Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Amendment No. 1 in the name of Deputy Róisín Shortall arises out of Committee proceedings while amendment No. 37 is related. Amendments Nos. 38 to 45, inclusive, are related and are alternative to amendment No. 37. Therefore, amendments Nos. 1 and Nos. 37 to 45, inclusive, may be discussed together.
The Labour Party strongly opposes the proposal to abolish the Combat Poverty Agency. We have discussed this on previous occasions. It is incredible that the first agency to be the target of cuts should be the Combat Poverty Agency, a body that has done a significant amount of valuable work over more than 20 years.
It was set up as an independent agency to conduct research into the area and to take a much more concerted approach to the issue of poverty. Rather than mere generalisation, one of its principal functions was to engage in evidence-based research which was made available to the Minister.
Another function, which was critical, was to create public awareness of the issues surrounding poverty, the causes of poverty and the way in which it can be effectively tackled. That is probably one of the most important functions the Combat Poverty Agency has performed in recent years. It is something of which I suppose we all need to be reminded on a regular basis.
We have come through a period where there was much personal satisfaction with increased levels of wealth, etc., and much emphasis on everybody having a great time. Encouraged by the then Minister for Finance, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, it was all about partying on and spend, spend, spend. In the context of that kind of frenzy, it was more important than ever to have the Combat Poverty Agency to remind people that, irrespective of the booming economy, there were significant levels of poverty within society and steps needed to be taken to tackle them.
The Minister went about setting up a review group to look at the options. That review group recommended two options and, of course, the Minister took the less popular one to absorb the Combat Poverty Agency back into the social inclusion unit in her Department. While good work is done by that unit, as I stated already, it cannot in any way be considered an independent unit. For example, I cite the unit’s assessment of the budget, which, the Minister would have to accept, was less than critical.
There is a need for such a separate independent body. That independence is critical in terms of challenging the Government and the Minister. As I stated on Committee Stage, there is no way that civil servants working in a unit within the Department — I do not blame civil servants — will have the independence to come out and criticise the Government or the Minister. An important aspect of the work of the Combat Poverty Agency will be lost forever.
This is a retrograde step. The Minister has already admitted that there are no substantial savings involved in this move and the only conclusion to which I can come is that she is doing this purely for political reasons — to silence the Combat Poverty Agency and criticism of herself.
As we head into a difficult economic period, now more than ever there is a need to hear that voice supporting those who are excluded and those who will face into unemployment and financial hardship over the coming months and years. It is certainly a bad time, if there was ever a good time, to make this move.
It is a retrograde step. Deputy Hanafin, will go down in history as the Minister who abolished, and silenced or muzzled, the Combat Poverty Agency. That is something of which to be ashamed. The Labour Party wholeheartedly rejects her proposals to do this.
I do not know whether the decision to abolish the Combat Poverty Agency is one which the Government will regret, but it is certainly one that society will regret. After the decision was made, the Combat Poverty Agency’s staff and former staff went on the record on the matter.
The Minister is hiding behind the fact that a review was carried out before the decision was taken. At the beginning the Combat Poverty Agency thought the review was a good idea because it was not afraid to have its operations examined to see where improvements could be made. After a few months of constantly looking for the terms of reference of the review, the agency eventually got them. They were shocked to discover that no mention was made of the word “poverty”, the abolition of which is the agency’s main focus. It was clear that decisions had been taken before the review was carried out because the Government knew the outcome it wanted. Over the past several weeks, people have discussed the various cuts made in the budget but the Government has used the economy as a defence. As the Minister has admitted, however, this cut will make few, if any, financial savings.
It is legitimate to ask why the agencies which the Government has chosen to abolish or amalgamate are the ones which have the ability and courage to comment on Government policy. The Combat Poverty Agency, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority have commented when they were not happy with Government policies and now they are about to be silenced.
