage by order when she deems the circumstances justify that. Will she clarify whether she intends to do that from 1 January 2020, when the Brexit situation will be much clearer? The parameters of Brexit have shifted and it is almost certain that we have managed to avoid the nightmare scenario of a no-deal Brexit, as the Minister will be aware. If it is the Minister's intention to do that, will she take the opportunity at the same time to compensate other people who have lost out as a result of the fear of a no-deal Brexit, such as pensioners who do not live alone, people forced to live on disability income, single parents among whom poverty is rampant, and carers?

Another example of something that I fundamentally disagree with is the Minister's usage of an increase in the fuel allowance as the exclusive method by which increases in the carbon tax will be offset for the most vulnerable. The Minister knows as well as I do that there are many vulnerable sections of society which do not get fuel allowance, including jobseekers, carers, people on illness benefit and single parents. In a response here in this House to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me that the Government had carefully worked out that €28 multiplied by two, which is €56, was the appropriate sum to compensate for the budgetary increase in the carbon tax. If that is the case, why was the €56 not extended to people who do not qualify for the carer's allowance. The stated reason for all of this is the danger of a no-deal Brexit. It is ironic that the country that is going to leave the European Union is now having a general election and the two parties competing for power in it are offering to spend money that would put an alcoholic sailor on shore leave for a day to shame. Trillions are being mentioned in the country that is exiting the European Union, and we cannot afford €5 for people on social welfare.

The latest CSO statistics indicate that approximately one child in five in this country, that is, 230,000 children, lives in a household below the poverty line. The figure has remained virtually static for some time now. The budget contains some alleviation measures but they only scratch the surface. The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, 2014-2020, sets out a target of taking children out of poverty by 2020. That now looks like an impossible dream.

With regard to disability, the Minister will recall that in last year's budget, work was commissioned on a cost of disability allowance. The question was how much it would cost to enable a person who could not work because of disability to live like a person who did not have a disability. What has happened to that? Have conclusions been reached? Has a report been sent to Cabinet? Why commission work on something such as this if there is no intention to follow through? The motorised transport grant, an essential aid to people with disabilities, has now been suspended for six years. I have asked on numerous occasions here when it is going to return. I was told that it was all so complicated that the whole Civil Service seemed to be working on it at one stage. What is so complicated about it? When it was suspended in 2013, people who already qualified were left in situbut tens of thousands of people must have qualified in the meantime under the previous criteria. Now they are trying to exist side by side with people who are actually getting the mobility grant. That is most unfair. It also is unfair that the Citizens Information Act 2007 provided for the establishment of a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities which has not yet been brought into force.

The Minister recently told us that we would need a conversation about carers and I agree with that. One in 20 people in the country are now carers. It will be one in five within the next ten to 15 years, a startling escalation. The Minister will also be aware that three quarters of people who spend their lives caring for a loved one do not qualify for any carer's allowance. That is a reality. The Minister got a request from representatives of the Carers Association to increase the number of hours that they can work from 15 to 18.5. A natural assumption was attached to that that if one increases the number of hours somebody can work, one thereby proportionately increases the amount a person can earn. It makes no sense otherwise. The Minister responded by saying that if she increased the means test for the amount that people could earn by the requested amount, this would cost a phenomenal sum of money. We are talking about two different things here. When one increases the number of hours that a person can work, surely it logically follows that the amount that person could earn increases.

The Minister will also be aware of a submission from Carers Ireland relating to tackling the postcode lottery for caring around the country. It made a detailed submission that involved some rebalancing of existing resources and approximately €3 million in extra expenditure. That would have put an end to the situation where the amount of access one has to the services provided by the State and these caring associations would not depend on where one lived. That is right and proper. Yet we are told that the expenditure of an extra €3 million would compromise the country's ability to deal with a no-deal Brexit.

I welcome the slight increase in the earnings disregard for single parents, but if one looks at the poverty levels among single parents, how many single parents will this take out of poverty between now and next year? We recently passed a motion in the House, tabled by Deputy Brady, to the effect that there should be an agency to pursue the putative parent rather than have people traipsing through the District Court, with all that it entails. We have been talking about this for quite a long time and there is no sign of any action.

We congratulated ourselves after the last change of Government, saying that we had moved from regressive budgets to progressive budgets. I think we are back to regressive budgets again. I heard a Government spokesman and others telling people on social welfare that, in view of the danger of a no-deal Brexit, the Government would have to be pragmatic.

"Pragmatic", of course, is a Merrion Street code word for "Go to the back of the queue". Only a short time ago we had the then Minister for Social Protection, now Taoiseach, launching his social welfare cheats campaign, which lumped all welfare recipients together and labelled them as potential cheats and scroungers. The image that some commentators want people to conjure up every time we mention welfare increases is that of a slovenly, workshy man or woman sitting on a couch, watching horse racing or the soaps on a big plasma television and milking the system for all it is worth. I can assure the Minister the reality is very different. The people we are talking about are those who just get by from week to week, dreading the next bill or the next family occasion, which more often than not they will have to avoid because they cannot afford to go. Their benefits are spent on the basic necessities of life, even before they are received.

If we are to grow and develop as a cohesive and compassionate society, rather than a collection of competing economic interests, surely we must put those in need by virtue of their health, age, disability or other circumstances at the top of the queue when it comes to sharing out the fruits of economic growth. To do otherwise is not just reckless and irresponsible, it is unjust and unfair.

7:45 pm

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill, which gives legislative effect to the budget changes. As the Minister rightly said, some of the changes that were made and announced in budget 2020 do not require legislation. I would like to acknowledge a change the Minister has made that I have been asking to be made for a long time, namely, bringing the date of social welfare changes back to January. While this may be limited, it is important. I have always felt that the people of this nation should be treated equally and if we are making taxation changes and social welfare changes they should happen at the same time. While it might only appear a small thing, the policy direction and the change is to be welcomed and acknowledged. I have long been of the view it is unfair to treat people differently.

