Wednesday, 1 May 1991
Dáil Éireann Debate
13. Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he has satisfied himself with the instructions given to social welfare officers when assessing small farmers' incomes for unemployment assistance purposes with particular reference to the notional assessment concerning number and value of livestock sold; and if he has further satisfied himself that the present policy of means assessment can adequately calculate real farm income.
66. Mr. Finucane asked the Minister for Social Welfare the reason for the inconsistency between different welfare officers when it comes to putting a value on calves retained on the farm for farmers who apply for unemployment assistance.
Means from farming for unemployment assistance purposes are assessed on a factual basis and are investigated by social welfare officers. These assessments make allowances for all the typical expenses and for any exceptional circumstances.
 I am satisfied with the general instructions given to social welfare officers in relation to means investigation generally and that social welfare officers and their district supervisors are fully aware of current trends in farming in their areas.
The actual decisions as to the weekly means to be reckoned for unemployment assistance purposes are made by statutory deciding officers who take account of the reports made by the social welfare officers. Any unemployment assistance applicant who is not satisfied with the deciding officer's assessment may appeal to the independent social welfare appeals office and submit evidence in support of the appeal.
23. Mr. McCartan asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will express unemployment assistance payable to (a) a single person and (b) a person with a dependent spouse and two dependent children, as a percentage of the male average industrial wage, at the latest date for which figures are available.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): The following is the information requested by the Deputy. From July 1991, a single person on long term unemployment assistance will receive £55 per week, which is 21.0 per cent of the gross male average industrial wage. A person with a dependent spouse and with two children will receive £112 per week, which is 42.8 per cent of the gross male average industrial wage.
From July 1991, a single person on long term unemployment assistance will receive 33.6 per cent of the net male average industrial wage. A person with a dependent spouse and with two children will receive 57.4 per cent of the net male average industrial wage. The net earnings  are based on the standard tax allowances for a single person and a married person with a dependent spouse and two children.
In addition to the basic rate, a recipient of long term unemployment assistance may also qualify for the free fuel allowance, the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, and the EC butter voucher scheme.
24. Mr. Stagg asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will consider making family income supplement payments automatic, based on income tax returns, given the low take-up rate of FIS and the continuing high levels of low pay in the economy; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): The number of FIS recipients now stands at 6,568. This is the highest figure ever recorded, and is 32 per cent above the corresponding figure for March 1989. Family income supplement now provides for 24,536 children. This increased level of take-up reflects the major improvements which I have made to the scheme in recent years. These include a substantial increase in the income limits for eligibility, a reduction of the hours-to-work qualification from 24 to 20 hours, an increase in the number of qualifying children in a family from five to eight and implementation of a minimum £5 weekly payment for all recipients. Take-up has been further encouraged by extensive publicity campaigns, and removal of the fear, which some claimants had, that FIS income would result in loss of the medical card.
This year, the weekly income limits will be raised to £140 for a one-child family and £276 for a family with eight children. The amount of FIS awarded will no longer be constrained by maximum payment limits. For the first time children aged between 18 and 21 years who are attending full-time education will be  regarded as qualifying children. I am satisfied that these measures will ensure a further substantial increase in the numbers taking up the scheme.
The purpose of FIS is to increase the incentive to work of low paid employees with families. Because it is paid on a weekly basis, it provides an immediate cash supplement to encourage workers to remain in employment. Payment of FIS on the basis of income tax returns would not be practicable. Low paid workers could not afford to wait until the end of the tax year to receive their entitlements. If, on the other hand, payments were to be based on the previous year's tax returns, workers who had experienced a decrease in their earnings in the current year would be unable to benefit from FIS.
My Department are co-operating closely with the Revenue Commissioners in encouraging the widest possible take-up of FIS. This year, the Revenue Commissioners circularised all low paid taxpayers alerting them to the possibility that they might be exempt from all taxation, by virtue of the increase in tax exemption limits announced in the budget. As part of this process, the Revenue Commissioners included details of the possible FIS entitlements of these taxpayers, and urged them to contact my Department. Similar details were included in press notices issued by the Revenue Commissioners setting out the changes in the income tax code for the tax year 1991-92.