Every time we have discussed this matter, the Minister has failed to guarantee any degree of independence to the Office for Social Inclusion once it subsumes the Combat Poverty Agency. The people who work in the office have a job to perform and I respect them for their work but I do not believe they will have independence in deciding what to examine. One of the most positive aspects of the Combat Poverty Agency’s role is that it decides for itself the issues that warrant scrutiny rather than following Government agendas. The agency was regularly commissioned by other State agencies, including the HSE and local authorities, to carry out research. I cannot see the Office for Social Inclusion having a remit in that regard. During the debate on Committee Stage, the Minister claimed that her Department is already conducting research here, there and everywhere. I tabled a parliamentary question to ascertain the research being conducted and received a one line reply promising a more detailed response. It is a pity this information was not available before Report Stage because it would have allowed us to evaluate the work being carried out by her Department before we put the Bill to bed this evening. I guarantee Deputies that the Office for Social Inclusion will not have the independence that the Combat Poverty Agency has enjoyed nor will it have the ability to interact with the community pillar in the same way.
I have seen the links that have been forged in my constituency between the county council, the HSE and the agency through working together on various programmes. One such programme, building healthy communities, was launched by the Taoiseach several months ago. I do not believe the Office for Social Inclusion will be able to build the same relationships with community groups.
Will the officials in the Office for Social Inclusion have similar expertise and backgrounds to the staff of the Combat Poverty Agency in terms of social policy and health research and community development? They may be equally qualified but it is important that they have experience in conducting research in these areas.
In abolishing the Combat Poverty Agency, the Minister is making a mistake she will probably regret. Sooner or later she will be on this side of the House and the Office for Social Inclusion will be reporting to the Minister of the day. The decision represents a real loss for democracy. The Government seems to view the agency as a bit of a nuisance that it could do without because it does not want to be on the receiving end of criticism. As Deputy Shortall noted, unemployment and the numbers of people who find themselves in financial difficulties are increasing. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul expects more people to seek its services over the coming year than has been the case for many years. Now more than ever, the expertise of the Combat Poverty Agency is needed. We will regret its loss in the difficult times to come. I ask the Minister to reconsider her proposal and, if she does not, we will certainly be voting against it.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I have tabled a number of amendments on this issue, including amendment No. 37 with Deputies Enright and Shortall and amendments Nos. 38 to 45, inclusive, in my own name. One of the most dishonest aspects of this Bill has been the Minister’s introduction on Committee Stage of an amendment to abolish the Combat Poverty Agency. It is ironic that at a time when examining and monitoring poverty are probably more important than ever before in the history of this State, these functions are being transferred to the Office for Social Inclusion. That office will not fulfil the objectives set out for the Combat Poverty Agency because its work is completely at the whim of the Minister.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is at present receiving a greater number of calls for help than at any point in its history. As the economic crisis deepens and greater numbers of people become impoverished, we need an organisation with the skills and specific reporting and monitoring functions of the Combat Poverty Agency. It is downright sinister, therefore, that the Minister is silencing this voice. A board member of the agency has described the decision as the systematic tearing apart of the agency.
The reason for the decision is clearly because the Government does not want its mismanagement of the economy or the true levels of poverty and discrimination to be revealed to the public. The wastage of the public finances that has taken place over a considerable period of time could easily have eradicated poverty if the money had been used to implement the reports and recommendations of the Combat Poverty Agency. We would have been left with a different society and the economy would have been in a much stronger position to weather this downturn. It is an ominous sign that the Government is going to bury its head in the sand and will try to conceal from the public the true depth of the catastrophe over which it is presiding. Its response will be to silence the voice and allow poverty to increase. That is grossly unacceptable.
Deputy Seymour Crawford: I support my colleague, Deputy Enright, on these amendments. I have twice served on the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, an experience which has allowed me to understand the benefits of the Combat Poverty Agency. Fine Gael has clearly outlined our difficulties with quangos, many of which exist for fairly spurious reasons. It is strange, however, that the first body which the Government has decided to abolish is one that has given us independent advice on poverty.
I do not always concur with my colleague from Louth, Deputy Morgan, but I support what he has said in regard to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The society’s need for additional funds gives us an indication of the situation that the poor are facing. It is not only those on social welfare or the down and out who are being affected because many people on middle incomes have lost their jobs or are facing mortgage problems. They are trying to pay their bills rather than feed themselves. I urge the Minister to reconsider her decision before it is too late. The Combat Poverty Agency has been very straightforward and has done its job in an apolitical fashion. It puts together facts and delivers them for the use of the Government as well as other people, such as those of us in Opposition.
