Dáil debates

Friday, 3 December 2021

Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage


7:35 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Before I begin, I know many workers tonight, particularly those in the hospitality and night-time economy sectors, will be worried by the latest restrictions. Almost €9 billion has been spent on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to date. This Government has stood four-square behind workers every step of the way throughout the pandemic and that will continue to be the case.

For this reason, I intend to reopen the PUP for new applications from workers who lose their jobs as a result of the new restrictions, which will take effect from 7 December. I have asked my officials to work on reopening the scheme as a matter of urgency. Full details will be announced over the coming days.

As Deputies know, the purpose of the Social Welfare Bill is to give legislative effect to the changes announced on budget day. The priority of my Department and the Government is to provide the right policies and services at the right time and place for people throughout society, including pensioners, families with young children, people of working age and employers. Deputies will agree that the schemes introduced to deal with the pandemic - enhanced Covid illness benefit and the PUP - delivered on that.

However, we must continue to be progressive. The social protection budget package amounts to €558 million in 2022. It is the largest social welfare package in 14 years. This Government is conscious of the cost-of-living pressures facing our citizens. Therefore, I am pleased to say that this year's budget provides for across-the-board increases to weekly payments for pensioners, people with disabilities, carers, lone parents and jobseekers. In parallel with this, I have continued the policy of targeting increases at people at most risk of poverty, including families with children and pensioners and people with disabilities who are living alone.

It is important to point out that some of the social protection measures announced on budget day do not require primary legislation and, therefore, are not reflected in this Bill. These measures include the Christmas bonus, which I am pleased to say is being paid next week to 1.4 million recipients, with payments totalling €313 million. I wish to take this opportunity again to encourage people to spend their Christmas bonuses locally this year and to support SMEs. Other budget day measures that are not included in the Bill include a provision to reduce the minimum number of contributions required for people aged between 25 and 28 years to access the treatment benefit scheme. This means that young people will be able to avail of visits to the dentist or optician much sooner after entering the workforce.

Deputies will be aware of the significant amendments to the carer's allowance income disregard, which has increased to €350 per week for a single person and €750 for a couple. These are the first changes to the means test for carer's allowance in 14 years. I was pleased to work with carers representative groups on these changes, which they have warmly welcomed. These improvements, like the Christmas bonus, will be done by regulation.

The increase of €5 per week in the fuel allowance payment and the uplift in its income threshold for qualification, both of which I ensured took effect from budget week, do not require amending legislation. Nor does the extension of the hot school meals programme, a programme that is close to my heart and that I have been pleased to increase tenfold since my appointment as Minister last year.

Another budget measure that does not require legislative amendments is the equalisation of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance thresholds for one- and two-parent households. The costs associated with the return to school are the same regardless of whether it is a one- or two-parent household and I was pleased to work with representative groups like One Family to introduce this change. I am also increasing the allowance itself by €10, bringing the rate for each child under 12 years of age to €160 and for each child over 12 to €285.

Other budget measures that do not require legislative amendments include the extension of access to support grants for jobseekers with disabilities, for example, towards a sign language interpreter, personal reader or workplace adaptation, and increasing the rate of wage subsidy scheme for employers of people with disabilities by €1 per hour, making it equivalent to 60% of the national minimum wage. This rate has not changed since 2008 and it is timely to do so now. This and many other measures announced on budget day will benefit people with disabilities and it is appropriate that we are discussing them today on International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Section 1 is the commencement provision.

Section 2 provides for definitions in the Bill.

The weekly earnings of an employee determine the PRSI rate of employer contributions paid on behalf of that employee. Currently, employer PRSI is charged at a rate of 3.8% on weekly earnings of between €38 and €398. Weekly earnings in excess of €398 attract employer PRSI at a higher rate of 11.05%. The earnings threshold increase from €398 to €410 in section 3 is designed to take account of the increase in the minimum wage from €10.20 to €10.50 per hour from 1 January 2022. Employers with employees benefiting from the increase in the national minimum wage will continue to attract the lower rate of employer PRSI. It is intended that this section will come into operation on the same day as the national minimum wage increase, that is, New Year's Day.

Section 4 provides that, for the purposes of the Covid-19 employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the employer PRSI contribution rate of 0.5% will cease on 28 February. The effect will be a reversion to the standard employer social insurance contribution rates of 8.8% and 11.05% for EWSS the following day.

Section 5 provides for a €5 increase in the weekly rate of maternity benefit from €245 to €250 from 3 January. Sections 6 and 7 provide for the equivalent increases in adoptive benefit and paternity benefit, respectively.

The purpose of section 8 is to extend the duration for which parent's benefit is payable from five weeks to seven weeks in line with Ireland's commitments under the EU work-life balance directive. Parent's benefit is popular and we have seen a significant increase in claims this year. I am pleased to be able to extend it by a further two weeks next year to support young families. My colleague, theMinister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, will make a corresponding amendment to the associated parent's leave provisions. I understand that this is likely to be done by way of regulation. Section 9 provides for the rate increase for parent's benefit.

Jobseeker's benefit rates are graduated according to earnings in the relevant tax year. Section 10 will give effect to the increases in the graduated rates. Section 11 provides that the amount payable for a qualified adult on a graduated jobseeker's benefit will increase from €87.20 to €89.30 per week.

The purpose of section 12 is to provide for a grant of up to €500 towards the cost of a wig or hairpiece for people suffering from hair loss as a direct result of illness or treatment for an illness. This is a new measure that I am introducing under the treatment benefit scheme and will be of particular benefit to persons who suffer hair loss as a result of conditions like alopecia or who are undergoing chemotherapy.

As I have said, today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. As a result of section 13, 18,000 disability allowance recipients will gain up to €5 per week on top of the general increase. That is because this section provides for an increase in the general weekly means disregard for disability allowance.

The working family payment, formerly known as family income supplement, is a weekly tax-free supplement available to employees with children. It gives extra financial support to people on low pay. Section 14 provides for a €10 increase in the weekly income thresholds of working family payment for all family sizes. Working families on the scheme will benefit by up to €6 per week.

Section 15 is the first of two provisions that were not announced on budget day. It provides for periods spent on PUP to be counted towards the number of days of continuous unemployment required on a relevant payment to qualify for back to work family dividend. This is a weekly payment to help people with children to move from social welfare into work.

Section 16 is a technical amendment to remove an out-of-date reference to section 238F.

The other provision that was not announced on 12 October is section 17. The aim of this is to provide that the Minister may designate one or more persons to act as deputy chief appeals officer. That person will be designated to deputise for the chief appeals officer if the latter is not available to perform his or her duties. This should ease the administrative burden on the chief appeals officer and I hope will help to speed up the social welfare appeals process and improve turnaround times, something I know Deputies will welcome.

For most social insurance payments, an increase is paid for dependent children. The €3 increase for qualified child dependants aged 12 and over from €45 to €48 per week recognises the extra expenditure required during the teenage years. The payment in respect of qualified children under 12 increases by €2 from €38 to €40. This continues the policy of recent years that has been informed by research on the minimum essential standard of living.

The living alone increase is an extra payment for people on certain social welfare payments who are living alone. Section 18 gives effect to increases in the qualified child payment and the living alone allowance for claimants in receipt of social insurance benefits.

Section 19 provides for increases in the rates of social insurance payments. I am very pleased to say there will be a €5 per week increase in the maximum personal rate of PRSI-based benefits. The purpose of section 20 is to allow for a significant expansion in the list of agri-environmental schemes attracting the specific means disregard applicable to farm assist, jobseeker's allowance and State pension (non-contributory). These schemes attract a disregard of €2,540, with the remaining balance assessed at 50%. This provision supports Ireland's climate action agenda by removing a potential barrier for low-income farmers to participate in agri-environmental schemes.

Family carers have been a priority for me since I became Minister for Social Protection. Section 21 relates to carer's allowance, which is a means-tested payment. Assessment of capital is part of the means test along with an assessment of income. Capital includes savings, investments and property, other than the family home or principal private residence. This section provides for an increase from €20,000 to €50,000 in the exempted capital value when calculating means for carer's allowance. Increasing the capital disregard will allow carers who have accumulated savings to retain their investment without it impacting upon their carer's payment. Together with the increase in the weekly earnings disregard, thousands of carers across the country will benefit from these changes, including those who are currently on reduced payments and new applicants.

Section 22 provides for increases for qualified children and the living alone allowance for social assistance, or in other words, means-tested payments. The increase in the living alone allowance by €3 to €22 will benefit more than 230,000 pensioners and people with disabilities. The uplift in increases for qualified children will be received by 372,000 beneficiaries.

Section 23 provides for increases in the rates of social assistance payments, including a €5 per week increase in the maximum personal rate. Section 24 provides for an amendment to the end date of the Covid credit guarantee scheme, CCGS. I agreed with the Tánaiste to carry this provision in the Social Welfare Bill. The Government approved the €2 billion Covid credit guarantee scheme in 2020 as one of the main supports for Covid-impacted businesses. The scheme was due to end on 31 December 2021. It is now intended that this scheme be extended until the end of June 2022. However, this legislation allows it to be extended to 31 December 2022, in case the more relaxed state aid rules are extended beyond the end of June.

It is important to remember this budget has been developed against the backdrop of a pandemic, with almost €9 billion spent on just one support, the pandemic unemployment payment, alone. While we cannot do everything we wanted, I am pleased in my second budget as Minister for Social Protection to introduce what is the largest social welfare budget package in 14 years. This Bill is focused on supporting the vulnerable groups in society and those who are at most risk of poverty. This is a progressive Bill, and it will provide extra help to those who need it most. It tackles inequalities and strengthens the social safety net.

Given that some of these measures, such as the across-the-board increase in payments, are to be introduced from January, it will be necessary that the Bill is passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas before the Christmas recess. I look forward to working with all Deputies to ensure that we can make this happen so that people can benefit from these changes in January. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies.

