Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill 2019: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. I also welcome the measures contained in the Bill such as the Christmas bonus, the increase in the living alone allowance, the 35,000 hot meals to be provided for school children and other similar provdisions. What is contained in a Bill, however, is not always what is most important and this Bill is a classic example. What is not included in it is very important. It will, effectively, implement a freeze on social welfare payments and the national minimum wage. It will implement the measures included in a budget that was deeply regressive, cut the living standards of the poorest families in society, is socially unjust and will widen the gap between rich and poor. The excuse for doing this in the past, of course, was austerity. The excuse this time is Brexit. There is, however, no justification whatsoever for implementing a freeze.
Many independent organisations, agencies and individuals confirm that there is great need in society and that money is available to address them.
Social Justice Ireland, for instance, has described the budget as a betrayal of the most vulnerable in society. It is worth reading a small paragraph of its analysis. It states:
Budget 2020 failed in its basic task to protect the vulnerable. While TDs will see their salaries rise by about €1,600 in the coming year (€30 a week) many of Ireland's most vulnerable people will see their welfare payments remain unchanged.
Among other things they will face additional increases in the cost of food - [and] public transport as a result of increased carbon tax.
Social Justice Ireland also states the poverty gap has widened as a result of the budget and as a result of the implementation of the measures in this Bill. It states:
One in every six people in Ireland lives with an income below the poverty line (15.7% of the population). Based on the latest CSO data, this corresponds to approximately 760,000 people. Social Justice Ireland has consistently pointed out that a lesson from previous experiences is that the vulnerable in our society get left behind unless welfare increases keep pace with increases elsewhere in the economy.
Social Justice Ireland calls for an increase of €9 per week in social welfare payments across the board to keep in line with cost increases.
The ESRI states in its commentary that the budget had a greater impact on the incomes of poor households. It has calculated that the budget will reduce the incomes of the poorest 10% of households by 3%. Mr. Michael Taft, a trade union economist, explains that pensioners will, as a result of the budget and the fact that there is no increase for pensioners in this Bill, be less well off to the tune of €168 per year. He states that keeping pace with inflation and what the Government has forecast to be cost of living would require at least €3.22 more per week. Government inflation forecasts are 0.9% in 2019, 1.3% in 2020 and 1.4% in 2021. Therefore, it would take a minimum increase of €3.22 per week for pensioners to maintain their current standard of living.
We know already that middle and low-income families and social welfare recipients struggle daily to make ends meet. They have hardly two cent to rub together at the end of the week. Any additional costs whatsoever, such as costs associated with an unexpected illness, bereavement, Holy Communion or confirmation, puts them into debt and puts serious pressure on low-income families.
We know from many agencies that circumstances are very difficult for the low-income families. The ESRI and CSO have pointed out that there are 760,000 living below the poverty line. We are aware that there are 110,000 working poor and 137,000 working on the minimum wage. There are 230,000 children living below the poverty line. Some 28% of the population experience fuel poverty, and 44.5% of lone-parent families experience deprivation. We are aware that the lowest 10% of income earners pay the same percentage of their income in tax as the wealthiest 10%. Therefore, it is shameful that the Government has frozen the incomes of these poorer families. Worse still, it is not just a freeze but a cut to the income of pensioners, social welfare recipients and those on the minimum wage. There is no justification for that.
There is money available to pay increases to the affected groups. The Social Insurance Fund is currently in surplus to the tune of €1.4 billion. Only yesterday, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, told us that Ireland's fiscal position for 2019 would be better than the 0.2% budget surplus he forecast about a month ago. He went on to say he would deliver a budget surplus of in excess of 0.5% in 2020. Therefore, the money exists.
Ireland is one of the richest countries in the world. In fact, it is the eighth richest. Recent studies shows that the top 10% of wealthy people in this country own 58.4% of all wealth. The top 5% own 46.4% of all wealth, and the top 1% own 27.3% of all wealth. It is worth thinking about that. These figures prompted the well-known economist David McWilliams to propose a wealth tax. He stated wealth tax revenue of anything from €2 billion to €20 billion could be collected on a sliding scale, depending on whether a tax of 0.5% or 5% is imposed and the category for which it is introduced. A minimum of €2 billion in wealth tax revenue would be available to the Government if it were prepared to make exceptionally wealthy people pay their fair share of tax. Of course, the Government chose to support very wealthy individuals through the assignee relief scheme. Some €28 million was available, meaning individuals could gain up to €130,000 per year in tax relief.
Studies shows there are 2,055 super-rich individuals in this country. This is the fifth highest proportion in the world, ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan. We have 421 super-rich individuals per 1 million of the population of the State, yet there is no wealth tax. The financial assets of the richest 10% in this country are now worth €50 billion more than at the peak of the boom, which was in 2006. Again, there is no taxation of these super-rich individuals. We hear regularly about broadening the tax base. I suggest to the Minister that it is about time we broadened it to force the super-wealthy individuals to pay their fair share of tax and support society generally.
The figures I have given show there is no justification whatsoever for cutting the income of pensioners, social welfare recipients and workers on the minimum wage. We know what they need. The Government has the money and a means of getting money to make a reasonable payment available to poorer families. It is worth reminding the House that this Bill not only freezes the income of poorer families but also cuts it. I call on the Government, and Ministers of State Deputy Finian McGrath and Deputy Halligan in particular, to introduce a supplementary budget to do the right thing, to give at least the increase that Social Justice Ireland is looking for, €9 per week, and ensure the minimum wage is increased accordingly.
What has happened in the budget and what will be implemented in this legislation is unacceptable. There is a great need out there and the Government has the money and the wherewithal to tackle the situation and to give reasonable increases to families that are poor and families that are under pressure every day of the week.
