Tuesday, 23 May 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Item No. 1 is statements on proposals for supporting lone parents. Party spokespersons have ten minutes and all other Senators have six minutes. I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to the House.
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. S. Brennan): I thank the Seanad for providing me with the opportunity to speak about the proposed reforms to the support arrangements for lone parents and low-income families.
These proposals are the culmination of a year-long, comprehensive analysis and consultation process on the levels of social exclusion and risk of poverty faced by many lone parents and their children. They have been set out in a major Government discussion paper which was published recently, entitled Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents. The paper was discussed at Cabinet and has been the subject of extensive discussion and debate, both here and abroad since it was published.
The report puts forward a range of proposals, some complex and others radical, for the reform of restrictive social policies in the area of lone parents and low-income families generally. In essence, the report searches for solutions to the problems confronting lone parents, their children and other families on low incomes day in and day out in areas such as access to employment, education and training, income supports, child care, child maintenance payments, cohabitation rules and grossly unfair stereotyping.
This analysis of the obstacles to lone parents in achieving a better life for themselves and their children was commissioned by the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion as part of the Ending Child Poverty initiative under Sustaining Progress. As Members are aware, tackling child poverty is a key objective under Sustaining Progress, the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion and the national children’s strategy.
This is the most comprehensive review on the support arrangements for lone parents for several years. Research has shown that children of lone parents are one of the major groups at risk of poverty. The discussion paper presents a review of the issues facing lone parents; sets out the supports in place and the barriers to achieving economic independence; and seeks to tackle the relatively high risk of poverty and social exclusion faced by many such families and their children. The document also points the way towards solutions, new opportunities, greater fulfilment for lone parents and better lives and prospects for their children.
There are currently some 80,000 lone parents in the State, with 130,000 children, in receipt of one-parent family payments from my Department. Most are women but there are some men who run one-parent families. The annual cost of that payment is up to almost €800 million, which is a considerable investment by the taxpayer. When other supports and entitlements are taken into account, including child benefit, rent supplement and family income supplement, total expenditure in the area of lone parents comes to €1.3 billion this year. That is considerable investment coming from taxpayers.
As we are aware, there has been unprecedented growth in the Irish economy over the past decade. In recent years spending on social welfare entitlements has seen a doubling of investment in supports. The spending is now €14 billion this year. That has doubled in approximately six or seven years. Despite that spending and the enormous increase, the fact remains that lone parents continue to be one of the groups who are particularly vulnerable to poverty, and especially child poverty, which does not have any place in 21st century Ireland.
I state clearly that the reforms being progressed are not about achieving savings for the Exchequer. In fact, the reforms, if introduced, would require increased funding in the short and medium term before better policy bringing in savings in the long term. The reforms are about introducing more enlightened social policies that directly target and benefit the lives of tens of thousands of people, especially children, who are for the most part caught in restrictive poverty traps.
I have said it before and I repeat it in the Seanad this afternoon. I consider lone parents to be a valuable resource for this country. They are not a problem; they are a resource. Behind the statistics are very real lives, people with day-to-day pressures, lives given to providing the best for their children and lives searching for greater fulfilment. Lone parents have the added responsibility of providing care for their children, as well as often being the only breadwinner.
Up to 60% of lone parents are working, but as Members are aware, most of that work is for low pay and generally does not have any major career enhancing prospects. We have a responsibility, therefore, to use the income support system and wider welfare supports to address the problems behind those income needs. We also have a responsibility to confront the social issues and pressures that blunt fulfilment and curb aspirations.
All the research shows that movement into employment is the best route out of poverty and it is a transition that can transform people’s lives, but that transition is not always smooth. Obstacles can emerge along the way. The reforms I am working towards are to tackle those obstacles and replace them with incentives and activation measures designed to meet people’s needs and abilities. These reforms are about making every possible effort to ensure that no individual’s talents or contributions are overlooked or neglected, whoever he or she is in society or from wherever he or she comes. Whether people want to work, upskill through training, return to education or wish to remain at home, there must be a system that provides an income that is adequate and child care support, which is critical but allows for flexibility.
The reforms recommended make clear the need to recognise parental choice when it comes to the care of young children, while at the same time expecting that parents will not remain out of employment indefinitely. The reforms are also about ending the cohabitation rule, which does not have any part to play in the 21st century. It is a rule that says the parents of a child or children cannot live together as a family, free from the current restrictive arrangement that has State inspectors checking on them. That is dreadful social policy for any state to pursue at this time in our history.
Reforms must also be about re-examining our attitudes to some fathers and their role in the family, and issues such as easier access to their children. Reforms must also examine better and more direct ways of ensuring that fathers contribute through maintenance child support payments to the raising of their children. Members may have seen some statistics in that regard recently which indicate that this simply cannot go on. It is not acceptable that a large number of fathers are either not required to make a contribution or are not making a contribution. The figures, if one looks at them closely, are alarming in that regard.
Overall, the conclusion of the Government report is that while income support remains crucial and must be adequate to meet needs, passive income support alone is not sufficient. It is certainly not sufficient if poverty, particularly child poverty, and social exclusion are to be comprehensively addressed and people are to have financial independence and reach their potential.
