Thursday, 28 November 2019
Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Bill is being introduced to extend the power of the liable relatives unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to make a District Court application for a payment order in respect of jobseeker's transitional payment to one-parent families, thereby enabling the State to recoup from a liable relative a contribution towards the cost of providing this payment. I would like to explain the rationale behind the Bill, which was first put on the Order Paper in December 2017 and introduced in the Dáil on First Stage in January 2018. Under current legislation, when the child of a lone parent turns seven, his or her parent moves from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's transitional payment and the legislative power of the liable relatives unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to issue payment orders, and have them enforced by the District Court if necessary, ceases. This Bill addresses this issue by extending the liable relative provision to recipients of the jobseeker's transitional payment. At present, the liable relatives unit cannot pursue an absent parent after the child has turned seven and the primary caregiver - the mother, in the majority of cases - has moved from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's transitional payment. Nevertheless, there is an onus on mothers to seek maintenance. Many women who are signing on have told SPARK, the lone parents' organisation, that they have been informed that if they do not have proof of seeking maintenance by their next sign-on date, their payments will be terminated. This is deeply unfair.
While this Bill will not address all the issues regarding maintenance, it will address a gap in the legislation and may go some way towards assisting lone parents, who are one of the household types most exposed to poverty and social exclusion. The reforms to the one-parent family payment that were made some years ago had a detrimental effect on lone parents. They increased the likelihood of lone parents being at risk of poverty and created a gap in the relevant legislation. I am seeking to address this gap by bringing forward this legislation. The liability to maintain the family scheme is managed and administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The Social Welfare Acts provide that where certain welfare payments are in place - specifically, the one-parent family payment - an assessment may be made against a liable relative requiring him or her to make a contribution towards the cost of the one-parent family payment. In every case in which the payment is awarded, the Department seeks to trace the other parent or liable relative to ascertain whether he or she is in a financial position to contribute towards the cost of the payment. In practice, the Department contacts the liable relative and assesses his or her ability to contribute towards the maintenance. If the liable relative wishes to pay maintenance directly to the lone parent, the lone parent will be able to hold on to 50% of it. His or her lone parent's allowance, therefore, will be reduced by 50%.
I would like to explain the unfortunate position that has arisen as a result of a lacuna in the law. When the child of a lone parent is aged seven, the Department tends to write to the liable relative - it may be obliged to do so - to inform him or her that he or she is no longer obliged to make the payment I have mentioned. As a result of this, some people who were voluntarily paying maintenance simply stop doing so. That cannot have been the Government's intention when it was drafting the appropriate legislation. Fianna Fáil welcomes the announcement by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection that moneys will be allocated for the establishment of a judge-led group to examine all issues relating to maintenance and lone parents. We also support the recent efforts of this House to establish a statutory child maintenance agency to address the issue of maintenance. However, we still believe that the Bill I am introducing is necessary to close a loophole in current legislation. This simple measure, which can be implemented easily, will extend the liable relative provisions that apply to the jobseeker's transition payment and other relevant payments.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words in this Bill after "That" and substitute the following: "Dáil Éireann, while acknowledging the Bill's relevance in the context of the current conditions in the child maintenance system, defers consideration of the Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018 for a period of 6 months for the following reasons:- to allow 6 months for consideration of the outcome of the current judge-led review on the maintenance system that was announced in Budget 2020 to see what can be learned from international best practice in this area;
- to allow for further consideration of the sensitive and complex issues associated with the Bill, in particular child maintenance and other elements which appear to be legally problematical."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this Private Members' Bill, which proposes to extend the remit of the liable relatives unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to include the jobseeker's transitional payment. I will explain how this may affect the overall issue of child maintenance, which is a complex area that should have the welfare of children at its centre. The current system of maintenance places the burden on individuals to seek maintenance through informal agreements or the courts. Recipients of the one-parent family payment from the Department are required to prove they have made efforts to seek maintenance. The Department places additional burdens on individuals who pay maintenance by assessing them as liable relatives. Issues relating to maintenance generally are matters for the Minister for Justice and Equality, who has responsibility for the Family Law Acts, which govern maintenance requirements. The existing Family Law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. These obligations continue to apply in cases in which the family unit has broken down.
