Seanad debates

Friday, 27 April 2012

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012: Committee Stage

 

1:00 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister back to the House.

SECTION 1

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, subsection (1), line 11, after "Welfare" to insert "(Miscellaneous Provisions)".

Ba mhaith liom an leasú seo a mholadh mar is Bille íontach tábhachtach é seo. Ba mhaith liom a lua leis an Aire, ós rud é nach raibh sí anseo nuair a bhí deis agam labhairt níos túisce, go bhfuil an-díomá orm chomh scioptha is atá an Bille á bhrú tríd. Ní thugann sé morán deise díriú ar na ceisteanna móra atá á árdú.

An fáth a bhfuilim ag moladh an leasú seo ná nach mór a thógáil san áireamh go dtógann an Bille go leor ceisteanna san áireamh, go háirithe ceist na dtuismitheoirí aonair a bhfuil leatrom mór á leagadh orthu ins an mBille. Táimid á mholadh seo mar caithfear sin a thógáil san áireamh.

Ba chóir go mbéadh níos mó ama fáighte leis na leasaithe a phlé. Ní thuigimid cén fáth go bhfuil an Bille á bhrú tríd chomh scioptha seo. An é go bhfuil brú ón troika na beartais atá luaite ann a chur i bhfeidhm i gceann seachtaine? Más ea, níl sé sin iomlán ceart nó cóir agus léiríonn sé drochmheas don tSeanad, nó dos na Seanadóirí atá anseo, nach bhfuilimid ag fáil na deise cheart scagadh mar is ceart a dhéanamh ar na gnéithe éagsúla a bhaineann le cúrsaí pinsin, le cúrsaí morgáiste agus leis na scéimeanna fostaíochta pobail agus mar sin de. Táimid ag moladh go ndéanfar an leasú mar táimid ag seasamh dos na grúpaí éagsúla a mbeidh tionchar aige seo orthu.

We propose this amendment because we feel the phrase "miscellaneous provisions" gives more of an indication as to the range of measures in the Bill which we feel, in particular with regard to lone parents, is very punitive and badly thought out. The debate on Second Stage suggests there does not appear to be support from any sector for some of the provisions in the Bill. We will go into more detail on this as we go through Committee Stage.

The speed at which the Bill is being rushed through the Seanad is a slight to this House. Little time was given for amendments to be submitted, for proper consultation with affected groups and for consideration of the implications of some of the new amendments being made. This is detrimental to the democratic progress. Sin an fáth go bhfuil muid ag moladh seo.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I apologise, as I was delayed by traffic and roadworks in the Phoenix Park on my way back to the House. I was at an historic opening of the first multidenominational school campus, which houses a new community national school and secondary school and a large sports centre, at Phibblestown in Ongar.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I presume that was not in the Minister's constituency.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I hope I did not inconvenience the Seanad too much. The campus is a great achievement and a great reflection on all of the political parties that have been involved in the development. This multicampus approach will be the forerunner for many such schools. It comprises children of approximately 60 nationalities.

One reason for the delay was the blessings and thoughts from no fewer than five religious bodies plus the Humanist Association of Ireland. Due to the plurality and inclusivity of the event and the fact that three buildings needed to be opened, it took longer than anticipated. Indeed, it was one of the longest opening ceremonies, but it is a great credit to the community, children and teachers.

I do not propose to accept this amendment. I am informed by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel that the Bill's current name is sufficient to relate to the various amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and the Pensions Act 1990 that are to be included in this Bill. The Senators' Committee Stage amendments will also be covered. In these circumstances, there is no need to include a reference to miscellaneous provisions in the Bill's name. The provisions to which Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred were announced in the budget and are not new by any means.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Even though the measures were announced in the budget, there has been a great deal of toing and froing as well as much press spin on, for example, the provision of child care for lone parents, which was not announced on budget day. The Dáil made many amendments to the Bill. To say these provisions were announced on budget day and that we knew what was coming is not adequate. We should have been given more time to take yesterday's Dáil amendments on board. The Bills Office has told us that it was under pressure last night to try to have the Bill ready for 9.15 a.m. However, I am willing to accede to the Minister's decision, given her explanation for not wanting to accept my amendment. We will raise further points subsequently.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 6 are related. Amendment No. 7 is also related and is alternative to amendment No. 6. Therefore, amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 will be discussed together. Is that agreed?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Are we still on section 1?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Yes. Is it agreed to discuss the amendments together?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Does the Senator want to discuss them separately?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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We would be willing to discuss them section by section.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We are doing that, but this is a series of amendments.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Within the section.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We are still on section 1.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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They should be taken together.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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That is normal. Is that agreed?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I wish to raise a point of order. My apologies to Senator Zappone. The list of grouped amendments is not clear. My list refers to amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 6, but amendment No. 6 is to section 4. For this reason I was hoping that they might be discussed separately.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Amendments can overlap and the Senator can contribute on them now.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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We would prefer to keep the sections separate, if that was agreeable. This is a complicated Bill.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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May I seek clarification? Please forgive my ignorance, but our amendment and the other amendments relate to section 4, yet they are being discussed in section 1. Why is that?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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They are related.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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We want to discuss our amendment when we reach section 4 because that is the section to which it relates.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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That can be allowed, but some of the amendments are connected.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 could be discussed together and amendments Nos. 6 and 7 could be discussed separately.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is it agreed to discuss amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 to section 1 together?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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We wish to have our amendment No. 4 debated when we reach section 4. I am seeking clarity. Why have amendments to section 4 been included in section 1?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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They are obviously related.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Perhaps the document is incorrect.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Amendment No. 4 in Senator Mooney's name refers to section 1 on page 5 of the Bill.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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As I understand it, this is a question not of where the section lies, but of where the amendment falls in the Bill. The amendment is made to page 5 of the Bill, which is section 1.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I fully understand. The amendment is on activating relevant sections.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is it agreed to discuss amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 together? Agreed. We can discuss amendments Nos. 6 and 7 when we reach later sections. All of the amendments are related and we will only repeat ourselves. We must bear in mind that there are scores of amendments. This is just a question of grouping. Does Senator Ó Clochartaigh still object?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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In which case we will discuss amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 together.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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If we are coupling the amendments, will I address my amendment, other Senators will address theirs and the Minister will respond?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senators will discuss amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 only. That has been accepted.

3:00 pm

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following subsection:

"(5) Section 4 shall not come into force until a date to be set by the Minister for Social Protection, that date not being sooner than 3 years from the enactment of this Act.".

I welcome the Minister back to the House and thank her for her attendance. On Second Stage, I acknowledged and affirmed her vision of reform of the social welfare and child care systems. Several times, the Minister has stated in the House and elsewhere that much of the rationale for the inclusion in section 4, which we are seeking to amend, was that investment in the one-parent family payment to date has not been effective in terms of the reduction in the number of people in poverty or at risk of adult or child poverty. I am with the Minister in that regard and I am with my colleagues as regards introducing reforms.

The Minister also indicated earlier that the reforms in this Bill are coupled with reforms, including the earnings disregard in relation to the one family parent payment, in the Social Welfare 2011 Bill 2011 enacted prior to Christmas last.

My colleagues and I tabled an amendment to section 11 of the Social Welfare Act 2011 but were informed that the amendment was ruled out of order as it involves a charge on the Exchequer. As such, we will not be able to move that amendment. The Seanad debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011 was guillotined and, as such, we did not reach section 11, which is one of the reasons we tabled our amendment. Also, our arguments in regard to the change being introduced in terms of section 4, coupled with what has been done in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011, is what drives the Minister's effort in terms of reforming the one parent family payment against her own vision. It is why we are especially keen to move the amendment to section 11. The changes in terms of the reduction in the earning disregard provided us with legislation in advance. However, I am not sure that was an appropriate use of forward dated legislation. The Minister incorporated transitional provisions in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2011 in the form of forward dated legislation. This type of legislation is usually used to protect people. However, in this case it does not appear to be a protection. We are arguing it was not a protection as the legislation provided for a reduction of the earnings disregard for the one parent family payment, bringing it more in line with the rules associated with the jobseeker's allowance.

I conducted a simple exercise comparing a couple on the jobseeker's allowance with a person on a one parent family payment, where both households take up part time work for €160 per week. In my example both families have a three year old child. In 2016 the one parent household will have only €18 more in income than will the two parent household, which €18 is all that will be available for child care even if the person has two children. As regards the change already introduced, it does not appear that there exists an equality between a one parent and two parent household with regard to social welfare support. One family has two parents available to seek work and care for the children, which can be shared, while the other does not have that support in terms of child care. With the higher earnings disregard for one parent families that equality or equity existed. We believe there was a reversal of that equity in the Bill enacted prior to Christmas.

As I indicated in my earlier remarks, the one parent family payment, with a higher earnings disregard than the jobseeker's payment, provided a recognition of the greater practical financial burden - in the main the cost of child care - faced by one parent families trying to access employment and raise children. The social welfare code reasonably presumes that in a two parent household where one person is working part time the caring of the child can be shared, thereby avoiding the additional costs of child care. As acknowledged by the Minister, it is an imperfect system because it fails to address the need for a proper system of child care for all families.

The social welfare system was up until that point effectively compensating for policy failure or, as the NESC report on the developmental welfare state called it, the "services deficit". Equally, it might be argued that this system traps one parent families in part time work. I accept that is what the Minister is trying to change. However, such claims miss the obvious point, namely, that the trap is a reality of basic household finances. A single parent cannot work full time if he-she cannot pay for child care. The same applies in respect of two parent households where both parents are seeking full time work. It cannot be done unless child care is affordable and of good quality. Until we have proper child care services, the earnings disregard related to the one parent family payment should not be reduced any further than the €130 payable in 2012. However, our amendment on this matter has been ruled out of order.

The Department of Social Protection provided us with a statement of the savings related to the earlier reform of reducing the earnings disregard. In 2012, €14.2 million will be saved, in 2013 it will be €32 million, in 2014 it will be €50 million and in 2015 it will be €63 million, which amounts to a saving of €159 million over the next couple of years as a result of that change in the legislation. Is this amount part of the investment to which the Minister referred in her speeches, which is not being used in an effective manner to move people beyond the risk of poverty, and that needs to be leveraged differently? I might be inclined to agree that perhaps we need to leverage that investment differently. Are these savings to be used to develop the system of child care of which the Minister speaks? If not, then the change in terms of the earnings disregard, coupled with - I am coming now to the reason we tabled the amendment to section 4 - the changes in regard to section 4 in terms of the lowering of the relevant age, will, we believe, increase the risk of poverty for lone parents and their children.

The Minister will note that we have not tabled an amendment that suggests section 4 be deleted or that we oppose that section. We decided instead to recommend the insertion of a clause that would provide the Minister with a three year period to put in place, through a staged process, a system of affordable, high quality, out of school child care for all children in Ireland. This is our way of trying to acknowledge the strategic vision which the Minister has outlined and which we affirm. The type of child care service promised by the Minister in her Second Stage Dáil speech is what was confirmed by the Tánaiste in his response to queries from the Opposition during Leaders' Questions the following day. The Tánaiste, in response to a query from Deputy Martin, stated that the Deputy knew well that it is normal practise that when legislation is brought before the House and enacted there are provisions for the commencement of various sections of that legislation. Why then does the Minister continue to resist inserting into this Bill a provision for the commencement of section 4 on the basis of her commitment to a significantly better system of child care that currently exists? The Tánaiste continued stating that the measures related to the lowering of the age of the youngest child will go "hand-in-hand" - that is the metaphor - with changes in the delivery and provision of child care and that it will be possible to implement these changes over time.

The Tánaiste also stated that the legislation then before the Dáil and before us today is being enacted in the context of reforming the manner in which child care is being delivered. Why can we not have this cemented in law? We suggest a three year time period. It is up to the Minister if she wishes to change that timescale to two or four years. We believe three years would be an adequate time to begin in a significant manner a State subsidised child care and after school care system and that this should be cemented in law. Also, there should be consistent regulation across all providers throughout the country and a significant investment in the development of after school care in Ireland which has not to date been available. I know the Minister is aware of that and that is her vision. This is the big change which the Minister is pushing and we are with her on it. However, we believe it should be provided for in law. The Minister is speaking about a comprehensive system that is first and foremost based around the developmental needs of children. Investing in out-of-school child care is also critical to enabling lone parents to combine employment with care of their school going children.

The Minister has just returned to the Seanad from the opening of a new multidenominational school campus. The development of after-school services should include schools. That is the reason we are moving this amendment.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House for this important debate. A number of Senators have mentioned lone parents on Second Stage and the need for proper child care. In the Dáil the Minister mentioned that there was a need for the Government to move on the issue of providing child care, and this would be linked to changes in the thresholds, particularly in reducing the age limit from 14 years to seven years. Many people, including me, welcomed those comments. We want the Government to move beyond fine words and ensure there are sufficient provisions within the Bill if it is to get support from those of us who were disgusted by the way lone parents were singled out in this budget and treated with reductions in their income.

