Thursday, 7 December 2017
Social Welfare Bill 2017: Second Stage
I am very pleased to be in this House today to introduce this Bill. As Senators will know, the Social Welfare Bill 2017 provides the legislative framework for the implementation of the social protection measures contained in budget 2018. The Bill therefore includes the provisions required to enable a €5 increase in the maximum rate of all weekly social welfare payments with effect from March 2018. It also provides for a €2 weekly increase for each qualified dependent child, the first such increase since 2010. There are also important provisions which enable the extension of entitlement to maternity leave and maternity benefit in cases of premature births.
The Bill is reflective of the approach taken by Government in framing our budget for 2018. There is a genuine commitment to supporting individuals and families who, for one reason or another, have recourse to the welfare system. There is a real commitment to making work pay and to supporting people into employment. This is set against a backdrop of the Government’s drive to the continued development of a sustainable and resilient economy in the interests of all of our citizens.
I would like to briefly outline the provisions of the Bill. I should mention at the outset that the Bill includes three specific amendments, providing for the production of reports on specific policy areas, which were passed on Report Stage in the Dáil yesterday evening. Sections 1 and 2 are standard provisions setting out the Short Title of the Bill, its construction and citation, commencement provisions and definitions of terms used in the Bill. Section 3 provides for an amendment to the definition of the term “share based remuneration” to cater for the introduction of a new tax relief being introduced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. This tax relief is the key employee engagement programme, KEEP, for qualifying share options granted to employees of small to medium-sized enterprises.In practical terms, the effect of the small amendment in section 3 is to provide that any gains realised on the exercise of a share option by workers via the KEEP programme will not be subject to PRSI. Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill provide for an increase of €5 per week in the rates of maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit, respectively, with effect from 26 March 2018. Section 7 provides for the proportionate increases in the rates of jobseeker’s benefit which are payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings are relatively low. Section 8, together with Schedule 1, provide for the redesignation of the family income supplement as the working family payment with effect from the 1 January. This follows on from a review by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of the effectiveness of the range of in-work supports which it provides. The title of working family payment will explicitly reflect the nature of the payment and our aim is to facilitate further take-up of this important payment which is aimed specifically at working families.
Section 9 is the first of the amendments to the Bill which was passed on Report Stage. It provides that my Department will produce a report on the operation of the working family payment and present it to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within six months. The redesignation of family income supplement, FIS, as the working family payment in January will be accompanied by a national promotional and information campaign designed to encourage as many eligible families as possible to apply for the working family payment. While it would have been preferable to allow for the effects of that promotional campaign to become clear, the review will focus on addressing such issues as the impact of the "hours worked" threshold under the scheme. A key issue always is to ensure that the working family payment should not become a vehicle for subsidising unsuitably low earnings or that it would encourage or incentivise employers to offer minimal hours of employment.
In section 10 we provide for an increase of €10 in the weekly earnings thresholds for the working family payment for recipients who have up to three children, with effect from 29 March 2018. Section 11 provides for another positive measure to support the transition from unemployment into employment by enabling the continuation of the back to work family dividend. Under the sunset clause contained in the existing legislation, this scheme would have to be closed to new claimants from the end of March 2018 and the scheme would have been completely shut down by 2021. The Bill provides now for the removal of that sunset clause because we recognise the value of the back to work family dividend payment.
Section 12, together with Schedule 2, is one of the key provisions of the Bill. It provides for new rates for the full range of social insurance benefits. All maximum weekly insurance-based pensions and benefits are being increased by €5, with effect from the week commencing 26 March 2018, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. This section also provides for proportionate increases in respect of qualified adults together with an increase of €2 per week in the qualified child increase payment. Section 13 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payment, from €110 to €130 per week, and that is also effective from 29 March 2018.
Section 14 together with Schedule 3 mirrors the provisions of section 11 on the increase in the rates payable to social assistance claimants which will come into effect in the week commencing 26 March 2018. This section also provides that jobseekers aged under 26 on a reduced rate payment will receive the full €5 increase per week.