7:55 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy Ó Murchú. I will take 15 minutes and he will have five minutes.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for her opening statement. I welcome the announcement this evening of the reopening of the pandemic unemployment payment. It is important that we give workers and families some little bit of certainty given the changing public health guidelines that emerge as well as, unfortunately, some restrictions. As I always do, I welcome any increase in social welfare payments, but the Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that I would like to see us get to a point where we are going with the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, when it comes to social welfare rates. It is unfair that we have the same debate every year prior to the budget about a €5 increase. That is unfair on people who are reliant on social welfare and have nothing else. I appreciate this cannot be done overnight. The Minister referred to the qualified child increase and that it continues her policy in relation to the MESL. I would like to see a guarantee that we would get to the minimum essential standard of living. I know it cannot happen overnight, but it would at least give people certainty, protect them from poverty and allow them to meet a minimum essential standard of living. In the first instance, that is something any social protection system should do.

It also goes without saying that when the PUP was introduced, it was introduced at a rate of €203 and it was very quickly increased to €350. I believe that is an issue of adequacy. Every year at the pre-budget forum, adequacy is raised with the Minister by stakeholders. Regarding the MESL, we also have a situation with young jobseekers. A lot of young people are living at home. The jobseeker's allowance is means tested. Some young people are on far less than €112.70 a week. It is very difficult for young people who are trying to do their best and trying to get on their feet while living on such a small amount of money simply because of their age. It is not based on anything else other than their age in the first instance.

I welcome the focus on carers in this budget. I hope they will not have to wait another 14 years to see a change in the income disregard. I acknowledge that it was a very welcome move. The State pension for family carers is most important. The Minister must engage with the likes of Family Carers Ireland to ensure family carers get a full State pension when they reach pension age. That is most important. It is the very least that family carers the length and breadth of this State deserve, many of them providing 24-7 care in their homes to loved ones.

I ask the Minister to consider looking at the total contributions approach, TCA, especially before it is fully rolled out. We must ensure that the total contributions approach is working for parents who spend time at home rearing children. It is fine if there is to be a mechanism for family carers, as they will not be as reliant on the TCA, but we must make sure that works for people who spend time at home rearing children and for the self-employed as well before the system is fully rolled out. That is important.

The Minister referred to the fact that today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It is also important on such a day that we hear about more than just the disability allowance itself. I would like to see movement on the cost of disability. In 2004, Indecon did a report on the cost of disability and acknowledged that costs exist. Everybody who has a disability lives with increased costs on a daily basis. The reports are done and research has also been done recently. We must see such a payment introduced. I appreciate that these things cannot be done overnight, but we need to start somewhere with addressing the costs of disability. On a day like today it would be great to see movement in that regard.

There are difficulties with the means test for people with disabilities on a disability allowance and also for those on the blind pension. I have raised this issue with the Minister many times. I only raise the blind pension specifically because it has been raised so often with me. Where there is a change in circumstances in a home where a person receives the blind pension, it can be reduced or lost entirely. The person is still blind but he or she loses the blind pension. I urge the Minister to look at that. She should at least explore the issue and try to see what can be done.

Another payment that needs attention is the widow's pension. It is 2021, but a person who loses their partner has no entitlement to a widow's pension unless they are married. We must examine the marriage requirement. I have met people and heard people speak about losing a partner who have dependants and children at home but are not entitled to anything based on the fact that they were not married. When it comes to the means-testing of payments, we take entire households into account, whether people are married or not, yet when it comes to supporting someone who loses a loved one, with a widow's pension, a person is left with nothing.

Again, I would like that to be looked at.

I welcome the further increase in parent's leave and benefit, which is important. Any time we raise the issue of parent’s leave and benefit, we should be encouraging employers, where they can, to top up that payment because for workers to take that time off work and receive €250 a week can be very difficult. We need to keep an eye on uptake and we also need to take every opportunity to encourage employers. Many of them are in a position to allow that top-up payment to be in place, which should happen.

There is also an issue regarding lone parents, who currently only receive five weeks, whereas two-parent families will receive five weeks each. I would like to see something being done in that regard because, at the end of the day, it is for the benefit of the child. Lone parents get five weeks when a child is born, whereas a house with two parents will get ten. That should be looked at.

I want to raise the issue of parent’s bereavement leave and benefit, which I had put forward to the Minister in our alternative budget. This has been rolled out in the North. In the past couple of weeks, my colleagues have put forward amendments to include people who have miscarriages. I would like us to introduce something similar here on a statutory basis for parents who lose a child. What I brought forward was in the case of stillbirth or the death of a child under the age of 18, whereby parents would initially be given two weeks paid leave. I would like to see that being considered by the Minister.

I also want to mention child maintenance, which is an issue I have raised consistently. We have brought forward proposals on this, mirroring what is in place in the North of Ireland in regard to a child maintenance service. Unfortunately, while the maintenance review group was established, which I welcome, we are still awaiting its recommendations. I hope those will be put forward and I ask that we establish a child maintenance service similar to what is in place in the North of Ireland. The current situation is that the only option for a lone parent, if they cannot get maintenance, if mediation does not work and if they cannot get an agreement, is to go to court. They can go to court and maintenance can be ordered at a certain amount, but if that is not paid, it is back to the lone parent again. A warrant can be issued but that usually sits on a desk somewhere and, again, it is back to the lone parent all of the time. The courts are not the place to sort out maintenance. Where maintenance is ordered, it does not mean it is paid, but it is taken as household means for other social welfare payments whether it is paid or not. We need a system that takes it out of the courts and that assists and supports lone parents in seeking maintenance, in getting it and in ensuring it is paid. I hope we will see that review group report before the end of the year and that we will act on it.

I want to raise the fact that we saw in committee this week, on the Supplementary Estimates, that the budget is down in 2021 for the rural social scheme, community employment, CE, and Tús, based on a lower number of participants. I accept that Covid has been an issue, which goes without saying. However, I raised this matter last week and it was stated in respect of the lack of referrals that we had lower unemployment pre Covid. JobPath was established in 2015 and from then until when I was elected, as the party's adviser, I looked at the figures for referrals in regard to JobPath, local employment services and community employment. Very starkly and clearly, there was no issue in regard to unemployment and JobPath got the referrals, but CE in particular was really squeezed and there is still an issue there in regard to referrals. I welcome what the Minister said this week at committee in regard to changes she will be putting forward to Cabinet, and that really needs to happen. Measures like the rural social scheme, CE and Tús are very important, especially in rural communities and constituencies like mine and the Minister's. We need to ensure we ramp up those schemes to ensure the work they do on the ground is continued. I ask that the six-year rule in regard to community employment and the rural social scheme be looked at in cases where the participant wants to and is able to remain on. Perhaps people are in their late 50s and want to remain on in the scheme, or they cannot be replaced and that community service is at risk. In such cases, we should look at relaxing those rules and allowing some flexibility for those schemes.

In talking about the schemes and the wonderful work they do, I want to reference local employment services and job clubs. The Government supported a motion this week to halt the current tendering process that is under way. Unfortunately, despite that support, I do not get the feeling that it is actually going to happen and that what the motion calls for is going to be acted upon, which is regrettable, particularly for workers. It caused a lot of confusion that the Government spoke in opposition to the motion but then allowed it to pass, which was regrettable. If the Government has a position in regard to what is happening in the tendering process and it believes in that, it should have stuck to what it said that night in regard to the motion. There was no point allowing it to pass when the Government does not have any intention of doing anything, and I do not think that should happen. When we democratically debate and vote on things in this House, much more attention should be paid to those matters.

The Minister knows the Committee of Public Accounts has looked at JobPath. It released a report and concluded that the JobPath model has not delivered value for money for the taxpayer and the committee recommends that the Department of Social Protection explores other avenues to provide better value through localised, non-profit driven employment services. I should add that the majority of members on the Committee of Public Accounts come from Government parties.

Again and again, we are hearing that JobPath has failed. We had a motion in 2019, which was passed by this House, calling on the Government to end referrals to JobPath. Over 376,000 people have been through JobPath and 26,000 have sustained a job that has lasted for 12 months. Whatever people say about it working or not working, and whatever one's ideology in regard to job activation, a 6.8% success rate in the space of six years at the cost of €275 million of taxpayers’ money is not a success. I do not know why we are now pursuing that privatisation agenda when JobPath has been such a failure. The Committee of Public Accounts report is just one of many that says that.

As the Minister knows, energy costs have increased. They continue to rise. The 71% increase in the cost of heating oil means that families will more than likely spend between €500 and €600 more this winter. Many workers and families will be affected by what has been announced today and will go onto the PUP in some cases. They, with many other low and middle income workers, have no access to the fuel allowance, so we need something additional. Again, I ask the Minister to look at the discretionary fund that my party has put forward, as has the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I know the Minister tells us about the urgent needs scheme but, clearly, if the urgent needs and exceptional needs payments were working through the community welfare officers, we would not have the Society of St. Vincent de Paul paying out millions of euro every year to help families with their energy costs, nor would we have them seeking a discretionary fund.

The Committee Stage debate on the Bill is to take place the week after next. I ask that the Minister might consider some of the amendments that will be brought forward by the Opposition. The Minister will know we are very limited in what we can bring forward where we would like to see changes, some of which I have outlined this evening, and we have to seek reports. The Minister's predecessor allowed a number of reports to go through in regard to carer’s allowance, young jobseekers and the Indecon report we had sought on the impact on lone parents of the reduction of the age to seven for the one-parent family payment. There is some wisdom on this side of the House. I ask that the Minister might consider allowing some amendments to go through on Committee Stage which will give us information and data and maybe assist us on where we need to go in respect of social protection as a whole. I ask the Minister to consider that.

8:05 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the fact we are dealing with the PUP being put back in operation, which is a necessity. We have also had the conversation, before we even had today's announcements or leaks, in regard to the necessity for businesses that were already being impacted to receive supports. When the Minister is talking to her Cabinet colleagues and others, I imagine that has to be part of the solution also. We need to ensure we maintain EWSS, CRSS and all of those other necessary supports, particularly for the businesses that are going to be impacted. It goes beyond those involved in the night-time economy or hospitality.

