Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 November 2023

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2023: Second Stage


1:15 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As Deputies know, the purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to the changes announced on budget day. In addition, this year reforms to the State pension are included in the Bill. These measures form part of the Government’s response to the Pensions Commission’s recommendations. One of the most important of these, and one I believe is endorsed by all members of this House, is to provide enhanced access to the State contributory pension for long-term carers. This will mean some carers will receive a contributory pension for the first time. The other pension reform included in the Bill is to introduce new flexibility to the State pension system. This will give people the choice to defer drawing down their State contributory pension up to the age of 70. This reflects changes in people’s attitude to working and retirement, and moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach. It will be particularly useful for people who reach pension age and find themselves short of the required number of contributions. These people will have the option to work for an extra year or two, should they choose to, in order to enhance their record and qualify for a higher payment.

I want to be clear that there is no change to the qualifying age for the State pension, which remains at 66. All we are doing is providing increased flexibility and choice for people. It will be up to individuals to decide what best suits their circumstances.

This year’s budget represents the largest social welfare budget package in the history of the State. It is important to point out that many of the social protection measures announced on budget day do not require primary legislation and, therefore, are not reflected in this Bill. For example, this week alone three lump sum payments totalling €230 million are being paid to help with the cost of living. This includes a €300 fuel allowance lump sum to 409,000 households. I am delighted that a lot more older people will get that payment as a result of the enhanced over-70s means test I introduced last year. Some 214,000 people with disabilities will receive a €400 disability support grant and 45,000 low-income working families will get a €400 lump sum payment. Further lump sum payments will continue to issue in the coming weeks.

We have acted swiftly to ensure people receive these payments over the winter months when they need the support most. At the end of January, a further double payment will be made to all pensioners, carers, people with disabilities, lone parents and other vulnerable groups. I know January can be a tough time for a lot of people and I was keen to put that additional support in place. I am pleased to advise that the January double payment will be paid at the new rates of payment, which will take effect at the start of the new year.

This is a progressive budget. I note the Parliamentary Budget Office, which is independent, estimates the lowest decile of households will gain 10.1% from the budget while the highest decile will gain 2%.

I will now go through the Bill by section. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, construction and commencement. Section 2 provides for definitions of relevant Acts. Section 3 is a provision to allow employers to collect PRSI contributions on any gain arising from employee share options. Currently, both the tax and PRSI returns are made on a self-assessment basis by the employee.

Sections 4, 5 and 6 provide for a €12 increase in the weekly rate of maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit from €262 to €274 from 2 January 2023. Section 7 provides for the extension of parent's benefit from seven weeks to nine weeks from August 2024. This means both parents can take up to nine weeks of paid leave each in the first two years of a child’s life.

Section 8 provides for a €12 increase in the weekly rate of parent’s benefit from €262 to €274 from January 2024. Section 9 is to give effect to the increases in the graduated rates of jobseeker’s benefit and jobseeker’s benefit for the self-employed. Section 10 is a technical amendment, involving the substitution of “illness benefit” for “disability benefit”, as that is the more modern name.

Section 11 removes any ambiguity that jobseeker’s assistance is paid on any basis other than a six-day-week calculation. Section 12 is a technical amendment to correct textual references that were incorrect. Section 13 provides for an extension of child benefit to 18-year-olds in full-time education from September 2024. This was a key priority for me in the budget. With many children now starting primary school at age five and an increase in pupils doing transition year, there has been an increase in the number of 18-year-olds still in secondary education. While I would have loved to have applied this measure from the start of the calendar year, I believe the extension of child benefit to 18-year-olds in full-time education is a long-term change for the better and will support families across Ireland into the future.

Section 14 provides for a €54 increase in the weekly income thresholds of working family payment for all family sizes, ensuring more families can qualify for this important payment. Section 15 makes changes in relation to the credit union personal microcredit loan, or the “It Makes Sense” loan. Section 16 is a technical amendment to replace references to "old age (contributory) pension" with "State pension (contributory)".

Section 17 and Schedule 1 provide for increases in the rates of social insurance payments, including a €12 per week increase in the personal rate of benefit. They also provide for an increase in relation to qualified adults and qualified children, where relevant.

Section 18 is a technical amendment to correct a reference in the supplementary welfare allowance provisions.

Section 19 and Schedule 2 provide for increases in the rates of means-tested payments, including a €12 per week increase in the personal rate as well as increases for qualified adults and children.

Section 20 provides for an increase in the monthly rate of payment of domiciliary care allowance from €330 to €340 from 1 January 2023. Last year, I was pleased to be the first Minister to increase this payment since 2009. This year, I am increasing it again by €10 per month. I am pleased to advise that domiciliary care allowance recipients will also receive the €400 lump sum carer’s support grant. I am also pleased to inform the House that I signed regulations earlier this year that will allow a parent or guardian to receive domiciliary care allowance if the child remains in the care of the hospital after birth if the other conditions of the scheme are met. This is a vital support for families who find themselves in those very difficult circumstances.

Sections 21 to 28, inclusive, are amendments to ensure that illness benefit and injury benefit are not paid on days for which statutory sick pay is paid by a person’s employer and to make arrangements for payment of statutory sick pay where an absence spans the end of a year.

As set out in my opening remarks, the Bill also carries a number of provisions to give effect to two important State pension reforms. These relate to enhanced pension provision for long-term carers and the introduction of a voluntary system of pension deferral. There are also consequential changes to PRSI provisions. Sections 29 to 34, inclusive, relate to the changes required to social insurance contributions in light of the introduction of the option to defer drawing down the contributory State pension. Currently a person’s liability for PRSI ceases on reaching age 66. However, for those who turn 66 from January 2024 and who choose to defer drawing down their State pension, the social insurance rules need to accommodate a later date for this liability to cease. This will be the date that the person is awarded their State pension or age 70, whichever comes first.

Section 30 changes the criteria relevant to becoming an “employed contributor” for the purposes of the Act. This now extends the criteria past age 66 until a person is awarded the contributory State pension or reaches 70, whichever comes first.

Section 31 relates to the payment of employee contributions on the exercise of employee share options. Again, this provision extends the criteria past age 66 until a person is awarded the contributory State pension or reaches 70, whichever comes first.

Section 32 relates to the criteria relevant to becoming a "self-employed contributor" for the purposes of the Act. Again, this provision extends the criteria past age 66 until a person is awarded the contributory State pension or reaches 70, whichever comes first.

Section 33 relates to the criteria relevant to becoming a "voluntary contributor" for the purposes of the Act. This amendment extends the criteria for becoming a voluntary contributor to those over 66 until they are awarded the contributory State pension or reach 70, whichever comes first.

Section 34 amends section 25 of the Act and is connected to the previous amendment for voluntary contributors and provides for a similar extension to those over 66.

Sections 35 to 43, inclusive, relate to the changes required to certain social welfare benefits in light of the introduction of the option to defer drawing down the State pension. Currently, a person’s entitlement to most social welfare benefits ceases on reaching age 66 and they become eligible for a State pension. However, for those who turn 66 from January 2024 and who choose to defer drawing their State pension, the provisions relating to some of these benefits need to change so as to accommodate access to support for short-term contingencies such as illness or job loss. For those reaching 66 in January 2024, instead of the benefit ceasing at age 66, these benefits will cease at the date that the person is awarded their State pension or reaches 70, whichever comes first. As there may be people who are in receipt of one of these social welfare benefits when they turn 66, they will be given an option to remain on that payment if their intention is to choose to defer their contributory State pension, provided they make an application to do so.

Section 35 relates to eligibility for illness benefit, and provides that instead of the benefit ceasing at age 66, eligibility will cease at the date that the person is awarded their State pension or reaches 70, whichever comes first.

Section 36 allows a person in receipt of illness benefit on reaching 65 to apply to remain on the benefit.

Section 37 amends section 46A of the Act, which relates to eligibility for partial capacity benefit. Similar to the change to illness benefit, this provides that instead of the benefit ceasing at age 66, eligibility will cease at the date that the person is awarded their State pension reaches or 70, whichever comes first.

Section 38 to provide that, similar to illness benefit, if people on partial capacity benefit is approaching their 66th birthday, they must apply to remain in receipt of the benefit.

Section 39 relates to the eligibility for jobseeker’s benefit, and again provides that instead of the benefit ceasing at age 66, eligibility will cease on the date that the person is awarded their contributory State pension or reaches 70, whichever comes first.

Section 40 is a technical amendment to allow jobseeker’s benefit to be claimed up to 70 years of age.

Section 41 amends section 67 of the Act, which relates to the duration of payment of jobseeker’s benefit, to provide that, similar to illness benefit and partial capacity benefit, a person must, if they chose to do so, apply to remain on the payment when reaching age 66.

Sections 42 and 43 relate to eligibility for jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, and mirror the same changes that were made to jobseeker’s benefit.

Section 44 amends section 108 of the Act to provide for the expansion of the eligibility criteria for the contributory State pension to now include those up to the age of 70. The provision also provides for entitlement to a higher rate of pension at the relevant age of claiming, whether it is 67, 68, 69 or 70.

Section 45 provides for attributing contributions to long-term carers who have been caring for an incapacitated person for more than 20 years. This is achieved by attributing the equivalent of paid contributions to these long-term carers to cover gaps in their contribution record for the purposes of the contributory pension. The section sets out the criteria to be met to qualify for long-term carer’s contributions. These criteria are based on the existing caring requirements on other schemes such as carer’s allowance and carer’s benefit. The section provides for the contributions to be attributed to those who reach age 66 in January but also those who are already past age 66. My Department launched a system for registering for these long-term caring contributions in September and I encourage anyone who is or has been a long-term carer to register these periods through mywelfare.ie.

Section 46 amends section 109 of the Act to amend the qualifying conditions for contributory pensions so that long-term carer’s contributions will be considered as qualifying contributions towards the contributory pension. The section also amends the qualifying conditions to take into account contributions after the age of 66 when calculating the contributory pension. Section 46(1B) provides for managing the situation where a person may be in receipt of a payment from the Department after age 66 while seeking to avail of a higher rate of pension at a future date. The duration that the person is in receipt of one of the relevant payments in Schedule 5A will reduce the age at claim for any higher rate of pension by an equivalent period. The section also makes a consequential amendment to regulations that can be made for long-term caring qualifying contributions as they apply to those with modified social insurance contributions.

Section 47 amends section 110 of the Act. This is a consequential amendment to take into account that a self-employed contributor may defer claiming their pension until attaining 70.

Section 48 amends section 111 of the Act, which relates to the rate of State pension payable. There will be five rates of payment for State pension, dependent on the age a person is when they draw down their pension. These rates will be set out in the budget annually and based on actuarial factors, which will be reviewed every five years in line with the actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund. Where the actuarial factors change based on any future review, a lead-in time to notify future pensioners will be provided. They will give approximate rates based on the January 2024 rate of the contributory State pension of €277.30 as follows: €290.30 at age 67; €304.80 at age 68; €320.30 at age 69; and €337.20 at age 70. The increase for a qualified adult at each stage will also be adjusted. l intend to table a Committee Stage amendment to insert these rates into Schedule 2, subject to Government approval. Once a person claims their pension, they remain on that rate for life, subject to any budget changes. A person’s rate of payment will be the same regardless of whether he or she claims the pension from his or her birthday, for example, 67 years, or at any time prior to his or her next birthday.

