Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008: Report Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 669 No. 3

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Debate resumed on amendment No. 4:

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  In order to give proper protection to families on welfare and to ensure that they do not fall into the poverty trap, it is time to set a new, longer-term benchmark [537]against which the evolution of social welfare payment rates can be measured. An analysis should be undertaken to establish if a third of the average industrial wage is still sufficient to meet living expenses. Many poverty groups agree with that and feel that new percentage is necessary.

In spite of the Government’s repeated claims of protecting the vulnerable, the reality is that vulnerable families are being neglected by the Government and put under significant additional pressure. The president of St. Vincent de Paul, Ms Mairéad Bushnell, warned that 2009 promises to be the most difficult year in a generation for that organisation. The proposed welfare increases are negated by the hike in the minimum contribution to rent and mortgage supplement, as well as by restrictions placed on families trying to access child benefit and the early childhood scheme. Struggling families with children between five and six years of age could have up to €550 per annum taken from their budgets, while families with 18 year old children in education will lose up to €1,000 per annum from 2010. The Government is damaging the working poor through the imposition of a 1% levy, while excluding families depending on welfare from the State.

There is further evidence that belies the Government’s claim that it is protecting poor families. The 1% income levy applies to people on anything above the minimum wage. That should not be the case, as it should apply at the least to the threshold of the average industrial wage. That might provide some semblance of fairness to those families who are struggling on very low incomes. There is also evidence that the Government is not pressurising high-income families. My next amendment calls for an abolition of the PRSI ceiling, which would have allowed a sufficient income stream to deal with increasing the 1% levy threshold. The abolition of the PRSI ceiling would yield, at a conservative estimate, €295 million per annum to the Exchequer. This shows that decisions could be taken by the Government which would alleviate the poverty and suffering of low income families. I hope the Minister seriously considers accepting amendment No. 4.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I support the concept of this amendment. Targets were set in the programme for Government that will not be met, unless there are significant jumps in the rates of payment next year and the following two years. The adequacy of payments are also linked to this amendment to some extent, when determining the benchmarks against which the rates can be measured. The Government currently tends to rely on the overall inflation figure, rather than the issues that most affect people on social welfare. Two of those issues are the dramatic rises in the cost of fuel and the rise in the cost of food. I know fuel has come down somewhat in the past few weeks but people have not seen that everywhere as yet. I hope the decreases in the price of diesel and other energy supplies will last but we do not know that they will.

This year we have already seen electricity prices rise by 17.5%, gas prices by 20% and similar increases in home heating oil. Such rises, along with the rise in the cost of fuel, are much higher than inflation and must be taken into account when assessing the value of social welfare payments. They are not taken into account currently. An interesting study was done by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, which we have quoted before on the energy poverty issue. It published a study yesterday on people’s options which reiterates what Age Action Ireland has stated, in that people will make the choice between heat or eat — fuel and food — in homes this winter.

Outlining figures as to what people are getting currently does not deal with the reality. The institute’s report links cost factors to the issue of fuel poverty — as well as obesity — because [538]of the choices people are making as a consequence of the income they have. This amendment relates to those issues and from that perspective, I support it.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin): Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I do not propose to accept the amendment as no formal benchmark has been established because people could not agree on what it should be. Targets have been set at various stages and these have been surpassed. When the national anti-poverty strategy was being devised in 2002, the Government considered a report drawn up the previous year by the social welfare benchmarking and indexation group. Despite the fact that no consensus was reached, the overall issue was the uprating of social welfare payments.

In 2002, the group set as a target €150 per week for the lowest social welfare payments, with the target to be met by 2007. This was achieved in that year and each year since the payments have increased again. We still have our commitment in the programme for Government but the very first line in the programme indicates that what follows is dependent on economic conditions. Such conditions have changed drastically but even for next year’s budget we are still meeting the relative percentage agreement for the social welfare payment. The increase will be 3.3% at a time when we expect what may be deflation next year.

I appreciate the Deputy’s comments on the price of fuel and food, although the price of fuel has come down substantially. I hope it will continue to do so. The proof of the fact that Government payments have kept pace with need to some degree is in the report published today, the EU-SILC report. Issues must still be resolved. Deputies will be aware that we set as a target in the NAP reports a reduction in the number of those experiencing consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012. Today’s report shows us the consistent poverty rate has fallen from 6.5% in 2006 to 5.1% in 2007. Real progress is being made in that regard.

Lone parents form another group that we know is particularly vulnerable and we have often talked about them here. Figures show a reduction in consistent poverty for that group, from 33.9% to 20%, although it is still a very vulnerable group. It is useful to see that the changes introduced by my predecessors, particularly in allowing lone parents to work for a certain number of hours and receive a certain income without affecting entitlements, has improved their position. A related development is in the fall of the consistent poverty rate for children, down from 10.3% to 7.4%.

  4 o’clock

These are positive statements we can see from independent services which indicate that the payments and policies are working in combating consistent poverty. The figure for those at risk of poverty is 16.5%, down from 17% the year before, although that is down from 19.7% in 2003. Taking out the SSIA money from last year — even the CSO would acknowledge this as an aberration as there was much income last year that would not have been there in previous years — the risk of poverty goes down to 15.8%. Those figures on the continuing decline in the poverty rates for 2007 demonstrate the Government’s commitment and its success in combating poverty and building an inclusive society. These will continue to be our aims.

With regard to the rates we will put in for next year and the targets we will always aim to meet, notwithstanding the fact that we have serious economic considerations, we are reaching them but it is not possible to set a formal long-term benchmark. We are at least meeting the aims we have set out.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I support this amendment because it is important that targets are set in respect of social welfare payments and their adequacy. I also put on record my concern [539]about the manner in which this Bill is being dealt with and the restrictive nature of Standing Orders, particularly with regard to the Social Welfare Bill and Finance Bill. There is an archaic ruling that we are not allowed to table amendments resulting in a charge on the Exchequer. That has implications regarding this Bill, particularly this year because of the number of cuts contained in the legislation. There is no facility whereby we, as Opposition spokespersons, can force a vote in respect of individual cuts proposed by the Minister. That is completely unacceptable. As I stated earlier, unless we go through the convoluted mechanism of looking for reports, we cannot force a vote on cuts here. We did so on Committee Stage as we had the option of opposing sections but we do not have that choice on Report Stage. It is absolutely farcical that the Dáil cannot vote on such critical issues as the list of cuts contained in this Bill.

In supporting the amendment looking for targets to be set, there is a need for such aims to be set across the full spectrum of social welfare payments. Unless we set those targets and have some certainty about them, we will find ourselves again in the position we are in this year whereby the basic rates of social welfare payments in a number of different areas are being cut. Not alone do we need targets in terms of the need to increase payments in line with inflation and other requirements, but we also must ensure that by setting targets we do not allow a case where the Minister of the day can carry out such cuts.

A range of cuts in this Bill is extremely regressive. I referred earlier to the issue of part-time workers and how they will be affected by the Bill. The Minister is looking for powers to change regulations relating to part-time workers, which will have a very negative effect on them. The Minister has stated that she does not want a case to arise whereby a former part-time worker who finds himself or herself unemployed and drawing on jobseekers allowance would find himself or herself better off than when working. That objective is fair enough but the Minister has gone much further than that in what she intends to do with regard to part-time workers.

Following this legislation, part-time workers earning up to €300 a week will be at a loss of approximately €44 per week if they find themselves unemployed. In my calculations, even people working on the minimum wage up to 34 hours a week will still lose out to the tune of €44 per week with this measure. The minimum wage for somebody working those hours falls short of €300. It seems, therefore, that the €300 cut-off point is a very arbitrary figure. It will end up with people on low incomes, even when they are working almost full time, being at a substantial loss. I hope the Minister will accept the point I am making. She indicated her intention and the reason for doing that, but the fact is that many people will lose out substantially. It is a cruel cut for people who are on the margins, working for a minimum wage. There is a list of about ten different cuts, of which the latter is the first. I wish to discuss them all within the context of the Bill.

I also wish to deal with cohabitation as it affects lone parents, which I discussed with the Minister on Committee Stage. We should be setting targets in this area. There are disincentives within the social welfare and tax systems against people on welfare or in low-paid employment forming two-parent families or getting married. It is a bad policy to penalise financially two parents for living together or getting married. That kind of policy cannot be defended, but unfortunately it is the reality for many lone parents. They cannot contemplate living with their partner and children or getting married because of the manner in which the social welfare system discourages them from living together or penalises them for doing so. Most couples in such scenarios — with both of them on welfare, one on welfare and one in a low-paid job, or two of them in low-paid jobs — stand to lose about 30% of their total income if they live together or get married. The Minister should change that situation which is indefensible. This matter was brought to the attention of the departmental officials a long time ago, but nothing has been done about it.

[540]On Committee Stage, when I asked the Minister why promised proposals concerning changes to the status of lone parents had not been brought forward, she only referred to work. While it is important to assist people in moving from the one-parent family payment into the workforce, the Minister has completely failed to address the issue of cohabitation. What is her current thinking on the matter?

The Minister’s predecessor, the late Séamus Brennan, recognised this as a key issue that needed to be tackled. Since then, however, it seems that no progress has been made on it. Nonetheless, it is central to the poverty trap and other difficulties that lone parents encounter. There is probably nothing more fundamental for the children of lone parents than that both parents should be encouraged to play an active part in raising them. As it currently operates, however, the system is telling unmarried fathers to keep away from their children and partner, because if they live in the family home they will be penalised financially. That is a very bad policy. Despite the fact that this major problem has been recognised for a long time, no progress has been made in tackling it. It was obvious on Committee Stage that the Minister had not applied her mind to the matter. I appeal to her to do so because the issue needs to be resolved.

I have already raised with the Minister the matters of guardianship and fostering. The latter subject arose in the context of a case that was brought to my attention by Deputy Jack Wall. It involved a couple who were fostering two children. The man was working and the woman was at home minding the foster children. However, the woman died and the man had to give up work to look after the two foster children. In those circumstances, he was not entitled to a one-parent family payment. If the man had a child of his own, he would have received that payment to cover his own child and the foster children. The issue there was that the foster children did not constitute a qualifying child. I have raised the matter with the Minister’s officials and I understood that it would be dealt with in this legislation. Indeed, the briefing suggested that changes were contained in the Bill that would enable the Minister to deal with such situations that, although quite unusual, are important and should be covered. The Minister’s comments on Committee Stage, however, indicated that she was not well disposed to dealing with the matter, so I am concerned about that.

The other issue is that of guardianship and my comments are based on a real life case I came across. In circumstances where one parent is deceased and the other is incarcerated, there should be a provision whereby the couple’s children would be regarded as being orphaned. That does not apply at the moment, however, and the children of a remaining parent who is incarcerated are not regarded as being abandoned from the viewpoint of providing care and attention. That is an anomaly that should be dealt with.

The Minister should be clear about the parameters involved in applying the mortgage interest supplement. I am concerned about the provision for the Minister to make regulations covering the payment of that supplement. She has done that in respect of rent supplement and it has proven to be very restrictive. I am concerned that under these new regulations the same kind of crude blunt instrument approach will be taken to the mortgage interest supplement. For that reason, I am opposed to the measures.

The budgetary cuts proposed by the Minister for illness benefit and health and safety benefit are unacceptable. The Minister will now require a doubling of contributions to qualify for both these payments, compared to what exists at present. Both cuts are particularly swingeing and cruel for those who will be affected by them.