I have said previously in this House that the supports provided to lone parents to date, while substantial as regards Exchequer funding, have been largely passive in nature. There has been no active or systematic support in assisting the person to take up education, training or employment opportunities. We must reverse that. In addition, the education level achieved by many lone parents is well below the rest of the population generally. That is all the more reason to ensure we get them back to education, training and employment as soon as possible.
The reality is that a person currently in receipt of a one-parent family payment can continue to have that payment paid until the child is 18, or 22 if in full-time education, with no direct intervention by the State. No one picks up the phone to see if we can help him or her back to education, training or employment and that is the case from the time the child is born until the age of 22. It is not fair to lone parents to leave them stranded in that way. None of us here today consider that this long-term welfare dependency is in the best interests of the lone parent, their children or society in general.
The proposals that have emerged from the report are for reforms that are significant and, in some cases, radical. They propose the expanded availability and range of education and training opportunities for lone parents, the extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents, focused provision of child care, improved information services for lone parents and the introduction of a new parental allowance instead of the lone parent’s allowance for low-income families with young children. That is all low-income families, not just lone parents who will be included in it.
I am proposing the introduction of a new support structure for lone parents and all parents on low income. This new means tested payment, which I am calling the parental allowance, will be paid to any parent whether married, cohabiting or single, who has a child. As I have already stated and as is accepted generally, the best route out of poverty and social exclusion is through employment. That is the reason I am introducing an element of positive activation into my proposals. For example, when their youngest child is aged five, recipients of the parental allowance will engage with a facilitator who will provide information, support and advice on the various options available in further education, training or employment. Such intervention does not take place at present and most lone parents are stranded and left to their own devices in this regard. These supports are designed to ensure that by the time the parental allowance ceases recipients will be in a position to achieve financial independence. Although the report suggests the supports should cease when the child is aged eight, I have an open mind on it.
It is important to note that the activation expectation is positive and not simply focused on moving people into employment or harassing them into low paid jobs. I am not interested in that. I am interested in helping people to achieve satisfying employment of their choice through education and training, and to help, advise and support them through that process, rather than abandon them as the present system does. The aim is to facilitate, support and encourage people to gain the skills to enable them to achieve financial independence. While conditions must be placed on receipt of payment, supports are offered in a structured and systematic manner to the persons concerned.
The Government asked the senior officials group to draw up an implementation plan to progress the non-income aspects of the proposals including those related to child care which, I have been told so often in the House, including by Senators present today, is at the centre of this issue. Education, training and activation measures are also included and work on this issue is already under way.
The proposals have already been the subject of some debate. I recently called together a public consultation forum, which met in Farmleigh, with representatives from lone parent organisations, the unemployed and State agencies. We held an excellent meeting with all of the groups and had an excellent discussion on the proposals we are discussing here today. I was also pleased to invite members of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, some of whom were able to attend. At this public forum, I heard first-hand the views of the groups, their concerns for the proposals and, most important, their wish to work with the Government to advance the proposals further.
I should also acknowledge the open-minded nature of the Opposition. It has taken a constructive role in studying the proposals and seeking to help us achieve a better position while, as I fully understand, reserving its right to oppose aspects of it or even the legislation in its entirety if it wishes. One cannot make these types of reforms in the face of serious opposition stirred up on the ground and fears being fanned. We know the fate of reforms when that happens. I am pleased that we have reached this stage. We have had at least 12 months of intensive discussions on these reforms with a fair amount of constructive debate and discussion.
I want to stress that I have an open mind on how we will bring this to a conclusion, and what the final shape of legislation will be. I would welcome the honest and considered views of Senators on the proposals. They amount to new social policy, and include a new parental allowance, new conditions for receipt of payments, ending cohabitation rules, which is not necessary in my view, and improving maintenance payment methods. They place major focus on supporting low-income families because they are low-income families and not because they happen to be a lone parent or another type of family unit. That is the test, not the category in which they fall. With one child in every three now born to a single parent, it is not sensible to categorise people. It is better that we focus on low-income families and not establish categories in an almost judgmental mode, as we tended to do in the past, although perhaps with good reason.
I look forward to a good discussion. I was pleased to introduce in the 2006 budget some changes to start on the road. We increased the upper earnings limit for the one-parent family payment to €375 a week, increased welfare rates and substantially improved the family income supplement. We recently ran a television campaign to encourage more people to take it up. I am pleased to tell the House, which asked me to do this, that as a result of the television campaign, we had a substantial increase in the number of families applying for the family income supplement.
We already started this process and I hope this is the next stage. Child poverty is most prevalent in lone parenthood. No one in this House or in the country would regard child poverty in the 21st century as being in any way acceptable in modern Ireland. These reforms are essential. I have an open mind on the details. I am prepared to engage with the Opposition on how we will finally mould them.
I trust the reforms will not become a political issue. I do not intend to make them one because they affect the lives of so many people. Approximately 80,000 families depend on us making these improvements. It is critical that we make them properly and sensibly and that we get them through. They should not fall foul of a lack of constructive discussion, of which I know we will have a great deal. I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me a hearing. I look forward to a good discussion.
