Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 to 6, inclusive, are cognate and may be discussed together by agreement.
Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005: Report and Final Stages.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 36, lines 5 and 6, to delete all words from and including "section" in line 5 down to and including "1996" in line 6 and substitute "section 178(1)(a)”.
The Social Welfare Act 1996 provided for the introduction of the one-parent family payment which subsumed a variety of schemes applicable at the time to persons rearing children alone. That Act also repealed the provisions governing the deserted wives' benefit, deserted wives' allowance and prisoners' wives allowance schemes. In addition, the 1996 Act incorporated a saver clause which allowed for the continued payment of deserted wives' benefit, deserted wives' allowance or prisoners' wives allowance for as long as the recipient retained a continuous entitlement under the relevant scheme.
On Committee Stage, an amendment was introduced to incorporate this saver provision into the text of the Bill. As a consequence of this amendment, a small number of references in the Bill require adjustment and these amendments provide for the necessary reference updating.
This amendment concerns the deserted wives' benefit. I am glad to see that the Minister, Deputy Brennan, is back in his old place. I thought he had already lost his socialist tendencies, but I am glad to see him.
The Deputy should not start with such comments.
I have been the subject of some of them myself, so I know what it is like. Deputy Seán Ryan is extremely adept at dealing with this area and the Minister gave him credit for some of the points he made on Committee Stage. Deputy Ryan will be speaking on this matter later and I certainly do not wish to hijack something in which he has a deep interest and has outlined extremely well. Will the Minister take cognisance of the anomaly whereby a recipient of deserted wives' benefit can have her payment reduced by more than €1,600 per annum for every €1,270 per annum gross earned in excess of €12,697, which is €10,000 per annum? We are aware that the entire system changed in 1997 when the one-parent family scheme was introduced, but Deputy Ryan has consistently raised the anomaly involved because the scheme became means-tested. Does the Minister agree that the anomaly is unjust? The thrust of the deserted wives' benefit is that nobody should be worse off as a result of this anomaly which we now have a chance to remove. It would be a glaring omission, indeed a sin, on our behalf if we failed to remove this anomaly. Only the Minister can deal with this matter.
I received a lovely letter from the Ceann Comhairle this morning — they are certainly not cheques when they arrive from him — ruling my amendment No. 3 out of order. The deserted wives' benefit scheme closed off new applications with effect from 2 January 1997 when the one-parent family scheme was introduced through the Social Welfare Act 1996. No new applications were received after that date. At the time the deserted wives' benefit scheme was abolished, a woman in receipt of it would continue to receive the payment for as long as she had a continuous entitlement to the deserted wives' benefit. We now have a major anomaly, however, whereby it involves more than a euro for euro reduction. It would leave us open to significant criticism if we failed to address this matter in the context of the Bill.
The thrust of amendment No. 3, which was ruled out of order by the Ceann Comhairle, was to address this anomaly. I do not know why it was ruled out of order. We want it reviewed to force a debate on the floor of the House and to ensure the Minister is fully aware that this anomaly constitutes a grossly unjust measure. The persons affected will be worse off, losing €1,600 after earning €1,270. It does not make sense so I ask the Minister to address that matter.
With the permission of the Ceann Comhairle, my colleague, Deputy Seán Ryan, would like to contribute because he has expertise in this area.
I call Deputy Boyle.
I will give way to Deputy Seán Ryan.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to debate this matter, albeit in a roundabout way. The Minister has acknowledged that there was a deficiency in the original Bill which deleted all reference to deserted wives' benefit. In dealing with this issue, the Minister and his officials will acknowledge that there is an anomaly. If that is the case, we should endeavour to deal with it. We are talking about approximately 300 people. The anomaly arises where a recipient of the deserted wives' benefit loses at least €1,600 per annum for each €1,269.74 per annum earned in excess of €12,697.38 per annum. In that context, does the Minister agree that the means bands need to be adjusted as a matter of urgency?