Even the barbers have noticed a reduction in the number of people coming in. We have also heard the same thing from taxi drivers and others. The supports must be maintained and then reviewed in respect of what is being delivered. The point of these supports was to enable us to keep the show on the road and ensure that people could do the correct things from a health perspective and protect all of us. The supports were intended to give people the wherewithal to do that and to ensure we maintained these necessary businesses and services beyond the pandemic. We may not all have believed back then that we would still be dealing with these difficulties now. However, unfortunately, we are where we are, to use an overused expression.

As the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, is present I note other entities such as community centres could also be impacted in respect of the number of events that will not now be on etc. I reiterate there is an across-the-board need to review the necessary health measures, to ensure the messaging in this regard is as clear as possible and to ensure we work with people and get buy-in. That has not been the case across the board due to some of the poor messaging. We must get that right but, equally, we ensure that these supports are provided as necessary.

I also welcome what has been proposed regarding those benefits for family carers, and particularly the moves concerning the State pension. I wish to address the issue of home care supports as well. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, mentioned that a task force is meeting. It has had several informal meetings and it is to meet in a more formal setting now that a certain amount of work has been. The issue concerning home carers is that we do not have enough of them. That is because of pay rates and that subcontractors do not necessarily get paid expenses. Weekend work is especially difficult. We must examine all possible incentivisations and benefits in this regard for people. In addition, we might need to look at those who could possibly undertake these roles in a part-time capacity, without necessarily losing social protection payments. We must also explore other options in respect of tax credits etc. These do not necessarily relate to the Minister's portfolio but I believe that she will have to play her part in delivering on this aspect.

It goes without saying that many Deputies are going to mention the cost-of-living crisis we are dealing with. The fuel allowance is not going to cut the mustard in dealing with this problem. It will deal with a certain cohort of people but it will probably not put sufficient money into their pockets to buy what needs to be bought. I call on the Minister to undertake the requisite cross-departmental contact, because this issue concerns other Departments as well and therefore we need a whole-of-government response. We accept that certain things can be done internationally concerning the energy crisis, and we should obviously engage with our European partners on those aspects. However, we can do certain things ourselves to address the problem too. I heard the Taoiseach say that we cannot do this, that or the other regarding VAT. People also talk about the rights and wrongs regarding carbon tax but it is madness to consider continuing with carbon tax hikes in the face of the crisis we are in. We are adding fuel to the fire, for want of a better term, concerning the increasing costs that are already burning up what little money people have. That is not good enough by any stretch of the imagination.

When we are talking about social protection across the board, it must be part of a wider conversation about offering people a minimum standard of living. In addition, however, such a conversation must also explore how we can offer people a roadmap out of poverty. There must be a greater level of engagement in that regard. We spoke about the local employment schemes that dealt with people who sometimes needed a greater level of supports. Those were cases that were not the low-hanging fruit that JobPath and other schemes may have dealt with, although not as well as we would have liked. Therefore, we need a more comprehensive audit in respect of all those aspects that are required in the future to ensure that the Department of Social Protection plays its part in offering people a roadmap out of poverty and into education. It is not, however, straightforward.

8:15 pm

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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In the context of the announcements made this evening, I welcome the Minister's statement that the PUP will be restored. I look forward to receiving further details in that regard. In the short time since those announcements were made and the Minister's statement, I was contacted by campaigners in the arts community and by people in the taxi industry. They are very worried about their sectors and whether they will qualify for supports. I would welcome if some clarity could be provided to the people in those industries. We know all too well at this stage of the pandemic that they are the first areas to fall off the cliff and the last to get back up, unfortunately for them.

One taxi driver to whom I spoke said that in the late afternoon yesterday there were more than 210 jobs available on the app used for scheduling work but that there were only two jobs at the same time today. Therefore, things have got really bad very fast for the taxi industry. We look forward to receiving more clarity from the Minister and from her office concerning the extent to which the PUP and other supports will apply.

The Labour Party welcomes the publication of the Social Welfare Bill 2021. It is important legislation that, as the Minister quite rightly pointed out, will have an allocation of €558 million in 2022. It must be measured in more than euro and cent, though. The value of social protection is not on the balance sheet but in the homes of the carers and the cared for. It can provide for, as President Higgins famously said, the social floor under which a person should not fall.

We welcome the debate on this Bill. It is unfortunate that the Social Welfare Bill for the second time in two years has been shoehorned into the end of the legislative agenda as the Christmas break fast approaches. The Government knows that it must pass the Bill but this legislation deserves more scrutiny than a couple of hours on a Friday evening. We in the Labour Party will be submitting amendments to this Bill, not least regarding the area of the new local employment services contract. This House agreed to pause it this week, but we have yet to see any action from the Government in that regard. The new regional employment service, the first phase of which was recently advertised for seven counties in four lots through a request for tender, RFT, will replace existing jobs clubs and local employment services with the discredited JobPath-style model. It is a payment by fee-per-person-referred approach, that establishes a work-first model, and places no recognition on progression to education, training and work programmes, such as community employment and Tús.

The Government will trumpet social welfare increases in this budget. However, the inflation rate of 3.7% that the Government is projecting means that the modest increases provided for social welfare payments will be eaten up by the rising costs of food, energy and other essential goods and that will reduce the value of payments further. To bring this matter back to the context of Covid-19, and as has been raised already in recent weeks, one thing that families are going to have to pay for now are antigen tests. For those on social welfare payments, the price of antigen tests, whether bought in Lidl, Aldi or a pharmacy, will knock their household budgets right out of whack. They are still too expensive and they must be subsidised by the Government to the point of being free for those who most need them.

This budget spreads around a lot of fivers but it does not insulate those on fixed incomes from rising prices. Jobseeker's benefit and allowance of €203 a week would have to rise by a minimum of €7.50 just to keep pace with the projected rate of inflation. Instead, there will only be a rise of €5. The Minister has secured a range of measures across supplementary payments. These are all welcome but if prices are rising faster than the income people are receiving, then they will have less to spend on everyday essentials. Since 2019, people receiving social welfare payments have seen no weekly increases, while inflation in that period ran at 4.3%, and that is on top of the increases now expected. We already know that energy prices are soaring and that electricity and gas suppliers have already implemented many price increases that will cost households more than €400. This budget was meant to tackle inflation, but it does not even meet the projected rises in the cost of living. We have an opportunity now to address this issue on Committee Stage.

While there are those who will incur increases from putting their heating on, there are also people who are just too afraid to put the heating on now because they are afraid of the bill that will come in as a result. Everyone is talking about this issue and we are all receiving representations in our offices. There are people on social welfare payments and in low-paying jobs, as well as older people, who are just too afraid to put their heating on. That is an unfortunate fact in Ireland in 2021, and it is something that neither this Bill nor any other measure brought forward by the Government is addressing. Our social insurance contributions are pay-related and fund social welfare benefits and retirement pensions. When workers lose their jobs, therefore, they should be entitled to immediate support from the State. The link between previous income and the level of benefits paid out should be re-established. We are proposing a phased introduction of this policy, starting with a €50 top-up and the removal of waiting lists for jobseeker's benefit.

The concept of family has changed as well, and it is time to bring Ireland into the 21st century.

The Department of Social Protection has a big role in this. We want all families to be treated fairly, regardless of whether the people in them are married. This issue is experienced by a large number of people all over Ireland. The 2016 census indicates that there are over 75,000 cohabiting couples in Ireland with child dependants, a figure that is likely to be even greater in the next census. If a couple is cohabiting, the Department of Social Protection can assess the means of both individuals when carrying out a means assessment for a social assistance payment such as a jobseeker's allowance or carer's allowance. It does not provide any guarantee to continue contributory social protection payments like the widower's or widow's pension when one person dies, and that is something that must change.

I will finish by saying I am greatly concerned about the diminishing role of community welfare officers in the Department. A community welfare officer plays a very important role in any community and a good community welfare officer can be at the very front line or sharp end of poverty, need, help and assistance in every community. One area where community welfare officers should be trusted and continue to be trusted is rent supplement and its application. Community welfare officers know their community and the families therein. They know the needs out there. I am very concerned about what I am seeing in my area, which is the centralisation of rents to a central unit in the Department. This was tried before almost ten years ago and it did not work. We need community welfare officers to have discretion and they must be trusted. At the root of all this diminution of a community welfare officer's role is a lack of trust in those individuals. They should be trusted to apply payments required, including exceptional needs and rent supplement payments. They are in the community and know it. They can be tough but they are fair. If somebody needs an emergency payment, they will get it from a community welfare officer. We should not be centralising emergency payments of any kind and they should remain in the community. Intreo offices were built for a reason, as a one-stop shop for people in need so a person's first day unemployed is the first day that person looks to get back into work. Community welfare officers are central to that role. Empower them and trust them. Please put them back at the centre of their community where they can give the most help, as they have for decades.

8:25 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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At the outset I welcome the Minister's announcement on the PUP. It is a measure of how quickly this Covid-19 position changes that we have had the Revised Estimates before the committee this week but the situation has already changed. I echo Deputy Duncan Smith's comments about the arts industry in particular and I have already been contacted by people from theatres and concert organisers who sold tickets but are now looking at 50% capacity. They will need our support.

Deputy Ó Murchú spoke about the carbon tax and he is always a very informed and balanced contributor. It is worth noting that many of the specific measures contained in this Social Welfare Bill are funded through the carbon tax and the hypothecation of the increases in the carbon tax for precisely that reason. It is something that very often gets lost in the debate.