Relevant maintenance payments can be arranged directly between the parties themselves, with the assistance of supports from the Department of Justice and Equality, such as the Family Mediation Service and the Legal Aid Board, or, ultimately, through the courts. The enforcement of the obligation on parents to maintain their children is a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality. The Social Welfare Acts provide that if certain welfare payments are in place, specifically the one-parent family payment, an assessment may be made against a liable relative requiring him or her to make a contribution towards the cost of one-parent family payment. In every case in which one-parent family payment is awarded, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection seeks to trace the other parent or liable relative to ascertain whether he or she is in a financial position to contribute towards the cost of the payment. All liable relatives who are assessed with a maintenance liability are issued with a maintenance contribution assessment setting out the amount assessed.
The amount assessed can be reviewed where new information comes to light regarding the financial or household circumstances of the liable relative. The liable relative can commence or increase the current payment to the one-parent family payment recipient or make the contribution directly to the Department. Decisions on the assessed amounts can be appealed to the social welfare appeals office. The liable relative provisions cease once the youngest child reaches seven years of age and the one-parent family payment claim ceases. However, the legal obligation under the Family Law Acts to maintain the children does not cease.
This Private Members' Bill seeks to extend the remit of the Department's liable relatives unit, incorrectly named as the "maintenance recovery unit" in the Bill, to the jobseeker's transitional payment. This would extend the application of the liable relative provisions from situations where the youngest child is seven or younger to situations where the youngest child is 14 or younger. While the Minister shares some of the concerns expressed by stakeholder groups about how the maintenance system currently operates, she believes that it is timely to review these arrangements to see what can be learned from international best practice. It is the Minister's belief that the Government should await the outcome of the judge-led review and not implement piecemeal changes to the existing system prior to its conclusions.
As the Deputy is aware, the current system is not working in the optimal way for the families affected or for the State's finances. The Minister has had several discussions with stakeholders, experts and people affected by the current system. Having listened to the points raised, it is clear that the current system is not working as intended. We need to do more to help couples who find themselves in this difficult and challenging situation. For example, there were 9,000 maintenance cases to the Courts Service in 2018. The judge-led maintenance review will help to find solutions in terms of international best practice and help to identify how Ireland can achieve better outcomes in a proactive manner for children and for families. We must recognise that family structures are changing rapidly, there is a changed understanding of gender roles and, increasingly, more unmarried couples and more patchwork families. The maintenance review will look at all of these issues.
We all know that lone parents have consistently been one of the most vulnerable groups in Ireland. Even during the period of high economic growth and employment, the rate of consistent poverty for Ione parents remained comparatively high compared with two-parent families. The 2017 survey on income and living conditions shows that the consistent poverty rate for lone parent households was 20.7% compared to 3.9% for two-parent households. The current policy approach for supporting Ione parents through the one-parent family and jobseeker's transitional schemes are to provide tapered income supports as their children get older, while at the same time increasing the employment and educational supports that the Department offers.
A recent analysis by the Central Statistics Office of employment for differing household types shows that the employment rate of Ione parents is increasing steadily as the economy recovers, but it also shows that the gap between coupled and lone mother employment rates remains relatively large. The employment rate of female lone parents has increased from 48.5% in quarter 2 of 2012 to 60% in quarter 2 of 2018. This is a positive development, but there is evidence that the rate of in-work poverty among lone parent households in Ireland is high in comparison with coupled households. The Department provides three main schemes to support lone parents, the one-parent family payment, jobseeker's transitional payment and jobseeker's allowance. The appropriate scheme that a lone parent can avail of is generally determined by the age of the youngest child claimed for, subject to eligibility requirements. One-parent family payment is available where the youngest child is aged under seven. Jobseeker's transitional payment may be claimed where the youngest child is aged between seven and 13 years of age, inclusive. Once the youngest child reaches 14, standard jobseeker's allowance applies. This progression from one-parent family payment to jobseeker's transitional payment to jobseeker's allowance was a fundamental element of the reforms to the one-parent family payment scheme undertaken since 2011, as until then income support for lone parents was passive in nature and involved limited engagement by the State with lone parents.