I also refer the Minister to the information provided by his Department, which gives a direct comparison between the earnings limits for deserted wives' benefit and the one-parent family payment. The two payments are not comparable, however. The deserted wives' benefit is an insurance-based payment — such payments generally speaking are not means-tested — with the same contributory conditions and payment rates as the widows' contributory pension. Therefore, there was a linkage all along. When the system was changed, it was linked to one-parent family payments with an earnings limit. It was only given to women who had been deserted by their husbands, not to people who voluntarily separated. The marriage breakdown aspect was investigated in all cases by an inspector of the Department. Many claims were rejected on the basis that husbands did not leave of their own volition.
Given the linkage between the deserted wives' benefit and the contributory widow's pension, we must note that no earnings limit applies to the latter payment. This situation concerns a small group of people who were deserted. The deserted wives' benefit scheme was closed off to new applicants with effect from 2 January 1997 when the one-parent family payment was introduced under the Social Welfare Act 1996. As no new applications for the scheme were accepted after that date, this would not have a knock-on effect on new applicants. A woman in receipt of deserted wife's benefit at the time the scheme was abolished was told she would continue to receive the payment for as long as she had continuous entitlements to it. In effect, however, that has not happened because the bands were not increased.
If someone wants to go out to work to improve her lot, she will suffer a considerable loss. I do not know whether it is possible to achieve this change in the context of the Consolidation Bill. A relatively large number of people from the small group that exists have informed me that they are being hard done by. Officials in the Department unofficially acknowledge that an anomaly exists but they also say that there will not be much progress on the issue because it is not serious enough and does not involve enough people.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister says on this point. If it cannot be dealt with in an amendment to this Bill, he might give a commitment to consider it and return it for debate.
I support the requests from Deputies Penrose and Seán Ryan that the Minister consider this anomaly. It is unusual that the small group of people still receiving deserted wife's benefit, which is fading out, is exposed to several anomalies.
Last week, in response to a parliamentary question, I was informed that the anomaly prohibiting people in receipt of deserted wife's benefit being excluded from community employment schemes no longer existed. Will the Minister explain why these anomalies persist for this small group of people, which, according to the reply to my parliamentary question, is no more than 200, although Deputy Seán Ryan indicated that the figure is 300? What can the Minister do to ensure that the anomalies are put aside once and for all? As the Opposition has only limited room to manoeuvre in a Consolidation Bill and given that the original amendment has been ruled out of order, I appeal directly to the Minister to address this anomaly.
I wish to make a further appeal regarding the consolidation process, which will apply to other areas of the Government's programme but, based on past trends, will probably not apply to social welfare legislation for another 11 or 12 years. We should consider how the consolidation process might fully involve Members. The changes that can be made in the process are limited and the committee appointed by the Dáil, to which the Minister can add a specific number, consists only of Members of the two largest parties. In this instance, the Minister added one Member from the Government side and two Opposition spokespersons. That, however, excluded those of us in smaller parties, for example, Sinn Féin, the Green Party, Independent Members and the Progressive Democrats, should they choose to participate in social welfare legislation.
The consolidation process should be re-examined because being prohibited from participating in a Consolidation Bill on Committee Stage, and not being able to raise relevant issues at that point, limits one in terms of tabling amendments on Report Stage. It is an unsatisfactory situation and while the changes are technical, as were those discussed on Committee Stage, in order for the Members to be properly involved in the process it needs to be examined at Government level.
On the latter point, I am aware that the consolidation procedure is very restrictive. It is laid down in Standing Orders and when I was asked to nominate three people, I did not have much scope and chose members of the two larger Opposition parties and one person from the Government side. It is no reflection on other Members. I would have been delighted to include other parties had I had the manoeuvring room to do so.
I will discuss with colleagues whether there is scope to amend Standing Orders in the consolidation area. If the Deputy's party makes a formal submission on the subject, I will ensure that the Chief Whip and others examine it closely. There is no reason to exclude anybody who has something to offer from such a committee.
I thank Deputy Penrose for raising the issue of the deserted wife's benefit anomaly. These policy changes, however, are not permitted in a Consolidation Bill. Deputy Seán Ryan has obviously studied the subject carefully. Two or three Deputies from my party raised this issue at recent parliamentary party meetings.
At the end of August, 10,355 people were claiming deserted wife's benefit. Approximately 28% of those were awarded the payment on or after 31 August 1992. For good reasons at the time, the Social Welfare Act 1992 introduced an earnings limit on entitlements to the deserted wife's benefit. As a special measure no earnings limit operated for persons in receipt of this allowance whose claim was made after the end of August 1992.