27. Mr. Byrne asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will allow the right of appeal to persons who have been assessed by the maintenance recovery pensions services and found to be liable for the support and maintenance of a spouse in receipt of a deserted wife's benefit/ allowance or lone parent's allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): The new liable relative's provisions came into force on 29 November 1990. Under these provisions a man is responsible for maintaining his spouse  and children and a woman for maintaining her spouse and children. If he or she fails or neglects to do so and payments have to be awarded under the schemes for lone parents, deserted wives, or under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme they, the liable relatives, are required to contribute towards the cost of such payments.
In calculating the maintenance contribution due by the liable relative account is taken of the person's particular financial circumstances and commitments, including commitments to dependants now living with that person. The legislation does not specify a formula to be applied in determining this contribution and I do not propose to set hard and fast rules at this stage, pending experience of the operation of the scheme. In all cases of separation or desertion, however, the maximum amount due is the total weekly payment being made to the dependent spouse and children. Where the liable relative is not married to the other parent of his-her children, he or she is only liable to contribute towards the cost of the child dependent allowances.
In general the maintenance contribution is determined by reference to the liable relative's net income, after allowance has been made for outgoings on tax, PRSI, housing costs and so on. Allowance is also made for the living expenses of the liable relative and dependants living with him or her. In general, the amount of such allowances is based on allowances under the social welfare schemes.
Any liable relative who is dissatisfied with the amount of the contribution he or she is required to pay can write to and/or discuss the matter with the relevant officials of my Department who have been instructed to examine fully all such queries raised. If the complaints are  well founded an appropriate adjustment of the amount due will be made.
It is my intention to have a review of the scheme carried out after it has been in operation for a year. The question of changes in the administration of the new arrangements, including the question of a right of appeal against decisions made on the contributions which liable relatives are required to make will be considered in the context of that review.
29. Mr. Kemmy asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will conduct an inquiry into the special expenditure patterns of lone parent households in order to ascertain a minimum adequate income for such households.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): I would like to assure the House that I am very aware of the situation of single parents on low incomes. I have introduced significant improvements in the social welfare area for this group in recent years. I introduced the deserted husband's and widower's scheme in October 1989; the lone parent's allowance scheme in October 1990, which streamlined the existing arrangements and extended their scope to include separated persons and unmarried fathers; and the back-to-school clothing allowance also in 1990.
The increase in the rates of payment last year meant that the priority rate of payment recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare has already been achieved. The improvements provided for in the Social Welfare Act, 1991 mean that this rate is maintained in real terms this year at £69 for a lone parent with one child. As stated in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, the aim is to increase social welfare rates further and progressively, in accordance with the recommendations of the Commission, as the resources of the economy grow.
The means-test applied to lone parents is better than for other social welfare recipients with a £6 weekly earnings exemption per child, together with allowances for child-minding and travel to  work expenses, which allow a single parent the option of supplementing her or his social welfare payment with part-time earnings.
As indicated in the programme, the Government are committed to an ongoing programme of reform of the social welfare system broadly within the framework outlined by the Commission on Social Welfare. Recent reports have highlighted the particular requirements of families and the need for a particular focus in meeting their needs. In that context, resources on a scale necessary to implement the additional child income-support measures recommended by the Commission — some £69 million in 1990 terms — will be devoted to child income-support over a ten year period. The particular measures to be taken will be worked out in the light of up-to-date information on child and family circumstances and in the light of available resources. The position of single parents will be kept under review in this context.
30. Mr. Spring asked the Minister for Social Welfare the reasons child dependency rates are not applicable to persons on supplementary welfare benefits in respect of children over the age of 18 years; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): An age limit of 18 years has applied for a long number of years for the purposes of child dependant increases of social welfare payments except in the case of recipients of widow's pension and other analogous payments where increases continued to be payable up to age 21 in respect of children who continued in full-time education.