Sections 49 and 50 relate to eligibility for, and duration of, the back to work family dividend.

These provisions mirror the equivalent amendments to the illness benefit, partial capacity benefit and jobseeker's benefit set out in sections 35 to 41.

Section 51 provides for the insertion of rates of the State contributory pension for ages 66, 67, 68, 69 and 70 into Schedule 2.

Section 52 provides for the insertion of a new Schedule 5A into the Act, of specified weekly payments that will reduce the rate of deferred pension if incurred over the age of 66. Deputies will be aware that the Pensions Commission recommended the full transition to a total contributions approach only for calculating pension, to be implemented as soon as possible with a transition period of ten years. The commission also recommended that the current model of interim total contributions approach should become the definitive total contributions approach, that is, 40 years or 2,080 contributions be required to qualify for a maximum State contributory pension payment rate. This includes provision for ten years of PRSI credits and 20 years of home caring periods but with a cap of 20 years of combined PRSI credits and home caring periods. The total contributions approach is a fairer and more transparent system whereby the person’s lifetime contribution will be more closely reflected in the benefit received.

It is proposed that the transition will begin on a phased incremental basis over ten years commencing in 2025. Heads to provide for this transition were included in the general scheme of the Bill and were referred for pre-legislative scrutiny to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Affairs and the Islands. I thank the committee for its deliberations during pre-legislative scrutiny and for its report. Due to time constraints, the drafting of these provisions was delayed but it is my intention to introduce these provisions on Committee Stage.

I thank Deputies for their patience. Going through a Bill section by section is rarely riveting but it needs to be done. The measures contained in the Bill will have a positive impact on people's lives. Notwithstanding the fact that we had the largest social protection package in the history of the State, I still could not do everything I wanted. The reforms we are making to the State pension are positive. In particular, providing our long-term carers with access to a State pension has been a key priority for me since my appointment as Minister and I am delighted to deliver on this commitment. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to hearing Deputies' contributions. Go raibh maith agaibh.

1:35 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Tá sé fíorthábhachtach go mbeadh córas láidir leasa shóisialta ann chun a chinntiú go mbíonn cosaint ag daoine ó bhochtanas agus ó ghanntanas agus go mbeadh cabhair acu chun dul ar ais ag obair nó chun leanaí a thógáil agus le gach rud a théann leis sin. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach freisin go gcoimeádann na híocaíochtaí suas le ráta an bhoilscithe agus leis an ioncam gur chóir a bheith ag daoine i gcoitinne. Dá bharr sin, ní bheimid ag cur i gcoinne an Bhille seo, cé go mbeadh níos mó uainn agus go mbeadh rudaí eile déanta againn sa cháinaisnéis.

It is vital to have a strong, robust social protection system that supports all families, workers and individuals when they need it and to protect from poverty those who rely on it. It is a very basic objective. In this context it is our view, and it is a view we have advanced for a number of years, that a social protection and income adequacy commission, comparable to the Low Pay Commission, is needed. Perhaps less so in the past year or two but over many years in the longer run, the politics of the budget has very often been dominated by questions about whether €5 or €10 will be added to weekly payments. A more precise approach should be taken, with reference to issues such as the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, metric that has been worked on by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. A commission along the lines of the Low Pay Commission could recommend very strongly to the Government what the appropriate increase in social protection should be. It would ensure that some of the speculative nature of the run-up to the budget with regard to social protection payments is removed.

There is a social welfare Bill every year, which transposes the budget. While we would have done things differently in the budget, we will not oppose the Bill as, naturally, we want to see the increased payments going to workers, individuals and families. We want to see people received them without undue delay.

In our alternative budget, we allocated €1.7 billion to increase payments for pensioners, carers, people with disabilities and others who depend on social welfare for a wide range of reasons. This is significantly above what the Government proposed in its budget of €1.1 billion, or almost €500 million less. This is in the context of a cost-of-living crisis. Some of the people who expected more would feel the Government should have acted more decisively, particularly with regard to people with disabilities and carers. They deserve better. People with disabilities are at a much higher risk of poverty but there was no recognition in the budget of the increased cost of disability. This is despite the fact that for some time the organisations dealing at the coalface with people with disabilities have identified the need for such a payment. In this context, Sinn Féin proposed a €20 weekly increase for those on disability payments instead of the €12 core rate. There was no increase either in the carers' support grant, which would have been very much needed.

The cost of raising a child in Ireland is skyrocketing. This goes beyond the Minister's Department. The cost of childcare is a large component of this. The Government should have done more in social protection to assist families. I welcome the extension of child benefit to those aged 18 and in full-time education. I have been contacted by many parents who are disappointed that their children will not be in a position to receive it because they will turn 18 between now and next September. If there is scope to re-examine this, I encourage the Minister to do so.

The Children's Rights Alliance put forward a minimum of what it believes is necessary for a qualified child increased payment. What the Government provided with €4 a week for all age categories was far below this. Sinn Féin would have increased it by €5 for those aged under 12 and by €10 for those aged over 12. There was no increase in the core rate of child benefit. It is still below the rate it was at in 2008, which has been far outstripped by inflation. The impact of child benefit has lost a fair measure of the impact that it once had. It was cut by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments. No increase has been made since 2016 and it still remains below 2008 levels. This needs to be considered in the next year.

There were some positives undoubtedly and we welcome them. The extension of free school meals is very important. Mar theaghlach, tá an deis againn buntáiste a bhaint as sin muid féin. Tá sé fíorluachmhar agus tá sé fíorthábhachtach go síneofar isteach i ngach scoil é sin. Bíonn an-tionchar ag na béilí te ar an bhfaobhar a bhaint ón mbochtanas agus ar iarrachtaí chun a chinntiú go bhfuil gach leanbh in ann aird a thabhairt agus páirt iomlán a ghlacadh sa chóras oideachais. Free school meals are vital to ensure every child can be fully present and concentrating. It is very hard to do this on an empty stomach. It is something I passionately believe in. It has been the case in the North for many decades and I welcome the fact that it is happening here. I referred to the extension in child benefit earlier in my contribution.

In recent days, what has taken up a fair bit of what is in the legislation, what has accompanied it and what will be introduced on Committee Stage, are the changes to pensions on foot of the Pensions Commission's report. In the context of the voter response in the general election, when responding to the commission report, any Government should have ensured the right to retire at 65. It should have been a core part of the response. We are seeing PRSI increases, particularly on employees, in the context of the cost-of-living crisis. We have always acknowledged the fact there is a need to address the sustainability of the Social Insurance Fund and social insurance contributions.

In the teeth of a cost-of-living crisis with workers facing elevated prices in the medium term, the focus should have been on increasing the rate of employer PRSI. Our proposal to increase employer PRSI on the portion of pay above €100,000 would immediately cover the cost of introducing a right to retire on a pension at 65 years of age. That is fundamentally important. We had a conversation in committee yesterday. The Minister herself rightly acknowledged that she thought of the cleaner who would be trailing a hoover after themselves, and who has potentially been working for decades. Maybe they started work at 15 or 16, and have been working all of their lives. They have more than paid their way. I can think of many others. I know a 64 year old floor-layer who can only work three days in a row before they have to take a break. They are not at pension age yet. I think they should have the right to retire on a pension at 65. The Minister has said she will examine the payment at 65. If she is willing to examine it and reflect on the fact that it is not adequate, then why not simply restore the right to retire on a State pension at 65? I do not see the problem or difficulty with that. It is very often likely to be the case that those least in a position to retire without relying on the State pension are those who are least likely to be physically able to keep working. It is unfair to expect that of them and we need to go back to that. I fundamentally disagreed with the proposal to increase the pension age up to 67 and 68. That was reversed under pressure. I accept the Minister's bona fides in terms of the opinions she has expressed, but it was a Fine Gael government that thought this was a good idea in the first place. We will certainly stand full square against any proposal to increase it, and it should be brought back to 65.

We welcome that carers' contributions will be allowed to be considered. That is something we have been calling for and it is very welcome. We also hope the child maintenance legislation will come soon. It is welcome and something my colleague Deputy Kerrane has worked on for years. I will briefly say that I am not sure a review every five years is adequate when it comes to a review of actuarial inputs. It seems that in the course of five years there could be significant changes in inputs due to energy costs, inflation and so on. It should possibly be more frequent than that.

We will be supporting the legislation. The Government needs to do more, in particular in the areas I have outlined.

1:45 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Not for the first time in this Dáil term Sinn Féin has won the broader debate on a fundamental policy issue. The parties of Government continue to shift position as they attempt to copy Sinn Féin policy. For a long time Sinn Féin has been calling for social welfare payments to be linked to wages. Ireland is unusual in the European Union in not having pay-related supports. The current system is called pay-related social insurance, but the link only refers to when you pay in and not when you are taking out. It is welcome that will change. The current system contrasts poorly with many European countries, where it is common to provide for pay-related social insurance payments. That states simply that the benefits are related to pay, designed to secure a worker's normal living standards during periods of unemployment, sickness, maternity and family leave. The loss of a job is incredibly stressful without the addition of social welfare payments, which will not be enough to cover ongoing basic weekly costs, in particular in a situation with a sudden loss of a job. The cliff edge can be quite stark and shocking. For an ordinary worker earning an average wage, a drop to €220 per week represents a steep financial cliff edge. When we consider individuals who earn a higher wage, the deficiency becomes starker. The Government recognised this during the Covid crisis when it introduced the pandemic unemployment payment and set that rate of €350 per week. The poverty line for an individual in this State is €298 per week, so the Government knew it had to set the PUP well above that. The pay-related jobseeker's straw man proposals to introduce a tiered system is welcome. There are those who criticise the idea of pay-related social benefits by saying it will not encourage people to seek work. It is shocking people say that, but they still do. I reiterate what my colleague, Adrian Kane of SIPTU, said earlier this week. He said we need to move beyond the outdated Victorian values that suggest you cannot trust working people, and that you must starve them back to work. Like SIPTU and others, Sinn Féin believes that a top-up payment of only three months is inadequate and will not prevent the cliff edge for workers when they lose their jobs.

