Thursday, 6 December 2018
Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018: Second Stage
I am delighted to be in the House on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, to introduce this important legislation. The Minister regrets she cannot be here as she is obliged to be at a ministerial meeting of the EU Employment Council today. However, she is looking forward to working with the Seanad to ensure the passage of the Bill before the end of the year.
As Senators will know, the main purpose of the Bill is to ensure a legislative basis for the increases in social welfare rates, including the €5 increase in the maximum rate of all weekly social welfare payments, announced as part of budget 2019. The Bill also contains a number of key reforms to the social protection system. In particular, the Bill provides, for the first time, for the introduction of a higher rate of payment for qualified children aged 12 and over. This responds directly to research which has consistently identified that older children have additional and different needs from children in younger age groups. Another very important measure is included in section 9, which provides the legislative basis for the review of the State pension (contributory) entitlements of pensioners who were awarded less than the maximum rate of the State pension (contributory) following changes to the rate bands introduced in 2012.A very substantial body of work has already been undertaken over the past number of months. The Department has been issuing letters to more than 70,000 Irish resident contributory pensioners, while a further 8,000 letters to non-resident pensioners will issue this month. These letters explain the review process and informs pensioners that the Department will contact them with the outcome of their individual pension review.
There are other measures contained in the Bill which will have a positive impact on the situation of lone parents. They will benefit from an increase in the earnings disregard as well as from the increases in the weekly rates of payment and the increases in the qualified child payment. The Minister was very pleased to be able to respond to an issue which was raised with her at the pre-budget forum last summer by providing in the Bill that the domiciliary care allowance will continue to be paid for three months in those cases where the child being cared for passes away. I welcome that measure particularly.
An amendment to the Pensions Act is being provided for in this Bill which I know will be welcomed by Seanad Members. We are providing for a right of entitlement to spousal pension benefits, in certain circumstances, to same-sex couples where the scheme member could not have entered into a legally recognised relationship, such as marriage or civil partnership, with his or her partner because the relevant legislation, namely, the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act of 2010 and the Marriage Act of 2015, had not been enacted in Ireland. It is appropriate that I extend my thanks to Dr. David Parris as well as to Members of this Chamber, and in particular to Senator Bacik, for their instrumental role in enabling this issue to be addressed.
Before I go through the various sections, I should mention that some other significant budget measures are not covered in this Bill. Some, like the Christmas bonus being paid this week, the increase of €25 in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and the introduction of a disregard for maintenance payments for the working family payment, are matters which are dealt with by way of regulations rather than by primary legislation. Two other key measures in the budget, namely, the extension of jobseeker’s benefit to the self-employed and the introduction of the paid parental benefit scheme, will be legislated for next year prior to their formal introduction before the end of 2019.
I will now briefly outline each of the provisions contained in this Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title of the Bill, its construction and citations, and commencement provisions. Section 2 provides for definitions of terms used in Part 2 of the Bill, which concerns amendments to the Social Welfare Acts. Section 3 provides for an increase of €10, from €376 to €386, in the reckonable earnings threshold for employees where employer PRSI contributions are paid at the lower rate of 7.8%. This change reflects the increase in the minimum wage from €9.50 to €9.80 per hour from 1 January 2019 and will ensure that the same proportion of employer contributions is paid at the lower rate.
Section 4 provides for changes to reflect, in respect of PRSI collection, the introduction in January 2019 by the Revenue Commissioners of a real-time system in place of the current monthly or annual return system. Under the new system, a return to Revenue will be required on each occasion a worker is paid. The amendment will take effect from 1 January 2019. Sections 5 to 7, inclusive, provide for the increased weekly rate of maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit with effect from 25 March 2019. Section 8 sets out the proportionate increases in the rates of jobseeker’s benefit which are payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings are less than a prescribed amount. The new rates take effect from 21 March 2019.
Section 9, as I mentioned earlier, sets out the legislative basis to allow us to proceed to apply an alternative method, namely, the aggregated contributions method, for determining entitlement to the State pension (contributory) for persons who attained pensionable age on or after 1 September 2012 and who, under the existing yearly average method, are not entitled to a State pension (contributory) at the full rate. Sections 10 and 11 address a gap in the current legislation to ensure that a person who was in the care of the State on attaining the age of 18 is fully exempted from the age-related reduced-rate payments of jobseeker’s allowance or supplementary welfare allowance. Currently, that exemption expires when the claimant concerned attains the age of 25, while the age-related reduced rates continue to apply until age 26. Pending enactment of this legislation, the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, has applied these provisions on an administrative basis to ensure that no claimant is negatively impacted in the interim.