Sections 15 and 16 provide an important additional support for the parents of babies who are born prematurely. Under these provisions, extended periods of entitlement to maternity benefit and maternity leave are being introduced in cases of premature births which occur on or after the 1 October 2017 start date. In practical terms, the extended period of entitlement will be equivalent to the duration between the actual date of birth of the premature baby and two weeks before the expected date of birth. That is the point at which the current entitlement to 26 weeks of maternity leave and benefit would normally begin. By way of illustration, where a baby is born in the 30th week of gestation, the child’s mother will have an additional entitlement of approximately seven weeks of maternity leave and benefit. This additional period will be added to the mother’s normal entitlement to 26 weeks of maternity leave and benefit.
Section 15 introduces the necessary changes to the Social Welfare Act to provide for the additional maternity benefit while section 16 introduces the parallel provisions to the Maternity Protection Act 1994 on maternity leave. Section 17 provides for an amendment to the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for a 0.1% increase, from 0.7% to 0.8%, in the national training fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in class A and class H employments from 1 January 2018.
Section 18 is the second of the amendments passed on Report Stage in the Dáil last evening. This amendment merely restates commitments I have already given to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the issue of the impact of the changes introduced in 2012 to the qualifying conditions for the State contributory pension. I have no doubt but that Senators are familiar with the issues involved. My Department is examining in depth various options that would provide some relief to those who would have a higher contributory pension, had the rate bands not been amended in 2012. If there are equitable changes that target such relief to those who were particularly affected by anomalies under the yearly average system, particularly if they had homemaking periods prior to the introduction of the homemakers scheme, I will ask Government to consider if and how these might be financed. Once the report is finished, I will be bringing it to the next Cabinet sub-committee on pensions, which has been set for 18 January. Thereafter, I will bring proposals to Government for consideration. At that stage I will then publish the options paper.
Section 19 is the final section of the Bill and is the third of the amendments passed on Report Stage. It provides that my Department will examine the issues associated with the rent-a-room tax relief and how income from renting out a room is treated in the means testing for the one-parent family payment. In this regard, I should say that the consideration of the issue will necessarily have to take account of wider means testing policies. Briefly, it would be problematic to provide for a disregard for rent-a-room income for the one-parent family payment scheme in isolation from all of the other support schemes that we have. For instance, once the recipient’s child turned seven years of age and the person transferred to the jobseeker’s transitional payment, if there was any rental income then it would become assessable if we were just to do what is hoped to have been provided for with amendment.
The Bill before us will have a positive impact on the living standards of pensioners, lone parents, people with disabilities, carers, jobseekers and others who have recourse to the social protection system. For the second budget in a row, an increase of €5 per week in social welfare rates is being provided for. I hope that is clear evidence of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that all of our citizens should benefit from the continuing economic recovery that the country is now experiencing. I am particularly pleased that this Bill provides for the first increase in the weekly qualified child payment since 2010. I am particularly conscious that we still have far too many children consistently living below the poverty line. I am also happy that the Bill is responding positively to the needs of parents where a child is born prematurely. I look forward to the contributions of this House in relation to this Bill and I commend this Bill to the House.
We are happy to support the Social Welfare Bill. The aim of this Bill is primarily to give legislative effect to a range of increases in social welfare payments announced in budget 2018. Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill, but we will be bringing forward a number of amendments. Deputy O'Dea was successful in the Dáil yesterday in bringing forward an amendment to section 8 to insert the following: "The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall review the operation of the Working Family Payment, including the requirement that you must be working 19 hours per week, 38 hours per fortnight, to qualify for the payment, and shall bring forward a report to the Committee on Social Protection on same within six months of this Bill being enacted."
He was also successful in bringing forward an amendment on page 13, after line 38, to insert the following: "The Minister will publish the report on the effects of the 2012 pension bands and rates changes immediately after it has been considered by the Cabinet." The third amendment he was successful in bringing forward was on page 13, after line 38, to insert the following: "The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall review the impact of removing income generated from rent-a-room relief from the means test for those in receipt of the one-parent family payment and shall bring forward a report on the same within six months of this Bill being enacted."