Mr. Cummins: I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the discussion paper and the opportunity to address a number of the proposals it contains. The report is comprehensive on the welfare of lone parents and presents a review of the issues they face. As the Minister stated, research has identified the children of lone parents as one of the groups at major risk of child poverty.
It is essential that we review our social policies on the issue of lone parents, so they more accurately reflect our society today. We urgently need to find better and more up-to-date ways of tackling child poverty and removing barriers to training, education and employment for lone parents. Our social policies have made many people dependent on long-term welfare. Such dependence has ideologically been perceived by many theorists as a weakness of the welfare system, which often eliminates self reliance and initiative. Welfare provision has influenced living arrangements, increased dependency and kept people within the poverty trap.
We are constantly told that the best route out of poverty is through employment. However, 60% of lone parents work in low-paid jobs and 15% are on incomes so low as to put them at risk of poverty. I believe the best route out of poverty is through education. Today, children leave primary school unable to read or write. More than 1,000 children do not even make the transition from primary to secondary school. Approximately 12% of those aged between 18 and 24 years left school early. We have an epidemic of young people with drug and drink addictions. These young people may be parents in the next ten years and the cycle will start all over again. Early Start programmes have not been expanded in more than ten years. The National Educational Welfare Board continues to be underfunded. That is where the commitment to tackle poverty should be.
Accessing education, training or employment has not been possible for many lone parents for a number of reasons. The most common reasons given include difficulty in finding affordable and accessible child care. The Minister has mentioned that this has been spoken of on many occasions in this House. Other reasons include lack of flexible or part-time working conditions. For example, most FÁS-run courses begin at 8.30 a.m., too early for lone parents. Another difficulty for lone parents is access to transport and time spent in commuting.
Putting the support services in place is the challenge for the Government and the Minister. It is also the challenge for employers and other agencies. What is needed is a co-ordination of services and the provision of resources to make that happen. I agree with the Minister in that this cannot happen overnight, and it may require a five or ten-year timeframe to put an effective implementation plan in place. We need creative thinking and I accept that not all families are the same. One size will not fit all in this area.
Lone parents include widows, separated and divorced people and teens living in urban and rural areas. Fathers made up 2% to 3% of lone parents in 2004. According to a policy document, Equality for All Families, to be published by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties today, unmarried couples, same-sex couples, lone parents and children experience serious inequalities and major difficulties because of the State’s failure to recognise their relationships and families. It contends that the privileged position of the married family in the Constitution should be ended to prevent discrimination against unmarried couples and children. It is also calling for the removal of the ban on same-sex marriage and support for the introduction of a new optional partnership registration system for all couples.
In order to fulfil Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the ICCL report also calls for the guarantee of children’s rights and a gender-neutral provision which would recognise the work of carers in the home to replace the current outdated reference to women’s “domestic duties”.
I want to express my concern about removing the right to stay at home after the youngest child in a family reaches eight years of age. Essentially, choice is being removed from poorer families. Having a stay-at-home parent will become the preserve of the well-off. Are we going to create a two-tier society? I have to question whether it is constitutional to compel parents to work. Bunreacht na hÉireann places a woman firmly in the home but gives special recognition to her role.
Updating to current policy, a woman can be prevented from taking up employment, participating in education or training or becoming politically involved because of the prevailing social policy which results in a lack of affordable, freely available child care. However, a new model is that women are now obliged to work, like their male counterparts, as citizen workers rather than citizen carers or mothers. We must be very careful in how we deal with this.
We must support parents by providing family-friendly work arrangements and good quality affordable child care facilities, including after-school care, elderly care, more training places and a decent joined up public transport system. The OECD noted in 2003 that the employment rates of lone parents in Ireland are low despite ten years of unprecedented employment growth. It made certain recommendations to encourage greater participation in the workforce. One of those recommendations was for the development of a system of mutual obligations between State and lone parents. Forcing parents out to work without the supporting infrastructure is not quite in keeping with the spirit of that recommendation.
The elimination of the cohabitation rule is to be welcomed. This was a degrading rule and actively discouraged family formations. Joint parenting must be supported. I welcome the recognition of the right of each individual to receive his or her social welfare entitlement independently, and the financial independence that this can provide. In effect, this will do away with the present qualified adult system, which is inequitable and discriminates against women. We see no reason that this could not be implemented in early course or immediately.
A number of organisations have expressed concerns about the practical implications of the proposed social welfare reforms. For example, the withdrawal of the parental allowance could create serious poverty traps unless significant reform of other elements of the social welfare and tax systems is implemented. These poverty traps are primarily the result of the re-application of the limitation rule when the parental allowance finishes and more stringent means assessment, which applies to unemployment payments.
Unless there is a comprehensive interdepartmental and interagency approach, properly planned and resourced, we will not succeed in combating the poverty being experienced by lone parents and their children. I do not have much confidence in this Government delivering the appropriate supports for parents in the coming years.