One of the worst aspects of the budget concerned changes to the job seeker’s benefit. One would expect that targets would provide for an incremental improvement in the level of payments for various provisions within the social welfare code. It is extraordinary, however, that [541]the budget contained proposals that would end up with existing claimants for job seeker’s benefit having their entitlements removed. That is what the Minister is doing in this Bill but, as I said earlier, I think it will be subject to legal challenge.

It is difficult to envisage a situation where somebody is awarded a claim based on his or her insurance record, yet the Minister will cut three months off the duration of that claim. I fail to see how that could stand up legally in terms of making retrospective provision. The Minister is also proposing to introduce far-reaching cuts in the qualifying criteria for job seeker’s benefit, the doubling of required contributions — 13 in the qualifying year — and the duration of the payment. This is happening at a time when more and more people are coming onto the live register. In the past year, 100,000 people have joined the live register. They will look to the Government and, in particular, the Minister to provide them with the type of income that would enable them to survive in their new circumstances, but the Bill will make it more difficult for them to qualify for payments. It is indefensible that, as more and more people look to the Government for assistance to tide them through a difficult phase, the Minister is turning the screw on them by making it more difficult and cutting the payment’s duration.

Regarding income supports for children, targets must be set to encourage young people from disadvantaged families to remain in the education system, an issue with which the Minister is familiar since her previous experience in the Department of Education and Science. Given this, it is difficult to understand why she would remove child benefit in respect of 18 year olds still in education. I stated on Committee Stage that I did not accept her figures, but there is no doubt that this provision will have a significant negative impact on low income families struggling to keep sons and daughters in school until their leaving certificate examinations.

Under this legislation, child benefit payments will stop as soon as someone reaches 18 years of age. Previously, it was paid up to the age of 19 years where young people remained in education. This was of considerable assistance to 18 year olds remaining in school until their leaving certificate examinations. I challenged the Minister’s figures because, taking transition year into account, people now do eight years in primary school and six years in secondary school. If they start school after four years of age, the majority will still be in school at 18 years of age. I do not accept the Minister’s figures, but even they would relate to a substantial number of people.

In the case of low income families, the payments make all the difference to young people who remain in school. Indeed, the difference is €2,000 during a vital year in which families try to keep children in school until their leaving certificate examinations. In many ways, the Minister has recognised the difficulty through the introduction of transitional payments, but she seems to be putting off the day when they will stop altogether. When she was criticised in the context of the budget, she defended herself by saying that transitional payments would tide people over. This situation will be fine for the next two years, but what will occur afterwards? The child benefit payment will stop at the arbitrary age of 18 years.

I am prepared to stake money on this provision having considerable implications in the form of young people from low income families dropping out of school before they do their leaving certificate examinations. School retention figures in disadvantaged areas are already poor, but this measure will further stress many young people. The financial difficulties that it will create will pressure young people into leaving school to earn money.

I have a final point on the need to set targets. We must move incrementally to reach them and ensure that payments are not subject to the whim of a particular Minister or the economic climate of the day. We must ensure that social welfare incomes are protected. For this reason, targets for improvements must be set. It is taken for granted that the situation would not move backwards and payments would not be cut, but this is precisely what the Minister has done in [542]the range of payments to which I have referred, including the early child care supplement. It was introduced with great Government fanfare several years ago in recognition of the expense involved in having young children and their care, including where a parent must take time away from the workforce to care for children at home, which would entail financial sacrifices and a decrease in family incomes.

The Minister has decided to wield the axe on the payment. She has portrayed it as reducing the payment by six months, that is, from six years to five and a half years, but she is doing more. Nine months are to be cut because, as well as stopping at five and a half years of age, a further three months will be lost by making it a monthly payment. Families in receipt of the early child care supplement will lose €800. This is difficult to justify, given the pressures experienced in those early years.

The Minister has agreed cuts with her Cabinet colleagues that will severely affect people’s living standards. Ironically, the changes in respect of part-time workers will come into effect on 25 December. What a Christmas present to give to those on low incomes and facing unemployment. From 25 December, they stand to lose €44 per week. The other cuts will start to bite from January.

Since the Minister has failed to recognise the need to protect social welfare incomes and increase them incrementally on an annual basis and because she has reversed a number of provisions that were hard fought for over the years, people’s incomes are being undermined at a time when more and more people are looking to her to protect them. For all of these reasons, the budget is abhorrent. The savage cuts will hurt families. To support the amendment would be to agree to the setting of clear targets and to the rejection of the Government’s regressive policy.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  How long do I have?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Four minutes.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  As it is my second contribution, I believed that I only had two minutes, but I would be happy to take the time.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  It is the Minister’s second contribution.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Yes.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  I apologise, I was unaware that the Minister had contributed already.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  We would be here until 3.30 p.m. tomorrow.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Deputy Shortall raised a number of points that I wish to address briefly. There was a time when we had the luxury of a social insurance fund in surplus and there was more than sufficient income to cover the payments made from it each year. Given that expenditure is likely to exceed the fund by €200 million this year and €900 million next year, it is important that we try to take some measures to ensure that we can continue to pay the unfortunate increasing demands on the fund. Arising from this factor, we made changes to eligibility requirements, particularly in the jobseekers’ scheme.

Regarding part-time workers, it is a solid principle that there should be a link between the amount of money one gets at work and the amount one gets in welfare to the effect that one should not get more on welfare than one gets at work. It is also important that nothing in the [543]social welfare system should act as a disincentive to people to return to work. The change was introduced for this reason. The same situation obtains in respect of how long people spend working and the lengths of time during which they can benefit from their work. For example, migrants and young workers who have only spent a short time in the workforce should not be able to benefit for too long from whatever payments they have made. These are strong principles.

While I have mentioned the figures detailing the decrease in consistent poverty rates among lone parents, they remain the most vulnerable group and their children are those most vulnerable to the risk of poverty. My predecessors have considered this matter and relevant proposals are being worked on. I had the pleasure to meet representatives of groups such as OPEN and One Family, who provided valuable suggestions, advice and research findings in respect of this matter.

I fully accept that there are aspects of the social welfare system which militate against lone parents forming long-term relationships, marrying or obtaining well-paid jobs. Our rules on cohabitation militate against long-term relationships. That is not in the best interests of children, nor does it facilitate family formation. Our rules relating to work seem to encourage lone parents to obtain employment, be it full-time or part-time in nature. The figures released earlier indicate that their incomes have improved. However, there is no great incentive for them to make the leap into better paid jobs. As one lone parent informed me last week, she hates January because she receives an increase. The individual in question is almost inclined to ask her employer not to give her the increase because of the knock-on effects it can have in respect of the benefits she receives. I appreciate that she does not want to lose out. These are the major issues and our thinking in respect of them has progressed in the 12 months since the original proposals were published. Various groups and lone parents themselves have offered useful comments on how they have been affected.

Deputy Shortall also referred to guardianship, fostering, etc. The foster care allowance is extremely generous. People who foster children offer a very valuable service. Fostering is greatly preferable to having children placed in residential care. During my time as Minister of State with responsibility for children, the allowance was substantially increased. If the two children in the case to which the Deputy referred are over 12, then the parent in question is receiving €678 per week in respect of them. That is a reasonable amount of money.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  The Minister is missing the point.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  It is not as if the person is disadvantaged with regard to receiving an income from the State in order to support the children.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  If the person had a natural child, he would receive such an income.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The individual in question is receiving a good foster care allowance.

In cases involving incarceration, deciding officers tend to consider the length of time for which the person will be imprisoned. The position can be examined.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  It cannot. The definition prevents this.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Just because a person is incarcerated, he or she is not deemed to have abandoned his or her child. That is fair enough.

On child benefit, figures from the central database of the Department of Education and Science show that 72% of young people who completed the leaving certificate last year were under the age of 18. Whereas the majority of schools offer a transition year, the majority of [544]students do not take up this offer. A number of schools only offer transition year to a limited number of students in the relevant cohort. Considerations relating to child benefit should not in any way act as a deterrent in the context of people continuing with their education up to leaving certificate level. We introduced compensatory payments for next year and the year after as a result of the suddenness of the change, which takes effect from 1 January. We do not want to cause people any further undue distress by removing the payment without giving adequate notice.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  What should people do? Should they begin to save the money they will receive for the next two years?

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Deputy Shortall referred to those in receipt of early childhood supplement losing the payment for the final three months. When the scheme was introduced — I am not stating that this was the correct way to proceed — a person could effectively be paid the allowance in respect of a child that had not yet been born. If one’s child was due to be born in March, one received payment from the beginning of January. The Deputy cannot be seriously suggesting that people are losing out in this regard.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  My point still stands. People are losing out on nine months’ worth of payments.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The aim of the scheme has always been to help fund child care for children not yet attending school. The vast majority of children who have reached the age of five and a half are now in school.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  The majority of children of that age were also in school when the scheme was introduced.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Yes, the age profile relating to the scheme was extremely generous.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  The Minister is trying to rewrite history.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  In the context of the need to make savings, the decision in this regard was difficult. All such decisions are difficult. However, the scheme will still cater for the needs of children in the age category — from birth to five and a half years of age — at which it is targeted. These children are of preschool age. Payment will no longer be made in respect of the couple of months before they are born or the six months after they reach five and a half years of age. All cuts are difficult but the payment will still be made to those in the target group.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  It is more difficult when one is dependent on payments.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Deputy Shortall ignored the increases that were introduced in the budget. The Department’s own budget for next year will be €19.6 billion, an increase of 15.5% on the figure for last year. We are aware of the pressures that will come to bear, particularly in the context of the live register and the unfortunate situation in which people are finding themselves. The rise in the numbers on the live register will alone account for €1.25 billion of the planned increase for next year. Notwithstanding the terrible economic pressures and financial difficulties that exist, the budget included an amount of €515 million in respect of increases in social welfare rates for next year.

It will, at all times, remain our aim to try to give as much as possible to as many people as possible who are dependent on social welfare payments. In light of the changed economic circumstances, however, we have been obliged to ensure that there is a relationship between [545]the number of hours people work and the amount they receive in social welfare payments in order to ensure that the social insurance fund will remain capable of meeting the demands placed upon it. We will continue our efforts in respect of policy issues relating to lone parents, the carer’s strategy, etc.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  I wish to acknowledge the comments made by Deputies Enright and Shortall. In the first instance, I must state that it is a question of choices. There is no doubt that the welfare to work process is riddled with bottlenecks and these need to be removed. Vision and imagination are required in this regard but, to date, the Government has not demonstrated these qualities in abundance.

The amendment tries to deal with the position vis-à-vis the adequacy of payments. The latter dictates whether families live in poverty or otherwise. Again, it is a matter of choices. The Government should introduce a benchmark and this should relate to what are the relevant economic conditions at any given time.

I am sure my colleagues on this side of the House are aware that some combination of the three parties in opposition may well occupy the Government benches in the medium term. If that eventuality came to pass, we would be tasked with making choices and with implementing provisions similar to those contained in the amendments we are moving. This is not a political game. We are trying to address the increase of poverty in society. We face a significant challenge in that regard, particularly in the aftermath of the economic downturn.

The Minister has not accepted any amendments thus far and there is no indication that she will accept any of those that will be moved later. That is extremely regrettable. Some of us on the Opposition benches may well be called upon to introduce measures based on these amendments in the future. I ask the Minister to reflect on that notion, sooner rather than later.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I do not wish to discuss the issues to which Deputy Shortall referred because I will have the opportunity to do so in respect of later amendments. In defending certain aspects of her strategy, the Minister referred to a survey in respect of which she released a press statement earlier today. I will be obliged to examine the matter in greater detail but I accept certain of the findings, particularly those relating to lone parents, etc., contained in the survey.