While budget 2018 was far from perfect and contained only modest gains for those on low and fixed incomes, Fianna Fáil through its influence and determination to create a fairer Ireland, ensured that it was at least a step in the right direction. We are proud to have once again secured a €5 per week increase in the State pension. This is the second year in a row that Fianna Fáil has secured such an increase resulting in State pensions rising by a total of €10.We also welcome the €5 increase in other weekly payments and the increase in the qualified child payment. This Bill gives effect to these increases. We also welcome that this Bill extends entitlement to maternity benefit and maternity leave in cases of premature births. This is a welcome measure and will provide a degree of comfort to mothers in what is a very stressful situation.
This Bill, however, does not deal with the issue of pension equality, which our amendment tries to address, or the disastrous changes introduced by Fine Gael and Labour in 2012 to the bands for the contributory pension, which had an adverse effect on older people and women in particular. Fianna Fáil recently brought forward a motion to reverse the 2012 changes, which was passed in the Dáil. In addition, Deputy Willie O’Dea tabled amendments on Committee Stage of this Bill to reverse the changes introduced in 2012 but these were ruled out of order.
Finally, this Bill renames the family income supplement, FIS, as the working family payment. We had hoped that the Minister would have taken a more imaginative approach to reforming the social welfare system and fulfilling a commitment made in the programme for Government to introduce a new working family payment. Fianna Fáil believes that this payment should be reviewed with a view to revising the 38-hour rule to create a sliding scale in order to reflect the fact that many people may be working less than 19 hours per week and may be in just as much need as those currently receiving this payment. We believe that such a move has the potential to benefit lone parents, in particular those who are parenting alone and are the sole carers of their children.
We are happy to support the Bill and we look forward to the new rates being introduced in March.
I am supporting this Bill. The Social Welfare Bill proposes to give effect to social welfare and related matters as announced in budget 2016. These include measures to provide an increase in the maximum payment rate for weekly social protection payments. The Bill provides for an increase in the weekly rate of maternity and adoptive benefits and that has to be welcomed. There are always limits in resources for the budget but the Minister has given priority to areas which are particularly important. The Bill also proposes to increase the earnings thresholds for working family payments and makes amendments to maternity leave and benefits. This is also excellent, particularly in cases of premature births in which regard it is timely and appropriate. It also seeks to make amendments to the National Training Fund Act 2000. I thank the Minister for increasing the rate of farm assist, albeit only by a moderate €5. It is an important gesture in the right direction.
I wish the Minister well and this Bill is worthy of support. There are proposed changes to social insurance and social assistance payments, which are set out in the memorandum and which were touched on by the Minister in her speech. It is a beginning and I know she would like to increase it by more in the future. I acknowledge her work. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to speak directly to the Minister and I wish to acknowledge the responses of her and her Department to the representations we make on social protection issues. I am always highly impressed that we get an acknowledgement within days and then there is a follow-up, including a personal follow-up from the Minister with her signature on it. It makes a difference when a Minister takes an interest in public representatives who make representations. The other day, I asked why somebody could not do as the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, does and they replied that she was a tough taskmaster. I said that was fantastic as it meant she got things done. She is on a mission and fair play to her. It is great for public representatives to have a strong working relationship with a Minister as committed as Deputy Doherty.
I welcome the Minister and wish her well. I had the privilege of working with her on the health committee for five years and she made a huge contribution. The experience she gained there will stand to her in her new role. It is great that she has come to the House today to talk about a budget that includes increases, which have occurred directly as a result of the number of new jobs that have been created and the number of people back at work. We now have over 250,000 more people at work than there were in 2011 and 2012 and, as a result, we can give support to the people who need it, whether they are retired people or people in health or employment difficulties.
It is important that we recognise the contribution social welfare can make to a person's life in helping them to get back onto the rung on the ladder they were on before and then onto better things. There has been criticism of JobPath and other measures the Department took but they were the correct measures. It is about making sure everyone gets the opportunity to do things they are good at and acquire the skills to enable them to fulfil their aims in life.
The Minister went through the various increases in the Bill, such as changes to maternity benefit, increases in paternity benefit and additional support for families where there has been a premature birth, when there is an immediate loss of work in many cases. She also increased the one-parent family allowance disregard, from €110 to €130 from 29 March, which is welcome as it assists people to get back into long-term employment.