The 2001 NESF report on lone parents developed a series of recommendations on how training, education and employment programmes could be made more accessible to lone parents, focusing particularly on the courses and programmes that achieve high rates of progression into better-quality jobs. These offer opportunities for career development. Five years later, lone parents are still waiting for these recommendations to be acted upon. Furthermore, the research strand of the equality for women measure has described the challenges faced by working parents and the negative implications for the women involved and it has identified recommendations to address the issue. Most of these have not been implemented.
I welcome the public debate on these proposals and I hope it will compel action. Many of the proposals are not new and should be implemented immediately to create a positive impact on the lives of lone parents. We have no intention of making a political football of discussing these reforms. We will be involved in constructive debate at all times in this issue. We hope to see more action, rather than policies, at this stage.
Ms Cox: I welcome the Minister to the House, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this issue. I congratulate the Minister on addressing the matter. It can be sensitive at times, and no matter what is said, comments can sometimes be interpreted the wrong way. The way the Minister has acted — with an open, transparent, involved and inclusive method — has created the type of environment which is allowing us to discuss the issues which cause challenges and difficulties on a daily basis to those families with lone parents. It has been said that the majority of lone parents are mothers but many are fathers. What matters is that a person is a lone parent, rather than whether they are the mother or the father.
I welcome the Minister’s recent undertaking to address the issue of responsibility. Every child born in this country has two parents, because it takes two people to make a child. If we continue to allow fathers to ignore their responsibility we fail the children of this State. We should do whatever is necessary to ensure people face up to their responsibilities and fathers, in particular, must be forced to pay adequate attention to their children, as well as provide financial maintenance. It is not acceptable for fathers to say children are not their problem. An education programme should be provided in schools, aimed particularly at young men but also at young women. Young men at an age when they are able to father a child must be told they cannot do so without taking at least some responsibility for bringing it up because it is not exclusively the responsibility of the State. It is not just a question of money but support and recognition. Every child is entitled to have two parents so he or she does not grow up feeling different from other children, whose mother and father live together. There should continue to be a focus on parental responsibility, in particular that of the father.
One of the key elements of this report stresses the need to reduce poverty. It asks what we can do for lone parents to help them escape the poverty trap. Some 60% of lone parents work, and I will focus on them. The problem is that they are often in low-paid employment. How can they afford to pay for child care? How do they afford transport to and from work? They are continually struggling to escape the poverty trap. All of us who have children know how difficult it can be to work while rearing them but it is even more difficult without the necessary resources to pay for child care and other supports in the home, such as those that release a mother from homemaker duties. We must enable the 60% of lone parents who work to progress from low-paid to better-paid employment. We must ask what supports we should give employers and parents themselves in the form of training grants. The CDP programme administered by FÁS, which develops the skills of people in certain sectors, could be rolled out to lone parents not covered by the scheme at the moment. A dedicated grant should be available to them to enable them to graduate from jobs paying no more than €10 per hour to those paying up to €20 per hour. That would mean they would be paid enough to make it worth getting up in the morning and would be rewarded for the effort they put in. It is difficult enough when there are two parents, with one doing the school run in the morning and the other in the afternoon, but it is very difficult alone. I call for focused, specifically directed schemes for the education of lone parents in low-paid employment.
We must ask why 40% of lone parents do not work. In the run-up to the last election I held a forum every month with different groups of people. Two groups stick in my mind, namely, widows and lone parents. At one meeting I asked a group of 15 young girls what they most wanted to do. Most of all they wanted to get out of the house, to be able to leave their children at a crèche or somewhere they knew they would be looked after, and go to work. They wanted to finish at 1 p.m. and maybe collect the child from the crèche or from school. They wanted to make a contribution rather than remain hangers-on, which is the stereotype that attaches to them.
People still ask lone parents why they did not know better than to get themselves into such a situation. Why did they not use contraception, given that it is available in chemists, pubs and vending machines? The girl is always blamed in these cases. Whether they became lone parents by choice or by accident, they are entitled to live their lives with dignity, instead of being subjected to a vicious cycle of poverty, deprivation and an absence of role models. What do children who grow up in houses without a working parent learn? What kind of a role model or mentor does that create? Our challenge is to bring about a joined-up policy of education, training and child care.
The Minister increased the amount a lone parent could earn and still qualify for the one-parent family payment to €375 per week. Does he realise that as soon as a person earns more than €60 per week, his or her rent allowance is reduced? It is ridiculous for the Minister to allow a person to earn up to €375 but to reduce rent allowance once €60 is exceeded. All parents want is a roof over their head and food on the table for their children. Worries over a temporary job not lasting or the loss of rent allowance, necessitating a visit to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, are barriers for people who are already at a disadvantage. They fight the same battles families with two parents fight every day and then have to fight more battles to earn the right to go out to work.