Section 12 is an amendment to the Bill as initiated which the Minister was happy to accept in the Dáil. It simply confirms the existing legislative position and practice of the Department insofar as exceptional needs payments under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme are concerned. I mentioned earlier that the Bill is providing that domiciliary care allowance, DCA, will continue to be paid for three months in those cases where the child in respect of whose care the allowance is being paid dies. Similar provisions also exist in the case of the carer’s allowance and the extension of that approach to recipients of DCA is provided for in section 13. Section 14 provides for a review of the carer’s allowance. This measure reflects the shared views of the Minister and all sides of the Dáil and, I am sure, of the Seanad, that it is timely to reflect on the position of carers given the crucial role they play in society. I commend carers for their great work, particularly in the area of my own portfolio, disability issues.
Section 15 provides that decisions to award a social welfare benefit or payment which is to the benefit of a claimant, a positive decision in other words, can be made by an automated information system. Just as importantly, it also provides that decisions which deny entitlement to a benefit or payment can only be made by a deciding officer. Section 16 provides for the formal repeal of the prescribed relative allowance, a legacy scheme which has been closed to new applicants since the introduction in 1990 of the carer’s allowance scheme. The last claim for this payment closed in 2017. Section 17 and Schedule 1 provide for the necessary amendments throughout the Act to cater for the important reform I mentioned earlier whereby separate rates of the qualified child increase for children aged under 12 and those of 12 years and older are being introduced.
Section 18 together with Schedule 2 provide for new rates in respect of social insurance benefits. All maximum weekly insurance-based pensions and benefits will be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for, along with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 21 and 29 March 2019. Section 19 relates to the issue of benchmarking of social welfare rates. The Minister indicated on budget day that with the core rates now having been largely restored, the business of setting our headline welfare rates should be examined. There are different approaches to benchmarking which seem to be effective in other countries, typically using a system whereby core rates are fixed each year by reference to market earnings and-or price levels. It is timely that we look now towards developing a framework for an informed, rational and evidence-based approach to setting welfare rates. This section of the Bill commits the Minister to consulting with stakeholders on these issues. Consultation will be extremely beneficial in this regard. Section 20 responds to a recommendation contained in the Make Pay Work report published last year under the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. In practical terms, the section dispenses with the practice of distinguishing between employment of a rehabilitative nature and work more generally for recipients of disability allowance, blind pension and some recipients of the supplementary welfare allowance. In addition to making it easier for recipients of those payments to take up employment opportunities, this measure will also reduce the administrative workload for GPs and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This is very important in respect of employment for people with disabilities.
Section 21 provides that a review will be undertaken of how maintenance payments are addressed in the various means-testing arrangements operated by the Department. Section 22 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for the one-parent family payment from €130 to €150 per week, with effect from 28 March 2019. The effect of this measure will be to increase the amount of money that a lone parent will receive from employment without it reducing their social welfare benefit. Section 23 together with Schedule 3 provide for new rates in social assistance payments. All maximum weekly allowances are to be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for along with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 years and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 20 March 2019 and 29 March 2019.
Section 24 simply formalises the Minister’s commitment that the analysis of the impact of Brexit on the range of reciprocal arrangements between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the social protection arena, will be made public on its completion.
Sections 25 and 26 provide for reviews of aspects of the eligibility conditions of the community employment and Tús schemes. While the Minister accepted these amendments in the Dáil, she made it abundantly clear that she did not share the view that it would be appropriate to contemplate enabling people aged 55 years to spend more than 12 years on community employment schemes.
Section 27, as I mentioned earlier, provides for the necessary changes to the Pensions Act to enable a right of entitlement to spousal pension benefits to be extended in certain circumstances, to same-sex couples. Sections 28 to 30, inclusive, relate to the Civil Registration Acts and provide that the terms of office of An tArd-Chláraitheoir, the Chief Registrar, and his or her deputy will be three years, renewable. These sections also provide that An tArd-Chláraitheoir and his or her deputy may resign his or her office at anytime.