I do not see why the Minister would refuse to provide for a commencement time period in the Bill. Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 make sense and if the Government is serious about the issue and believes it will be able to provide quality, affordable child care that lone parents need, there is no reason it cannot accept them Subvention rates to community crèches have been cut by 5%, so we are seeing cuts to child care services and funding while the Minister is saying we will improve child care services.

We know affordable child care and after-school provision is lacking in this country and must be enhanced. We all support that process but we want to hear the Government's plans on the issue. The Minister asked Senators and Deputies to take a leap of faith and accept the bona fides of the Government in that it would bring forward child care proposals and provide child care that all parents, including lone parents, need. She indicated the Government would enhance child care provision and I hope she will reduce the cost of child care. Our figures show that Ireland has one of the highest levels of child care cost in Europe and it is important that we have not only world class child care facilities but that they are affordable for the people who need them.

It is important that the Minister accepts these amendments. We are opposed to section 4 in its entirety because of the way lone parents were singled out. It is important to remind ourselves of the kind of cuts put in place for lone parents.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We are not dealing with section 4.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I am making the point in case the Minister argues that we are making amendments to section 1 but we are opposed to section 4. I am setting out our context. We have listened to the Minister's comments in the Dáil and it seems she will go ahead with her plans to reduce the qualifying criteria to the youngest child being seven years old. The Minister could accept amendments Nos. 3 and 4. We should remind ourselves of the cuts which have an effect on lone parents. They include a reduction in income disregard from €146.50 to €130, with plans to lower the level to €60 by 2016. The Minister acknowledges child care cost and a lack of provision in the area. All we are getting is fine words but we have not seen deeds or action. We want the Minister to spell out clearly the plans of Government to enhance child care. Will she hold off on reducing the thresholds for entitlements so the child care provisions can be put in place?

There will also be cuts to community employment schemes and entitlements for lone parents. Lone parents want to take part in schemes and better themselves in order to provide a better life for their families but we see more cuts to affect those efforts. On Second Stage Senator Healy Eames spoke about a dependency culture but there are very few lone parents who see themselves as dependent on the State and wanting to be in that kind of cycle. We have 460,000 people out of work and the opportunities are not there currently for many lone parents. They need income and child care support. When those people go back to employment, re-train or participate in community employment schemes, they need income support to pay for child care. There is no other income support so where would these people get the money they require? The Minister should put herself in the shoes of a lone parent who is on a CE scheme. With the existing benefits, how in God's name would they be able to pay for child care? I do not see how it will work.

All of the other provisions in the budget, including changes to the back to school, clothing and footwear allowances, the household charge and other elements in the social welfare Bill will have an impact on lone parents. There are many lone parent advocacy groups who have lobbied the Minister and all of us to ensure that we try to correct bad decisions made by this Government. I was one of those who commended the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, when he put his hand up with respect to DEIS schools and said he made a mistake. He indicated that he should not have targeted the most disadvantaged people, communities and schools. He reviewed the issue, went back to the drawing board and admitted his mistake. The Minister here today went some of the way when she stated that there should be a link between these measures and child care support. It seems that these are just words and we need more convincing evidence from the Government that those child care provisions will be put in place.

The Minister's best course of action is to accept the amendments so there can be no implementation of a reduction in the age threshold until child care provisions are in place. They are reasonable amendments and I hope she will accept them. My colleague, Senator Ó Cloch-----

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I have the same problem with Bruton and Burton.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I have been called worse.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I should say that last night I cracked a back tooth and am finding it difficult to speak. It is very painful.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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We can put the Senator out of his misery.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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It is painful to speak but it may also be painful for those on the other side of the House when I do so.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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It is always good to hear the Senator speak.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I apologise for my speech impediment. We all want to stand by the people who are vulnerable and try to make life as comfortable as possible for themselves and their families. We know lone parents are a vulnerable group which should be protected. For example, when the Labour Party was in opposition it opposed moves by Fianna Fáil to reduce the age threshold from 18 years to 14 years.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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That would have been over a number of years.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I accept that. The Labour Party opposed the measure and it must be even more difficult for Fianna Fáil Senators to sit here and have to listen to the Minister justify reducing the age threshold to seven years. She opposed the policy which the previous Government introduced. I hope the Minister will accept the bona fides of the arguments being put forward not just by Opposition parties but by the Independent Senators who are concerned about the impact this will have on lone parents. Nobody wants to see vulnerable people targeted or affected by budget changes when we believe it will have a negative impact on their quality of life. We are trying to make sure that before the provisions are introduced, which we oppose, the Minister should do what she said she would and provide the child care services needed.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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For someone with dental problems, Senator Cullinane is not tongue tied. He is doing well.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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If I allow my imagination to run away, I can visualise the possibility of Sinn Féin going into government. Sinn Féin sees it as a probability. A book could be written about the positions it has taken, which it will then have to be turn around and flip-flop and justify in the context-----

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is this relevant to the amendment?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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It is very relevant.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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The Senator is talking about going into coalition with us.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Fianna Fáil will not be around for us to go into coalition with - the party will be extinct.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I will remind Senator Cullinane of that.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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The Labour Party will not be around.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We have a long day ahead of us and I urge Senators to stick to the Bill and the amendments before us.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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It is the nature of the political system that Senator Cullinane makes points about the parties in Government, who were previously in opposition and who opposed much of what was proposed in the context of this amendment. I do not want to bring up the quotes but they make for interesting and somewhat scary reading. I refer to the barbs and missiles launched at the then Fianna Fáil Minister. The Fianna Fáil proposals were to reduce the age from 22 years to 14 on a phased basis but not to seven years of age. The then Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, emphasised the need to provide effective support services and child care provision before the proposed modernisation of the one parent family payment.

All of us applauded the Minister for the position she took in the Dáil and perhaps she can amplify her statements in light of the debate that followed. She can correct me if I am wrong but I understand she will not introduce this until there is sufficient child care provision structures to ensure it minimises the adverse impact on lone parents. Notwithstanding the Minister's position, which we admire, it is informed by her background and the forensic approach of her accountancy perspective of what is possible. It is also informed by her professional background working among the poor and the disadvantaged in that most Third World continent, Africa. I have never doubted the Minister's bona fides in this regard. She is in the right job and she is the right person for the job. We acknowledge the difficulties she faces in trying to reduce a budget that takes up 40% of Government expenditure on an annual basis. I am sure the Minister does not wish to be remembered as the one who dismantled the structures to help the disadvantaged. The reason I am looking at this on a macroeconomic basis is that, in light of the Minister's comments, I wonder if she will be able to achieve her ambitions.

We cannot foretell the future and I am not attempting to gaze into a crystal ball but we can look at the signs. Brendan Keenan cut to the chase, as he often does when economic matters are discussed, in a readable way in the Irish Independent today. He talked about the report of the troika and how we are the best boy or girl in the class. Well done to the Government. It is now long forgotten that Fianna Fáil, which introduced the austerity measures in the first place, adhered to the memorandum of agreement for the first couple of reports. As Mr. Keenan pointed out, as did other economic commentators, the troika will be back in town in July for the next assessment, the seventh report. By that time, the Minister and her colleagues will be engaging in the preliminary discussions on the budget Estimates for 2013 and preliminary discussions on budgetary changes and proposals formulated in the Department. I have no doubt that the Minister will fight tooth and nail, as she did last year, to hold onto as much of the budget as she can. However, the term low-hanging fruit has popped up again. It is a terrible term that effectively means the Government has managed to go after the obvious cuts, although many socially and economically disadvantaged people will not agree. In July, Departments across the board will be required to trim their budgets once again. In other areas, the effect can be lessened but in the Minister's Department everything affects those who are socially and economically disadvantaged in our society.

Wearing another hat, I operate in the child care area as chairman of the County Leitrim child care committee. Over the past number of years and particularly since 2008, I have seen the recurring reduction in the budgets of statutory committees. That, in turn, filters into the provision of services in our county. How will the Minister battle against the prevailing economic wind blowing against the Government? There will be another severe impact on departmental budgets. How will the Minister balance the introduction of this measure for new claimants once the law is passed and provide the enhanced child care provision to which she referred? The Minister set the ball rolling and it would be instructive to get an inkling of her thinking after listening to the debate since she first made the point on Second Stage in the Dáil.

I will not rehearse the arguments put forward. I understand the difficulty facing the Minister and I know why she is doing what she is doing. It is a continuation of the Fianna Fáil proposals, although more extreme in the reduction to seven years of age, but the question is whether the Minister has a plan B to square the circle. How will she retain her existing budget, which she will not be able to do? The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, will also be unsuccessful in trying to retain her budget. In each year up to now, there have been ongoing reductions. It is not that the reductions are negative but we all hear about the impact on the ground.

During the week, we met a lobby group from the youth network. The budget for that comes from the Department of Justice and Equality. The youth service in Sligo, Leitrim and North Mayo provides 70 or 80 outlets including a youth cafe in my home town of Drumshanbo. It is a wonderful advantage for young people who previously would gather in a corner or go into pubs to play billiards, with the attendant temptations in that environment. It is symptomatic of a small town where young people do not know what to do. The budget for the youth cafe is €81,000 and will be reduced to €71,000. As a result, the full-time worker in the youth cafe, called the Base Cafe, must take a reduction in pay. One part-time worker has already been lost and the same is happening across the region. That is happening not in the Minister's Department but in the Department of Justice and Equality.

The Minister will have an extraordinarily difficult time. The argument put forward from the Opposition side of the House and the Independent Senators is to withdraw the section. Alternatively, the Minister should accept the amendment as we have worded it. That would give her two options. Proposed subsection (5) allows for the provision to come into operation on a day or days decided by the Minister, which would give her some latitude. If that does not work, it would then not come into force until a date sooner than three years from the enactment of the Act.

The argument has been well rehearsed but the core point in the amendment is that while we believe the Minister, we do not think she will be able to achieve her objectives and that she will not be able to put in place the enhanced child care service provision that has been called for simply because there will not be enough money. The Minister must ask if she will hold back from implementing this, and in so doing relieve the distress among a portion of our population that is severely disadvantaged, or press ahead anyway on the basis the Minister needs the money and has no choice.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I support amendment No. 2. I acknowledge the country faces serious financial difficulties and I have voted in this House for the household charge and the septic tank charge with a heavy heart. This issue, however, for me is far too much. I realise difficult decisions must be taken and cuts must be made but whom the cuts affect is ultimately a political decision. In Ireland we believe we value children and childhood but the evidence does not suggest this. In my earlier statement, I acknowledged the great strides this Government is making in the interest of children's rights, welfare and protection. If we truly want to make Ireland one of the best countries in the world to be a child, we must apply holistic and joined up thinking, we must child-proof our legislation and our policy decisions.

As a starting position I oppose section 4.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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When we come to section I will elaborate on why I feel so strongly about this. Amendment No. 2 to section 1 offers a good compromise. While I would not be entirely happy with it I acknowledge that it is fair.

Looking at our provision of child care in Ireland, in the past we had a model where we provided child care based on the status of the parent. It was purely a measure to get women back into the workplace. We provided child care because we needed mothers to work. That was the basis of the system and it was rare that the child was mentioned. With the introduction of the free preschool year, we quickly moved the focus to quality child care provision. My fear is that this measure will remove the focus from the child once more.

I am chairman of Early Childhood Ireland, which represents 80% of the preschool, day care, parent and toddler and after school services in Ireland. I know a bit about the provision of child care in Ireland. Today, ECI has called for an additional €5 million just to deal with the baby boom. We have an increasing number of children who will be going into the free school year. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has set as her political priority the provision of a second year of preschool education. That will go out the window under this.

A capital fund of €6 million was put in place last month for capital grants in the child care sector. It has received applications for funding amounting to more than €60 million, an indication of the need for building improvements in the sector. That is just for those children who are in the system now; it is not about the additional children.

This amendment is about buying time but that is what we must do. Where will the child care provision come from? I would love if there was a system here based on the Scandinavian model but it took the Scandinavians over ten years to get there. They had to put in place many other measures; it did not happen overnight and we are only asking for a few years. This amendment would allow time for the necessary supports to be put in place, as committed to by the Minister.

I do not question the Minister's vision but there is a difference between legislation and commitment. We are talking about putting this into legislation today and while I take the Minister on her word, I am a realist. There can be Cabinet reshuffles and other factors can emerge. We can be told that we did our best but it did not happen. That has a direct impact on children so I question why there is such haste. Why not accept the compromise that has been put forward? For me it supports everything the Minister has said. It offers the necessary time so I ask the Minister to agree to Senator Zapone's amendment.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I compliment Senator Zapone on the comprehensive contribution she made on her amendment. I also agree with the remarks of Senator Mooney. None of us on a personal level takes the Minister's word for granted.

I would half-heartedly agree with the compromise of a three year delay. When the previous Government, of which I was a member, reduced the age for eligible children from 22, particularly for those in third level, there was a huge furore and rightly so. I was very uncomfortable with that change. Now we are looking at reducing the cut-off point from 14 years to seven years.

