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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 23 Feb 2010

Vol. 703 No. 1

Priority Questions.

Employment Support Services.

Olwyn Enright


66 Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her plans to intensify activation measures within her Department and in co-operation with FÁS in order that unemployed persons are fully supported in returning to work; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9230/10]

Activation initiatives are designed to assist and facilitate people on social welfare payments to return to the active labour force. The Government has a comprehensive approach to keeping as many people as possible in work. Protecting existing jobs and supporting the creation of new opportunities is a key priority and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment plays the central role in that regard.

Ensuring access to appropriate education and training initiatives to help jobseekers get back to work is also a major priority. The Government is now providing, through FÁS, a total of 147,000 training and activation places for jobseekers. In addition there were 166,000 places available, including additional provision, on education programmes in 2009, while the number of third level places has also increased dramatically over the past ten years.

While many people who lose their jobs will go on to new employment or take up education or training within three months, others will find themselves unemployed for a longer period and some will need targeted guidance and support in order to access new opportunities. Under the national employment action plan, NEAP, everyone who is approaching three months on the live register is identified by the Department of Social and Family Affairs and referred to FÁS for interview with a view to assisting them enter or re-enter the labour market. In the period from January to November 2009 80,967 people were referred to FÁS under the NEAP, an increase of 24,601, or 44%, over the same period in 2008.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs also provides jobseekers with one-to-one assistance through its facilitator service. Facilitators work closely with FÁS and other agencies at a local level and help jobseekers develop individual progression plans to enhance their skills and ultimately improve their employment chances. During 2009 21,500 people were referred to facilitators. Although the facilitator service is available to all jobseekers, the Government is conscious that people with low levels of education and those who have been unemployed for 12 months or more face particular difficulties in getting back into work. The back to education and back to work initiatives were designed to provide additional targeted supports to such groups. Approximately 20,800 people were in receipt of the back to education allowance on 31 December, 2009. This represents an increase of approximately 79% over the figure for the 2008-09 academic year, which was 11,646. Last year we changed the back to work enterprise allowance to provide earlier access to it for those who want to commence a self employment business. We also introduced the short-term enterprise allowance.

A range of initiatives are in place to assist people who have just lost their jobs and to provide more targeted support for those who are more distant from the labour market. While activation programmes have been improved considerably over the past two years, they are being kept under review in light of the current economic circumstances to ensure that they are as effective as possible. New initiatives, such as a statistical profiling model for jobseekers, are also being developed at present to ensure that support is targeted at those who need it most.

I am glad to see the Minister is in a position to get such detailed answers to questions. We are in a bizarre situation when the Opposition is not able to get answers to parliamentary questions from the Department of Social and Family Affairs on behalf of constituents, while the Minister is still able to bring us that level of information. This begs a further series of questions.

I return to the issue of activation. Approximately two years ago, or shortly after we arrived in this position, I raised this matter with the Minister and have done so on several occasions since. The situation is that people in receipt of social welfare payments are going on FÁS courses. Some times the courses last two, three or four weeks and these people sign off social welfare and sign on with FÁS. They do their course, sign off FÁS and back onto social welfare. What has been done to address that situation? They get the same payment and sometimes may get an extra allowance from FÁS for child care. That is not an issue for the Minister. However, that amount of paperwork is a nonsense, particularly when we see the delays in our social welfare offices. That is one question.

Regarding the issue of activation, there are customers — there is a less polite name for them — of the Department who get a letter stating they have sought work. I spoke to an employer the other day who said, "I have this fellow back again for the third year in a row applying for a job. He knows there are no jobs here but he needs a letter for the Department". That is then accepted as his active seeking of work. Has the Minister done any investigation into the reality behind that situation?

The Minister will accept we are in a very changed environment. She made a statement in January welcoming the IBEC Gradlink programme, which I, too, very much welcome. Do the Minister and FÁS have any plans to put any other scheme in place for graduates who will not be able to avail of that programme but for whom the traditional type of FÁS course will not be of help?