This is a devious device, which is not in the Minister’s nature. It is creating a wall of silence with regard to this group that should not pertain. Perhaps we can encourage the Minister to rethink what she is doing. She cannot take this organisation into the structures of the Department and ensure it will be able to speak with a completely independent voice. That is not possible. Will the Minister tell us exactly what savings will be created by doing this and how it can be justified?
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin): I do not propose to accept the amendments. I appreciate fully the views of Members in saying the Combat Poverty Agency has done valuable work over the past 20 years. Nobody is questioning the work done by the agency through research, project work and the voice it gave to people experiencing poverty, a particular skill of the body. It also highlighted issues to Government.
Over those 20 years, new structures have been put in place and new methods to hear that voice have been implemented. There should be new ways to ensure research is carried out at a national and European level. Acting in good faith the Government decided in June 2007 to conduct a review to see what was the best role for the Combat Poverty Agency in the future and how it could integrate with all the other established structures. It considered how the work could continue to the best advantage of those people experiencing poverty. It was not a budget-related issue and was not about savings, so it would be wrong to see it that way.
The group spent over a year looking at all the issues and came up with clear proposals. The report states that linking the CPA and the National Economic and Social Development Office bodies would be viable but there are some strong caveats to this. The report explains how different their roles are, how there is a mismatch and how there is already an ongoing review of NESDO. Ultimately, under the recommendations heading, the review states that the steering group recommends that the Office for Social Inclusion and the Combat Poverty Agency should be integrated. It is a clear recommendation.
The recommendation goes on to indicate, importantly, that this would be to the “mutual strengthening and enhancement” of the bodies. I am the first to accept that the office of social inclusion must be enhanced and strengthened, which is also recognised in this report. The way of ensuring both bodies can work to the best interests of combating poverty is to ensure we merge them and use the best skills and expertise from both.
Different organisations and research has emerged over the years. This morning, for example, the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions results for 2007 were published; this process was not available 20 years ago and it provides very valuable, objective and honest information, as does the live register. There are some figures to be worried about but there are also some very encouraging figures that I have no doubt we will discuss here at another time. These are just a few examples of the information available.
There is also Central Statistics Office research and reports and, more particularly, there is the social partnership process which has not only emerged but developed as a strong part of society and all our dealings with employers, workers and vulnerable or community groups. That community and voluntary pillar is now an essential part of the process, although it was not the case when the Combat Poverty Agency was established. We now have the social partnership deal of Towards 2016; the national action plans for social inclusion, the social inclusion elements of the national development plans and all the other structures.
I mentioned last week the social inclusion forum which gathered a few hundred people to do very practical and good work last week. We have the Cabinet committee on social inclusion and the various offices within Departments that deal with social inclusion, be it in my own Department or my former Department dealing with education. That did all the work on the DEIS schools. There is also the senior officials group, the EU open method of co-ordination and various groups now doing at least some of the work that the Combat Poverty Agency was doing. There was an overlap and it was legitimate to set up the review.
The recommendations are also very clear and I have adopted them. This is not about abolishing the Combat Poverty Agency but rather the abolition of poverty and the aim to eliminate it. It will be difficult in the times we are living in, which we recognise. As with any Minister in this position, I am to play my part in eliminating poverty, and this is linked in many ways to what we are doing. I want to ensure that as Minister, and with all future Ministers, we will have the best benefits of the very best research and expertise, as well as the voice of the people experiencing poverty. There should be a strong central unit within the Department of Social and Family Affairs that can advise Government and ensure all Departments are aware of the best policies to be taken.
Such a unit should initiate research on issues it believes important. I am a very strong advocate of ensuring we have independent research and evidence-based policies. That will mean investigating and carrying out research on issues that we may not yet have thought of. That is why I expect such a unit to come up with a very good work programme that will be part and parcel of what it must do. I expect the unit to formulate proposals and initiatives that Government agencies and Departments can take on board as part of our central policies.
There is some excellent expertise in both sections but it can become even better by merging the two bodies. In fairness to both the board and staff from the agency I have met, they are more than willing to ensure that expertise will be harnessed in a very positive way. They have particular skills in giving a voice to poverty, which the Department has not done in the past, per se. These people will be able to bring such expertise with them and ensure we can do it in future.