I welcome the Minister's budget. I wish to highlight some of the measures being introduced in it such as the extension of the hot school meals scheme to 35,000 additional schoolchildren. The living alone allowance payment will increase by €5 per week for people with disabilities and pensioners living alone. Some 370,000 households will benefit from the extra €2 for the fuel allowance payment per week. Eligibility for the household benefits package will be broadened for people under the age of 70 to allow for another adult to reside in the household. The earnings disregard for working lone parents in receipt of the one-parent family payment or the jobseeker's transition payment will increase by €15 to €165 per week. Carers will benefit from an increase in the number of hours they can work or study outside the home from 15 hours to 18.5 hours. The carer's support grant of €1,700 a year will continue to be paid.
I very much welcome that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is to commission a research project to examine funeral poverty in Ireland and the wider economic impact of bereavement. Could the Minister indicate the timelines and when the report will be completed? Could she furnish us with the findings of the research as soon as possible with a view to the policy that will be put in place on the back of it?
Other measures I wish to highlight in the time available to me relate to help for those seeking work. A total of €2.5 million is being provided to target specific job activation and training supports for groups that are most distant from the labour market or have challenges entering the workplace. In particular, it is intended to develop returnships for women who have been out of the workplace for a prolonged period, usually to raise a family or care for a relative, and to help them to participate once more in the workforce. I very much welcome the initiative, which is about trying to get people to return to work and to remove the barriers to work. The Minister is well aware of the number of times I have raised the issue in the Dáil. A €10,000 grant was provided about two years ago for employers to take on anybody aged over 50 who was long-term unemployed. I continue to raise the issue of older people between 50 and 55 years in the workforce who face discrimination in trying to get work. We must try to break the barrier to them accessing work. As employers or employees, we as a culture and society must step up to combat that, in particular now that we have reached 4.8% unemployment, effectively, full employment. We must grow the existing productivity in the economy and in society that is not being fully tapped into.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation attended a committee to discuss workers becoming unemployed and those who might be unable to continue with their current occupation, such as manual labourers, for example, those in the construction industry. When they reach a certain age their bodies are simply not able to retain the physicality required but that is all they know as they might have been doing the job for 15 or 20 years. We must help and advise those people to retrain. They are not used to academic-type work but they have developed brilliant physical and manual skills. We must help that sector to diversify. A man who is 50 or 55 years of age who has worked on a building site for the past 30 years still has another 15 to 18 years work, or even longer if he wants to continue. Some workers might still have a young family to rear. We must create the opportunities and options for those people, in particular if we are trying to attract them into apprenticeships in the wet trades so that there is career advancement when their bodies get older and they are not able for such manual work. That will add to the attraction of apprenticeships as well. I would like the Government to look at this area in the next six to 12 months and perhaps commission a study or report into it. I learned today at the Joint Committee on Climate Action that education and training boards are working on this area, especially in the context of a just transition for people who have been working in manual jobs for 15 to 20 years. A study is required on how to help such people to transition to other areas of employment, which could be used as a blueprint and to attract people into those roles and to give them some hope. Men in their mid-50s call into my office who say people will not hire them because of their age. That is not on. We must change that, keep shouting about it and combat it. I look forward to some of the new initiatives that will be put in place in that regard. I thank the Minister for the grant of €10,000 for the long-term unemployed that she introduced in recent years.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill. I will pick up where Deputy Neville left off and speak about older people, in particular older men, who are being given no option as companies change models. We see it not alone in the midlands but all over the country as companies close and restructure. They are the target for redundancy but they still have so much to give. There is a need for a special effort in that regard. We must talk much more about it, as it is not talked about enough. I support any initiative the Minister will take in the area.
I ask the Minister to keep under review throughout 2020 the inability to give the full €5 this year because of the danger of a no-deal Brexit scenario. If we get through 2020 with some kind of long-term deal in place we should re-examine the measure. Most people will have some small increase in income during 2020 but, unfortunately, pensioners and those on social welfare will not have an increase.
I welcome the very targeted increases in specific areas. The Minister has been committed to such an approach for some time. They will make a difference. I acknowledge that the Minister has brought a sense of practicality to the role, which is evident in a number of initiatives. That was not necessarily the case with some of her predecessors.
While we have had disagreements on this in the past, I acknowledge the Minister's role in assessing the pension review and the 2012 changes. We are making some progress but not enough. Many people are still being left short of money that they were expecting at this stage of their life. However, I acknowledge that the Minister has brought a particular focus to the issue within the Department. The difficulty is that a lot of people are arriving into the situation now still unaware that they are affected by the changes. People are coming to retirement age now who do not realise that the change happened in 2012 and it is now affecting them. Many people are coming up to pension age budgeting for a certain figure and finding that it is a lot less. A whole new cohort is coming in every year and people are incredibly frustrated. They share the frustrations of those who went before them. They took time out for family reasons and other reasons to support the State, be it to look after children or parents and now they are being penalised by the State for having done that. That is something the Minister needs to keep a focus on because I suspect that if she was not there, her officials would hope it would go away. I welcome the Minister's focus but we will keep on her case in regard to the issue as well.
Given that the amount of weekly payments has fallen and given that the numbers are falling, I ask the Minister to consider assigning extra people into the appeals section. At this stage appeals are still taking six or nine months and it is incredibly difficult for people who may be waiting on a payment. The notion that they can go to the community welfare service does not work for quite a number of them because they may not have access to it. They may not want to do that, or they may not have the wherewithal to do it. We must address certain appeals, for example, for carer's allowance or the domiciliary care allowance, to ensure they can be addressed more quickly and efficiently than is currently the case. I refer in particular to people who find themselves in a difficult situation. I am aware of a number of cases where carers are expected to give up their job before they get a decision, which leaves a gap that could mean they are potentially left for weeks and even months without an income. Consequently, they will not make the decision to give up their job.