I regret that parliamentary questions are not being answered. Unlike the information I have, which concerns general policy, Members of the Dáil tend to ask questions about individual persons. Rightly, I do not have access to that kind of information, and cannot facilitate Members.

We cannot get answers to questions in any case.

I hope we can arrive at a situation where we can get the information for people and that the dispute can be resolved to everybody's satisfaction. However, I understand it is difficult for Deputies who are trying to get information on behalf of their constituents.

This concerns the worst off in society.

The important thing is to ensure that payments are not affected. Some 1,200,000 payments are made every week by the Department and although we have issues concerning telephones not being answered or offices not being covered, claims are being taken and processed and money is being paid. That is the crucial element at this stage. However, I appreciate the frustration Deputies feel.

Regarding the questions raised by Deputy Enright, I was assured by the Secretary General that there is now a more streamlined payment process in place for people who go to FÁS for short courses and then return to welfare. That is a matter we would wish to keep under review but it was raised and discussed in the Chamber and I am assured now that the system is in place.

Local officers and offices have an obligation to ensure that people are actively seeking work and when people come to sign on they are expected to provide that information. It would be very helpful if the employer mentioned by the Deputy — there may well be others——

There are very many.

——were to come along and say that such applicants know there are no jobs. In those circumstances employers should not give them a letter to satisfy their social welfare needs if they know it is not the result of any genuine effort to find work. The reality is there are not as many jobs available as there were but there is an obligation on the offices to seek the information. I shall certainly check the situation the Deputy described.

I refer to the graduate programme and Gradlink. We changed the criteria for our graduate programme on 1 December and that is having an effect. We are investigating it now and marketing it in a better way, using Facebook and other types of technology that graduates would be more likely to access rather than having a poster in the office. I particularly welcome the IBEC Gradlink programme because at the end of that placement graduates will not only have been able to maintain their social welfare benefits but will also get a recognition or certificate from IBEC stating they have experience in management. This will benefit people.

We are out of time but I will take a brief supplementary.

I do not want to hear about a welcome for the IBEC programme. I want to know how the Minister will make her programme work better. The fact that persons will get their social welfare payment is not to the point. People have difficulties, whether of child care or in travel to work if it is any way distant. There is no recompense for that. The social welfare payment will not make it possible for people to travel any great distance.

In summer 2008 the Minister announced a major initiative to tackle the number of young people who find themselves unemployed. That number has increased greatly since then. Are there any new initiatives to try to address this?

The Deputy is right. In summer 2008 we brought together all the facilitators and organised a seminar for them on the education training opportunities and new initiatives that were available to ensure they had the top information to hand. In May 2009 we sent out information leaflets and documents to the under 25 age group advising them of education opportunities they might care to take up. It would be my intention to try to do something of that kind again in the coming months, especially prior to the next academic year. However, as I indicated, I am working also to see what changes can be brought about in the back to education allowance that might facilitate more people.

Social Welfare Code.

Róisín Shortall


67 Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her plans to reform family income supplement to ensure that employment is incentivised for all jobseekers with families. [9234/10]

The family income supplement, FIS, payment provides income support for employees on low earnings with children. The manner in which the value of the payment is calculated is designed to preserve the financial incentive to take up or remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might be only marginally better off on social welfare payments. Fundamental to the design of the FIS scheme is that a person must be engaged in insurable employment for a minimum number of hours — currently 38 hours per fortnight. A couple may combine their hours of employment to meet the qualification criteria. The payment amount is based on a fixed proportion of the gap between the assessable income of the household and prescribed FIS income thresholds. As these thresholds are linked to the number of dependent children in a household, FIS provides an important policy instrument in reducing child poverty in working households as well as improving incentives to work.

An example of how FIS works is as follows. If a family has one parent working full-time and the other working 19 hours a week, with both on the minimum wage, their net income from employment would be approximately €500 per week. If they have four children, they would be entitled to a FIS payment of about €190 per week, as a top-up to their wages, giving them a combined net income from employment and FIS of about €690. If only one parent in the same family was working, and they were in full-time employment at the minimum wage, their gross income from employment would be around €340 per week and their additional income from FIS would be about €280 per week. Their combined net income from employment and FIS would, therefore, be around €620 per week. In both scenarios, they would also be entitled to child benefit of €155.53 per week.

