Seanad debates

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Social Welfare Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages


10:30 am

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report in respect of National Maintenance Body

20. (1) The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on options to establish a State body which would perform the following functions:(a) increasing and encouraging maintenance arrangements;

(b) assisting parents in the pursuit of maintenance in the courts; and

(c) providing a maintenance recovery service.(2) Such a State body's functions would apply to maintenance assessed under Part 12 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and any other maintenance agreement/order that could be pursued in court under the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouse and Children) Act 1976 (as amended).".

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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I second the amendment.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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This amendment seeks a report on the investigation of child maintenance. We have had positive conversations with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection about that. I came away from the meeting with the Minister feeling encouraged that she not only understands the issue but wants to take charge and consider how we can improve the system for mothers. I thank her for taking up that brief so soon and for really paying attention to the plight of single mothers.

This amendment is born of years of experience within my community and in my work of women having to take the responsibility for sourcing maintenance from fathers with the father floating around, never receiving a letter or any communication from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or other areas forcing him to pay the maintenance. It is an unfair burden on the mother who is already raising her child alone, trying to make ends meet and do all the normal things that mothers do, such as deal with health care and school appointments, and everything that goes with the role. It is an unfair and unequal system that expects a mother to pursue the maintenance. My research into legislating for this area began two years ago and when I examined it I found it was a minefield because in addition to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, it is in the courts system and the Department of Justice and Equality has a role in how the courts proceed and deal with maintenance. I wanted to get a report on how to marry those areas so that they work together to advance child maintenance. England was my first port of call. There was an okay system there at first but it then moved it to a privatised one. That was worrying. When it was first set up it was government run. Now it is semi-privatised which worries me because the client must pay the maintenance recovery unit to seek out the maintenance.The client then has to pay the recovery maintenance unit to seek the payment of maintenance which is not ideal for some, although I could be wrong about how the system works. The mother should be removed completely if she cannot access maintenance naturally from the father. If he does not offer her the money, she should not be forced to pursue him for it. There are many situations, but this is not ideal across the board, even if the relationship between the parents is healthy. It will have a negative impact on the rearing of the children if the parents are fighting constantly about the payment of maintenance. I ask the Department to consider laying before the House a report on how we can address this issue. It would have benefits overall, not only for the mother but also for the State because the more the father has to contribute in the rearing of his children, the less the State will have to intervene in the process. It could, therefore, have a positive outcome overall for the mother and the children but also for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the provision of welfare grants and all that is available in that regard.

I will not press the amendment to a vote, but I ask the Minister to accept it and prepare a report on the matter. I am interested in hearing what she has to say.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I am grateful to the Senator for not pressing the amendment because I cannot accept it, not because I disagree with anything she has said because I do not, as she knows, but because I do not have the responsibility, although I wish I did, to establish a maintenance recovery section because that matter falls within the remit of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan. However, that is not to say I cannot do anything. I have a habit of sticking my nose in where it is probably not wanted. What I can do in my area is, as I said, establish a committee after Christmas to look at what we do within the Department. The Senator and any other Member interested is welcome to sit on that committee.

I really question the policy and hope that shows my intent because, if I am questioning it, I am obviously proposing to change it, if and when I can do so. I do not think it is right to ask any parent who has the responsibility to rear a child to chase an errant parent who has not meet their responsibilities in the first instance. The Senator and I both know that, in most instances, it is the man who is the errant parent, but, in many cases, it is not.

I want to look at the way in which we operate the one-parent family payment system which should be completely separate from the responsibility of a parent to chase the errant parent. This happens for many reasons. In many cases, it may be a question of control and manipulation, but, even at the very happy end of the scale where there are no big issues, the system still puts the onus and an added burden on the parent who is rearing the children and doing everything in meeting school and dentist costs and so on. We will establish the committee with a view to ascertaining very quickly what changes need to be made within the Department. I will be making the changes for the payments recovered by the maintenance recovery section. That is not to say, however, that we will have a maintenance recovery section in our division, but it will focus on the errant parent as opposed to the parent who is rearing the children. If we can do what the Senator wants us to do within the division, I will have responsibility for it and will pursue the matter. However, all of the other services available in the civil courts to those pursuing a partner for maintenance come under the Department of Justice and Equality. Whether it be the family mediation service or the Legal Aid Board, they come within the remit of the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan. If we were to have a national maintenance recovery agency, the most likely place for it to be located would within his remit. Because the responsibilities of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, span the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Justice and Equality, we will have an official to sit on our committee. Let us see if we can explore the issue. I am very happy to work with anybody, but what I cannot do is take responsibility for preparing a report that would not be within my remit. However, I can give my word that, within my Department, we will establish a committee to look at what we do from a one-parent family payment perspective and also at what is available in the maintenance recovery section. Perhaps we are focused on the wrong parent and that we need to realign. If that is what we decide to do, it is something we could do very quickly.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I welcome all of the Minister's comments. I had anticipated that I would be crossing over sectors and probably crossing over into another completely, given that I believe maintenance should possibly be taken from the man through his tax payments. I understand that would be a move into a very different area. I would be delighted to be part of the committee. I will continue to pursue the other Departments involved in terms of what they could do in looking at the issue in conjunction with what the Minister's Department is doing for women.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill received for final consideration and passed.