We could put in place simple measures to make a huge difference to the lives of lone parents. It is all very well to make child care available and there are many community crèches. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is very focused on the issue. However, community crèches close at 6 p.m. so a person cannot pursue a night course or even go out one night a week. Everyone is entitled to some social life but where can these people get a babysitter? We could put in place supporting networks, where one parent supported another, or a scheme involving transition year students, creating a support network enabling people to lead normal lives. If lone parents can attend an evening class they are happier, more fulfilled and better parents as a consequence. By helping people progress from poverty into a situation where they can provide for themselves and their children and be mentors and role models for them, we will alleviate the problems of lone parenthood and create happy family homes. Thus will we avoid the creation of ghettoes in the future.
The Minister said that social reform was part of his vision but social reform starts at a basic level. It does not start with big, eye-catching measures but with education, training and development and better work opportunities. It requires support for employers to encourage them to employ lone parents, the adoption of flexible working hours and grants and schemes encouraging people to hire lone parents. We are not afraid of addressing other groups in society so should not be afraid of addressing lone parents. If we are to provide a parental allowance and engage with children aged seven, eight or 12 years, we must establish support structures. As Senator Cummins noted, one size does not fit all and, therefore, we must not rely on a single support structure.
Sex education and promoting the message among young people that bringing a child into the world, particularly as a lone parent, is hard work should be the responsibility of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. In addition to making life better for those who have children, we should encourage young people not to engage in sex until they are ready to do so and have started out on life. Young girls aged 16, 17 or 18 years should be advised to avoid circumstances in which they are left carrying the baby while some young fellow is running around the streets and discos getting as drunk as he likes and taking no responsibility. Addressing this problem must be a joint effort on the part of the education and social welfare systems.
I am pleased to have been afforded this opportunity to speak on this issue and welcome the Minister’s decision to examine it with a view to introducing radical, meaningful changes. I extend my best wishes to him in his work.
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister to the House and the publication by his Department of an interdepartmental group study. I particularly welcome his speech as I never believed I would ever hear a Minister state that he considers “lone parents a valuable resource” for the country. He must have had in mind the trouble poor President Putin is having persuading the Russian population to have children. Perhaps the Minister should send him a copy of his speech.
I have been involved with Cherish, an organisation set up about 30 years ago by single mothers for single mothers, since it was founded. Now known as One Family, it focuses on the problems experienced by lone parents. I will definitely bring a copy of the Minister’s speech to a reunion for the founders of the organisation which will be held early next month because some of them will be astonished by its contents.
The report contains much useful information. All of us want lone parents to participate more in the life of the country and we must try to remove hurdles preventing them from doing so. Senator Cox, for example, expressed the hope that it would be possible to organise networks to enable lone parents to get a night out. This would be an important step because we know that what is best for the lone parent is also best for the child.
This is a useful report. Given that one must not consider a group of 80,000 people a homogenous group, I was pleased to read on page 78 the suggestion that individualisation of the social welfare system is important. We should first address the problems faced by a small group of lone parents, namely, men and older women, many of whom are widowed or divorced. Some men I know who are in receipt of lone parent’s allowance left the workforce because they believed the trauma suffered by their children at the time of the death or departure of their mother was so serious that their best option was to stay at home and prioritise the needs of the family. This is the reason I am slightly concerned about proposals to introduce arbitrary age thresholds for youngest children. I hope a flexible approach will be taken to this matter because those who decide to stay at home may have good reason to do so. We do not know the circumstances of the family disturbance in individual cases. The social welfare service, which is earning much more praise than it used to for its approach to individuals, should determine the reason people who may have had good jobs decide to stay at home. It is important that this small group of lone parents be considered first.
Teenage lone parents make up a separate, relatively small group. Despite the stereotype of lone parents as being 15 year old girls who are pregnant for the second or third time, the number of teenage lone parents is small and is declining. Five years ago, teenagers gave birth to approximately 3,000 children, a figure that has fallen to approximately 2,500.
Dr. Henry: Yes, the figure is small. It is important not to underestimate, however, that perinatal statistics indicate that this group encounters particular difficulties from the maternity point of view. The teen parent support programme which presented its report yesterday stressed the importance of keeping teenagers in education during pregnancy and while the baby is at a young age. Supports for this group are vital because not all of them have supportive families and they face additional problems if they drop out of education. I was taken by the phrase used by a speaker yesterday that there is a strong correlation between early exit from education and teenage pregnancy and one should note the importance of cause and consequence. If teenage girls fall out of education, they are more likely to become pregnant and if they become pregnant they are more likely to fall out of education. Measures must be taken to address the needs of this group because failure to do so could create a lifetime of problems for many young teenagers. I urge, therefore, that this group be dealt with separately.
On the proposal to provide facilitators when the youngest child of a lone parent is five years old, why must a person who wants help wait until his or her child is five years old? The Minister is correct to state that active supports are more important than passive supports. While considerable sums of money are being spent on lone parents, active supports are required because a large number of the lone parents I have met are demoralised. For example, as Senator Cox noted, a lone parent may not be able to go out or may not have a friend to go out with or someone to give them support. With extended families not as geographically close to each other as in the past, a lone parent may have few family supports nearby and it is important, therefore, that active supports are provided to address this problem.