The chief executive officer of Barnardos said that multiple measures set out in this budget provide much-needed help for vulnerable families and children. She welcomed the commitments to increase social welfare payments and the equalising of back-to-school allowances for single- and two-parent families, as well as expansion of the hot school meals programme that the Minister referenced and the widening of childcare supports to more families living in disadvantaged circumstances. She also acknowledged that while positive measures are being introduced, significant challenges and difficulties remain for disadvantaged families. That is very true.

The first of the sustainable development goals is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. Globally, one in every five children lives in extreme poverty and, closer to home, Ireland has higher rates of child poverty than the EU average. In June this year the EU adopted the child guarantee, stating every child in Europe should have access to free healthcare and childcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition, with a primary focus on disadvantage, including those experiencing poverty. Here in Ireland we still have a way to go to live up to that guarantee. We must take a long-term view and ensure there are multi-annual investment programmes targeted to those who need it most. This monetary investment must be supported by strong policies, good governance and quality assurance. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, this morning reiterated his commitment to working towards eradicating child poverty.

This week the OECD published its country policy review on early childhood education and care in Ireland, acknowledging the strong policy agenda for early learning and care in Ireland and noting that the OECD recommendations align closely with budget 2022 announcements, particularly the new core funding stream of €207 million. Ensuring social protection for all children is critical to reducing poverty and investment in childcare, according to Social Justice Ireland, is a key lever in reducing child poverty.

The second budget of this Government is progressive. It acknowledges the need to look after the people who need it most in our society, including the young and old. The distributional analysis of budget 2022 indicates that income gains from welfare packages are highest for people of retirement age and lone parents. Through all life stages we must focus our help on those who need it most. In order to build a fairer society and one that is more cohesive and resilient, we must ensure the State supports and promotes intergenerational solidarity. We are all conscious of the ageing population in Ireland and the need to care for people in older age and to ensure they are able to live healthy and independent lives while continuing to contribute to our society.

The committee dealing with social protection is currently hearing from stakeholders and experts on the report from the Commission on Pensions set up under the programme for Government. That report outlines quite starkly the challenges of our changing demographics and how the ratio of working age population to older population is changing. The commission recognises the cost of the contributory State pension will increase very significantly, of the order of 65%, by 2030, and it suggests that expenditure on State pensions could consume the entire Social Insurance Fund if we operate under a business-as-usual scenario. People of working age cannot plan their personal pension arrangements in confidence without knowing the future value of State pensions and neither can current recipients of the State pension. They cannot plan or budget with confidence over the medium to long term. People receiving the State pension - we all agree such people should have comfort and peace of mind as they age - can feel vulnerable to rate cuts depending on the Government of the day.

Most countries have a formal process of benchmarking as a means of ensuring the value of welfare payments. Ireland is one of just two OECD countries that does not use a formal system of benchmarking. There are nonetheless a number of challenges for benchmarking, as a link to something like pricing could result in a widening gap between people receiving the State pension and other members of society. If linked to multiple benchmarks, the pension could outstrip both prices and wages, eventually potentially overtaking wage levels.

This Bill is to give effect to the social welfare provisions of budget 2022, including increases in weekly welfare rates of pensions, benefits and allowances, as well as proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants. We can see the potential for social welfare rates as part of an annual budgetary process having a positive impact on poverty levels but there is no explicit linkage between welfare rates and earnings; nor is there is any explicit link between welfare rates and prices, so the value of welfare rates can deviate from year to year, impacting poverty alleviation. We have seen that in the inflation rates, largely owing to energy prices. The Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025 outlines a potential alternative approach - the smoothed earning system, which could be applied to our social protection measures here. Such a system would ensure that over the long term, the relative value of welfare payments compared with market earnings would be maintained, and over any short-term period the real value or purchasing power of these payments would be protected.

It is important the changes we make in the near future are prudent, fair, caring and take the long-term view. We must lift children and families out of poverty and prevent others from falling into it. I agree with Deputy Kerrane that we should set as a target the MESL, a standard below which nobody should be expected to live. This standard of living means an individual's or household's physical, psychological and social needs are met. Our social protection system is there to give that basic underpinning and set out the essential standard of human dignity we should promote and protect within our society. We must provide that security as well as peace of mind. This Bill takes important steps in that direction and both the budgets passed by this Government, when considered together, move in that direction. I very much welcome the Bill in that regard.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the announcement on the PUP but as previous speakers mentioned, we would like clarity as soon as possible on how it will apply to the taxi and arts sectors. They should not be left hanging on like last time.

The Bill serves as an indictment of how the Government has failed to prepare the supports that people need in their daily lives to deal with the ongoing increases in the cost of living. It further serves to show how the measures the Government announced in October's budget were already out of date then and are even more unsuited to the increased pressures people are under less than two months later.

Before budget 2022 was announced on 12 October, the Government could not speak highly enough of our family carers and the huge contribution they have made in keeping the pressure off the health services and looking after the most vulnerable, many of whom also fall under that bracket. A feature of this Bill is the change to the means test for carer's allowance. While that change is welcome, to postpone the move until June and to allocate only €10 million is a cruel blow. What will change between now and June next in terms of the needs of people who require care and those who provide it? The changes to the means test did not go far enough. Sinn Féin would have opened the payment to many more carers by allocating €50 million to relax the means test and further address inheritance issues. We would also have introduced a pension for long-term carers. Unbelievably, the Government also failed to address the issue of respite, which is missing from the Bill.

Sinn Féin would have increased the annual carer's support grant to €2,000. The Government made no provision for doing this and the availability of respite services continues to be subject to a postcode lottery. I suppose carers should be grateful for a €5 increase in the weekly allowance, which will go nowhere near to addressing the heavy fuel hikes we are seeing. The Government's fine words about our carers ring hollow when we consider what is not in this Bill.

Many aspects of this Bill are out of date, as many were when the budget was announced. The cost of living is going through the roof. Fuel poverty is a serious problem affecting more and more people as weeks go by. Fuel allowance rates and eligibility access to the scheme is limited and the scheme is too rigid in respect of income thresholds. While the Cabinet is said to be considering an emergency household support package, repeated references by Ministers to the supplementary welfare allowance for households struggling with energy costs will ring hollow for many people. This is because the allowance is at the discretion of community welfare officers. All Deputies know of individuals who had applications refused, even though we cannot get the figures because the Department does not collect the data.

One of the main issues raised with me in respect of social welfare payments is means testing for jobseeker's payments, the disability allowance and other payments. The rigid nature of the criteria means many people with particular circumstances in their lives have their payment cut or removed. People's lives are not designed to fit around the criteria the Department sets down for them. The Department needs to recognise this and design criteria that take into account the real circumstances in which people find themselves.

A major concern with the Bill is not only what is in it but also what has been left out. For every measure on which the Department falls short, real people with real issues are failed.

8:35 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I welcome the reintroduction of the pandemic unemployment payment, which has been essential in keeping the wolf from many people's doors. It has been a lifeline throughout the pandemic. When it was first introduced it was set at a rate of €350 and fostered a degree of social solidarity. All those who lost their jobs or who were unable to continue in their employment as a result of the pandemic were able to avail of the payment. This was an incredible thing for us to do. As the months went by, the Government began to differentiate between who could get the €350 payment. When that happened a tear in the social fabric began to emerge.

I am conscious of how often Deputies have used the word "poverty" in this debate. The PUP was set at €350 in recognition of the fact that traditional social welfare payments were not sufficient to allow people to live lives of dignity, pay their bills, feed their families and have a degree of comfort. For this reason, I strongly welcome the reintroduction of the PUP. However, I cannot separate that decision from the rest of my contribution, which will focus on levels of poverty in this country. Poverty would be addressed if we had more adequate social welfare payments.

I welcome any increase in social welfare payments. I am sure the €5 increase will make a difference to people but will it take individuals or families out of poverty? Poverty is a great shadow hanging over Irish society. The most recent estimates of poverty levels in Ireland are from 2019. They show that 630,000 people live in poverty, of whom one quarter are children. This means one in eight people are living below the poverty line.

Poverty is corrosive to the human condition. It impacts every facet of a person’s being. A young woman who described to me her living conditions told me the poverty she experienced impacted every one of her senses. It impacted her sense of smell in terms of the type of food she could cook and her sight through the conditions in her house as a result of being unable to carry out repairs. She lived in crowded accommodation so she could always hear voices and never experienced silence. Poverty is corrosive to every aspect of the human condition. That is why, when we talk about social welfare measures, we are talking about a person’s dignity and humanity. If we are to be a true republic, we should believe the goal of eradicating poverty is within our power. We should not accept that poverty will always exist in this Republic because it has always been here. To address this issue, we need to move towards a minimum essential standard of living, or MESL, to which previous speakers referred. We are currently very far away from that. I fully accept that this will not happen overnight and that increases of €45 will not be paid overnight, but we must set the MESL as our target.

Poverty as a word can be abstract but when we think of the indicators of poverty it is what people living in poverty experiences in their day-to-day lives. When we move to the lived condition, poverty is the absence of a warm coat. It is the inability to pay electricity bills and have enough left over at the end of a week to be able to afford some sort of minimum luxury. It is parents skipping meals so that their children do not go without.

I fully accept that no one in the Chamber wants people to live in poverty but it is the intention to eradicate poverty that I question. We need to work significantly harder to get people out of poverty.

As previous speakers mentioned, the pandemic has dramatically increased the cost of living, particularly for those on low incomes. Electricity costs are spiralling. The moratorium on electricity disconnections ceased on 1 July when the weather was significantly warmer. People are cold and many are simply afraid to turn on their heating. That is a sad indictment. In the middle of a pandemic when we are trying to foster social cohesion, why can we not say there will be no disconnections this year? A couple of weeks ago, we discussed whether there would be widespread blackouts and the House had well-meaning debates on data centres. However, there are blackouts in individual households all over the country where people are afraid they will be disconnected and, therefore, cannot put on the heating. That is an everyday reality. At a minimum, why can we not say that people will not have their electricity disconnected during the pandemic?