That said, I am disappointed that, across a range of social welfare payments for pensioner couples, carers and people with disabilities, we are not seeing an annual increase. In a time of inflation, they will be worse off and, as Deputy O'Dea said, that cost of living inflation will affect people differently. It is worth noting the Minister has held open the option of increasing the national minimum wage sometime next year without reference to this legislation as it is a piece of work she can do outside the legislation.

It has constantly been stated that the reason the annual increase was not affordable this year was the context of Brexit, in particular a no-deal Brexit or a hard Brexit, and the impact it would have on the economy. While the budget was framed in such a way, and this Bill is giving effect to the budget, I cannot understand why the door was not left open to review the social welfare budget early in the new year following the Brexit deal. If there is a Brexit that is not a hard Brexit or a no-deal Brexit, why can we not revisit the core social welfare payments? That would have been the prudent thing to do. Most workers next year will receive some sort of increase. Whether through the minimum wage, through existing agreements or through existing public service agreements, most workers are going to receive some type of pay increase next year but many people who are totally or partially dependent on social welfare, unfortunately, will not. As I said at the outset, the people of this nation should be treated fairly and equally and that does not seem to be happening in this regard.

I want to refer to particular increases. I have spoken before on the issue of the carer's allowance, in particular means testing. I want to refer briefly to a note I received from a lady. Her family moved into the Palmerstown area four years ago and they adapted their house without grants. Their daughter, who is eight, has a rare neurological condition which is life-limiting. Her daily struggles are that she is blind, she has very poor muscle tone, she is tube-fed and she has uncontrolled epilepsy. The mother is her full-time carer but is not able to receive carer's allowance because the husband is working. I have made this point before. Despite the fact he is working, they are not well-off because they are paying a mortgage and they are struggling to make ends meet. We need to review urgently the carer's allowance scheme in regard to people who find themselves in real need of financial support in very serious cases. The system is not adequate and does not take into account housing costs, whether mortgage or rent, which is a big deficiency of the scheme. The Minister may argue the whole scheme needs to be reviewed but if it is not taking account of cost of living in terms of rent or mortgage, it is missing the point. We are all seeing such people but I wanted to refer to that particular case. I ask the Minister that this be done urgently.

The Minister referred to the fuel allowance. One of the issues that has arisen and was brought to my attention is that, for many people who qualify and have the correct social welfare payment, they can only have excess income of €100 a year. How long has it been €100? The point people are making to me is that the savings they would have had a number of years ago have now grown and the €100 excess over the social welfare payment threshold means they are missing out on fuel allowance because they are a few euro over the €100. When was the €100 last index-linked and measured against inflation in order to treat people fairly, whether it is in terms of the capital or earned income they can have? There is no use saying that one side of the equation is going up. I have come across individuals who have crossed that threshold of €100 - they actually exist and it is not fiction or a myth.

I compliment the Minister on one issue which came before the Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, namely, young people on jobseeker's allowance, in particular young people who are not living in the home. If young persons aged 18, 19 or 20 are not living in the home, it is generally for a very good reason and they need those supports. I am glad that, in this budget, jobseeker's allowance has been amended to treat them fairly. They have come from challenging backgrounds and find themselves not capable of living in the family home. Most 19 or 20 year olds would not just opt to leave and there are generally circumstances that make that happen. I am glad to see that change made in this budget.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and acknowledge the importance of its speedy passage through the Houses due to the increases contained in it. For that reason, we will be not be objecting to it today but we fully intend to submit numerous amendments on Committee Stage.

It is important to say that social welfare increases are only welcomed by recipients and by stakeholders because the payment is so inadequate in the first place. By increasing certain payments by €2, €3 or €5, the Minister is not making social welfare payments adequate, nor are the increases based on evidence of any kind. To quote Social Justice Ireland, this budget betrays the vulnerable as many are left further behind. We should be working towards making all social welfare supports adequate for those who rely on them and we should be moving to an evidence-based approach. Instead, every single year, we have a political football around social welfare rates. Prior to this budget, Fianna Fáil was demanding a €5 increase for old-age pensioners but it quietly moved away from that when it failed to achieve it. Every year we see the furore about whether people in receipt of social welfare will get a fiver. Fine Gael announces it and Fianna Fáil likes to take credit when it is given but remains silent when it is not. This is no way to treat pensioners, lone parents, low income households and persons with disabilities.

Sinn Féin has put forward a fully costed and workable solution, a social welfare commission.

This would use evidence, including the minimum essential standard of living as set out by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, to make recommendations to Government on social welfare rates annually ahead of the budget. This work would be done on the basis that different households have different needs and that social welfare rates must, therefore, be adequate to meet various household needs. This would protect the most vulnerable households from poverty and ensure that social welfare rates are adequate, putting an end to people being left hoping for a fiver every year when the budget comes around. I also appeal to the Minister to consider that linking social welfare rates to the consumer price index, CPI, or to average industrial earnings will not ensure adequacy, but adequacy is what is needed. Stakeholders made this clear to her at the annual pre-budget forum. She needs to listen to all the stakeholders supporting this important work.

Section 4 relates to young jobseekers and the changes to their payment rates. For years, the Minister and her Government have ignored the impact reduced rates of payment have had on our young jobseekers aged between 18 and 25. This was started by Fianna Fáil, which of late has seemingly seen the error of its ways and is now calling for a change to that. It is glaringly obvious that living on €100 per week will lead to major difficulties for someone with no job. This was a dangerous cut made by Fianna Fáil and followed by Fine Gael in government. This Bill does not fix it; instead it replaces an age condition with a living condition. Those aged between 18 and 24 will have their payments increased to the full rate if they live independently and are in receipt of State housing support. How many people living on €112.70 per week could afford to live independently? The number is 300 people, leaving more than 14,000 young jobseekers on €112.70 per week. The increase provided for in the Bill will, therefore, benefit the smallest number of jobseekers possible. Perhaps the findings of the report into the impact of reduced jobseeker rates, overdue since mid-2016, is what opened the Minister's eyes to the reality for young jobseekers. We cannot say that for sure, however, because over three years later we have not seen that report. It has been hidden away and has not seen the light of day. I again call on the Minister to publish the report immediately. All jobseekers, regardless of age or living arrangements, should receive the same rate. The discrimination based on age needs to come to an end.