The important aspect of amendment No. 4 is that it calls for a complete review in respect of all social welfare categories. Another report published today did not merit a mention in the Minister’s press release. This report relates to older people and shows that the number of them at risk of poverty has risen substantially in the past year. In 2006, 13.6% of those over 65 years of age were at risk of poverty, whereas in 2007 this rose to 16.6%. The figure relating to older people living alone rose from 19.3% in 2006 to 24.3% in 2007, an increase of 5%. If those figures are accurate, that is a worrying increase. More importantly, it shows the Government’s lack of grasp in this regard. As a result of some of the decisions made in the budget — the decision regarding medical cards comes immediately to mind — people are aware the Government is not meeting targets in terms of our over 65s who are living in poverty. We can all be selective about what we choose to discuss. However, that is the reality of the findings. Age Action Ireland issued a press release today regarding its concerns on this issue.

Deputy Morgan’s amendment provides us with an opportunity to set clear targets rather than simply produce report after report or action plan after action plan. Whenever we table parliamentary questions in respect of these reports or plans, we discover their aims are never reached anyway.

[546]Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I am disappointed with the Minister’s response. On the issue of setting targets or benchmarks, will the Minister state how, in the absence of setting benchmarks, the adequacy of social welfare payments will be assessed? The Minister might also respond to a number of the issues I raised earlier, in particular, the position in respect of part-time workers. While acknowledging the so-called anomaly identified by the Minister, why is she going so much further than that? Does the Minister accept my criticism in regard to what she is proposing in terms of setting the bar at €300?

I raised specifically with the Minister the issue of cohabitation, which she ignored and spoke only about work. I am asking the Minister, for the third time, what is her thinking in respect of cohabitation and does she intend addressing this issue in the near future? Also, the Minister referred in her budget speech to making regulations covering mortgage interest supplement. Why is she doing this and what is she trying to achieve?

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  On the risk of poverty rate for older people, the CSO accepted that as a result of the blip with SSIA incomes last year, older people had not benefited from SSIAs to the same degree as others and that this has impacted on the figures. The report is clear on that point.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  They are still substantially more at risk of poverty.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The CSO accepted this in a briefing this morning, and also did so during a public briefing. The information is contained in the report which is available for the Deputy to read. We know that numbers in respect of older people living in consistent poverty——

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  SSIAs helped people with money become better off while elderly people who were worse off remained so. That is the reality. That is what it achieved.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  No, given the particular year that was in it, people benefited from their SSIAs.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  And the people who could not afford to did not benefit.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Older people, as a group, had not contributed to the same degree. Most groups have reported on the positives and negatives and this will help us in determining policy in this area.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  The Minister does not issue press releases on the negatives.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  On the issues raised by Deputy Shortall, the record will show that I addressed them. I believe Deputy Shortall was in discussion with Deputy Stagg at the time I answered those questions.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  No, I was not. There are three issues outstanding to which the Minister did not respond.

Amendment put.

[547]The Dáil divided: Tá, 67; Níl, 72.

Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  Allen, Bernard. Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  Bannon, James.
Information on Seán Barrett  Zoom on Seán Barrett  Barrett, Seán. Information on Pat Breen  Zoom on Pat Breen  Breen, Pat.
Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  Broughan, Thomas P. Information on Richard Bruton  Zoom on Richard Bruton  Bruton, Richard.
Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  Burke, Ulick. Information on Joan Burton  Zoom on Joan Burton  Burton, Joan.
Information on Catherine Byrne  Zoom on Catherine Byrne  Byrne, Catherine. Information on Joe Carey  Zoom on Joe Carey  Carey, Joe.
Information on Deirdre Clune  Zoom on Deirdre Clune  Clune, Deirdre. Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  Connaughton, Paul.
Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  Coonan, Noel J. Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  Costello, Joe.
Information on Simon Coveney  Zoom on Simon Coveney  Coveney, Simon. Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  Crawford, Seymour.
Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  Creed, Michael. Information on Lucinda Creighton  Zoom on Lucinda Creighton  Creighton, Lucinda.
Information on Michael D'Arcy  Zoom on Michael D'Arcy  D’Arcy, Michael. Information on Jimmy Deenihan  Zoom on Jimmy Deenihan  Deenihan, Jimmy.
Information on Andrew Doyle  Zoom on Andrew Doyle  Doyle, Andrew. Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Durkan, Bernard J.
Information on Damien English  Zoom on Damien English  English, Damien. Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  Enright, Olwyn.
Information on Frank Feighan  Zoom on Frank Feighan  Feighan, Frank. Information on Martin Ferris  Zoom on Martin Ferris  Ferris, Martin.
Information on Charles Flanagan  Zoom on Charles Flanagan  Flanagan, Charles. Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  Flanagan, Terence.
Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  Gilmore, Eamon. Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Hayes, Brian.
Information on Tom Hayes  Zoom on Tom Hayes  Hayes, Tom. Information on Philip Hogan  Zoom on Philip Hogan  Hogan, Phil.
Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  Kehoe, Paul. Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  Kenny, Enda.
Information on Ciaran Lynch  Zoom on Ciaran Lynch  Lynch, Ciarán. Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  McCormack, Pádraic.
Information on Shane McEntee  Zoom on Shane McEntee  McEntee, Shane. Information on Dinny McGinley  Zoom on Dinny McGinley  McGinley, Dinny.
Information on Finian McGrath  Zoom on Finian McGrath  McGrath, Finian. Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  McHugh, Joe.
Information on Liz McManus  Zoom on Liz McManus  McManus, Liz. Information on Olivia Mitchell  Zoom on Olivia Mitchell  Mitchell, Olivia.
Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  Morgan, Arthur. Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  Naughten, Denis.
Information on Dan Neville  Zoom on Dan Neville  Neville, Dan. Information on Michael Noonan  Zoom on Michael Noonan  Noonan, Michael.
Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín. Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
Information on Fergus O'Dowd  Zoom on Fergus O'Dowd  O’Dowd, Fergus. Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  O’Keeffe, Jim.
Information on John O'Mahony  Zoom on John O'Mahony  O’Mahony, John. Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  O’Shea, Brian.
Information on Jan O'Sullivan  Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan  O’Sullivan, Jan. Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  Penrose, Willie.
Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  Perry, John. Information on Ruairí Quinn  Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  Quinn, Ruairí.
Information on Pat Rabbitte  Zoom on Pat Rabbitte  Rabbitte, Pat. Information on Dr James Reilly  Zoom on Dr James Reilly  Reilly, James.
Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Ring, Michael. Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  Sheehan, P. J.
Information on Sean Sherlock  Zoom on Sean Sherlock  Sherlock, Seán. Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Shortall, Róisín.
Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Stagg, Emmet. Information on Joanna Tuffy  Zoom on Joanna Tuffy  Tuffy, Joanna.
Information on Mary Upton  Zoom on Mary Upton  Upton, Mary. Information on Leo Varadkar  Zoom on Leo Varadkar  Varadkar, Leo.
Information on Jack Wall  Zoom on Jack Wall  Wall, Jack.  


Níl
Information on Michael Ahern  Zoom on Michael Ahern  Ahern, Michael. Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Ahern, Noel.
Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  Andrews, Barry. Information on Chris Andrews  Zoom on Chris Andrews  Andrews, Chris.
Information on Seán Ardagh  Zoom on Seán Ardagh  Ardagh, Seán. Information on Bobby Aylward  Zoom on Bobby Aylward  Aylward, Bobby.
Information on Joe Behan  Zoom on Joe Behan  Behan, Joe. Information on Niall Blaney  Zoom on Niall Blaney  Blaney, Niall.
Information on Aine Brady  Zoom on Aine Brady  Brady, Áine. Information on Cyprian Brady  Zoom on Cyprian Brady  Brady, Cyprian.
Information on Johnny Brady  Zoom on Johnny Brady  Brady, Johnny. Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  Browne, John.
Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  Byrne, Thomas. Information on Dara Calleary  Zoom on Dara Calleary  Calleary, Dara.
Information on Pat Carey  Zoom on Pat Carey  Carey, Pat. Information on Niall Collins  Zoom on Niall Collins  Collins, Niall.
Information on Margaret Conlon  Zoom on Margaret Conlon  Conlon, Margaret. Information on Sean Connick  Zoom on Sean Connick  Connick, Seán.
Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Coughlan, Mary. Information on John Cregan  Zoom on John Cregan  Cregan, John.
Information on Ciaran Cuffe  Zoom on Ciaran Cuffe  Cuffe, Ciarán. Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  Cullen, Martin.
Information on John Curran  Zoom on John Curran  Curran, John. Information on Noel Dempsey  Zoom on Noel Dempsey  Dempsey, Noel.
Information on Jimmy Devins  Zoom on Jimmy Devins  Devins, Jimmy. Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  Dooley, Timmy.
Information on Frank Fahey  Zoom on Frank Fahey  Fahey, Frank. Information on Michael Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Michael Fitzpatrick  Fitzpatrick, Michael.
Information on Seán Fleming  Zoom on Seán Fleming  Fleming, Seán. Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Gallagher, Pat The Cope.
Information on Paul Nicholas Gogarty  Zoom on Paul Nicholas Gogarty  Gogarty, Paul. Information on Noel Grealish  Zoom on Noel Grealish  Grealish, Noel.
Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Hanafin, Mary. Information on Mary Harney  Zoom on Mary Harney  Harney, Mary.
Information on Seán Haughey  Zoom on Seán Haughey  Haughey, Seán. Information on Jackie Healy-Rae  Zoom on Jackie Healy-Rae  Healy-Rae, Jackie.
Information on Máire Hoctor  Zoom on Máire Hoctor  Hoctor, Máire. Information on Billy Kelleher  Zoom on Billy Kelleher  Kelleher, Billy.
Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  Kelly, Peter. Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  Kenneally, Brendan.
Information on Michael Kennedy  Zoom on Michael Kennedy  Kennedy, Michael. Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Kirk, Seamus.
Information on Michael Kitt  Zoom on Michael Kitt  Kitt, Michael P. Information on Tom Kitt  Zoom on Tom Kitt  Kitt, Tom.
Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Lenihan, Brian. Information on Conor Lenihan  Zoom on Conor Lenihan  Lenihan, Conor.
Information on Michael Lowry  Zoom on Michael Lowry  Lowry, Michael. Information on Tom McEllistrim  Zoom on Tom McEllistrim  McEllistrim, Thomas.
Information on Mattie McGrath  Zoom on Mattie McGrath  McGrath, Mattie. Information on Michael McGrath  Zoom on Michael McGrath  McGrath, Michael.
Information on John McGuinness  Zoom on John McGuinness  McGuinness, John. Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  Moloney, John.
Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  Moynihan, Michael. Information on M. J. Nolan  Zoom on M. J. Nolan  Nolan, M. J.
Information on Éamon Ó Cuív  Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív  Ó Cuív, Éamon. Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
Information on Darragh O'Brien  Zoom on Darragh O'Brien  O’Brien, Darragh. Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  O’Connor, Charlie.
Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  O’Dea, Willie. Information on Noel O'Flynn  Zoom on Noel O'Flynn  O’Flynn, Noel.
Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  O’Hanlon, Rory. Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  O’Keeffe, Batt.
Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  O’Rourke, Mary. Information on Christy O'Sullivan  Zoom on Christy O'Sullivan  O’Sullivan, Christy.
Information on Peter Power  Zoom on Peter Power  Power, Peter. Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  Ryan, Eamon.
Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Sargent, Trevor. Information on Eamon Scanlon  Zoom on Eamon Scanlon  Scanlon, Eamon.
Information on Brendan Smith  Zoom on Brendan Smith  Smith, Brendan. Information on Noel Treacy  Zoom on Noel Treacy  Treacy, Noel.
Information on Mary Wallace  Zoom on Mary Wallace  Wallace, Mary. Information on Mary Alexandra White  Zoom on Mary Alexandra White  White, Mary Alexandra.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Emmet Stagg; Níl, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan.