If we accept that a minimum of 630,000 are living in poverty and close to the bone as we approach Christmas and we also accept that during a pandemic, testing, tracing and forewarning keeps us all safe, surely antigen tests should not only be subsidised but free of charge. If not, it could cost a family of two €100 per month to take antigen tests. People will not be able to afford to do these tests. They must be provided free of charge. Many of the families who avail of the measures in the Bill will not be able to access antigen tests, which will place them and society as a whole at risk. I strongly encourage the Minster to take control of this issue because it will have ramifications.

The weekly expenses allowance for those living in direct provision were not increased. The €5 increase to core social welfare payments, which is itself inadequate, does not apply to this payment and it remains at €38.80.

The allowance has only been increased twice since the inception of direct provision. The working group on the protection process and direct provision recommended the weekly expense allowance be increased from €19 to €38. This only happened in March 2019 and there have been no increases since. Despite the recommendation in the White Paper on direct provision published earlier this year that income supports be introduced for families seeking asylum, children in direct provision are still not being treated equally to other children living in Ireland. There has been no increase in payments for children in direct provision or inclusion of them in child benefit, which is described by the Department as a universal benefit. It is not universal if people within the Republic cannot access it.

Given today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about some of the disability provisions that are, or are not, in the Bill as it stands. The Minister will be aware Ireland was the last country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There is still a shameful amount of inaction today. The programme for Government states: "Ever since Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we have signalled to those with a disability that we are now serious about making a difference...". Budget 2022 does not reflect that seriousness. Ireland has one of the lowest employment rates of people with disabilities in the EU at 26.2%, compared with 48.1% in the EU in 2017. The number of people with disabilities living in deprivation is 43%, based on CSO figures from 2019, which is the last year for which we have data.

Indecon's report on the cost of disability has still not been published despite being received by the Department in June. This is an issue we have raised on numerous occasions. In the absence of that report we simply do not know what the cost of disability is to a person and how we can better intervene to help and provide the adequate supports. If we do not have that information we are, in many ways, putting together our budget in the dark. The research was first announced in October 2018 as part of budget 2019 and was commissioned by the Department of Social Protection. It looks in detail at all the extra day-to-day costs faced by people with disabilities. It is an extensive survey incorporating feedback from thousands of disabled people across Ireland. It was completed by the consultants Indecon in early 2021 and a report was submitted to the Government. Each Department has since examined the report and we are told the report will be presented by the Minister herself in due course. However, three years after the research was announced, the report remains unpublished. We raised this issue in July. It was requested that if the report was not approved in time to inform budget 2022 there would, at the very least, be an increase to the disability allowance of €20. This did not happen.

The budget continues to ignore the additional costs of disability people live with despite continued promises to address the issue. Though we welcome the increase in the earnings limit for receipt of disability allowance and the Minister's extending of "Catherine's law", whereby a stipend is no longer assessed as income, to include the blind pension but the practice of removing social welfare payments from people continuing their education still exists. This was an issue we raised again recently. I wish to raise an issue brought to us by One Family. We wrote the Minister regarding the case of Ms Dawn Higgins who, because she accepted a PhD scholarship, is now ineligible for the one-parent family payment and others support payments to which she had been entitled, such as the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and the fuel allowance. It is a really difficult issue that a person who goes into the highest levels of education loses his or her entitlements and must face hardship in the process. We know those with higher levels of education are associated with higher levels of income. Any group stopped from pursuing education is in a poverty trap.

CSO data for 2019 suggests 45% of lone parents went without essentials such as adequate food, heating or clothing. We welcome the removal of the inequality facing lone parents in relation to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance but there are few other targeted measures to assist one-parent families and many inequalities remain. The inequalities surrounding extra parent's benefit was bittersweet, given children in one-parent families will get two extra weeks but seven fewer weeks overall than those in two-parent families. The increase in qualified child benefit payment was inadequate for older children and will only rise by €3. In my party's alternative budget we, along with other organisations such as One Family, called for a €10 increase due to the well-documented higher costs associated with older children. The fuel allowance increase is insufficient. We asked for the period to be extended to 32 weeks as this would have restored 2010 purchasing power. There was nothing on child maintenance which we would like to see treated as non-tax payment for children with child benefit. We intend to raise these issues again next week through amendments. I am thankful for the time this evening.

8:45 pm

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht. Tá sé tabhachtach go bhfuil seans againn na cúrsaí seo a phlé. I welcome the chance to debate this, whatever about the timing of it. This family-friendly Dáil is working out well. It is important but unfortunate the entire Dáil only gets to debate social welfare issues once a year around the Social Welfare Bill. It is time we looked at a much more long-term way of planning our social protection payments. A number of Deputies have referred to that. It is unfair on families who depend in a long-term way on social welfare payments, for whatever reason, that they are left from year to year trying to guesstimate their income for the following year. We must look at how we do this.

I acknowledge the extraordinary work every official in the Minister's Department has done since the beginning of the pandemic. They do extraordinary work all the time but have done so especially since the beginning of the pandemic. Payments were turned around in such quick time. Staff who joined from other elements of the Civil Service were brought on board and it was an extraordinary response. It has become fashionable to start bashing the civil and public service but staff of the Department of Social Protection around the country performed a superb role during the pandemic and continue to do so. They will be asked to do so again tonight.

I welcome the announcements on the PUP. We need urgent clarity at some stage over the weekend because there are people who will be affected. It is important to be conscious there are people in areas of the night-time economy and various aspects of the entertainment business who cannot just walk into another job somewhere else. They are skilled people whose talents are needed. When we eventually put the Covid chapter of our country’s history behind us we will want them to reignite our night-time economy, our hospitality and our tourism industry. They are leaving the sector and going to sectors that can give them the certainty they do not have tonight. I highlight also the issues around the PUP and EWSS whereby people who are being subsidised or getting income through that are being ruled out of bank loans and mortgages. As there is a subsidy there, some banks decline to deal with mortgage applications, even though there is no fault on the part of anybody who is working because it is Covid that is causing the difficulties. The Government needs to identify that and cut that out. If there are solid businesses that are being supported by the EWSS then they are solid incomes that will get through this. That is something Government needs to do.

I have already highlighted a number of anomalies and I keep drawing attention to the siloed way we have of doing business, whereby somebody with a disability is dealing with the Departments of Health, Education and Social Protection and there is very little correlation between them, and even within the Department of Social Protection. I have highlighted on a number of occasions cases where older children have come home because their disability centre or residential centre has closed down as a consequence of Covid. We have had cases, and brought them to the Minster’s attention, where people have lost the fuel allowance because that income has come into the house, even though the income is a welfare payment. I was dealing with the case of a lady in her 80s who lost her fuel allowance because that extra income came in. That kind of thing should not be happening anymore. In this day and age we should be able to share data and experiences and be at a point that somebody in that particular situation does not lose out. It is time we did all that.

I raise community employment, CE. I acknowledge the work the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O’Brien, is doing and the extra resources that went into the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, in particular. That programme is an unsung hero of the Department and has so much potential. CE is also there. The Minister will be sick of hearing me say it needs far greater support and investment and needs to be embraced for what it actually is. It is much more than labour market intervention, which is the phrase that keeps coming back in parliamentary questions. It is not that. It is a social service and one that gives confidence and skills to people who may not get that opportunity otherwise. We need to invest in the participants, in sponsors in terms of the budget for materials and training and we need finally to resolve the issues for CE supervisors. I know there is a proposal on the table. There is a very mixed reaction to it. It is about giving CE the kind of place it really requires and giving it certainty. The same should be done with the rural social scheme, RSS.

I mentioned the silo side of things. The Department of Social Protection has the most information on people at various stages of their lives, whether it relates to pensions, jobseeker's allowance, disability payments or whatever payment reflects a certain aspect of their lives. That is the foundation on which we can start breaking down the silos of State services. The Minister's Department is potentially the gateway to making people's lives much easier. A parent who qualifies for a domiciliary payment should quality for so much more, across other Departments, rather than having to apply for everything separately, which adds so much stress to an already stressful life. We need to look at services in a much more holistic way rather than from Department to Department. The Department of Social Protection has the potential to be the gateway to us becoming a much more caring State, one that does not allow people to fall between the cracks of rules, regulations and paperwork. That is something the Minister's Department could look into and take on board by being the key Department in that area.

There is a lot of discussion of fuel costs at present. The Government needs to be far more vigilant around this issue. I have noticed that wholesale fuel prices have come down in the past ten days, but I have not seen that reflected in what we pay. Prices always go up very quickly and the Government, through the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, needs to be far more vigilant so that when prices come down reductions are passed on, especially to those on limited incomes who avail of the fuel allowance. That is the biggest challenge facing so many homeowners and households at present.

I welcome many things in the Bill, especially the new and very direct focus on carers. I acknowledge there are many good changes around that. Again, let this not be the final debate on social protection. There is a super-committee on the broader issue of social protection, but some of us are not on it. It needs to be a far more concentrated debate, one that preferably does not take place at 9.45 p.m. on a Friday.

8:55 pm

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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In light of the restrictions to the pandemic unemployment payment announced earlier, I ask the Minister to urgently publish details of payments to those involved in the arts and entertainment sectors, including people working front of house and in supporting roles, and those who will be affected by the introduction of 50% capacity at indoor events. This will be a major hammer blow financially for families in the run-up to Christmas. Any security the Minister can offer them between now and then should be done as a matter of urgency.

The Bill we are discussing deals with a vast array of issues. I will specifically raise an issue that is consistently raised with me, which is the cost of living with a disability and the means test associated with a disability payment. In advance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities today, I asked the Minister a parliamentary question regarding the removal of the means test for the blind pension and the disability allowance. With due respect, the Minister's reply was a merry dance around the topic but we got to the punchline after following up with the Ceann Comhairle's office. The Minister stated she was not considering replacing the means test for those in receipt of disability allowance. Her reply also stated that, according to the 2016 census, 364,252 persons of working age are living with a disability, although some of those are under 18. It is estimated that a universal or non-means tested payment would more than double the current expenditure in this area per annum.