The Minister correctly pointed out that 60% of lone parents are in employment. While this is good, it is not so good that most of them are in low-paid jobs. Neither long-term dependency on benefits nor long-term low-paid employment is in the interests of either parents or children. Given that lone parents at work have already managed to get themselves into a position in which they get up in the morning, bring their children to crèche or school and go out to do a job, it would be easier to deal with them than the 40% of lone parents who are not in employment.
While I have not found many lone parents who are bone idle, I have found that many of those without work have additional problems. For example, a lone parent may be providing care for a disabled parent or grandparent. Frequently, grandmothers aged in their 40s or 50s go to work, while their children try to care for older people at home. This can be demoralising for the younger person who may wish to work outside the home. Illness, including mental illness and depression, are also important factors. Life is difficult enough — 25% of the population suffer from depression at some point in their lives — without additional problems such as an absent father who does not provide support. When one is left, as Senator Cox stated, holding the baby it is not surprising that exogenous depression sometimes occurs. We must examine the reasons 40% of lone parents are not in paid employment. Lack of child care, an issue ably addressed by Senators Cummins and Cox, is an important factor in this regard because it is impossible to work outside the home if one’s child is not cared for adequately.
A further factor which militates against lone parents entering the workforce is the prospect of losing one’s medical card. The Minister must ensure that the implementing Departments, notably the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science, come on board when he introduces new measures. The prospect of losing one’s medical card is even more terrifying than the prospect of losing rent allowance. With 60% of lone parents having only one child and 25% having two children, addressing this problem will clearly not be an insurmountable task.
We need to get the child care strategy involved. In particular, care for school children must be addressed because it is very poor. Given that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is about to introduce ASBOs, we do not want children returning to an empty house thus becoming another group in danger of receiving anti-social behaviour orders because there is no one there to keep them indoors when things are getting a bit riotous outside. Therefore, the child care issue must be addressed, including school-age child care which is in probably the worst situation. School activities are becoming more organised, including homework clubs which are starting up in school premises and community centres. Support for such activities is most important.
I am glad the Minister has tackled the issue of cohabitation which was a terrible waste of inspectors’ time. They were running around the countryside looking in front windows while the man was running out the back. It was a pretty hopeless situation. It is much better if one can have both parents trying to bring up the child, rather than one parent doing so alone.
The situation regarding child maintenance support is a difficult one with approximately 2% of fathers paying up, which is shockingly low. Unfortunately, this is also the problem internationally. In the United Kingdom, they ended up spending more money trying to enforce such payments than was received in support. I do not know how one makes people take on their responsibilities, which they should do, but it is an international problem and not restricted to Ireland.
I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward these proposals. The implementing Departments need to come on board as quickly as possible. The phrase “individualisation of the recipients of social welfare” is important because they are not all the same kind of people and do not all have the same problems. If we separate them out we will find it much easier to implement the report than if it is done on a one size suits all basis, which I am sure will not happen.
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his impressive proposals. Up to now I had little knowledge of how the social welfare system worked in this regard. Lately, however, I am beginning to have an interest in it. As the Minister said, he is trying to bring the system into the 21st century by modernising it and seeing how best we can deal with the obstacles currently facing lone parents. It is difficult to grasp the various incomes coming into lone-parent households. They include the lone-parent allowance, child benefit, rent supplement and family income. All that money comes to approximately €1.35 billion. It is a huge amount which appears to be given out without any backup as to how it should be handled by lone parents.
I welcome the Minister’s idea that we need to undertake a brain-storming exercise. We will have a consultative forum which will reflect all interested viewpoints. That process must include the Department of Education and Science, local authorities, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which deals with FÁS. That combination of people can brainstorm to find how best we can examine the restrictive measures in place that prevent such people from accessing employment, education or training.
The Minister’s proposals are to be welcomed and if he goes about it that way he will ultimately have a success story. The Department of the Taoiseach has taken this matter on board together with the Minister and further discussions will be held at the Cabinet table. If the Minister continues to approach the matter in this way, he will prompt another constructive debate when the proposals return to this House. We must examine how we can bring forward programmes and ideas to help those who perhaps cannot help themselves, although many lone parents are trying to do so.
I dealt with many of these issues in my professional environment. Some young people had no idea how to behave in the real world. They thought that becoming pregnant was the way forward and would give them an interest in life. They knew they would get money and that it would be enough to keep them going but those attitudes have to change in the 21st century.
We must examine how best our schools can progress. Primary schoolteachers are a great guide to what is going on in their community. They know who are the lone parents and other vulnerable people. I am not asking teachers to become social workers but they can become involved through school-home links and the start-up programme. Such liaison can get to the root of social problems. Lone parents have low self esteem and lack confidence so it is important for the community to work together on such matters. The correct social infrastructure and networking can improve things in this regard. Schools have a role to play and their input would be welcome but they cannot do it alone; they require the backup of social workers in the community.
Senator Cox said that if lone parents re-enter the workforce they may lose their rent supplement allowance. We need to involve local authorities in this area, particularly regarding housing schemes and how best they can accommodate people to help them over such hurdles. I would like to see that area being the subject of a brain-storming exercise.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment deals with education, training and back to work programmes. What is the best way to get such people back to work without them losing their income to date? There is always that fear. Although I am not clear on this issue, I note that when children reach a certain age their parents may lose the allowance.