Research has been central both to the Department and the Combat Poverty Agency. The Department will give information to any Deputy and I mentioned some sources in the past week when we were on Committee Stage. Some of the pieces of research published recently by the Department include the Life Cycle Perspective on Social Inclusion in Ireland: An Analysis of EU-SILC; Tackling Low Income and Deprivation: Developing Effective Policies; and A Social Portrait of People of Working Age in Ireland. They are from this year, so we commission and publish valuable research, making it available to anybody interested in the public. This is not about silencing the voice of poverty or issues relating to it.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: People are seriously concerned about the live register. They are interested in policies and how we will tackle the problem. They are also interested to know if we have the correct information to help us do it. By integrating the office of social inclusion and the Combat Poverty Agency we will get exactly what the steering group recommended — the strengthening and enhancement of both. We will have close alliances of great expertise and we will be able to use it in the best interests of people experiencing poverty.
There are many amendments relating to staff and functions, which we can deal with on an individual basis. It is important that the overall message is very clear; this is about ensuring the work, expertise and the voice of combating poverty in this country is strengthened as part of a unit that will have direct access and even more influence over Government policy than heretofore.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: The Minister’s comments are cynical in the extreme. She is misleading the House and there are no two ways about that. She says she is looking at how the work of the Combat Poverty Agency can continue, but that is not what the Bill is about. The Minister should have the courage to say honestly that this is about abolishing the agency because it has been a thorn in her side and she does not want to hear what it has to say.
The Minister says she is interested in abolishing poverty, not the Combat Poverty Agency, but that is not true. If the Government was unable to abolish poverty during the past decade, when there was a boom on and endless money available, how can it possibly do so now when times are much more difficult? Not only is the Minister abolishing the Combat Poverty Agency, but she is also abolishing the agency’s functions which are listed in the legislation. It will no longer be the responsibility of any agency to perform those functions, which were so clearly identified in 1986 by the then Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Frank Cluskey. He identified the fact that there is an inherent reluctance by most Governments to face up to the extent of poverty. That is why the independent nature of the Combat Poverty Agency was so critical. It had to perform its role, irrespective of the colour of whatever Government happened to be in power. That agency operated on the basis of independent research, which is honest about the extent of poverty and the obstacles preventing the Government from dealing with it. The agency also sought to increase public awareness of poverty.
The alternative proposal to incorporate the agency into the National Economic and Social Development Office, NESDO, would have had some merit in so far as there was some prospect of independence there. Incorporating it into the social inclusion unit will mean that it will just vanish in time, but I think that was the intention.
The Minister lists all the other bodies that have responsibility for tackling poverty but clearly the Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion should be a key body with such responsibility. From the information that was disclosed to us recently, however, we know that from February to last week that sub-committee did not meet at all, in spite of severely worsening unemployment and the general situation concerning poverty. The Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion did not bother to meet for ten months, so the Minister should not tell me that it will provide a watchdog role that is so necessary to tackle poverty. This is a smokescreen. The only purpose of abolishing the Combat Poverty Agency is to silence a body that has done extremely good work in the past. The agency put it up to successive Governments to remember the poor and tackle the problems associated with poverty in a real and meaningful way. This is a shameful exercise and the Minister should withdraw the proposal.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: The Minister’s approach to this matter is totally disingenuous and illogical. On the one hand, she talks about the great work done by the Combat Poverty Agency over the last 20 years and heaps praise on it, yet on the other hand she is still going to abolish the agency. That body was doing great work and could have continued to do so, regardless of the Minister’s listing of other bodies’ reports that have been published in recent years. The Combat Poverty Agency still has a role to play and the fact that the change will bring about little or no cost savings makes the Minister’s decision even more illogical. She spoke about the voice the agency gave people, but the EU body she mentioned does not give the same voice to local people here. It will not interact with local community groups, as the Combat Poverty Agency did. While she may not admit it, the Minister must realise that her office for social inclusion will not be able to do so either.