Some 40% of people with disabilities are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, according to the European Disability Forum’s human rights report. Since 2010, the situation faced by people who live with disability has worsened in 11 EU countries, of which Ireland is one. I ask the Minister to consider publishing the calculations behind the estimate contained in her reply to my parliamentary question. When can we expect the report commissioned in 2018 on the cost of disability to be published? We know people living with disability have significantly more challenges when it comes to educational prospects. We know there are additional challenges in accessing employment and significant extra costs for households where a member of the family has a disability. I ask the Minister to please answer those two questions, either this evening or by follow-up.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I welcome the recent announcement of the reopening of the pandemic unemployment payment. I will be blunt that if by reopening the Minister means anything less than restoring the payment to €350, which was accepted as the level people needed to survive, and leaving it open to anyone who loses his or her job as a consequence of pandemic restrictions, that will simply not be acceptable. Nor will it be acceptable if there is any small print, anything that states it will be kept at €250 or only those in restaurants will be able to apply for it. It is scandalous that the Government, over months, has driven the PUP down to its current point of €250 or €203, which are levels at which it is extremely difficult for people to live. This is despite all the evidence. The Government proudly and correctly states how many people it had on the PUP at the start of the pandemic and how dramatically the numbers have come down. Absolutely, but that indicates that when people can go back to jobs, they do so. They are not lounging around delighted to be on the PUP, for well over a year at this stage. They are happy to, and want to, go back to work where possible.

The Government, in its horrendous and repeated mishandling of the pandemic, has brought us back to the point where restrictions are already having an impact. The restrictions announced tonight will have even more of an impact and, therefore, people are losing their jobs as a consequence through no fault of their own whatsoever. They must be able to apply for the PUP at the €350 rate, whether they are a DJ in a nightclub, working in a restaurant or a taxi driver.

My point on fuel allowance was, in a certain sense, half dealt with on budget night. The Minister might know where I am going with this. Energy prices have continued to rise. We predicted a month and a half or two months ago that fuel costs would be approximately €500 to €1,000 more for families this winter, which is definitely coming to pass. The consequence of that will probably be more than the 1,500 to 2,000 excess winter deaths, which are usual on a yearly basis and are tragic and completely unnecessary. It is likely that more people will die as a consequence of those increases. We know the numbers of people who have to make the decision not to fully eat in order to be able to heat their homes or vice versa. We know 19% of people cut back on heating and electricity due to cost. We also know that 42% of those with an illness or disability, 36% of lone parent families and 1 in 6 households were in energy poverty in 2019.

What does the Government do for these people? It put forward a counter-motion to our motion in the Dáil, the bottom line point of which was that we have to rely on the market. Do not interfere with the market. It refused to implement price controls, scrap the carbon tax and extend the number of weeks. The only two things it did was to bring in a minimal increase of €5 in the fuel allowance and a minimal increase to the means test. Some €5 a week is not enough; one can do the maths. People are faced with an extra €15 a week in fuel costs. It was introduced on budget night but was far too little and far too late. I have raised the incredible decision not to have the means test increase happen at the same time the rate was increasing a number of times, and have so far received two letters from the Minister about it, for which I thank her.

It was clearly so shocking that the Taoiseach did not know about it. The Taoiseach misled the Dáil about six weeks ago by saying that it was due to happen on budget night. Since then, I have repeatedly said to him that he should bring the facts in line with his statement in the Dáil. Unfortunately, that has not happened. It is-----

9:05 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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It has.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Has it?

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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It has been backdated.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The means test has been changed.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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It has been backdated.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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There you go. Great. You get somewhere eventually in this place.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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The Deputy is making progress.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Literally as we speak.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy cannot receive good news properly. He should put up his aerial.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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That is fantastic. I am very happy to hear that. I will call my constituent who has been battling away on that issue immediately once I am out of the Chamber. He will be delighted. The €5 and the increase in means test thresholds are still extremely minimal, but we will take them. You have to put pressure on in this place. It takes a long time to get even a fiver for people.

I will speak more generally then. I refer to what has become an annual tradition, that of the €5 increases in social welfare payments, which the Government expects people to be somewhat happy about when they fail to keep pace with inflation. Inflation is now running at approximately 5% across the European Union. We are heading towards that level in Ireland. The consequence of that for people on social welfare is that they get a cut in real terms to their incomes. It is interesting to look at the basic social welfare rates across the board in contrast with the €350 for the PUP, which the Government tried as quickly as possible to row back from. That demonstrated an important truth, that is, that when a very large number of people, including significant sections of the voting bases of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, were faced with going onto social welfare benefits, effectively, in the form of the PUP, it was accepted that the minimum for any sort of standard of living was €350. Then the attempt was to get away from that and to go back to €203, the normality - quite an incredible normality - of poverty-level welfare payments. That is not good enough, and one of the basic lessons to be learned from Covid should be that if people are to be on social welfare payments, people should actually be able to survive on them. That is why, in People Before Profit's budget 2022 statement, we proposed a €25 increase in welfare payments, well ahead of inflation, to lift people's standard of living as a step towards raising all welfare levels, including carer's payments, recipients of which suffer incredible levels of poverty and do a huge amount of effectively unpaid work for the State, up to a basic €350.

As for maternity benefit, the proposed €5 increase has an added insulting element to it. Prior to January 2014, 90% of women qualified for the higher rate of maternity benefit of €262. That was before Labour and Fine Gael scrapped the rate in question. Today, the Government is giving a €5 increase to bring the rate to €250, but that is still way behind the 2014 levels, while prices have gone up massively. In reality, the entire maternity benefit system needs to be transformed. The system sees women looking after newborn babies getting an income below the poverty line, €100 less a week than the €350 PUP when it was at that rate. Instead, we need to move to a system of full parental benefit for both parents to ensure that new parents will not have to take a cut in income at precisely the time they need their full income most. Instead, we should push for paternal benefit to be paid by employers in line with a worker's wages.

Another issue I wish to raise is long Covid, which I suspect will rise up the political agenda in the coming months and, unfortunately, years. Long Covid now needs to be taken into account across a range of public services, including health and social protection. There is nothing in the Bill to support those with long Covid. During the week, I was talking to a professor who said he thinks that, at a minimum, one in ten people who get Covid suffer from long Covid. Obviously, not everybody with long Covid will suffer it extremely severely and for years and years to come. There is a spectrum. However, many who recover from Covid discover that they have long-term, ongoing difficulties with breathing, low energy levels, fatigue, etc. Many have had to leave their jobs or move to part-time jobs as a result, with no idea - and this is part of what is scary for them - as to how long the condition will last. At the moment, however, they are not eligible for occupational injury benefit, disability allowance or invalidity pension because long Covid is not included on the list of conditions covered. In other cases, they do not qualify because we do not yet know how long-term their symptoms are. We need to act on this before more and more people have long Covid. Probably about 55,000 people either have suffered or are still suffering from long Covid in this country. Unfortunately, that figure is going to rise.

My final point concerns discrimination against young people. The separate lower rates of social welfare payments for young people were a scandalous measure to have brought in. It is awful that this Bill continues with unfair discrimination against young people. In the future we will look back and ask how on earth we ever allowed social welfare to discriminate between people on the basis of age. Why should a 19-year-old worker who loses his or her job be entitled to less support than a 29-year-old in the same position? In the past, lower wages and worse conditions for women were justified by right-wingers with the assumption that women would have a man to support them. Now, discrimination against young people is similarly justified on the grounds that they should turn to the bank of mummy and daddy. That may be a possibility for some but, certainly for those whom I represent, it is largely not possible and certainly not fair to expect. We should move immediately to abolish the discrimination across the board, as People Before Profit proposed in our budget statement for 2022.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thank you, Deputy Murphy. Would you like to withdraw your allegation against the Taoiseach accusing him of misleading the House? You seemed delighted with the clarification.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Yes, I will, in light of the change of facts on the ground. I recognise that.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I will not delay the House long because it has been a long day and a long night. I compliment the Minister on the dedication and the single-mindedness with which she set about the task she has had for the past year in the face of the advancing Covid pandemic and on being able to respond to so many people so quickly, turning around applications so quickly. It is a great tribute to her and her staff, all of whom have delivered extraordinarily, and we need to recognise that, particularly at a time when people have been forced to work from home because of Covid. The Minister overcame a huge number of challenges and managed to do the job as if there were no Covid. I thank her for that.

We come to this time every year. The social welfare budget has never been enough. There has always been a need for more, and there are plenty of good causes to which we could divide up the money. However, we do not have that honour or privilege at present for the simple reason that there are challenges still coming. We do not know where we will go next. To have been able to provide supports such as the approximately €8 billion on PUP has been an extraordinary performance, given the circumstances that have presented themselves and the impossibility of determining what will happen next. Having spent some time in the Minister's Department, I fully appreciate the effort that had to go into that to lead us through the time ahead.

We have problems with energy costs. They are going up.

They should not be going up the way they are. If we had made more provision a few years ago in relation to electricity generation, we would not have the same problem. We would have control over it and not be in that position. There is no good talking about that now.

We need to watch carefully the areas where increases are taking place that are not directly related to anything in particular. It is a fashion to pile on increases but if a ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal or somewhere for a few days, that does not necessarily have to be heaped on top of the burdened people threatened by Covid on one hand and interruption of supplies on the other.

We also have to be careful about that terrible thing inflation which will affect everybody, as Deputy Paul Murphy commented, in a short time. It would be great to be able to follow inflation with payments to compensate but we know eventually that becomes part of the inflation and you end up going nowhere. We in this country need to watch carefully what is causing inflation as time moves on. Some economists will say a bit of inflation is good; a bit of everything is good, but not an overdose of it. We need to be cautious of it and the impact it is likely to have on our way of life.