A number of changes in the Bill will be of some small benefit to lone parents, but that is simply not enough. According to the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, lone parents are in deep income inadequacy. Lone parent families are five times more likely to live in consistent poverty than households headed by two adults. The changes the Minister's party, along with the Labour Party, made to the one-parent family payment made life harder for lone parent families. That was the conclusion of Indecon in its examination of the changes. In this State both parents are legally obliged to maintain their children yet there are no consequences for those who do not, nor are lone parents assisted in seeking child maintenance. Over and over again, lone parent families are failed by the State. Why do we put it on lone parents to seek maintenance from the other parent? Why do we force lone parents into courtrooms to seek maintenance from a judge? Why does the State fail to act when maintenance is granted and court ordered but not paid? When it comes to child maintenance, which is proven in every country in which it is paid to play a massive role in reducing poverty, why does the Government choose to chase the non-custodial parent to cover its own costs in paying the one-parent family payment but have no involvement in seeking or guaranteeing the payment of maintenance? I seek clarity on the Minister's intentions in respect of the judge-led group she is establishing. Is it being established with the aim of setting guidelines or setting up a statutory child maintenance service, which is what lone parents are looking for? Will the stakeholders be heard on this? It is critical that they are. We have, again, brought forward the solution to this twice - in our published proposals and in a recent motion passed by the House.

I refer to the omission of provisions to address a lacuna in statute that excludes married same-sex male adopters from accessing 24 weeks' adoptive leave, which the Government has consistently stated it will address since 2016. The lack of adoptive leave for men is a major obstacle to their being able to adopt. We should not limit adoption for parents who are fit and capable of providing care. Given that this is the only family type omitted from the Bill, we should address it purely based on the discriminatory element the current law upholds. Given its recent omission from the Parent's Leave and Benefits Act 2019, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, stated he would address it in this Bill, yet it seems to be missing from the legislation again. While I am aware that the Minister of State has been in contact with parents stating that amendments are still being drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, can the Minister indicate when she believes she will be able to include this in the Bill? Given her previous dealings with the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 and the difficulties the delays caused and are still causing, and given how proactive she was in addressing her remit in that regard, I hope she will continue that proactivity in dealing with this issue. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties described the exclusion of male same-sex adoptive couples from the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act as an unacceptable and unjustifiable form of discrimination against them. This discrimination is happening on the Minister's watch. Will she commit to include the necessary amendment to this legislation on Committee Stage to right once and for all this wrong?

The €2 increase in the fuel allowance fails to deal even with the rate of inflation, let alone the carbon tax hike that will be imposed on citizens throughout the State. I tabled an amendment in this regard to last year's Social Welfare Bill because I firmly believe that the fuel allowance could, and should, be used as a means to help people out of fuel poverty, which is gripping too many of our citizens. Year after year I stand up here to cite examples of some of our most vulnerable citizens having to sit in State premises and buildings and on trains, using their free bus passes, simply and purely to keep warm. This €2 increase is a slap in the face to those citizens, given the massive hike in the carbon tax. The Minister needs to commit to work on the issue of fuel poverty, which I have raised consistently, with a view to using the fuel allowance as a means of lifting our citizens out of fuel poverty.

Regarding the National Training Fund, a 0.1% increase in employer levy is included in the legislation, yet money is still sitting in that fund unspent. If the Minister is to keep increasing the amount being paid in, at the very least the money should be spent on what the fund was set up to do.

We know from the reply to a parliamentary question asked by my colleague, Deputy Quinlivan, that between 2015 and 2018, €299 million had been collected but not spent, while the projected underspend in 2019 alone is a further €199 million. This is absolute madness. Why is this money not being spent? Why we not targeting it at those on the live register?

In addition, more money from the national training fund, NTF, should be invested in the apprenticeship scheme. The scheme is in dire need of reform and expansion to ensure we will not only give young people more tertiary education options but also equip Ireland with the skilled workers needed for growing and emerging industries. Sinn Féin has pledged to abolish apprenticeship fees to help to encourage more people into apprenticeships. It would cost just €4.8 million this year, a tiny 1% of what has been collected but not spent under the NTF in the past few years. The Minister must clarify why this money is going unspent and outline how he intends to invest the hundreds of millions of euro that has built up.

Sinn Féin is not going to oppose this legislation, but we will be tabling amendments once it moves to Committee Stage. There are some positive things included in the Bill, but the substantive issues I have outlined in my contribution need to be addressed. I look forward to the Minister's response because I have been asking some of these questions consistently for many months and years. I particularly hope I will receive answers to the questions I have asked about the reports that have been hidden away from people, some of the most vulnerable citizens, who need to see them. This House is also entitled to see them.

8:05 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill on behalf of the Labour Party. The principal objective of any budget is to, as far as possible, reallocate resources to ensure the most vulnerable people living in our society are protected. There are important provisions in this Bill for which I want to compliment the Minister on achieving. It would be churlish of me, as Labour Party spokesperson in this area, not to acknowledge this. There will be approximately €21.2 billion available for spending on social welfare benefits next year, but, of course, how it is spent is critical.