One then finds that the person people want to care for is using general hospitals, primary care services and even home help services when somebody is willing and able to care for him or her at home. The restriction of having to give up a job or wait for an appeal to be heard causes issues in that regard. I ask the Minister to look at that issue, with particular reference to carer's allowance and the domiciliary care allowance, with a specific initiative related to appeals. The move from carer's benefit to carer's assistance means that the process still does not look at mortgage or rental payments which will knock many out. Mortgage payments account for a substantial part of people's incomes, people who do not have a choice but to make either mortgage payments or pay rent. We need to apply flexibility in that regard. If there is to be a particular focus in the Department this year, it needs to be on carers. Some initiatives are welcome. The Minister has increased the working allowance, a measure I welcome.
Too often the Government operates in different silos, with the Department of Health doing one thing and the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Education and Skills doing others, with no co-ordination between them. I make this point every year and it is not political. The system has been designed to frustrate those who most need it to help them, whether they are carers or parents of children with special educational needs. We need to break down those silos and make difficult journeys much easier. The State should help to make a difficult journey much easier, except that there are all of these barriers in place which are age related and stupid and need a practical focus. If we do anything in 2020, we should focus on how we can help carers. The work they do is phenomenal and saves the State a lot of money in the health service and other areas such as education. The entire State apparatus should come together with an all-of-government focus on carers in 2020 to look at the blockages the State can remove to make the lives and journeys of carers easier, whether they are caring for older people or children with special needs. At least, that would show that the State recognised the role they were playing.
We had hoped to raise the issue of community employment scheme supervisors. I gather from some correspondence we received on Friday that there seems to be a difficulty in the talks. It has been communicated by the unions that the information was not shared at the appropriate time. I would appreciate it if the Minister looked at this issue because I know that she has taken an interest in it. Supervisors of community employment schemes do a considerable service for the State in providing skills, passing on talent and giving opportunities to people who might otherwise not have them. It comes back to what Deputy Neville said. Many participating in schemes are people who the market, for want of a better word, has left behind. We are giving them a chance to use their skills and talents. How can we expect supervisors to do this when at the end of their career and contribution, all they receive is a common State pension that everybody else receives without giving of his or her time the talents and the benefits of his or her work experience? There has been a Labour Court recommendation and a Dáil vote on the matter. I received a reply to a parliamentary question from the Minister this morning, that she is looking at the Workplace Relations Commission's recommendation. I ask her to look at what happened last week that led to the communication from the union. I am conscious of the need not to become involved in negotiations, but the communication came directly from the union involved.
I know that the Minister is familiar with men's sheds which are funded through the Minister, Deputy Ring's Department, the Department of Health and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We need to find a home for them. Given the work they do in providing skills and community support, I think that home is the Minister's Department. I know that many people want the issues related to housing to be moved to her Department. The support and skills provided at men's sheds are significant in keeping people out of health services, keeping them involved in society and supporting communities. Many who come off schemes and many who are working come to the men's shed. There is a role for them in the context of the provision of social protection. Men's sheds are doing this in a way that was never envisaged and in a way community employment schemes used to do so. I encourage the Minister to be proprietorial by taking ownership of men's sheds and making sure she is given a budget to allow them to grow to achieve their potential.
I have been in both at times.
As Fianna Fáil is aware of the existential threats of Brexit to the economy and the nation, we are facilitating the passage of the Bill and related legislation. We have stood up to that challenge and provided stability and for continuity at a time when it is needed, which is in start contrast to our counterparts in neighbouring jurisdictions, including the North and elsewhere. This is the fourth budget under the confidence and supply agreement and I expect it to be the last. It testifies to Fianna Fáil's responsible and mature approach, something which is not always reciprocated by those on the other side of the House. Some of the trivial social media activities in which the Government has engaged lately are not becoming of a Government party, least of all one facilitated by the Opposition, but so be it. We will have that battle in the new year.
The Bill will give effect, among other things, to an increase in the national minimum wage which was deferred in the budget in anticipation of a no-deal Brexit. We think we are beginning to move slowly towards some deal or arrangement and that perhaps that precipice has been avoided. While there is that threat, it is important that we mitigate it. In its most recent bulletin the Central Bank projects that number in employment will be 73,000 lower in 2021, with the rate of unemployment forecast to rise to 5.8% in 2020 in a no-deal scenario. These are the reasons it is important that we provide for this and act accordingly. However, if and when the threat of a no-deal Brexit is removed, the Minister should immediately act to implement the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission which covers many people in public services, including many front-line public servants, those in the emergency services and other professions. It is critical that that be done as soon as it is financially feasible to do so, if a no-deal Brexit comes off the table.
There are many aspects of the Bill with which we are not happy. It was not our budget and we would have liked to have seen many things changed. We are disappointed that there are no primary welfare payment increases for pensioner couples, carers and people with disabilities. We welcome the increase in targeted measures such as the living alone allowance, the fuel allowance, the qualified child increase and the increased income thresholds for the working family payment and the one-parent family payment. My colleagues who held this brief were pivotal in making the case for these measures. However, overall it is not a pretty vista. Unfortunately, after nine years of Fine Gael in government, we are in the midst of crises in housing provision, healthcare, transport and education services. Some 10,000 people are living in emergency accommodation, more than 500,000 are awaiting an outpatient appointment, 760,000 are at risk of poverty, while 105,000 children are classed as living in consistent poverty, with almost one in five classed as experiencing deprivation. Unfortunately, that is Ireland in which we live after nine years of Fine Gael in government.