Amendment declared lost.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I move amendment No. 4a:

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  I call the House to order to allow Deputy Shortall to speak to her amendment.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Thank you. This amendment arises out of Committee Stage and I understand all Members received representations from FLAC in respect of it. FLAC is concerned about the operation of the rent supplement and the mortgage interest supplement especially as the current appeal procedure is overly cumbersome and can result in lengthy delays. It is a three-stage appeal system whereby if a person applies to a community welfare officer for a mortgage interest supplement and is turned down, he or she can then appeal the application to the HSE and following that stage has another opportunity to appeal it to the chief appeals officer of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, but the difficulty is that the person must submit the appeal application to the HSE and then the papers are relayed to the chief appeals officer. Experience of the appeals process indicates there are quite lengthy delays at the level of the HSE and, in some cases, rather than referring the appeal to the chief appeals officer of the Department, the HSE sends the papers back to the superintendent community welfare officer for that officer’s views. In one case that was brought to my attention there was a delay of approximately 20 weeks before the papers were passed on to the chief appeals officer. The current position is unacceptable. It seems to be overly bureaucratic, cumbersome and subject to delays. The whole system should be streamlined and the application for the final stage of an appeal should go to the chief appeals officer, as happens in the case of social welfare claims that have been refused.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I support this important amendment. I read with interest the submission made by FLAC in regard to it. I tabled questions to the Minister on the issue after Committee Stage last week because there was not much concrete information on the operation of the mortgage interest supplement. One of the interesting things I discovered is that there [549]are no statistics on the number of people who applied or were refused this supplement unless the case went to appeal. It is difficult to assess the adequacy of any figures given in the Estimates if we do not even know the number of people who have sought the mortgage interest supplement. Nobody looks for a mortgage interest supplement unless they cannot meet their mortgage. It is important that we examine the overall operation of the mortgage interest supplement.

The timeframe of appeals has also been brought to my attention. The replies I received from the Minister indicated that the average duration of a supplementary welfare allowance appeal last year was eight weeks, while the average duration of appeals in general was 22 weeks. It is not clear under which category the mortgage interest supplement comes, whether it is the overall figure or the figure for supplementary welfare allowance appeals. According to FLAC there are considerable difficulties in that regard. It would be worthwhile if changes were made to the system.

As of 21 November 2008, some 7,347 people were in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, an increase of, 3,236 people, more than 80%, compared to this time last year. In many instances more people are affected as families are involved. Bearing in mind the amount allocated for mortgage interest supplements in the budget, I am extremely concerned about the sufficiency of the amount provided in the Estimates and I intend to raise the matter next week during the select committee’s discussion of the Estimates.

I am sure colleagues have a similar experience of being inundated with people coming to them, sadly, many of whom have been refused mortgage interest supplement, but who still need it. The criteria for qualification need to be changed because community welfare officers are deciding off their own bat, due to the way the regulations are framed, that they will not help if they deem a person’s mortgage to be too high. It is for the very reason that the mortgage is too high that people cannot pay it in the first place. That area must be examined.

Unfortunately, amendments must be tabled in such a way that they do not impose a potential charge on the Exchequer, which means we cannot call for an increase in the amount allocated. I made the point last week, and it is important to reiterate it, that if people’s homes are repossessed they will still cost the State money. Such people will probably cost the State more money because they will get rent supplement after the obligatory qualification period and many people will go back on local authority housing lists. While it will not be the Minister for Social and Family Affairs who pays for those houses — it will be another Department — it will still cost the Exchequer. It makes far more sense to support people to stay in their homes and the supplement needs to be examined in order to achieve that end.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  I support the amendment and commend Deputy Shortall for tabling it. Everybody in the House recognises that there has been a significant increase in the number of people seeking representation and assistance with their appeals. Given the economic change we are experiencing, I expect those numbers will grow. The difficulty of delays in the appeals process causes huge trauma and concern to the householders involved.

In trying to deal with those cases, it is important that we have a publicity campaign to encourage mortgage holders who find themselves in difficulty to talk to their lending agent, be it a bank or building society, because by negotiating with the lender at least they will hopefully stave off the process of foreclosure. We already see a substantial increase in the number of applications by one particular lending agent against householders. I look forward to judges in the High Court taking a constructive view of that process because in some cases mortgages were given out by lending agents that had no prospect of being paid given the age and income of the mortgage applicant. That is disgraceful. It is important that the lending agencies carry their share of responsibility in terms of a mortgage holder’s ability to repay a mortgage.

[550]A couple of weeks ago I received a representation from a man who secured a substantial mortgage at the age of 50 for a 20-year period for in excess of €100,000. He would have to work until he is 70 to repay it, but the lending institution is foreclosing on him and he will lose his home. That is ridiculous. I do not believe he should lose his home. It is a pity he did not have better legal representation because the case could have been made that the High Court should not have found in favour of the lender.

Given the economic situation, it is clear there will be an ever-increasing number of applicants for mortgage interest supplements. I hope the Minister can find some pathway to resolving the lengthy delay in the process and to iron out the bottlenecks because they are causing huge concern. That will affect all of us, as well as our constituents, to an increasing extent.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I concur with the sentiments expressed by the previous speakers. Appeals, supplementary welfare and qualification criteria for payments, whether they be supplementary welfare payments or social welfare payments, are sensitive areas. We must remember that circumstances are vastly different from two or three years ago. Many people are between a rock and a hard place and find themselves in a desperate situation.

In recent days I dealt with the case of a person who had been made redundant due to the recession. The person concerned has a mortgage and all the responsibilities that go with it. He signed on and was paid unemployment assistance. He forgot to sign on a month later, as has happened in more than one case, and, unfortunately, he gave the wrong answers in a questionnaire and payment was terminated completely. When I met the person concerned, he was desperate, very emotional and needed help urgently. I tabled the usual parliamentary question, which from past experience we know is usually accepted as an appeal in this type of case. I was given a long lecture about the procedure that has to be gone through. It is too late for that long procedure. In the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, especially when people feel under stress and are likely to become more stressed, it is important that the agents of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Health Service Executive recognise that and apply it in how they deal with cases.

Another example that is relevant to the amendment is the case of a woman and her husband who have a mortgage. He turned out to have an addiction problem and ended up in prison, leaving a substantial mortgage to be paid, which goes to show what our society is like at present. The issue affects everybody, right across the spectrum. The result is that the woman in question gets only half the usual mortgage support because her husband who is now incarcerated has an interest in the house. The theory is that it would be wrong for the State to support any part of his interests. What difference does it make? After all, if she loses the house the State will have to support her interests and his interests at a later stage because we do not know what will be the outcome. There is no necessity to go that route at all. There is a tendency to apply the poor law attitude at present.

That stems from a fear in the Department that it will run out of money before the end of the year. The Estimate for the Department of Social and Family Affairs is dramatically short of what will be required, and this will become manifest over the coming year.

I support the points made by all the other speakers. It is critical that the Minister consider our points and ask that the officials at the coalface dealing with the kinds of individuals described do so sensitively. The festive season can be a time of relief or despair and we need to be very careful not to allow despair to prevail at this time.

Deputy Michael Noonan: Information on Michael Noonan  Zoom on Michael Noonan  I support the Deputies who have spoken already, particularly Deputy Olwyn Enright. It is very difficult to formulate policy at present. I sympathise with the [551]Government in respect of the difficulty it will face in targeting limited resources at areas of greatest need.

  5 o’clock

The issue of house repossession will rise up the agenda very rapidly. In this regard, it is difficult to balance the evidence and make decisions because much of the evidence is anecdotal. I was talking to a constituent last night and asked her how her family was doing. She said that they were grand and that her two girls and their husbands were working, all in the same plant. The same plant is at risk at present. The four family members in question, who are decent people, have their own houses and big mortgages and they could all go down together in the next 12 months. Public representatives are familiar with constituents’ incomes and are noting them all the time when they come to us for assistance. We note that many young couples would not last a month if they lost their jobs because their mortgage repayments are so high.

Let me recount more anecdotal evidence. I met somebody last week who told me the lending institutions were holding off on foreclosure until after Christmas. She was in a business in which she should know this. I was informed that the lending institutions have a list of very difficult cases on their books but are not making any approaches to the courts until after Christmas. However, as soon as the Christmas period is over, they will start filing. A significant number of people will be at risk of losing their homes once January comes.

The Queen’s speech took place today in the House of Commons. The British Prime Minister was explaining it afterwards and stated he will be introducing new measures to protect people at risk of losing their homes. The headline announcement seemed to refer to a deferral of foreclosure proceedings in all circumstances for six months to allow mortgage holders negotiate with their lending institutions, in the manner advised by Deputy Morgan. However, a second proposal, which sounded reasonable to me, was also made. It was suggested that, where people are at risk, the British Government will be prepared to underpin mortgage repayments for a two-year period. I do not know the mechanism because the detail was not explained.

When the Minister has a little more time over the Christmas recess and is not under the pressure she is under now as a member of the Government, in respect of which I sympathise with her, she might consider a proposal along the lines of those made in the United Kingdom with a view to prioritising the cases of the young, skilled people who have very large mortgages and who are at risk of losing their jobs and homes.

The phenomenon we are witnessing will be temporary if circumstances improve. If mortgage holders’ mortgages could be underpinned for a year and a half or two years, they might work their way through the problem. They might be able to organise longer-term mortgages subsequently to indemnify the State against any loss incurred. We do not want the courts full of repossession orders in the first three months of the year, with the problem getting worse as the year progresses. Losing one’s job is bad but if the immediate consequence of this is losing one’s home, it is a crisis. Measures are necessary to address this.

I welcome the amendment. My proposals are not fully covered by it but it is important and will be very helpful also.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Having seen today the number of people who have joined the live register, we realise this is an extremely difficult time. As Deputies stated, it is not just a question of losing one’s job because many are in danger of losing their homes also. The State is in a position to support many of them with rent supplement and mortgage interest supplement.

The increase in the unemployment rate over recent months indicates the difficulty people are experiencing. At the end of October, during which month I have no doubt there was a significant increase, 7,000 people were in receipt of the mortgage interest supplement. As we [552]know, there were considerable numbers availing of the rent supplement. The allocation for this year could in no way meet the demand that arose. Our provisional estimate for the mortgage interest supplement was €14.4 million but we now anticipate we will spend €26 million thereon this year. A provision of €31 million has been made for next year. As more people qualify over the coming years — it is a demand-led scheme — we will have to keep the allocation under review.

It is true to say the same financial institutions that offered 100% mortgages without demanding a deposit and which in most cases carried out very few checks as to ability to pay are the very institutions that are threatening to foreclose. The Money Advice and Budgeting Service has advised me that one of the major problems associated with those who seek its advice is that they have not approached any of the financial institutions to determine whether they could restructure their repayments. People are overtaken by fear and a sense of insecurity. The Money Advice and Budgeting Service told me the hall table was the most popular place in the house in that people leave their post there without even opening it.

We want to encourage people who are facing difficulties and losing their jobs to go to their financial institution to discuss the restructuring of repayments. If somebody has a good record of making repayments, there is no a reason financial institution should repossess his or her home or penalise him or her, despite the fact that he or she may have lost their job. We all hope circumstances will improve. There is nothing worse than losing one’s home after losing one’s job.