Considerable improvements have been made to FIS since the late 1990s. These have improved its effectiveness as an instrument of support for low-income employees. These changes include a change in how income is assessed — that is, from a gross to net basis — and, in recent years, the refocusing of income thresholds to include additional gains for larger families. Partly as a result of this, and partly reflecting higher levels of take-up, spending on FIS has risen from €33 million in 1997 to an estimated €215 million in 2010.

Increases to FIS thresholds were already announced as part of the budget 2010 package. These increases effectively compensate low-income households on FIS for the necessary reduction in child benefit rates. I do not propose any further significant changes to the qualifying criteria of FIS at this time.

It is very disappointing that the Minister does not propose to reform FIS. It has never been as important as at present, when many families are suffering a reduction in their pay as a result of reduced hours or reduced pay rates. Does the Minister accept there is a real problem with the incentive to work, in particular for families with young children? There were no changes in the last two budgets other than small compensation measures for the reductions in child benefit. There are real problems at present, and all Members come across cases on a regular basis, increasingly so in recent times, where it is really not worth a family's while to go out and work because of low pay. For that reason, I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to this issue.

We should be encouraging as many people as possible to move from welfare to work but the Minister has placed obstacles in the way of many families. I ask her to consider reforming the scheme. For example, the 19-hour rule is not necessarily fair. I came across a group of workers recently who work 37 hours a fortnight, and I know of other workers who work three hours a day, five days a week. There must be flexibility in the scheme if we are to encourage people to avail of any work opportunities that exist. Similarly, the scheme is not available to the self-employed.

I ask the Minister to give consideration to reforming the scheme in these two areas in particular. What everybody should be trying to achieve is that those obstacles that exist for people who wish to move from welfare to work are removed.

With regard to the self-employed, the scheme is designed to help people who are employees. There are other ways of supporting people on low income who are self-employed by bridging a gap between what they can show they are earning and what they would get on jobseeker's allowance.

When one considers the number of people currently benefiting from the scheme, which is growing all the time and is now 26,081, it shows we are responding to the growing need that exists. It is often felt that the right number of people were not actually accessing the scheme yet, when the Department in 2008 examined a review sample of 3,000 families whom they felt should qualify for it, in fact, only 23% of the families were actually eligible. There is a very high rate of awareness rate of this scheme but, while people know it is there, they do not know the criteria. Nonetheless, I accept we need to find as many ways as possible of getting the information across to people, including through the citizens information centres, our own offices and, in particular, employers, as they know exactly what people are actually earning.

With regard to the number of hours that people are working, we must distinguish between part-time and full-time work. While there is no definition of the number of hours which constitutes full-time work, 19 hours would in many cases be far more acceptable than 15. There is probably an argument in what the Deputy says about not taking the number of hours worked all in one week but spreading it out over two weeks. I will certainly consider that to see whether an issue arises.

I do not understand why the Minister says we must distinguish between part-time and full-time work. That is the exact point I am making. We need flexibility in the scheme so that people are encouraged or enabled to take up any job opportunities, even for one or two days a week or for a temporary job of a few hours. We need that kind of flexibility. The scheme as it operates at present was designed for a very different time and there is now a pressing need for the Minister to consider the reforms that could be introduced.

The other glaring problem is that there has been no compensation for the elimination of the early child care supplement. I know the Minister will tell me that people have a year's free preschool care but, overall, in terms of family income, where previously they would have had €1,000 per year per child for the first five years, in real terms that has now been cut to €2,500 in total. Therefore, instead of €5,000 per preschool child, a family now gets €2,500, which is a real and substantial loss in family income. There have been no corresponding compensation measures in the family income supplement to take account of this change.