We must be mindful of those who are often called the working poor. It is important when we put in place welfare supports that we recognise many of those who are in work but living on the breadline. They are the ones who are making the effort to get up in the morning to go to work, arrange childcare, then pay their bus fare, for transport, diesel or whatever else and who often have little to show for it. A recent article in TheIrish Timesdiscussed being on a good wage but still broke. It typified much of middle Ireland, where people are making their best effort in getting up in the morning to often travel long distances to work, yet it seems that at the end of the month they have pennies left, if they have not gone into an overdraft. It is the job of any welfare and enterprise system to support them and ensure they will have something to show after a day's work. Otherwise, there will be significant frustration and disillusionment if one ends up in that trap.
On an ancillary note, I am conscious that this is Science Week. We are talking about the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill 2019, but we must look at the bigger picture in disucssing economic planning and activities. I have said repeatedly that we have not met our targets in promoting innovation, investment and research and development. We are nowhere near the 2.5% of GDP target the Government set in Innovation 2020. We are closer to a figure of 1.4% of GDP.
If we take away the private sector element and look purely at the public funding of research and development, we are at just under 0.6%, and Mexico is the only country that lags behind us in public financing of research and development activities.
I mention that in the context of this debate because, traditionally, in the post-industrial age - Ireland went straight from the agricultural to the post-industrial age -our economic strategy for the past 40 or 50 years has been to develop a knowledge economy and advanced innovation to differentiate ourselves not on the grounds of manufacturing or minimal employment costs, but rather by positioning ourselves at the higher end, with an educated workforce and a particular offering that adds value to make this an attractive location for multinationals, as well as our indigenous businesses and others, to invest in. That investment drives economic growth and dividends, which, in turn, feed back into public services and a healthy Exchequer, high-quality employment and high employment levels, as well as providing more resources for those who need help. It is something we need to address, therefore, for many reasons. I hope the Minister takes the message back to Government that, unfortunately, for all that our economic strategy is pinned around it, our innovation strategy and innovation spend are nowhere near where they need to be.
Deputy Calleary mentioned CE schemes, to which the Minister has made some reforms in the past couple of years. Many of us on this side of the House repeatedly raise the issues faced by people on these schemes, in particular the difficulties with JobPath, Turas Nua and other companies that came into the system. Those companies were perhaps bringing a private sector approach to a more complex problem or challenge, and the experience of many of those schemes was not positive. The experience of CE schemes is invariably positive but some of the replacement or successor schemes have not been so positive.
I am reminded of a particular individual who came into my clinic on one occasion. He had been on a CE scheme and was looking to get onto a further scheme, but had been unsuccessful in doing so and was being pushed onto JobPath and different work reskilling programmes. While these might be eminently suitable for certain people, having reviewed this person's papers, I concluded he qualified for a long-term, ongoing payment in perpetuity and did not need to go on a scheme, given his medical history and his general circumstances, and he could, therefore, avoid the stress involved. He turned to me and said he wanted to work, he wanted to be on a scheme and he wanted a supervisor on a Monday morning telling him what work to do. He wanted the dignity and the structure that came with that. Financially, he would have been at a slight disadvantage by remaining on the scheme rather than taking the long-term payment, but it was his preference to have a structure and a working environment where he could positively contribute to his community and his town by working on the project the scheme was undertaking. It is important to recognise that mindset and it is a challenge the Department must recognise and reward in regard to the design and implementation of these schemes.
My contribution relates to the minimum wage section of the Bill, given the Minister is missing a key opportunity to raise income levels for workers. The Government's handling of the minimum wage question in this year's budget was disappointing. The total absence of information and the conflicting accounts from the Minister and the Taoiseach about what the Government was going to do on the minimum wage was very unhelpful to workers. It was regrettable that the Government decided to defer a decision on the minimum wage, citing Brexit as the excuse. This simply is not good enough and that excuse did not fool anyone.
Thousands of workers look to budget day to get a small break and, for many, the only thing they expect is an increase in the minimum wage. To leave that out, and for the Minister for Finance to not even mention it in his budget speech, was insulting to low paid workers. It should never have happened and should not be repeated. If the Government decided not to increase this, it should tell people on budget day, not leak it, avoid it and then have conflicting accounts of the approach. This left people in limbo, not knowing if they were getting a much-needed increase in their wages. It was very unfair and I would ask the Minister to look at how this was handled. The Government's decision not to increase the national minimum wage in budget 2020 was a slap in the face for the 137,000 workers who currently earn the minimum wage. There will be no postponement of rent increases, no stop to significant insurance costs or no delay to the carbon tax, but it seems the Government does not care if people can afford this or not.
The excuse of Brexit does not fool anyone. Legal protections are currently in place for companies that can show they cannot afford to pay the national minimum wage. Brexit is not the issue here; it is a disregard for those on the minimum wage. The wealthiest workers in the country were, of course, rewarded in this budget with the extension of SARP, helping rich executives pay less tax. This horrible tax scheme permits highly paid executives avoid hundreds of thousands of euro in tax. The contrast in the Government's treatment of millionaire executives and that of minimum wage workers could not be more stark.
Research from Social Justice Ireland shows that more than 100,000 workers are living in poverty in 2019. OECD statistics show Ireland has the third highest rate of low pay in the 36-member organisation, with 23% of the workforce on low pay. The low pay economy is totally unacceptable and is something that should be urgently addressed.
I was glad the Government did not oppose the recent Sinn Féin motion on the living wage a few weeks ago. The support of the Minister for our motion was much appreciated. As passed by the Dáil, it condemned the Government's decision not to increase the national minimum wage and called for the living wage of €12.30 per hour to be introduced. I hope the Minister intends to follow the instructions of the Dáil, although I will not hold my breath because the Government has not done that on many other issues.