What Deputy Noonan said about developments in the United Kingdom is very interesting. I will consider any suggestions that might support mortgage holders. Our mortgage interest supplement does just that — it supports the interest payment. Mortgage holders who are experiencing difficulty should approach their financial institutions and the latter should be as willing to engage with them as they were to hand out the money in the first instance. From our own budgeting perspective, we will be considering the needs for next year. I refer to the mortgage interest supplement, not to mention rental supplement.

With regard to the amendment, I appreciate the position of Deputy Shortall. The difficulty concerns the way in which the system is currently devised in that social welfare money is being paid out by community welfare officers who are employed by the Health Service Executive. This is why the system is as it is. The Deputy will also be aware it is proposed that the community welfare officers will come under the remit of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. As part of this measure, the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2008 provides that the appeals process for basic supplementary welfare allowance payments, including the mortgage interest supplement, will be integrated with the appeals procedure for other social welfare payments. Thus, the system will become much more streamlined.

The legislative provision is not yet in force but, as soon as the transfer of functions regarding the supplementary welfare allowance from the Health Service Executive to the Department is complete, we will activate it. It should serve to meet the concerns being raised about the process and procedures, as they currently exist. It is for this reason that I do not intend to accept the amendment.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I agree with the Minister that there is a need for financial institutions to be flexible, particularly in the case of those who were very much encouraged to stretch themselves to the limit in their borrowing and who, in some cases, were advised to overstate their income. I will address those issues later because I have tabled amendments dealing with people who find themselves in those circumstances.

[553]The Minister will know that at the weekend the Leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Gilmore, proposed a moratorium on home repossessions. People who find themselves in that very difficult situation, having lost their jobs and in danger of losing their homes, must be given some breathing space. That must be given to them by the financial institutions involved but also by the Government, particularly in respect of the supplementary welfare system and how it operates.

It is not in anybody’s interest that a person should lose his or her home. That is why there is need for flexibility on the Minister’s part as well as on the part of the banks and building societies. One would hope that many of these people are in a temporary difficulty regarding loss of employment and that, in time, they will find their way back into the workforce and be able to get their affairs in order. They must be assisted over that hump when their income suddenly stops and they struggle to make repayments. Flexibility is critical in this regard. One must also bear in mind what will happen those people if such flexibility is not shown, by the financial institutions or by the State. In those circumstances, the likelihood is that the person will lose his or her home and will come to the State looking for assistance in the form of social housing.

There is a very lengthy and expensive process for the financial institutions involved in repossession and, ultimately, the banks and building societies end up with properties they do not want. The previous property owners come back to the State looking for assistance. It makes sense to offer that kind of breathing space for people, whereby the State, as well as the financial institutions, provide the flexibility required.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Joe Costello): Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  The Deputy’s time has expired.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  This amendment relates specifically to the issue of appealing decisions in respect of supplementary welfare. There are issues of natural justice involved at present and the Minister must address these.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  My party leader has also dealt with the need for a moratorium. It is important that the Government gives it urgent consideration. At this point, people are caught in the middle with foreclosure actions already in the courts. They do not have time on their side because decisions will be taken once the actions reach the courts.

The Minister spoke about the letter on the hall table and people afraid to open it. That is the case. Such people go to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and by that very action they face up to the situation. They go to that organisation in order to deal with the fact they have a problem. It must be recognised there are people who do not have the financial coping skills to deal with the situation. That is the reason MABS is so important and it is why they go there.

The Minister mentioned MABS. Referring to the first half of 2008, the organisation said at that stage that it had seen a 57% increase in its clients. The figure is now 80%. It also saw a corresponding increase in people being refused mortgage interest supplement. We might say that some people have their heads in the sand because they are afraid to open their letters but the Government also has its head in the sand concerning the seriousness of this matter. It thinks all will be fine if these people talk to MABS. That is not sufficient. They might negotiate with the financial institutions but even when they are able to reach a deal, it might well depend on whether they can get the mortgage interest supplement.

The Minister must see that a holistic approach is necessary. Often when the banks help people it is only on the basis that they will get the supplementary welfare allowance to help them make some progress in paying the mortgage. There will be people for whom it is not a [554]case of either-or. It must be a degree of both. The Minister must look at the adequacy of this approach and she must require her Department, as a matter of urgency, to examine who is being refused and why that is the case. Dealing on a one-off basis with individual appeals is one thing but there is clearly a problem in the overall system. People with high mortgages are being refused and will lose their homes as a result.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  The Minister has indicated she does not intend to accept the amendment. If that remains her position, will she consider going to the Minister for Finance and asking him whether, as part of the scheme we have for relevant banks in this State, he would require them not to foreclose on householders who are making a genuine effort to pay? Further, would he ask them to negotiate with mortgage holders who find themselves in some difficulty? The banks should not demand an interest-only repayment because that leaves the bulk of the capital sum still at large, but rather a mortgage-only repayment. The interest would be effectively suspended for a period of perhaps two years, or for whatever period remains of the scheme for the banks. Does the Minister consider such fundamental public policy relevant enough that she would bring such a case to the Minister for Finance and ask him to apply it to the banks? There is no doubt that the Minister for Finance has the power to do this.

Nobody is defending people who are reckless with their mortgages and I accept there will always be such people. I gave the example earlier of a 50 year old man, who should have known better, taking out a very substantial mortgage for a 20-year period. That is not to say we wish to see such people losing their homes. We certainly do not. A strong case can be made that we are in very difficult circumstances and we should not make matters worse. I believe the Minister would accept that. The public need leadership and thinking outside the box. I hope that in these exceptional circumstances the Minister might consider going to the Minister for Finance with such a proposal.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I will not accept the amendment because there are already powers in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2007 to provide a more streamlined appeal mechanism once the transfer takes place between the community welfare officers in the HSE and my own Department. I believe that will address the need. In the meantime I will try to ensure that times are not unduly long for people.

In view of the demands made on the mortgage interest supplement and the rent supplement, it is my intention to try to keep this situation under review, with regard to the amounts in question and the qualifying criteria.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I accept what the Minister said about functions transferring to the Department and the issue being dealt with in that respect. I am concerned about it. The issue is not just that there are delays in the appeals system but that there are definite issues of natural justice involved.

The HSE decides the first round appeal. If the appellant must submit a request for the second-level appeal and accompanying papers, that appellant is put at a disadvantage when compared to the HSE, the paying body in the case. Very often in those circumstances, the HSE sits on the appeal papers and has additional time in which to consider its case and to strengthen and consolidate it. We have seen cases of this. In very many cases of which the Free Legal Advice Centre is aware, the HSE sends the papers back to the superintendent community welfare officer requesting further grounds on which to refuse the appeal.

On the grounds of natural justice that is unacceptable. It is an unfair situation and places the appellant at a very real disadvantage. The first-level appeal has already been decided and it should be left at that in order that the second appeal can be taken to another body. The obvious [555]solution is that the application for that appeal should go to the chief appeals officer. There is no reason that the Minister cannot change that system now. It would be very easy to do it because a simple regulation would suffice. It could be set up and those anomalies with regard to the right to fair procedures, which clearly exist at present, could be removed. I ask the Minister to consider, in advance of the functions being transferred from the community welfare officers to the Department, putting in place that fairer system, as requested by FLAC.

Amendment put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 64; Níl, 70.

Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  Allen, Bernard. Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  Bannon, James.
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Níl
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Tellers: Tá, Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan.

Amendment declared lost.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I move amendment No. 5:

This amendment, which relates to the family income supplement, is one of those classic amendments we must table because we are not permitted to raise the issue any other way. I agree with what my colleagues said about the farcical way we have to go about tabling amendments on the social welfare Bill, that it makes no sense and makes the House look antiquated. Generally the Government has the numbers, even if it has lost a few in the past few weeks, to get its votes through. The fact we cannot table and discuss amendments on particular issues does no service to the House or democracy.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Hear, hear.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I appreciate the Minister has a report due on family income supplement, but it was due to be completed in July 2008 and it is now 3 December. When will the report be published? I am aware of the objectives of the report as a result of a reply to a parliamentary question, but I am concerned about the numbers involved. Currently, some 26,000 families are in receipt of family income supplement. In 2007, the Department received almost 37,000 family income supplement claims, which was an increase of approximately 4,000 on the previous year and an increase of 10,000 from 2005.

The numbers receiving the supplement are 10,000 fewer than the number of applicants. While it is obvious that everyone who applies for the supplement will not be eligible for it, there is a lack of clarity for applicants with regard to the income limits applicable to those receiving family income supplement. We have all mentioned in the past that there is a poor take-up of the supplement and I am aware the expected report deals with this. However, it is strange that [557]a substantial number of those who apply, almost one third of applicants, are found not eligible for it.

With regard to the importance of the supplement, earlier this week the Society of St. Vincent de Paul highlighted the significant numbers of those in need this year. It expects to have to spend €50 million this year to help people in need and urgently needs €10 million to meet the extra demands on it. It is worrying that this time last year the society had already noticed a sea change, in that people who had been contributors to the society were suddenly the people ringing looking for help. This is a major concern. Currently, two out of every three calls to the society are from families with children and more than one in four calls are from people who never previously used the service. This gives us an indication of the seriousness of the difficulties in which people find themselves.

The society gave figures for the number of calls for help it received in the first nine months of this year. The situation is even more serious now. The calls were up 37% in Dublin, 36% in Cork and 30% in the mid-west. Most other areas are also under significant pressure. The society is a voluntary organisation that runs on donations from the public through box and mass collections, etc., and it fills a void in the social welfare system. I appreciate the budget can never cover everything, but the family income supplement must be examined. I welcome the fact the report is to be published, but we have been waiting and waiting for it. I would like to see it published by the end of the year.

It is a pity that before we come to deal with the social welfare Bill we do not have the opportunity to see such reports, no more than on the issue of lone parents. This brings us back to the point about independence. The Opposition should have the opportunity to look at and examine such reports so we do not need to rely on other organisations for information that the Government has researched itself. We should have the reports that have been published or made available to the Government on these issues.

Families are stretched beyond their capacity. The other areas we have discussed, such as mortgage relief and so on, verify this. The family income supplement needs to be examined because the provisions of budget 2009 will not make a great deal of difference for many families.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  I support this amendment. Family income supplement is a welfare-to-work mechanism that can offer families an opportunity to return to work. However, the difficulty pertains to the thresholds involved because they often are not sufficient. I agree with the previous speaker that it is a very useful tool and recipients of family income supplement, FIS, are a category of people with whom many Members are familiar because they deal frequently with such constituents. At the least this matter should be reviewed and the Minister should accept this amendment.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I do not propose to accept the amendment because this research, which will help to guide future policy, will become available. The Government is aware that not everyone who is entitled to the family income supplement avails of it. However, it has not been possible to ascertain from administrative sources the exact numbers of people who do not apply. There are also a number of reasons people might not apply for it.

Members will be aware that in next year’s budget, the Government anticipates a further 2,000 families will benefit from the supplement. It constitutes a substantial sum at present and is an aspect of my Department’s budget that has increased in recent years. The amount being spent currently is €181 million, which constitutes a fivefold increase. The supplement is targeted in the main at people with large families and tries to support low income families with children. I understand the research is nearing completion and while I do not know the exact date on [558]which I will have it, it will be valuable and will allow my Department to examine how more families can be supported. That is the reason I do not propose to accept the amendment.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  The Minister stated that a number of families have reasons for not applying for this supplement. She should outline such reasons to the House because it is unusual for people who are eligible for something not to apply, unless they would lose something else as a result. That is the only logical reason I can discern for such a failure to apply. I acknowledge the Department’s IT systems may vary in respect of local area offices and so on. However, it is difficult to understand the reason a system cannot be evolved in respect of those who make applications for other payments. The Department has the PPS numbers of all social welfare recipients and even if it is unable to state definitely that a person is eligible for family income supplement, it should be able to at least inform them that they may be eligible for such a payment. Consequently, people at least would be aware of its existence.