Finally, section 31 provides for an amendment to the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for a 0.1% increase, from 0.8% to 0.9%, 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 2019.
I am pleased to commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House. Fianna Fáil broadly welcomes this Bill which gives effect to a range of social welfare measures announced in budget 2019, including a €5 increase in weekly social welfare payments, although, unfortunately, these increases will not come into effect until March. It also finally puts in place the legislation required to address the anomaly in the calculation of the contributory pension, on which so many of us lobbied.
Fianna Fáil used its best influence to ensure that budget 2019 was fair and that significant resources were directed at those on low incomes and dependent on social welfare. Moreover, it was our party that led the campaign to address the inequities in our pension system and to reverse the disastrous changes introduced by Fine Gael and Labour in 2012 which made it even more difficult for people, particularly women, to qualify for a full State contributory pension. While the Government has been slow to act we are glad that at last there is movement on this issue and that any increases due to this cohort of pensioners will be backdated to 30 March 2018. However, we need clarity from the Minister on how many people will benefit under this new calculation method as there is much confusion on this. A revised calculation method that benefits only a handful of people will not wash with Fianna Fáil and-or those who have been affected. We need details on how the revised method will operate in practice and who will benefit.
While this Bill contains several welcome measures we should not lose sight of the fact that the recovery has not reached all sections of society and this Fine Gael-led Government is failing on several fronts. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul now receives twice as many calls for assistance as in 2008. The child poverty target to reduce by two thirds the number of children in consistent poverty by 2020 will most likely not be met. There are 95,000 children who would have to be lifted out of poverty by 2020 if this target was to be met. Some 780,000 people in Ireland live below the poverty line including 250,000 children. Half of lone parents are experiencing deprivation. Family homelessness increased by over 350% between September 2014 and September 2018. We regularly hear how 10,000 people are homeless. Some 500,000 people are awaiting an outpatient appointment. The Minister has not published the promised national action plan for social inclusion 2018-2021.
Fianna Fáil will continue to hold the Government to account and work for a better Ireland; an Ireland that looks after all sections of society, not just those who, as the Taoiseach put it "get up early in the morning". We will continue to use our influence to deliver progressive social change and policies that benefit society as a whole, not just Fine Gael’s preferred privileged few. I acknowledge that the Minister of State is not a member of Fine Gael but I would have put this to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection had she been here.
Most sections of the Bill allow for increases in social welfare payments or else introduce other technical or other necessary measures, including some from the 2017 Bill. They are welcome but it is a pity that the increases will not be paid until the end of March. What is so magical about March, particularly when there are so many other increased costs, notably on energy, over the cold winter months? It seems these delays are almost policy, they have become so commonplace but I urge the Government to avoid this in future. I expect the rationale is to save money, while dangling the reward of the carrot in five months. Where increases in payments are necessary and announced as part of the budget, they are needed immediately, not five months after they are announced.
I welcome the full exemption of age-related jobseeker payments for young jobseekers in State care. This was an important move, which was sought for some time and is welcome. I ask the Government to consider the age-related jobseeker payments and the impact of the reduced payments on those between 18 and 24 years. These reduced payments are a proven contributory factor in homelessness. We can see that from the homelessness figures and many organisations representing homeless people have said that this discrimination in the system is having an impact. It is ensuring young people are trapped in homelessness. They are setting up tent villages on wasteland across this country, mostly hidden away from society. There is a large embankment, hidden behind trees, at the Luas line in Rialto. They are directly affected by the lack of an increase in payments for 18 to 24 year olds. I urge the Minister of State to consider how we are neglecting them.
Every year the gap between jobseekers is widened based on age which makes it increasingly difficult to close. It is deeply regrettable that the Minister continues with this failed policy of discrimination against our youth, introduced by Fianna Fáil, and it ignores the impact it is having on young people. This discrimination based on age must end.
What is the basis on which social welfare increases are decided? I am aware the Minister engages with organisations in a pre-budget forum, which is welcome. One key finding brought to the Minister’s attention at the pre-budget forum was benchmarking in respect of adequacy. The Minister should examine the Social Welfare Commission Bill 2018, which my colleague, Deputy John Brady, recently introduced in the Dáil. That Bill would take the political football out of the budget process every single year. It would ensure that vulnerable households receive an income that is adequate to meet their needs and would result in an adequate standard of living. This is a very basic objective for our social protection system and I urge the Government to consider the Bill. It was drafted with engagement from many stakeholders who see its merit and call for its introduction.Is the Minister of State aware of it? I accept that he does not have direct responsibility, but will he comment on its progression?