The Minister and I will disagree substantially on this point but I will make it regardless. Sinn Féin does not accept that workers should be forced to wait, year in, year out, for the Government to throw them a few crumbs from the table when it is dishing out the cash. This year, the Government did not even manage to do that. This is not the way to treat people, in particular low paid workers. The minimum wage structure has failed in this State and the Minister should at least acknowledge this. How could the minimum wage laws here be considered a success when more than 100,000 workers are living in poverty? Why does the Government think it is normal for workers to live in poverty? Is that the kind of economy and society we want? I certainly do not. Some people will say, "Yes", but the people I represent, and the party I am a member of, totally reject that approach.
We want an economy that works for the people and for our society, and our current system is not delivering that for everybody. Sinn Féin has proposed a plan to introduce a living wage of €12.30 per hour, with appropriate supports in place for those businesses which may not be able to afford this change. Our plan would see an immediate move to the living wage as it is unacceptable to keep kicking this can down the road. Who are we to tell workers on the minimum wage that they must wait longer to get paid a wage that they can get by on? People are either for the living wage or they are not. It is time political parties put their money where there mouth is and committed to delivering for low paid workers.
Our proposal for introducing a living wage includes an exemption for those financially vulnerable businesses that can show the Labour Court they genuinely cannot afford this transition to the living wage. We do not believe this clause will be used widely as most SMEs value their workers and already pay their employees the living wage and much more. A similar provision currently exists for the minimum wage and it has never once been used by any business. However, this exemption is important as it will safeguard businesses and jobs in those SMEs that genuinely find themselves in difficult financial circumstances. In our discussions on this, we wanted to make sure no business was affected where it genuinely could not afford to pay a decent living wage to its employees.
A Eurofound report from 2018 showed that implementing a living wage could play a significant role in offsetting the rise of in-work poverty across the European Union. Proper wages and the eradication of precarious working practices must be the essential foundations of economic growth and productivity. Sinn Féin wants Ireland to become the first country in the world to introduce a living wage on a legislative basis. I encourage the Minister to examine the Government's approach to low pay, recognise how regressive and unfair it is, and commit to introducing a living wage for workers.
Ba mhaith liom an deis seo a ghlacadh chun labhairt faoi cheist an chosaint shóisialta mar a ghlaotar air anois. Tá ceisteanna ríthábhachtach ann nach bhfuil sa Bhille seo gur chóir go mbeadh ann. Ba chóir go mbeadh muid ag déanamh an deis a thapú tacú leo siúd atá ag brath go hiomlán ar leasa shóisialta nó ar liúntais leasa shóisialta. Níor thapaigh an tAire an deis sin an uair seo.
In this Bill, we should be addressing key elements of the welfare code and trying to ensure that, for those who are weakest or most dependent on welfare, we would take the opportunity to address those issues.
We have not gone far enough. We did not take the opportunity. I will raise a number of these issues.
One issue that should have been addressed is the diet supplement. One can receive a payment towards it through the supplementary welfare allowance, but, like many other cuts under the previous Government, this one has been continued into this term. The Minister for Social Protection in the previous Government, Deputy Burton, cut the diet supplement in total. It was reintroduced in a strange way rather than brought back as a stand-alone supplement that could address specific needs on a case-by-case basis. Instead it has clogged up the supplementary welfare allowance system.
Another area where a lot more could be done is CE. We should have used that opportunity, especially given the increase in employment. A cohort in our society is dependent on CE to get the training to go back into work, yet there is still a legacy cut to the training and maintenance allowance for CE participants. Participants on CE schemes can appeal to try to get the extra €500 or so per participant. That is not good enough. It should be automatic, especially given that many of the courses the groups overseeing CE participants are trying to fill, whether a safe pass, manual handling pass or something else, cost more than the current rate. They end up sending in a note looking for the extra funding. It is usually given but, given that there is an understanding that the cost will be higher for the courses that will give the participants the skills to go back to work, given the times we are in and given the fact that, as far as I can see, there seems to be a reduction in the numbers on CE schemes, the cut should be reversed.
Deputy Calleary raised the issue of CE supervisors. This is the legacy of the previous Government and those that came before it, not the Minister's. The position of CE supervisors has never been fully addressed. The State set the hours and the rates and they could not get any overtime, yet no one ever made proper provision for pensions. I know there have been discussions. I have not been involved in them because I did not want to stick my tuppenceworth into the middle of them. By the looks of it, though, the discussions are now faltering again. I hope the Minister and her Department will provide the required proposals that the unions were awaiting and that the issue can be addressed. It is a pity it has not been addressed because this Bill could have contained those provisions. That is the idea behind the Social Welfare Bill. Once again, we have missed an opportunity, a phrase I have used a lot in this debate.
A change made a number of years ago has resulted in cases in which the parents of children who are 18 years of age and who are still at school do not get child benefit. This is ridiculous. It might have been fine 20 years ago, when the vast majority of secondary schools only provided for five years of education. Virtually every single school in the country now offers a transition year, which means that children are in school until 18 and 19 years of age, yet their parents receive no child benefit for them, although they are regarded as children in many ways.