Sinn Féin has long been calling for reform to the system of social welfare in this State. These calls are bolstered by the extensive research and case studies from organisations working to prevent and eliminate poverty, and support a decent standard of living. It is for this reason we have long supported and argued for the pay-related system. However, it is not just in this area that Sinn Féin wants reform of the social protection system. For decades we have stated that our levels of social insurance contributions are too low, with the level of social insurance contributions made by employers standing at approximately half the European average. As employees continue to grapple with a cost-of-living crisis we believe there is a fairer way to do this. That is why our 2020 manifesto proposed beginning this pathway by increasing the rate of employer PRSI for the portion of incomes above €100,000, by up to 15.75%. In our most recent alternative budget we proposed increasing the rate of employer PRSI for the portions of incomes above €100,000 to 13.05% in 2024, which would raise €169 million next year. Sinn Féin was the first party to put the issue of sustainability of the Social Insurance Fund and the levels of social insurance contributions on the agenda. It is only through stabilising the Social Insurance Fund that necessary progressive changes in our social welfare system can be achieved. Delivering a pension for workers at 65 is a core part of what we want to see. Our proposal to increase employer PRSI on the portion of pay above €100,000 would immediately cover the cost of introducing a right to retire on a pension at 65 years of age. If you have been working on your feet all day, be it in construction, hairdressing, retail or catering, you deserve to have the choice to retire on your State pension rate at 65 years of age. Voters sent that message loud and clear back in 2020. The Government parties called off their previously legislated for increase to the pension age. This was done reluctantly, especially by Fine Gael, which had intended to raise the State pension age to 68. It was not exclusively them, as it was the policy of many parties. The various options developed and data gathered by the Pensions Commission makes clear that it is possible to put the Social Insurance Fund on a sustainable footing and afford people the right to retire on their State pension at the age of 65. Workers approaching retirement need to have that certainty. I believe that if you are working in a job that is tough on your body, by the time you get to 65 you have done your shift and deserve the right to either retire, if that is what you want, or to work on if you can and if you so choose. I do not think there is fundamental disagreement there.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is appropriate we have these discussions about the budget and Social Welfare Bill. We of course recognise that some improvements are being made and additional payments being made to people. That is all welcome and needs to happen as quickly as possible. I also welcome the pay-related payments, which are hugely progressive. We needed to see that happen a long time ago. As has been said, it puts us out of step with most other countries in Europe where that is the reality. There is quite a small number of people on jobseeker's allowance in Ireland. It is approximately 5% of the working population, and that fluctuates. Most people are on it for a short enough period of time. When they fall into that situation they find that the social welfare net they have contributed to all of their working lives is often not adequate to maintain a sensible standard of living during the cost-of-living crisis we are in. That should not be the case. We should have a system that keeps people in a position where they can maintain their standard of living. That has not happened, so I welcome that move. I also welcome that in section 45 the Minister mentioned the long-term carers and their getting access to the pension. We have also been calling for that for some time. I know it is something a lot of carers will be delighted to see happen. We need to see it move forward as quickly as possible.

There is one issue we continually find when we talk about the small number of people who are on jobseeker's allowance. A lot of those people are on it inappropriately, because they cannot get any other payment. I have a number of examples of that. I know of a young man who has suffered from depression for many years, and who dropped out of college because of it. He looked for illness benefit and went through all of the process. Every time he is refused it keeps coming back saying it has been assessed that he may not be sick for a full year. If he is not going to be sick for a full year he will not get it. It is difficult for a person with depression to prove that the depression is not going to lift and they are not going to get better.

How do they prove that? There are an awful lot of people in those particular circumstances and such people do not have the wherewithal to be able to keep filling in forms and fighting the system. They find it hard enough to get up out of bed on any given day never mind trying to deal with a system that, as they see it, is stacked against them. There is huge disappointment and a huge problem there. That is particularly the case for people who suffer from mental illness, depression and anxiety. There needs to be a greater level of flexibility to recognise that they do need a payment, assistance and help. The rule relating to an illness lasting a year must be re-examined and looked at again.

I am aware of a similar case where a young woman who worked abroad for many years came back to Ireland. The reason she came back is she had an addiction problem. Her family has tried to support her and look after her. Again, she is in a similar situation in that she has got treatment and she has tried to help herself. She has tried to get on but when she goes to the system and tries to get assistance she is told that her illness may not last for a year and, therefore, she is turned down.

There must be a change, specifically for those categories of people. It is very difficult for those people to prove that the illness or incapacity they have is going to last for a year or whatever length of time. The fact of the matter is these are people in need - in some cases, they may not have worked or contributed - and society has an obligation to them and to contribute to their well-being to ensure that they have a chance in life. Part of that is for there to be a system that will help them out and move them forward. Many people in those circumstances find that the system lets them down, which makes their condition worse because it gives them a further sense of hopelessness and helplessness and that there is nothing out there to deal with them or to look after them.

There needs to be a re-examination of that particular area and how people who apply for illness benefit in those circumstances are assessed. I appeal to the Minister to look at that and to see if we can come up with a solution for those people because they are a very small number of people in terms of the overall cohort.

In regard to the pension situation, it has been said that when we look down the road in 20 years that we could have up to 1 million pensioners in Ireland, and to have the ratio right, we need to have 4 million workers to be able to provide for them. When we talk to business owners, they say they are up for that. They see that growth happening. If we are going to do that, we must put essential provisions in place to be able to provide for those pensioners. To do that, the Government needs to recognise that we must develop a system that will work for everyone and at the moment the system does not work adequately.

1:55 pm

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

With the permission of the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach I will speak for the first three minutes and Deputy Sherlock will have the remainder of the time.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Before I begin, my thoughts and those of my colleagues are with the children in Parnell Square who have been impacted by what has been reported as a serious incident in the centre of Dublin city. All our thoughts and prayers are with them.

I wish to speak to the Minister about a review of the carer's allowance. It is an issue that crops up an awful lot. These are people who are in receipt of carer's allowance and at some point they receive a letter for a review. That is understandable but the content and tone of these letters can be quite impactful on carers themselves. They have already met every criterion to get the payment. They understand that they have to send in updated financials in terms of their circumstances. However, my concern is about the letters and the asks in relation to the illness or the condition with which the caree is suffering. It can be quite obvious that there are people who have a lifelong condition and they are never going to improve. That is why they are being cared for and that is why their carer is in receipt of carer's allowance.

It would require a change of rules and language, and perhaps some change in culture in terms of how the reviews are conducted for carer's allowance on the medical end of things and how the letters are worded. The best thing would be that it is understood within the Department that the person who is in receipt of care is not going to improve or get any healthier, in effect, that they have a long-term condition. When carers have to fill in forms they are retraumatised by having to set out the level of illness that their loved one has. That could be avoided, as it causes undue stress and concern to the carers, who as we know provide the most important job in the State at a fraction of the cost to the State, saving the health service so much work and doing it out of love and compassion for those they care for. I ask the Minister to take that on board.

I urge the Minister to ensure the Department takes a more open approach as well to the financial information. We need a less pedantic approach. Carers live lives like the rest of us and sometimes it can feel like they are being audited by Revenue as opposed to just having a check from the Department of Social Protection. I hope that can be fed into the system and that it can be improved. It is a small thing but it would make a huge difference.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I have no doubt that the Minister has been made aware of events in Parnell Square as we speak. Our thoughts and prayers are with people there. We hope for a positive outcome for everybody involved.

I would like to continue the theme started by my colleague about communications. I want to raise a very specific case where somebody was in receipt of a carer's allowance on behalf of her son who has profound intellectual disabilities. This is a case I have raised with the Minister previously. I will keep going on this particular case for as long as I have a mandate here. Because the husband works overtime, the means were deemed to be in excess of what the scheme allows and the woman in this case lost her carer's allowance. Not only that, she also lost access to the free schemes that come with it - the GP visit card and the free travel scheme.

When the Department communicated with her the letter stated "because you are no longer providing full-time care". That was quite hurtful for this person. To be fair to the Department, once she called it out, the officials recognised that and issued new correspondence. I want to ask the Minister about the Department's communication strategy or look-back in respect of correspondence and particularly in respect of sensitive payments such as the carer's allowance. Could the Department ensure there is a look-back, double-check or review in order that whatever is being sent out or is automatically generated would have a pair of human eyes going over it before it goes out? Not only did the woman concerned have to suffer the loss of what she perceives as the recognition of her role as a carer but she also lost the payment. This is a woman who did not take up a job or career outside of the home because she wanted to care for her son.

We acknowledge where carer's allowance is going in regard to the thresholds and the journey that the Department and the Minister are on. What drives the woman in this case out of being able to receive the payment is the overtime her husband earns. We need to move to a situation where there is a de facto recognition of her role and a payment to follow. I hope that is the journey we will be on so that she is paid in her own right as an individual person and as a carer. She shares the care with her husband and they care together for their children. There should be some recognition of that and that we do not diminish her role from a societal point of view.

The second issue I wish to raise is not germane to the Bill but it is germane to the Department. It relates to the issuance of disabled persons' parking permits. What has come across my radar of late is the loss of permits by section 39 organisations where they operate a fleet of vehicles.

I recognise that the permit should follow the individual, but if section 39 organisations, which are charitable in essence, are losing disabled persons' parking permits for buses they operate for necessary transport, it should be looked into.

I refer to the Minister's speech on moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to the State contributory pension. We would all welcome that. However, with regard to the PRSI changes inherent in the move, Dr. Laura Bambrick posted a message on social media today that is worth reading into the record. Dr. Bambrick, as head of social policy and employment affairs at ICTU, is someone we would all look to as having expertise in this area. She states:

Here's an interesting change to PRSI that got lost in the mix yesterday.

The upper age for liability for employee, employer and self-employed PRSl is to increase from 66 to 70 years from next January.

Currently PAYE workers and self-employed are not liable for a (4%) social insurance contribution on their earnings if they continue working after age 66.

Their employer is only liable for a much reduced rate (0.5%).

From January 2024, where a worker opts for the new flexible pension provision – i.e. defers claiming their State pension up to age 70 – they and their employer will be liable for PRSI at the same rates as under 66s.

That is, not just workers who are working longer to build up enough paid contributions for a full State pension will pay PRSI, all workers and their employers who opt for the new flexible/ deferred pension will be liable.

The Minister might respond on that point.

In the short time I have left, I will refer to a case Senator Wall referred me. Such cases are hard but they are germane to the legislation before us. Senator Wall's case relates to the carer's disregard or means test. People will qualify with a new disregard but will have to wait until June of next year. That is a matter we are all expressing concern about. Why not just pay now? What is happening means another six months of care that they are giving 24-7, saving the State millions. Why not bring in the measure in January 2024?

If caring for 20 years or more, you get the credit towards your pension. We all welcome that. I am wondering about the position of those who fall short. The role is as meaningful after ten years as after 20. Is there scope to reduce the 20 years to reflect the reality of many carers' lives?

2:05 pm

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Government ploughs on with its intention to deny people the right to retire at 65, something the people of this country were quite clear on at the time of the last general election. Sinn Féin has reinforced that message in this House, and it is only because of the pressure exerted by us and through public opinion that a stop was put to raising the age further to 68.

Now the Government is proposing to hit workers and employers with five consecutive blanket PRSI increases. As I say, things are tough enough for employers and businesses at the moment. On this point, I must mention the pressure businesses are feeling in parts of my constituency due to regular interruptions to their public water supply. Owing to these constant interruptions, some businesses have been forced to shut their doors when hit. This results in lost earnings and genuine challenges for those businesses that find it difficult enough to make ends meet when there is no lack of water. This is due to the Government's increasingly hands-off approach to public services to absolve itself of responsibility. The business owners remain responsible for their businesses, workers and communities. They shoulder their responsibilities whereas the Government farms out its responsibilities.

To go back to the matter at hand, under our plan we would increase employer PRSI on the portion of pay above €100,000. This would immediately cover the cost of introducing the right to retire on a pension for those who have reached the age of 65. The Pensions Commission confirmed it is possible to put the Social Insurance Fund on a sustainable footing and afford people a right to retire on a pension at 65. The Government has ignored this. What do the Members on the Government benches have to say to workers like block layers, people on the factory floor and others whom the Government is denying the right to retire?

People with disabilities, as well as carers, also deserved much more from this budget. Carers saw no increase in the support grant, while people with disabilities were given an increase of just €12 when we all know about the increased costs of living with a disability. Sinn Féin would have increased the payment by €20. We would also have increased the core rate of the fuel allowance by €5. Instead of taking this approach, the Government left the fuel allowance totally unchanged. This is a dereliction of duty towards those most in need.