The Minister spoke about integration and how her office will work to the best advantage of those experiencing poverty. Her decision, however, will have the opposite effect because silencing, closing down and subsuming the agency into her Department will not be advantageous to those living in poverty. The notion of the steering review group is that the decision will lead to the mutual strengthening and enhancement of both bodies. I do not doubt that it will be to the enhancement of the Office for Social Inclusion because of the expertise of those who have had the benefit of working with other agencies in the community pillar. Such a move will strengthen the Office for Social Inclusion to some degree, but it will not be sufficient to deal with the scale of the existing problems arising from poverty. Nor will that office have the hands-on ability the Combat Poverty Agency had in working with other groups, including local authorities and the community pillar. Today’s seasonally adjusted live register figures show that there are 277,000 people out of work. That in itself should be a reminder to the Minister of the importance of that agency.
In her response, the Minister dealt with research documents that have been published, but one of the most important aspects of the Combat Poverty Agency was that it was not just about reaction. The Government’s approach, however, has been reactive rather than proactively examining what needs to be done. The agency had the time and ability to research problems coming down the track and then publish its advice. The Office for Social Inclusion will not have the ability to do that because it will be reacting full time to the political issues of the day, which is what the Minister will tell it to do.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: Let us assume for one moment that the Minister is sincere in declaring that this decision is not about silencing the voice of the Combat Poverty Agency. In that event, why will she not accept amendments Nos. 39 to 45, inclusive? Amendment No. 39 states:
The subsequent amendments, up to and including No. 45, contain similar wording. If this is not about silencing the voice of the Combat Poverty Agency and stopping it from revealing the extent and nature of poverty across the State, why will the Minister not accept those amendments specifically? I ask her to address that point.
As to her comments on the review group’s recommendations, nobody in this House would be fooled by such a proposition. We all know the saying that “He who pays the piper, calls the tune”, so we will not fall for that one. The Minister said the recommendations included the mutual enhancement of both bodies, but that is utter nonsense. On Committee Stage, she could not even tell us how much will be saved by the amalgamation of both bodies. Can she do so now? This is more about silencing than saving, which is why the figures have not been examined. The priority is to shut the messenger up and ensure that message does not get out by wiping the agency off the board. The Bill marks a significant change of direction by the Government, which will damage society. It will also significantly lessen the opportunity for a swathe of society, including politicians and sociologists, to deal with what is happening. That is most regrettable.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: The functions of the Combat Poverty Agency, as they exist, already lie with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs of the day. I have no doubt that the new division will carry out research, give policy advice and provide data analysis. It will ensure that the voice it gives to those experiencing poverty can be heard. The agency has worked well with people so that they can participate at national and European levels and have their voices heard directly rather than via another group. I envisage this situation continuing. I also envisage that the division will initiate research on issues it believes to be important, which is part of its remit.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: It will be part of its work programme. The agency does this work well. Of the agency’s last 38 items of research, 28 were conducted by the ESRI or other bodies. The agency commissioned the research in the same way the Department does. This situation must continue.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: There is no need to duplicate their transferral. It will be a part of the enhanced unit’s responsibilities. This is not a question of savings, although there will be savings on the lease of buildings, personnel and so on.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: ——and structures to support the work of combating poverty. I have read out the clear recommendation for Members, namely, that the Office for Social Inclusion and the Combat Poverty Agency, CPA, be integrated. The Bill provides for that.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: One gets the recommendation one pays for. Throughout the debate, the Minister has sought to distort reality. Under no circumstances can it be said that the CPA can continue or improve its work if it is subsumed into the Department. The critical aspect of the CPA is its courage and freedom to speak out, as it is an independent body. It was enabled to be a voice for those who do not normally have one, the poor, because it was independent. It can decide what research in which to engage and how to portray the issues at the heart of poverty. Often, they were portrayed in a way that was not favourable to the Government of the day. The agency’s independence is its main benefit and strength. At times, it was a thorn in the Government’s side.
It is misleading of the Minister to state that she wants to see the agency continue its good work. Were that the case, why does she not allow it to continue as an independent agency? She wants to silence it. To say that the agency can continue its work within the Department is nonsense, since the Minister knows that it cannot. There is no tradition of civil servants being openly critical of Ministers. The agency will be silenced. Someone else will choose what research work will be carried out and how the findings will be portrayed. Consequently, the agency will lose the strength it derived from independence.