In the most recent budget we found that the largest cohort of social welfare payments would remain as they were in 2019, which means that there will be no increase for the recipients of those social welfare payments in 2020. This will automatically leads to a real reduction in spending power when the rate of inflation that will apply in 2020, approximately 1.3% or 1.5%, is factored in. The result of Brexit is still to be finalised, but one thing we know for sure is that there will be an increase in the price of food. We all support the planned carbon tax increases to try to deal with carbon reduction and climate change issues, but they are likely to mean increased charges for public and private transport. The only thing we can say with absolute certainty is that in 2020 recipients of the main or core social welfare payments will experience their standard of living falling significantly. If over time social welfare rates fall significantly behind average earnings, poverty is inevitable. It is in that context that I stated, immediately after the Budget Statement made by the Minister, that if Brexit was solved, or softer than originally anticipated, the approximately €339 million the Minister prudently provided in her budget allocation to deal with a significant anticipated increase in unemployment as a result of a hard Brexit should be reallocated in 2020 by way of a supplementary budget to ensure appropriate increases in the basic rates of social welfare payments denied in the most recent budget would be forthcoming.

The changes in maternity benefit in respect of stillborn babies are extremely welcome. They are structured and critical.

The changes in the jobseeker's allowance for 18 to 24 year olds living independently and the ending of the reduced rate for those aged 25 are also welcome. The increased living alone allowance is certainly something I salute, as well as the increased fuel allowance. They are the increases that assist low income and vulnerable people and groups in society, particularly in rural areas. The ultimate aim is to restore a proportional relationship between welfare rates and average earnings.

I welcome the provision of an additional €4 million in funding to extend the hot school meal scheme nationwide next year. That will mean that another 35,000 children or thereabouts in disadvantaged areas will receive a payment. I know that the Minister focused on schools under the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, scheme and this is probably my last opportunity to make the case for a school in my area where I went to school, St. Brigid's national school in Ballynacarrigy, to be considered favourably for inclusion in the hot school meal scheme. I hope the Minister will write it down because it is one of the long-standing DEIS schools having been designated as such in 1994. There are socioeconomic indicators in the area that are important. The school has a modern new principal. They are doing their best and there are good achievements and outcomes at that school.

I hope the Minister will commit to a timeline for abolishing the remainder of the reduced rates. It is difficult to conceive why there has been no increase in core social welfare rates because, as I have said, those on fixed incomes will face increased living costs in 2020 with nothing to offset them. In recent years some costs have gone down, while others have gone up, but we are now experiencing net inflation to a greater extent. As I said, an inflation rate of approximately 1.5% next year would mean that the real income of carers, pensioner couples and people with disabilities would effectively be less than this year. In the real world the lack of an increase is a cut in all but name. It represents a slap in the face for vulnerable persons in society. It must also be a setback for Fianna Fáil and the confidence and supply agreement. Fianna Fáil claimed it would gain concessions from Fine Gael in exchange for supporting the budget.

The kind of Brexit being pursued by Prime Minister Johnson is also likely to result in the various issues to which I have referred. Budget 2020 was meant to prepare the country for a potential Brexit, but it failed to protect those whose living standards would be most affected.

I have already raised with the Minister the fact that the income disregard for carer's allowance is too restrictive and has not changed in years. I am disappointed that she did not use the opportunity provided by the Bill to address the matter. In the budget the number of hours a carer could work outside the home was raised from 15 to 18.5 per week. I agree with this change. It was long overdue and a significant piece of the review carried out by the Minister's Department in July or August. It is a change that had not been given effect since 2006; let us be clear, therefore, that we have all been remiss, but let us not start pointing fingers. When the finger points backwards, it means that I am also a part of the problem. What is wrong is that there is no increase in the income disregard for carer's allowance to match the changes in the working allowance. The Government has created a potential poverty trap. Carers who work the extra hours might see their carer's allowance reduced. We know that only one in four carers actually receives an allowance owing to stringent means testing. The income disregard for carer's allowance has not been increased since 2008. The Minister has said it is a very generous threshold, especially for a single person, for whom €332.50 of gross weekly income is not taken into account. The Labour Party and groups that advocate for carers were looking for the threshold to be increased to €450 and for the threshold for couples to be increased from €665 to €900. I hope the matter will be reconsidered because the Department's figures should show how many carers will have their allowance reduced because of the increase in the number of hours that can be worked.

This issue will ultimately have to be tackled. I am strongly of the view that complete abolition of the means test for carer's allowance could be ground breaking and game changing. The Minister might ask how that would happen. There are so many people who could be cared for within the home environment. There are approximately 350,000 carers in Ireland, approximately 87,000 of whom are receipt of carer's allowance, while 35,000 who do not qualify for carer's allowance are in receipt of the respite care grant. They are persons who have clearly been adjudicated to be just above the income eligibility threshold. The individuals for whom they are caring have clearly been deemed to be in need of care under social welfare legislation.

It would be a positive signal to relax the income assessment procedure for this cohort of people. Even if it costs €1.2 billion, ultimately, it will be money well spent. I have always advocated the abolition of means tests. I would have loved to have been in a Government that had money. This would have been a core project of mine in such circumstances. People might argue that rich people would gain if such a measure were introduced, but rich people are already able to benefit in this way. I refuted this argument in 1995 when the then Minister for Education was abolishing tuition fees at third level. People were saying it was an awful measure because it would benefit rich people, but it benefited ESB workers and OPW workers who were doing a little overtime to get an extra £20. As an accountant, the Ceann Comhairle will recall that people got nothing if they exceeded the thresholds by 20p. Very wealthy people like Mr. Desmond and Mr. Smurfit could avail of a covenant scheme at the time. As I recall, that was costing us approximately £35 million a year. One can always make an argument to stop something, but it is how one facilitates something that is the important thing. It is time we looked at carer's allowance. I hope that someone in a future Government - I will be watching from afar - will take action in this regard and thereby become the equivalent of Deputy O'Dea's colleague, the late Donogh O'Malley. There is no doubt that this will be something for the Deputy to think about in the future, when he may be somewhere else.

