Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 March 2010

1:00 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. This matter relates to last week's announcement by the Government of the pensions framework for the future. Everybody acknowledges that the State faces a significant liability in pension provision. However, I was contacted by a constituent who represented a number of others in a similar position. He highlighted that his pension agreement provided for a reduction in his occupational pension from his private sector employer when he turned 65 years because he would then be eligible for the traditional State contributory pension. As a result of the Government's announcement that pension age will increase to 68 years, for these individuals it will mean that between the ages of 65 and 66 years they will experience a significant shortfall in their pensions, as they will only be entitled to €107 per week. Has the Government examined this potential anomaly if pension age is to be increased to between 66 and 68 years? The means test will also affect many people like my constituent. This man's wife is employed part time. Therefore, if a supplementary payment is made during the 12 months he is without a full pension and it is means-tested, that will have a serious knock-on effect for him.

I will reserve a number of questions until the Minister of State has replied. Perhaps there is a straightforward answer and the Government has foreseen his loophole. If not, I will have further questions.

2:00 pm

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State with special responsibility for Integration and Community, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

The national pensions framework which was launched on 3 March sets out the Government's intention for a radical and wide-scale reform of the pensions system. The framework contains a new approach to pensions policy which will allow Ireland to meet the challenges of an ageing society and a reducing workforce. The framework is our plan for future pensions reform and encompasses all aspects of pensions from social welfare to private occupational pensions and public sector pensions reform.

In developing the framework we were informed by the range of views expressed during the comprehensive consultation process that followed publication of the Green Paper on pensions. The aim of the framework is to deliver security, equity, choice and clarity for the individual, the employer and the State. It also aims to increase pensions coverage, particularly among low to middle income groups and to ensure State support for pensions is equitable and sustainable. It is set in a context in which people are living longer and the cost of financing pensions is falling to a diminishing share of the population.

There are currently six workers for every pensioner and by 2050 this ratio is expected to have decreased dramatically to only 2:1. The task of financing increasing pension spending will therefore fall to a diminishing share of the population. If we want to be in a position to maintain the value of the State pension at 35% of average earnings, it is necessary to increase the State pension age.

At present the contributory State pension is paid at the age of 66. A minority of people qualify for a transition State pension at the age of 65. From 2014, age 66 will be the standard for everyone. The qualifying age for the State pension will also be increased to 67 years of age in 2021 and 68 years of age in 2028. The changes relating to State pension announced in the framework will also enable people to work longer and receive an actuarially increased benefit or lump sum or to make up any shortfalls in their contribution record, thereby allowing them to receive additional benefits at a later date. Even with the changes to the State pension, State expenditure on pensions is still expected to increase dramatically. These changes will just help to keep the increase at a manageable level.

Average life expectancy is set to rise even further in the future, up to 89 years for women and 83 years for men. People will still, therefore, be spending at least the same amount of time in retirement as they are today, even though with a later State pension age.

The majority of people covered by Irish defined benefit occupational pension schemes are members of schemes which integrate with the contributory State pension. An integrated scheme is one where the pension payable takes into account the contributory State pension and looks at the State pension as part of the pension package promised to employees on retirement. There is a linkage, therefore, between the date on which retirement benefits are paid from the scheme and the date on which the contributory State pension is payable.

Where an occupational pension scheme provides for retirement before the date on which the State pension is payable, the scheme may, in addition to the pension payment due from the scheme, pay a supplementary or bridging pension in respect of that part of the pension which would equate to the appropriate rate of contributory State pension payable up to the date specified in the scheme rules. It is acknowledged that the changes to the date for eligibility for a contributory State pension will have an impact on these schemes. A person can apply for another social welfare payment in any intervening period between the termination of the supplementary or bridging pension and the commencement of the contributory State pension. It is also important that a person who retires before the age on which the State pension is paid would continue to maintain his or her social insurance record either through employment, by making voluntary social insurance contributions or by securing credited contributions so that his or her State pension entitlement is optimised.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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While I welcome most of what the Minister of State said, a difficulty that arises is that the individual concerned had an agreed contract with his former employers who provided major employment in Waterford city in the south eastern region but who are now no longer in existence. The possibility that the scheme, of which this individual is a member, would pay a supplementary bridging pension does not and will not arise for him.

While I welcome that the Minister of State indicated in the last paragraph of his reply that a person can apply for another social welfare payment in the intervening period, that is not a good enough answer. I acknowledge that the Minister of State is not the Minister responsible for this Department but if this pension framework is to work, that line must be much stronger and there must be a firm commitment from the Department of Social and Family Affairs that a mechanism will be put in place for the very small number of people who will find themselves in this position with potentially devastating consequences in terms of their household income. The income of the individual to whom I refer will fall to €100 a week and there is also the question of the introduction of means-testing to which his wife's part-time job might be subject. The Minister of State said that: "A person can apply for another social welfare payment in any intervening period". I want him to convey to the Department of Social and Family Affairs that this provision needs to be firmed up and clarified if the pension framework is to work. I do not have a problem with the pension framework. The pension time-bomb has been referred to in this House and most people acknowledge it. However, for the specific people in occupational pension schemes of businesses that are not in a position to top up those schemes and to give those people that extra allowance for the 12 or 24-month period, the position of the Department of Social and Family Affairs must be clear in terms of ensuring that top-up is made.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State with special responsibility for Integration and Community, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the points raised by the Senator and will relay them to the Minister. If one tries to moderate or vary a scheme in any way, a concern and caution is that anomalies can be created, but I take the Senator's point. He appreciated the point about welfare payments and so forth. While the broad framework of the scheme has been published, an implementation group will go through the finer detail in the coming years. I will refer the Senator's points to the Minister.