We will support this Bill because we must see an increase in welfare rates, but the budget package is light on long-term vision such as that which would ensure a minimum essential standard of living. People will continue to struggle, and the Government, including the Minister, is the cause.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill.

Given the surplus of resources the Government was faced with entering this term, budget 2024 should have heralded real change. It should have looked to the future, tackling inequality that has become entrenched. It could have addressed the chronic underfunding of public services, bringing them up to, at the very least, European standards. We are told the money is available.

I understand that a multibillion euro surplus serves as a cushion for a rainy day when we really need it; however, for families around the country, that rainy day has come. For many, it has been raining for a long time. We should be considering a Bill committed to tackling the increasing level of child poverty to uphold the right of all children to live a decent life. Instead, we are considering a Bill of half measures.

The Bill should aim to achieve a fairer tax system and a more equal society, one in which we start to close the gap between the better off and less well off, which has grown during successive terms of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Governments. It should transform the lives of those with disabilities, adults and children by prioritising vital supports and services. It should do so much more for those who are in greatest need. The nonchalance the Government has shown when it comes to child poverty is somewhat shocking.

Tusla is undergoing a staffing crisis. The State agency is failing in its statutory responsibilities. There are only 26 bed spaces in the special care system but they cannot be filled due to a staff shortage. Tusla's recruitment and retention problem is putting young people in the care of the State in direct danger, and budget 2024 did not begin to cover what is needed to address these systemic issues. In recent weeks, we heard absolutely harrowing stories of parents of children with severe special needs from the Ombudsman for Children. The Ombudsman outlined how parents themselves have been too afraid to admit how exhausted and stressed they are because, whenever they have, the HSE has referred them to Tusla and questioned their fitness to parent. Other parents say they have referred children to Tusla due to the impact on their other children, in the hope of triggering the support they need for the referred children.

The meagre increase outlined in this Bill would not even be appropriate for a country with a functioning healthcare system that provides for children with complex needs, but a payment this low within the current system for additional needs does not even scratch the surface of the costs parents are faced with when caring for their children.

The Taoiseach promised a strong focus on child poverty in the second half of this Government's term in office, but where is the evidence that the Government will achieve that? It is running out of time. A €4 increase to the qualified child payment, a payment that the ESRI repeatedly points out would have great potential to target child poverty if substantially increased, is a joke. The experts and organisations working in this area made it abundantly clear that a €15 increase for children over 12 and an increase of €10 per week for children younger than that is the least that is required. The failure to fully fund therapy, early education and childcare for children experiencing the worst disadvantage is clear for all to see, as is the failure to create a DEIS-plus programme for children in the most disadvantaged schools.

Child poverty is a life-changing affliction. Emotional development, educational progress, mental health, physical well-being, career opportunities and income in later life are all affected. The next generation is being set up to fall. There was an opportunity in this Bill and the budget to show real compassion and a commitment to finding an antidote for this affliction, but the measures outlined fall desperately short.

Income thresholds for the working family payment will increase by €54 per week, regardless of family size, from January 2024. This approach is a one-size-fits-all all measure for families in Ireland. In what world does it make sense for a family of three to make do with the same amount as a family of six?

Those living with disabilities have been equally failed. People with disabilities consistently have among the highest poverty rates of any group in Ireland. The rate is three times that of the general population. More than two in five people with disabilities experience deprivation at any one time.

A cost-of-disability payment has been needed for many years. This payment would be a way for the State to acknowledge the significant additional cost to having a disability, which the Government's own report entitled The Cost of Disability in Ireland states is between €9,000 and €13,000 per year. Disability is not temporary, yet it was treated as such when a once-off payment was announced in the budget. A €30 weekly cost-of-disability payment, which the Social Democrats advocated for in the budget, would amount to €1,560 over the course of a year, which is more than three times the Government's one-off payment.

The costs associated with disability are recurring, unavoidable and often very high, and that should be recognised. Our suggested payment was the bare minimum that this Bill should have set out. Other core social welfare rates should have been increased by €25 per week to protect those who are most vulnerable, especially in the face of the rise of inflation.

The Government has long shown a disregard for disability groups and advocates and this is highlighted by the meagre €12 increase to core social welfare rates, which is an effective cut that leaves disabled people and other vulnerable people behind.

The MESL, the minimum essential standard of living that a person needs to live a life of dignity, is substantially above our current core social welfare payments. The cost of a basket of goods has increased by 10% nationally and 13% in cities over the past 12 months. We live in a country in which 760,000 people are living in, or are at risk of, poverty. The only sure way of combating this is to increase core social welfare rates and benchmark them to the MESL. The failure to adequately increase core social welfare rates or indicate that they will be benchmarked against the minimum costs of living is hugely disappointing. It is more short-termism from a Government obsessed with short-termism.

2:15 pm

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I call Deputy Ó Cathasaigh in the Government slot.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I broadly welcome the provisions that are set out in this Bill. The social protection committee recently had a briefing from the Parliamentary Budget Office and it confirmed to me what I think is most important. The first thing I look for in any budget is if it is progressive. The Parliamentary Budget Office brought us through the various provisions and payments contained in the Bill, showing that for the fourth budget in a row we have achieved a progressive budget which means that people who are least well-off will benefit most from this budget. That is the first basic metric I try to apply to any budget and from the independent advice it seems that we are achieving that.

There are concerns about the use of one-off payments. I think the one-off payments have been necessary and merited because we found ourselves in unprecedented times particularly with the inflation in energy costs and general inflation. We have these extra incomes to the State that we do not want to rely on in terms of year-on-year recurring expenditure. Even though it might not be ideal in the longer term, making one-off interventions is a useful and merited tool to help people get over what is a very difficult period. I especially welcome things like the working family payment. Deputy Gannon expressed his disappointment at it. Research has shown that investment in the working family payment and the IQC is the magic bullet in tackling poverty. Where we find poverty most is among children of lone parents. Going after things like the working family payment and the increase for a qualified child is where we can really make a mark in combatting poverty.

We have also made movements on core payments which was merited and absolutely necessary. They were struggling to keep pace with inflation which has been very high recently. I would like to see moves towards benchmarking as set out in the roadmap for social inclusion. All of us in the House would like to move away from wondering in every budgetary recycle whether there will be a fiver on the pension. It has been a long time since it has been only an extra fiver on core welfare rates over the lifetime of this Government. Particularly for people who are on a fixed income, it is important to have the certainty that their fixed income will retain its spending power within the economy over a period of years rather than the year-on-year talk about whether it will happen.

Regarding moves on statutory sick pay, it is worth pointing out the various different types of new workers' rights that this Government has introduced. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has made significant moves on domestic violence leave, the right to request working from home and even things like the extra bank holiday. They might not necessarily sit coherently beside one another but they are extra rights that we are making available to workers which is all to the good and very welcome. I have mentioned to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, that we are asking employers to take a lot on in a short period of time. I know that they want to do it and want to play their part particularly with increased sick leave, paid domestic violence leave and breastfeeding breaks. That might seem like a small measure but we need to meet employers halfway if they have fears about the supports that they are getting. I know the Minister is very aware that small and medium-sized enterprises are concerned about the extra stress and strain even in terms of extra PRSI they will be asked to pay as we look to plug a pensions gap that we know from our modelling we will need to fill. It is important to keep that engagement going with small and medium-sized enterprises to let them know we are trying to provide better for our workers in the economy but that we will support those businesses also.

I welcome the provisions in the budget for people who want to work beyond the age of 66. People may want to catch up on a couple of stamps or simply feel fit, well and able to continue contributing beyond their 66th birthday. Not only are we allowing that but we will apply that actuarial mechanism so that people do not lose it by not taking their pension at 66. They will actually be able to accrue those extra pension entitlements. I think that is a common-sense measure. Some people are interpreting that as a way of opening up the pension age to age 70. That is certainly not my reading of it. It is allowing people who do not want to take early retirement and want to continue to work. There are certainly some very valuable Members of Dáil Éireann who are beyond their 66th birthday and continue to make an excellent contribution here.

I also welcome the provision made for a pension for carers who have been caring for 20 years or more. It shows them that the work they are putting into the caring economy, the caring society, is recognised and valued by the State. It is a small recognition of how much we would have to pay if we were to try to replace that caring within some sort of market mechanism. It is a clear recognition that we value the work that is done and we are making pension provision for them accordingly. This type of valuing of the caring economy will become more important in the coming years as we have demographic pressures meaning that more people will require care. When we see the disruptive effects of digitalisation, the last place that the robots will come to replace people will be in the caring economy. There is an increasing need for us to value that caring economy in how we measure it in our society.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I think we are all in trepidation over the children injured in the incident in Parnell Square. We hope that there is good news from it in the near future.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire put it well when he said the whole idea of social welfare payments is to protect people from poverty. That must be the prism through which we look at everything. We need to move away from the idea of a fiver here, €12 there or a proposal by somebody else for €20 on different payments. That impacts greatly on people's lives. We need to move on our proposal for a social welfare adequacy commission. We need to remove this from politics and ensure that we can deliver the payments that people require.

Sinn Féin has been fairly clear that the pension age should be 65.

The Minister has herself spoken about those who work in more difficult jobs. They may need a quicker retirement than others. Also, we should obviously facilitate those who are well, able and willing to work. Yet, those are two very different things.

Pay-related social welfare payments are something we are in support of. The Government has a bit of a journey to go. We all understand the idea, which is that people must be able to cover their payments and their bills. We must facilitate them to get back into the workforce. That is necessary.

I wish to deal with the issue of carers. I welcome the changes that have been made to thresholds and pensions. We need to look at the huge piece of work that has been done by carers. I recently attended an award day by Family Carers Ireland. Lilly Treanor was the lady who won from Monaghan. She was presented with her award by Margo O'Donnell. It seems that Margo was my supporting act and I was delighted with that. Unfortunately for Stephanie O’Farrell from Louth, she was left with me, and that is like getting a wooden spoon. They do huge work for the State. The Minister and I have spoken previously about the need for a review of the carers piece in order that we can introduce something that is sustainable in the long term and that recognises the work they do. That is absolutely necessary.

Regarding the humanitarian assistance scheme, the Minister was in Trinity Close. Together with a number of other elected representatives, such as Councillor Antóin Watters, I have requested the Minister to look at the issue of certain payments. I still have an issue with the appeals and the length of time it is taking. I have a couple of nightmare numbers. I will talk to the Minister afterwards in relation to it. There is a very specific case and I have no doubt that the Minister is the only person who can sort it.

2:25 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the increases to social welfare rates in this Bill and the additional one-off payment. Yet, neither are near enough to cover inflation, never mind lift people out of poverty. As People Before Profit said at the time of the budget, inflation is not a once-off. Poverty is not a once-off. Increases to social welfare must not be once-off either.

Inflation is still running at more than 5% after two years of record-breaking increases. The latest figures from Kantar show that annual grocery price inflation is close to 10%. The biggest increases are in staples, such as pasta, rice, vegetables and potatoes. According to the CSO, the price of pasta has gone up 13% in the last year; rice is up 11.4%; vegetable oil is up 11%; potatoes are up 12.8%; and vegetables are up 10.8%. This is causing working people real hardship. Families who are on social welfare and who spend the biggest proportion of their income on food and staple foods are the worst affected. It is no wonder that so many are forced to rely on food banks. It is no wonder that one in seven children in this country, which is one of the richest countries in the world, are living in poverty. Shame on the Government for allowing that injustice to continue year after year.

