Thursday, 8 February 2024
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Social Welfare Eligibility
I thank the Minister of State for coming here today to outline the criteria regarding the living alone allowance. I have been contacted by many people in this regard. The house of the neighbours of one person became infested with rodents and the person allowed those neighbours – a man, his wife and a small baby – to stay in his house for free for a couple of months while the infested house was being sorted out. It was a rented house. The man ended up losing his living alone allowance even though he was not benefiting from the couple living with him. A teacher was on to me because of the way their pension is structured. The person does not actually qualify for the living alone allowance and is only barely over the threshold. Is there any review under way? The teacher and retired gentleman I was speaking to both live alone and find it difficult. The living alone allowance was used to pay some of the bills. It was extra money towards some of the bills because the cost of living has certainly gone up. I would love to see the criteria reconsidered. For the gentleman who took people in for the greater good and was not benefiting, there has to be some sort of flexibility or leeway. The teacher does not qualify because of the way the criteria are structured. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is not isolated. Every Oireachtas Member has encountered a difficult case in his or her constituency regarding this matter. The issue raised by the Senator affects people all over Ireland. It is important to put that on the record so people listening will understand it is not just a local issue.
Primary weekly social welfare payments from the Department of Social Protection are intended to enable recipients to meet basic day-to-day income needs. In addition to providing those primary payments, the Department provides a range of other payments, both cash and non-cash, weekly, monthly or less frequently. These are considered secondary in nature. The living alone allowance is a secondary payment. It is not a scheme or a stand-alone payment in itself but rather a supplement to a primary social welfare protection payment of €22 per week made to people aged over 66 who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments and living alone. For those aged over 66, these primary payments include the contributory State pension, the non-contributory State pension, the widow’s, widower’s and surviving civil partner’s contributory pension, the widow’s and widower’s pension under the occupational injuries benefit scheme, incapacity supplement under the occupational injuries benefit scheme, and the deserted wife's benefit payment. Accordingly, there are no circumstances in which the living alone allowance can be paid to people who are not in receipt of a primary qualifying payment. That is the issue the Senator is referring to. She is correct, and I am confirming the actual position straight up.
Any decision to allow those who are not in receipt of a qualifying payment to receive a living alone allowance and thereby establish it as a new stand-alone scheme would have budgetary and administrative consequences and would have to be considered solely in the context of budget negotiations. PRSI contributions are paid on discounted class B and class D rates, as paid by civil and public servants recruited prior to April 1995 and are not reckonable for the contributory State pension. Recipients of occupational pensions from the civil and public services may apply for a means test for the State non-contributory pension. If a person is deemed eligible for this they may be eligible to receive the living alone allowance.
Civil and public servants recruited after 1995 see their occupational pension integrated with the State pension and pay PRSI at the class A rate. These contributions are reckonable for State pensions purposes and if other conditions are met, a person may not be eligible for an increase in the living alone allowance when in receipt of the State pension. The issue the Senator mentioned related to a teacher who would have been a public servant some time ago and was not on the class A PRSI; their pension is based on their class B or class D PRSI contribution rates. The pension they would receive from the Civil Service or the Department of Education, as the case may be, is not considered a primary social welfare payment. Therefore they are not eligible for the supplementary payment because they are not in receipt of the primary payment in the first place. That is the situation and it would require a policy change. That can only be considered in the context of a budget, which will be later on this year.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. As he said himself, this is something which affects many people in many constituencies, so I will speak to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, about it to see if it can be considered. I know it seems like the budget is a lifetime away but we are in February now and time flies by. Now is the time to start looking at the issue to see if a review can be carried out. I ask the Minister of State to take that request back. We have the case of the teacher on the one hand and the case of the man who took in neighbours because of an issue that was beyond their control. He was merely being kind to them but he got penalised for it. There has to be a degree of flexibility. I hope the Minister of State can highlight that with the Minister.
I thank the Senator for highlighting this particular case. The neighbour was only performing an act of charity and should not have been penalised for it. I do not know anything about the circumstances of the case. I can understand that the issue probably depends on how long the people were living there. I know that rent was not being charged but it would be important in the case to know how long the people were living there. If it was turned down, I would certainly hope that it would have been taken to the social welfare appeals office to get a ruling on it. At a time of bereavement, an elderly relative can come and stay in a house for a period. That should not compromise anyone's entitlement to a social welfare payment. The Senator makes strong points in this case.
Earlier, I concentrated all my remarks on people over the age of 66. It is also paid to people who are in receipt of the following social welfare payments who are under 66 years of age: disability allowance; invalidity pension; incapacity supplement and blind pension. That is only right as well. We often encounter the following situation. There can be an elderly person in a house on the living alone allowance. If a son or daughter comes back to live in the house and they are in employment, everybody in the house has to be eligible for the scheme. If there are people in the house who are not eligible for the scheme, like a working son or daughter, that can disbar the parent in those situations. Those are the kinds of issues we have to be careful about.