The problem arises from the Minister's remarks in the Dáil. She said she would not agree to implement this change unless there were guarantees from her Cabinet colleagues to provide adequate child care. How does that sit with the fact the Bill makes these changes effective from 3 May? What happens? The Minister does not agree but were her remarks in the Dáil made with the approval of her Cabinet colleagues? I take the Minister at her word but that is not the way Government or Cabinet works. From reading the Bill, section 4 applies and will be implemented on 3 May 2012. The Minister's word and personal view, while I accept them, do not stand up. The Minister cannot introduce legislation like this and then say that as the Minister for Social Protection she will not allow this to happen unless there is adequate child care.

What is adequate, sustainable and affordable child care, particularly for lone parents? I asked before, when the previous Social Welfare and Pensions Bill was introduced at Christmas, if the Government would give a cast iron commitment to the free preschool year in the term of this Government and I am asking that question once more. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs says she wants to expand the scheme to two years. That would be great but how are we to know this will happen? If we vote for this and the Minister does not accept these amendments, it will introduce into law the changes the Minister says she is opposed to. That is a crazy situation.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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It is like voting for the fiscal treaty.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Beidh lá eile on that but that situation is untenable for the Minister. The census figures published two weeks ago show there are more than 100,000 lone parent families. In the Fingal area there are more than 10,500 lone parent families. This is a substantial cut. When the previous Government put in place the reduction for adults aged between 17 and 22 who were in third level education, there was huge criticism from the Labour Party and personally I had grave difficulty with it. Now, the Minister is saying she will not implement it but I cannot marry the fact that the Minister says that but we are passing legislation that states the measure will be implemented as and from 3 May. What is the position? What is the Minister's basis for saying there must be provision of adequate, sustainable and affordable child care for lone parents in particular?

Will the Minister set a time, for example by mid June, to bring forward the proposals from Government? As I read the Bill, the problem is that the new rules will apply to a person who becomes a lone parent after 3 May 2012. Will there be a second tier of lone parent families? I accept the Minister's personal concern about the proposed changes but the measure does not stand up. Following the enactment of this Bill, will the Minister confirm that these changes will apply to a person who becomes a lone parent after 3 May 2012? As I asked before Christmas, will the Minister give Members of this House a guarantee the free preschool year will continue unchanged for the course of this Government? Will the Minister state whether she supports the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald? Are there plans in place to expand the free preschool year?

I contend that at the very least the Minister must accept this amendment. I would half-heartedly accept it. I understand and respect that our colleagues are trying to allow time for the Minister to consider this. When will the Minister report to the House on what is adequate, sustainable and affordable child care? Will she confirm that these changes will not apply to person who becomes a lone parent family after 3 May 2012? Will she give us a cast-iron guarantee that the free preschool year, as it currently stands, will not be changed during the term of this Government?

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I was completely unaware that my good friend, Senator Cullinane had a cracked tooth. I am glad that it is only the tooth that was cracked. I would never refer to a Member's disability, as everybody knows, despite a tweet that was made, illegally, from this House. I would not do such a thing. I understand exactly the situation the Senator is in because I have attended this House after spending six hours on the dental table, getting a bone graft. I know we all feel a duty to be present in the House. If the inference was taken that I was mocking, I was being helpful, because I thought the Senator had a momentary lapse of memory and I enjoyed being able to supply the name.

To get to the meat of the matter, it is important that we get on with the discussion. I hope to be able to vote before I leave as I have an engagement that cannot be broken. The intention of this amendment is to seek to give effect to the Minister's own words. It would seem to be very difficult for the Minister to oppose it. She may give a guarantee to the House that she will produce an amendment that will have the same effect in a more clear way, if she finds there is a lack of clarity. I do not think anybody would object to that. This amendment incorporates the words the Minister used in a speech and I congratulated her on the corridor for such courage. Two days ago, the Minister made no mention of this in her speech. That is a little bit worrying. I understand the Minister may be under pressure but the danger is that if commitments are given and not lived up they begin to be perceived as a political stunt. The Minister is not a person who I would have accused of pulling a political stunt. If she looks at the impact of this measure, it means that people on one parent family payments will have to go on the jobseeker's allowance. It is paid only for days not worked. For those in receipt of a lone parent family payment, who may have part-time work, they will be hit again. They are hit again, and again. I do not believe we who are privileged are aware of the impact on low income families of the multiple cuts and the extra charges that have been imposed which disproportionately effect the lowest paid, whom we should protect.

I remember speaking in the House when the previous Government made the extraordinary decision to abolish Combat Poverty and then to attack the Equality Authority, the Human Rights Commission and so on, because I knew exactly that they were muzzling the disadvantaged. It is for Members to speak out on behalf of the disadvantaged.

I will leave it at that because I hope to be here if a vote is called in order to vote with my colleagues. I agree with all the arguments that have been made. Amendment No 1 tabled by the Independent Senators, the Taoiseach's nominee is the weakest and therefore the most acceptable to the Minister. I support every amendment and if I get the opportunity I will vote for each and every one. If the debate drags on until Monday, without getting to section 4, I will certainly commit myself to voting against section 4.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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The debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill has turned into a child care debate at this stage. I reserve my comments on section 4 on lone parents. I worked with the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton for many years, long before I was a Member. I worked with her several years ago, when she was in the Department of Social Welfare She is an honourable woman.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I am not criticising what others have said.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I agree with the Senator.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I trust the Minister when she says that she will not reduce the age of eligible children to seven years unless affordable, safe and proper child care facilities are in place.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Insert that in the Bill.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I have spoken to the Minister outside the House on numerous occasions. She is the person who said that she would not to this. I ask the Minister to give a firm commitment that if by some chance she is reshuffled, that her successor keeps the commitment the Minister has given us. This commitment is on the record. I cannot see how the Minister could renege on the commitment in 2014.

This morning I heard Deputy Eamon Gilmore say the troika had agreed that we could use 50% of the money from the sale of State assets for the job stimulus package. What better package than this? I ask the Minister to ensure that money from the sale of State assets is ringfenced and put aside for the provision of proper affordable child care. The Minister for Social Protection together with her colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, should get their spake in for a good lump of that money for the provision of child care. Jobs will be created and parents will be able to avail of proper child care for their children.

Let me repeat what I said this morning when the Minister was not here. I am a rural Senator. I live in the country not in a town and I know how hard it is for a person from a rural area, working in a town, to get her school-going child from school to child care. She is working in the town and has to return to the school and place her child in child care before returning to work. That is very hard when there are two parents but it is next to impossible for a lone parent to juggle work and rear a family. I will vote with this but I will hold the Minister to account to honour her commitment not to lower the age to seven years until the child care provision is in place. We need a proper debate in this House on child care facilities. That is another day's work - "lá eile", as another speaker said. We will call on the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to come to this House to debate the matter and outline the progress she is making with the provision of affordable, safe and accessible child care for people.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Ní bheidh mé cosúil leis na Seanadóirí Cullinane nó Norris. Níl sé i gceist agam fiacail a chur ann. We had a great occasion sa Cheathrú Rua last week when we opened a new child care facility, comprising a crèche and a naíonra. We are delighted to have this wonderful facility, which had been 15 years in the making. Members of various committees and lobby groups approached various Ministers over the years to look for different pots of money. People in the local area saved money and organised all kinds of collections. That goes to the nub of the issue here. When I spent three years as the chair of the Galway city and county child care committee, I visited most of the child care facilities in County Galway. I never came across a child care facility that opened within three years of the facility being sought.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I do not think any of those with whom I worked encountered such a case either. I sat in the Visitors Gallery of the Dáil with representatives of single parents' organisations like SPARK and OPEN during the Second Stage debate on this Bill in that House. I listened to everything that was said. There was great jubilation when the Minister, Deputy Burton, said she would reconsider this measure and made it clear that child care services would have to be put in place before it could be implemented. When I spoke to those involved in the campaign again a couple of days later, it struck me that they were very deflated. There was a sense among them that they had been subjected to public relations spin on the night of the big debate in the Dáil. I am not accusing the Minister of anything when I say that. An effort was made to take the heat off in the media because this had become such a big issue. That is one of this reasons this has to be reconsidered.

Lone parents have been contacting me again this morning to ask me to convey the message that they want to work. They do not want to sit on their backsides. They do not want to be at home. They do not want to be cut off from their educational possibilities. They want to be out there. They want to work. Child care is essential. It seems that section 4, which we oppose, is to be pushed through this House as it was in the Dáil. We have tabled amendments to the section as a safety option. We want to ensure that the services advocated by the Minister are put in place. I do not want to rehearse the points that have been made already.

I would like to remind the Minister of comments that were previously made by her colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, who is eminently knowledgeable on this area. When the last Government, which was led by Fianna Fáil, introduced legislation to reduce the relevant age from 18 to 14, she said:

The problem is that the Bill is not about activation; it is about cut-backs and the optics of doing something about long-term welfare recipients. How can one call it activation when in the first instance there are so few jobs of any description available? That is the big issue; the jobs are not there.

She continued:

There is no provision for extra training or for extra after-school care for the children of lone parents. There is not even a commitment from the Minister on ring-fencing any money that might be saved for helping welfare claimants into work or training.

She went on:

Lowering the qualifying age was meant to go hand-in-hand with better child care and training services, the introduction of a parental allowance to replace the one parent family payment and the ending of the ban on cohabitation. Where are these reforms? There is no sign of them in this Bill.

She continued:

The likelihood is that all that will happen is that an extra 12,000 lone parents will transfer to jobseeker payments over the next six years. This will inflate the live register figures by another 12,000 as people on one parent family payment are not counted at the current time. It is hard to know what the point of all that will be.

I have to say I agree with every word of that.

It is important to note, as I did during my Second Stage speech, that the Labour Party passed a motion at its recent conference calling on the party to "refrain from imposing any further cuts to benefits for lone parent families that would create further barriers to accessing work and education opportunities". I remind the House that the lack of child care is a barrier to accessing work and educational opportunities. I am quite confused, to be honest. I listened to the debates in the Dáil. The Minister has said she is opposed to the introduction of this measure in the absence of the availability of proper child care. Having spoken to members of the Labour Party about this proposal, it seems to me that they oppose it. Is this a case of Fine Gael cracking the whip of austerity within government? The Labour Party seems to be opposed to this measure. I have not heard members of Fine Gael speaking very strongly against it. We need to know what is the situation. There does not seem to be strong support for this measure.

I second amendment No. 3. I appreciate Senator Moloney's assurance that she is taking the Minister's word for what she says she will do. I have to say I am hearing echoes of previous debates in this Chamber. When we debated the septic tanks Bill with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, he told us not to worry because everything would be okay.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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We are not debating septic tanks at the moment. We are discussing amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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The Senator is giving some context to the debate.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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We are being told by Ministers-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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We are on the amendments, not the section.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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In fairness, a Chathaoirligh, we are being asked to ratify legislation on the basis of promises given by Ministers. I am making the point that Ministers have made promises previously in similar circumstances.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Ministers come and Ministers go, but the legislation stays. We have to base our decisions on what is in the legislation. That is why this amendment should be taken on board. If it is not, we will not be able to support this section of the Bill.

4:00 pm

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I said this morning that I would support the Minister's proposal to reduce the age limit of 14 years to seven years as long as child care places and parental supports are put in place in the exact manner suggested by the Minister. I remind Senator Cullinane that I like to be accurately quoted, as opposed to selectively quoted. The Senator quoted selectively during yesterday's debate on the EU treaty, for example. I ask Senator Cullinane to be accurate and to quote full sentences in the context in which they were said.

The Minister can see that everybody is supportive of her views, in principle. There is no argument there. Clarification is required on the question of whether this is a matter of Government policy. Has a Cabinet decision been taken on it? We do not doubt the Minister's sincerity but we are worried that her commitment might not be honoured in the event of a change of Minister, to take the example used by Senator Moloney. Perhaps the Minister might clarify that.

There is a good opportunity here. As Senator Moloney said, we have a network of rural schools throughout the country. That infrastructure could be used to provide a network of rural after-school places. Child care facilities popped up in many estates during the building boom, but not all of them are not being used. I am not saying that is the case everywhere or that it is universal. Some places are available in such locations. It would be useful to do an inventory of the places that might be available.

My big concern is the cost, rather than the infrastructure. There is sufficient space in the empty buildings that can be made available. I am aware that substantial costs are associated with child care. The most difficult preschool year, from a parent's point of view, is the year when one's child is in a preschool or montessori facility but also in child care. One's child might be in the preschool or montessori facility up to 12 o'clock. One has to leave work to pick the child up at that time - or get somebody belonging to one to do so - before bringing him or her to child care. It is a tough year for parents because they have to pay the full price twice in that year. I remember that I found it very difficult to move my little mite from one place to the other. It is important for the Minister to clarify the position from a Government point of view.

I have set out my main concern. I would like to know if a discussion has taken place about the cost. Is there a commitment about how the money will be found for this? To be fair, the amendment tabled by the Independent Senators offers a three-year window. Perhaps that could be achieved on a rolling basis. It might be difficult for all of this to be achieved in one go. It is possible that some of these places could be provided within a year, or up to a certain amount of time. When the Minister responds, will she set out the period of time within which she expects all of this to be in place? Does she envisage that it will be done within five years, for example?