Responding to the budget, Social Justice Ireland criticised the paltry €12 increase in core social welfare rates for “falling short” of the €25 needed to begin to address income adequacy among the poorest families. They also pointed out that the Government has yet again reneged on the commitment it made in the programme for Government to protect core social welfare rates.

People Before Profit would go much further than that. In our alternative budget, we outlined how a left Government would increase all core social welfare rates to €300, plus an additional €50 cost-of-disability premium for those on disability benefits. These are the minimum levels needed to provide everybody with a decent standard of living and to make poverty in this country history. The Government has the money to do all of this. It is awash with cash. There is a €65 billion surplus. It is fighting, using public money, to say that Apple should keep at almost €14 billion in taxes that should be owed to us. Yet, it refuses to spend this money on improving people's lives and investing in public services. Instead, in the Green Paper on reform of disability payments, it is proposing to subject people with disabilities to the kind of degrading and dystopian system of welfare reform pioneered by the Tories in Britain. It seems that the Minster and the Taoiseach might have watched I, Daniel Blakebut, rather than being appalled by it like any normal, decent human being, the Government has taken inspiration from it. I hope you will reconsider and not go down a road that has caused hundreds and probably even thousands of people to die in Britain from suicide, starvation, hypothermia and utter despair.

The now Taoiseach kicked this off a number of years ago when he was in the Minister of Social Protection’s position with his disgraceful “Welfare cheats cheat us all” disinformation campaign. The Minister is now continuing it with her disability reform proposals. Another reform proposal is the reintroduction of pay-related unemployment benefits, which were abolished by the parties that are now in government in the early 1990s. We welcome any increases in social welfare but are concerned that the level of pay-related benefit is still far too low. Workers will still only be entitled to a maximum of 60% of their pay for the first three months falling to 55% for the second three months and then 50% before falling back to €220 per week or the current average wage replacement rate of 23% after nine months. Compare that with Denmark, where workers still have 82% of their wages covered after one year or with Belgium, where 79% is covered. We are also concerned that this reform will be used in future to justify cutting the base rate of jobseeker's benefit and allowance. This could be done openly or it could be done by simply not increasing rates in line with inflation, as is already being done with core social welfare rates.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have always been fond of divide-and-conquer tactics and of pitting the so-called deserving against the so-called undeserving to justify cuts to social welfare and public services. They did this with the welfare cheats campaign and with council housing by allowing income limits to fall in value until most workers were excluded. Then they renamed it “social housing” and massively cut the number of homes provided, leading to the housing and homelessness disaster we face today. The reason for all of this penny-pinching is to shield big business and the wealthy in this country from paying taxes. Our People Before Profit alternative budget outlines how billions of euro more in tax revenue could be raised every year by taxing profits and wealth. A 2% wealth tax and a millionaire’s tax on the top 5% wealthiest households could raise €5.9 billion. Increasing employer's PRSI to European levels rather than increasing PRSI for workers during a cost-of-living crisis, as the Minister plans to do, could raise more than €2.5 billion. A 4% levy on the profits of pharmaceutical companies and private health companies could raise €1 billion. A proper windfall tax on the super-profits being made by energy companies could raise another €1 billion. Insisting that corporations pay the same rate of tax on their profits as ordinary workers do - 20% - would raise €20 billion. All of that money could transform social welfare and provide quality universal public services for all, but this Government will never do that no matter how much money it has, because they serve the interests of big business and the wealthy, not working people. That is why we need to get rid of this Government. It is why we need a left Government. We need a left Government that is not just “left” in name, but that is committed to taking on the big corporations that dominate in this country, taking on the speculators and taking on the big private landlords. We need a left Government that is willing to fight for eco-socialist change.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Next up is a Government slot. Deputy McAuliffe has seven minutes.

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thought I was after the Independent Group but I am always happy to speak on a €2.3 billion package. That is what is before us. It is worth acknowledging the scale of the intervention in terms of the social welfare budget. There will always be criticism in this House about political priorities. Yet, the ESRI is a respected body and even its independent analysis states that the total budgetary package is progressive.

The research estimates that it will result in reductions in the numbers of those at risk of poverty. That is a clear and independent assessment of what happened in the course of the budget and of what is happening in the course of this House passing the social welfare Bill. It underlines the efforts within the Government to help those people who are struggling with the cost-of-living increases, and we accept that is happening. Many of the sources of the cost-of-living increases are international factors, which I do not have to go through, but the Government is trying to use the national levers it has to deal with those incidents and to ensure that the people who elected us to this House, on all sides, can cope with that.

This week I have been speaking to many older people who have recently received the fuel allowance. Despite this being a measure from last year's budget, many people are only coming around to realising they are eligible for it now. Many of these people would never have been eligible for social welfare supports in the past. These include people who are earning up to €26,000 or €50,000 as a couple, and they benefit from the fuel allowance payment. When that is coupled with the once-off energy credits and the once-off payments, the ESRI is correct that we have managed the rates of being at risk of poverty for many people, and that these measures continue to try to keep the incomes of people who are reliant on social welfare ahead of the inflationary rate. We have done that in two ways, and the ESRI goes on to comment on the once-off nature of some of these payments. There is no doubt that the once-off nature of the payments is a factor. Many of our critics suggested that such payments should not be repeated, that we would not keep track with inflation and that we would pull the rug from under the people who we are trying to protect. That did not happen because the Government was committed to ensuring it protected people. I welcomed the use of once-off rates in this short period because we need to have the flexibility, when changing inflation rates come about, so that when costs increase and decrease, we can respond to them. Should that inflation rate become embedded over time, we will inevitably have to look at embedding those once-off rates into the core rate. To do that at this stage would be irresponsible. We have to continually monitor our financial position and the once-off measures are an important way for us to maintain that balance.

I also want to thank the Minister for the measures taken for carers and providing a pension for those people who are caring. Many people contribute huge parts of their lives to care for people within their families and wider circles. It is only right that when they get to retirement age, that they have the right to retire, like anybody else. This taps into something that we responded to this week with the new rates of unemployment benefit for people who find themselves out of work. There has been a feeling that when pay-related social insurance was introduced, people would get something for it. If they worked, they contributed to PRSI and they attained certain benefits, as with any insurance product. Unfortunately, over time, mostly because we sought to protect those people who were most vulnerable, it appeared that those people who were contributing were not getting any additional benefit from doing so. They appeared to be receiving the same benefit as those people who we were protecting. I can imagine Deputy Paul Murphy suggesting that I am somehow trying to criticise those people who are on social welfare. I am not doing so but if people are paying an additional amount into the scheme, there should be benefits from PRSI. I believe in that concept and scheme.

One of those benefits is the pension. There is not much of a difference between those people who are on contributory pensions and those who are not. We are victims of our attempts to try to protect people who are the most vulnerable and to ensure they have a good standard of living. We also have to acknowledge that when workers pay PRSI there should be some additional benefit for them from having contributed over that time. I welcome the Minister's contribution to Cabinet this week and the announcements afterwards to the effect that if workers find themselves unemployed, they will receive an increased payment, beyond what the basic payment would have been up until the introduction of these measures. The benefit of that is to send a message to people that if they contribute to PRSI there is a definite benefit. I welcome that. The Minister and the Government also underscored the financial basis of the pension age staying at 66 this week. They did so by putting in place strong and prudent measures to fund it going forward. We are not just throwing out a glib promise that it will be done and we are not saying it during an election campaign. We have put in place a foundation that should leave the pension rate at the age of retirement, which it has always been at, despite others suggesting that it was lower. In doing that, we have again sent the message that by contributing to PRSI there is a benefit.

I encourage the Minister to go further. Let us look at other ways that we can reward people who are contributing to PRSI. Let us send the message that if they have worked for all of their lives and paid those stamps, they will receive an additional benefit beyond the level of protection we have to and should provide to those who need it.

2:35 pm

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I compliment the Minister on negotiating and securing a substantial social welfare package. Those most in need through the budget are supported and assisted financially. There will never be a budget that satisfies the wants and needs of everyone, particularly when it comes to social welfare. Budget 2024 was no exception. Due to the surge in the cost of living, those who are solely dependent on social welfare, including our elderly, will continue to grapple with rising costs.

The once-off payments were widely welcomed and greatly appreciated by those who benefit from them. Similarly, the increase in weekly income thresholds for the working family payments will result in additional families becoming eligible for this much-needed support. One of the more progressive announcements that did not receive the recognition it deserved was the payment of child benefit to 18-year-olds who are still in full-time education. The vast majority of these 18-year-olds are at leaving certificate level, with parents facing the increased financial demands that this school year brings, in addition to preparing for the next stage of their son or daughter's life.

At first glance, the changes to the State pension seem like a positive move that affords the option of working longer with the aim of availing of an increased State pension. The flexibility this offers workers is welcome. It gives them control over their futures. However, people want a clearer picture of what the financial benefits will be. Will adding four years to their working life make a worthwhile difference to their future? Is it financially attractive enough to encourage them to continue working? Considering that a sizable majority of people work to live as opposed to live to work, reaching the current established retirement age in employment is their goal. Suggesting that they work longer to increase their State pension is unlikely to incentivise the average worker to continue working, unless the end reward is attractive. Reports have indicated that based on the current State pension of €253.30 per week, someone who works until they are 70 would then get approximately €315 per week. While an increase of €62 per week seems lucrative today, how will it look in four years? Taking the inevitable cost-of-living increases in that period into account, can workers be guaranteed that staying in work will be to their advantage?

Another concern lies with the fact that some occupations are more amenable to extension than others. Comparing the working conditions of those who work indoors in sedentary jobs with those who have outdoor jobs that require a high level of physical work creates an unlevel playing pitch for workers. The latter will understandably be less inclined or perhaps physically unable to continue working beyond 66. This could exclude them from availing of an enhanced pension scheme due to the nature of their work or their physical capabilities. While this reform is significantly preferable to a blanket increase in the age at which a person can qualify for the State pension, encouraging people to work beyond the age of 66 would need to be made attractive to the majority of workers, particularly to those who work in strenuous or high-pressure jobs.

By far the most proactive and long overdue element of the Bill is the inclusion of long-term carers for contributory State pensions. Aside from its long-term financial benefit for carers, it also gives well-deserved recognition to the work that these carers have carried out for the two decades required to qualify. The work of long-term family carers all too often goes unnoticed, yet what they do every single day is done with dedication and love and without any need for thanks and praise.

2:45 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill and I will support its progress today. The Spotlight on Income in Older Age: The State of Ageing in Ireland 2023 report found that 30% of people aged 66 and older rely on State payments from the Department of Social Protection for more than 90% of the money on which they live. This shows the heavy dependence on public schemes such as the State pension together with supports, such as the medical card and free travel pass, for survival. In this context the programme for Government committed to introducing a system to enable people to defer receipt of their State contributory pension on an annual basis, up to the age of 70.

With that in mind, I welcome this Bill wherein the Government recognises that there is a trend to people working longer. While recommendations from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection would put the cut-off age for the State pension at 75 on account of the fact that life expectancy in Ireland has increased, the Government decided not to increase the State pension age. This may be debated in the future taking life expectancy rates into consideration but, for now, this is a good step forward.