In 1989, I initiated a process of progressively raising the age limit up to which increases in respect of dependent children are payable to recipients of other long term social welfare payments where the children are in full-time education. This process was completed in the Social Welfare Act, 1991 and from July next,  increases in respect of dependent children in full-time education will be payable up to age 21 in the case of recipients of all long term payments.
Under existing arrangements, increases in respect of dependent children of recipients of short term payments, including supplementary welfare allowance, are payable up to age 18. The question of paying such increases beyond age 18 will be considered in the context of future developments and in the light of budgeting constraints.
31. Mrs. Owen asked the Minister for Social Welfare the number of people receiving disability benefit; and the average length of time of receipt of this benefit in months and years for each recipient.
The average duration of disability benefit claims closed in 1990 was 22 weeks, or approximately five months. There is a wide variation in the duration of disability benefit claims; most are of only a few weeks duration, while a smaller number are paid for a longer period of time. For example, more than half of all claims are of less than four weeks duration. The average does not, therefore, represent a typical case.
33. Mr. Bell asked the Minister for Social Welfare the plans he has to pay unemployment benefit/unemployment assistance on a fortnightly basis; the plans he has to pay pensions on a monthly basis; his views on the social effects of such plans for the community at large; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): In general, unemployment payments are payable in cash on a weekly basis at local offices of my Department. Pensions are payable by way of weekly personalised payable orders which issue to pensioners in book form.
 While information technology has provided us with the opportunity to introduce a greater choice of payment methods I have no plans at present to vary the frequency of payment for the schemes mentioned by the Deputy.
35. Mr. Carey asked the Minister for Social Welfare the reason that in assessing an application for mortgage/rent supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, a person whose spouse is working is not assessed on the basis of the take-home pay in determining eligibility, but rather on pay before income tax is paid; and if he will make a statement on the anomaly in this compared to the means test of benefit for an offspring.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): Assistance toward the cost of rent or mortgage interest payments can be made by way of an additional payment of supplementary welfare allowance under section 209 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981 and regulations made under that section.
From time to time guidelines are also issued to health boards to facilitate administration of the scheme. The guidelines relating to the payment of rent and mortgage supplements are being reviewed within my Department at present in consultation with the health boards with a view to their publication in an informational booklet format.
37. Mr. Spring asked the Minister for Social Welfare when the practice of requiring applicants for child benefit to quote their husband's RSI number was introduced; the reasons for introducing this practice; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): The practice of requesting applicants for child benefit to quote their own and their spouses RSI numbers was introduced in 1983. The RSI number is the  common reference number used in the majority of schemes operated by my Department and it is the policy of my Department to have one reference number for all schemes.
40. Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Social Welfare the reason a person (details supplied) in County Tipperary was refused unemployment assistance on the grounds that it is clear from the evidence that the appellant has only made very limited local efforts to find work, even though no work is available and evidence was produced that he had tried; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): The claim of the person concerned was reviewed in October 1990 with regard to his efforts to obtain employment. A statutory condition for entitlement to unemployment assistance is that a person must be available for and genuinely seeking work. Claims are periodically reviewed to ensure that claimants continue to satisfy these statutory conditions.
He supplied the names of two employers from whom he had sought work and stated that there was no work available in the locality. His claim, with the report of the interview, was submitted to a deciding officer who took the view that he had not made satisfactory efforts to get work and disallowed his claim from 7 November 1990 on the grounds that he was not genuinely seeking work.
He appealed the disallowance to the independent social welfare appeals office and submitted three further letters from employers, dated January 1991, in support of his appeal. He attended an oral hearing of his appeal on 13 March 1991. The appeals officer upheld the deciding officer's decision and considered that he had unreasonably restricted the area in which he had sought work.
 He has continued to sign the unemployed register. Inquiries are being made to ascertain whether he has made any further efforts to find work since the date of the appeals officer's decision. When these are completed his entitlement to assistance will be reviewed again.
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