The Independent Senators have adopted an approach whereby they are trying to make this work. There is some merit in that. However, we are living with the reality of trying to balance budgets. We must, therefore, evaluate what is possible from the Cabinet's point of view and take cognisance of the kind of financial support which might be committed in respect of this matter.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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With all the discussion about commitments, policies, Government decisions and the Minister's integrity, we are forgetting that this is a parliament and that it has a responsibility to pass laws. All that will matter at the end of our deliberations will be the words that are contained in the Bill when it is enacted. Nothing else matters and, as a result, any debate on commitments, promises or taking the Minister at her word is, with respect, completely meaningless regarding the date for the coming into force of this legislation. It was around the beginning of May that the ancient Fianna were obliged to go out and fend for themselves. The three mottos of Na Fianna were "Glaine ár gcroí", "Neart ár ngéag" agus "Beart de réir ár mbriathar". What we are seeking from the Minister is "Beart de réir ar mbriathar", or to paraphrase, action according to her words. The action we are seeking is not a promise, a policy or a Government decision but rather a change to the legislation.

The Bill will come into force on 3 May next and it is unusual to see such provision made in legislation. Certain provisions of the budget come into force at midnight on the day on which it is introduced. Normally, however, there is a general provision which states that the Minister will enact the relevant legislation on a date of his or her choosing. The reality is that we do not have "Beart de réir ár mbriathar" and there is good reason in this instance to question the Minister's briathar, her word. Anyone who is in the unfortunate position of becoming a single mother, either next week or the week after, will be subject to different rules from those which apply to everyone else because the lower age limit will apply in respect of her child. In addition, the Scandinavian model of children care to which the Minister referred will not be in place here. I am not overly familiar with the Scandinavian model of child care. I have two children who attend a crèche and a play-school, respectively. I am, therefore, very familiar with the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, which has been a great success and which needs to be expanded. What preparatory work has been carried out by the Minister's Department or the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on this matter? Was it the case that a statement was made in the Dáil in recent days to relieve the huge pressure that was being exerted?

We all have respect for the Minister - that goes without question. If, however, those opposite have respect for children and parents, if they actually want to make changes to the law and if they want this Parliament to have a level of self-respect, then their own wishes, which they have clearly articulated, should be expressed in the form of a vote. In that context, it should be a case of "Beart de réir ár mbriathar". I encourage those on the Government benches to vote in accordance with what they have stated during this debate.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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It is fine to support the Government because one is obliged to do so. However, those opposite have all stated that they disagree with the legislation and that they want it to be changed. Let us change it and do what they have stated should be done. They should vote in favour of the amendments which have been put forward and which were drafted in light of what the Minister, Deputy Burton, stated on Second Stage. Those opposite have an opportunity to put the briathar into beart. I encourage them all to do so. I will be supporting the Fianna Fáil amendment but I accept that the amendments tabled by the Independents and Sinn Féin make sense.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I echo many of the comments that have been made. On Second Stage, I made the point that I would support any reform of the one-parent family payment which will make a difference and led to positive outcomes for lone parents. As the Minister is aware, the reforms that were put in train by the previous Government have not fully kicked in yet. There has already been a major change whereby the age limit relating to the youngest child - whereby the parent is obliged to go out and seek work - has been reduced from 22 to 14. In light of the current economic environment and the lack of job opportunities in general, there will be a cohort of lone parents who will be seeking work and who will require a great deal of support. These people will need access to activation measures and will need to work with social welfare officers, the staff of SOLAS and others in order that they will have proper individual plans which will ensure that they will obtain meaningful employment rather than just being pushed into low-paid jobs. There is a job to be done in the next couple of years in the context of coming to terms with what is an already significant reform of the one-parent family system. I am concerned that this will not be done properly if all of those whose children are over seven years age are forced out to seek employment.

I welcome the comment the Minister made in the Dáil last week in respect of child care. I agree with my colleagues that there is nothing wrong with the amendments that have been tabled and that they merely give effect to the Minister's words. This has been noted by people on both sides of the House. I urge the Minister to reconsider the position and to make a statement that will allow individual lone parents and the organisations which represent them to rest assured that the Government actually has a plan. Concerns have been expressed to me to the effect that, for example, the Pathways to Work initiative does not refer to child care. It is amazing that a significant change such as that before the House was announced in the budget in the absence of consultation and without any reference - until now - to child care.

If the Minister can introduce a much better child care system during the next two to three years, I will support her 110%. Regardless of how matters currently stand in the context of our priorities, we must consider areas such as that under discussion. As we make choices between different Departments and as we are obliged to manage with scarce resources, it will be necessary, in respect of education and other areas, to divert money towards younger people in order to give them the best chance in life. I would fully support that. However, it is difficult to have faith that what I have described will be done if an amendment which merely seeks to give effect to what the Minister intends to do and to include in the legislation the reassurance she has provided is going to be rejected. If the amendment is rejected, it will be fair for people to ask why this is the case, particularly if the Government has genuine confidence in its own announcements.

When the Minister was not present earlier, I stated that ultimately we want to move people away from passive dependency on welfare and into work. The reality is that the one-parent family payment, as current structured, is the least passive of all of the welfare payments. As a result of the income disregards and other incentives, most lone parents actually work. Statistics indicate that between 50% to 60% work and a further 20% are in education. I appreciate that the system could be improved but it does, as it stands, have benefits.

Senator Zappone referred to the fact that we are not being given the opportunity - we were also denied it in the debate on the previous social welfare legislation - to discuss the income disregards, which really are key. Those disregards are extremely important for children whose parents are being pushed onto the dole and for lone parents who are going to be affected by the changes being introduced in respect of them. The disregards were put in place to ensure that people could retain their social welfare payments while also moving into the workplace. This allowed them to mix welfare and employment and not be welfare dependent. At present, someone can earn €146 per week and still retain his or her welfare payment. It is astonishing that the Government is intent on reducing this threshold to €60 over a five-year period. This is an incredibly regressive step.

We are concentrating here on the fact that seven is too young but, as Senator Zappone stated, we are not being given the opportunity to discuss the income disregards. I am of the view that this matter must be considered in the round. It must also be examined in the context of whether the Government has an activation plan for the parents to whom I refer which will allow them to obtain meaningful employment and which will not merely mean that they will be transferred from one social welfare payment to another. I refer here to their being dumped on the dole and not provided with any real support. If such a transfer is envisaged, it will lead to an already vulnerable and large group of parents and children and making their situation worse.

I do not doubt the personal commitment the Minister gave in the Dáil. Like other Senators, however, I am concerned that if she does not hold the same position in the Government when we come to discuss this matter next year, then the point will be moot because the House will have passed legislation in the absence of any guarantee in respect of the people who are going to be affected. I urge the Minister to reconsider this matter.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I thank Senators for their contributions. When I first came to this House in my role as Minister, a number of Senators were slightly disbelieving and wary regarding the commitment to reverse the decision on the minimum wage but I reversed it in the first legislation I introduced. The important aspect of that was to help people on very low pay. We have to take account of the context of where the country is at. We are in economic difficulties and the country was signed by Fianna Fáil into a deal with the IMF in late 2010. We have to work our way out of the other side of that deal. We are spending more than a €1 billion on payments to lone parents and the critical question is whether that billion expenditure is giving us the kind of outcomes we want for the parents and, more particularly, the children.

Yesterday, the ESRI published a fairly weighty document, one of a series, the latest study on poverty in Ireland, and it indicated what most people here know and have reflected in their contributions that the children who are most at risk of poverty are those in households where the adults are not at work. In regard to children at risk of poverty, the most important and critical issue is the education level of the mother. That is not my finding but of the three researchers, Watson, Maitre and Whelan, who undertook this large and generally well regarded comprehensive survey and report, published yesterday. We must ask ourselves why they bring forward this evidence over and over again and what we can do in the context that this country correctly spends a great deal of money in regard to welfare. Can we get better leverage of the money we spend to give people better outcomes? It comes down to that. That is what we all have to ask ourselves.

I appreciate all the genuine comments made by Senators about their desire to support lone parents. I believe that view is shared across members of all political parties and none. I was the person in the 1990s who brought in a right for lone parents in the teeth of considerable opposition and cynicism at the time. Older people here may remember that in the early 1990s if a person was in receipt of a lone parent's allowance, that person could not study or work. It was simply not permitted. One of the changes I introduced to try to impact on reducing poverty in Ireland was to allow young women in particular, who had a baby early on in their lives, to return to school or college and continue their education. That change in Ireland, no more than the changes that Frank Cluskey brought in 40 years ago, was hugely helpful in giving people opportunities.

We have come to the stage where we have to ask ourselves what is it we need to do to use the money we are spending in a better way to get better outcomes. The savings involved in the amendment we are discussing are minimal. As has been said, investment in preschool and after school care will be many multiples of those savings. I want to reiterate for Senators the timespan involved because some people think that some of what is proposed will happen next week. For people who have been lone parenting prior to April 2011, the operative dates for the proposed changes that will apply are as follows: the age limit will still be under 18 years in 2012, under 17 years in 2013, under 16 years in 2014 and under 7 years in 2015 and 2016. For parents who have since come into lone parenting, the age limit for the youngest child will be under 14 year in 2011 and 2012, under 12 years in 2013, under 10 years in 2014 and under 7 years in 2015 and 2016. We are talking about quite a long period of transformation.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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For some, it is not.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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For those who become lone parents for the first time next week, the vast majority of whom would for obvious reasons be having a baby, they would become lone parents or requalify by virtue of having a child-----

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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What of deaths and separations?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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No, not necessarily everybody and I will come to that. The vast majority of people would come into that age group provision by virtue of having a child. It is under 12 years for 2012, under 10 years for 2013 and under seven years for 2014. I believe on the part of some of the groups, although certainly not on the part of OPEN or Barnardos, there may have been a misapprehension that all of this will happen instantly and that is why in regard to child care provision, I believe this country can do this.

The number potentially involved will be 170 people in 2012 and that number will rise to approximately 700 in 2013 and by a couple of thousand in 2014. The numbers affected will rise substantially in 2014 and 2015 because children, or parents, will begin to hit the ages that apply. There is time and space to do this.

One of first things the Government did on taking office was to appoint a Minister specifically for children, which was quite a radical action and decision. It means there is a specific Government Department that has the job of examining this issue and working on the provision of pre and after school care. In the 1960s this country went successfully for the expansion of secondary education. In the 1970s, it went for the expansion of technical education and the development of the institutes of technology on the then advice of the OECD, while in the 1990s the country went for the expansion of university and college education. The first ever early start programme in schools began in 1995 and 1996 in an effort to have structured primary preschools. The country and its administrations have a substantial history of education expansions and initiatives. Also, a decision was made to convert the €1,000 early years payment to a preschool payment and I publicly supported that at the time. I do not know whether everybody in the Labour Party did so but I strongly supported it. As we reflect on what happened during the Celtic tiger years, as a country we probably put too much money into direct cash payments without any condition of parents having to do something in regard to them, whereas other countries put more emphasis on services in particular. It is doubtful how much extra cash someone with a special needs child requires to buy them some of the items their child needs, but what they do need are services as well as income support. There was a rush to do that here, especially in the Celtic tiger years, and it is something on which we must reflect to determine if there are better ways of spending the same amount of money while achieving better outcomes, although I know that kind of reform is difficult to bring about.

The other factor for which I am the Minister responsible is the change in terms of supporting people to get back into education, training and work. In that respect, all the employment support services formally in the remit of FÁS are now in the remit of the Department of Social Protection. The budget for that is nearly €1 billion. We hear figures of €1 billion or a round billion figure to do with the Department of Social Protection, but the total budget is almost €1 billion, and that includes the back to education initiative. There is a great deal of money in the system and if we can use our ingenuity I believe it is possible to make a significant breakthrough in the time span about which we are talking.

We have established Pathways to Work in my Department and one of the critical aspects of it is that a case management approach is to be taken. Clearly, it will be important that lone parents who come out of an exclusive loan parents type structure get the services of Pathways to Work through a case manager in terms of one on one counselling, advice and so on. We have seen how that type of approach can work well in countries, particularly in France, Finland and Austria, in that it respects the dignity of the person while encouraging the person to get engaged. Everyone is concerned that some children are especially affected by poverty or are at risk of poverty. If we want to do something about that, is it simply an issue of more money or an issue of trying to introduce a series of reforms and change of approach that will help people become more financially independent?

In that respect, I asked my staff to get the statistics on a range of countries. Germany, Italy, Sweden and Norway have different systems but ones that are well recognised as caring about children. The work obligation in those countries is when the youngest child reaches the age of three, and their systems would not be regarded in any way as neglectful of their children. In Finland it is when the youngest child reaches the age of four. In the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand, and many Irish people have been in Australia and New Zealand, the work obligation is when the youngest child reaches the age of five. In Canada it is when the youngest child reaches the age of six. Senator Zappone probably knows more about the detail of that but I have friends in Canada parenting children on their own and I have been quite impressed by their system. It is a tough system but it is also progressive in that it helps people get back to education because there seems to be a strong expectation that people should be encouraged to use their talents.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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They have a charter of human rights incorporated into their constitution.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Yes, but they have a series of steps and obligations which are supportive, encouraging and expecting of people, which is a good mix.