Reference has been made to direct provision. The payment is small and could do with further attention but it is a place to be. When places to be are difficult and scarce, we are right to provide something. It may be modest, but at least we are doing something. Unfortunately, it has attracted the attention of people who believe there should be no provision for refugees and we do not accept that. We all would like to be given a safe haven if we were in that position and we should never forget that we were in that position for many centuries. We need to treat people in need of care, attention and a safe haven as we would like to be treated if we were in that position again.

We all have to deal with people in difficult circumstances. Some might suggest the Government parties do not understand these things and they are alien to us. I hear it all the time. I assure the Ceann Comhairle, and he knows as well as I do, that we spent our time in those trenches and still do. We do not need to be told about it because we lived with and in it. I remember hearing people talk not long ago about people having to fill central heating systems with five gallon drums. We remember that too and did it. It is no surprise to us. When this House's Members were badly paid, that is the way we filled our central heating tanks.

I hope we can survive the challenges ahead. I know we can if we follow the regulations to the best of our ability. I thank the Minister, her staff and all who have made such a huge effort in difficult circumstances to deliver.

9:15 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I warmly welcome the announcement made by the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, on undocumented workers. This is a significant announcement. Many of us in this House over a long period have looked for these changes that have been announced today. It concerns people who have been sadly living in the shadows in this country and I welcome the measure because it is a positive step for approximately 17,000 undocumented people and up to 3,000 of their children. They are being denied access to basic services even though they have been paying tax and PRSI. Yet when they go to claim that, they are not entitled to it because they remain undocumented.

From personal experience, I commend the work done by the Department's community welfare officers who have, in many instances, been the only ones in the State sector able and willing to help out those undocumented workers. On many occasions, I have approached those officers and they have always been forthcoming and never found wanting. Every one of these individuals wants to more productively contribute to our society and economy and I have no doubt that the vast majority will on foot of this.

As we are coming into the Christmas period and measures are being taken at last to address the undocumented Irish residing in this country, I ask that we do not forget, and we redouble our efforts on, the undocumented Irish on the other side of the Atlantic in the United States. I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and others are involved in that.

While I am congratulating the Government, I congratulate the Minister for the work she has done to improve the plight of carers, in terms of the income thresholds and allowances, the changes being introduced in this legislation. The joint Oireachtas committee has made recommendations to the Minister to improve the position of carers and this is a positive development.

I turn to something that is not in the legislation and which I believe needs to have adequate provision made for it. That is the area of just transition. There should be a specific line in the Vote for just transition workers. These are workers who have been laid off as a result of the changes to move towards a more climate-resilient economy. I have seen it in my part of the country with Bord na Móna and ESB workers but it is not just those workers. Across various sectors of our economy in the not-too-distant future, we will see staff being laid off and we should have a wraparound service and a designated official in the local social welfare office who can engage with those people on reskilling, support them to start their own business and provide them with access to adult guidance and the education avenues that can be made open to them. It is important that a specific service be designed around those people.

While I am on the issue of just transition and supporting communities decimated by the decisions like the closure of Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations, I will give a practical example from my constituency. In the village of Ballyforen, a proactive committee was established following the decision and announcement by Bord na Móna. It made two applications to the just transition fund, which were successful. As a result of that it has secured over €1 million in investment based on a proactive proposal but is now being asked to come up with co-financing of €250,000. It is an isolated rural community where, because of Government and planning decisions, jobs have been lost, yet the community that does not have employment is being asked to put its hand into its pocket to fund the replacement jobs.

That is not a just transition. On top of that, we have a pandemic which makes it impossible for communities to fund-raise, but they should not be in that position. Just transition should be about something very different. It should be about supporting communities, not asking them to fund the jobs that are going to replace the ones that are being lost. That is not a just transition. It is important that that specific aspect of co-funding is urgently revisited by Government.

While I am on the issue of support for communities, the ESB has promised the community of Lanesborough and Ballyleague - I know the Minister has visited the area - the sum of €500,000. The community understood that this was as a result of the closure of the power station in Lanesborough. We found out this week that the money that will come from the ESB, if it ever comes, is conditional on the ESB getting out of its current licence conditions with the EPA in respect of the site at Lanesborough in County Longford and on it being granted planning permission for energy services, whether synchronised condensers or battery storage. That needs to happen before the ESB will consider the allocation of funding to that particular community. That has come as a shock to the local community, which expected this funding to be forthcoming. Again, that is not a just transition.

I want to look at another aspect of the climate agenda. In fairness to the Minister, she has increased the fuel allowance rate and the means test threshold for the fuel allowance. That is very welcome, but the difficulty is that that money does nothing to make it easier for people to heat their homes in a more sustainable way. All we are doing at the moment is kicking that can down the road. Carbon taxes were supposed to be about driving the overall reduction in carbon emissions, but what we are doing at the moment through the mechanism that we are using in funding the fuel allowance is funding the continuation of the burning of fossil fuels. That is doing nothing to fundamentally address the challenges that we have right across the country.

Project Ireland 2040 committed to retrofitting 45,000 homes per annum from 2021. We know that the budget announcement falls far short of that in that just 22,000 homes will be retrofitted next year, which is less than half the original target. However, one in four people in Ireland cannot afford to heat and light their homes. Of those 22,000 homes that are to be retrofitted next year, just 4,500 are homes where people are in receipt of the fuel allowance. As we know, there are 370,000 people in receipt of the fuel allowance. Some 7,000 families who are in receipt of the fuel allowance have applied to have their homes retrofitted and will wait 26 months to have that work carried out. We need to ensure that people can get rapid access to the retrofitting of their homes so that they can have sustainable, long-term heating systems that are not dependent on the fluctuations in fossil fuels on international markets. That is the only way that we will break the cycle of fuel poverty. The challenges that are there in terms of the increased cost of electricity and energy costs are hitting every home and not just those people in receipt of the fuel allowance. While the retrofitting grants are available from Government, the value of those grants has decreased from one third to just over one quarter due to the rising cost of materials. For many families, the grants are of little use if they do not have the €18,000 to €20,000 that they need to put alongside the grant to reduce their heating bills, improve their health and increase the comfort in their homes, as well as address that particular climate challenge that we all have to meet.

I want to leave two final points with the Minister. The first relates to the fuel allowance and an anomaly within the system in regard to people in receipt of the carer's allowance, which I ask the Minister to look at before Committee Stage. This relates to people in receipt of the half rate fuel allowance who are part of a couple where one of the couple is in receipt of the contributory old age pension. If one is in receipt of a non-contributory old age pension, the half rate carer's allowance and earning up to €100 in employment, one still will receive the fuel allowance. However, if one is in receipt of a State contributory pension and lives in a household in receipt of the adult dependent allowance and the half rate carer's allowance, the half rate carer's allowance is considered to be income and one is denied the fuel allowance. There is an anomaly within the current system such that the half rate carer's allowance being the only income other than the State contributory pension and the adult dependent allowance coming into that household, one is denied the fuel allowance because the half rate carer's allowance is considered to be income. However, someone who is on a means tested payment can earn up to €100 and be in receipt of the half rate carer's allowance and the non-contributory State pension and still get the fuel allowance. That anomaly is discriminating against those people who have paid their PRSI and paid into the system over a long number of years. I ask the Minister to address that particular anomaly for a small cohort of people on Committee Stage.

The final point I want to leave with the Minister is the income disregard for farm schemes. Section 20 of the Bill makes provision for that, which is very welcome. I had a briefing earlier today from the Minister's officials, for which I thank them. They correctly stated that the justification for this is to ensure that low income farmers get involved in environmental schemes and to help to meet our overall climate challenge. That is a very commendable measure. The Minister knows as well as I do that the big problem we have at the moment is the age profile of suckler and beef farmers in this country. We need to get that age profile down if we are going to drive the type of change that we need right across that sector in terms of reducing overall emissions. Where the older farmer is handing on the land to a son or daughter, there is no difficulty in terms of the non-contributory old age pension because the younger farmer farms the land, the income is generated by that younger farmer and is calculated as such by the Department of Social Protection.

However, if an older farmer does not have someone willing to take over the land or does not have a blood relative, and he or she decides to lease out the land, all the income generated from that lease is deducted from his or her non-contributory State pension. If farmers continue to farm the land in a haphazard way, which is not sustainable from a climate point of view, they will only have to deduct the income that comes from that activity, but if they lease their land out to a younger farmer who would farm it progressively and in a sustainable way, they will, in effect, have to hand over all of that income to the Department. In the interests of trying to improve land mobility and the emissions profile of suckler and beef farms, in particular, I ask the Minister to look at the income disregard. If farmers go into employment, they can earn up to €200 a week but if they are leasing out their land to a young, progressive farmer, they get no credit for it. I hope this issue can be reviewed by the Department.

9:35 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I genuinely would like to be standing here welcoming an increase in the basic welfare payments. I cannot do so, however, because the budgets for 2020 and 2021 provided no increase in those payments. Given inflation, they were, in effect, a cut in the payments and a continuation of the austerity affecting the most vulnerable in our society. Before the pandemic, 630,000 people in Ireland lived below the poverty line, including 165,000 children. A key component in reducing poverty is our social welfare system. Without social transfers, as the Minister knows, it is estimated that one in four of the population would be at risk of poverty.

Basic, core welfare payments are crucial, which is why the pre-budget submission from the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands called for an increase equivalent to the cost of living increase. Social Justice Ireland and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul called for a €10 increase as part of a strategy to align welfare payments with the minimum standard of living index by 2026. The €5 increase across the board will only, in effect, keep pace with inflation, which is estimated to be 3% in 2021 and 2.5% in 2022. It does not compensate for the failure to increase core benefits in the previous two budgets. The failure effectively to tackle high levels of poverty comes with a significant cost. The Hidden Cost of Poverty report from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul puts that cost at €4.5 billion a year, which is more than the combined annual budgets for the housing, justice, transport and agriculture sectors.

