Thursday, 16 December 2021
Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage
I thank all the Senators for their contributions to the Bill today. There was a wide range of matters raised and I will try to go through some of them shortly.
Like all Members of this House, I meet people in my constituency and discuss the matters that affect their lives. I fully recognise the importance of our social protection system. As a former credit union manager, I know all too well the real-life examples of people who, when they fall on hard times, need the support of the Department of Social Protection. Social protection is about helping people when they need it. The decisions I have made as Minister and I will continue to make will be guided by how we can support those most in need of our help.
I have secured the largest social welfare budget package in over 14 years and I have managed to do that in the context of already unprecedented spending to support people during the pandemic.As Senator Pauline O'Reilly said, I cannot do everything in one budget. No Minister could do that. That is the reality of being in government. The purpose of this Bill is to make real improvements within the resources we have available to make the social welfare system work better for people who are unemployed, for our pensioners, carers, people with disabilities, lone parents and those who live alone.
I will try to go through these points as quickly as I can. I hope I have covered most of the issues that have been raised. I thank Senator Ahearn for his kind comments about our staff. I thank all Members who have complimented the staff in the Department of Social Protection. I am very proud to be the Minister for Social Protection. The staff have been absolutely outstanding. The Senator mentioned parent's benefit. I am delighted that we are able to extend it. I worked with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, who has policy responsibility for that area. It does make a difference. We want to see more men taking up the offer of parent's leave. It brings more equalisation into the workforce as well. Everybody will be seen the same when they take maternity, paternity or parent's leave. That was not always the case. I remember taking maternity leave myself long years ago. It was sometimes perceived as an impediment to one's career progression. I am glad we are moving away from that. The more we equalise the benefits we give to men and women in terms of childcare, the more equal our society will become.
The Senator mentioned hot school meals. I was delighted we were able to extend that programme to almost 300 schools. It is hard to beat a good hot dinner in the middle of the day for any child. I was speaking to a few teachers who said the hot dinner does not get left in the bottom of the schoolbag to go blue with mould. They eat it and they enjoy it, and a lot of them are going back for more. They really do appreciate it in schools across the country. It is something I am completely committed to. It helps a child concentrate. At least they get the one good hot meal. That is so important for their education and development. We are carrying out a review of that pilot scheme. It is definitely something I want to continue to progress further.
Many Senators brought up the issue of carers. I was delighted to make changes in this budget to the carer's means test and to a number of disregards. I want to continue to work with the different organisations. They have very much welcomed the changes I have made to the income disregard. I really wanted to improve that. I am aware of a lot of cases where a partner, usually a mother, might have to give up her job to care for a sick child but because the husband was working or because they had some savings, they did not qualify. We have made those changes. A couple can earn up to €750 a week. The first €50,000 of someone's savings will not be taken into account as part of the means test. We have increased the carer's support grant and the weekly payment. We have reformed the means test. My next priority is to make sure we can provide our carers with a pension. That has been talked about. It is part of the recommendations from the Commission on Pensions. I want to start to progress that as soon as we can.
In response to Senator Craughwell, I have a note here and I am going to give him the update. He tabled an amendment to remove the pensions whereby public officeholders pay a contribution of 4% of their remuneration, where it exceeds €5,200 per annum, to the social fund. As I mentioned last year in the Chamber, such a measure would definitely need cross-party support. We have to get that before we can go any further. It is something that should be discussed with the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Rural and Community Development. Perhaps this House could write to the committee and ask it to take up this issue. There is a former Member of this House who currently has no income. The Class K contributions that were made do not cover them and they do not have a job. I agree with the Senator that we need to look at it, but we need to do so on a cross-party basis. I ask that the Senator ask the joint committee to look at the matter to see how we can bring it forward.
Senators Ardagh and Black raised a number of issues relating to PRSI. We have targeted this budget at the most vulnerable. The ESRI has said all of the four lowest income deciles will benefit from the tax and welfare measures announced in the budget, with the largest gains in the bottom two deciles. The ESRI analysis shows that the increases for qualified children, living alone and fuel allowance will particularly benefit groups at higher risk of poverty. We get the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, report from the Vincentians. We take it into account. It certainly determines what we put in our budget in terms of targeting measures. We will continue to incrementally increase these supports. As I said, we cannot do everything in the one year. I particularly want to target those least well off in this budget.
On the PRSI rate relating to the EWSS, I am doing that. The EWSS is actually the responsibility of the Minister for Finance. I am extending it in line with the changes he has made. On the threshold for the fuel allowance, I increased the disregard for the fuel allowance up to €120 per week. We have been doing work there. We used the MESL research to inform policy. The higher rates of payment for children aged 12 and over were introduced as a direct result of this research. We provide the funding to the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice to produce this report every year. We do take it on board and take their views into account.