A further important aspect of the CPA’s work lay in how it went into communities and found out what was occurring therein. Rather than examining global figures on a national basis, it considered the underlying reasons for our high levels of educational disadvantage, for example. A worthwhile CPA project in Donegal examined why there was a low uptake of medical cards among marginalised people. It drills down into problems to determine the underlying issues and which policies need to change. This will not be the case from now on. The work will be restricted by the Department, which will not want critical and unfavourable information about it to emerge. It is a retrograde step and a shameful move. The Minister will go down in history as the Minister who silenced any criticism in terms of poverty.
The most serious issue is not that the Bill will do away with the CPA. Rather, those who depend on the CPA to have their voices heard will no longer be heard to the same extent. This is a bad move and a big mistake that we will oppose vehemently.
|Ahern, Michael.||Ahern, Noel.|
|Andrews, Barry.||Andrews, Chris.|
|Ardagh, Seán.||Aylward, Bobby.|
|Behan, Joe.||Blaney, Niall.|
|Brady, Áine.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brady, Johnny.||Browne, John.|
|Byrne, Thomas.||Calleary, Dara.|
|Carey, Pat.||Collins, Niall.|
|Conlon, Margaret.||Cregan, John.|
|Cuffe, Ciarán.||Cullen, Martin.|
|Curran, John.||Dempsey, Noel.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Fahey, Frank.||Fitzpatrick, Michael.|
|Fleming, Seán.||Flynn, Beverley.|
|Gallagher, Pat The Cope.||Gogarty, Paul.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Healy-Rae, Jackie.||Hoctor, Máire.|
|Kelleher, Billy.||Kelly, Peter.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kennedy, Michael.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Kitt, Tom.||Lenihan, Brian.|
|Lenihan, Conor.||Lowry, Michael.|
|McDaid, James.||McEllistrim, Thomas.|
|McGrath, Mattie.||McGrath, Michael.|
|McGuinness, John.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M. J.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Hanlon, Rory.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||O’Sullivan, Christy.|
|Power, Peter.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Sargent, Trevor.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Treacy, Noel.|
|Wallace, Mary.||White, Mary Alexandra.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Bannon, James.|
|Barrett, Seán.||Breen, Pat.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Bruton, Richard.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Burton, Joan.|
|Byrne, Catherine.||Carey, Joe.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Connaughton, Paul.|
|Costello, Joe.||Coveney, Simon.|
|Crawford, Seymour.||Creed, Michael.|
|Creighton, Lucinda.||D’Arcy, Michael.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Doyle, Andrew.|
|Durkan, Bernard J.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Charles.|
|Flanagan, Terence.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Hayes, Brian.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Lynch, Ciarán.||Lynch, Kathleen.|
|McCormack, Pádraic.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McHugh, Joe.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Naughten, Denis.|
|Neville, Dan.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Keeffe, Jim.||O’Mahony, John.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Quinn, Ruairí.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Reilly, James.||Ring, Michael.|
|Shatter, Alan.||Sheehan, P. J.|
|Sherlock, Seán.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
Fine Gael is putting forward this amendment because it believes substantial savings can be made through greater vigilance on the part of the Department of Social and Family Affairs in terms of combating fraud.
The Minister has pledged to save €25 million through increased anti-fraud activity. Through her U-turn on the removal of the disability allowance from children between the ages of 16 and 18 and it not being replaced by the domiciliary care allowance, she hopes to make another saving of €4.4 million. The Minister hopes to make, between July and 31 December, savings of €30 million through extra anti-fraud measures.
The amendment seeks to give definition to the term “anti-fraud measures”. I am seeking to ascertain if the Minister intends to recoup payments in respect of fraudulent claims made prior to July of this year. That that depth of savings can be made in six months, requires the Minister to examine what other payments made prior to July should not have been made. This would be of benefit to the Department of Social and Family Affairs and would ensure that people who need payments are able to get them. That is the principal reason for this amendment.