While people are becoming more conscious of its availability, it is somewhat like the mortgage interest supplement, the existence of which some people also are unaware. Such a system should be evolved rather than being obliged to engage in expensive advertising and so on, which does not always target those who are most at risk or who need the supplement or who are eligible for it. There must be a method by which people can be made more aware of the supplement through their regular dealings with the Department within the social welfare system.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The research that has been undertaken by the Department is attempting to ascertain the current level of take-up among those who would qualify for FIS, as well as the reasons they are not availing of it. This will help the Department to determine future policy in this regard. However, the biggest increase in applications arose from a nationwide awareness campaign in 2006. While there were also changes in thresholds at that time, awareness was a factor. Members also have done their best to make people aware of it through budget leaflets, etc. As I found myself, however, it is very difficult to explain on a leaflet and people need further information.

In addition, issues continually arise in respect of sharing data, even between Departments or with Revenue and so on. However, once this research becomes available, which can identify the reason people have not applied for it, my Department will be able to target it more specifically.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  How did the Department contact those who are not in receipt of the family income supplement to discover the reason they did not apply for it?

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I am advised that it was by looking at the Department’s own data on people’s income levels and contacting them directly. In other words, people who had applied for other benefits or whatever.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  That means there is a methodology within the Department to identify such people.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  No, while that might include those who had made contact with the Department of Social and Family Affairs, not everyone necessarily would have done so. For example, the Department does not have income rates for those who are in receipt of child benefit, whereas Revenue has data on low income earners. It should be remembered that these are the people who qualify for this supplement and not necessarily people in receipt of social welfare.

[559]Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I still believe the system should be able to cope with it.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  My Department has data, for example, on lone parents who also are low income earners. Consequently, it would be able to target them for this information.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  While I will not press the amendment as the report is due to be published shortly, I ask the Minister to make the report available to all Members as soon as it is in her possession to enable them to examine it and discuss it adequately.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  I move amendment No. 6:

I have been making the point for some time that this budget presented the Government with an opportunity to make choices. In respect of poverty issues, it could decide that both low income and middle income families are supported. When I was first elected, Members used to discuss low income families. However, what used to be middle income families effectively now have become low income families, particularly when in receipt of a single income. For example, I refer to a household comprising a couple with three children and a substantial mortgage on a single income of €50,000 or marginally in excess of that sum. While such a case would be regarded as a middle income family, the people involved are liable to experience hardship.

The Government did not make the correct choices. While I have addressed this area previously in respect of an earlier amendment and I am reluctant to go over it again, had the Government chosen to remove the ceiling, as I propose in this amendment, it would have given it an income stream of more than €295 million, which constitutes a substantial sum in anyone’s language. It is most unfortunate that the Government did not make this choice.

When one considers the other side of the coin, the Government introduced what it called a 1% income levy. While it really constitutes a 1% increase in taxation, if the Government wishes to call it an income levy that is fair enough. My main problem with it is that it was introduced at the level of the minimum wage. Once one exceeds the minimum wage by a single euro, one becomes liable for the full amount of the 1% income levy, which was a crazy choice to make. The Minister should recognise this amendment affords a possibility to deal substantially with income streams to Revenue and she should avail of such an opportunity.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  The issue of the PRSI ceiling is particularly relevant in the context of a universal insurance-based pension for all. Given the difficulties facing people with private pensions at present and because the feedback from the Green Paper process is overdue, the Minister should indicate to Members whether she is considering the operation of such a general scheme in respect of a State pension that would cover everyone. The question of lifting the PRSI ceiling obviously would arise in this regard and I seek the Minister’s current views.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I do not propose to accept the amendment. PRSI issues had to be looked at in the round in the context of the budget.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government envisaging abolishing the PRSI ceiling and reducing the PRSI rate. Both were predicated on there being an average growth rate of 4.5%, which has not happened. For various reasons, particularly from the point of view [560]of the Department of Finance, it was decided not to lift the ceiling or to reduce the PRSI rates this year, given the current economic circumstances.

Deputy Shortall asked about the pension strategy. She will be aware that the last event in that regard was the publication of the findings of the consultation. We are currently in discussions with the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Finance on future strategy and it is not possible at this stage to give a clear outline in that regard.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Has the Minister any idea of the timescale involved? When should we expect her to bring forward proposals on it?

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The matter is complex. It has always been our intention to try to do it before the end of the year but it will be a long-term strategy. It is not essential that it comes out of the end of the year because it would not take effect for a couple of years in any event. For example, in the UK it does not take effect until 2012 and there is quite a long lead-in period.

Any change in the pensions structure for the future would involve significant benefits for people but also changes to the way they will make contributions in the future, and we must get it right. As I stated, my Department is in active discussions with both Departments to which I referred.

I am not in a position to give Deputy Shortall an exact time as to when that framework will be announced, but we are actively working on it.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  A rough timescale would do.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  At the time the Government made the decision not to proceed with lifting the ceiling, was the Minister aware of how difficult the situation facing private pension funds was? The Minister has been aware for some time but I do not know for how long. If she was aware then, would she have preferred a different decision and a different outcome?

Clearly, if there will be a substantial additional burden on the Social Insurance Fund, then that fund will need support. Surely the removal of the ceiling on PRSI would have been one mechanism to ensure that adequate funding was available to deal with the potential for significant additional numbers who will rely on it.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I take this opportunity of asking the Minister, following on from Deputy Morgan’s point, when she first became aware of the difficulties? From anecdotal evidence and from speaking to businesses involved, we all are aware of the difficulties which existed in the defined benefit schemes. On the specific memo leaked from the Department, when did the official knowledge — if I can put it that way — come to her of the scale of the difficulties? Is it accurate that over 80% of those schemes are in severe difficulty and not in compliance with legislation?

While I do not have a difficulty with the thrust of the amendment, my party would abstain if it is put to a vote on the basis that I do not wish to be in the position of allowing the Minister have more money at her disposal without knowing how it will be spent. There needs to be an overall package in the pensions area. I am disappointed at the lack of progress that has been made in both the pensions area under the Government’s direct control, the State pension, but also in the private pensions area. I do not know that the Government is fully appreciative of the considerable difficulties and fears faced by members of the public.

The Minister’s interview on the “News at One” has left people horrified. To have spent millions of euro encouraging people to invest in private pensions and then to tell them not to worry because in the worst case scenario they would still have the State pension is cold comfort [561]to those who have been watching their assets and resources dwindling continuously. One person who is near retirement age told me the other day that he would have to find a way of working for another ten years because he cannot afford to retire.

The Minister must put a little more meat on it than telling people to rely on the State pension. While the State pension exists, the Minister and her predecessors actively encouraged people to invest in private pension schemes. The Minister is not responsible for the fall across the board in the stock markets, but there has been significant reliance on investing in the Irish Stock Exchange by comparison to the practice in other countries where they spread the investment far more widely.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I fully accept the complexity of the pensions issue but that is no excuse for prevaricating any further on it. The Government has been talking about this for several years. We cannot afford to stand back and wait much longer. Is the Minister inclined towards an insurance-based universal State pension system, given that the Government has spent over €4 billion, by present day standards, on an annual basis over recent years concentrating almost entirely on a tax relief system and that vast amounts of that €4 billion have been lost on the stock market? That system has not worked. What is the Minister’s thinking on an insurance-based scheme and would she be inclined to take that route in the future?

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  There are two pensions issues. The first is the long-term strategy and the other is the immediate difficulties faced by some pension funds. Since the publication of the Green Paper over a year ago there has been a widespread consultation process, a summary of that consultation and a review at a conference in Ireland of the international situation, particularly looking at the experience in Australia, New Zealand and in the UK. Drawing from the best of that, we are now actively working on the matter.

It will be up to the Government to make a decision on this. It will not be for me alone. That is why it is important that these meetings my Department is having with the Department of Finance and the Department of the Taoiseach should go ahead and come up with suggestions on how the framework should develop over the next number of years. It will probably not take effect until 2012, and beyond in the case of some of the suggestions within it, bearing in mind the requirement that there should be on people to make provision for their future as well so that they would not be dependent solely on the State pension.

I do not believe it came as a surprise to anybody that pension schemes were in difficulty. Pension schemes are investment schemes and investments in the markets have been badly hit because of the volatility of the markets. One of the things one can say about the markets is that in the same way as they go down, they also go up. At this moment in time there are a number of funds which will not be able to meet the funding standard for this year. Over 80% of them at the end of last year stated they were able to meet all of their liabilities. There will be many more in difficulty this year.

However, no pension fund has gone bust. No pensioner or prospective pensioner has been left in any difficulty. Where in the past difficulties have arisen the employers have made good the gap which arose.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  If the companies could afford to.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  There is no real need for people to be individually concerned about it. I understand that people are looking at the market and realising that the value of their pension plan has reduced. Naturally, that is something that will cause nervousness and fear.

The memo that was prepared by my Department — not leaked, as Deputy Enright stated——

[562]Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  We do not know where it was leaked yet.

  6 o’clock

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  ——was to make the Government aware of the difficulties of the individual funds. Hopefully, as the markets pick up, the position can improve for people in that regard. As I already indicated, we are allowing employers more time to come up with their funding proposals to ensure that their pension funds can get back into a solvent position. The Pensions Board will allow up to ten years for a fund to recoup any losses that it would have incurred. Normally, we give a fund 12 months to come up with its proposals but we are now giving them 18 months. We are trying to facilitate employers, in the case of these defined benefit schemes, in determining how they will be able to protect their workers into the future.

There is no need for panic. Having said that, the markets are difficult and the pension funds are facing challenges. We are actively working with pension fund managers and the Pensions Board and have held a number of meetings on the matter.

Much of the information contained in the memo was not new. I flagged the matter last week at the launch of the report of the Pensions Ombudsman but I only received a couple of paragraphs in the business pages. Pension fund managers also pointed out the difficulties that have arisen. I appreciate that once something is stated in a Government memo, it takes on more gravitas. Concerns were caused by the leak rather than by any interviews conducted subsequently because our aim with the State pension is always to protect vulnerable people. In the short term, people do not need to be overly concerned because no pension has gone bust and no pensioner has been left without an investment.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  That does not mean it will not happen in the future.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  It is important that we keep matters under review. That is our aim.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  Has the Minister entered discussions with companies to ensure it will not happen?

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  One of our key policy areas is finding a path between the long-term strategy and the short-term difficulties that pension funds are experiencing,

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  I take it that the Minister has known for a considerable period of time that a number of private pensions are in serious difficulties. She stated that people should not be surprised by the news. I can tell her, however, that many of the people who made representations to me were shocked by this news. I acknowledge that the markets have experienced difficulties since 11 September 2001 but the scale of the current crisis was not expected. There was room for an element of shock because not everybody who holds a pension watches the market closely. The Minister is correct that no scheme has gone bust yet and long may that continue. However, while I do not want to be alarmist or cause people further concern, I have to point out that it is not looking good for a number of schemes. I am disappointed, therefore, that she will not accept my amendment.

Question put: “That the words proposed to be deleted stand.”

Deputies:  Vótáil.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Will the Deputies claiming a division please rise?