Senator Ardagh talked about local employment services, as did Senator Boyhan. I absolutely recognise the good work that is being carried out by local employment services across the country. They do great work in helping people with career guidance, CV and interview preparation and upskilling and training supports. However, the clear advice from the Chief State Solicitor's office, the Attorney General and the Comptroller and Auditor General is that the Department of Social Protection is in breach of national and EU procurement rules and that there needs to be a competitive procurement for our employment service contracts. We have no choice but to put this out for tender. That is the position. We have worked very closely with all of these providers. My officials have had numerous meetings with them. We have no choice but to put this out to tender. What I can say is that there will be consideration given to the community links and social service they provide.I do not want to hear people saying this because it is not the truth. We are absolutely not trying to privatise those services. We have to put it out for tender and, as I said, we have been working very hard with providers. I do not know of any reason they cannot win the tenders. If they are providing a good service, they should have confidence in the work they are doing. They will have to collaborate, there is no doubt about it, but when we all work together we get better results. At the end of the day, the most important person in all of this is the end user. I want to see people who need help, support and encouragement getting back into the workplace. I want them to receive that support because they deserve it. I just wanted to put that on the record of the House.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about the fuel allowance. The allowance is currently paid to more than 365,000 households, which are at greatest risk of poverty, for 28 weeks. As part of budget 2022, we increased that to €33 per week. There are, of course, other issues around energy costs and we have a number of other supports available, such as the different grants for house insulation. The best way to tackle energy costs in the long term is to improve the energy efficiency of the dwelling house, which is what the retrofit grants are for.
Senator Ward referred to cohabiting couples. I discussed that with his colleague last night. I am committed to submitting a report to the committee that will be set up as a result of the recommendations made by the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality, of which I understand Deputy Bacik will be chair. My Department will produce a report which will feed into that. The chief appeals officer was mentioned earlier. Most delays in this regard are due to a lack of information being provided, much of which is medical information, and that slows down the process for people. I will appoint two more appeals officers to assist with this work. Under the legislation, for some reason there could only be one. I will, therefore, change the legislation which should help improve the time issue.
Senator Black raised the situation of musicians. I understand they have had a really difficult time. They can receive the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, if they have lost their job and they can earn €960 over an eight-week period and still receive the PUP. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, introduced a multimillion euro range of supports and has been engaging with them. Last week, she announced a €50 million sectoral support package. We will continue to engage with musicians.
In response to Senator Conway, the Cost of Disability in Ireland - Research Report was published last week. It has now gone to a strategy steering group that is chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. Yesterday I addressed a meeting of the group that will look at that report. The cost of disability is a whole-of-government issue. It is not just the remit of one Department. There is much information in the report and I know the group will go through that. It is a good piece of work that we need to look at in order to consider how we can improve the situation for those with disabilities. I was delighted to change the law, which Senator Conway mentioned, so that Catherine Gallagher could do a PhD without it impacting on her disability payment and, indeed, I named it "Catherine's law" after her. I was glad to be able to make those changes. The Senator also said that the adaptation grant follows the user. This is an issue we should look at and I am happy to do so.
Senators Buttimer and Maria Byrne brought up the issue of travel agents, the hotel sector and bus operators, EWSS and CRSS. That is a matter for my colleague, the Minister Deputy Donohoe. I have raised these issues with him and I will certainly take them up on behalf of the Senators again. Senator Maria Byrne also raised the issue of people who can only work part time due to an illness. I increased the amount people on disability allowance can earn before it impacts on their payments. I will look at that issue on behalf of Senator Byrne.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his kind comments. I was delighted to have served as the Minister for Justice for six months. It was a great experience which I enjoyed and I was glad to be able to fill in for my colleague, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, so that she could take maternity leave. This is an issue that we in the Houses of the Oireachtas need to address and about which legislation will have to be passed. This should be done as a matter of urgency. I know the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are committed to doing that.
Once again, I thank Senators. This is my second social protection budget. I have seen first-hand the extraordinary effort the staff of the Department made when they were faced with a crisis. Their first thought is always of the person who needs our support and to provide a high-quality service to him or her. What the staff did, and continue to do, was extraordinary. I am thankful for the recognition they have received in this House. For my part, as the Minister, I will continue to work with all Members of this House, the joint committee and the organisations representing our most vulnerable groups to continue to make improvements to the social welfare system, to alleviate poverty, to support people into sustainable employment and to provide a social safety net to people throughout the country and throughout their lives. I look forward to progressing this Bill in the coming days with the support of both Houses so that people can feel the benefits. I thank Senators for their contributions and I will certainly take them on board.