Wednesday, 4 October 2017
Social Welfare Schemes
This is a question for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. It concerns the situation of lone parents in Ireland. We know from the CSO's survey on income and living, SILC, statistics that the figures on deprivation and poverty experienced by lone parents are hugely out of step with those for the rest of the population. According to the 2014 statistics, 59% of lone parents were experiencing enforced deprivation, meaning they had to go without some of the basics of life. In terms of consistent poverty, the figures for lone-parent families stand at a shocking 26%, almost five times the figure for two-parent households. That also means the children in lone-parent families are far more likely to be living in consistent poverty compared with two-parent households.The Government has a number of commitments going beyond the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, for example, the better outcomes, brighter futures national strategy for children and young people and the commitment to lift 100,000 people out of poverty. These concerns are not simply about children. They are also about the women - it is largely women who are in lone-parent families - and the life chances they are afforded. The Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, of which I am a member, produced a very comprehensive report. The Minister has previously indicated she has read that report and is very interested in its recommendations. What I want to know today is which of the committee's recommendations the Minister is planning to bring forward in the next six and 12 months. What is the timeline? How will they be implemented? Will they be adequately resourced? Will the Department be adequately resourced to be able to address these? It is particularly pertinent this week that the recommendations are not simply budgetary ones. Some of them relate very clearly to the budget and others are on qualifications, the criteria and conditionality attached and the obstacles that often come into play for lone parents.
There are over 30 recommendations but I will only mention five very briefly on which I want the Minister to comment specifically. The first is that the qualified child increase of €29.80 is not adequate, certainly not for teenage children. Can we expect an increase in it? One of the lone parents who wrote to me pointed out that €4 is not enough to feed and clothe any child let alone a teenager and when one is parenting alone that is all the more true. The research from the Department on minimum essential standards of living highlights that point. Can we expect movement on the qualified child increase? The second recommendation concerns complications that block education because the qualifications for rent allowance, the SUSI grant and FIS overlap with each other and create headaches where people have to choose between adequate part-time work and a chance to return to education or between rent allowance, security of their family's dwelling and returning to education. They are blocks for lone parents. There is a lack of part-time quality training and educational opportunities. Under jobseeker's transitional payment there is a recognition that people may not be able to work full-time. They may not be available to work full-time. We need to ensure there are quality options available on a voluntary basis not just to those on jobseeker's transitional payment, but to those who are receiving the one-parent family payment. They should be given voluntary access to quality, part-time training and education schemes. Another issue is the restoration of income disregard for lone parents to ensure they are encouraged to work and that the blocks to that are addressed. A crucial recommendation and one which will make a difference is ensuring that lone parents are allowed to stay on jobseeker's transitional payment until their child is 18 rather than as currently happens being moved onto jobseeker's allowance when their child is 14. The purpose of that recommendation is to recognise the reality that they are parenting alone and to acknowledge they are also trying to balance care for a child who is in their teenage years. The recommendations are enumerated in the report and I know the Minister has seen them. What are the plans? Can we expect the social welfare Bill to address many of these issues?
The research the Department committed to publishing before the budget has not been published. It is likely that the Department's Indecon research, which was a survey of 34,000 one-parent families, is likely to reinforce the message that not only have lone parents in Ireland been historically mistreated, but the 2012 changes have caused very serious further impacts on the lived experience of lone parents. I would like a very clear commitment. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, is representing the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is an all-of-Government issue. The Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have committed to gender and equality proofing of the budget. It is not simply about how we move the deck chairs in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, rather it is a whole-of-budget question. Will the Minister address how it will stand up to gender and equality budgeting if the issue of lone parents is not addressed in this budget?
I thank Senator Higgins for raising this important issue. Deputies meet this issue on a day-to-day basis and are aware of the very stark choices that people have to make. In the vast majority of cases, it is women who are involved. I apologise that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, cannot be here and I will relay the content of the Senator's contribution to her. The Senator is right about the issue of gender inequality. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, has been pushing this at Government level and I have been very supportive of her in that regard. The Senator is correct that the issue goes right across Government. It is not an isolated issue for the Minister, Deputy Doherty, rather it is an issue that goes across Government. I am trying to deal with the far broader challenges that are there with regard to climate change. It is the same issue. It is difficult because one is dealing with Government in silos. The leadership has to come from the top, from Cabinet and Ministers, down. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Protection has my support on that.