I believe there is scope for increased controls, in particular controls at airports and so on. The Minister will be aware of the case raised previously during Question Time, namely, the substantial savings of more than €1 million a year made by a garda involved in this area. From August to December 2004 alone, a saving of €1.468 million was generated through the termination of 234 claims. There is a lot of scope for greater controls in this area. The amendment seeks to ensure that anti-fraud initiatives are enshrined in legislation and as such will become a serious focus of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I support the amendment. The Minister has for many years been vocal when it suits in regard to fraud within the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I acknowledge progress has been made in this area in recent times. However, I believe more work needs to be done in this regard. For that reason, I support the amendment.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: I do not propose to accept the amendment because legislation is already in place that comprehensively provides for control activity, which is a feature of all social welfare schemes. I share the concern expressed by the Deputies in terms of ensuring we have in place proper control measures.
Currently, we do so in four different ways, namely, prevention, detection, deterrent and debt recovery. We take seriously all of our control measures. Fraud and abuse is an issue on all agendas when discussing all aspects of departmental activity. Deputies will be aware that staff in many of our offices are under pressure at this time owing to an increased number of claims. Some 115 staff are being recruited to ensure claims are processed quickly and our control work is continued.
Fraud and abuse is examined through reviews of claim papers, home visits, mail-shots, database checking, medical reviews for illness payments and special exercises targeting specific groups. We stop payments, seek refunds of moneys paid and even take prosecutions in respect of claims. Last year, 361 cases were referred to the Chief State Solicitor’s Office for legal proceedings, 243 of which were finalised in court. Also, 26 cases of impersonation were followed up. We have taken action against employers who do not make PRSI contributions. A key area has been that of child benefit. Deputies will be aware that as of summer this year all new applicants signing for the jobseeker’s allowance are required to sign on once a month and to collect their payments at the post office. This measure was put in place to ensure people are in the country and genuinely seeking work rather than simply receiving funds by way of electronic payment and, perhaps, slipping in and out of the country. This has been successful as a control measure as has been the action we have taken in respect of child benefit in terms of the issuance of certification letters. These are being issued monthly to EU workers resident here whose families are resident abroad. Substantial savings are being made in this regard. So far, 5,000 claims for child benefit have ceased. Also, up to end October approximately €38 million had been saved under child benefit, the payments for which are high in this country, and €11 million was saved in respect of the early childhood supplement, a total saving of approximately €50 million. This saving has been made as a result of control measures introduced by the Department.
We will continue to exercise our control measures and will seek to ensure that even further measures are introduced. On whether the Department seeks to recoup money, the answer is “Yes”, bearing in mind the ability of the person to pay, the period within which repayment is required and whether it is possible to pursue the money in terms of activity versus the amount to be recouped to the Department. Combating fraud and abuse is a serious part of the Department’s work. Approximately 600 people who work in the Department are involved in this area. Even though the budget for my Department is €19.6 billion the demands on it are great, as is the case in respect of every other Department. We want to ensure the money is going to the right people.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: I will not press this too far. I am glad to hear from the Minister that €50 million in savings has been made. However, this causes me to question how much money has been wasted during the past number of years. If such savings have been made as a result of the detection of payments to people not eligible or entitled to them or by people who were deliberately claiming them when they should not have been doing so, the loss of money to the Exchequer, and the Department, is substantial. Savings of €50,000 in the period outlined by the Minister amounts to a great deal of money.
The same point can be made about child benefit payments. If €38 million in savings were made under that scheme — from what the Minister said, I gather they were made this year — and 5,000 claims were stopped, this amounts to a substantial amount of money being claimed that should not have been claimed. I have tabled questions on this, but in Question Time today questions are not to the Minister’s Department. I would like to know how much was paid out in fraudulent claims that should not have been paid out.
The Minister said it was important she took prosecutions on foot of some of the claims and so on, yet 5,000 claims for child benefit were stopped and no prosecutions were taken on foot of them. I can understand that in some cases people could not afford to pay up, but 5,000 people were not entitled to that benefit and I cannot imagine all of them were in circumstances such that they should not have been the subject of prosecutions for claiming fraudulently.