I was surprised on budget day that there was no mention in the Minister for Finance's speech of the date on which the increase in the minimum wage will come into force. I strongly support the Low Pay Commission, which was a Labour Party initiative. We fought for its establishment when we were in government. A former Deputy, Senator Ged Nash, was to the fore in that campaign. The commission recommended that the minimum wage should be increased by 30 cent an hour from €9.80 to €10.10. The Minister for Finance failed to announce when this recommendation will be implemented. It is unacceptable that people on the lowest rate of pay must wait for a modest inflation-proofed increase in their earnings. It was leaked the day before the budget. Every budget is leaked nowadays. I suppose Phil Hogan must be looking on in amusement from afar. He resigned after he leaked a few lousy bits and pieces from the Department of Finance. We all knew what was coming because it was leaked. I suppose Mr. Hogan was fed up of everyone knowing, so he decided to get out ahead of everyone else. He was not sacked; he had to resign.

We knew in advance of last month's budget that the increase in the minimum wage would be delayed until March, even if this is not permitted under existing legislation. Under the minimum wage legislation, the Low Pay Commission must make an annual report to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Within three months of the date of receipt of that report, the Minister must by order declare a new minimum wage on the terms recommended by the commission or on other terms, or must announce that he or she intends to decline to make an order. If the Minister declines to make an order, he or she must publish a statement setting out his or her reasons for doing so. On 9 October last, the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, made a short statement setting out her reasons for declining to make an order declaring a national minimum hourly rate of pay. The dates are important because I was proved right in my argument from a legal perspective. That is why the Minister is here tonight. According to her statement, she is declining to make an order declaring a national minimum hourly rate of pay until the situation with regard to Brexit becomes clearer.

The reality is that she has not just postponed a decision on the date of implementation; she has invoked her statutory power to decline to make any order. To be clear, the legislation as it stands gives the Minister a three-month window in which to respond, but it does not permit her to postpone a decision beyond that period. Her failure to decide within three months means that no decision can be made for another year. Under the current legal framework, she has effectively cancelled the increase in the national minimum wage. I knew she was going to come with this. I raised it with her in October and two or three weeks ago. Now she is seeking to amend the Social Welfare Acts to allow her to reverse her earlier decision if Brexit does not happen in early 2020. That is what this is about. The Labour Party has serious concerns about her proposed amendment to the Social Welfare Acts, as outlined in Part 3. There is a danger that this amendment will undermine the functions of the independent Low Pay Commission. A Minister might be able to come in at any time and utilise this section to say, "Stall the horse there". That is why I am concerned.

I want to make it clear that if the amendment to the Social Welfare Acts being proposed by the Minister is passed, the amended section 10D of National Minimum Wage Act 2000 will provide that within three months of the receipt of a July report from the Low Pay Commission, the Minister of the day must by order declare a new national minimum wage as recommended by the Low Pay Commission or in other terms, or decline to make an order. If the Minister declines to make an order declaring a new national minimum wage, he or she will have to lay before both Houses a statement of his or her reasons for doing so. This has been done for this year. In fairness to the Minister, she has complied with the law. The new section that she proposes to introduce provides that even though the Minister of the day has received a report and has declined to make an order, and has laid before the Houses a statement of reasons for declining to make an order, he or she "may by order declare a national minimum hourly rate of pay in the terms recommended by the Commission or in other terms". The power to reverse position and implement a recommendation, having initially declined to do so, will be exhausted when a new report comes from the commission the following July.

According to the explanatory memorandum, the amendment the Minister proposes provides that "where the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission has not been implemented, the Minister may nonetheless subsequently issue an Order". The explanatory memorandum clarifies that "the amendment is designed to cater for situations such as the current uncertainty surrounding the timing and effects of Brexit". This means that the Minister of the day must, as at present, decide whether to implement a recommendation within the statutory two-month period but can then, without any change of circumstances, ignore his or her own previous decision and do the opposite. The way it is drafted means that it is not so much a delaying power as a change-of-mind power. It is easy to see how this power could be abused over time. It could totally undermine the independent role of the Low Pay Commission. The setting of the minimum wage is too important to allow it to be a matter of political goodwill. I have concerns in this regard.

When the House debated a motion proposed by one of my Sinn Féin colleagues on 15 October last, the Minister told the Dáil "that the Government has accepted the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission in their entirety and that the minimum wage will be increased by 30 cent to €10.10, as announced in budget 2020". I put it to her that all the Government had decided to do was to defer the date of the implementation of the commission's recommendation. She made no reference to the legal effect of what she had done and failed to do. She made no reference to the need for an amendment to the law to help her out of the dead end she had reversed herself into. In my contribution to that debate, I pointed out precisely what she had done. I made it clear that the suggestion that the Government could hold off on making a decision while it awaited a decision on Brexit was not provided for by law. The law is clear. I reiterate that the Minister had three months from the receipt of the recommendations to make a decision. The recommendations of the Low Pay Commission were sent in July 2019. Within three months, she had to declare a new minimum wage in the terms recommended by the commission or in other terms, or decline to make an order. If she declined to make an order, she had to publish a statement of her reasons for doing so.

On 9 October last, she made a short statement on her reasons for declining to make an order declaring the new minimum wage. It is clear that the decision which was made was not a decision to postpone the increase; in law, it was a decision to cancel the increase. As the law does not permit her to postpone a decision beyond three months, her failure to make an order within that period means that, as the law stands, the statutory function of the Minister in respect of this report is now spent. She did not respond to the argument I made during the 15 October debate. This is part of the problem with debates in the House. Ten minutes should be provided at the end to enable Ministers to respond to the arguments that have been made. If a Minister believes that an argument is poppycock or is no good, he or she can say that.

The Minister has refused to come clean and admit what she has done. Instead, this legislation is being used to make a belated amendment to the National Minimum Wage Acts. This proposal is a once-off measure to cover her predicament. It is being brought forward as a proposed permanent amendment to the law.