I ask the Minister to be more flexible and to look at the world of work people are faced with nowadays, where there is flexibility and lots of part-time work, casual work and short-term work. The family income supplement needs to be sufficiently flexible to facilitate people in taking up those job opportunities.

The changes that came about in the family income supplement were designed to support any loss people might experience in regard to the child benefit but I appreciate there was no compensation factor for the early child care supplement. The Department is undertaking a broader review at present of child income support, the value for money review in that area and policy in that area, so it will certainly be examining family income supplement in that context. However, in the current economic circumstances, I cannot foresee a situation where there would be very significant changes that would create a huge financial burden.

In the current circumstances, the Minister needs to facilitate flexibility.

What we need to do is to ensure that those people who qualify would benefit from it.

The Minister is missing the point.

Olwyn Enright


68 Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her plans to change the one-parent family allowance; when she expects to introduce these changes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9231/10]

The Government believes that the current arrangements, whereby a lone parent can receive the one-parent family payment until their child is 22 without any requirement for them to engage in employment, education or training, are not in the best interests of the recipient, their children or society. Despite improvements made to the one-parent family payment over the years, a large proportion of lone parents and their children are still experiencing poverty.

In general, the best route out of poverty is through employment. We recognise that work, particularly full-time work, may not be an option for parents of young children. However, we believe that supporting parents to participate in the labour market once their children have reached an appropriate age will improve both their own economic situation and the social well-being of themselves and their families.

The Department has undertaken a comprehensive review of the one-parent family payment and developed proposals which are designed to prevent long-term dependence on welfare and facilitate financial independence, recognise parental choice with regard to care of young children but with the expectation that parents will not remain outside of the labour force indefinitely, and include an expectation of participation in education, training and employment, with supports provided in this regard. To meet these social policy objectives, the Government is considering various options for limiting the length of time for which the one-parent family payment can be paid, including the age of the youngest child. Any such changes would be phased in over a number of years for existing recipients to enable lone parents to access education and training and to prepare them for their return to the labour market.

The changes will also bring Ireland's support for lone parents more in line with international provisions, where there is a general movement away from long-term and passive income support. The EU countries achieving the best outcomes in terms of tackling child poverty are those that are combining strategies aimed at facilitating access to employment and enabling services — for example, child care — with income support.

We are conscious that many lone parents will need access to education, training and activation measures in order to acquire the skills they will need to gain employment. The Department has been working closely with other agencies to ensure that the broader needs of lone parent families are met and the changes to the one-parent family payment currently being finalised will be progressed in that context.

It is ironic that in the past 13 years of Fianna Fáil in government, at a time of high employment, we have listened to the late Séamus Brennan, as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, and his predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and now the current Minister, Deputy Hanafin, proposing changes to the lone parent allowance. Yet, when it might have been possible for lone parents to be activated into employment, nothing was done. Now that there are far fewer employment opportunities the Government is considering forcing them into employment.

Delegates from various groups representing lone parents attended a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs where they informed us that 84% of lone parents are working, seeking work or engaged in education and training. Their main concern is that there be clarity on when a decision will be made, particularly in regard to the age at which payments will cease for the children of lone parents. When are we likely to get finality — in the words of one of the Minister's colleagues — on this matter? When will people be told where they stand?

The Minister has spoken about the issue of flexibility, something that is of particular importance for lone parents. In regard to poverty traps, will the Minister look at total household income rather than hours worked in calculating entitlement to different social welfare benefits?

I too have met with the various representative groups and found they had a valuable contribution to make to the debate. Many of them undertake independent research which is of particular value. I met some of the groups only last week and will meet a group of lone parents next week in Tallaght, including some very young parents, to ascertain their views.

The original documents that were circulated suggested that the lone parent allowance might cease, without any obligation of work or education, once the child reaches the age of seven. It is my view that seven years of age is too early. Instead, I am considering that payment be ceased when the child reaches the age of 13 years. At that age children are in secondary education and have a longer school day with more after-school activities. Therefore, parents are not in need of full-time child care.