A key instance of discrimination that I have found horrific over the years concerns social welfare payments to those aged under 26. I still believe that the cuts made in this regard amount to discrimination. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission should have made a finding to the effect that the fact that young people were not in receipt of full social welfare payments on an equal footing to others amounted to discrimination on age grounds. That still continues today. I acknowledge the changes the Minister has made and that there is, I hope, a gradual move towards equality once again, but it is not close enough. For tax purposes, people aged 18 paying all their taxes are treated as individuals. For social welfare purposes, those living at home see their parents' income taken as means rather than the parents' own means. Many people are stuck because of the housing crisis, but even those who are not necessarily stuck but who are at home are now saying, "If I can get HAP, I will get my full payment." That is the change that is happening. It should not be one or the other. If one is 18 years of age, one is an adult in the eyes of the law. That should be for all purposes, including social welfare payments. One should not be dependent, based on the social welfare code, on one's parental income. That should change immediately. If anyone, whether a parent or whoever else, has too much income, he or she should be taxed appropriately. The child should not be penalised. There is nothing to prove that parents will give to their children the difference between the full rate and what a claimant gets while living at home, whether it is €112 or, when it is means-tested, less than that. There is nothing to say that the parents are making up the shortfall between the full social welfare rate. In fact, it is probably the opposite; they are probably trying to encourage the young person out of the home.
Another cut made, which continuously comes up, was to the clothing allowance. There are people going to community welfare officers about this. I understand some of the logic behind getting rid of it, but most of the old people I have talked to in recent years have been adamant that it was one of the payments they fully respected, understood and utilised, especially coming up to key occasions, whether it was additional heavy clothing for wintertime or a change of clothes come Easter.
We must do a lot more to protect older people who are living alone and who are dependent on the fuel allowance. Fuel poverty in my constituency, in particular, is horrendous. Week in, week out, I have been knocking on doors and I find people who have a plan. For example, they will stick on the heating for an hour at 8 o'clock and, in the meantime, they have to sit there shivering away, hoping they do not catch pneumonia or the like.
A lot more could have been done; it has not been done this time. I hope there will be a supplementary social welfare Bill in the near future that will address some of these issues.
Sa bhuiséad chaill muid deis iontach freastal ceart a dhéanamh ar gach saoránach atá faoi mhíchumas. Sa Bhille seo níl aon athrú air sin. Is mór an trua é. Budget 2020 was hugely disappointing in its missed opportunities and limited ambition for those citizens living with a disability, and I will address this area in particular.
The disability services budget did not start off as a balanced budget. There was a deficit of €16 million, and there is a deficit of more than €30 million hanging around the necks of the organisations that are publicly or part-publicly funded and audited. Other pressures exist as well. Nothing is allowed for demographic pressures this year. How are we to ensure that people with disabilities, their families and others are catered for?
In today's Bill there is maybe an opportunity to reverse a mean and ill-advised decision taken in the course of the summer recess to scrap the rehabilitative training allowance - only maybe. That it should be reversed is beyond challenge. The allowance should be reinstated from whatever quarter, be it the Minister's Department or another Department.
In the grand scheme of things, €3.7 million is what it would cost to restore this payment but the value of the allowance is in the independence it gives to individuals who are in charge of their own budget and indeed of their daily lives and that is what that payment was designed to assist in the first place.
My colleague and the chairman of the Oireachtas disability group, Senator John Dolan, summed up the importance of the rehabilitative training allowance in contrast to basic disability allowance. He surmised:
Disability allowance is an allowance to keep body and soul together for these people. The rehabilitative allowance is to respect and support the commitment of people to undergo learning to move into employment independence in the community and away from reliance on the disability allowance.
Where are the extra training provisions and opportunities that were given as the reason for scrapping the allowance in the first place?
There is also a long waiting list for home support services. It simply cannot be claimed that the Government is seriously providing for citizens with a disability while many who have already been assessed and qualify are still waiting. The waiting list should be cleared immediately.
The carer's support allowance should be increased to €2,000 and the home support services waiting lists should be processed and cleared entirely. Sinn Féin called for an increase in the carer's allowance and benefit by €5 and an increase of €9 in the blind pension, invalidity pension and the disability allowance. Nothing in the scope of this Bill takes account of the continuing damage that is being done by the years of cuts to the networks of support that exist for those with disabilities. As I said earlier, we did not start on a par with the economy as a whole and if there is to be any improvement in the lot of those with a disability, the Government must recognise that ambitious and meaningful measures are needed to make rights real for our disabled citizens.
I urge the Minister to recognise the important role that she and her Department can play and the opportunities that are opened up by her position at Cabinet. I urge her to take note of the serious deficiencies that are affecting an important and special section of our society.
I thank all of the Deputies who contributed yesterday evening and today. I am grateful for the positive comments they have made about the small number of initiatives that are in the budget and the changes that they will effect. I thank those who spoke today and yesterday.
I attempted to reach the most vulnerable people with the small amount of money I had. Everybody has mentioned how disappointed they are that this year's budget is different to what we have seen over the past number of years. We have, as the economy has recovered, been able to give back to the people who potentially suffered the worst effects of pay freezes and cuts over the preceding few years. I wish this year was different but it is not. It is what it is. I attempted to try to take a small amount of money and spread it to the people who would be most affected because of certain changes next year. That is why we concentrated on the living alone allowance for those people who have only one income, as opposed to some pensioners who have two, but we all recognise that we would have liked to have done an awful lot better. It does not take much time to spend the €140 million available. I acknowledge what the Deputies have said and I hear it.
I will talk about some of the particular issues that were raised between last night and today and will try to respond to them. Deputy Curran welcomed that we have moved away from a practice in the past number of years of introducing increases at the end of March, as opposed to what was historically something that would have been brought about at the beginning of January. I did that this year to acknowledge, as everybody else has done in the past couple of days, that any of the positive or negative tax changes that are brought in commence on 1 January. We should be attempting to make social welfare rates changes happen at the beginning of January and I think the only reason that they started coming in later a number of years ago was because it would not have been possible give people the €5 increase they have come to welcome and accept in January over the past number of years. We were trying to juggle balls and come out with the best possible outcome. It is a good idea for that practice to go back to January and I hope that happens, no matter who is privileged enough to be in this position next year, and it could be any of us.