I welcome that, in the Dáil, the Minister accepted an amendment tabled my party regarding consultation with stakeholders on examining ways in which social welfare rates could be increased with the aim of ensuring adequacy for all recipients. That will be done in quarter 1 of 2019, which I hope will ensure a fairer methodology for increased rates next year.
Provision for the extension of the jobseeker’s payment to the self-employed is not included in the Bill. I am informed that there were reasons for this and that it will be included in separate legislation next year. Will the Minister of State provide a commitment with regard to when it is planned to draft said legislation?
I welcome the amendments that the Minister accepted from my party colleague, Deputy Brady, in the Dáil. These are important amendments that strengthen the Bill. As already stated, the first relates to benchmarking and the Minister’s engagement with stakeholders. That is vitally important and will strengthen their voice. It is also the reason adequacies of payment are vital.
The second amendment makes provision for a report to be produced on the financial hardship faced by carers who must be providing full-time care - the Minister of State is very au faitwith carers - in order to receive carer’s allowance. This restricts them from taking up other work to supplement their incomes. It makes provision also for examination of their access to pension entitlements, as well as the barriers to the labour market they face following a period of providing care. The report will be presented to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We know, and the Minister has acknowledged it time and again, that carers are often overlooked, overworked and marginalised. However, the biggest problem they face is isolation. It is vital that we scrutinise the social welfare rates and ensure they are adequate for carers, given that they save the State an enormous amount of money.
The third Sinn Féin amendment insists that the Minister conduct a review and report on the financial effects of the consideration of maintenance payments as household income in the means test for various social welfare payments. In particular, child maintenance should be regarded as an income for the child and not as household income. I hope the Minister will take seriously any findings of this review and adapt payments accordingly.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am aware he has a great interest in this area. This is very important legislation which will provide a legislative basis for the increase in social welfare rates, including the €5 increase in the maximum rate of all weekly social welfare payments announced in the budget. I very much welcome that, and it has been broadly welcomed by people. An extra €5 may be a lot of money to some people and not enough to others, but it was nice that we were in a position to increase those payments after many years of difficulties in the State.
I pay tribute to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which has reviewed its processes over the past ten years. If more Departments were like it, this would be a better country. I have seen at first hand the number of initiatives it introduced in very difficult times, saving the taxpayer money but also ensuring that the customers are treated with respect and dignity. That was done in the most difficult of times. Many previous Ministers looked at a better way of taking care of the State's finances while also treating people who were unemployed and entitled to these benefits with huge respect.
The local enterprise offices, LEOs, are one example in this regard. I visited the LEO in Sligo about a year ago and I was bowled over by the changes that were introduced by the people who work there and by those who work for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It would do no harm to invite more politicians to the offices to show them the range of services and supports that are offered. I am proud that the Department has moved with the times.
I am contributing to the debate on the Bill on behalf of Senator Butler, who has worked extremely hard for the extension of jobseeker's benefit to the self-employed. I have been self-employed in the past. When the recession came, tens of thousands of people who never received or wanted anything from the State were left totally on their own for one reason or another, be as a result of falling property prices or their businesses going under. Many self-employed people are still angry that they were left in that position and that nothing was put in place for them. The Bill will be of help in that regard. I hope we will never find ourselves in a situation such as that again. It was something nobody foresaw but I saw it at first hand, and I know most of those self-employed people would have spent every penny they had to save their businesses. They would have spent every penny in their pension funds to save the jobs of their staff. Unfortunately, they were unable to do that because the businesses may not have been fit for purpose and things had moved on.
Those of us in public service are privileged to have pensions. There are those who say that the people to whom I refer speculated and brought property and shares during the boom. However, they do not fully realise that the individuals in question bought Bank of Ireland and AIB shares. Those shares were their pensions. They were blue-chip pensions, and they ended up being worthless. The recession impacted even more on them because their shares were their pensions. If someone wanted to set up a pension, they went to professional experts. That was the way farmers and self-employed people looked at it. If it was a blue-chip pension, one got back 1% or 2% every year. These were their pensions, and they were lost. I do not believe we realise the impact that had on the self-employed.