I say to my colleagues in Sinn Féin that the work obligation in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom is seven years of age. When I was researching this issue I checked whether there was any indication in the North that Sinn Féin had expressed a problem with the age of seven being the work obligation age and I was unable to find it.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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That is because there is proper child care infrastructure.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Minister, without interruption.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Can I explain my reasoning? The other problem I have, and I have discussed it with various Members of this House at different stages, is the dreadful history here in terms of what happened to the children of women parenting on their own. The late Frank Cluskey, the former Labour Party leader and Minister, changed that forever when he brought in allowances for mothers who were unmarried, separated or deserted. That was in the early 1970s. Time has passed, however, and we are now supporting the children of lone parents, and lone parents themselves, but in terms of the terminology used, can we not get back to describing them as parents and children without stereotyping both the parents and the children?

One of the reasons many of the countries I mentioned have a work obligation when the child is at a younger age is because there is intense support when the child is very young and they do not carry the type of stereotyping seen elsewhere. Teachers do not say that many of the children in their classes are the children of lone parents as if somehow or other they might be lesser children. Do we need to have that categorisation, which is only in social welfare, for a very long period of the child's life? It is nothing to do with what happens for the rest of the parent's life or the child's life. It is just a social welfare categorisation. I do not know why we cannot all be described as parents and children. I do not like the separation in terms of the way we describe them. It would be better if we could bring that categorisation to an end earlier in the child's life. I see some Members shaking their heads. Many married parents who are either not working or on low incomes are also contributors. Their children require support. The argument I am making to the Senators is that we should see these people as children and parents. I hope the day comes when the Department of Social Protection will not be terribly interested in the complexities of people's private relationships as a critical issue in regard to social welfare, but that day is some way off.

Senator Zappone referred to the disregard. The disregard for one person in a couple who goes out to work is €60. After the reduction, the disregard in regard to a lone parent is €130. I believe we would all say that some elements of the systems in the countries I mentioned are worth examining because their systems are quite good. In terms of the reason they have opted for an earlier age on the work obligation, I believe it is because there is a great deal of support for someone on their own with a baby. It is tough going for anyone with a baby, even if they have a good deal of support, but on their own, as was said by a Senator, it is very tough. We must examine this area again, recognise the achievements Ireland has made in changing many areas and decide there is another set of achievements we can now work towards.

I mentioned earlier that I had come from my constituency this morning. My constituency is probably the most diverse in the country. Approximately 25% of the population, and this would be the same in Senator O'Brien's constituency, would not have been born in Ireland. However, the most recent statistics indicate the average duration of a one-parent family payment is 6.1 years. While I believe Senator Mooney mentioned a figure of 92,000 lone parents, that number only pertains to those lone parents who received a social welfare income support. Tens of thousands of other lone parents do not look at all for support from social welfare payments because they are working or have other direct forms of support. One reason for there being tens of thousands of such parents is that in general, those lone parents remained closely connected to education, training and employment and therefore either did not need the support of a one-parent family payment at all or only needed it for a short time. The average duration of the one-parent family payment is three years for those claimants aged 25 or younger. This is because those younger people tend to stay closer to education and training and thus to work, whereas older lone parents, whose children tend to be older in any event and are ageing, tend to have the longest period in receipt of the payment. Again, if one considers the research published yesterday, this is because people do not go back to education and ultimately do not return to work. At present, 82% of one-parent families are Irish and approximately 18% of payments are made to non-Irish people, that is, people who came into this country.

While I greatly respect the comments of all Members, I personally am convinced that lone parents must be given much better opportunities in respect of education and training. In addition, the issue of the diversity of people's lifestyles and the diversity of people's relationships must be considered. The younger years must be emphasised, as is the case in all the other aforementioned countries, and one must then ensure people really have an incentive to return to education and training and thus into employment and to financial independence. I repeat all the research indicates that being in families that are financially independent is of tremendous benefit to children and is a good predictor of such children's ability ultimately to become financially independent. I agree with the points made by Senator Healy Eames. While I may use the word "employment", I absolutely include self-employment in this regard. When speaking to women in business, for instance, the number of women who are parenting on their own but who are making great strides in setting up their own businesses is quite striking.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is the amendment being pressed?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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May I respond?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I will take speakers in the order I have to hand. I will not put pressure on Senators but I remind them there are several other amendments and a guillotine will apply at 6.30 p.m.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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There is no guillotine.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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No, the debate will continue on Monday.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Okay. According to the order I have to hand, I will call Senators Ó Clochartaigh, Darragh O'Brien, Byrne, Zappone and van Turnhout.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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It is important to respond because the Minister has raised some important points. I agree with her on the question she raised about the relationship between parent and child because one point made by single parents concerns the need for them to act as role models. When growing up, it is important for children to see their parents being actively engaged in employment, getting education, bettering themselves and so on. However, lone parents have stated that on foot of the measures the Minister proposes to put in place in this legislation, they will no longer be able to go out to work when the child reaches seven years of age and some will be obliged to give up their part-time jobs. When the children concerned perceive that their parents are no longer able to go to work, what kind of mentality will this create in their minds? It is important to the parent that he or she is able to go out to work and it is important to the children to see such parents being actively engaged and being in a position to be able to go out to work.

I note the Minister stated there are minimal savings to be made in this scheme. She spoke of how previous Ministers have had a greater vision, which they brought to the people and put in place and how that has worked. In this context, I do not believe people can perceive such a bigger vision behind this measure, even though the Minister is attempting to present it as such to Members. People are not buying into it and do not perceive the measure as being part of a greater vision. Therefore, I seek clarification as to the research on which this decision was based. I note no consultation process took place with those groups that had been consulted in previous years, such as Open, Barnardos and so on. Who was consulted? Did the civil servants produce a report for the Minister in which it was stated she was required to make X amount in savings and which then provided her with a number of options? The amendment specifically refers to putting back this decision for a number of years and Members should consider what must be done if the savings are only minimal. Given the type of debate Members are having today, I consider this to be an ill-judged decision and different options should be considered. Were other options presented to the Minister by her civil servants? Alternatively, was this decision made by the Cabinet and, if so, was the Minister under pressure from her colleagues in Fine Gael because apparently, the Labour Party is not in favour of this measure? It is important to ask what is the rationale for the decision. The Minister has stated it pertains to getting lone parents back into employment. It is not about saving money because the Minister has indicated the savings will be minimal and she should set out precisely what are the envisaged savings. On the other side of this issue, the lone parents' advocacy groups have stated lone parents will lose their jobs because of this measure. They have stated those lone parents who are in part-time positions at present will be obliged to give them up because they were not able to afford the differential cost for the child care. As this means there will be a loss of revenue, has such lost revenue been taken into account in respect of this model? I do not believe great savings will be made from this measure but it is causing a great amount of upheaval among lone parents. One must consider what are the other options and whether there is a better way to save the money the Minister intends to save.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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While I will not go back over the points I already have raised, I asked the Minister a couple of specific questions. I specifically asked whether she would give a commitment to Members today that there will be no changes to the free preschool year during the term of the present Government. In her response to Members, the Minister mentioned how many other jurisdictions withdraw lone parent payments much earlier in the life of a child. While that is fine, the Minister mentioned this point on the basis of those child care supports that already are in place. I refer to her statement in Dáil Éireann last week that she would not implement these changes to lone parent payments until she perceived that adequate, sustainable child care facilities were in place, particularly for lone parents. While she put it up to her Cabinet colleagues in this regard, those words now ring desperately hollow on the basis of her response in this Chamber. If this Bill is passed on Monday, it will bring into effect these changes from 3 May, regardless of whether she likes it or not. Put simply, the Minister stated in the Dáil last week that she would not implement this measure and put it up to her Government colleagues to bring forward sustainable, viable and affordable child care. However, she has confirmed in her response today that 170 families, which I acknowledge to be a small number, will be affected by these changes next year and that this number will increase further. New lone parents also will be affected by these changes.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Not until the child is seven.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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However, in the instance----

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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It will take effect from two to three years hence.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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However, in the instance of legal separations, divorces, bereavement and so on, this measure also will affect people. Consequently, I cannot reconcile the Minister's comments that she does not wish to proceed with these changes unless child care alternatives are in place with the fact this legislation will be passed next Monday and will take effect from 3 May. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, now holds a senior Cabinet position and rightly so. The previous Government did have what is known as a super junior Minister for children at the Cabinet table who had his own budget and introduced the final stages of the free pre-school year. When is the Government proposing to report back on child care alternatives? The Minister said she will not implement this without the provision of additional child care. What date has she set in her mind as to when the Government will propose these additional places?

We have effectively confirmed here today that these changes happen from 3 May. What the Minister said in the Dáil when she introduced the Bill-----

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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It does not apply to a seven year old child.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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The changes to the system are in place now, however.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The Senator's Government started the change, however, in 2010.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I listened intently to the Minister's responses. I know what changes were made. It was brought down to 14 years of age from 22 of years and put out further to 2016. There was no proposal to bring it down to seven years of age in the time proposed by the Minister.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The point is-----

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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No. It was stated clearly that the move of the one-parent family payment from age 22 in full-time education to 14 years of age would be on a phased basis to 2016. The Minister's proposals are different. Clearly she does not like them. I understand that because I do not like them and any right and fair-minded individual would not like to be bringing forward these changes. How can she tell me she is not going to implement these changes without adequate child care in place? When the Minister was under pressure in Dáil Éireann-----

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I was not under any pressure.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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She made that clear long before she introduced it in the Dáil.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Members should speak through the Chair.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister for Social Protection has made section 4 conditional on the provision of affordable and sustainable child care. She effectively said she believes the age is too young. How is that going to happen?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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There is a timetable.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister proposed a timetable even though she claimed age seven is too young. All the changes the Minister proposed in the Dáil last week will be implemented with effect from 3 May. There is no get-out clause for the Minister. There is no timetable set down to provide affordable and sustainable child care which the Minister has asked her Cabinet colleagues to do. She mentioned other jurisdictions which removed the payments at a much younger age but have different child care provision.

The question I asked at the start is probably the easiest to answer. Will the Minister give a commitment today that there will be no change to the free pre-school year in the Government's term? If the Minister is bringing forward these changes, it is crucially important the Government gives a commitment, at the very least, that the system that is in place for the free pre-school year stays. For all the bluster last week in the Dáil by the Minister claiming she did not like introducing section 4 as it is a terrible measure, which it is, there is no get-out caveat and it is not conditional on any provision of additional child care. She put it up to her Cabinet colleagues to say she would not implement these changes. However, she in fact has effectively introduced them. What was said last week was wholly incorrect. Section 4 comes into operation on 3 May 2012 with no other plans to make life easier for lone parents. Last week the Minister, who was under ferocious pressure, tried to wash her hands of some of the most unpalatable and significant changes that have been made to lone-parent allowances for as long as I can remember.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister in what was an excellent exposition of general policy in this area has not addressed or given her view on the amendment. I know that is a matter for the Cathaoirleach. Our amendment sets out what the Minister set out in the Dáil last week. It offers the chance to copperfasten for those children and parents exactly what was said by the Minister last week in the Dáil. Is she serious about it or is it just a get-out clause due to political pressure? Is this just going to be a fight with Fine Gael and the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, with the children and parents used as pawns in this political game? The Minister said something in the Dáil. We are now saying it should be enacted. If she does put it into the legislation, she will find much of this debate will be over and done with. I urge the Minister to support amendment No. 4 and put into legislation what she said she would do last week. Alternatively, will the Minister tell us why this amendment cannot be accepted in the legislation? That has not been explained at all so far.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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Echoing what Senator Byrne has just said, I do not believe the Minister has adequately addressed the amendment per se or explained why she will not put into law what she promised in the Dáil. In her responses so far, is the Minister claiming this will not affect many lone parents for the next several years and, therefore, it does not need to be put in the legislation? We would like if she addressed why she is not accepting this amendment which is giving a certain time, is a compromise and acknowledges her vision, commitment and great ambition in this area.

In her response and in the Dáil last week, the Minister referred to the importance of education and training, as well as providing work opportunities for lone parents. She quoted the ESRI research on children at risk of poverty which states the most critical issue is the education level of the mother. In her last response, she stated younger lone parents tend to stay closer to education than older parents. From my experience with An Cosán, an organisation that runs young women's education programmes for lone parents for several years, it appears there is a contradiction in policy or the Minister's ambition. An Cosán's programme was for two years and targeted young lone parents in the 18 to 23 year age group who were usually early school leavers. Over the eight years it was developed and delivered, it demonstrated a range of positive measurable outcomes. It also supported international research that highlighted there are better outcomes for all by having earlier and more active interventions with one-parent families. The programme cost €75,000 with €40,000 on the actual course and €35,000 for the early years education and care for the children.