I want to make a brief point about the fuel allowance increase. I have calculated that at the number of weeks it is payable multiplied by €33, the payment will put €900-plus in people's pockets to pay towards their fuel over the winter period. Daragh Cassidy of the price comparison site, bonkers.ie, has said that some suppliers have announced price hikes that will add up to €800 a year to energy bills. What the allowance is doing, in effect, is paying for the price hike in fossil fuels. The people in receipt of the allowance are getting the money to pay the price increase but will still have to find the money out of their income for the basic cost of their yearly fuel expenditure. The increase will not really benefit them in any way. The Minister will say the fuel allowance is there to help with the cost of fuel, not to cover the full cost, which I accept. However, we now have a situation where the €33 a week will only cover the cost of the increase over a year of €800.

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, as many of my colleagues have acknowledged. In a radio interview this morning, six disability and mental health organisations came together as an umbrella group and called for the Indecon report on the cost of disability to be published. I really would like to hear the Minister's response to that request. The point has been made that the report was delivered to the Minister but has not been released to the public. We know the hidden cost of disability is high but we do not know the details of it. That is the whole reason the Indecon report was commissioned, in order that we could track it and look at policies on how to tackle it. John Dolan of the Disability Federation of Ireland said this morning that such a report was first mooted in 1996. It is 2021 now and we still have not seen it, which I certainly would like to do. Will the Minister tell us when she will produce that report? Another speaker this morning, Dr. James Casey of Independent Living Movement Ireland said it was nice to see the lights coming on for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities but what people need is equality based on human rights. He wants to see the report to be able to make that judgment.

I want to add my voice to the calls for a halt to the process of tendering for the for-profit model of local employment schemes and job clubs. The Minister did not oppose the motion in this regard by Sinn Féin earlier this week. She should act on the proposals set out in that motion rather than just burying it somewhere in the annals of Leinster House. I would like a commitment from her that she will follow up on it.

I welcome the changes in the carer's payment provided for in the Bill. However, I want to raise again the anomaly I have encountered in the case of a woman who has been working up to her 65th birthday, is on the full carer's payment and applied for the payment for people aged 65 but was refused it on the basis that she is not entitled to two payments. When she reaches 66, she was told, she will be entitled to payment. The Minister responded to my parliamentary question on this issue and she also said at the meeting we had the other day that she acknowledges this situation, which only affects a small number of people. I ask her to examine the matter urgently. Not so long ago, there was a situation where a young woman on disability allowance got a grant for further education, which affected her disability payment. The Minister rightly stepped in and made sure the payment was maintained, because it should not have been affected. I ask her to look at the case I have outlined and to backdate the payments for this woman and anybody else who is affected to reflect an entitlement to the age 65 benefit plus the half-rate carer's payment.

Finally, I want to comment on an issue being discussed at present at the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands. I refer to the sustainability of the State pension given the demographic changes resulting from an ageing population. The Social Insurance Fund, which pays for the State pension and basic welfare payments, is funded by PRSI contributions from employers and employees. While employees' PRSI contributions are slightly above the EU average, those of employers are 50% below that average. If employers' PRSI were set at the EU average, approximately €8 billion-plus would be paid into the Social Insurance Fund every year. That would be a huge step forward in ensuring the sustainability of the State pension and increasing core payments based on the minimum standard of living index.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank all Deputies for their contributions.

Like all Members, each week I meet people in my constituency office and discuss with them the issues that impact their lives. I fully recognise the importance of our social protection system. As a former credit union manager, I know too well the real-life examples of people who, when they fall on hard time, need the support of the Department of Social Protection. The decisions that I have made as Minister and the decisions I will continue to make will be guided on how we can support those who need our help the most.

I have secured the largest social welfare budget package in more than 14 years. I have managed to do that in the context of unprecedented spending taking place to support people during the pandemic. Of course, I cannot do everything in one budget, and no Minister can. That is the reality of being in Government. The purpose of this Bill is to make real improvements within the resources we have available to make the social welfare system work better for people who are unemployed, our pensioners, our carers, people with disabilities, lone parents and those who live alone. A number of specific issues were raised. I will try to go through them as quickly as I can. This is my second budget Bill as Minister for Social Protection and I have seen first-hand the extraordinary effort the staff of this Department made when faced with a crisis. Their first thought is always of the person who needs our support and of providing a high-quality service to that person. I know that many Deputies have acknowledged that this evening. I want to thank them for those comments, because what the staff has done, and what they have continued to do during the pandemic, has been extraordinary.

I am going to try and cover some of the issues that have been raised. Deputy Naughten raised the issue of undocumented workers. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, announced a new scheme for them earlier and I welcome that announcement. It is important that we recognise the many people who are undocumented and who are paying their taxes. We want to make sure that they continue to get the supports that the rest of us get. I want to work with the Minister of Justice to do that as well. Comments were made about community welfare officers. They have on many occasions helped out those who are undocumented and they gave them the support that they needed. I support the community welfare officers. Indeed, I can confidently say that they know what is going on in our communities and in the communities in which they work. They work very hard. From my experience of dealing with them, I have always found them to be fair. Somebody said, “firm at times, but very fair”. I support them in the work that they do.

An issue was raised about the community employment, CE, schemes. I was glad to say at the committee earlier in the week that the Minister for Housing, Government and Local Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and I will bring proposals to Government shortly to change the age from 62 to 60, for people who want to stay on the CE scheme. If people are aged over 60 and on a CE scheme, they can stay on it if they choose to do so. We will make changes to the referrals process so that more people are referred from INTREO to the schemes. We want to make sure that they get their fair share of the referrals. Finally, and most important, I will introduce changes so that where a scheme genuinely cannot fill a vacancy after advertising, the supervisors will be allowed to keep the existing CE worker in place, provided that person is happy to stay on. These schemes are not for people to stay on indefinitely, but that flexibility is needed because the scheme serves two purposes. First and foremost, it is a job activation scheme, but it also provides a wonderful social service in our communities. We need to support that as well.

Deputy Calleary mentioned CE scheme supervisors and their pensions. At the start of April, an agreement was reached with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on proposals to resolve this long-standing issue. These proposals include a financial package. We are working on that. My officials continue to progress this as a matter of priority. I hope these discussions will come to a conclusion.

On the minimum essential standards of living, MESL, report, my Department has supported the work of the Vincentian Partnership on the MESL for a number of years. Indeed, budget measures such as the higher qualified child increases for older children and the living alone allowance have been a direct result of that research. To raise all social welfare rates to the MESL would cost approximately €2.78 billion. Incrementally, we want to improve these rates.

On the fuel allowance, which has been raised by a number of Deputies, it is an unusual step for any social welfare measure to take effect on budget day. I do not know if it ever happened previously, but we increased the fuel allowance from the day the budget was announced. We have changed the means test. The means test threshold has been increased by €20. That has also applied from budget day. Sometimes we are not able to apply these changes immediately because they have to be worked into the IT systems and it takes time to do that. As Deputies will be aware, earlier this year, we had that awful cyberattack on the HSE. When we build systems, we have to make sure that they are robust. It takes that wee bit longer to make some of the changes. However, I was glad that we were able to apply the fuel allowance changes straight away. Most people will agree that we need to tackle the root cause of the problem, which is energy efficiency. A total of €202 million announced in the budget by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for the better energy warmer homes scheme. Let me put it this way: we keep all these supports under review and we are looking at how we can further reduce fuel costs for people on it. The Ministers for Environment, Climate and Communications, Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform are examining this issue.

Many issues were mentioned and I am trying to cover them. On the working age payment and the jobseekers’ rate, the best way to combat youth unemployment is to incentivise young jobseekers to access further education and training, FET, to obtain sustainable full-time employment. Through my Department's INTREO service, young jobseekers can access education and training supports, such as the back to education allowance, the vocational training opportunities scheme, Youthreach and SOLAS programmes. Earlier independent research carried out by Maynooth University found that age-related rates are a positive policy response to prevent long-term welfare dependency. As part of the pathways to work scheme, we have a number of measures, including ring-fencing at least 4,000 places on the work placement experience programme for young people, increasing the JobPlus youth age limit from 25 to 30 and providing 50,000 FET places. Reduced rates of jobseeker's allowance do not apply to jobseekers under the aged under 25 who have qualified children, or those who are in the care of the HSE immediately before they turned 18. There are some exemptions, therefore, in this regard.

The issue of carers' payments was brought up again. The significant changes to the carer's means test were the first changes for many years. They were strongly welcomed by carers' groups, who represent family carers throughout the country. Last year, I increased the carer's support grant by €150 to bring it to €1,850. This is the highest level this grant has ever been.

The issue of carers was brought up with me last year so I was glad I was able make those changes.

Deputy Kerrane raised the matter of the State pension for carers. The Commission on Pensions has made proposals to support carers with the award of a contributory State pension if they are long-term carers, that is, if they have been caring for more than 20 years. The recommendation is that the Exchequer will pay to cover any gaps in their contribution history in respect of time spent caring, in order to assist them in receiving a full State pension. I will work with my officials over the coming months to examine each recommendation the commission has brought forward. The matter is now with the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands.

I had better not keep the House any later or I will be in trouble. I will continue to work with all Members of this House, with the joint committee and with organisations representing our most vulnerable groups to continue making improvements to the social protection system, in order to alleviate poverty, support people to get into sustainable employment and provide a social safety net to people throughout the country and throughout their lives. That is what this Department is about. We are here to help people when they need it most and there are different times in our lives when we need that helping hand. I look forward to passing this Bill over the coming weeks with the support of both Houses so that people can feel the benefits of these measures in January.

Question put and agreed to.

9:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and all the Members for their diligent attendance. It has been a long day. It strikes me that we have a lot of work to do to create a family-friendly working environment, given that we are still here at 10.30 p.m. I thank all the staff, including the Civil Service and the staff of the Houses, for being unfailingly helpful and diligent in our service. I thank them very much.

The Dáil adjourned at at 10.32 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 7 December 2021.