I am delighted that the Christmas bonus will be paid this week, although I understand it is not covered in this legislation. The increase of €25 in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance is very welcome also.
Section 24 formalises the Minister's commitment that analysis of the impact of Brexit on the range of reciprocal arrangements between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the social protection arena will be made public on its completion. The British Government may not have lived up to its obligations on this.
The European Court of Justice ruled that Irish citizens who had worked in the United Kingdom are entitled to the free fuel allowance. My mother got the allowance because my father worked in the UK. It was approximately €330 a year. We hand out money every day and sometimes there is no regard for it, but when those people who had worked as nurses or on building sites in the UK and retired back to Ireland got that €330, they were very grateful. Many of them may no longer be entitled to it - there may have been a change to it - but I wonder if there is the same take-up of it now that there was three, four or five years ago. Are they still getting it? There should be liaison between the two countries on that. I may be wrong, but it was very welcome. It was lovely to get a phone call from someone in Wexford or somewhere else regarding that matter. These people never wanted for anything. They worked all their lives and got something they were entitled to but were very grateful for it and thankful to the United Kingdom taxpayers.I wonder if the arrangement is still reciprocal. I am aware that we are paying a large amount also.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today. I believe he accepted a few amendments, which was very welcome. It shows how we can work together to have amendments accepted when they are right and proper. I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister of State.
I join other Senators in welcoming the Minister of State to the House. I am aware that he is also interested in some of these issues in his brief. I look forward to engaging on them in greater depth on Committee Stage with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty.
I will touch on a couple of the key issues, one of which is the fundamental issue of pensions. Pensions account for the largest portion of the budget. A pensions equality issue related to the spouses of those in civil partnerships has been addressed in the Bill, as the Minister of State noted. Senators on the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection heard testimony and received submissions on this aspect of pensions equality, and I welcome the progress made on it.
Another key issue around equality and pensions is the deep inequality in the contributory pension system as experienced by women. I was very aware of this during my time working with the Older and Bolder alliance and with the National Women's Council of Ireland. I welcome some aspects of the new proposal in respect of the changes that were made in 2012, but there are also some concerns, which I need to flag. It is positive that the issue of the artificial gaps that had been inserted into the averaging system, which were periods in which people were delivering care or providing support in the home, has been addressed. It is great to see a greater recognition of care. For years, I pushed the idea that we should recognise care and its contribution in a very real and formal way. I continue to believe that we should recognise care not simply with credits towards a pension, but also in terms of re-entry credits to enable those who have been giving care for a period of time to access schemes such as the back to education programme. It should be possible to use credits to progress. People can become invisible in the system. If they are out of the system delivering care for two or four years, they can often present cold to an Intreo office. They should know that they have credits behind them when making that contact.
While some work has been done in closing the gap, unfortunately there is also a pushing out of the goalposts. I deeply regret that, in the steps that have been taken, the decision was made not to stick to the requirement for 20 years or 1,040 contributions, as is currently the case, and not to implement the commitment to introduce the 30 years threshold set out in the pension reform plans. The latter was the total contribution approach we anticipated and would have required 1,560 contributions. While the gap created for the persons affected by the 2012 changes, many of whom are women, is being addressed, the goalposts have shifted and their payments will be calculated from a radius of 40 years of contributions, which amounts to 2,080 contributions. It is important that we put down the marker on this. We are constantly being told that nothing has been finally decided. When the total contribution approach is introduced in 2020, it must be based on 30 years of contributions, which is still a substantial increase on the requirement for 20 years of total contributions. If the new approach is based on 40 years of contributions, a large swathe of the population will again find themselves on a reduced rate of the contributory pension. We must be clear, as ICTU and others have been, that the system must be based on 30 years of contributions because that at least has been planned for.
On a related issue, I want to lend support to some of the comments made by my colleague on youth payments. Young people and their contribution are the backbone of our pension system. They must feel valued. Part of valuing them is to ensure they have proper social welfare payments and that we do not in any way incentivise them to feel they must or should travel to other countries to work or to be valued.
I welcome the increase in payments across the board and the removal of requirement that employment must be rehabilitative in nature to qualify for payment of the disability allowance, the blind pension and so forth. These issues arose at a special and unusual joint meeting of three committees, namely, the Joint Committees on Health, Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection. They met to examine the obstacles faced by persons with a disability in accessing, holding and maintaining employment. This measure is a small step and I hope many of the other measures discussed in the meeting of the three committees will also be taken on board by the three Departments in question. This is the first good indication that people may be listening to those concerns.