Deputy Brady raised concerns over the outstanding issues about adoptive leave that had not been carried in the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 that we passed a number of weeks ago. At that time, my colleague, Deputy Stanton, indicated to the House that work was under way to include those amendments in the earliest possible item of legislation to be brought forward to the House. This is it. I mentioned in my Second Stage speech yesterday that the amendments are currently being drafted. If they are ready to be brought in on Committee Stage next week, I will bring them. If they are not ready for Committee Stage, I would ask the House's indulgence that I could bring them on Report Stage, although I do not like bringing amendments on Report Stage because it seems as if it is sneaking things in at the end of a Bill. I would make an exception in this case because it is so hugely positive and it is well accepted by all of us that it is something we want to do. Consequently, I ask Members' indulgence to bring amendments on Report Stage, if they are not ready for Committee Stage. That is to remedy the legislative defects that existed in a previous Bill.
Almost everyone who has made a contribution in the past couple of days has spoken about the minimum wage. I do not know whether there is a misunderstanding as to what I said, which happens a lot, or people are being deliberately mischievous. The Government decision was to accept the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission in their entirety. That is exactly what we did two or three weeks ago in Cabinet. A recommendation of the Low Pay Commission was, in the event of an orderly Brexit situation, to introduce an increase in the minimum wage to €10.10. When I have knowledge that we will have an orderly Brexit situation, that is exactly what I will do. There is not one person in this House who can guarantee that, despite all of their protestations, particularly those from Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin Deputies give the impression that they think they are the only people who care about people on low wages. That is genuinely not true and others can attest to that. We will bring the minimum wage up to €10.10. We are only four years into a five-year programme to bring the minimum wage to €10.50. The increase in the minimum wage will only happen when I get knowledge that there will be an orderly Brexit. Everybody seems to think that we are in limbo now but just because the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 December is off the table, that does not mean it is off the table for good. The Government accepted in their entirety the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission. We will increase the minimum wage to €10.10 when we have the knowledge that there will be an orderly Brexit.
I listened carefully to Deputy Penrose when he talked, last night, about the amendment that is in this legislation to enable me to bring forward an order. In particular, he expressed his concern that the amendment, as written, means that we could change the Low Pay Commission legislation every year thereafter. That was never my intention. This is an exceptional year and I hope the country never again has to face making decisions in the uncertainty created by Brexit. With the acceptance of Deputy Penrose and all the Members of the House, I will change the amendment I have brought forward in the legislation on Committee Stage so that it is fundamentally clear that this is a once-off and will not reoccur in coming years. That was never my intention. I hugely respect the Low Pay Commission, which was introduced and established by the Labour-Fine Gael Government, driven by then Deputy, now Senator Ged Nash. We would never want to undermine any future deliberations of the commission. I will agree that with Deputy Penrose to ensure we are all okay with that.
Deputy O'Dea spoke yesterday evening about the cost of disability research that I have undertaken arising from the few bob we got last year. I genuinely hoped we would have an interim report well in advance of this year's budget so that I could start to give a signal and a sign to all of those people who are living on fixed-income disability allowance or invalidity payment and we could start the ball rolling.
The interim report will probably not be ready for another couple of weeks. It has not been possible, therefore, to get it to make any changes to it. The interim report will be ready in a number of weeks. A Deputy suggested that we are not serious about the report because it is being put on the long finger. I want the report, which will include a national survey of 30,000 people who are living with disabilities, to be as comprehensive as possible because I do not want some expert to do a desktop survey, which says that people with a certain disability should get a certain amount and that people with a different disability should get a different amount. I want to hear about the lived experiences of people who are living with physical disabilities and are thereby incurring additional costs because they need extra technology. I refer, for example, to people who incur additional transport costs because they cannot just hop on a bus. The lived experience is more important in any qualitative research. We will get that information next year when we survey 30,000 people. I am adamant that everyone will see the interim report in due course. I hope we can all go in the same direction as we consider what any future Government should do, and hopefully will do, to change the related payments for people who are living on disability allowance and invalidity payments.
A number of Deputies referred to the research on the reduced rates of jobseeker's allowance. I appreciate that it is long awaited. I still have not received it. I am nearly embarrassed at this stage to have to keep saying the same thing. I am informed that the research will be with me very soon. When it arrives on my desk, there will be no speed lost in turning it around and giving it to the joint committee. I was keen to try to signal an intent. I know we have had differences of opinion here over the years. I have not changed my views. I believe that people between the ages of 18 and 22 should not be on the live register. They should be in training or in employment experiences. There are various ways in which such people can be brought into retraining or reskilling programmes. Their needs can be reasserted in a variety of ways that are better than sitting at home in receipt of an equal payment. While I appreciate that equality is terribly important, we should have more ambition for our younger people. We should not say that they should be given the same payment as a 40 year old and be done with it. I want to signal my intent regarding the direction we hope to go in.
The maintenance review is a complex area. Deputy Brady spoke yesterday evening about the money I have ring-fenced for research on future conditions and on the future management of maintenance payments. The people who have gone through the current system will say how heartbreaking it is to go through it. That is why we need to change it. I am not 100% sure what the best outcome will be and I am not sure what we should change it to. Many Deputies are of the view that the establishment of a maintenance agency would fix all of the problems currently experienced in our courts. If we were to establish such an agency, all it would do is move the adjudication rows that are currently happening in our child and family courts from one agency of the State to another. I have said on a number of occasions that I do not have the authority to establish a maintenance agency because such an agency would be under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. I have the authority to establish a system, however. Approximately 60% of the maintenance cases that are currently before our courts involve a fight about the movement of a portion of a social welfare payment from one side of the table to the other. We all recognise that people on social welfare are probably living at a minimum standard of living anyway. I hope to research what that minimum standard of living should be, to determine what the minimum maintenance payment should be in respect of children under and over the age of 12 and to set a bar, perhaps in the form of a set of rules or guidelines. Legislation may need to be passed by the Oireachtas. We can determine that after the research has been done. I hope to be able to announce who will do that research in the next couple of weeks. I genuinely hope everybody will support me in this regard.