One-parent family payment was originally available until the youngest child was 18. The non-conditional nature of the payment, coupled with its very long duration had, over time, engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among many lone parents and their children. Research has shown that being at work reduces the at-risk-of-poverty rate for lone parents by more than half. The purpose of the one-parent family payment scheme reforms is to maximise the opportunities for lone parents to enter into and increase employment by providing them with enhanced access to the wide range of education, training and employment supports that make up the Department's Intreo services. In 2004, at the height of the economic boom, lone parents were over four and a half times more at risk of poverty than the rest of the population. The 2017 survey of income and living conditions shows a significant improvement, although lone parents are still almost two and a half times more at risk of poverty than the rest of the population.
It is important to take this opportunity to set out the range of measures put in place by the Government to support children and families, including lone parents, in budget 2020. These include payment of a 100% Christmas bonus in December 2019 to recipients of a long-term social welfare payment, including one-parent family payment; extension of the schools hot meals scheme from September 2020 to 35,000 additional school children; a €3 increase for qualified child dependants aged 12 and over in all weekly payments; a €2 increase for qualified child dependants up to age 12 in all weekly payments; an increase in the working family payment threshold by €10 per week for families with one, two or three children, benefitting some 55,000 families at a cost of €19 million from January 2020; and an increase in the earnings disregard for working lone parents receiving one-parent family payment or jobseeker's transition payment by €15 to €165 per week from January 2020, benefitting some 16,900 families.
There is a wide range of supports for children and families, including Ione-parent families, across Government and beyond the social welfare system. Extra funding of €54 million has been allocated to child care services for the introduction of the national childcare scheme, to meet the continuing cost of the early childhood care and education programme, to fund the access and inclusion model and to support the introduction of a sectoral employment order setting the statutory minimum pay and conditions in the childcare sector. The maximum hours under the national childcare scheme for preschool child care will increase from 40 to 45 hours per week for working parents and from 15 to 20 hours per week for low income parents not working or studying. The maximum hours for school age child care for low income parents who return to work will increase from 17 to 22 hours per week with effect from September 2020. Additional funding of €29 million is allocated to Tusla to continue work to reduce the number of children awaiting the allocation of a social worker and address cost pressures in residential and foster care.
The Government also plans to extend free GP care to children under the age of eight and to provide free dental care for children under six with effect from September 2020. Stakeholders have highlighted that child maintenance poses serious personal and administrative blocks within the social protection and legal systems. Delays in legal proceedings have the potential to over-burden the Courts Service and cause significant delays and hardships for the parents and their children. Requirements for seeking maintenance and liable relative provisions may also cause issues between the parents over and above the difficulties and hardships they already face. Adding the liable relative provisions of one-parent family payment scheme to the jobseeker's transitional payment may also cause the extension of any issues already arising between the parents in terms of adversarial legal proceedings and legal costs incurred in pursuit of maintenance. The Minister shares some of the concerns expressed by stakeholder groups about how the maintenance system currently operates. We believe it is timely to review these arrangements to see what can be learned from international best practice.
The Minister has held meetings with some of the stakeholder groups and will continue to engage with them on this matter in the future.
As part of budget 2020, €150,000 has been allocated to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to examine international best practice in respect of maintenance payments by liable relatives, and how Ireland can achieve better outcomes in a proactive manner for families. The Minister is currently making arrangements to establish a judge-led group to progress that work as a priority.
The Government is taking on board the concerns of the stakeholder groups regarding child maintenance and the wider issues for lone parents. The Bill does not give any recognition to the substantial work done to support lone parents and the significant commitments set out as part of budget 2020, nor does it recognise that the Minister is consulting stakeholder groups and has secured funding to undertake research in this area as part of a judge-led group. She has moved to find effective solutions and, in the recent budget, to build on the supports we are providing to vulnerable families. On that basis she proposes a timed amendment to the question that the Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2018 be read a second time, to allow six months for consideration of the outcome of the current judge-led review on the maintenance system that was announced in budget 2020 to see what can be learned from international best practice in this area.