Deputies Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Arthur Morgan, Martin Ferris and Finian McGrath rose.

[563]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  As fewer than ten Members have risen, I declare the question carried and the amendment lost. In accordance with Standing Order 70, the names of the Deputies dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Dáil.

Question declared carried.

Amendment declared lost.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are out of order.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 not moved.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I move amendment No. 9:

I return to this issue of fostering as there may have been some confusion about it in the past. It arises from a case I brought to the attention of the Minister’s Department where an unmarried couple had fostered two children. The woman in question passed away and the man had to give up his job. He applied for the one parent family payment but was refused despite him having cohabited with his partner for 28 years. They were, to all intents and purposes, a couple. He was refused because he was not regarded as a qualified parent because he is not the parent of a qualified child. The term “parent” does not include a foster parent.

If the man was in the same position with two foster children and had a child of his own, he would have had a qualified child and would have got the payment for all three children. There is clearly a problem with the legislation. This has been identified by senior people in the Minister’s Department as an anomaly which needs to be addressed by way of legislation.

When we got the briefing, we were advised that the Bill as drafted provided for the widening of the definition of a parent to include people in the quite unusual circumstances I outlined. I was prepared to take that at face value until I raised it on Committee Stage and was advised by the Minister that this was not the intention of the change in the legislation, and that it was the Minister’s intention to ensure that a person in such circumstances would not get the one parent family payment.

I am at a loss to know what to do from here on in. This is a real issue that has been identified as an anomaly in the legislation. The indication strongly given by the Department was that it would be dealt with and yet the Minister has indicated it will not be. If there is some confusion, I accept that and it is fine. Will the Minister consider dealing with the anomaly in the legislation? The number of people being affected is quite small but it is a clear anomaly which needs to be addressed.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  To support Deputy Shortall’s amendment, I was present at the meeting and the situation was outlined by the Deputy or her colleague previously. Another Labour Deputy may have raised this at an earlier point as well. The impression we got that morning was that the legislation would now be sufficient to deal with the scenario as outlined.

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  I was taken by the case when I first heard it outlined on Committee Stage. It seemed clear there was an anomaly. Such anomalies happen all over the place and [564]there is no big deal about them; the trick is to get them sorted out quickly. I suspect the matter has not been cleared up in this case although I understand the Minister was going to do so from what has been said previously this afternoon by my colleagues in Opposition.

It is most unfortunate the Minister is not taking an objective view on this matter. If there are people suffering needlessly because this Bill requires amendment, surely there is still time even at this late stage for the Minister to move an amendment to correct the anomaly. It is reasonable for the Minister to consider such a move.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I addressed this matter briefly earlier. I do not have any indication of what was said at the briefing but I take on board the impression the Deputies got from it.

As I indicated earlier, the foster care allowance is €312 per child under 12, or €339 per child aged 12 or over. Therefore, a recipient could be getting €678 for fostering two children. To get the lone parent allowance on top of that would mean they would be getting approximately €880 per week, which is a very substantial payment. I accept the valuable work that foster carers do and the allowance is to meet the weekly costs of the children within their care. I will look into the situation, given the facts of the particular case Deputy Shortall mentioned, but it will not be for the purposes of this Bill. I am not sure, however, that one would be giving allowances or payments to the tune of €3,300 a month to somebody to look after two foster children. I know the Deputy genuinely got an impression from a briefing, but it is not my understanding. I will certainly check it out for future reference, however.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  With all due respect, the Minister is missing the point. In the circumstances I have outlined, if that man had a natural child of his own there would not be an issue. That is because the natural child would be a qualifying child under the legislation and the man would be paid the one parent family payment for all three children. Equally, if the man was a widower or a separated married man, he would qualify as a parent. The issue is not that there would be a foster payment and a one parent family payment. The issue concerns the current definitions concerning the qualifying child and the qualifying parent.

The unusual circumstances I outlined to the Minister have shown up an anomaly in the legislation because in this family situation they neither meet the qualifying child definition nor the qualifying parent definition. At a senior level, the Minister’s Department has identified this as an anomaly that needs to be dealt with. We have been through this on Committee Stage and I am disappointed the matter has not been addressed. I expected the Minister to come back to us with proposals on Report Stage and it is disappointing that nobody seems to have bothered to do it.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The end result would be somebody getting €3,500 a month.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  They would if the man had a child or if he had been married. The Minister does not seem to have taken that point into account.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  Yes.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I am not sure that any one case is sufficient grounds to change legislation anyway. That arises in many different cases. One would never change a whole piece of legislation just to facilitate one particular scenario. The end result would be somebody getting €40,000 a year to look after two foster children.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  That is not the point.

[565]Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The Deputy was given an impression at the briefing, however, and I will look into the issue for the future.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  The principle needs to be accepted on these points. I will not repeat them because I have already told the Minister a number of times. Clearly, she is not going to give way on this, so I will press the amendment. I ask the Minister to look at the case file on this matter, where her own senior officials identified the anomaly and are recommending a change to the legislation. I took it on good faith from the Minister and her officials, so it is extremely disappointing that she is letting us down at this point.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I am pretty sure that taxation changes for one person were made a couple of years ago.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Brian O’Shea): Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  Amendment No. 10 arises from committee proceedings.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  I move amendment No. 10:

This amendment is connected to the previous one and concerns the definition of a parent in respect of the lone parent allowance. According to the briefing, this change was being made to cater for scenarios such as the one I outlined in respect of the fostering case. I was advised that this was why the Minister was enabling a broader definition of “parent”. When I read the definition, that seemed to be what the Minister was doing in the first half, but subsection (2) contains a saver clause. On the one hand, the Minister claims she is broadening the definition, but, on the other, subsection (2) states in this new broader definition that:

I was concerned when I read that saver clause because it seems to me that the Minister had to insert it, stating that anybody who has already got an entitlement to a one parent family payment will not be affected by this change. Quite clearly, the intention of this change is to further restrict the one parent family payment. This is also contrary to the briefing I was given. In those circumstances, I have no choice but to object to the whole section and seek its deletion. I do not think the Minister knows what she is doing concerning changes to the lone parent definition.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  For a certain amount of the time, the provision would ensure that a category of unmarried persons is not excluded by removing the old anomaly that is there. The current definition includes five different people: widow, widower, separated spouse, an unmarried person or a person whose spouse has been committed in custody to a prison or a place of detention for not less than six months. They must have at least one qualifying child normally residing with them. The purpose of the section is to remove the anomaly whereby an unmarried claimant for the one family payment must be the parent of the qualified child for whom they are claiming, whereas a separated or widowed person does not have to be a parent.

The second aspect is to define the relationship between the claimant and the qualified child to ensure that they have to be the parent, step parent, adoptive parent or legal guardian of the qualified child, that the child must normally reside with them and that this is in the best interests [566]of the child. The term “step parent” has been included because there could have been some cases where the claimant is caring full-time for a child that is not their own, but the parent may not be able to obtain legal guardianship. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform advised that there were cases where a husband or wife was caring for the children but the biological parent was still alive, so the provision allows for that situation also.

The genuine intention is to broaden the measure. It only applies to new claimants, which is what the Deputy is saying, so that if there is a delay in a person becoming a legal guardian he or she will get assistance as an interim measure. It does not apply to current recipients, so it will be for new claimants. The intention is to broaden it.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  This is a highly unsatisfactory situation because I am being given conflicting information. I was told originally that, in the first part of this, the definition of “parent” for the purpose of qualifying for a one parent family payment was being widened to take into consideration the specific case I raised. As I said, the person in this case was precluded from getting a one parent family payment. One of the reasons he did not qualify as a qualified parent was because of his unmarried status. I was told that the change the Minister was introducing was to cater for somebody like that. On Committee Stage, however, the Minister told me that she would not favour that. I can only conclude that the Minister has made a mistake. It seemed absolutely clear to me originally from the briefing that the Minister would take into consideration the case I raised, but she then backtracked on it on Committee Stage.

If the definition is to be extended, why is a saver clause necessary? Such a clause is intended to clarify that those who got in under the line will remain in whereas others may not in future. There seems to be much confusion and the Minister must sort her Department out.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  My understanding of the case raised by the Deputy, that of an unmarried couple living together, is that the biological parent leaves the relationship or dies and the non-biological parent is left caring for the child.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Neither is the biological parent. The children are being fostered.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The remaining partner would still be a non-biological parent. Section 13 improves that person’s position, but he or she would need to seek legal guardianship of the child, which is in the child’s best interests.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  What did the Minister mean when she stated that there could not be two payments? On Committee Stage and for a considerable period this evening, she stated that it would not be possible for someone to receive foster and one-parent family payments, but she is now saying that the person would be entitled to it. Which is the case?

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Is the Deputy asking whether someone would qualify for the one-parent family payment on the basis of the definition?

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Yes.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  If the person becomes the child’s legal guardian, he or she would qualify under the new section. It has nothing to do with the other payments being received.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  The case in question involves a foster payment.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  It is my understanding that the Deputy raised a separate case.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  No, it is not a separate case. I am referring to a——

[567]Acting Chairman: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  We are getting into a Committee Stage debate.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I understand that the Deputy raised three cases at the advance briefing.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  No. I raised two cases.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  One case related to the foster payment and another to a non-biological parent left caring for a child. Previously, that person would not have been entitled to a payment. However, he or she would be entitled under section 13 if he or she is the child’s legal guardian. The section extends to the person the right to the payment. The foster payment was raised in a different case.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  This is a foster situation wherein the person is not a biological parent.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  It is a separate issue because he or she is in receipt of a foster payment.

Acting Chairman: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  We will finish the Committee Stage debate.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  The Minister should get her facts right and get a briefing.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  The Deputy has raised questions about the briefing that she received. My understanding is that she raised three distinct cases——

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Two cases.

Acting Chairman: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  This is becoming a Committee Stage debate.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  If I may, my answers refer to three individual cases. If the Deputy wishes to submit a parliamentary question on or put in writing the circumstances in each case, I can address them. However, we will not make legislation for a single case. In this section, we are aiming to broaden the definition so that more people in this situation can be supported. It is in the best interests of the child.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  For clarification, does that include an unmarried person——

Acting Chairman: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  No more questions.

Question, “That the words proposed to be deleted stand”, put and declared carried.

Amendment declared lost.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I move amendment No. 11:

[568]I am tabling these amendments, having discussed them on Second and Committee Stages, because we always seem to be a report away from a decision in terms of one parent families. Despite the Minister and her two immediate predecessors availing of frequent air time and newspaper pages to discuss this issue, they have talked around it. No changes that would substantially alter lives have resulted.

A number of issues are involved, the first of which Deputy Shortall outlined, namely, cohabitation and the poverty traps that might ensue if a couple decide to live together. Many people accept that this would be a preferable situation from the children’s perspective, but it is impossible for many couples because of the way in which the payment has been structured.

Work is another issue, a report on which was recently launched by the Minister to join a number of other reports. In the most recent report, 84% of one parent families that responded to the survey stated that they were looking for work or were engaged in education or training. It is a concern that only 16% of those who engaged in work believed that they were better off as a result. The disincentive is immediately visible. Once people go out to work, the amount of money they bring home is not substantial enough to make it worth their while. One could not blame them for not being enticed into work. The unaffordability of quality child care and jobs not being financially worth their while were the highest ranked reasons for leaving work. In certain parts of the country, quality child care is not even available to those who could afford it.

