Seanad debates

Thursday, 13 July 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Social Welfare Eligibility

9:30 am

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, for coming to the House to address my issue. My question is for the Minister for Social Protection and relates to means testing and the ongoing review. Means testing is necessary for many payments in the social welfare system. It applies for carers, people on jobseeker's allowance and pensioners. A man came to me recently and told me that he downsized and bought an apartment in a seaside area, which is taken as capital even though he does not let it and uses it himself. The lady in the household does not qualify for a pension. The pensioner in question is still working part time and is not entitled to a claim for a dependent other, namely, his wife. Their means are going down quite a bit. Many couples find themselves in such a situation.

I had a group of carers in Leinster House recently, two of whom told me they gave up their full-time jobs to look after their partners. They are in receipt of no payment at all because they have a small private pension from the jobs they were in previously. The bottom line is that the carers looking after people at home are saving the State money. The situation needs to be reconsidered in the light of the provision of care these people give and the money they save the State. There are also considerations in respect of longevity. People who are cared for at home live longer. They receive loving care from their loved ones.

There are different means tests for the lone parent allowance and the working family payment. There needs to be some sort of regulation brought into means testing. There is a thorough review going on in the Department at the moment. I am looking for an update on that review.

I welcome Sasha Cannonkadu and Zara Carlyle to the Gallery. I know Sasha's mum very well and spoke to her only last night. They are very welcome and it is good to see them here. I know they will both be facing into the leaving certificate next year so I wish them luck.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. She mentioned carers, who provide phenomenal work for society and, more particularly, for their families and loved ones. I will give some background. I am going to read from the conclusion of my notes and work backwards. As the Senator has highlighted, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, has asked her officials to examine the various elements of means tests in place across schemes in the Department, to review the situation on a holistic basis and to provide a report later this year. I expect the report to be available by the end of 2023. The Senator will appreciate it is a complex piece of work. It is expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of this year.

I am obviously taking this matter on the behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. As the Senator will be aware, applicants for social assistance payments are means tested in the main. Some are not but in the main, they are means tested. A means test is a way of checking if a claimant has enough financial resources to support themselves and determine what amount of social assistance payment, if any, they may qualify for. The means test allows us to target resources to those who need them most.

A maximum rate is payable where a person has limited or no means and tapering applies to the rate payable to those with modest or more substantial means. This is because there is an expectation that those with resources can at least partly contribute towards supporting themselves.

Means tests in the Department of Social Protection are kept under regular review and a number of significant changes have been made in recent years. In particular, a number of changes to means testing have been introduced, including providing for higher income disregards. A comprehensive and substantive review is currently under way.

Employment is the best way out of poverty for most people. Therefore, means tests aim to achieve a balance between ensuring resources are targeted towards those with the greatest need while supporting people to take up employment opportunities. There are categories of people, including carers, who have unique situations. That is something we must acknowledge.

On foot of the commitment in the programme for Government and in the Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, the Department of Social Protection reviewed the means assessment disregards for farm assist. One of the key recommendations of the report was to provide for an extensive expansion to the list of agri-environmental schemes that qualify for a disregard, a policy which was introduced with effect from June last year.

As part of budget 2023, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, increased the disregard from these agri-environmental schemes from €2,540 to €5,000. Several measures which aim to encourage and support people with disabilities to pursue their employment goals were also introduced. Those included a higher earnings disregard for disability allowance and blind pension. Important changes in the means test for fuel allowance which significantly broaden eligibility for the scheme were also implemented this year.

Over many years, the means tests of schemes have diverged and subtle differences have been introduced across different schemes. As a result, the means area is complex and can, at times, be hard to communicate.

I want to deal with the specific issue raised by the Senator. For most social assistance schemes, the first €20,000 of capital is fully disregarded. The next €10,000 is assessed at €1 per €1,000. The next €10,000 is assessed at €2 per €1,000, with the remainder assessed at €4 per €10,000. For disability allowance and carer's allowance, the first €50,000 of capital is fully disregarded. The capital disregard for disability allowance was increased to €50,000 in 2007. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, increased the carer's allowance disregard in 2022. The points raised by the Senator are very important. The substantive and comprehensive review she noted is now taking place. We expect it to be fully completed by the officials in the Department of Social Protection by the fourth quarter of this year.

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. I understand there is a comprehensive review going on. There are many key areas. I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Department have made an awful lot of changes, especially around agricultural supports. Farmers often must have a second job to compensate. I believe those changes have been welcomed. I also acknowledge the changes around disability. However, there are a couple of small areas that always seem to fall through the net. Many people are slightly over the thresholds. I believe there must be a degree of flexibility in assessments of means. I met somebody recently who was only a couple of euro over the thresholds and failed to get support. That person's family is supporting them. I believe there must be a degree of flexibility and I hope such flexibility is brought into this review. I understand the review is coming at the end of the year and I look forward to the report.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I again thank Senator Maria Byrne for raising this very important point. As she is probably aware, the Department reviews and changes means tests on an ongoing basis. Over the last three budgets, changes have been introduced to the means test for the fuel allowance, disability allowance, working family payment, farm assist, carer's allowance, blind pension and the one-parent family payment. Budget 2022 provided for an increase to €50,000 in the disregard under the carer's allowance scheme. The weekly income thresholds for carer's allowance increased to €350 for a single person and €750 for a couple. More work remains to be done by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to support people in receipt of social welfare in various areas.

As I stated, more generally the Minister introduced new means disregards across all means assessments for those people renting a room in their own home to help with accommodation availability. Officials in the Department are examining means testing across a wide range of departmental schemes. This is obviously a significant undertaking given the range of schemes and the variance between the means tests, particularly when examined in the context of a range of household types. The intent of this examination is to consider the principles behind the means tests and consider design approaches for means tests which reflect these principles. Officials will also engage with external stakeholders, including at the Department’s pre-budget forum, which is being held with NGOs next week, to seek wider views on means testing.

As I stated, means testing is kept under constant review for all schemes. Departmental officials will continue to work on the means review and the intention is that the report of this review will be provided by quarter 4 of this year.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I sincerely thank the Minister of State for giving his time this morning to respond to the Commencement matters. It is much appreciated by the House.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 10.32 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11 a.m.

Sitting suspended at 10.32 a.m. and resumed at 11 a.m.