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 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.
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 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 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.