Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill 2019: Report and Final Stages
I welcome the Minister to the House. Before we commence, I remind Senators that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on it. Each non-Government amendment on Report Stage must be seconded.
Amendment No. 1 in the name of Senator Devine and her Sinn Féin colleagues arises out of committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 17, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following: “Report on financial impact of changes to hours Carers can work outside the home
28.That the Minister shall prepare and produce a report on the impact of the increase in hours Carers in receipt of Carer’s Allowance can work outside the home from 15 hours to 18.5 hours without a corresponding increase in the earnings disregard and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within 4 months of the enactment of this Act.”.
The Minister is aware that I tabled these amendments previously but agreed to wait for the reports. I have now resubmitted them. The first amendment relates to the increase in the hours for which carers may study or work outside the home without an increase in the earnings disregard from 15 to 18.5. I am not happy with the report. Perhaps I have missed something but I went through it over the weekend and it did not really answer the question as to why the number of hours has been increased while the associated financial disregard has not. I do not think one can be done without the other, as I said. It has been stagnant for 11 years without an increase. Unless the Minister can give me clarification, it seems the allowance is not commensurate with the increased hours. Maybe I did miss something in the report but I studied it very hard and could not find anything. The Minister said that the report had already been produced so I withdrew the amendment in good faith. I chased the Minister's office for a little while. I am not being punitive towards the Minister's staff but I did not find the information requested in this report. Perhaps the Minister can provide the rationale for increasing these hours without a corresponding income disregard in her reply.
I also withdrew amendment No. 2 pending a report but have again resubmitted it. The number one priority for carers is reform of the means test for carer's allowance. Alarm bells should sound when we see only one in five carers receiving carer's allowance. The eligibility criteria are far too strict and actively prevent carers from accessing social welfare supports. They are put off. I said that previously. The eligibility criteria are very strict. Again, I am not satisfied with the report mentioned on Committee Stage. I continue to request a review of the means test in consultation with stakeholders. I spoke to Family Carers Ireland and it is unaware of such a review having taken place despite it being the main body representing carers throughout the country. Will the Minister outline when the stakeholders were consulted and whether Family Carers Ireland was consulted? If not, I will push for votes on both amendments.
In budget 2020, we announced that recipients of carers' payments would be allowed to increase the number of hours they work, train, study or attend a training course outside of the house from 15 hours to 18.5 hours per week. This increase to 18.5 hours will accommodate increased participation by carers in the workforce or in training and will, it is to be hoped, strengthen their connection with the workforce and serve to ease them back into the workforce once their caring duties are over. As a result of that increase from 15 to 18.5 hours, we expect that some 1,200 additional family carers will now qualify for the payment. It is estimated that this will cost just under €12 million. Any carer currently working fewer than 18.5 hours a week can now avail of additional hours.However, in deliberating on the measures for budget 2020, we did include an examination of the disregard for carer's allowance. In its pre-budget submission, Family Carers Ireland looked for an increase in the disregard for carer's allowance of €117.50 for a single person and €235 for a couple per week. My Department costed this proposal using the ESRI's SWITCH model and, allowing for income tax and working family payment offsets, the net cost was estimated to be some €55 million.
Changes to schemes were considered in an overall budgetary and policy context and from an evidence-based perspective. The Senator is aware we only had €130 million to spend this year in total, so we needed to make sure any money we spent hit the spots that needed it the most. When we looked at the people who were in receipt of carer's allowance, some 92% of current recipients have no means, so increasing the disregard would not have made any difference to them. The overwhelming majority of carers who can benefit from the change from 15 to 18.5 hours can do so with no impediment. The existing income disregard and means test for carer’s allowance is the most generous of any disregard within the social welfare system.
I sometimes find that when we have this conversation about the value of care, we talk about this as if it was a payment as opposed to an income support. We have to be grounded in the fact the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection supports people who have no other income. It does not make a payment for a service; we support people who have no other income. The weekly earnings disregard is €332.50 for a single person and €665 for a couple. At 18.5 hours work per week, this is equivalent to an income of €36 per hour worked in a two-person household and €18 per hour in a single-person household. This indicates there is significant scope for carers to increase their working hours without impacting their payments in any way. In fact, only 0.1% of current carer's allowance recipients have means of between €250 and €300 per week, so it is unlikely they will have any of their payments reduced as a result of increasing their hours, either in work or in training, from 15 to 18.5 hours. Carers who would benefit from an income disregard are those in higher income households. Given the need to target the available resources fairly and equitably to those people who are most in need, allowing an increase in the number of hours was the best use of the limited resources available.
With regard to the second amendment, the Senator may not be aware, although I hoped it was in the report I gave her, but we held a comprehensive policy review of carer's allowance. It was conducted by the Department over the previous 12 months and laid before the Houses on 28 August 2019, so it is a matter of record and it is with the Oireachtas joint committee. In addition, on 15 August, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform also published a spending review of carer supports. Among its key findings was that of the €1.4 billion spent on carer support programmes in 2018, carer's allowance amounted to 77% of that overall expenditure. Given how little time has elapsed since those two reports on 15 August and 28 August last, there is genuinely little benefit in doing another exact same report, given it is the same period we would be looking back on as for the two reports that were laid before the Houses.