I am working with the Minister of State with responsibility for children on child care issues and I have spoken to the Minister for Education and Science about education activation and training opportunities. I assure the Deputy that any changes will not be brought in suddenly. We must give people notice to enable them to avail of the education and training they will need. There is no question of simply cutting off payment. Hopefully, these people will be able to participate in work or full-time employment. We have noticed that there is a tendency among lone parents to sit on a certain number of hours because of their fear of losing the book.

I do not blame people for sitting on a certain number of hours. The reality is that even three or four additional hours of work means they will lose their lone parent entitlement and therefore be worse off. That is the problem. I support in principle what the Minister is trying to do but the system will not allow it to be done. There will not be sufficient places in education and training, transport will not be provided to those learning facilities and there will not be sufficient child care services to accommodate parents. Children of 13 years still require to be taken care of when they come home from school.

There will have to be a significant change in how the Minister's Department, the Department of Education and Science and FÁS operate if the proposed changes are to be successful. The Minister said she has had discussions with her colleagues. What changes do they propose or what changes has that Minister asked them to make to ensure people have access to the supports they require? There must be a carrot as well as a stick. All we have heard about so far is the stick.

We are not talking about a substantial number of people at any one time, with approximately 2,000 people coming off the payment in a given year. If we start working with those people three or four years in advance, they will be able to benefit——

The Department's facilitators have already seen 20,000 people.

The Deputy must allow the Minister to reply.

If we are talking about a cut-off point of the child reaching 13 years of age, we will have an opportunity, three or four years in advance, to ensure parents are benefiting from education and training. There must be a sea change in cultural attitudes so that lone parents, particularly young parents, are not looking forward to a 22-year time span during which they are not obliged to take any responsibility for their own education and training or advancement into employment. The intention is that facilitators will work with people from the time they make their first application and at regular intervals until their child is 13 years old.

That is not the real world.

In regard to child care provision, there are 1,000 community-based crèches throughout the State in which 30,000 children are being cared for. Lone parents receive good rates in those facilities and are afforded priority of access.

They lose those benefits once they start working.

We have had discussions about ensuring that lone parents who go into employment will continue to access those benefits. The Department is also talking to FÁS about ensuring that the skills courses lone parents may need to avail of do not begin at 8.30 a.m. which would automatically exclude many of them.

Rental Accommodation Scheme.

Olwyn Enright


69 Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the details on the meetings she has had with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with a view to moving persons from rent supplement to the rental accommodation scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9233/10]

The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. The overall aim is to provide short-term assistance, not to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer. There are currently almost 93,200 tenants benefiting from a rent supplement payment, an increase of 55% since the end of 2005. More than half of these are in receipt of payment for more than one year, while more than 33,000 have been receiving payments for 18 months or more.

The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which was introduced in 2004, gives local authorities specific responsibility for meeting the longer-term housing needs of those in receipt of rent supplement for 18 months or more. Details of these cases are notified regularly by the Department to local authorities. Local authorities meet the housing needs of these individuals through a range of approaches including the traditional range of social housing options, the voluntary housing sector and, in particular, the RAS. Latest figures from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government indicate that to date, more than 24,800 transfers from rent supplement have occurred. Since 2005 local authorities have transferred more than 13,400 rent supplement cases to the RAS, while housing authorities have transferred a further 11,413 recipients to other social housing options.

It is accepted that progress in regard to RAS was initially slower than expected. However, the pace of delivery has improved significantly. In total, 14,000 recipients were transferred in 2008 and 2009, achieving the targets set for RAS transfers for these years. The target established for 2010 is 8,000. In addition to this official target, due to the numbers of unsold affordable stock throughout the State, an opportunity has arisen to make use of some of these properties for RAS and it is expected that additional transfers may be possible in 2010.

The Department continues to work closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in ensuring RAS meets its objective of catering for those on long-term rent supplementation while enabling rent supplement to return to its original role of a short-term income support. The Department provides regular reports to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and regular meetings are conducted with the RAS programme managers of the various local authorities.