In the past year, however, with the Department's Stepping Up programme being implemented, An Cosán was informed its programme could no longer run and that it is now Government policy to support older lone parents whose children are of school going age and are better placed to access education and training programmes. Effectively, we ended this programme for young lone parents and initiated one for older lone parents. That is the exact experience of a community education organisation that integrates education and training for lone parents with early years education and care for their children. This is a roadblock to some of Minister's commitments and vision that she outlined here this afternoon.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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There are better ways of spending the same money and getting better outcomes.

Many countries have been cited. A country I know well, the Netherlands, has policies designed for all children. My sister-in-law, who has an 11 year old and an eight year old, has wrap-around services and flexible working arrangements. A Dutch person will say he or she works 80% time or 40% time. We do not have that. I can go through all those countries and give examples, but our time here is precious today. We need to compare like with like. We should be debating this and I will happily debate it, but today is about the proposals before us.

The Minister stated we can do it on child care. There is no doubt we can, but it takes time and we must do it right. That is why we tabled this amendment. It is to give us some, although not enough, time. I outlined, both on Second Stage and previously in this debate, some of the challenges that will be faced. I will not repeat them.

It seems from this debate as though the 90,000 recipients of the one-parent support payment are sitting at home. Some 80% of them are in either employment or education. It is not that they are merely sitting at home waiting for the payment cheque. It is not that they are all of a sudden going to move. There is something creeping into the debate and I would fear that. They are trying to find alternatives but, between child care arrangements and running between X and Y, there is no flexibility in the job market. There is not necessarily even flexibility in the training for these parents.

I ask the Minister specifically to address the amendment we have moved. Lone parent organisations were sitting around the table with the Department, ready to discuss reform and, effectively, the rug was pulled out from under them.

The Minister stated the measure in the Bill affects a limited number, but the numbers will increase. As far as I am concerned, it still affects parents and children. Whether it is limited or extended, the effect will gradually snowball. It affects people. It is a serious matter and I want the Minister to address the amendment that we have moved.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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Regardless of whether we like it, the debate has strayed into section 4 on this matter. Senator Mooney's amendment states: "a statutory scheme of free comprehensive childcare available to all children shall be put in place". We never mentioned free child care; we stated affordable child care. Child care must be available for all. When child care is put in place, everyone, including those working and on good incomes, can avail of it. Why is Senator Mooney's amendment looking for free child care for everyone? That is what got us into this mess - giving out free services all over the place.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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What about the free preschool year? Will Senator Moloney pull that?

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I refer to what the amendment says.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I understand that. If Senator Moloney is saying it is free, the preschool year is free.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Moloney, without interruption.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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We are talking about child care in general.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We are on our third hour on this section.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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After-school child care facilities is probably mostly what we are referring to here, not preschool, because at preschool the children are under seven. There is no obligation for the parent to work during the preschool year. It is after-school child care facilities for which I would be fighting much harder because that is when the parents have an obligation to work.

Perhaps I should wait until section 4. These matters are spilling over into each other. There is an elephant in the room that no one has mentioned, which is the fact that it takes two make a baby and there is a second parent. We should be going after those to help support their children. One may argue as much as one likes, but I have dealt day in, day out with young girls who must go through the courts looking for maintenance. Their partners are in arrears and threatened with jail, and they still cannot get the money out of them. We should be looking at going after the other partner for help and support. I suppose I am straying into section 4 and I will hold back my comments on that.

That is my comment on the amendment by Fianna Fáil. Unfortunately, it is probably worded wrongly by them.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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For some of the lone parents who might be affected in the next two years and who will be, I am sure the Senators will appreciate, small in number, because most of those who become lone parents do so by virtue of having a baby and, therefore, one would be talking about seven years, the conditions of the scheme for claiming jobseeker's payment include that a person must be available for full-time work or availing of an approved training or educational opportunity. I stress that the jobseeker's guidelines provide for a person's family circumstances to be taken into account specifically. For example, it may be unreasonable for a person with certain family responsibilities to seek work that involves a considerable amount of time travelling to and from work. Accordingly, it is considered that the jobseeker's scheme guidelines are flexible enough to meet the requirements of parents. However, I will keep this under review.

As Senators will probably be aware, we have facilitators as a service in social welfare offices specifically assisting persons, both men and women, on specific requirements they may have to help to get them activated into a course or whatever. Under the Pathways to Work programme, that kind of provision will expand a great deal because as well taking in the FÁS staff, we have also taken in the local employment services. Like the facilitators attached to local social welfare offices, the local employment service staff specialise in one-to-one assistance to help persons specifically overcome a difficulty, special qualification or other requirement to access employment. I stress that this change I am proposing is taking place on a graduated basis in the context of the Pathways to Work programme being rolled out as well. I appreciate it is a considerable change. Its purpose is to create more opportunity and options for more people.

To refer again to the IMF programme and the deal Fianna Fáil struck with the fund, the core criticism of the IMF of the social welfare system was its passivity, that persons could go into the social welfare system and be left there for a long period of time. Therefore, there has been a requirement from the troika. The troika, especially the IMF, has discussed this in positive terms. Looked at another way, were one an economist one would say this is a large resource of people in a country with whom we should be providing work opportunities.

I promise not to stray into the referendum, but let me say this. In the treaty there is a description of structural deficits. One thinks of structural deficits in terms of money, but structural deficits are probably better thought of in terms of the capacity of an economy to grow economic activity. For instance, one changes one's structural deficit by strengthening one's structure. One removes barriers to persons doing business or getting back to work and one invests in innovation and education. That is how one shrinks one's structural deficit. In fairness, the troika is keen not only on lone parents but also on everybody of working age ultimately becoming, to use the term I dislike, "activated". I suppose it is friendly advice and counselling we are getting from the friends Fianna Fáil brought into the country.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister is getting on well with them.

5:00 pm

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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They have a point. We can learn from what has gone well or badly in other countries.

By the way, I have been reading about Argentina. A couple of Sinn Féin Members expressed admiration for the changes that had occurred there, but I am not in that camp.

Amendment put:

The Seanad Divided:

For the motion: 14 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Fiach MacConghail, Paschal Mooney, David Norris, Darragh O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Averil Power, Kathryn Reilly, Jillian van Turnhout, Katherine Zappone)

Against the motion: 19 (Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Fidelma Healy Eames, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, Marie Maloney, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Jillian van Turnhout and Katherine Zappone; Níl, Senators Michael Mullins and Susan O'Keeffe.

Amendment declared lost.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following subsection:

"(5) Section 4 shall come into operation on such day or days as the Minister for Social Protection may appoint by order or orders after she has reported to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education on the number of additional, affordable after-school care places that have been provided since the passage of this Act.".

We consider that the issue raised was not clarified by the Minister during the debate. However, we will withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to table an amendment on Report Stage on Monday.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 4:

In page 5, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following subsections:

"(5) Section 4 shall come into operation on such a day or days as the Minister for Social Protection may appoint by order or orders either generally or with reference to any particular purpose or provision but not before a statutory scheme of free comprehensive childcare available to all children shall be put in place.

(6) Section 4 shall not come into force until a date to be set by the Minister for Social Protection, that date not being sooner than 3 years from the enactment of this Act.".

We also wish to reserve the right to table an amendment on Report Stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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We are dealing with the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. These two areas are very important - social welfare payments for the present and pensions for the future. The issue of pensions is not being debated sufficiently. I appeal to the Minister that in the future separate legislation be published by the Department of Social Protection dealing with social welfare payments and pensions. It is not good enough when we have shortened debates that a particular issue gets all of the interest groups excited, rightly so, while other issues are forgotten and there are many such issues on the social welfare side. The issue of pensions deserves examination and study in its own right. Therefore, it would be worth introducing separate legislation in the future dealing with it.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I support that viewpoint and ask the Minister to provide some clarification. In my Second Stage contribution I mentioned that I would also support the introduction of a separate Bill dealing with pensions, although I know this Bill deals with certain elements, including defined pensions and so on. Earlier when the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, was in the House, I mentioned an EU directive to which successive Irish governments had failed to sign up. It is essentially to provide insurance for those with private pensions. In Britain there was the Maxwell v. Robbins case and the British Government was brought to court. Ironically, at the time the Irish Government supported the British Government's position. The British Government lost that court case and had to put in place the terms of the directive, the purpose of which was to ensure all pension companies took out insurance to protect pension contributions in order that at least 60% of what a person had contributed to a pension scheme would be covered.

Pension funds sometimes collapse because of falls in the stock market and, to a lesser extent, the bond market. A case in point is that of Waterford Crystal. Many likened these private pension funds to Ponzi schemes. Some former workers who were the first in and had others behind them to keep the pension fund pot topped up had their pensions guaranteed and were being paid in full. However, when the company finally closed, many workers were left without a pension, despite having paid into a pension scheme for 20 or 30 years. The company made a contribution on behalf of these workers, yet they were left without a pension. I am sure the Minister would have sympathised with them at the time and would still do so.

The Minister will be aware that the UNITE trade union is taking an action against the Government in the commercial court. It simply wants the Government to implement the terms of the directive. For me, it makes perfect sense that we do not end up with workers being left without pensions having made contributions. I do not believe people would mind making a slightly higher contribution if it meant having a safeguard in place in the event that the pension fund went belly up such that they would receive, for example, at least 60% of their pension entitlement rather than being left high and dry as happened to many Waterford Crystal workers.

Is the Minister aware of the European directive? Is she aware of the court case being taken by the UNITE trade union? Is she aware of any plans by the Government to implement the terms of the directive to ensure we safeguard private pensions?

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I understood the Bill was to contain a larger pensions section to deal with the deprioritising of annuitants or pensions in payment. That would have dealt with the issue raised by Senator David Cullinane about people in receipt of pensions and in a scheme that was underfunded. Workers contributing to a scheme are the last ones to know, as is the case with retained benefit annuitants who have left their money in the scheme but who are no longer working for the company and not yet retired. I understand the Department did considerable work to deal with that complex issue and I am sure there are people on both sides of this argument. Does the Minister propose to introduce further pension legislation in the short term to deal with the issue which I understood was originally to have been dealt with in this Bill? The Government will need to review this area. It will be considerably more complex because there are very serious issues involved for people who are retired and might be 75 or 80 years old and unable to earn further income. Deprioritising would result in significant decreases in their private pension payments.

The Government is considering introducing legislation providing for the winding down of underfunded defined benefit pension schemes, many of them commercial semi-State body schemes in companies such as Aer Lingus, many of whose workers live in the Minister's constituency and mine. I understood the Minister would introduce measures to cover private defined benefit schemes in the private and commercial semi-State sectors as part of the Bill. It is fine if this is not the case but I ask the Minister to tell me when it will be done. I proposed an amendment, which was ruled out of order for being a tax matter, which would have allowed early access to tax-free cash for funded schemes. My party intends to bring forward legislation in this regard. As Senators Byrne and Cullinane have stated, pensions form a huge part of the Minister's portfolio and it is the ticking timebomb with which we are all trying to deal. Will the Minister bring forward separate pensions legislation in this session or this year?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The matters raised by Senator Cullinane are very important but as they are before the courts at present it is not appropriate for me to comment on them.

With regard to the pension matters dealt with here, as I stated in my opening comments on Second Stage the previous Government suspended the funding standard in 2008. With regard to defined benefit schemes, consistent and serial expressions of hope have been expressed that the market will turn around. Unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of people contributing to these very important schemes the turmoil in the markets has meant this has not happened. I have spent much time examining the difficulties with defined benefit schemes because they are so important. As the Senators pointed out, there are three categories of interested parties, namely, those who have retired and are beneficiaries of the schemes; those who are deferred members because they have moved to a different employment and their entitlement will not arise until they come to pension age; and current contributory members. As was outlined, people are fearful of their ultimate entitlement. As I stated, most of the schemes are now closed to new entrants therefore their profiles are inevitably ageing. The Bill deals with a series of amendments which I felt were important to introduce. With regard to the issue Senator O'Brien raised, the matter is being examined in great detail by the Attorney General's office because it involves serious issues with regard to various property rights.

There was an option to postpone all of these changes until everything was ready but to me it seemed too long a timeframe. Therefore, I decided at least to address these particular changes which would give more certainty to trustees. The Department has done much work with the NTMA, as has the pensions regulator, to provide for the development of an annuity product suitable to the Irish situation. At present the annuity products are generally German bonds and their cost is very high while, because of the situation with regard to interest rates, their return is very low. The NTMA has been involved in detailed discussions to prepare a product. I understand a number of providers may be interested. Again, much depends on settlement in the markets to a reasonable level of stability. It is a bit like the treaty; it is all about stability as opposed to turmoil.

With regard to people accessing their pension funds I will not give the Senator a detailed answer now except to say significant tax issues arise because many pension funds involve significant tax considerations on entry, including tax breaks, and a condition of many products involves tax issues on exit. This has been more of an issue for the Department of Finance and is seen as such because of the related tax issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Section 2 agreed to.

SECTION 3

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Amendment No.5 in the name of Senator Zappone has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 5 not moved.