I assure Senators that I, as a member of the Government, and the whole of the Government are very aware of the key role that carers play, which is why I am so keen for us to have a conversation about the value of care, arising from the Citizens' Assembly that will start in January. Most of the times we have this conversation, either in this House or the Dáil, we talk about the value of care as if we were paying for care when, in fact, what the State does at present is support with an income support those who have no other income, and that does not include all of the people who are giving care. We need to have a national conversation about the value of care.
I thank the Minister. This amendment asks for a report. I acknowledge that in August, when we were all on the holiday break, a report did come out. However, this amendment is concerned with the impact of the increase to 18.5 hours and it seeks a report.It is not asking for an increase of the income disregard but for a report on the impact of it. The Minister’s report was laid before the Houses in August, which was holiday time. I have sought specifically in the amendment to include Family Carers Ireland as a key stakeholder. They were unaware that the review was taking place. I will press the amendment.
The first amendment asks me to make a report on having increased the hours and not the disregard. What I said in the report I gave the Senator and again in my most recent contribution is that 92% of the people who currently receive carer's allowance have no means and, therefore, increasing the disregard will have no effect on them whatsoever. Only 0.1%, the tiniest percentage of people receiving carer's allowance, have means of between €250 and €300 a week. Increasing the means threshold would affect only that 0.1%. That is the report we did in preparation for the budget and that is exactly what I gave the Senator. If she presses the amendment, that is exactly what I will provide to her. I am in the Seanad's hands.
Ivana Bacik, Lorraine Clifford Lee, Rose Conway Walsh, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Maire Devine, Robbie Gallagher, Paul Gavan, Pippa Hackett, Alice Mary Higgins, Kevin Humphreys, Terry Leyden, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Lynn Ruane, Fintan Warfield.
Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Martin Conway, Frank Feighan, Anthony Lawlor, Tim Lombard, Ian Marshall, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Catherine Noone, Kieran O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, James Reilly, Neale Richmond.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 17, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following: “Review of the means test for Carer’s Allowance
28.That the Minister shall carry out a review of the means test in place for Carer’s Allowance in consultation with key stakeholders, including Family Carers Ireland and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within 6 months of the enactment of this Act.”.
Ivana Bacik, Lorraine Clifford Lee, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Maire Devine, Robbie Gallagher, Paul Gavan, Pippa Hackett, Alice Mary Higgins, Kevin Humphreys, Colette Kelleher, Terry Leyden, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Lynn Ruane, Fintan Warfield.
Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Martin Conway, Gerard Craughwell, Frank Feighan, Anthony Lawlor, Tim Lombard, Ian Marshall, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Catherine Noone, Kieran O'Donnell, Marie Louise O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, James Reilly, Neale Richmond.
We have only 30 minutes remaining in this debate, which is subject to a guillotine. My proposal would afford us an opportunity to ask questions and receive answers in regard to the constructive proposals set out in amendments Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive. I previously indicated my intention to recommit these amendments and received an indication from the Minister that she would be open to that proposal. If she is amenable to recommitting only some of the amendments, I ask that she indicate which ones. For reasons of expediency, I propose that amendments Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive, be grouped, so that we do not have to go through them one by one. Alternatively, I am happy to propose recommitting each one separately.
My concern is that by accepting the Senator's proposal, there may be a consequent delay in the passing of the Bill. There are many people who will gain, from 1 January 2020, as a result of changes set out in the legislation. If these amendments are agreed, the Bill will have to go back to the Dáil, which would require its being recalled during Christmas week. Is that what the Senator wants to happen?
I second Senator Higgins's proposal. Senator Lawlor made a lovely speech about 1 January, which we hear every year, but debate on the Bill is guillotined. We are entitled to discuss amendments to legislation regardless of what date in the year the provisions in question come into effect. As such, Senator Lawlor's contribution is invalid.
I will press the proposal. I am seeking an opportunity to address the issues set out in these amendments. As I said, the Minister indicated previously that she would be open to recommitting some of the amendments, which deal with issues including just transition, the situation of couples who are de facto partners but are not eligible for the widow's pension or widower's pension, literacy supports, maintenance payments for one-parent families, and reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
Ivana Bacik, Rose Conway Walsh, Aidan Davitt, Maire Devine, Robbie Gallagher, Paul Gavan, Pippa Hackett, Alice Mary Higgins, Kevin Humphreys, Colette Kelleher, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Lynn Ruane, Fintan Warfield.
Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Martin Conway, Gerard Craughwell, Frank Feighan, Anthony Lawlor, Tim Lombard, Ian Marshall, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Catherine Noone, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Kieran O'Donnell, Marie Louise O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, James Reilly, Neale Richmond.
Ivana Bacik, Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Martin Conway, Rose Conway Walsh, Gerard Craughwell, Aidan Davitt, Maire Devine, Frank Feighan, Robbie Gallagher, Paul Gavan, Kevin Humphreys, Anthony Lawlor, Tim Lombard, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Ian Marshall, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Catherine Noone, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Kieran O'Donnell, Marie Louise O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, James Reilly, Neale Richmond, Fintan Warfield.