Where they have capacity and want to do so, facilitating those without a full social insurance record to increase their retirement provision by choosing to continue making PRSI payments beyond pensionable age is a positive step. As well as increasing their retirement provision, in return for deferral, such people will receive an increased State pension payment calculated on an actuarial basis as well as extended access to a range of working-age schemes, which currently cease at age 66.

To clarify, the benchmark reference State pension age will remain at 66, as will entitlement to ancillary age-related benefits, such as free travel. This will allow those deferring accessing the pension and who had turned 66 after 1 January next year to access an enhanced rate of remuneration dependent on the age at which they deferred, with a different rate paid for ages 67, 68, 69, and 70. People drawing the pension at or after the age of 67 will, therefore, receive an increased rate of payment for each full year they defer the drawdown.

Overall, introducing pension deferral arrangements will be beneficial to some. However, calculating the benefit will be down to the individual and his or her health and ability to work. As it is an actuarial rate, if a person lives longer, he or she will obviously gain significantly because he or she will be on this significantly enhanced rate. It must be noted that this will most likely cause considerable confusion when people have various options for the calculations. Consideration will need to be given to how this is communicated to the applicants themselves. The Department will need to clearly lay out the benefits and potential downfalls and the resulting figures. It is important that the impression is not given that by deferring it, there is an enhancement for everybody. There could be a very significant loss for some people. It must also be stressed within communications that there is nothing to stop a person drawing his or her pension and continuing to work. There is no connection between entitlement to the pension and whether or not a person continues to work. The decision is down to the individual person and, therefore, I welcome the incorporation of the option in the Bill.

It will, of course, enable people who do not have a full contribution history to improve their contribution record, which is often the case with carers and mothers. At present, home caring periods and homemaking disregards only apply and deliver value if a person has a minimum of ten years' paid PRSI contributions from employment or self-employment. While this is believed to be fair and appropriate in the case of child-rearing, it may not be sufficient to deal with people who devote a large amount of time looking after and caring for incapacitated relations. The burden of caring and the consequential loss of pension entitlements falls disproportionately on women, who comprise 80% of carer's allowance recipients and 93% of domiciliary care allowance recipients. Women might only work for six or seven years prior to having a child who subsequently might be sick from an early age and, therefore, would not have ten years of work accumulated. People who leave the workforce early to care for an incapacitated child or other relations can find it difficult to accrue ten years of paid contributions. In addition, periods spent caring can reduce the overall number of reckonable contributions that a long-term carer can accrue. Therefore, I very much welcome the attention to carers within this Bill. It is really important to address this issue.

The role of long-term carers and the value they deliver to society needs to be recognised within the pension scheme. Within the Bill, the Government has acknowledged that role and recognised the enormous value of the work carried out by them and is fully committed to supporting them in that role. Accordingly, it is only right that the long-term carers of incapacitated people should be given access to the State contributory pension system by having retrospective contributions paid to them by the Exchequer for gaps in their contribution history arising from that caring. If enacted, this would mean that some carers would receive a contributory payment in their own right for the first time.

Communication campaigns for this, as well as the carer's support grant, are paramount. Tying the pension eligibility and carer's support grant information together is probably a way to get more of these applications over the line. Ireland has an ageing population and the number of people aged 65 increased in both urban and rural areas between 2011 and 2016, accounting for 15% of the population in rural areas. Additionally, almost 300,000 people currently provide unpaid care to others, 86,000 of whom provide care for 43 hours or more each week. Carers do a fantastic job, and, in fairness, they save the State a fortune. The main provisions that have been included in the Bill are, therefore, welcome and they all move in the right direction towards inclusion, equality and fairness. No delays should be imposed. We need to ensure that this legislation is fit for purpose and successfully enacted as quickly as possible, preferably by 1 January 2023, as the application window has opened for long-term carers to apply for attributed contributions.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister on becoming a granny again - Granny Heather - to little Charlotte who was born earlier today as she got up to speak. She is a sister for little Arthur as well. I promise the Minister that all of us here in the House will ensure the very expeditious passage of this legislation so she can spend more time babysitting over the Christmas period.

A year has now passed since this House unanimously supported a motion to extend special support for all front-line workers suffering from long Covid, and a year has passed since the Minister promised to look into the plight of such workers. However, we are still no further along and those commitments remain unfulfilled. I reiterate the urgency of this matter and call for immediate action from our Government to address this issue. As the Minister will be aware, the Department of Health and the HSE have agreed to extend special payments for a period exceeding 28 months to 143 healthcare staff afflicted with long Covid symptoms. The State has, therefore, acknowledged that these 143 healthcare staff have an occupational illness of long Covid after contracting it, in all probability, within their place of employment. However, they are still being denied access to an occupational illness scheme because the State is still refusing to publicly acknowledge that staff are chronically ill as a result of Covid infection.

What will happen on 1 April when these staff are unfit to return to work, particularly when their employer had sought a 12-month extension of those support payments to November 2022? What about the staff who have been excluded from these supports? Every other front-line worker outside of the health service who is out with a chronic illness as a result of long Covid is getting no additional occupational support. Those within the health service who were infected since November 2021 during the height of the Omicron variant are unjustly being excluded from the support the 143 workers are receiving. We asked these individuals who run our hospitals and supermarkets and who support people with disabilities to go out and roll up their sleeves in the interests of the country at the height of the pandemic. These dedicated individuals, who contracted long Covid as a direct result of their heroic efforts during the pandemic, are now being denied the support they rightfully deserve.

We are now turning our backs on them and that is neither fair nor right.

We must treat all workers equally and to do so, we need long Covid to be designated an occupational illness for all front-line workers who contracted the virus during their employment. On Committee Stage, I and Deputy Berry will be bringing forward an amendment to try to progress that. We need long Covid to be designated an occupational illness. Many of these workers have incurred significant financial costs in managing their illnesses without any State support. That has also impacted the labour force, with many patients, often young and previously healthy, experiencing prolonged multi-system symptoms that are impacting their daily lives and their ability to work. Some of them are only working on a part-time basis. We need to address this issue.

I welcome the changes the Minister has introduced for family carer's pensions. I acknowledge the work the Minister has done in that regard. Not only will the changes apply to those who will be of pensionable age after 1 January next but they will also apply to existing pensioners who were providing long-term care until they reached 66 years of age. That is a significant acknowledgement of their role and I thank the Minister for her work in this area. I thank her not only for her work on carer's pensions but also on all of the other measures on which she has been working with committee members. We have, over the term of this Dáil, done a significant amount of heavy lifting to improve the plight of carers.

I will ask the Minister to look at one further measure to which I know she is personally committed. It is the means test for the carer's allowance. On 18 May 2022, Ms Anna Budayova, Ms Niamh Ryan and Mr. Damien Douglas were before our committee. They gave us powerful evidence about the challenges they are dealing with to provide full-time care to their disabled children. They spoke about the impact of the carer's allowance means test and its impact on them, their families and their caring roles. We need to work towards a financial system for family carers that is designed around the care that is given and not how much is in the bank account of the husband or wife of the full-time carer. Currently, the eligibility test for this payment is little more than a mean test, denying people financial assistance to support them in providing vital services in our society today.

As the Minister knows, Family Carers Ireland, in conjunction with Maynooth University, has put forward a proposal for a participatory income for family carers. The report it has produced recommends a move away from the means-tested approach to the carer's allowance to a focus on the need for caring and the provision of full-time care as the criteria for the provision of a carer's support payment. This study envisages the introduction of a payment for carers that is not means tested from 2027 onwards. In the short term, we need an implementation group within the Cabinet subcommittee on social inclusion that would look, first of all, at the existing and future processes of administrating care payments and, second, at the methods of proving eligibility for such a support payment. I ask the Minister to engage with her colleagues in Cabinet about moving that process along and establishing that subcommittee within Cabinet to progress it.

I also ask the Minister to look at an anomaly within the social welfare code. My solution will not cost anything but will help to streamline the code. All of us are trying to end up in a situation where we make it as easy as possible for people to transition from welfare into work. Many of those people will transition on a part-time basis first and then on a full-time basis. If I asked the Minister which is the first day of the week, we could argue about whether it is Monday or Sunday. According to the social welfare code, the first day of the week is Wednesday. That is the case for people in receipt of jobseeker's allowance. The Minister's officials will be able to tell her which is the first day of the week for those in receipt of jobseeker's benefit. The week actually starts on Wednesday and goes through the weekend. Of course, Sunday is either included or excluded depending on whether the applicant works on that day or not. That adds to confusion. It is a bureaucratic barrier to people taking up part-time employment.

There is an historical basis for this. It is based on when the payment is issued for the different social welfare payments. In this day and age, if we are trying to encourage people to transition from welfare into work, we should have a standard working week from Monday to Friday or Monday to Saturday, regardless of which social welfare payment someone is in receipt of. That would make things much clearer for people and would ensure they do not get caught in loopholes and anomalies, end up with penalties or lose payments. It would act as a simple additional incentive to work. I ask the Minister to consider that. I commend the Bill to the House.

2:55 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I support the Bill. It will allow the State to provide a considerable amount of money right across the various payments being made to customers of the Department and to provide for the administration of the Department. However, I have a couple of issues. One relates to various applications where the customer has an account with Revolut or any other of the fintech companies. I recently assisted a constituent who had been asked to explain every single payment made in their Revolut account. I am not singling out Revolut and this is not a negative for the company. The point relates to all the fintech companies. Most family members pay money one to the other. That is the way things operate. They are able to save using that piece of technology and it is a great tool for them to manage their finances. My constituent was asked about every payment and had to submit a 26-page explanation as to what was spent in their Revolut account. In the end, it all hung on a payment of €3.30. My constituent had to submit an explanation as to what that payment was about. That is administration gone a little wrong. Perhaps it needs to be explained more to the staff who are dealing with those applications. I ask the Minister to take note of that. It is not an isolated case.

I also dealt with a young man who was applying for a disability payment. He was asked about a Revolut payment of €50 that happened to be from his dad to cover the cost of groceries because he does not have any money. He had a serious accident. This issue cropped up with his Revolut account. Unfortunately, he was unable to pay his phone bill and was, therefore, unable to access the statements from Revolut. It was all about a payment of €50. As a result, his application is now stalled in the Department.

I do not raise these cases to embarrass the Minister in any way. I raise them to explain that life and living, and the management of household funds, have changed considerably. Therefore, we need to take recognition of that fact into account.

I also want to mention an issue relating to the domiciliary care allowance which crops up a lot. Explanations are required as to the different care a parent provides for one child as distinct from another member of his or her family, or another child who demands only regular input.

I have seen where diaries have been provided explaining what is required in great detail and explaining the differences, pages and pages of it, only for the application to be refused again. Were you to look at the medical reports – I know it is not based on that but the other – you would be able to say from them that this child requires a hell of a lot more. The level of proof in that particular payment needs to be looked at because more often than not, the family is making the application because they are already under pressure. Adding further pressure in terms of the paperwork and what is required when a certain level of paperwork has already been given is unfair. It is unfair to put them through all the hassle they have to go through for this.