One issue on which we need to work relates to the self-employed. We have brought about important changes in this area and will continue to do so but a person who has been self-employed for some time and who runs into major health problems finds that the social welfare process is a slow one for them. Often, they do not have insurance against their business folding or against losing work because of the cost involved. I know of one person whose application has taken quite some time to process. I do not blame the Department as it is complying with the rules and regulations but we need to look at it. These people took the risk of trying to provide for themselves through self-employment and when it goes badly wrong, as it does from time to time especially in cases of major health problems, they do not have the back-up support and we need to be able to respond to genuine cases in a timely manner. I know changes cannot be made on this occasion but, in the long term, I would like to see some in this area.Overall, we are going down the right road in respect of the way we have dealt with social welfare and the way we are dealing with it now. The other big challenges we have in social welfare are in respect of elderly care and the long-term cost of both the contributory and non-contributory old age pension. I mention this issue with regard to the increase in the number of people over 65. That number is currently 637,000. It will be more than 1 million within ten years. That is a huge challenge for us and we need to start planning for it in many different areas. Figures released in the last few weeks show that life expectancy in this country has continued to increase. Since 2000, life expectancy has increased by something like five years. This is evidence of the contribution being made by people who are in receipt of social welfare and are better able to care for themselves and of the contribution of the health services. While we might criticise the health services, this increase in life expectancy indicates that we must be getting something right.
This increase poses a challenge in respect of the costs of servicing the increased number of retired people. It is important we plan for that. The one good thing is that the numbers coming into employment continue to increase. I have worked out that the ratio of working people to retired people is now 3.1:1. If the number of retired people increases to 1 million, we would have to achieve huge job figures to maintain that ratio. It is a challenge on which we need to work. Overall, I thank the Minister for the work she is doing. I thank all of the officials in her Department. Like Senator Boyhan, I thank those who respond to the queries we raise. I appreciate the help I get in that regard and how efficiently queries are responded to.
This morning the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection admitted that the welfare cheats campaign was a mistake. That is a welcome development. Social welfare is about protecting those of us who are most at risk and most vulnerable. It has become somewhat typical of previous Governments and the current Government to try to erode these institutions. Fine Gael policies often seek to exploit society, as I mentioned in my introduction, and to divide it or to moralise about social welfare payments. The Taoiseach in particular and the Government in general have sought to morally justify those social inequalities. Such behaviour facilitates a politics of division. It makes the task of designing an approach to social welfare that actively seeks to confront and eradicate those divisions more difficult.
The increases in social welfare payments, the continuation of the back-to-work dividend and the extension of maternity benefit for mothers of premature babies, among other provisions in this Bill, are to be welcomed. We commend the Minister on those measures. We also perceive significant flaws and have many major concerns. These concerns were brought up by my colleague, Deputy John Brady, in the Dáil where they were not sufficiently dealt with. I ask the Minister to deal with those concerns here today and as the Bill progresses through the Houses.
One such issue is that of the 42,000 older people who have been stripped of their State pensions because of the 2012 changes to pension bands and rates. These changes disproportionately affected women. They were discriminated against for starting to work at an early age or for taking time out to look after their families. I am happy to see that an amendment was passed late last night that brings forward the date by which this anomaly will be dealt with. That is welcome.
The increase of €2 in qualified child payments within the Bill is disappointing. While the Government talks about a growing economy and releases statement after statement welcoming falling live register figures, I wonder what happens to the 140,000 people living in consistent poverty in this State. What about the majority of lone parents who are living in deprivation and cannot afford a warm coat for their children or to heat their own homes? There is a consistent poverty rate of 26.2% among children in lone-parent families. That is more than three times the consistent poverty rate for children in two-parent families. When it comes to tackling child poverty, especially among lone-parent families where it is most prevalent, we need targeted measures and adequate increases.