I want to signal clearly that I intend to table an amendment to ensure the power being conferred here can be used once and only once. I will accept its use in the current circumstances to allow the Minister to reposition herself. No self-respecting Administration could maintain such an absurd provision as a permanent part of its law. I have said on the record for a long time that the minimum wage should not be a political football. When a recommendation is made in respect of the minimum wage, it should not lead to argy-bargy in the Chamber. We should accept it and move on. As a matter of fact, we have gone beyond the concept of a minimum wage. We are now in living wage territory. That is where we are at. I know the living wage is critical in urban areas, but it has now reached out as far as country areas as well. Workers in urban areas have some access to transport, but workers in rural areas are stuck. They might have cars, but if the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, keeps going, we will have no cars. He does not want people in rural areas to have anything. If one is to get from A to B to work in a job that pays €10 or €11 an hour, one must have some transport. If I want to travel from my own area of Sonna to Mullingar to get a job, I have to travel six miles.

There are not too many hopping around on bicycles, as was the case some years ago. I do not want this issue to become a political football. The State is directed by the Constitution to ensure that citizens - men and women equally - can meet their reasonable needs through paid work. Most Deputies will agree that a good job is the best route out of poverty. We want to achieve that, but there are people who need support, and social protection moneys are a vital crutch for those in dire need. If we wish to build a fair and equal society, we must ensure that work remains an attractive option because jobs are the best way out of poverty. We cannot have people living to work. We must reverse that and ensure people are working to live and get a decent payment such that they can look after their family. That is why the Labour Party sought to ensure that minimum wage was based on evidence and introduced the National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Act 2015, which established the Low Pay Commission. Its role is to consider evidence and make a recommendation on the level of the minimum wage. The essential aim behind the creation of that body was to remove the discretion of the Minister of the day to ignore evidence when setting the minimum wage. The Bill will have the effect of putting a flip-flop Minister centre stage again in respect of the minimum wage and that is why that section cannot be allowed to become a permanent part of law. As I signalled to the Minister, my party intends to draft an appropriate amendment that would limit the change to being utilised on a once-off basis. If such an amendment is not agreed to, it would open an appalling vista for low-wage workers and facilitate political interference to undermine the Low Pay Commission which the Labour Party strongly fought to have established while we were in government. Our job is to ensure the independence of the commission is sacrosanct.

I acknowledge that some of the changes the Bill will make in other areas are significant. Some are technical changes, which tidy up other legislation, such as the provision regarding payments after death. That measure will be brought into being, as will others in similar areas. I also acknowledge the measures in section 15 in respect of social insurance benefits and the increase in the earnings disregard for those in receipt of the one-parent family payment. That is the one area of which the Labour Party made a mess and I put my hands up in that regard. One-parent families and carers are the two main areas of social protection that need to be addressed and focused on.

8:25 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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One of my Solidarity colleagues may come to the Chamber to contribute to the debate and, if so, I will share my time with him or her. I thank the Minister for her presentation. To begin on a positive note, provisions in the Bill that should be welcomed are the extension of the hot meals scheme to an additional 35,000 schoolchildren, the increase in the working lone parents income disregard, although it is not enough, and the increase in the hours carers are allowed to work from 15 to 18.5. I also welcome that the blind welfare allowance will be disregarded in social welfare means assessments. Most people would be astonished to learn that was not the case hitherto.

Some of the commentary on budget 2020 is worth mentioning. It has been described by Social Justice Ireland, SJI, as betraying the vulnerable. The poorest 30% will be hit the hardest, particularly in light of increasing food costs due to Brexit. Although the poorest will experience little increase in their income as a result of the budget, it is estimated that Brexit will increase the cost of living by between €892 and €1,360 per household per year. That is no mean feat. According to Fr. Seán Healy of SJI, the choices made by the Government in budget 2020 mean that the standard of living of vulnerable people will fall and they will slip even further behind the rest of society. Michelle Murphy, research and policy analyst for SJI, stated that those on lower incomes will be the most exposed to the increase in the cost of living as a result of Brexit.

I refer to the privilege the Minister seems to have to withhold the increase in the minimum wage. She stated that the increase has been withheld to see what happens with Brexit. However, the Government did not hesitate to extend schemes such as the special assignee relief programme, SARP. The Minister for Finance extended the programme for 1,000 executives who can cut their tax bill by 30% as a result. These are high flyers who travel between various countries to attend business meetings. Eight of them earn between €3 million and €10 million per year. The tax break will cost the State €28 million. It is only fair for the public and Deputies to put the announcements made by the Minister on the Bill in the context of the overall budget announced by the Minister for Finance. Top civil servants will have their pay reviewed and the Minister's adviser probably stands to receive a large pay increase, but there is no chance of a similar increase for the lowest paid, 137,000 of whom exist on the minimum wage. It is worth noting that the vast majority of them are migrant workers, women or vulnerable people who work in the hospitality sector, the profits of which have exceeded pre-2008 levels. Profits in the tourism and hospitality industries have soared but the low paid in those sectors are being held hostage because of the threat of Brexit. We will seek a report from the Government on when and how the increase in the minimum wage will be paid.