I have just come from a meeting of the finance committee where we were dealing with Estimates. It was noted that the heating costs in one Department had gone up by 70%. I think we have to be much more generous in the support we give to families that are under pressure but particularly older people. I would like to see older people getting far greater supports. It might be an elderly couple or, perhaps, an individual older person living on their own. They definitely need the supports and they need to be increased. My point about the Department is that this is proof, if proof is needed, although we know from the utility companies by how much these bills for energy costs have gone up. These are significant increases and 70% is a big figure. I am sure there is a way to relate that to household increases and so on. We need to look at that and to give support.

I am concerned that because of the tax code, those with a State contributory pension and perhaps a work pension are being put into a position where they might be less well off because of the increases they receive, in terms of their social welfare payments, by a small margin. Consequently, they will be at a loss to a bigger margin in terms of their overall payment. It is a tax relief to older people that has not been adjusted for perhaps ten years. I have spoken to the Minister for Finance about it. It is an example of where the Department could work directly with the Department of Finance, examine what is happening in that and adjust the social welfare payment or make the kind of adjustment that will make them better off rather than worse off.

Overall, the Bill is exceptional in terms of the amount allocated. I have listened carefully to the Minister in terms of reforms to be introduced. It is a good step and one of many steps she has taken forward. I wish her well with the reform package.

Deputy Naughten mentioned making it attractive to go to work while at the same time supporting someone at home. We have to ensure that people are better off working.

3:05 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I also welcome this year’s social welfare Bill. I will take the opportunity to raise a couple of issues. I understand the legislation around lone parents and the treatment of child maintenance and social welfare payments is to come. I ask that it be done as quickly as possible. I have made the point many times that child maintenance is for the upbringing of a child or children. It should never have been treated as household means and to have an impact on lone parents’ income, which they very badly need. Many of the recommendations made in the child maintenance review group are recommendations we have repeatedly made on the floor here over many years. I welcome the recommendations but ask that the legislation be brought forward as quickly as possible. I ask the Minister to continue to look at the possibility of establishing a child maintenance service. We have proposals on that. I do not believe it is fair to leave it in the courts system. It is not fair on lone parents and it does not put the child first. I ask that the Department look at this issue.

On family carers, I greatly welcome the moves made to the State pension and a State pension for family carers, to which they are entitled and much deserving of. I will raise just one issue in this regard. A number of family carers work as home care assistants. During Covid, they, like many, stepped up to the plate. They did more than the 18.5 hours. Everyone was asked to step up and do more; they did. I understand a small number of them have been penalised and are paying back sums in regard of the carer's allowance. Will the Minister look at the small cohort of family carers and give them some kind of an amnesty? They stepped up; they were in PPE; they had a difficult time and they did their duty. They made a big difference to people with loved ones who are cared for by home care assistants. I ask the Minister to look at this matter for a very small number of family carers. There are not many of them.

The Department will be sending out letters to those who have applied for the State pension and giving them the option to defer. That is fine and well but when will the letters go out? I understand the legislation has to go through first but can the Minister give an indication? Some people have applied and they will have to wait until they receive that letter before their applications can go forward.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Rural Independent Group is next. Will Deputy Collins take the full 20 minutes?

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will try anyway. I will start by wishing the Minister the very best on the birth of her grandchild. What a joyous occasion it must be for her. It is a bit unfortunate that she is here with us today but we will try and speed this up. I offer great congratulations to the Minister and her family. It is a beautiful thing to hear a child crying inside here, as we did a moment ago. It is a lovely sound and the Minister probably has many hours of that ahead of her. I wish her the best of luck.

If I could ask for indulgence, I must welcome Doireann Walsh, a student from St. Brogan’s College, Bandon, who is here today. She is a student of politics and law and has a very bright future ahead of her. She is very well trained by her grandfather. She has put a lot of this speech together for me so if it is in any way critical, Doireann might share some of the blame.

When it comes to the social welfare Bill, there is no point in everything being negative but being in opposition we have to look at things that need a lot more focus in the next budget. A lot of good social welfare payments have been paid to people in the past week and that means a lot to people, because they are under stress and under pressure. That is to be welcomed. I have often been a fighter here for the carers. The means test on the carer's allowance is a serious issue. You can look at the model around the medical cards and then look at the model for the carers. There is no sympathy for someone who might be €10 or €12 over and above but who is providing a fantastic caring service to their loved one at home or even their neighbour. In fairness to the medical card process, you can bring in expenses and costs and mortgages and so on that might bring someone’s income down to a very low level. But with carers, it is means-tested, on what is most likely the husband’s income and that is very unfair because while the husband’s income might be quite high, the expenses might be higher in many cases. Someone is saving the State tens of thousands of euro but is not getting any kind of respect. It is mainly women, which I do not mean in any bad sense, but women have pride in having a few quid in their pocket, the same as everybody else, after going out and doing something for someone. After saving the State money while minding someone, whether it is the neighbour or their loved one, that may be blocked to them because someone has two extra cows at home and it is taking them over the limit, even though the cows had cost them a fortune in the first place. That is just looking at farmers, where there could be some other income too but an awful lot of expenses are not taken into account that are taken into account with the medical card.

We should have a model somewhere around that. I will give credit. I have often seen people putting in a very rough and ready medical card application form but did not realise the expenses they could have put in for. When they put them in, that was understood, there was a different outcome and the person got the medical card, which was badly needed.

People are finding it difficult. I know of a situation in west Cork at present, involving a lady who is almost 80 years of age. This is not a medical card issue but we are talking about carers. The neighbours are trying to mind this lady. She cannot come home from hospital because a home care package cannot be put together. There is no home help for the woman. Imagine that. She had a home help three times a day for five days a week and three times over the weekend. The neighbours were happy with that and looked for that when they got back. She spent a little time in hospital and is going home now but, unfortunately, she has no home help. Her neighbour cannot get carers in because her income is over and above. She is caring for this woman voluntarily, which is brilliant and well done, but at this stage, sadly, she cannot do this on her own. She needs help and unfortunately that is not happening. That is just one of many situations I find.

The Rural Independent Group mentioned the USC charge in our budget proposal. As somebody said, it was probably a little too dramatic to expect the USC could be abolished. It is a source of some kind of income to the State. There is no point in saying any differently. I argued the point with the Labour Party and the Green Party on television one night about that. They were adamant that the USC was brilliant and the Government should stay on course as it is a great idea. The argument I put is that the now Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, said a number of years ago that he would abolish the USC charge. He has failed to that during his term. The USC is another tax. Many young people, including my daughters, and sometimes it is as if they think they should not pay any tax at all, ask me why they are paying all this tax. It is tax for this and tax for that. Of course, they may want to have a little bit of a good time over the weekend and are wondering why they are paying all this tax. The USC was brought in a number of years ago. There was a promise that it would be abolished. It has not been abolished but it needs to be. We plead with the Minister to look at steering us towards abolishing it at some stage or other.

The Rural Independent Group called for a welfare increase of €30 across the board. People say we are only grabbing at figures and throwing out a figure that sounds dramatic. I could accept that, and the Government granted €12, but I look at people who are senior citizens, or are on disability and invalidity payments, who are finding it an extreme struggle to survive at present. While €30 sounds a lot, it would have given them some cushion to fall back on. That has not been afforded to them at this time. I acknowledge that €12 is a help. There is no point in anybody saying any different in the House. Anybody who gets €12 extra in their pension, or even income, would welcome that but, at the same time, it does not go far enough. There are home heating oil bills, the price of coal has gone up, and if someone smokes a cigarette or pulls a pint, that has probably gone up. There are all these increases that soak away that €12 so that it probably ends up being a €4 or €5 increase. It might be said there is nothing wrong with that but, at the same time, it is not enough for people who are struggling. Quite a lot of people I know are in that situation, especially senior citizens, who have seen many hits. When they go to the shop or café, things have gone up by 9% or 13% in the hospitality sector. Again, for people who like to go out for a cup of coffee, or go to their hairdresser, everything is added on, from a 9% or 13% tax. That €12 has then gone down from €12 to €4. It is whittled away to nothing. That is why people say to me, "Sure, we didn't get a bit". I rogue some of the elderly people by saying they got €12 and cannot complain but they say, "That's nothing". Older people are more prudent with money but they see so much of the money going out of their pockets, with the high level of expenses.

I keep going on about the carbon tax and different taxes in place at present. The people of Ireland are crucified with tax. Many people felt that this budget might not have been for the working person. A lot of people feel squeezed. They are out there working every day of the week. They are the people pulling up to the petrol pump trying to throw a drop of diesel or petrol into the car. They have no choice. The expense of that is crucifying them. There is the cost of putting children through school and the cost of children's care. It is cost, cost and cost down on their backs. They feel, especially those who are self-employed, there is an absolute punishment for them if they succeed. They are calling on us to force or find some sort of change that keeps them afloat and surviving. There is a very serious worry about many of the self-employed, who are very frustrated. They feel they are absolutely being bled to death. They are expected to do everything. On the extra three days' sick leave, somebody asked me recently how the self-employed will keep getting the money for all this. People will ring in sick to use up their three days, if they get them. They will use up three months if they get that, but the self-employed are the squeezed middle. Many of them run the cafés and hairdressers, some of which now face their doors being closed. Some of that is happening in my constituency of Cork South-West. I see it first-hand. People ring me and talk to me about it. They feel stressed and are going through very difficult times.

Fuel allowance is a little like the carer's allowance. Again, there needs to be a little movement. I know the Government has raised the bands. I respect and appreciate that and thank the Minister for it but there are people who do not qualify for that allowance who have serious debts, including mortgages, childcare or whatever. It might be an elderly person. Some elderly people still have mortgages. They are putting their figures in front of me but their figures do not count when it comes to it. It is just based on income. Again, I look at the medical card model where there has been a little movement. We do not have to have huge movement. We cannot bring in everybody. People come to me who are on €1,000 a week looking for the fuel allowance. I know they will not get it and there is no point in trying. However, there are genuine people who are a little over the threshold and have genuine expenses, but there is no great amount of sympathy for them.

I will raise a couple of other matters. The bereavement grant is something the Rural Independent Group has been very vocal about for the past number of years, since the Labour Party was part of the Government that abolished it. There is sadness and cost with a funeral. Many people come to me about it. People can go to the social welfare officer to get emergency funding but people do not like to be, as they see it, using a form of begging at such a low time in their lives. The bereavement grant was a grant that helped them. It did not pay for all the expenses of the funeral but it went towards paying something and made it a goal that could be reached. It is an area that has been ignored since the grant was dropped, sadly. It should never have been dropped. I ask the Minister to look again at that model that was used down through the years and reintroduce the bereavement grant. Funerals are a huge cost to families. I know families have got to look at the expenses of funerals too to see whether they can squeeze or tighten the belt a little. I assure the Minister that can be done. I was an undertaker and saw for years how things could be done slightly differently by families. In most cases, families genuinely have a loved one who is dead and do not have the money to pay. They might have some but not all of it to pay. Some undertakers are just tremendous. They will take a part-payment and another part-payment. Surely to God, however, the bereavement grant that was there, stood for years, and was not simply handed out but was in some way monitored, could easily be reintroduced to give people a small chance to pay funeral costs.

I meet many self-employed people. I mentioned them already, but there needs to be an absolute refocus on the self-employed getting a benefit if they are ill or have a health issue. I know of somebody at present and the number of stamps that person had is being looked at. Good God almighty, that person was sick. He had a serious accident and now cannot get a payment. A relation in the country recently told me he got nothing in his years of working as a self-employed person. I cannot understand why there is not a mechanism for self-employed people with a genuine injury, the same as there is for employed people, for payment for the period such people are out injured or sick. I urge the Minister to look into that because many of them are not getting payment and it is not an easy road to travel.