Deputy Calleary spoke about changes that were made recently. They are not so recent anymore; they were made in 2012. We all know how devastated people were as a result of those changes. The interim arrangements we made satisfied many women, but they did not satisfy some of the men. There are very few people left to be adjudicated on. I have always said that we will keep them open. There will be continuous confirmation and communication with those people, as long as they give us the information we need to do a recalculation for them. We have done a tremendous volume of work. I am close to bringing a memorandum to the Cabinet. I expect to be able to do it in the next number of weeks. I will seek the permission of the Government to give all Deputies the new suggestions for the total contributions approach that I will propose for 2020. I genuinely hope they will see that I want this State to have the fairest system it can have. Any new system that is announced will have to be adjudicated on by every Member. Deputies will be able to propose amendments to it if they wish. I want a system that treats everybody equally. The number of contributions that people make to the social insurance scheme should be directly proportionate to what they can take out of the scheme. I acknowledge that there are gaps in people's lives. This is a caveat that we must all make in the common good. The gaps to which I refer emerge from the lived reality of having to look after our children or parents at certain times. In the past, we were able to give people credits for being on the live register, but we never gave them credits for caring. A change is fundamentally needed in this regard. The memorandum will be introduced in the coming weeks. I hope the Deputy will like it. He will give constructive feedback on it. We will change it if needs be.
Deputy Calleary also mentioned the application time for carers' appeals. This matter has probably not been the subject of a parliamentary question. It might be helpful if he were to ask me to provide these details as a response to such a question. We have added significant resources to our carers' section in recent months. I have stood here over the past couple of years as Deputies have asked me about appeals times and application times. Even though we have a 12-week timeframe from the point of application for carer's allowance to the point at which a decision is made, unfortunately it has never been 12 weeks. It has always been 17 weeks and it has gone to 26 weeks on appeal. Two significant things have happened in recent weeks. As a result of the achievement of some efficiencies in one scheme - we were able to move people from that scheme into the carers' scheme - the turnaround time for carer's allowance applications has decreased to seven weeks. I will shoot myself in the foot next week because it will go back up again. There is a direct correlation between the number of people who are administering the applications, the number of medical assessors, which has also increased significantly in recent weeks, and the outputs. We still have a little work to do on appeals because it is genuinely difficult to get people to provide the information in the exact way that is required. Perhaps we could help people by telling them what kind of information we need, without putting words in their mouths. There is a body of work that could be done to help make the application process more simple. We have done some work with the Carers Association to make the form more simple. It would be helpful to get the message to the carers. We might do that next year.
I met representatives of the men's sheds movement a couple of weeks ago. I would be shot if I tried to take them over as well. Our collaboration with this incredible organisation has allowed us to reach particular men of a particular age, to whom we might never have had access. While they might not be particularly in search of work, they still need social inclusion and may need other ancillary services. We might not reach the younger men who are learning from the older fellows because they might be on a long-term payment. Anybody who wants to be activated, retrained or reskilled should have such options, and knowledge of those options, made available to them. We are working closely with the men's sheds to bring that information to them.
At a meeting this morning, we signed off on the interdepartmental group review that I established eight or nine months ago with a view to making changes to the CE scheme and, potentially, some other schemes such as the rural social scheme and the Tús scheme, which may be honed or owned by a particular Department. The report was signed off this morning with a number of recommendations. It has to go to a Cabinet sub-committee in the next couple of weeks. I will publish it at that stage. If I say I am very pleased with the recommendations that were given this morning, I hope that will give hope to Deputies who know what I tried to achieve before I set up the interdepartmental group with regard to the changes that are coming. Over recent years, Deputies have been asking me to make changes to the restrictions associated with the old rules, which did not reflect the people we were serving and working for. I hope this approach brings about a change in how we work with people as we go forward.
I have been told in recent days that the talks between a number of unions and two representatives of CE supervisors have broken down. I want to state clearly that the talks, with which I have engaged, absolutely have not broken down. I can only assume the suggestion that they have broken down represents an attempt by the unions to help me in some way in my negotiations.
Genuinely, that is not the case. We said we would not discuss this matter but that is neither here nor there. I am in negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This is a legacy issue. I do not mean that to be disrespectful to anyone in the Chamber. It is obviously my responsibility; I happen to be the person in this seat right now and I will do everything I can to resolve the matter. I have made a commitment to community employment scheme supervisors that I will ensure I get a solution that is acceptable to them and to us. I am not there yet but I am not far off. If they are trying to be helpful, that is great but the talks have not broken down and I will not give up until I have exhausted everything I can do. Usually, I do not give up until I get my own way.
Several Deputies expressed disappointment at the lack of across-the-board increases for all of the people whom I and my Department have the privilege of serving. I share their disappointment. It is a pity that we are in a situation whereby we must stall what has been the practice in the past couple of years of increasing payments across the schemes. I know how difficult it is for people to live on that single income on which they are entirely reliant. Several Deputies made a correlation with the fact that many Members of this House or the Seanad have received increases in their salaries in recent years. There is nothing stopping any Member of this House gifting back such increases to the State. If any Deputy wishes to do so, I will gladly take it and spend it well through my Department. Nearly every Member on this side of the House has gifted back the FEMPI-linked increases in recent years, as have many other Members. Any Deputy who drew a direct correlation with such increases while contributing on the Bill and who wants to gift back the increase is very welcome to do so.