I hope that the current Minister, one of three who has made the promise, will publish a report on one-parent families. The Government published a document several years ago, but a decision document is anticipated. Some of the Minister’s interviews in this regard, particularly those given during the summer, caused me concern. I accept that the 84% would rather work or have education or training, but the impression given by the Minister is that people will be forced into work once their children reach a particular age. It is an unusual philosophy to develop when the level of unemployment is rising. I support the concept of allowing lone parents to work, as it is good for those who make the decision, but lone parents have the same rights as married and cohabiting couples if they choose to remain in the home to look after their families.

We must facilitate people’s entrance into the workforce by providing quality child care and ensuring that their employment pays and is flexible, as lone parents often do not have someone to cover for them between 3.30 p.m. or 4 p.m. when their children finish school and when they finish work at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. We must also ensure that people have transportation to child care facilities and their workplaces.

The Minister’s proposals must address the issues holistically. The “big stick” approach, where someone is given a choice between going out the door to get a job when his or her child reaches seven years of age or something else that is not yet known, will not work unless the other barriers are dealt with. I am not convinced that they have been addressed sufficiently. Nor am I convinced by the Government’s commitment, given the messing around last year with child care facilities and the payment structures therein.

I will press the amendment, to which I will also speak in terms of increases, since our other attempts to do so were ruled out of order. As with the elderly and those in receipt of job seeker’s allowance, one parent families find themselves at a great risk of poverty. They are four and a half times more likely to live in poverty, a statistic to which the Minister has alluded. Today’s survey outlined improvements and, from the Minister’s comments, many of the people in question had the opportunity to work. The right structures can pay off. Regardless of difficult circumstances, however, this year’s increase in the payment will make life difficult for one [569]parent families, given increases in the costs of food and fuel. There is no doubt that the changes in the child benefit and early child care supplement payments will hit those families the hardest.

It is disturbing that the Department does not keep a flow analysis of one parent family payments. From the information collated, we know how many people receive the payment, but no statistics are available on people who work for a period before receiving the payment again. Those statistics would reveal what barriers exist.

During the summer, the Minister announced the appointment of 50 facilitators who will work on a one-to-one basis with the 84,000 one parent families that are in receipt of State support and the 270,000 people on the live register who are in receipt of social welfare payments. That number of facilitators is not adequate and is evidence that the Government does not take this matter seriously. Pilot projects in respect of lone parents were launched in Coolock and Kilkenny, but those in Opposition have not yet seen the reports relating to these projects in order to discover if they have worked.

The Government has not done anything to facilitate one parent families, either from the perspective of the children or that of their parents. The report to which I refer and the findings relating to the pilot schemes should be made available to Members in order that we might discuss this matter in full. There should be no secrets about these projects. Regardless of whether they are good or bad, the findings that emerge will reflect the reality faced by one parent families. There is a need for a proper debate on this matter.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Will the Minister indicate her intentions regarding reforms in respect of one parent family payments? There has been a great deal of discussion with regard to changes in recent years. Those changes were identified some time ago and there are various proposals as to how they might be introduced.

I referred earlier to cohabitation and activation, the key issues relating to which are access to quality education, training and employment opportunities. I emphasise the need for quality in this regard because it is often the case that a push is made to encourage people to take up low grade, low paid jobs. Issues also arise with regard to the support and advice people receive. Such support and advice are often less than satisfactory. There is a need to have in place individuals who can provide proper advice on the routes people can take into education, training or employment. A great deal of hands on, practical advice is often required and this is not always available. The third major area on which we need to focus in this regard is access to child care.

We have been discussing these matters for a long period. It is time action was forthcoming. Will the Minister indicate the timescale she envisages in respect of bringing forward proposals in this regard?

Deputy Arthur Morgan: Information on Arthur Morgan  Zoom on Arthur Morgan  I support the amendment. There are many bottlenecks in the journey from welfare to work. Deputy Shortall referred briefly to one of the major issues in this regard, namely, child care. One parent families are often extremely isolated and the fact that they do not have the support of the extended family structure that might apply in the case of other people makes their burden even heavier. I wish the Government would tackle the bottlenecks to which I refer in order to facilitate people in completing the journey from welfare to work. It would be better for society, in a host of ways, if the people in question could complete the journey to which I refer. Very many of these individuals want to do so. It is a pity they are being allowed to fulfil their ambition.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  As a number of Deputies stated, the Government published a discussion paper which contains its proposals for supporting lone parents. This paper puts forward [570]suggestions and proposals on tackling obstacles to employment not just for lone parents, but also for low income families. Our strategy for the future refers not only to lone parents, but also to those on qualified adult payments and low incomes. We want to discover how these people can be supported.

It is always difficult to discuss lone parents in the context of the social welfare system. There are 100,000 lone parents who are not dependent on social welfare payments, who are in employment, who are rearing their children, who are doing the best they can and who never turn to the State for assistance. There are then the 85,000 people who are dependent on social welfare and who are in receipt of the one parent family payment. We estimate that approximately 60% of the latter are also in employment. However, they tend to occupy low paid jobs and part-time positions and their work has to be organised around their child care and parenting needs. The initiatives introduced in recent years to allow lone parents to work without their payments being interfered with have encouraged them to take up employment. However, we have discovered that people tend to work only the requisite number of hours and do not exceed this because they fear losing their payments.

In many other countries, state payments for one parent families cease when children reach four, five or six years of age. I refer here to Canada, Australia, Sweden and Finland. Such payments cease at three months in the United States. The United Kingdom is reducing the age at which payments will cease to ten. In Ireland, lone parents can continue to receive payments until their children reach 22 years of age so long as those children remain in education. As a result of the conditions that apply, this militates against lone parents forming long-term relationships, marrying or entering the workforce. The conditions we have established in our social welfare system — for which we must take responsibility — are probably not in the best long-term interests of lone parents, their children or society in general.

Certain countries introduced voluntary systems with regard to activating people to re-enter the workforce but these did not work. People do not take up the option in this regard because they fear they will lose out. The proposals that have been set out — which, to a large degree, form the basis of what will be our future policy — refer to working with lone parents and other low income families in the areas of training and education, providing them with child care supports and dealing with those issues that are paramount to those who are on their own. Working with the Office of the Minister for Children, increasing the number of child care places available and providing community child care facilities are central to our policy in this area. Encouraging people to re-enter education and training is also important.

In the past year alone, a number of lone parents availed of the back-to-education allowance in order to pursue second and third level courses. Some 1,386 lone parents availed of the second level option, while 561 availed of that relating to third level. A further 1,271 availed of the back-to-work allowance. The research indicates that where they are given encouragement and support, lone parents are anxious to avail of the best education and training in order that they might participate in the workforce.

The proposals to which I refer form a framework. It was originally envisaged that payment would cease when children reached seven or eight years of age. I am of the view that this is too young. When a lone parent first comes into receipt of social welfare payments, he or she should be guided, directed and given as much support as possible. That is the basis of our strategy.

It is not in the best interests of a child, his or her parent or society to pay out money until he or she reaches 22 years of age without first providing that parent every support that will allow him or her to play his or her full role in society. I am obliged to consider this matter [571]from the perspective of poverty. It is extremely encouraging that the statistics relating to lone parents in poverty have dropped significantly. As already stated, there was a sharp fall in the consistent poverty rate among lone parent households from 33.9% in 2006 to 20.1% in 2007. However, the child of a lone parent remains four times more likely to be in poverty than any of his or her peers. The consistent poverty rate among these children fell from 10.3% to 7.4%.

It is in the best interests of everyone to have a long-term strategy in place. We have been working on this matter a great deal but I required time to meet representatives of the various groups and consider the findings in the reports relating to the pilot projects in Coolock and Kilkenny. What we discovered is that lone parents do not constitute a homogenous group. The backgrounds, education, training, aspirations, family circumstances, support structures, access to child care, transport needs, etc., of these individuals are all different. This can make developing a long-term strategy difficult. However, I am hopeful that I will be in a position to introduce that strategy next spring.

Deputy Olwyn Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I am aware that lone parents do not constitute a homogenous group. However, the structure of the system is such that we are obliged to discuss the amendments we table in the context of the type of payments that exist.

The Minister has a great ability to outline a problem rather than offer a solution. I do not believe any of the points the Minister has made differ from those the Opposition would make. The point we are making — I will be brief as I wish to press this amendment — is that we have not seen any action in this regard. While the Minister can speak about the pilot schemes in Coolock, Kilkenny and so on, that information has not been made available to the public. We have not had an opportunity to study that information to assess what the people surveyed, those in receipt of these payments, had to say.

The Minister has outlined the depth of the problems in respect of education, training and employment. However, the 50 facilitators appointed cannot possibly work on a one-to-one basis with 84,000 people in receipt of State support through the one-parent family payment. If we are truly to get activation and to guide these people off that payment and into the workforce, we must deal with ancillary problems such as child care, although such problems are not ancillary to parents but are very much part of the structure of their lives. All of this must be taken into account if activation is to work. We must facilitate people to return to work rather than use the stick to do so. The majority of people surveyed, 84%, want to work and so that is not the kernel of the problem. We must address overall family and child care situations.

  7 o’clock

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  It is precisely because children of lone parents are at a much higher risk of poverty that we are asking the Minister to take action. The time for talking is over. As I said earlier, this issue was raised initially by the late Deputy Seamus Brennan who drafted proposals in this regard. He was succeeded by former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Martin Cullen, who talked about the issue and the Minister is now talking about it again. What we need is action. The issues have been clearly identified. The Minister needs to clarify her thinking in respect of cohabitation. The proposal was to have a family payment which would be paid in respect of children living in poverty irrespective of whether there was one or two parents in the home. This payment was to be directed at the child. Also, that payment was to be made available regardless of whether the parents were working in order to remove the poverty traps in respect of cohabitation and the work versus welfare scenario.

I concur with the comments in respect of the inadequacy of quality services in terms of jobs facilitators and in respect of child care. The Minister seemed to be implying that the fault is on the part of lone parents.

[572]Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  What fault?

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  The Minister indicated that the regime here is softer than that which prevails in other countries. It is now time for the Minister to act and to address all of the underlying problems in respect of this issue. Let us get on with it; there has been enough talk.

Deputy Mary Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  At no stage did anybody ascribe any fault to any individual person. In fact, what I said was that the manner in which we have developed our social welfare system is mitigating against family structures and work.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  What will the Minister do about it? It is time for action.

Amendment put.

The Dáil divided: Tá 67; Níl 72.

Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  Allen, Bernard. Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  Bannon, James.
Information on Seán Barrett  Zoom on Seán Barrett  Barrett, Seán. Information on Pat Breen  Zoom on Pat Breen  Breen, Pat.
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Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  Coonan, Noel J. Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  Costello, Joe.
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Information on Michael D'Arcy  Zoom on Michael D'Arcy  D’Arcy, Michael. Information on Jimmy Deenihan  Zoom on Jimmy Deenihan  Deenihan, Jimmy.
Information on Andrew Doyle  Zoom on Andrew Doyle  Doyle, Andrew. Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Durkan, Bernard J.
Information on Damien English  Zoom on Damien English  English, Damien. Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  Enright, Olwyn.
Information on Frank Feighan  Zoom on Frank Feighan  Feighan, Frank. Information on Martin Ferris  Zoom on Martin Ferris  Ferris, Martin.
Information on Charles Flanagan  Zoom on Charles Flanagan  Flanagan, Charles. Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  Flanagan, Terence.
Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  Gilmore, Eamon. Information on Tom Hayes  Zoom on Tom Hayes  Hayes, Tom.
Information on Philip Hogan  Zoom on Philip Hogan  Hogan, Phil. Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  Kehoe, Paul.
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Níl
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Tellers: Tá: Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg; Níl: Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan.

Amendment declared lost.

Debate adjourned.


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