On Committee Stage in the Dáil, Sinn Féin tabled an amendment to this Bill that called for a report on the impact of cuts to the fuel allowance. After discussions with the Minister, there was agreement to that amendment once it was slightly re-worded. Despite this, the Government refused to accept the amendment on Report Stage yesterday. Will the Minister outline why that was the case? We intend to table this amendment next week and hope the Minister will accept it.
I am also thinking today about the young people who are on reduced rates of jobseeker's payments because of their age. What is a growing economy doing for those young people? Our young job seekers continue to receive reduced levels of jobseeker's payments while facing the exact same costs. Their rents are not cheaper, neither is their food. It is highly unlikely that they hold any fixed assets such as, for example, houses or cars. This is discrimination. This is about citizenship. It is about young people being at peace with their lives. Sinn Féin believes in a better society that is equal and fair. We are on the side of the ordinary people who struggle to make ends meet.
I would be grateful if the Minister could address some of those concerns in her response.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I first acknowledge there are some positive measures in the Bill which has been put forward. I will, of course, be supporting those measures. There are some progressive elements, particularly in respect of maternity benefit. With regard to the payment increases, we must note that those on reduced rates will not be receiving €5 extra including, for example, those on reduced rates of pensions, who are predominantly women. They will be receiving a pro rata, lower amount of €3. I will come to pensions. I know the Minister is keen to progress that issue. I will come to it later.
The other positive elements are the increase in qualified child payment and the partial restoration of the income disregard for the lone parent allowance. I point out, however, that we still have a lower disregard than we originally did. That is still a work in progress. We have acknowledged that it was counterproductive as a policy measure. It is important that we move further towards reversing that reduction.
I acknowledge that the Minister has a personal interest in the area of lone parents. She has been very clear that she wants to address the issue and that she recognises that these families have the highest rates of child poverty and suffer deep inequity in terms of opportunities. I suggest we can do more. I may table some amendments in that regard. Some of the things we might do are not simply around payments. They also involve addressing some of the blocks to accessing education and the unfortunate overlaps around payments, what qualifies and what does not. There is also the issue of maintenance, which has been highlighted in this House. Will the Minister address how she sees that issue progressing? I urge her to move forward on it early next year because it is a keen issue for myself and others on the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We have been flagging it for a long time. The issue of a national maintenance body needs to examined.
One very small but practical measure that has been sought for decades is to look at availability for work on the basis of hours rather than days. Some who are parenting and particularly those who are parenting alone, may want the opportunity to work for a number of hours, for example from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. However, because one is required to be available full-time for a full day to receive certain payments, an obstacle is created for those who seek to build attachment to the workplace in different ways. Could that be reviewed? I may table amendments in that regard.
I note the family income supplement has been renamed as the working family payment. Again this is something the joint committee should consider.We need to examine whether it is just the same or whether there are differences. If it is going to be a key policy plank in the future, it may need a little bit more debate and scrutiny.As a simple measure regarding family income supplement, while the thresholds are of key importance, the requirement of 19 hours is a serious concern. I will speak on a simple practical level to make it clear. Fifteen hours of child care are provided to people in Ireland. If somebody is working in the child care sector or is relying on that child care to allow them to access work, he or she is tied to 15 hours. Such people will never reach the 19 hours that would allow them to access the family income supplement or working family payment. This is a gap into which people fall and it affects opportunities.
I want to highlight other activation concerns. Since long before I came into this House, I have called for a rural pilot for the European Youth Guarantee. I want to put it on the Minister's agenda and I will probably put forward a suggestion for a report in this area. We undertook the European Youth Guarantee, which had strong lessons for us on the problem of youth unemployment in urban areas. However, there are areas with very high rural youth unemployment, in the south east of the country for example. A pilot scheme which would allow us to identify and tackle the issues facing young unemployed people in rural Ireland might be something to consider.
My other serious concerns about our activation policies pertain to the seemingly increasing focus on sanction and compulsion, as well as the question of whether people are being given options. The full understanding of activation was always that it was employment, training or education. My concern is that education has fallen by the wayside somewhat and is not getting the same emphasis. The Labour Market Council appeared before the Joint Committee on Social Protection last February and its representatives stated that while there had been a move towards a work-first policy, we needed to re-examine the option of an education-first policy.