Question proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Section 3 relates to a significant increase in the contribution period allowed, from 260 to 520 contribution weeks, to qualify for the contributory State pension, particularly for voluntary contributions. In the national pensions framework 2010 we proposed to replace the average contribution period, but the fundamental problem here is that the contributory requirements have been doubled in a very short period of time. If my reading of this is correct it will be introduced in April 2013, which means there will be no time for people to make up a deficit because between now and then the maximum number of contributions that can be made is 52. Anyone far short of the mark will lose out on what they thought they would receive. In the main we are speaking about people who are 66 years of age or will soon reach their 66th birthday.

These changes in eligibility conditions are very wide off the mark and are being introduced seven years earlier than was proposed previously. In the national pensions framework 2010 it had been decided a new regime would come into place in 2020 because, according to the introduction of that document, the introduction of total contributions approach at this stage would see a reduction in the levels at which pensions are paid immediately. This is why it was not done in the pensions framework 2010. The previous Government decided a new regime would be put in place, but not until 2020 to allow those making voluntary contributions time to increase the level of those contributions. As the Minister knows, many of these people worked at home to rear families and had breaks in their employment. This will also make it difficult for people who 20 years ago may have worked as a student and then left the workforce before returning after finishing their education.

I believe this is a very significant change and would like to hear the Minister's rationale for it. From my reading of it, the Minister is, although not necessarily going against the Pensions Framework 2010, expediting the changes envisaged therein seven years earlier. How many people will be affected by this change in the short term? Section 3(1)(a) provides that in the case of a person who becomes a voluntary contributor paid contributions prior to 6 April 2013 shall be 520 rather than 260, which is a significant change in terms of eligibility. I would like to know what savings the Minister expects to achieve as a result of this measure and why there is such a hurry to make this change. I believe this change is being made under the radar and that people will not realise the significance of it until they apply for their expected entitlements. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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My understanding is that this section relates to contribution requirements, which are being brought into line with those in respect of the old age pension, namely, a person must have paid 520 paid contributions before becoming a voluntary contributor. Most people have 50 years within which to make social contributions. The requirement now is that ten of the contributions made during those 50 years would be paid contributions, following which the person may make voluntary contributions. Very few people actually make voluntary contributions because if sick they would be on disability and entitled to a credit contribution and if they become unemployed would also be entitled to a credit contribution.

A case brought to my attention was that of a woman who ran a bed and breakfast for a number of years who, when she retired owing to old age, despite having paid her self employed contributions, had not reached the yearly average and could not in order to obtain credits sign on for unemployment benefit as her husband was working opted to make voluntary contributions. We now have home-makers' and carers' credits. Few people will be availing of the voluntary contribution provision. As I understand it, the requirement is that during the period when a person must make contributions at least ten of those contributions must be paid contributions. This has nothing to do with yearly averages and so on rather it relates to paid contributions.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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My understanding of this section is similar to that of Senator Moloney. The section provides for the phased introduction from April 2013 to April 2015 of an increase in the number of contributions which a person must make prior to becoming a voluntary contributor. However, I have difficulty with the logic of this provision. The problem is that we are on the one hand making it more difficult for people to claim and on the other are requiring people to work for longer periods in order to make a claim. The problem for many workers is that the thresholds are increasing and it is difficult for them to find employment. This means some people will not have sufficient credits and will lose out. Perhaps the Minister will explain the logic and reasoning behind why now, of all times, when people are through no fault of their own losing their jobs and finding it difficult to get employment, we are asking them to increase their contributions.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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This provision provides that people who within one, two or three years will be retiring and do not have the 520 contributions required, will be able to top up their contributions. Am I correct that only contributions made up to when the person reached 65 years will be reckonable and that a person will retire at age 65 years but will not be entitled to the pension until 66 years of age?

I am seeking clarity on whether contributions made up to when the person reaches 65 rather than 66 years will be reckonable and whether a person within, say, 18 months of retirement, who has not averaged out 100% in respect of the contributory pension, will be able to make up that shortfall. I am speaking about a person who has worked all his or her life but is, owing to this change, short on contributions.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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A person who has worked all his or her life would have enough contributions.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps the Minister would respond to my query.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I would appreciate the Minister's view on the unusual case of two women, twins, who on reaching 65 years qualified for the transition pension prior to getting the contributory pension, one of whom fell ill and was late making her application and is now being pushed into the another category in respect of which she does not have the required number of contributions, which is most unfair. This matter has been the subject of correspondence with the Department for the past four months. Surely, an allowance can be made for a later application due to illness. The twin sister of the woman concerned has qualified for her pension. It is outrageous that the two sisters, regardless of the late application, are being treated differently.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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They must have different histories.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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No, they do not.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The voluntary contribution, VC, scheme is open to people under 66 years of age who are no longer compulsorily insured, namely, they have ceased to be an employed or self employed contributor and do not have an entitlement to credited contributions. As stated by Senator Moloney, there is widespread entitlement nowadays to different types of credited contributions but people do not always apply for them. Perhaps there is an issue in that regard in respect of the twin sisters to whom Senator Healy Eames refers. However, I do not know the circumstances of the case and cannot comment on it.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The issue that arises is in respect of the late application.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Application to become a voluntary contributor must be made within one year of the last paid or credited contribution, which is possibly where the woman concerned had the problem. Historically, the entry requirements in terms of minimum number of paid contributions for the VC scheme has always matched the paid contributions requirement for State pension contributory. The purpose of the VC scheme is to protect the pension entitlements of those who have already satisfied this first condition for State pension contributory by maintaining or in some cases improving the yearly average number of contributions. The voluntary contributions are, therefore, reckonable towards the State pension contributory.

The scheme is aimed at ensuring that individuals who leave the workforce prior to pension age and have already established a future entitlement to the contributory State pension upon reaching retirement age can maintain their social insurance record by paying voluntary contributions in the intervening period. Legislation enacted in 1997 provided for an increase in the minimum number of paid contributions required for the State pension contribution to 520 in respect of applicants who reach pension age on or after 6 April 2012. This dates back a long time. Accordingly, an increase in the minimum number of paid contributions for access to the voluntary contribution is required. Failure to increase the entry requirement for the VC scheme would mean that individuals who fell short of the 520 paid contribution conditions for SPC purposes could make up any shortfall by the payment of voluntary contributions. This would undermine the rationale behind the changes to the SPC requirements and limit the effectiveness of the increase in the number of SPC paid contributions by impacting negatively on the cost savings arising from the change. Furthermore, it would be anomalous that the option to pay voluntary contributions could not be availed of by those in receipt of credits because of an underlying social welfare entitlement.

The increased contributions will be phased in in the period from April 2013 to April 2015 as follows: up to April 2013, there will be 260 contributions. From April 2013 this will change to 364 contributions; in April 2014 to 468 contributions, and in April 2015 and beyond to 520 contributions. The necessary phasing in provision is being provided for. There are 3,200 voluntary contributors, of whom 75% or 2,400 are former self-employed individuals, with the balance of 800 being made up by those living overseas or former modified rate contributors. Based on the profile of those who have applied to access the scheme in the past three years, it is estimated that the increase in 2013 to 364 contributions will potentially affect 100 people, that the increase in 2014 to 468 contributions will affect a similar number, and that the increase in 2015 to 520 contributions will have little or no impact on any number of people.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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To clarify, if somebody is in his or her 65th year and discovers that the commencement date of employment does not allow the full number of contributions to be made, he or she will fall short and not be entitled to receive 100% of the contributory pension but 85% or 90% of it. I hope we are talking about the same issue. In the context of contributions made since the commencement of work, is the proposed extension to kick in from April, or is it something separate?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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No, that is a separate issue.

Question put:

The Seanad Divided:

For the motion: 22 (Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Fidelma Healy Eames, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, Fiach MacConghail, Marie Maloney, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan, Katherine Zappone)

Against the motion: 9 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Paschal Mooney, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Averil Power, Kathryn Reilly)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Michael Mullins and Susan O'Keeffe; Níl, Senators David Cullinane and Paschal Mooney.

Question declared carried.

SECTION 4

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are related. Is it agreed that they be discussed together? Agreed.

6:00 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I move amendment No. 6:

In page 6, subsection (2), line 43, to delete "3 May 2012" and substitute the following:

"after the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education has passed a motion affirming that it is satisfied a sufficient number of additional, affordable after-school care places are in place to at least meet the demand to which this section gives rise".

Ba mhaith liom an leasú seo a mholadh. Arís, táimid ag plé, beag nó mór, leis an ábhar a luaigh muid níos túisce. Tá sé fíor-thábhachtach go seasfadh muid anseo ar son na grúpaí tuistí aonair agus na grúpaí a labhraíonn ar a son, ar nós an feachtas 7 is Too Young, OPEN, Barnardos, Comhairle Náisiúnta na mBan agus SPARK, mar tá an-imní go deo orthu maidir leis na moltaí atá déanta ag an Aire. Cé go bhfuil muid ag plé an ábhair seo le fada inniu, ní dóigh liom go bhfuil aon athrú tagtha ar an mheon. Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil freagra tugtha ar na cheisteanna a cuireadh maidir le soláthar chúram leanaí a d'fhéadfadh a bheith ar fáil. Tá muid an-dáiríre go gcuirfear in iúl agus go gcuirfear siar an dáta an 3 Bealtaine 2012 agus go gcuirfear isteach an leasú atá molta againne - go gcaithfeadh an tAire atá ann teacht os comhair an Comhchoiste Oireachtais um Poist, Coimirce Shóisialach agus Oideachas agus go gcaithfeadh an coiste rún a aontú go bhfuil dóthain áiteanna iarscoile cúram leanaí ar fáil ar phraghas réasúnach le gur féidir déileáil leis an éileamh atá ann.

Tá seo réasúnach mar níl ann, mar a dúradh roimhe seo, ach dul de réir an fhocail a dúirt an tAire í féin sa Dáil. Táimid ag fáil beagáinín mífhoighdeach ar an taobh seo den Teach leis na freagraí atá muid ag fáil, mar níl aon soiléiriú faighte ar an rud seo. Más é an rún atá ag an Aire, mar adúirt sí, ná dul i ngleic le cúrsaí dífhostaíochta agus daoine a gníomhú ar ais i dtreo na fostaíochta, caithfidh sí beart a dhéanamh de réir a briathar ar an bpictiúr níos leithne. Caithfidh an Roinn dul i ngleic leis na figiúirí ar an gclár beo, de 434,300 nó 14.3% daoine atá dífhostaithe sa tír seo agus an 185,000 duine atá dífhostaithe go fadtéarmach. Sin bun agus barr an scéil. Dúirt mé níos túisce go bhfuil muid ag caint ar na tuistí aonair seo a chur amach ag obair nuair atá na páistí seacht mbliana d'aois, ach níl an fhostaíocht sin ar fáil dóibh fé láthair. Cé go bhfuil clár fostaíochta curtha i dtoll le chéile ag an Rialtas seo, a bhfuil sprioc uaillmhianach aige do 200,000 duine a chur ag obair as seo go ceann cúpla bliain, ní léir go bhfuiltear ag déanamh an t-uafás dul chun cinn ar sin. Tá roinnt deascéalta faighte againn le tamall anuas, ach níl muid a dul i ngar don 200,000. Ag an am céanna agus atá muid ag cruthú fostaíochta, táimid ag cailleadh fostaíochta ar réimsí eile.

Iompóidh mé ar an mBéarla le leatrom eile a mhíniú.

We did not cover one point during the previous discussion. All the points we made previously about section 1 are still valid.

We have not yet bought into the Minister's arguments. Even if we take on board the arguments the Minister made and if the legislation is introduced, it will create an unfair situation for newcomers. All other things being equal, where two lone parents with eight-year-old children are living next door to each other, the parent under the old regime will retain entitlements while the other parent, who becomes a lone parent through bereavement or a separation from a partner, will have very different circumstances. The Government is following the austerity plan introduced by the previous Government under the troika. People are finding it much harder to cope because of the extra costs such as household charges and water charges. People's disposable incomes are much lower and reports from credit unions suggest people have less than €100 for expenses. My fear is that we will be in austerity for the next number of years while this programme is rolled out. This will mean cutbacks in the Government's budget and people will have to tighten their belts further. New entrant lone parents will be in an even tighter situation but they will not receive the same support as their next-door neighbours. There is an in-built inequality for newcomers, which is unfair.

According to the Minister's clarification this morning, these measures will not save the State much money. It is unfair that we have people in this situation and it is time to return to the drawing board. It is time to scrap this measure. Time should be taken to find savings in a different way. The Minister said this is her grand idea. Other Ministers in previous decades had grand ideas about reforming education and social welfare but no one else buys into this as a big idea that will be a radical reform and a new approach to activating employment for lone parents. Sinn Féin is tabling this amendment because the measure is wrong and I hope the Minister takes on board our amendment.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I support this amendment. Fianna Fáil has withdrawn one amendment under this section. My colleague, Senator Mooney, will resubmit an amendment on Report Stage. I will not cover the ground we have discussed. The Minister gave a commitment in the Dáil that she would not implement the cut from 14 years of age to seven unless there were guarantees to provide adequate child care. On 18 April, the Minister said, "I entirely agree that seven is too young for anyone to seriously contemplate any of these things without there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place". What the Minister said in the Dáil rings hollow and has no basis in law or in fact. This section comes into operation on 3 May 2012. The Minister mentioned that savings are minimal but it amounts to €112 million over three years. With these changes, there will be a saving of €20 million in 2012. One in four families with children are one parent families.