The Minister, Deputy Doherty, is very grateful to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the Report on the Position of Lone Parents in Ireland. I acknowledge the work undertaken by the committee to produce the report and thank it for its efforts. The Minister is aware that the report was based on the views of a range of stakeholders, including officials from the Department, who met with the committee and provided submissions. This has ensured the report represents a wide range of views and perspectives on the position of lone parents in Ireland.
In order to formulate policy that will improve the position of lone parents, it is important to look at the history of the one-parent family payment. In the past, income support for lone parents was passive in nature and involved limited engagement by the State with one-parent family payment recipients. The non-conditionality nature of the one-parent family payment, coupled with its long duration, over time engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among many lone parents and their children. The need to tackle long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among lone-parent families in Ireland through an active labour market approach was addressed in detail in the OECD report, Babies and Bosses: Reconciling Work and Family Life, which was published in 2003. The report argued that passive income support policy towards lone parents until their youngest child was aged 18 years, or 22 years if in full-time education, was a significant contributory factor to lone parents' low levels of employment and high levels of poverty. The Department reached the same conclusion in its own report, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, published in 2006, which highlighted Ireland's outlier status in terms of the maximum age threshold for the youngest child as well as the need to bring the one-parent family payment scheme more in line with international standards where a general movement away from long-term and non-conditional income support and towards a more active engagement approach was gaining momentum. These recommendations formed the basis for the decision to gradually lower the maximum age threshold for the youngest child on the one-parent family payment scheme to seven years from 2011 until 2015 and also to enhance educational, training, and employment supports to lone parents through the Department’s Intreo services.
It is also important when developing policy for lone parents to look at the supports that are currently available, in particular the jobseeker's transitional payment. This payment was introduced in 2013 as a specific measure for lone parents with younger children. It is available to lone parents who have a youngest child aged between seven and 13, inclusive. These customers are exempt from the jobseeker's allowance conditions that require them to be available for and genuinely seeking full-time work. As such, no lone parent with a youngest child aged under 14 years is required to take up employment in order to receive income support from the Department.
There is a requirement for all recipients of the jobseeker's transitional payment to engage with the Department's Intreo service. They receive a one-to-one meeting with a case officer from the Department who assists them in producing a personal development plan. The plan seeks to support the individual towards appropriate education and training opportunities with a view to ensuring they are employment-ready when their youngest child is 14. Should a lone parent on this payment wish to commence employment, they will be fully supported by the Department in making this transition. The jobseeker’s transitional payment is therefore a crucial support for lone parents that allows these customers to balance their work and caring responsibilities and, significantly, reduces their requirement for child care while their children are in primary school.As a lone parent's youngest child reaches the age of 14, the need for child care is reduced. If such a parent moves to jobseeker's allowance, there is a progressive increase in the conditionality. This means the parent must be available for and genuinely seeking full-time work. However, a lone parent also has the option of working a minimum level of 19 hours per week and applying for the family income supplement, FIS, and also the back-to-work family dividend, BTWFD. These in-work supports provide the most advantageous option for working lone parents.
In addition to the committee's report, an independent review of changes to the one-parent family payment was agreed during the passage of the Social Welfare Act 2016. This review has been completed by Indecon Economic Consultants and is under consideration by officials in the Minister's Department. The review included one of the largest ever surveys targeting one-parent families in Ireland with 33,000 lone parents surveyed. Responses were received and analysed from almost 3,700 lone parents who were directly affected by the changes. This provided an excellent opportunity to gather the views and experiences of lone parents affected by the changes. The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, expects to lay the report before the Houses and to publish it in the coming days. I understand from officials that the report shows that there has been a positive impact on reducing welfare dependency and an increase in employment for lone parents affected by the changes as well as a negative impact on poverty among those lone parents who are still on welfare.
While there will always be differing views on the best way to support lone parents, both reports will greatly assist us to find the best way forward. While the Minister cannot pre-empt the outcome of budget 2018 discussions, I confirm that she remains committed to improving the position of lone parents as one of her priorities. It is a priority of the Government as a whole.
I am a little concerned that some of the analysis is similar to what we have seen before. It is about the language of passivity being equated with conditionality. The passivity in the past in all of those reports, which I have read, was with reference to passivity on the part of the State in offering supports to lone parents. It has switched into a narrative which suggests that lone parents are somehow passive and need to be pushed out the door. The conditionalities have been placed on lone parents, for example, in the area of maintenance.
As constituency Deputies, we all meet the practical issues and challenges in this regard on an ongoing basis. Across both Houses, there is a determination to see if we can take lone parents out of the poverty trap and assist them, where feasible and practical, to get back to part-time or, preferably, full-time employment as their circumstances determine.