What is the reason for the difficulties and blockages that have arisen in respect of the RAS? It is my experience and that of colleagues that there are people in receipt of rent supplement for years. I accept the Minister's figure of 33,000 people in receipt of the supplement for more than 18 months, but it seems low. I am aware of people who have been in receipt of it in the long term and do not want to come off it for various reasons, often because of the location of the property they are currently renting. The payment is costing the State €500 million per year.

Is the Minister satisfied that the local authorities are doing enough to ensure there is awareness of the rental accommodation scheme? The Minister has made changes in terms of the payment of rent supplement, with tenants themselves rather than landlords bearing the brunt of those changes. Does the Minister agree that the target for this year is somewhat unambitious? Given that more than 90,000 people are in receipt of rent supplement at a cost of nearly €500 million and that there is such an abundance of vacant rental properties, the target of moving 8,000 to the rental accommodation scheme does not seem very ambitious.

One of the blockages is that many of these people are not the responsibility of the local authority. If the authority houses them, it does not necessarily mean it is reducing its own list. They might be reducing the social welfare lists but they are not reducing the housing list, and in my view, that is one of the blockages. For this reason, last year, we insisted on people having a full housing assessment and when being deemed to be in need of housing that the local authority would take responsibility for them. There is, therefore, some incentive for the local authority to house them. This is one element.

A second element, which I am not sure is fully addressed, is the difference between what one pays as a personal contribution towards rent against what one would pay on the differential rents scheme in Dublin, for example. Under the rent supplement scheme a person pays €24 while the average in Dublin is €58 but the minimum is €25. This may be an issue.

As the Deputy said, we all have constituents who talk to us. A girl came to see me recently who has turned down two offers of housing because they were not in areas she wanted and yet she is still receiving a rent supplement. I can see that this is also a difficulty. Unfortunately the longer she is left on the rent supplement the more secure her children become in school and in that local community and she will only accept a house within that area. These are genuine issues. On the question as to whether the target for this year is under-ambitious, I like targets that can be achieved and as I indicated in my reply, the amount of affordable housing stock available is an opportunity to increase that number.

A brief supplementary question, Deputy Enright.

The Minister has alluded to the existing blockages and I ask what she plans to do to remove them. If a person on rent supplement refuses a house is this decision notified to the Department? There has to be an element of strictness. I agree one must consider people's needs and whether children are in school but there has to be a bit of practicality. This scheme was intended as a temporary measure but it has turned into a permanent arrangement. To be fair to the people on the scheme, it is because of the failure of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to provide adequate housing for people in the first place.

An t-Aire for a final and brief reply.

A total of €500 million for 93,000 people is a good security for those people and it is keeping them in rented accommodation. It also acknowledges the difficulties experienced by those people. What I do not like to see is the scheme being used as a long-term arrangement because it was never designed to be that kind of scheme. Some of the changes we introduced will help to overcome those barriers, such as the amount of personal contribution and the fact that it is now the responsibility of the local authorities. It is hoped that the current surplus of unused and available housing stock may be one solution. My own local housing authority is also anxious that people should not be permitted to make several refusals of housing and my Department is examining this aspect of the scheme and is working closely with the local authorities.

Social Welfare Code.

Olwyn Enright


70 Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons in receipt of mortgage interest supplement for each of the past four years; the cost of same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9235/10]

The mortgage interest supplement scheme provides support for people who have difficulty meeting their mortgage repayments and whose means are insufficient to meet their needs. The scheme provides a short-term income safety net within the overall social welfare system to ensure that people do not suffer hardship due to loss of employment. A supplement in respect of mortgage interest only may be paid to eligible people who are unable to meet their mortgage interest repayments in respect of a house which is their sole place of residence.

The number of persons in receipt of and the cost of the mortgage interest supplement scheme for the last four years is as follows: at the end of 2006 there were 3,420 recipients of mortgage interest supplement and the cost of the scheme was €7.87 million; at the end of 2007 there were 4,110 recipients of mortgage interest supplement and the cost of the scheme was €12.19 million; at the end of 2008 there were 8,090 recipients of mortgage interest supplement and the cost of the scheme was €27.67 million; and at the end of 2009 there were 15,120 recipients of mortgage interest supplement and the cost of the scheme was €60.69 million.