Ms Ormonde: We need to change all that woolly thinking. We should clarify exactly what we mean by that. Children are one thing but luring parents back to the workplace is another issue. They need confidence but they lack the required self esteem to re-enter the working community. They want to make a contribution, so good back to work programmes should be introduced to make it easy for them. The only way night courses can be encouraged, for example, is by providing child care facilities.
I would like to be at the forefront of that brain-storming exercise from which many good ideas can emerge to bring the social welfare system into the 21st century. We need real ideas to lure vulnerable young people caught in the poverty trap, including lone parents, back to work. We will get them back with no bother if we go about it in the manner planned by the Minister. Interested groups in the community must be involved, however, so that nobody will misunderstand the Minister’s radical reforms.
Ms O’Meara: I also welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome in particular his commitment to reform this area, which is certainly needed, together with his initiative in bringing forward proposals and engaging in a wide-ranging discussion about them. Today’s debate is useful in that regard. Much of what I wanted to say has already been discussed so, given that my time is limited, I will touch upon one or two specific points. One such point relates to the proposals contained in the document, which is designed to support lone parents. I do not accept that making it compulsory is necessarily to support the lone parent. In fact, I was astonished that there would be a level of compulsory engagement with the system for the lone parent. I do not believe that would work because the system must be voluntary. It is suggested that when the youngest child is five, the lone parent engages with the system. At present there are people who would want to get their child into education and training long before he or she is five and perhaps when the child is one or two, but that is not happening.
I ask the Minister to seriously reconsider this matter because the other result of making it compulsory is to effectively stigmatise lone parents and feed into this stereotype that they are somehow feeding off the State and do not want to work and, therefore, must be made to work or enter training. There needs to be encouragement to enter training. Many Members receive visits to our clinics from lone parents on housing or other issues. While the children may be four, five or six years old now, I always ask young mothers what they will do in ten or 15 years when they are still young and the children are grown. I ask them to think about being in education or in a well-paid job.
The Minister should ensure there is no sense of compulsion around this issue. It must be voluntary and done in an empowering way. I support the notion of facilitators encouraging people to be in the system. One of the difficulties faced by lone parents is that being out of education, training or a job for a number of years leads to an undermining of confidence in themselves and their ability to be at work, as we know from the experience of the long-term unemployed. Support is needed but not a one-size-fits-all approach. Creating a compulsory system is not the way forward and would send the wrong message.
I welcome the Minister’s proposal on cohabitation, as have others. The cohabitation rule has created a situation where fathers and male role models are simply not present in households, which is not good for children. It also has the crazy effect of discouraging women from being in solid relationships which would be good for them and would, particularly in the long term, support them. I support the Minister’s initiative.
Members referred to child care, which is critical for lone parents. In supporting them to be in training, education or work, it is vital that accessible and affordable child care is available. In many cases community-based child care facilities must charge high fees to lone parents due to the underfunding by the Government, so there must be targeted initiatives designed specifically to support lone parents.
Ms Tuffy: I wish to refer to Senator Cummins’s point on the proposal by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. I am a member of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, the majority report of which proposed that the protection of women in the home would be extended to parents. I support the idea that it should also be extended to carers. The Women in the Home group, when it addressed the committee during the hearings, was also supportive of the idea and proposed a wording in that regard. It was of the belief that the existing protection was there to stay but that it would be a good idea to extend it.
I draw attention to two current campaigns, one by the group Treoir and the other by the Teen Parents Support Programme, which was reported in The Irish Times today. National co-ordinator Margaret Morris is reported as stating “it is in the best interest of children to be in touch with both parents”, which ties in with the campaign by Treoir, which has a similar belief. That is an important issue with regard to the rights of the child. I firmly believe that, where at all possible, we should support the idea of both parents having contact with their children. The report in The Irish Times today noted that only 51% of fathers are in contact with the mother of their child.
The Minister commissioned a report, Strengthening Families Through Fathers, by Fergus Hogan of the Waterford Institute of Technology. The report found that in many respects fathers are excluded, often on the basis of their appearance, by child care and family support workers. It particularly singled out younger marginalised men who became fathers as being most at risk and yet the most invisible category. The report stated:
Senator Cox referred to the need for fathers to take up their responsibilities yet we do not give them their rights and they are discriminated against within our legal system. Some 30% of births are to unmarried parents but most of the fathers will not have guardianship rights to their children. Other legal codes, such as that in Scotland, refer to rights and responsibilities. We must do more in this regard because our legal system is pushing fathers away. We need to extend guardianship rights to unmarried fathers, a measure that is being considered in other jurisdictions. Even the North of Ireland has extended guardianship rights for fathers much further than we have.
The system is pushing fathers away and does not value them as part of the child’s family life. One way to change this is to change our laws and systems. The report commissioned by the Minister focused on changing the social welfare system, social work system and family support system to include fathers. We also need to change our laws. I called for this last week in the Seanad and I emphasise that it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. If the law was challenged in the courts, it might be found to be discriminatory and in need of change.