If someone works all their life and falls and gets injured or hurt, they will not get a payment, like this gentleman in west Cork. He is not going to get a payment and many more I know are not going to get a payment. That is very unfortunate.

I would like to talk about the elderly. This is a very important issue. So many of them are getting reviews of their pensions and they are absolutely terrified. I am afraid for some people. I met a lady - I do not mind saying that because she will not be identified - from my constituency in Kinsale recently. I thought this woman would have a heart attack in my office. The poor woman was beside herself. What is wrong? Another lady not far away from me told me she was getting €20 for a bit of ground and the Department found out and went after her for the €20. In the name of God, this is our own people we are chasing. Phil Hogan said one time that he would chase people to the grave. That is what is happening. I would ask the Minister, as part of the social welfare, to be more careful with elderly people because they are terrified. I know another person who has serious Alzheimer's and they got the pension review. I had a job to explain it. I had to try to get contact with the family and whatever. There are umpteen of those letters all over the country and people are genuinely stressed about them. I would dearly appreciate if the Minister would look into that. Blast it all, these are the people who worked hard and built our country. We would not have an island like we have today only for them. I would appreciate if the Minister and Minister of State would look into that.

On other payments, there are a lot of people with difficulties with banks and mortgage distress. I know the Minister of State cannot take everything on board. I saw a headline from last week stating "AIB sheds most remaining crisis-era problem loans ... for €100m" . It sold off the loans of people who have a crisis mortgage or payment. There is nothing out there for these people. The article states:

AIB has managed to shift most of its remaining crisis-era problem loans, after selling a portfolio of mainly commercial property debt for about €100 million to US distress debt giant Cerberus.

It goes on to say that AIB is going to make sure the people with these distressed mortgages are going to get proper help and supports going forward. That is absolute nonsense and lies. It states: "Borrowers whose loans are sold are afforded the same regulatory protections they had before the sale." That is wrong. I met with people in west Cork recently who have a serious issue and are losing their business. The Minister of State has no idea. These guys sell it off to a credit company, the credit company writes to these people about their business being in debt and they write back through a solicitor, which is the proper channel. They get several letters and there are several letters going back and forward saying "You have never corresponded". They continue to write back at their own cost through a solicitor saying they are willing to do business and willing to sit down and start talking about it but the company will not talk. It is an astonishing situation that AIB could do that to its customers. That is what it is doing to its customers. These are people who are in distress at this time.

The cost of living is another thing. I am very concerned about parents who have young families and are trying their best to make ends meet. The budgets do not really crack it for a lot of them. They get small reliefs but they are very small. If we look at all the taxes we are putting on people at present, it is impossible and very hard. When you go into the filling station, you are paying 50% of the cost of the fuel you put in the car in tax. Then the Green Government says it does not want to have fuel in the country. They are delighted. According to them, the country would be gone wallop only for it. They want to tax the ordinary mother and father, the ordinary pensioner and the ordinary person who gets up in the morning and works hard. They want to tax them out of control completely. People cannot keep taking that hit. The Government has to give something back to the ordinary hardworking person or the self-employed person.

I also ask the Minister of State to look at the once-off payments. There are difficult situations and nobody can account for every one of these difficult situations. There was the flooding recently and I am happy that the people in Midleton at least got that compensation. Some people contacted me and said they did not get what it cost them but at least efforts were being made. I fully respect that because when we got flooded in Bantry and Skibbereen a number of years ago there was pittance paid to the people of west Cork. It was a pittance of €5,000. I begged the Government. There was water 4, 5 or 6 ft high in premises. I begged the Government at the time to look outside the Pale and not give that small derisory €5,000 with the Red Cross. I said it had to look at a bigger figure and it was not done. I know of a situation in west Cork where a lovely couple lost their home last week due to fire. They are elderly. Their insurance had lapsed by mistake and human error. At 80-something years of age, we would all have human error. I have it at 55. There is nothing out there for them but maybe a pittance of €5,000, €6,000 or something like that if it is really fought for. There are difficult situations that are not addressed in this Social Welfare Bill. I ask the Minister of State to look at some of those issues and try to see if we can put forward some slight changes. We will be putting forward amendments, all going well, and that is our entitlement.

Another issue is farm assist and fish assist. It is an area that affects a lot of people in rural Ireland. It is a lifeline for quite a lot of them. The amount of times they are investigated when getting farm assist in case they get €60 or €70 more at a mart for a cow or calf or whatever, or the amount of times fishermen's incomes are looked into, is very unfair. There needs to be a little bit of flexibility because they could have a year where they might have a little more but there are also years where they have less. That flexibility is not being afforded to those people, who keep being investigated. It is awful cumbersome for people to try to look into their finances. Some have to get the help of an accountant, which costs money.

The issues I have brought up today include the carers, the USC, the pension going up €12 but not more than that and fuel allowance. It is not the Minister of State's area but there was a promise of funding for Cancer Connect in west Cork. It has been promised three or four years in a row. It is a magical service, delivered all over Cork county and city, taking people for their cancer treatment and there is no funding available. I mentioned the home help, the fuel allowance, the foster carers, the bereavement grant and the self-employed. I hope the Minister of State will be able to make movement on those. I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach for his indulgence.

3:25 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Joan Collins has 20 minutes.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will not be taking the full 20 minutes for once. I welcome any increases that have come through this Bill and the once-off payments, and I know the hundreds of thousands of people depending on social protection welcome them as well. I welcome the change in the policy around carers and around teenagers at 18 holding onto child benefit when going to university. That has a huge impact on families.

The €12 addition to core social welfare rates is better than nothing but with this increase the Minister has made a political decision to push more people who rely on fixed incomes into poverty. All the different groups told the Government we needed a minimum increase of €25 to €30 just for people to stand still. This increase amounts to a cut, strangely enough, not just in income but also in living standards for everyone who relies on core social welfare to get by. I would highlight in particular the damage to older people. Three in ten people over the age of 66 rely on social protection for 90% of their income. Yet the Minister decided in the middle of an inflation crisis and a cost-of-living crisis to increase rates well below inflation. The Minister made a political decision to cut the living standards for older people. This Government has failed to make any real progress on the promise to benchmark pensions to average earnings. It set out in the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025 that pensions should be benchmarked to 34% of average wages. This is not just because pensioners need an increase in their rates and living standards but also so that, as the economy grows, they are not left behind. That commitment would have seen pension rates increase to €318 a week. Instead, pensioners got a €12 increase, which is over €40 behind the Government's promise.

This promise now seems totally empty despite the Government presenting a roadmap for social inclusion as central to our progress on UN sustainable development goals this summer.

I received a response from Age Action with regard to budget 2024. That organisation is part of the Pension Promise campaign and said the top rate of State pension was €265, just 29.2% of average weekly earnings, in quarter 2 of 2023. It would need to be €44 per week higher today to meet the benchmark of 34%. Average earnings next year will be higher so the gap will be even larger at €53 per week, according to Age Action's calculations. While the €12 increase from January 2024 is better than nothing, it will not close that gap. While once-off payments have been welcomed by many older persons, not everyone gets them or the full value of them, but everyone on the State pension has seen their pension fall in spending power since 2020.

Once the once-off money granted in 2023 is spent, the gap in weekly income will be starkly obvious to many older people. Age Action goes on to say officials of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, provided input into the budget 2024 process to explain what benchmarking the State pension against average earnings and inflation would require but this has not resulted in any change in policy.

This is a time bomb coming down the tracks. Once the cost-of-living once-off payments end, old people and anyone relying on core social welfare will find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. We may not see another budget from this Government. It may have lost its last chance to keep its promise to older people. This was another budget in which the choice was made to push more older people into poverty. The Government needs to take immediate action to fulfil the promise it has made or older people will find themselves in a dire situation when the once-off payments end and they are back on core rates, which have been left in the distance by inflation and the cost of living.

I am dealing with the case of an elderly lady in older persons’ accommodation in Dublin. Her electricity bill built up to €1,254.50. She challenged it initially because she could not understand how her bills were so high. She did not realise the cost of electricity had gone up so much. We are working with her and with a community welfare officer, MABS, etc. There are many people like her in debt built up over last winter and they are trying to come to terms with that. Electric Ireland made a proposal that she pay at least €40 per week on top of her regular bill. She is on a pension of €248.50. It is not possible for that lady to survive on that and come to that deal. We are dealing with the case and hoping to get it resolved. How many older people or people on low income are in that situation that I or other TDs have been in contact with, or maybe older people who will not approach anybody else with their private business? We know many older people are very proud in that respect.

There is disappointment the €400 lump sum did not include pensioners. That is the feedback I have got from many people in my area. One woman who only puts on her heating for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening and has layered her clothes to try to stay warm during the day was very disappointed with that because she is feeling the impact as well.

The Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, was disappointed with the budget in relation to disability. It said that “it is devastating to see the sidelining of disability and the tokenistic attitude to disabled people in Budget 2024". Its CEO, John Dolan, said: "The measures introduced today do not come close to meeting the needs of people with disabilities. It is difficult to understand how the cost of disability payment, acknowledged and introduced for the first time in Budget 2023 at €500, has not been continued." The DFI also said: “These costs were acknowledged in the Indecon Report, and the recent Green Paper, at €8,700 to €12,300 per year and yet there are no such cost of disability measures in Budget 2024.” There was huge disappointment in the disability sector concerning the budget.

This was an opportunity for the Government to look at increasing employer's PRSI to the average level in Europe. I think we are 40% below. SIPTU did a recent report that if it was brought up to that, there would be €10 billion extra in the coffers. I am not calling for it to be introduced overnight but it should have been over a number of years where we used employer's PRSI, like in Europe, to pay for childcare and public services. Employees pay the highest tax in Europe in relation to PRSI. That should not have been increased at all.

3:35 pm

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Deputies for their contributions. There are some areas of difference but it is fair to say the Bill has been broadly welcomed, as have the measures in the budget. I know there is an ongoing question of income adequacy and we are still in a cost-of-living crisis. I understand the concerns about core rates and how people see them as inadequate. The full picture has to include the lump sums and they are getting out to people this week. It is the nature of the Exchequer funds available to us; some of it is unstable and we have to be careful with what we have. That is essentially the logic of the lump sums. Over time, we would all like to see some of those lump sums going into the core rates but that will not happen over one or two budgets.Energy credits will be on the way as well.

Concerns were raised about disability supports and questions around the Green Paper. That is being worked through. It is a straw man proposal and an attempt to address the fact people with disabilities have additional costs. It is part of the response to the cost of disability report. We would encourage input and engagement. Officials in the Department are going around the country explaining the proposals, as well as listening to people.

It is important legislation in terms of reforms to the State pension, giving people flexibility with regard to when they start taking the State pension. Last week I was in a clinic with an employer who has a number of employees who want to continue working but face quite a tax bill if they get the State pension now and continue working. This measure will make their lives easier and allow them to take home more money as well.

Important questions were raised around supports for carers. The Minister has been consistent over a number of budgets in her commitments to carers. The Bill will see contributory pension going to carers for the first time.

I thank everyone for their input. The Minister has been collecting questions and requests for clarification during the session and will respond to them all in due course.

Question put and agreed to.