I welcome the supports for lone parents and one-parent families, an issue that has been a key concern of mine and the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I recognise that two of our concerns have been addressed. It is good that there will be a report on the means testing of maintenance. I strongly believe that we need to have a national maintenance body. This report will, I hope, help to point us towards some of the issues with regard to maintenance.
I also welcome the qualified child rate increase but I still deeply regret that the jobseeker's transitional payment has not been extended until a qualified child is 18 years of age. There is a concern currently that when a child reaches 14 years of age a lone parent is required to be available for full-time work. The parent may well be available for full-time employment but we know that children who need extra payments when they are teenagers sometimes also need extra care. This is why the flexibility of the jobseeker's transitional payment, which recognises the mix of care and availability for employment, should be the prevailing payment until a child is 18.
The review of the carer's allowance is welcome. The Minister of State has spoken in the House on care, an issue that needs to be recognised and examined. There are also gaps in the pension system for those who are in receipt of carer's allowance, for example, people who have returned from abroad to care for a relative can find that they are not credited with pension contributions for the pension they will receive in later years.
I welcome the review on the impacts of Brexit, which is a key area, especially when we consider the large number of people who have shared pension arrangements between Ireland and the UK. They currently have mechanisms available to them under EU law to ensure the sharing of data on their combined pension entitlements.
A couple of areas that are not covered in the Bill but which are part of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act are the public services card and the single customer view dataset. There are very serious concerns, some of which featured in the newspapers today, about the attitude of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to data protection. There are also concerns about supports for the data protection officer. I am aware that the Data Protection Commissioner has done some investigation on various issues in this area. I will seek to ensure safeguards are in place in order that we do not move ahead of the safe regulation we have in place. I will address those issues on Committee Stage.
I thank the Minister of State. There is a sense in some areas of the Bill that concerns are being listened to, which is positive.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the House and I thank him for his acknowledgement of my small part in one provision of the Bill, which I will come to in a moment. On behalf of the Labour Party Senators, I welcome the provisions of the Bill. As my colleague, Deputy Willie Penrose, has done in the Dáil, I welcome that the Bill gives legislative effect to various measures dealing with increases in weekly rates of pensions, benefits and allowances. I echo Senator Ardagh's point about the date on which those increases come into effect. We welcome the increase in the qualified child payment and we very much support the extension of the period of payment of domiciliary care allowance for an additional three months when the child who has been cared for passes away. As the Minister of State said, this is a sensitive change. We also welcome the increase in weekly earnings disregard for one-parent family payment. This will be of assistance to lone parents.
In my brief contribution, I will focus on the provision in section 27, to which the Minister of State also referred. As he noted, the provision gives a right of entitlement to spousal pension benefits in certain circumstances in respect of same-sex couples - LGBT couples - where the pension scheme member who is retiring could not have entered a legal marriage or civil partnership because the relevant legislation had not been enacted in time. I very much welcome this provision.Effectively it deals with the case taken by David Parris, my former colleague and a lecturer in French at Trinity College Dublin, who brought a case to the Labour Court and was then referred to the European Court of Justice. Although he lost there, in March 2017, I brought to the Seanad, on his behalf, the Pensions (Equal Treatment in Occupational Benefit Scheme) (Amendment) Bill 2016 to seek to deal with the inequality so clearly illustrated in his case. He had been in a long-term committed relationship but had been unable to marry before the relevant date which, in terms of the Trinity pension scheme, was the date of his 60th birthday. I know the Bill deals with that issue, where a scheme provides for an age by which a partner should have married or entered into a civil partnership and it also provides for a situation where the requirement is that the marriage or civil partnership should be entered into before retirement.