I am also very seriously concerned about the personal progression plans and I will be putting forward amendments in this regard. Due to the way they are being managed at present by Turas Nua and Seetec under contract from the Department, there are serious data breaches. I am concerned with what people are required to sign in order to show they are co-operating. People who wish to co-operate with employment and activation services are being asked to sign a document that is not appropriate and which breaches privacy, particularly around contact with their future employer. That is a serious concern.
The other question relates to voluntary access to schemes for those who are qualified adults and are not on the live register. I may table amendments on this but I am happy to work with the Minister on it. There are people who would like to access employment and activation supports but are concerned because they may not be available full-time or suitable for the live register. As we are losing that huge potential, I would like us to review that issue.
My last point relates to a key issue and I will table extensive amendments on it. There has been a kind of plough-forward attitude within the Department but I urge the Minister to really review this seriously. The public service card is a serious concern. The way that it is being rolled out has constantly raised concerns, including the those of the Data Protection Commissioner. Until the Data Protection Commissioner's concerns are satisfied and we can be genuinely assured that we are meeting the standards of the EU general data protection regulation, GDPR, that is coming in next year, there are very serious concerns. It is not just the individual cases that are constantly arising but relates to the manner of its introduction. It needs examination and I will urge that we pull back from making the public service card the only acceptable form of identification for claiming social protection payments while these concerns are being addressed. That is very important, and it would be appropriate and circumspect for the Department to act in that way.
My last points are wider points. I will address everything else through amendments on Committee Stage, and of course I am always just as happy to work with the Department if any of these issues can be progressed without an amendment. I acknowledge that the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Varadkar, did accept some of my proposals, and introduced them by ministerial order rather than amendment in this debate last year. In respect of preparation for Ireland's ratification of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, does the Minister have the scope to introduce new measures mid-year if needed?
Furthermore, in the Minister's review, I urge her to examine the private pension tax reliefs in Ireland, which amount to figures between €210 million and €2 billion. This is part of the financing package and it must be part of the consideration. I will put forward amendments unless the Minister can indicate that this is already in the picture. I understand that the Minister is constrained in addressing the pension issue right now. Will she commit that if possible, she will put forward proposals as amendments to the social welfare and pensions Bill when it comes through in the spring?
The Senator has given me enough work for about three months by herself. I will start with Senator Higgins and work backwards, if that is all right. I thank the Senators for the valuable contributions that have been made today.
In response to Senator Higgins, I thank her for her support, not just for this Bill, but also in general. I know she knows where I am trying to get to and I appreciate it. I will look at the requirements for hours versus days. I will not do it within the confines of this particular Bill, because that concern does not actually relate to it. However, it might be worthwhile, because the people the Senator is talking about are not small in their numbers. I was not focused enough, or conscious enough of the difference between 19 hours and 15 hours with regard to the family income supplement but that will form part of our review of the working family payments.
The whole purpose of the Department is involved here. It is not my money or our money, it is your money. It is the people's money. The reason we do what we do is to make people's lives different; not just some people's lives, but all citizens' lives. We do not set out with an ideology that we will look after certain groups of people. The only reason the Department exists is to look after people during times of their lives when they cannot look after themselves. There has to be a minimum standard and that is where we are going to. However, I acknowledge that all Members recognise that the minimum standard does have limitations because if we did not have limits, I would have everything much higher than it is. We do have limits and we have to work around those limits. I will come back to Senator Higgins on the question of hours versus days. I ask her to give me a couple of months. Between now and next week I will find out how long I will need, and maybe I will come back to her before next week and let her know.
We are looking at changes in the European Youth Guarantee Fund with regard to some of our youths, who are removed from the marketplace for a variety of reasons. There are not just one or two reasons, there are many reasons. As some people in rural Ireland may be affected differently than those in urban areas, let us have a look at that.
