Other Questions. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Bernard Allen

Question:

108 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs his views on whether the one parent family payments, as currently organised, is a disincentive to joint parent ing and joint responsibility for children. [20525/00]

Frances Fitzgerald

Question:

801 Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs his views on whether the one-parent family payment, as currently organised, is a disincentive to joint parenting and joint responsibility for children. [20570/00]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 108 and 801 together.

All the major anomalies in social welfare have been dealt with by this Government.

There are two aspects to these questions, i.e. the position of one-parent family payment recipients who wish to marry or cohabit and people who are separated and involved in joint custody or parenting of their children.

The social welfare system, in general, is contingency based and also assumes that there are economies of scale where two people are married or cohabiting. In the circumstances, under the present system, in means tested arrangements, a reduction in income is inevitable where a person changes status from being a lone parent to one where he or she marries or cohabits. Clearly, a payment which is based on the contingency of lone parenthood cannot continue where the person marries or cohabits.

The report of the working group examining the treatment of married, cohabiting and one parent families under the tax and social welfare codes, which was published in August 1999, set out the losses which can be experienced by a couple who decide to marry or cohabit where one or both receive social welfare payments. Where both receive social welfare payments the losses can, to some extent, be eased by the payment of a qualified adult allowance. The position here will be improved by my commitment to increase the level of the qualified adult allowance to 70% of the personal rate in line with the findings of the research undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute on behalf of the working group.

Payment of the one parent family payment is based on the contingency of a person parenting alone without the support of a partner. To qualify for a payment a person must, among other things, have "main care and charge" of at least one qualified child. This means that, for instance, where one parent has care of a child for most of the week the parent may, subject to the other qualifying conditions, receive payment of the one parent family payment. In cases where both parents claim joint equal custody, neither can be considered to have "main care and charge" of the child and so a one parent family payment cannot be paid.

The report of the review of the one parent family payment recently published by my Department looked at both issues but concluded that because of the contingency based nature of the one parent family payment issues relating to mar riage, cohabitation and joint custody of children cannot be dealt with by the scheme. In relation to joint custody arrangements, the review group looked at a range of measures to afford these arrangements some recognition within the system. However, it was unable to suggest any solutions which did not compromise the basis of the one parent family payment, erode the value of other social welfare supports or create other anomalies within the system. Obviously, these are extremely difficult and sensitive issues, as acknowledged by the review.

Additional Information

There is considerable validity in the point made by the review regarding the nature of the one parent family payment as a contingency based payment. Disincentives to form relationships can only be resolved where the status of individuals is not relevant to the support received and we must, in the future, examine options in relation to universal child support and individualisation of payments. I will pursue these issues, in so far as possible, in a budgetary context.

What action does the Minister intend to take to address these issues? The review recognised that the payment as it is currently organised is problematic in relation to joint custody or shared parenting and that it militates in many ways against couples having joint custody and sharing parenting. It is a difficulty and no solution was suggested other than to move towards individualised payments. Does the Minister envisage this happening? What changes, if any, will the Minister introduce in relation to this allowance in the coming year?

As the Deputy acknowledged, the review could not suggest a solution to this difficult issue without creating a disincentive to marriage. As a result the report indicates that the way to proceed is through individualisation of social welfare payments. I have already made clear my views on that. In addition, there is a commitment in the PPF to progressing to administrative individualisation and a working group is looking at that issue. That there is a greater level of contribution to the social insurance fund will ultimately mean that many more people than heretofore will be entitled to a payment in their own right.

Has the Minister given any thought to a new parental care payment, such as was advocated last year and in previous years by the Labour Party? It would put emphasis on the parenting side of the parent's role and, to an extent, would seek to equalise the playing pitch for all parents.

Mr. Coveney:

Is the Minister aware that the children most at risk of poverty are children of lone parents? We should examine ways of encouraging lone parents to find a partner and cohabit, to seek a potential father or mother for their child. At present, lone parents are afraid to seek a partner or cohabitant for fear they will lose the lone parent allowance. Does the Minister or his Department have any views on how that situation can be changed?

Whatever about my ability to encourage lone parents to find a partner, I can encourage them to find a job. If the Deputy reads the review of the one parent family payment, which we launched a couple of weeks ago, he will see it contains significant suggestions in relation to assisting lone parents back into work. That is the best way out of poverty. I accept that children in family structures where there is only one parent are in greater danger of falling into poverty than where there are two parents. That is one of the reasons for the report, to see how we can assist lone parents into the workplace and give them support there.

With regard to Deputy Broughan's question, child benefit is a universal payment to care for children and is the best way to prevent child poverty. That is one of the reasons the Government gave a record increase of £106 million in child benefit in the last budget to bring the allocation for child benefit to £575 million this year. That was an incredibly increased allocation.

Written answers follow Adjournment Debate.