The David Paris situation related specifically to age. It seemed deeply anomalous to me and my Labour Party colleagues when we introduced the Bill that somebody in Dr. Parris's position would be discriminated against in this way. I am very glad to say that when we introduced the Bill on 22 March 2017 in the Seanad, it was welcomed by the then Minister for Social Protection, now Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. He committed then to bringing in the provision, albeit by other means. It has been a somewhat slow process since then. I have been apprising myself of it and contacting the relevant Ministers, including the present Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to make sure this provision was being retained. It appeared under head 14 of the general scheme published in May 2017 and originally was section 20 of this Bill and is now section 27. I very much welcome the fact it will now become law. It addresses an anomaly. I have called it a legacy issue, left over from the welcome legalisation of marriage equality and the subsequent Act of 2015. This was an anomalous situation affecting a relatively low number of individuals or couples who faced the same difficulty as David Parris faced under their pension schemes despite the passage of marriage equality legislation. Section 27 represents a significant step towards rectifying continuing discrimination and equality for same sex couples in all respects in their marital and committed relationships. I very much welcome that.
Fergus Courtney had raised broader issues with the present and previous Ministers around pension equality for same sex couples. I think some of those concerns are now addressed in section 27, which deals not only with pension schemes that specify the age by which a member should have married or entered into a civil partnership, but also schemes which require members to have married or entered into civil partnership before retirement. I think the issue is dealt with and it is a very important step for equality. It will be broadly welcomed.
In the Dáil, my colleague, Deputy Penrose, gave a very erudite and learned speech on the history of pensions and pension law and I endorse what he said. One point he made was of particular relevance, namely, pension entitlements for family carers, which I know would be close to the Minister of State's heart. As Deputy Penrose pointed out, there is a small number of long-term carers who have been caring in the family for in excess of 20 years but do not qualify for a State pension due to their caring responsibilities and the assets of their partner. I think the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, indicated that she would address this but I want to raise and flag it with the Minister of State because it was something Deputy Penrose specifically emphasised in his speech. I thank the Minister of State again for his kind words. I welcome the Bill and particularly section 27.
I thank Senators Ardagh, Devine, Feighan, Higgins and Bacik for their contributions and progressive ideas on the Bill. I am glad Senator Ardagh recognised that there are Independents in government. The Senators' points on the detail of the revised methods and their strong point about the recovery and those sections of society that are not feeling included and child poverty are issues we have to take very seriously and be cognisant of in social welfare payments, which are an interim measure. We have to tackle child poverty, homelessness and educational disadvantage. They are all part of the strategy.
Senator Devine raised very important issues and I take her point on the payments in March but I suspect that is often done from an economic and financial point of view. Stakeholders have to be consulted. She also raised a very important point that I come across in my portfolio about carers and isolation. That is something we must take on board. All the Senator's concerns will be raised in respect of the broader issues.
I congratulate my colleague, Senator Feighan, on his recent marriage and wish him the best of luck.
Some of the Senators are a bit miffed that they were not invited but we will not go there. He got married last Saturday I believe.
He raised very important points on jobseeker's allowance and the self-employed and said there were many people frustrated for many years. We also have to acknowledge the role of small businesses, many of which took the hit. His point about people who held shares for their pensions is often ignored. I advise people to be very cautious. We need professional advice when it comes to pension issues.
He raised Brexit and that is something every Department is worried about. He made an interesting point about the people who lost their fuel allowance worth £300 from the UK. I want to check that out and get more details on it. I will come back to him on that point.
Senator Higgins raised key issues on the pensions and equality issue. I welcome that and her concerns about the gaps in care and contribution, the re-entry credits and the full total contribution, and I very much agree with the ICTU point about the 30 years contribution. She made two important points about young people. We have to focus on them. She also raised the rights of people with disabilities and the need for more support. She mentioned the way the two concerns about the lone parents are addressed but we have to have flexibility in care and the payment issue as well. Senator Higgins welcomed the carer's allowance review and raised issues on data protection. These are all very important concerns. I will bring them back to the Minister, Deputy Doherty.
I acknowledge Senator Bacik's role in this legislation, especially in respect of section 27 being a significant step which addresses the legacy issues. That is a very important point. She commends Deputy Penrose on the pensions and carers' issue as well. I hope to address that and she can take it that I will be pushing this very strongly.
I thank all Senators for their contributions to the Second Stage debate. This Bill reflects our strong commitment to restoring and maintaining the real value of core welfare payment rates. It shows our determination to make an impact on alleviating poverty for those groups most at risk. Alongside the increase of €5 for all core weekly payment rates, the reform of the qualified child increase and increases in the weekly earnings disregard for recipients of the one-parent family payment are intended to focus particular support on families with children. I appreciate that Senators acknowledge that there are several positive measures contained in this Bill and I have responded to them and will bring their concerns to the Minister.