I refer to the increases in jobseeker's allowance rates for young people. This is an effort for the Government to pretend it is in the business of reversing older and discriminatory austerity measures. The Minister stated that the outrageous attack on younger people in the form of the lower rate for those aged 25, which was brought in as an austerity measure, will go, while the even lower rate for those under 24 will go if the claimant lives independently. How is anyone expected to live independently on €112 per week? The answer is beyond me; perhaps the Minister can provide it. I recently tabled a parliamentary question asking her how many people will be affected by this change. As well as eulogising the Government announcement that the age-related payment for those aged 25 will be abolished, her reply stated that the increase in the personal rate from €157.80 to €203 will benefit 1,800 of those younger jobseekers. It also eulogised the announcement that the Government increased the rate available to jobseekers aged 18 to 24 who are living independently and in receipt of State housing supports, including rent supplement and HAP. The reply indicated that her Department has estimated that increase will affect approximately 300 young jobseekers. That is not worth making a headline announcement as though it is some great achievement. How many of the approximately 29,000 15 to 24 year olds who were unemployed in June of this year will benefit from the measure? When one calculates the figures, it becomes evident that some of the measures, particularly that which is supposed to help people under the age of 25 if they live independently, are grossly overstated to make the Department look good.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Action and worked hard to demand a report on the fuel allowance. We secured a priority resolution that the Government would report on it, but that did not happen. Figures compiled by the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations clearly show that 28% of the population lives in fuel poverty. The fuel allowance will be increased by €2 per week for 28 weeks, or €56 per year, to compensate for an increase in carbon tax which amounts to approximately €60 per year of an increase in the average gas bill. How does the Government square the circle on this issue? There are significant problems with it. Fuel and energy poverty are not just issues for the 370,000 who manage to qualify for fuel allowance. Every Member knows this is an issue for many hundreds of thousands of people - those on low income, the minimum wage or small private pensions - who get no help in dealing with increased carbon tax.

It will not even cover the total cost of that increase for the most vulnerable because most of them live in poorly insulated homes in rural areas. They have to use coal, oil or gas for their heating. They cannot change their behaviour and cannot go green tomorrow because they are not being given access to retrofitting or to SEAI grants because they do not qualify for fuel allowance or do not have wads of money that they can use to pay upfront and then have it returned by the State. This goes nowhere near addressing that for the many ill and old people in that situation. They are facing punishment for the sins of the fossil fuel corporations with no effort by the Government to tackle it. I will again seek a report on the levels of fuel poverty and how this increase will impact on those for whom the Minister claims it is intended.

Those are the only three issues on which I will seek reports.

8:35 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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Life on low income is the norm for a large proportion of our society. One in every six people in Ireland lives with an income below the poverty line. That is 15.7% of the population. As highlighted in a number of studies, this corresponds to approximately 760,000 people. Poverty levels reached their lowest point in Ireland in 2009 when 14.1% of the population was classified as poor. Since then the rate has increased, although in recent years budgetary policies increasing core payments have helped to bring it back down again.

However, the budget lacked any serious initiative to significantly reduce poverty. At rates of near full employment, the simple policy solution to creating more jobs no longer stands, especially with approximately 110,000 people experiencing poverty despite being in employment. The Labour Party often comes out with the mantra that people with a job have a better standard of living. We know that is not the case. Many of the jobs available are low paid, minimum wage and low hours. The Minister has met many of the employees of the Ivy Restaurant who were being abused by their employer. Workers are getting the minimum wage with the contracted wage they signed up to when they started the job being made up by the tips that were being handed to the company, which it was stealing from the workers and still is.

It was a failure not to increase social welfare payments across the board. I agree with SJI that those increases should have been €9 to €10 a week. The Government is very protective of industry over the possible impact of Brexit with a hard border or an agreement covering customs only. However, for those on the lowest incomes, who are most vulnerable to increases in food prices that could happen as a result, the Government has done very little to respond to that. None of the speeches by the Minister and her colleagues since the budget has indicated that the Government is watching this very closely. If there is a hard border with World Trade Organization, WTO, tariffs kicking in, resulting in food price increases, there has been no mention of intervening to protect our pensioners, carers and social welfare recipients.

The only thing the Minister has done is to say that she will not implement the minimum wage increase proposed by the Low Pay Commission. To put that into perspective, the proposed increase is 30 cent an hour. Someone unlucky enough to work 40 hours a week on the minimum wage would get an additional €12 per week or €624 per year. That is what we are talking about and yet we were able to give €28 million to SARP. While I did not take it, the Government was able to grant in increase of €1,600 annually to Deputies, Senators and higher public servants. That is all no problem at all. Everybody at the top benefits and is protected. However, those on the minimum wage, who most need it, are told they can wait until the Government decides whether Brexit will affect businesses. I agree we need to protect businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses, which are the backbone of the country.

The feedback I got from old-age pensioners, carers and people with disabilities was that they were absolutely disgusted with the budget. They were particularly angry over the lack of protections for them when they are probably the most vulnerable to food price increases. The CSO household budget survey illustrates the exposure of households across the income distribution to changes in food prices. It shows that the proportion of total household expenditure on food. On average, households spend 14.7% of their total expenditure on food. However, food represents a much larger proportion of all spending among the households in the bottom 40% of the income distribution, standing between 17% and 19% of total expenditure. A sudden increase in food prices, which will be unavoidable following a hard Brexit, will hit these households hardest. They are also the households with the lowest capacity to absorb such impacts on their living costs.

Even with a negotiated departure of the UK from the EU, the absence of a customs agreement may push food prices higher and have a less severe but similarly distributed effect. The households that are worst positioned, again, to absorb the impact of these potential price increases will be impacted most. The Government has not even thought about how it might intervene particularly through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to help protect this cohort of people.

Other speakers raised the issue relating to 18 to 24 year olds. It is welcome that if they are independent and receive household supports they will receive the full rate of jobseeker's payment. However, only 300 such young people are affected. The Minister is saying that cohort of young people should be given the full jobseeker's payment. However, when they buy a pair of shoes, pay their bus, Luas or DART fare, buy a shirt and a nice jacket to attend an interview, they do not get a discount because they under 25. They are not told they will get a 25% discount because they are only receiving so much on social welfare. They are living in the real world that everybody else lives in. They pay the same prices for clothes, transport, etc. I agree with my colleagues that this is age discrimination and should end. Everyone in receipt of jobseeker's payment should earn the same amount so that they can live.

I made the point about the minimum wage. We should increase it to the recommended €12.30 an hour living wage. It would even be hard to live on that. That would be €492 a week for someone on a 40-hour week.

There are some positive provisions in the Bill. I welcome the extension of the school hot meals scheme, in which I have a particular interest. My final point is on the fuel allowance increase.