I refer to people who are unemployed for a small or a medium amount of time. The whole reason that activation is there is because we activate them either through training, re-training, change of skills or education. There is not one exclusive path of just putting somebody on a scheme to give him or her work experience. If suitable education and third level education is more suited to that particular person, there is no reason not to do it. I came across a barrier with some schemes, as I am sure the Senator did, whereby there is only a certain amount of courses one can go on. Who decided that someone cannot be a physicist just because he or she has a child under the age of seven? I am going to examine those. There should be no barriers and I believe there should be no pre-conditioned courses. We should not say that someone can only be A, B or C. They should have the flair and the imagination to be able to follow whatever course they want to, and particularly to be able to aim higher during those seven years. That particular scheme obviously has conditions but there should be no limits to anybody with regard to educational resources and support from my Department or from the Department of Education and Skills.
On the topic of voluntary access to schemes, I did not think we deprived people of that access but I will have a look. There is a new plan for jobless households, for people who are qualified adults and do not appear on any register anywhere. Perhaps they are precluded from going on to community employment, CE, schemes, Tús or into JobPath. I will have a look at that. If they are, they should not be. I will see how we can fix it, but if we can fix it and if what the Senator has said is true, of which I have no doubt, that might put pressure on the already over-burdened CE scheme. They are nearly at capacity. Some people will tell one that they cannot fill places because of particular reasons but there are waiting lists and over-capacity on other schemes. That will form part of the review that we are doing between now and the new year.
The UN disability rights convention was mentioned. We are going to sign it. The Minister of State got approval at Cabinet on Tuesday. Whatever we need to do to make sure that we conform to that charter is what we are going to do. That is why the public consultation is going to take place in the beginning of the new year with regard to the deprivation of liberty.However, if other legislation needs to be passed to enhance the rights of people with disabilities, either in the workplace or to allow them access other supports, it is our job to ensure that we pass it. Specifically, it is an issue for the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, but I will give him whatever support he needs.
To allay some of the fears expressed by the Senator, the Data Protection Commissioner did have some concerns. The commissioner asked a very large number of questions of us - 49 in total - in the context of allaying those concerns. We have answered all of the questions comprehensively and we are awaiting a response from the commissioner's office as to whether it is either happy or not happy with our replies regarding the practices. If it is not happy, we will deal with that at the time. This is not my baby, so to speak - it started ten years ago - but I do not want anybody believing that there is a problem with the data we are holding. If there are concerns, we have to address them and we will make sure we do so. If the Data Protection Commissioner comes back to us with concerns, I will come back to the House, or to the joint committee in order to discuss them.
I am happy to be able to answer the question regarding tax relief on pensions because it is €2.6 billion every year. That is a phenomenal amount of money. After Christmas, we will be engaging in public consultation on the new auto-enrolment pension scheme we are proposing to roll out. The parameters of that scheme will be very much determined by the responses we get from the public consultation. In that context, the Senator should not wait for somebody else to make a submission. There is a view that we should have a lower limit and an upper limit. To my mind, those limits might be €20,000 and €65,000, but the position in that regard will be determined by the public consultation; it will not be determined by me. The €2.6 billion will be going into that pot. That is what I think. Obviously, what Senators think will be very much shaped by what will be the auto-enrolment policy. I hope that the public consultation will be carried out in the first three or four months of next year. We will then come back to committee to discuss the new auto-enrolment policy because I want to roll it out from the beginning of the year after next, and we need space to be able to consult the public insurance bodies and those in the private sector. In addition, the Department will need time to create an IT platform that will be able to manage it. This is not something that can be done in a couple of months, but we can agree the parameters in the first couple of months of next year. The Senator should hold her whisht and come back to me at the beginning of next year.
I thank Senator Ardagh for her support. I appreciate that she will probably table additional amendments next week and I am very happy to discuss them.
I thank Senator Boyhan for his lovely comments, which are not directed at me because I do not do any of the work. The people in our Department are genuinely some of the most talented and committed individuals I have ever come across. I do not say that lightly but they are that. I know I am a fusspot and I sign all my own letters but that is only because I cannot have somebody else sign letters for me. I thank the Senator for that particular compliment.
Senator Boyhan specifically mentioned the increase in the farm assist payment. There was also an increase in the number of placements on the farm assist programme this year. It is probably our most successful scheme because it is got a 99% application rate whereas many of our other schemes would have a participation rate of less than 99%.
