Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2024

Social Welfare and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2023: Second Stage


1:00 pm

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent) | Oireachtas source

The Minister is very welcome to the Seanad. This is an important Bill and I very much welcome it. I will deal with a couple of issues before I address the Minister’s speech.

By amending the Social Welfare Acts to exclude the assessment of child maintenance payments from the social welfare means test, the Bill can potentially alleviate financial burdens on custodial parents and ensure children's welfare is not affected by such assessments. The repeal of provisions relating to liable relatives can simplify the social welfare system, removing complexities associated with holding relatives financially responsible for social welfare payments.

The Bill makes provisions for individuals granted permission to reside in the State under section 60(6) of the International Protection Act 2015, potentially offering supports and assistance to this specific group of individuals aligning with humanitarian and immigration consideration. This Bill includes provisions for the Short Title, construction and commencement, which can provide clarity and guidance on the application and interpretation of the amended provisions, thereby promoting legal certainty and consistency, especially relating to the International Protection Act 2015.

This legislation is long-awaited by custodial parents and I very much welcome it.

The Bill references the provision of certain matters relating to the individual granted permission to reside under the International Protection Act 2015, but without specific details, the potential impacts and practical implications of these provisions remain unclear. The proposed changes to the International Protection Act 2015 would disqualify certain individuals from receiving assistance specified in section 139(1) of the principal Act if they are resident in a designated accommodation centre. These changes will also amend section 60 of the International Protection Act 2015 to include the definition of a designated accommodation centre and specify the entitlements of individuals with valid permission to reside in the State. There are concerns about accountability and implementation. The repeal of provisions relating to liable relatives may raise concerns about accountability for financial responsibilities within families, potentially shifting the burden onto social welfare systems and raising questions about equity.

The Bill’s impact on the broader legal and policy framework, including its implications for family law, child support and immigration policies, needs to be considered. Individuals with permission to reside in the State will be disqualified from certain social welfare benefits if they are resident in these accommodation centres. The changes to the International Protection Act may lead to a shift in the allocation of resources and funds within the social welfare system that could impact taxpayers, who will bear the burden of the additional costs associated with providing medical care and supplementary welfare allowances to such individuals, given that they fund these services through their contributions.

There are some ways in which these changes could be abused by individuals living in designated accommodation centres. There may be individuals who falsely declare their residency status in order to continue receiving benefits despite residing in designated accommodation centres. Without proper checks and monitoring, some individuals may attempt to exploit loopholes. Individuals could claim to have dual residency, providing false information about their living situations to continue receiving benefits from the designated accommodation centres and other sources. There is the possibility of collusion between individuals residing in designated accommodation centres and external parties where false information is provided to maintain eligibility for benefits. There may also be legal loopholes or ambiguities in the legislation that could be exploited by individuals or groups seeking to continue benefiting from the social welfare system despite the intended disqualifications outlined in the proposed changes. These changes could place additional strain on the Department of Social Protection’s staff working in the area of designated accommodation centres and related supports and welfare, including the citizens’ advice centres in various areas. The reductions in financial assistance may drive increased demand for assistance in other forms, including the supplementary welfare allowance, further stretching available resources. While I welcome the decrease, I wonder whether an assessment of HR and other costs has been carried out? It is essential that we have robust monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, establish clear guidance and procedures for assessing residency and eligibility for benefits, and apply consistency to prevent any potential abuses of the system.

I wish to make a couple of points about what Minister said. I am disappointed that the child maintenance agency has not been progressed. It would be an important agency for custodial parents, but it seems to have been sidelined because a consensus could not be reached. That is a great shame, and I might take the matter up with the Minister for Justice.

I welcome this morning’s announcement about the changes to the child benefit scheme being brought forward to May from September. I do not know why the Government announces these carrots in its October budget and dangle them in front of parents when they could be implemented sooner, but I welcome the decision. I am sure that many parents with 18-year-old schoolgoing children in secondary education will be able to avail of it.

I wish to digress for a minute, and I hope the Minister will be able to help me. The Minister met some people from the Irish Deaf Society this afternoon regarding the voucher scheme for sign language. I do not know whether it was the Minister or someone from her Department who met them. Will she provide an update, if she has one-----


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