I agree with one aspect of the Minister's comments earlier in respect of how we define one parent families and the use of that phrase but "one parent family" is the phrase and categorisation we use. Such categorisation is not acceptable in society and people do not treat children differently on the basis of whether they have one parent or two parents or on the basis of the make-up of their families. It should not make a difference. The payment from the State is crucial for children in families with one parent and who are struggling. The cut is very significant. As I mentioned in the debate on section 1 and as Senator Ó Clochartaigh said, we will create two tiers of children of lone parents on the basis of this policy.

The Minister will not accept a compromise outlined in the amendment tabled by Senators Zappone and van Turnhout. The amendment allowed for a three-year run-in but the Minister's measure is effective immediately. The measure will have an immediate impact on 180 families. Why are they different to the thousands of one parent families at present? It is a ludicrous situation and I ask the Minister to give a commitment that there will be no change to the free preschool year in the term of this Government. I have not received an answer to that point. It is the only element of universal child care, where the payment goes directly to the benefit of children. We are being asked to pass legislation with a significant cut to one parent families. The real effect is on children and these changes will force people onto jobseeker's allowance. People working part-time have their incomes supplemented by the lone parent allowance.

The Minister said that jobseeker's allowance is available to people. What happens to someone who is working ten or 12 hours a week and in receipt of the lone parents payment? If the child is now six, the payment will be removed in two years' time. In that case, will the parent give up part-time work and receive jobseeker's allowance?

We are creating another tier of children in this country through the changes in section 4. I cannot understand how the Minister can stand over what she said in the Dáil. It makes no sense. The Minister says that she will not implement the changes. Should I support section 4 on the basis of what she said, to the effect that it does not give effect to the changes in law now? On 18 April, the Minister said, "I entirely agree that seven is too young for anyone to seriously contemplate any of these things without there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place". If we pass section 4, it gives effect to significant cuts in lone parent family payments with effect from 3 May. Perhaps I am missing something. How does the Minister marry what she said last week with the retention of section 4? If the Minister responsible for this area did not want to implement the changes, she could have excluded the section. She should put it up to her Government colleagues around the Cabinet table and say she will not include the section until she sees what will happen with regard to safe, accessible and affordable child care. What is the point in retaining section 4? Why did the Minister oppose the previous amendment, which would have allowed a three-year run-in?

Fianna Fáil will table an amendment on Report Stage. It was seen as controversial for a senior Minister in Government to say that section 4 did not seem fair. It seemed as if she was putting it up to her Government colleagues to provide the child care measures she wanted and that she would not implement the section if they did not do so. If, by the end of the year, there is no new initiative to provide what the Minister says is safe, affordable and accessible child care, will she bring forward an amendment to remove section 4 of the Bill? How will she deal with that issue? This is crucially important because she sent a message from the Dáil to the public that she was opposed to making this cut. I am looking for clarification in the Seanad. Will the Minister give me a commitment that there will be no change to the free preschool year provision during the term of office of the Government?

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I support the amendment. As I said earlier, if the compromise proposal had been accepted, I would have been willing to support the section. I am disappointed we did not receive an answer to our compromise proposal; therefore, I support the amendment on three bases - the issue of child poverty; the employment proposals before us; and the lack of provision for child care and after school care.

At the end of January 90,000 lone parents were in receipt of the one-parent family payment in respect of 149,000 children on whom I tried to focus in my Second Stage contribution because very often children are forgotten in this discussion. One-parent families are the unit group in Irish society most at risk of poverty. Children in one-parent families are poorer than other children. This is not speculation; it is a fact, as we have been told repeatedly by the OECD, the CSO, the ESRI which the Minister quoted, Barnardos and the Children's Right Alliance, while other NGOs have also come out in support.

When I spoke on the budget in December, I spoke at length about the cumulative impact of successive budget cuts on vulnerable families. I stressed the hardship felt within a family was most acutely felt by the children and the concerns I raised then were not new. They had been repeatedly raised in the context of budgetary measures, not only domestically but also by international observers.

On Second Stage I quoted Magdalena Sepúlveda, the United Nations independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty, who had voiced these very concerns when she came to Ireland in January 2011. She said children continued to be the group most at risk of poverty in Ireland, with families, in particular single parent families, struggling to provide food, appropriate housing, heating and decent winter clothing, and that the substantial cuts in child payments in recent budgets were of particular concern as they could exacerbate the situation of children and lead to an increase in child poverty rates, which were already worryingly high, and that this would represent a major step backwards for children's rights in Ireland. She went on to list all of the measures included in budget 2011 and said their cumulative effect could have devastating consequences on children's standard of living and their capacity to escape from poverty. We know this, yet the Government continues this regressive course of action.

Another argument made today to justify the amendment concerned the need to break long-term welfare dependency and to get lone parents back into employment. If none of the 90,000 lone parents in question is working, my first question is where are the 90,000 jobs for them to take up? However, it is not necessary to ask this question because 80% of them are either working or in education or training.

The age of seven years is too young. The affordability and accessibility of child care services for lone parents is already a huge issue under the existing payment provisions. When the baseline age limit of seven years is reached in 2014, what will the lone parents who are working and those who will be expected to take up employment do with their seven year old child? On average, the primary school calendar extends to 183 days. Seven, eight and nine year olds are in first, second and third class, respectively, and finish school at 2.30 p.m. Most schools ask parents to drop off their child between 8.30 a.m. and 9 a.m. There are not enough after school child care or affordable child care services available to cater for this need. Lone parents must work around their children's schedules and work part time, say, four or five mornings a week. More of them will end up unemployed in these circumstances as jobseeker's payments are not payable to those who work in this manner.

I appreciate that the Minister has acknowledged that lone parents should not lose the one-parent family payment when their youngest child reaches the age of seven years unless there is a comprehensive system of Scandinavian-style child care in place. I have made several arguments why we can do this but not in the timescale she proposes. I have grave concerns about the viability of such comprehensive and affordable child care and after school services being delivered in the next three years. A fully State subsidised child care and after school care system would need to be cemented in law and subject to consistent standards and regulations across all providers. Investment in training and the professional development of those involved in the sector is key to the development of such a system.

In the early childhood care and education sector salaries for what is being provided amount to €320 million, with a further €105 million being spent in the wider economy. The sector employs 22,000 qualified professionals. These are the numbers required to provide what is in place today. As nobody has said what we have is perfect, we need to expand it, which would be some feat.

I mentioned the capital grant provided for the child care sector; there was the awarding of a fund of €6 million, for which requests worth more than €60 million were received. That is indicative of the need for more infrastructure and building improvements in the sector to meet current, not future needs. There has been no significant investment in the development of after school care facilities and there continues to be a lack of information on the range of services provided across the country. The development of a comprehensive system of child care and after school care must be based, first and foremost, on a child's developmental needs.

The development of after school services will also need to involve schools. In general, the take-up of such schemes in schools was low, even when funding was available. Barnardos has voiced concerns that the Croke Park deal could provide a barrier to the establishment of comprehensive after school services by 2014 when the one-parent family payment scheme changes will take effect.

Given these complexities and the current economic climate, it could take as many as ten years for the child care supports needed to be provided. It is on that basis that I cannot support section 4 which should be withdrawn and reconsidered. The Minister should reintroduce it when she has the wide range of measures required in place. Most of us buy into and share her vision. Reform involves doing things together and joined-up thinking. I, therefore, ask the Minister to reconsider section 4.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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In case Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh is confused, the only people who will affected by this change in 2012 are those who are new to the lone parent structures. Children over 12 years of age will be affected. In 2013 children over ten years of age will be affected, and in 2014 children over seven years of age will be affected.

In regard to persons who were lone parents in April last year, they will only be affected when they have a child of 17 years or older in 2013, a child of 16 years in 2014 and a child of seven years in 2015 and 2016. For those who became lone parents from last April, the provision applies to a child over 14 years in 2012, over 12 years in 2013, over ten years in 2014 and over sevens in 2015 and 2016. Long lead-in times have been explicitly provided for in the Bill.

As I said, we are doing this alongside the National Employment and Entitlements Service which was launched some months ago and is being developed this year. We are talking about a relatively small number of people who may end up in receipt of a jobseeker's payment in the interim period. In that context, they will receive a personalised service in which their family circumstances will be taken into account. The difficulty we have as a country - it may be difficult for people to accept this - is that we are spending over €1 billion on lone parents. Senator van Turnhout just reminded us that somebody from the UN said that the problem for Ireland is that despite that significant spend, the outcome is that the people still most at risk are the children of lone parents. There are tens of thousands of lone parents who parent on their own who do not receive the one-parent family payment. There are 92,000 parents on the one-parent family payment, but there are tens of thousands who are not, because they are in full-time employment, self-employed or business proprietors. The children facing the greatest risk of ending up poor are the children whose mothers have low educational attainment and do not have the capacity to work or find employment. What we must ask ourselves is whether there is a way of utilising the funds we have that would produce better outcomes for those children. That is my objective.

As I have said previously, Irish society has made significant expansions at different times and I do not see why we cannot set that as a goal and do it. In my time in politics I have listened endlessly to people talking about child care and about expanding it. I have seen wonderful initiatives and innovations and I am a particular admirer of the work Senator Zappone has done. However, we need to think more ambitiously. Senator Darragh O'Brien is concerned that implies making demands, but politics is about deciding to make staged steps forward and expansions.

I listened to the contributions made by the Sinn Féin Members. Can they explain to me why there has not been a peep from them? I know enough about child care in the North to know how good, bad or indifferent it is in various ways. Sinn Féin should acknowledge that our unemployment, child benefit and almost all social welfare payments are significantly better than those north of the Border. Our support and housing supplements are also significantly higher than north of the Border. I have not heard a peep from Sinn Féin on these issues. I have enough contact with the North to have a fairly detailed knowledge of the situation there. Sinn Féin has no problems with far lower levels of social welfare in the North, where it is in government. I know Sinn Féin will say the reason it does not raise this is that it does not control tax policy there and, therefore, cannot raise taxes in order to make higher social welfare payments. If the age of seven is an acceptable cut-off point in the North for Sinn Féin, why does it see our moving in an ambitious way to achieve what would be an all-Ireland target as inappropriate?

I do not know why the age of seven was chosen in the North or in the United Kingdom, but I can guess why because I know why it was chosen in other countries. It has to do with the age at which there is good provision available for both preschool and after school care and when the child is well settled in the education system. In the Scandinavian countries that is quite early. In Italy and in France there are maternal schools for children of an early age because of the kind of developments made by people like Maria Montessori almost 100 years ago. We know a little about traditions in different countries.

We do not have a very strong preschool tradition in Ireland. We had many radical women around the turn of the last century. We had people like Louie Bennett who developed facilities for children, particularly here in the city. That would have been the start of the equivalent movement in Ireland. What I am asking, particularly Sinn Féin, is why it is okay to pay amounts so much lower in the North? I am aware that some provisions are better there, but some are not as good as those here. Why should we not look at getting better value for the large amount we are spending. I said previously that there is not a very large saving in this. The estimated saving this will yield is €0.3 million in 2012, €2 million in 2013, €5.8 million in 2014 and €11.9 million in 2015. What will happen is that with the development of appropriate after-school services, money will be spent in a different way, as happened with the early childhood care.

The ESRI report published yesterday, Understanding Childhood Deprivation in Ireland, is quite a tome of statistics based on the SILC 2009 data and study of 1,800 households with children. The report found that children have a higher poverty risk than adults and those children are more likely to be in low income and jobless households, that poverty is especially detrimental for children, due to its long term effects that persist into adulthood and that an adequate income is the basic requirement to alleviate poverty. It found that child and family income supports play a critical role in protecting children. Furthermore, the mother's education, employment, especially of the mother, and family stability are important.

These findings are a repetition of and consistent with everything I have read on this issue over the past 20 years. Senator Zappone spoke earlier of the value of quality education and initiatives that would hold younger parents. I was involved years ago in what was considered a radical move and has proved to be since. This involved changing the social welfare rules. When I was a Minister of State and Michael Woods was the senior Minister, we were involved in changing the rules so as to enable lone parents to stay in education. In those days - the early 1990s - if lone parents wanted to get the allowance, they had to stay home and do nothing. Now, we are just trying to change and to look at the countries we admire for their provision and care for children and considering making similar reforms.

The requirement to develop child care, particularly after-school care, is demanding. We have primary schools all around the country. Many primary schools are in urban centres with significant community facilities attached to them, such as the one I was involved in opening today. Surely, it is not beyond our capacity as a society to decide we will develop after school care facilities. It is no longer simply a question of buildings. In many cases it is a question of access to buildings. Given the timeframe provided for in the Bill and given the changes happening with regard to Pathways to Work, I am confident we will be able to expand and develop in a way I hope will be hugely positive for lone parents who end up being confined to lone parent's allowance or to some small additional income rather than being full participants in terms of their capacity to become financially independent.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.