Mr. Minihan: I welcome the Minister and thank him for his address to the House. It is noteworthy that many of today’s policy debates correctly place the emphasis on the target or beneficiary of the policy. Child-centred child care policies or patient-centred health care policies are two of the obvious examples. This debate focuses on the proposals for supporting lone parents. The real focus is the child and what is for the best. I welcome the fact that we have been careful not to engage in stereotyping because it would not serve us well. There may be a tendency to use the phrase “lone parent” and automatically picture somebody in a distressed state. We have to acknowledge there are many lone parents and single parents who are in happy family-type units and are working well and provide a good family structure.
In 1987 one in four children experienced the type of poverty referred to in previous reports. That the position has improved needs to be acknowledged. In 2001, according to the living in Ireland survey, one in 15 children were living in households considered to be consistently poor. Of course, one is one too many. We need to remain vigilant in working towards reducing the numbers.
I congratulate the Minister and the Government on its previous initiatives and on the new initiative proposed by the Minister. He has pointed out that lone parents and their children are at particular risk of social exclusion and poverty which are closely linked. It is essential that organisations representing lone parents and anti-poverty groups, national children’s support organisations, men’s support groups and family support groups, are not excluded from the discussions on the Government’s discussion paper — Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents — which the Minister brought forward in March.
The convening of the national consultative forum is an important and welcome step in this regard as are today’s statements. The interests of the child must be at the heart of our discussions. They are at the heart of the proposals for legislation made by the Government, including the targeting of child poverty, delivering new opportunities and raising the standard of living for lone parents and all low-income families. Poverty creates distress, particularly for children. That is the reason the Government is working hard to tackle this problem.
Previous speakers referred to the fear factor experienced by lone parents. The key to removing fear is the reform of the cohabitation rules. For many reasons, which are not instantly obvious, the parents of a child or children should be able to live together as a family. In the study to which I have referred, people surveyed were found to be living in fear. One element of fear that can be removed is that of the inspector knocking on the door. I welcome the Minister’s leadership in this regard and the fact that he is committed to examining and changing the position.
The Minister also proposes to assess the resources available to the family and the child rather than mechanically paying lone parents allowance. He is committed to assessing income levels and where the levels are low, to use the current high levels of income support to target improvements, and use wider welfare supports to tackle the problem behind the income need.
The poverty trap must be removed. Employment is probably the best way out of poverty but the system can put obstacles in the path of people. I commend the Minister for focusing on ways not only of removing the obstacles but on incentivising entry into employment in a way that is genuinely cognisant of the reality of people’s lives. The reform will be based on active rather than passive support, to assist people to take up education, which is so important, training or employment opportunities.
Support for lone parents that prevents long-term dependence on social welfare and promotes real financial independence, employment, education and training is the key to removing poverty traps. This report is heading in the right direction. It is a welcome change to a policy that could have continued. By taking this initiative we are serving the long-term interests of society well and addressing the real needs of the child who is caught in those traps.
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. S. Brennan): I thank Senators for a short but comprehensive debate. Most of the issues were raised on the floor of the House. I appreciate hearing them and will take them on board. Having had this debate there may be an opportunity for a similar debate in the Dáil. Following our forum, I propose to keep in touch with the lone parent associations as we develop legislation. During the course of the year I hope I can introduce legislation to give effect to the type of reforms contained in the report.
Senators have stressed the need for child care, education and training, and the importance of not stereotyping the role of fathers. Those issues are referred to in the report. The legislation which I hope to introduce, pending Cabinet approval, will tackle most of these issues. The role of fathers is a difficult area. Senator Tuffy is correct, and there are rights and responsibilities. Access is a major issue for fathers. Fathers’ organisations say that is a major issue for them. I am not in favour of access being a quid pro quo, but I do not think the Senator has suggested that. Access is an issue that must be sorted because the child is entitled to have access to both parents, not the other way around. While that is not negotiable it is not the case in many relationships.
There is also the issue of child support coming from the father. Approximately 2,500 to 3,000 lone fathers make payments through the Department’s system. That means that up to 60,000 do not make such payments. Frequently, it is not that they do not make payments but that we do not require them to do so. That is a subject for another debate. Some 30,000 lone fathers are working but are not making any payment. We do not require them to make a payment because their incomes are low. In other jurisdictions, even if the income is extremely low, some token is paid in order to make a social connection with the child. That is a topic for debate but I will not go into it now.
I thank Senators for a thoughtful contribution. On the matter of compulsory or voluntary engagement, I reassure Senator O’Meara that the reforms will encourage parents to engage before the child is aged five. That is voluntary. When the child is aged five, lone parents will be required to engage with facilitators, that is, to be available for discussion-information, and advice and counselling but they will not be required to work. When the youngest child is aged eight, the proposals envisage a full reform of activation but even that will be on a phased basis. Return to work will be on a phased basis and any drop-off in payment will be on a phased basis as the person re-engages with the workplace. It is compulsion with a small “c” at that stage. We shall progress these issues in the weeks and months ahead and I look forward to returning with legislation on this subject in the not too distant future.
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