Maintenance is a delicate, sensitive and complex area that should have the welfare of the child at its centre. I assure the House that the Government will continue the important work that has been undertaken over several years to support lone parents, work that has been recognised and welcomed by groups representing children and families in Ireland. I am keen to explore the possibilities for making improvements to the existing costly, confrontational and adversarial system based on best practice internationally, to the benefit of all concerned. I look forward to hearing from Deputies on this issue.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill, which aims to right a wrong done to lone parents who are impacted by Government decisions at every turn. Lone parents were not only subject cuts to their primary payments during the economic downturn, the Government actively took decisions that made their lives and those of their children more difficult. The consequences of those decisions were not unintended or unknown because many remain in place. The changes to the one-parent family payment in 2012 is one example. They reduced the cut-off age to seven years with disastrous consequences for lone parents. They could not leave a seven year old child at home but could not afford childcare so they were locked out of taking up employment or returning to education. Research commissioned by the Government, and undertaken by Indecon, concluded that the 2012 changes made life harder for lone parents. The Minister of State should be proud of that. Lone parents were locked into poverty without affordable childcare; they were trapped. The Government knew that was going to happen, as it was told at the time. To add insult to injury, the Department began to issue letters to non-custodial parents when their child turned seven to tell them they were no longer obliged to make a contribution as the one-parent family payment had ceased. A letter such as that should never have issued to any parent. To do that is shameful. The Minister constantly reminds us of the legal obligations on parents to maintain their children. The letter issued to non-custodial parents does not reflect that. It is not good enough, and the practice of issuing that letter must stop.
This Bill fixes only one loophole for lone-parent families. The wider issue is the non-payment of child maintenance. Unfortunately, when it comes to maintenance payments, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is only interested in recouping the money it pays out in one-parent family payment to cover its own costs, rather than to give children what they deserve and to assist lone parents in making this happen. The Department cannot even get that right. In 2018 and in this year to date, the Department's liable relatives unit has examined 18,078 cases. Of those, 2,174 people began making payments, but the vast majority paid nothing. The Department may refer to its enforcement powers but these may as well not exist. Since 2016, only 19 cases were referred to obtain an order directing that contributions be made, which is pathetic.
There are many reasons we need the urgent establishment of child maintenance services, but the main one is that court rooms are no place for child maintenance payments to be determined. That is the bottom line and that has to change. More important, the payment process involving the Courts Service does not work. Lone parents are obliged to seek maintenance. In cases where they have to go to court to do this, the eventual granting of a maintenance order does not guarantee that the maintenance will ever be paid. It is a ridiculous situation that does not work for the child or the children who should be central to the payment or maintenance. In every country where statutory maintenance arrangements are in place, child maintenance plays a role in reducing poverty, something the Government has failed to do. It will not come anywhere close to meeting its target of lifting 95,000 children out of poverty by 2020, and that is by its own admission. Establishing a child maintenance service would help to lift children out of poverty but, more than that, a statutory child maintenance service would protect women who seek maintenance. It would support them and provide them with advice and assistance. For the first time, it would put the child first. In this year’s Budget Statement, the Minister for Finance announced funding for research into child maintenance. My colleague, Deputy Brady, asked him previously about this and what it involves. It was good to hear some clarification in the Minister of State’s response and, while he did not read all of his speech into the record, I read it. We ask that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection publishes the terms of reference for her new judge-led group and exactly what it will examine. If it is guidelines, it may as well not bother wasting its time because guidelines will be pointless. We need a new statutory child maintenance service. While the Bill is important and should be supported by every Member, we have much more to do to give lone-parent families the support they need and deserve.