There are currently just over 15,400 people in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, compared to 8,091 recipients in 2008, an increase of 91% in just over 12 months. Expenditure for the years ending December 2009 and December 2008 was €60.7million and €27.7 million, respectively, a 119% increase year on year in terms of outturn.

A review of the administration of the mortgage interest scheme is in progress. The main purpose of the review is to examine how the scheme can best meet its objective of catering for those who require assistance on a short-term basis, where they are unable to meet mortgage interest repayments on their sole place of residence.

The review group includes representatives from my Department, the community welfare service, the Departments of Finance, Environment, Heritage and Local Government, together with a representative from the office of the Financial Regulator. The group is examining trends in programme and administrative costs, the impact of the Financial Regulator's statutory code of practice on mortgage arrears on the mortgage interest supplement scheme and legislative and operational issues arising, including the cap on hours of employment.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The review is also considering whether alternative approaches to achieving the scheme's objectives are warranted in light of recent changes in the economic climate and the mortgage market. The full review should be completed in the coming weeks and the ensuing report will be available for publication in April 2010.

As part of this review, following consultation with the community welfare service, guidelines on specific and immediate operational issues for the community welfare officers operating the scheme have been finalised and were issued in June 2009. The guidelines are available on the Department's website

The answer to my next question is probably contained in the balance of the reply. When is the review group likely to report? The Minister will be aware that last week the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs launched a report on indebtedness. Some of the groups who contributed to that process said that much of the work has been completed and there is concern that the review group will in effect be re-examining the wheel rather than making decisions and issuing conclusions.

A commitment was made to establish a high level independent expert group. Is this a separate body from the review group and is the Minister or her officials on that group?

The biggest concern is the timescale for this report. The Minister has stated there has been an increase of 91% in the numbers in receipt of mortgage interest supplement and in my view this increase could be the same next year if action is not taken in the meantime. When will we see results from the interdepartmental group that has been formed?

I am expecting the report in April. I have met with some of the members of the group to discuss the issues I wanted to ensure were being examined, for example, the cap on employment. They advised me they expect to produce the report in April.

Is this the interdepartmental group or the mortgage interest supplement review group?

The mortgage interest supplement review group because this was a specific scheme. I have also asked the group to examine another matter. The moratorium now in place was last week extended to 12 months instead of six months. This means that a person engaging with his or her bank will be protected from any legal action being taken against them for 12 months from the date of arrears arising. I have asked the group to look at the question of whether mortgage interest supplement should be paid in that first 12 months or whether it would be better to hold the mortgage interest supplement for a subsequent 12 months. It is a case of ensuring that people receive the full benefit from the moratorium, from what the Financial Regulator and the banks are doing and also from social welfare assistance.

It seems we are talking about two different groups. How does the mortgage interest supplement review group and the Minister and her Department fit into the interdepartmental group which was announced by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan? I would assume the Minister is a member of that group rather than her officials as it is a high level group involving Ministers. How does this process fit in and when will that group report? April is still two months away. I am concerned that this will be held up while we are waiting for the mortgage interest supplement review which has been going on now since the Minister has been in power.

If anything the mortgage interest supplement review will be published ahead of the other report which is looking at the wider problem of indebtedness and the issues which have also been examined by the joint committee, such as equity and taking houses and renting them back. It is considering the wider issues relating to home ownership and other forms of debt such as personal debt.

Is the Minister a member of that group?

Senior officials are members of the group but Ministers have not as yet sat down together but this will happen.

Has the Cabinet discussed it now that the group has been announced?

It has been discussed at Cabinet but not as a separate group. We have also discussed the issues at the economic sub-committee. The issues have been raised and discussed in two different fora——

Yet not in the forum which was meant to discuss them.

The Cabinet is a forum for doing this as also is the economic sub-committee. The issues have been discussed at those levels.