I agree with other Deputies that a €2 increase compared with the €6 increase in the carbon tax does not deal with how the people concerned will pay their bills. The cohort of industries that created the CO2 and climate crisis should be paying the carbon tax, not ordinary people. When the Government states it wants to move away from fossil fuels and offer people an alternative that they can install in their homes within a year and pay a grant to do it, it can start by charging those who do not move to an energy source that is carbon neutral a carbon tax. Increasing it now is an absolute disgrace. It will be hard for the people who depend on the fuel allowance and those on low incomes to deal with it.

8:45 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am happy to speak to this important Bill, which has been designed to give legislative effect to a range of social welfare measures announced in the budget. I thank the Minister for doing her level best to help to deal with a protracted problem in County Tipperary. The Bill provides for several technical changes to the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 to ensure the application of income disregards for persons engaged in fostering. The Bill also provides for an amendment to the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 to provide that where the Minister of the day is not in a position to implement the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission, as is the case as a consequence of the uncertainty associated with Brexit, he or she may subsequently issue an order for the year or part of the year to which the commission's recommendations relate. That is very good and I wish the Minister well with it because we are in uncharted waters with Brexit and an election coming up across the water. It is nice that the Minister will have that latitude and be able to make recommendations in that area. The Bill provides for an amendment to the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for a 0.1% increase, from 0.9% to 1%, in the National Training Fund levy payable by employers. That, of course, is a broad outline of the Bill as provided in the explanatory memorandum.

It cannot, however, capture the huge sense of disappointment the announcement created on budget day. Groups such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and family carers were bitterly let down in the poverty-proofing measures not addressed on the day. I wear the badge of carers here because they do so much good work and have felt saddened that they have been left behind in the past ten years. They provide so many hours of care. In my county there are many child carers, young people who should be in school or at college but who are caring for their siblings or parents, which is very sad. These groups, with a recovery taking place in the economy, expected to receive some little bit.

I acknowledge that, in terms of the rates of jobseeker's allowance, section 4 provides that "the reduced rate of Jobseeker's Allowance for claimants aged 18 to 24 will no longer apply where the claimant lives independently and is in receipt of housing supports". I agree wholeheartedly with this change. The position was very hard for young people in that cohort. I know the reasons the provision was brought forward, but still it was very hard on them and their families not to receive the full rate. It was discriminatory and I compliment the Minister on changing the provision. The Bill states: "The full rate of Jobseeker's Allowance will be paid to these persons with effect from 1 January 2020". That is ana fáilte ar fad and very much to be welcomed. As Social Justice Ireland has pointed out, adequate social welfare payments are required to prevent poverty. That is very true, as the Minister knows. She works in her constituency and hears it all the time in her clinics when dealing with families. SJI states: "Without the social welfare system 43.8 per cent of the Irish population would have been living in poverty in 2017. Such an underlying poverty rate suggests a deeply unequal distribution of direct income". That continues to be the position to this day. In 2017 there were just over 760,000 people in Ireland living below the poverty line, of whom approximately 230,000 were children. Some progress has been made which has to be welcomed, but it is not happening at the pace we would like.

From data I have received from the Minister's Department, I know that more than 5,000 people in County Tipperary have received exceptional and urgent needs payments, totalling €1.8 million, this year alone. That is a huge sum, for which I thank community welfare officers as we used to call them. I do not know what they are called now, but years ago they were called relieving officers. They have had some awful names during the years, but nonetheless they are a great bunch of people who do work very hard. Sometimes they hear tall tales and have to make an assessment and sometimes they are mistreated and abused when they should not be as they have a hard job to do and do a good job, for which I thank them and in which I support them. This highlights the fact that people cannot live on what they have or in most cases meet their basic needs. There can be exceptional needs, as the Minister knows, being a family person, because of climatic occurrences or run of the mill accidents in a household, with damage being caused to equipment, which is unavoidable. Community welfare officers need to have flexibility in that regard.

We learn today from daft.iethat rents across the country have risen by 5.2% in the past year and that the average monthly rent is now €1,403. The average month rent in my county of Tipperary is almost €900 which, relatively speaking, represents a year on year change of 8.7%. The cost of rent is driving families into poverty. They will not be able to cope with a further increase. I am not one to stand up here, unlike others, and demonise and attack all landlords as there are many good landlords. Many have only one house which they might have inherited or bought and they have an exceptional relationship with their tenants. There is a policy, on the left especially, of haranguing and barracking landlords, but if we hunt them out of the industry altogether, there will be no one to provide accommodation. We have to strike a balance. We have to have respect and it is both ways between the tenant and the landlord. There are some bad tenants and also some bad landlords. Therefore, we need to get our priorities right. We cannot keep demonising landlords because they do their best to provide accommodation where the State is unable to do so.

In March I asked the Minister to investigate the reason the number of social welfare recipients who had had their payments cut was reduced on foot of recommendations made by Turas Nua where the figure exceeded €10,500. I have had many a battle with the Minister over Turas Nua which I have described as Turas Uafásach and tá fhios ar an Aire cad é sin. It is an awful journey and I know of some horrific cases, as does Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and many more rural Deputies. I was pleased early in the year when we found that it would not accept any new referral and would be stood down in December. Now, however, I find that it will not. The Minister has given it a reprieve for another year. It probably has some good points, but during the years I have certainly met people who have had some very bad experiences. They were terrified and horrified and literally had not been treated with the respect and dignity they should have been as adults and young people in attending for interviews. Many of the staff in Turas Nua are also quite young and inexperienced and are only doing what they have been told, but it has led to many difficulties and affected some people's mental health, as the Minister knows. People were not able to cope. I would, therefore, like the Minister to look at this issue again in view of what I have said about Turas Nua. Many rural Deputies have many stories about people who do not have access to transport and are unable to make their way to the offices. It is a more of a case of Turas Uafásach.

Debate adjourned.