Deputy O'Dea introduced the Bill in January 2018 to provide for the extension of powers of the maintenance recovery unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to make a District Court application for payment order in respect of jobseeker's transitional payment to one-parent families. One can see where Deputy O'Dea is coming from. There may well be a lacuna in the law, which the Bill would rectify and enable the State to recoup from the liable relative a contribution towards the cost of providing the said payments. Maintenance is a significant area. The Minister of State and I concur with the view of his senior Minister that it is a complex area, which invites many issues to be addressed. Unfortunately, in Ireland securing maintenance often ends up in confrontation and an adversarial approach is taken. It is important that the people who should pay maintenance are made liable for it and do not escape scot free. It is something on which the public focuses; people are concerned about the issue.
This seems to be an anomaly in dealing with it, as Deputy O'Dea noted. I spoke to him about this and he informed me of the situation where a child turns seven years, which is the critical point. That is when the parent moves from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's transitional payment. It seems that there is a hole in the bucket where the Department's recovery unit is not in a position to chase into the District Court to seek an enforcement order for maintenance that might be due. If it was incorporated into legislation, it might well extend this to the wider jobseeker's transitional payments.
When the child turns seven years and the parent moves from the one-parent family payment to the transitional payment, the onus remains, mostly on the mother, to seek the maintenance payment. The Bill seeks to remedy this by targeting the particular gap in the law. As Deputy O'Dea and others said, this is a legitimate issue. Were the Bill to be enacted, the jobseeker's transitional payment would come under the definition of "allowance" under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and it would be added to the definition of "competent authority" under the same Act.
The effect of this would be to extend the competence of the Minister over this payment, as well as the one-parent family payment, when it comes to Part 12 of the primary Act, which relates to family maintenance. The core issue is that single parents, typically women, are being asked to prove they are seeking maintenance payment from a former partner by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is nub of the matter.
With the one-parent family payment, former partners are required to pay maintenance to offset some of the costs of that payment. It must be recognised that it will be only some of the cost. It is very important that maintenance is paid in this respect. Deputy O'Dea might agree that the Department is very often quick to assess or compute the amount of maintenance that a person should be getting and often exceeds the maintenance that is being provided. While that is an argument for another day, imputation should not be a way of addressing this matter.
As I stated, this Bill would close the loophole and jobseeker's transitional payment would be included in the definition in the primary Act. The Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids, SPARK, group has sought this change for a while and, like Deputy O'Dea, a number of us in the Labour Party have met representatives of that organisation. It does good work for single parents and it was probably involved with the genesis of Deputy O'Dea's Bill.
There is a debt recovery section in the Department and if I am right it costs approximately €600,000 to operate while the recovery amounts to only approximately €200,000 or €250,000 per annum. We can see from the balance that it is not easy but every recovery unit should at least make the effort to pay its way at a minimum. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has made the point that the Department already has power in the regulations it operates under but Deputy O'Dea and I have been around long enough to know that perhaps primary legislation has greater weight than secondary legislation.
The Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, has indicated that a judge-led review will be put in place that will engage in a comprehensive examination of this maintenance issue involving necessary and relevant stakeholders. Otherwise it would not be effective. I hope that arising from that there will be a significant set of new rules on maintenance recovery that will become part of the rules of court. That will set a floor when it comes to recovery. There are other elements to this. For example, how much should be paid for a child who is younger than 12, as more maintenance would be required for older children? These issues should be set out and the recoupment process should operate in an efficient and effective fashion.
It is time to carry out an overall review of the payment of maintenance and Deputy O'Dea's Bill could be a central part of this if it is passed into law. Not alone is it appropriate and timely to examine maintenance issues, including consultation with all relevant stakeholders but there is much international best practice that we could also examine, notwithstanding the complexity or difficulties of the matter. Statute-based solutions are far better than regulations.
I was listening to the beginning of the debate in my office and I understand the Government's proposal is to postpone consideration of this Bill for six months, pending a full review of family maintenance that will be done as part of a judge-led review. I understand that rationale but in that case, the loophole identified by Deputy O'Dea will continue to exist in law for another six months and possibly for longer. Let us be clear, as the Acting Chairman and everybody else knows, the probability of having a general election in the next six months is higher than not. This amending legislation would be further delayed with a transition to the next Dáil. Although I do not anticipate it will take 70 days to form a Government next time, as we have a system that should shorten the process, that will depend on what the electorate says. Notwithstanding the fact that I agree with the Government's view, as relayed by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, this is a complex and difficult matter. I wonder why there is a need to wait until after the review to accept the Bill. If it was passed, it could form part of the review and if any inconsistencies arose within the review, it could be fixed.