I appreciate very much that the Minister’s staff were under pressure. I welcome the fact that finally more people have been assigned to deal with the backlogs. Staffing being under pressure is one matter but this whole system being under pressure because of benefit payments being made to people who were not entitled to them and people needing money who cannot get it as a result of that puts families under pressure. The Minister needs to examine the entire operation of the system to ensure staff are able to devote sufficient time to deal with the issue of fraudulent claims. I appreciate that a staff of 600 are dealing with this, but many of them do other work as well. It is crucial that this is done. The Minister could easily assign more staff to this work, if many of these fraudulent claims were stopped. It would certainly represent value for taxpayers’ money if more staff were assigned to deal with this matter.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: In recent years fraud and error surveys were undertaken for a number of the schemes, namely, child benefit and the family income supplement in 2004, the disability allowance in 2005, the PPSN allocation and the illness benefit in 2006, the State pension non-contributory scheme in 2007, the State pension contributory scheme in 2008 and review policies are now being finalised for the disability allowance, carer’s allowance and the State pension non-contributory schemes. We are very much trying to keep on top of all of this.
Bearing in mind that a claim is only stopped when we know for a fact that the person is no longer entitled to it, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly how long prior to that the person was not entitled to it, particularly if that person has left the country. Of the 5,000 claims for child benefit payments stopped, 80% of them applied to non-nationals. They may well have been people who were working here legitimately and then found themselves without a job and have now left the country and that may have happened in the past few months. At the time of writing to them and they not responding, it involved 5,000 claims.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: I do not want to give the impression that everybody is on the make in regard to such payments. The electronic transfer system ensures the automatic transfer of payments and it is a smooth and efficient way of going about our business, but sometimes people may continue to claim or forget to claim and there can be a good reason for that, but we are clamping down on payments that should not be made. We will continue to do that and we will increase the amount of such activity, particularly in regard to child benefit claims, in the coming months. On all of our schemes, control is a serious element. The Deputy is right in saying this is taxpayers’ money and it is urgently needed for those people who deserve it.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: I am not overly convinced by the attention being given to this matter and the reasons the Minister has given regarding the 5,000 people making claims. If they were notified, payments should have ceased then, but payments continued to be made to them.  There was some period for which they received payments that they should not have received them. This issue needs more attention across the board in terms of all payments. We are under some time pressure and I will not press this amendment.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: It is unsatisfactory that Members cannot table amendments because of this rule. It means we are left with no option but to find a convoluted way around the issue and to go into detail about seeking reports and all of that. I raise this issue because of a concern I have on foot of the Minister indicating in her budget speech that she would cut payments to part-time workers.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: Perhaps the Chair can advise us on how we might deal with a situation such as this. The Minister indicated in her budget speech that she would introduce regulations effectively to deny part-time workers about €44 in benefit. What mechanism is open to us to deal with that through the legislation, given that it is not part of the legislation? We need a mechanism to allow Members to register their objection to this proposal and to be able to call for a vote on it in the House.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I ask for the Chair’s advice on this matter, which involves an real issue of concern. The Minister signalled her intention to do something by way of regulation and we have no option to voice our concern about that or to register our opposition to it. How else can we do that other than by seeking a mechanism which would prevent the Minister from doing that?
Acting Chairman: I hope the Deputy’s contribution will indicate to the Minister that the Deputy has serious reservations about this. Tabling a question to the line Minister is probably the only way she can do that.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I put it to the Chair that in normal circumstances where we oppose a measure in a Bill, we have an opportunity at least to vote against it, but in this case the Minister signalled her intention to cut benefits for part-time workers by way of regulation and we have no option but to propose an amendment which would prevent her from doing that. That is our only way of registering our objection to the steps she is taking.
The matter raised by the Deputy is perhaps a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I will ask our Whip to contact the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to ensure that at least amendments that may impose a charge on the Exchequer will be allowed to be discussed.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I appreciate fully that the Chair cannot overrule the provision covering this and that she must deal with provisions as laid down. I agree with Deputy Shortall that this procedure is a significant problem. It is a bit of a nonsense at this stage.
In addressing amendment No. 4, I must observe that the increases in the welfare payments proposed in the Bill will be of little comfort to the recipients of social welfare payments when account is taken of huge hikes in food and energy costs during the past 12 months in particular. Despite the Government’s repeated claims to protect the vulnerable, the reality is the opposite.
My amendment No. 6 seeks to abolish the PRSI ceiling. There is not a clearer example of the Government talking out of both sides of its mouth than if we compare and contrast its introduction of the 1% income levy. It affects everybody whose income is above the minimum wage. It should at least have been targeted at those on the average industrial wage to give anybody a fighting chance.
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