I acknowledge Senator Colm Burke's contribution. I am very glad he acknowledged that the only reason we have had money to give over the past two years - and I would love to take the credit for the payments that are being given - is because the economy is generating it. If the economy was not in a place where we could generate money, we might have seen a return to what were awful years between 2009 and 2015 when cuts of up to €4 billion were made. We all have our differences in terms of the reason the economy is recovering - and it is recovering better in some places than others - but all I know is that it affords me the ability to give people who have to rely on fixed incomes on a weekly basis a few bob extra. It is not as much as I would like to be able to give. I would love to be able to give more. I hope that as the economy continues to recover next year, we will be able to do the reinstatement of the disregard for lone parents because they are one of a group of people I know are one of the hardest working people in this country. If I do nothing else for whatever length of time I am Minister in this Department, I will break that stereotypical image that some people have of women in the main who are rearing families on their own because it is wrong. We need to work together, continuously and collaboratively, in order to ensure that we break that stereotypical image because they are some of the most hard-working people. When I was at home I came to work for a rest because it a very hard job to be at home with one's children. Most of the women, and men, who are rearing families are actually working so they are only getting to keep more of their own money. I want to continue to do that.
I acknowledge what Senator Colm Burke said to the effect that caring is something we need to examine. I stick my nose into many areas that are not my business but our Department provides income supports. It is not my responsibility to devise the carers' strategy but I will make whatever input I can in respect of the Department of Health. That conversation has started and been regenerated based on the "Prime Time" programme this week, which was exceptionally difficult to watch. Mark Fitzpatrick is a good pal of mine from our DCA Warriors days, so I will do whatever I can to recognise, reward and assist those people, many of whom are not getting carer's allowance or carer's benefit. Many of them are doing that work for nothing because their husband or wife is earning so much money they would not fall within the means test to be able to receive carer's allowance. However, we need to recognise that 6 billion hours of care are being given on a weekly basis by those people who are staying at home and providing those services in the absence of any other State intervention. We need to have a serious conversation about that and it might be worthwhile for the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Joint Committee on Health examining that in the future.
I thank Senator Warfield for his support for the good items in the Bill. I acknowledge that if we had more money, he would be supportive because we would be providing larger increases. All I can say is that if and when the economy recovers and as long as I am here, I will make sure that a sizeable chunk of the money that is available to spend will be spent in my Department. I know that probably irks other people, some within my own party and some outside it, but for as long as I am here, I will always recognise that it is very difficult to live on a fixed income. It is very difficult for people who have no recourse other than that income. They do not have the ability to go out and work for ten or 20 hours to supplement their income. As long as I can increase those people's living standards, I will do so. However, people have to recognise that there are some major shifts in policy that we could do if we did not have to give everybody of a working age an increase every year. To that end, it might be a valuable exercise to have a body examine social welfare increases along the lines of what is done in the Low Pay Commission and to take the politics out of it so that I would have more money to increase the qualified child payment. I would have increased it by €10 this year if I had the money, but €2 was the most I could do. When we look at fuel poverty, I only got one week this year. I would love to bring that back up to where we were before the cuts were made. When we talk about the family income supplement, the position regarding the 19 hours needs to be addressed. When we look at the hours versus days, it would be wonderful to be able to do that but all of those shifts in policies, which I know would be welcomed by all the Senators, does not come cheap. As long as we have to keep giving €5 to every scheme every year, that will take off €350 million, which does not leave much left to try to address real policy changes. I hope the Senators can read between the lines in the context of what I am saying. There is nobody who is not deserving of any small increase we can give every year but because there are so many people reliant on the payments they get from our Department, even a small increase adds up to tens of millions of euro very quickly.
I thank the Senators for their support. We will have exchanges next week and whatever I can do I will do. It is not a case of not accepting amendments just because I am not a nice person. If we can take amendments and I can do reports on them, I will be very happy to talk to the Senators and to do them. Ultimately, I want to have proper based data so that I can use it next year when I am fighting for more money. If the Senators can help me do that, it will be welcome.
I commend the Bill to the House.