The Labour Party sees the proposed legislation as achieving a significant and worthy objective that has exercised the minds of various organisations, including SPARK, in remedying or fixing the loophole. It is difficult to see what argument the Government can sustain, as it certainly has not put forward one to satisfactorily contradict the claim that there is a loophole in the current law. As it stands, I am minded to recommend to my Labour Party colleagues that we support the amending legislation. In the case of a review, there is a touch of "live horse, get grass" but the horse might not live and there might be no grass for anybody. This is timely and I compliment Deputy O'Dea on bringing it forward.
A wide range of important matters have been raised in the course of this debate, including the social welfare system for supporting families, the legal system and the Courts Service, as well as how these have an impact on family lives. I welcome the useful contributions and discussion with my colleagues, Deputies O'Dea and Penrose. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is focused on how Ireland can achieve better outcomes in a proactive manner for families with child maintenance. It is important to acknowledge the significant efforts made to enhance the position of families and children, including lone parents, across a range of Government initiatives, including social protection, childcare, health and education.
The Family Law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply and relevant maintenance payments can be arranged either directly between parties or with the assistance of the Department of Justice and Equality, such as through the family mediation service, the Legal Aid Board and, ultimately, the courts. This Private Members' Bill seeks to extend the remit of the Department's liable relatives unit to the jobseeker's transitional payment and, in effect, this would extend the application of the liable relative provisions from cases where the youngest child is seven or younger to cases where the youngest child is 14 or younger.
The Minister is keen for a review of the maintenance system to be carried out, including an examination of the system's effectiveness and how accessible it is for those seeking to recover maintenance. Maintenance is a delicate and complex area, as colleagues have noted, and it should have the welfare of the child at its centre. It is essential we recognise this. A number of issues have been raised concerning the current arrangements for maintenance in respect of liable relatives, including the availability of accessible advice and self-assessment information from amicable child maintenance arrangements, questions around age-appropriate child maintenance payment rates, the need for mediation services and the need for a whole-of-government approach in dealing with child maintenance.
This is a highly sensitive and complex issue that cuts across areas of family and social welfare law. It is about much more than law, however, and it must take account of the sensitive and delicate human emotions in the area. It is therefore important to have a detailed examination of approaches that have been successful in other jurisdictions in order that we can ensure that our system in Ireland is informed by best international practice and is well placed to serve the needs of affected families across the country. For that reason, the Minister is in the process of establishing the judge-led group to examine the sensitive and complex matter of enforcement of child maintenance payments. It is expected that this group will be set up very shortly.
The composition of the expert group will reflect the key parties that have an interest and engagement in this area, including solicitors and barristers who deal with the issues on a daily basis. The group will shape and influence the terms of reference for its work based on its experience and expertise in this sensitive and complex area. We are keen to explore the possibilities for making improvements to the existing costly, confrontational and adversarial system, based on best practice internationally and for the benefit of all concerned.
While the Minister acknowledges the relevance of Deputy O'Dea's proposals in the context of the current issues with the child maintenance system, I ask the House to defer consideration of the Bill for a period of six months. That timeframe will allow for consideration of the outcome of the judge-led review of the maintenance system to see what can be learned from best international practice in this area. In addition, a six-month referral would allow for further consideration of the sensitive and complex issues associated with the Bill, particularly the child maintenance and other elements which appear to be legally problematic. I ask colleagues to accept my proposed deferral.