We abolished the deserted wife's benefit in 1997 and replaced it with the one-parent family allowance.
Did that not happen at an earlier date?
I apologise, the scheme was closed off with effect from 2 January 1997. No new applications for the scheme were accepted after that date. Some people were stranded within the old scheme because they fell between the two earnings deadlines. This has been brought to my attention and in the past couple of hours my officials and I sat down to discuss this issue which needs to be resolved. We are considering the options for doing so. While it involves only a couple of hundred people, it can grow to involve thousands. The latter would make it a larger issue. Hopefully, we can deal with it now.
I am examining closely how to resolve this during the process of preparing Estimates, budgets and the subsequent social welfare and pensions legislation. Deputy Seán Ryan made some specific suggestions about how to approach the problem but if he knows of a more specific way in which to deal with it, I am of a mind to act because it does not involve many people.
I appreciate the Minister's positive response to that amendment and I will contact him or his officials. We will hopefully arrive at a point where people will see that the system looks at anomalies and endeavours to deal with them. I hope we can resolve this issue and I thank the Minister.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 to 6, inclusive, can be taken together.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 36, lines 16 and 17, to delete all words from and including "section" in line 16 down to and including "1996" in line 17 and substitute “section 178(1)(a)”.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 229, lines 46 and 47, to delete all words from and including "section" in line 46 down to and including "1996" in line 47 and substitute “section 178(1)(a) or (b)”.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 245, lines 31 to 33, column 1, to delete all words from and including "section" in line 31 down to and including "1996" in line 33 and substitute “section 178(1)(a)”.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 261, lines 57 to 59, column 1, to delete all words from and including "section" in line 57 down to and including "1996" in line 59 and substitute “178(1)(b) or (c)”.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 273, line 10, column 1, to delete "158(1)(a)” and substitute “157(1)(a)”.
This amendment is consequential on the renumbering of the text following Committee Stage amendments. It corrects an inaccurate section reference, changing 158 to 157.
I was involved in the previous Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill review. In any consolidation Bill there is a great deal of work involved for many people and for staff. This Bill is very detailed legislation but all the information is there for any public representative so that we do not have to refer to any other Bills. I compliment the Minister and the staff who put so much work into preparing the Bill.
I agree with Deputy Seán Ryan. Department officials put a great deal of very technical work into the Bill, and we appreciate that. We also welcome the commitment the Minister has made to produce for the public a user-friendly guide to the Bill. We look forward to getting that, as will constituents.
I share the sentiments expressed by the other Opposition speakers. My personal hope is that I will be around in another 11 years for the next consolidation Bill.
I thank the Deputies who gave consideration to the Bill on Second Stage, on Committee Stage and in the House today. I found the contributions very practical and we have come away with some markers on what further progress we need to make. I thank Deputies for that. I also join them in thanking the officials and law officers for all their expertise. To borrow an Americanism, it is awesome to see the blood, sweat and tears that go into drafting a consolidation Bill of many measures, the last one being in 1993. One can only imagine the work that goes into it. It is here now and will be very useful to present and future legislators, and the public at large.
I confirm that at the time of publication of the Act, we will produce a useful guide. I thank all involved.
Speaking as someone who can be pernickety with regard to amendments and so on, I thank the Minister for listening to us. We know he is circumscribed with regard to what he can do, but we often table amendments for the purpose of provoking debate on particular issues. In his Second Stage contribution, Deputy Seán Ryan showed the importance of that. It is clear the Minister listened, which is also important. We recognise that and thank him. We also thank his officials for the help they have given us with many Bills.
This Bill is not just for Deputies or lawyers, but also for the general public. Deputy Stanton is right regarding the explanatory guide. I know it will not purport to be a legal interpretation; that is always the safeguard of the Minister and others. Nevertheless, the guide will be useful. It will be the document many people will read to hopefully interpret some of their dues or entitlements.
I also thank the legal staff in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and that of the Attorney General, who have contributed to the Bill. They have all done a very good job and served the consumers of social welfare in a solid manner with this legislation.