I should be shocked by the Department's response but I am unshockable at this stage. The Minister of State's whole speech is a disgrace. To give one example, he notes that my Bill refers to the Department's maintenance recovery unit instead of the liable relative unit. I remind him that the Bill was drafted back in 2016 when the unit in question went by the former name. In any case, what does it matter what it is called? We are living in a country which has an absolutely disgraceful rate of poverty among lone parents, which is the issue with which my Bill is concerned. I include the latest Survey on Income and Living Conditions, SILC, figures in my calculations, which show that the rate of poverty for lone parents has hardly moved at all. Is this statement from the Minister of State the best the Department can do in response to a genuine proposal to correct an oversight in the law? Doing so would help people today, as Deputy Penrose said, not in six months' time, 12 months' time or at some undefinable time in the future. The Department's response is disgraceful.
The rest of the Minister of State's statement was littered with references to hot meals, preschool childcare, Tusla and GP cards for children under the age of eight. The Bill has nothing whatsoever to do with those issues. It has a specific purpose, namely, to correct a glaring loophole in the law which arises as a consequence of a drafting error in the original legislation. The Minister of State's speech is nothing but padding. I am almost tempted to do what my colleague, Deputy MacSharry, did when, as a Member of the Upper House, he ripped up a Minister's speech in the Seanad Chamber because it was so nonsensical. The Minister of State's speech is certainly in the same category. I am looking at one sentence which states: "Adding the liable relative provision of the one-parent family payment scheme into the jobseeker's transitional payment may also cause the extension of any issues already arising between the parents in terms of adversarial legal proceedings and legal costs incurred in pursuit of maintenance." What does that mean and what possible relevance does it have to anything? If we take this to its logical conclusion, there should be no liable relative provision at all, even for children under the age of seven.
The Minister also said: "The Bill before the House does not give any recognition to the substantial work already done to support lone parents". That is especially amusing. It seems we are expected to draft a Bill which includes a section 1 setting out how wonderful the Minister is because she did this and a section 2 outlining how she is marvellous because she did that. This is an insult to lone parents and the representative organisations that have long been advocating for the change set out in these provisions. We are being told that the Government proposes to do something in six months' time because there is a judge-led group examining the matter. However, I am informed by people who have been in touch directly with the Minister that the group has not been established yet. God only knows how long it will take to produce its report and how long thereafter it will take to implement whatever recommendations are made.
In the meantime, day in and day out, people - it is generally speaking fathers - are getting letters from the Department stating that their obligations have now finished and they do not have to make any more payments. As a result, people who were paying maintenance, even on a voluntary basis, are stopping those payments, which is forcing single parents into the court system. We know the difficulties to which that gives rise, but the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is apparently oblivious. This is happening today and it will happen tomorrow and next week. People are being hurt and disadvantaged by it, people who are, in many cases, living in abject poverty. The Department's attitude is to say it will look at the issue in six months' time, when many more people will have been hurt.
The real kicker in the Minister of State's speech is the reference to best international practice. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard that. This provision has been in place since 2012. What has the Department been doing for the past seven years and what has best international practice to do with it? Nobody has ever put up a defence that the legislation in question is as it should be. Everybody accepts that a mistake was made when it was drafted. The liable relative provision applied to lone parents but lone parent's allowance was restricted to those parents whose children were under the age of seven. Parents with children older than that were moved to the transitional jobseeker's allowance and the legislation did not provide for the extension of the liable relative provision to them. What is so complex or mysterious about this? The draftsman simply made a mistake but it is one that is hurting people. The Government's blasé attitude is that they should be left to suffer and if another 50, 60, 100 or 200 people get a letter and proceed to stop making maintenance payments, it does not matter. What we should be doing, apparently, is looking to best international practice. If I ever heard a lame excuse in this House, that is the lamest.
The Government's response indicates the distance that has emerged between the Government and ordinary people and the degree to which it has lost touch with reality. That is something I am hearing from people in the course of my canvassing for the by-elections. On behalf of the lone parents who are being hurt and will be hurt in future by this loophole in the law, I have no intention whatsoever of accepting the Minister of State's proposal to defer the matter for six months. On the contrary, I will be pressing for a vote.
In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 5 December 2019. We will suspend briefly to allow time for the relevant Ministers to come to the Chamber for the Topical Issue debate.