Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As Minister for Social Protection, I am acutely aware of the needs of the people who depend on social welfare and the harsh economic circumstances many individuals and families face. The Department of Social Protection currently accounts for approximately 40% of all current Government expenditure. This means that €4 in every €10 that the Government spends is spent on social protection.

The Government will spend €20.5 billion on social welfare this year. The adjustment in social protection spending this year will be limited to €475 million, or just over 2% of the Department's spend. Next year we have to save a further €540 million. Balancing the needs of those dependent on social welfare against the money available is extremely difficult but I assure the House that the Government is doing its utmost to protect the most vulnerable in society.

Just 70 years ago Europe and Britain were at war. Despite that it was possible for progressive leaders to think ahead and lay the foundations for a better society. In 1942 William Beveridge, an English man, set out a programme to eliminate the five giant evils - squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease - through the establishment of the welfare state. It remains today one of the greatest legacies of social democracy.

The twin evils that have to be tackled today if we are to create sustainable economic recovery are unemployment and debt. We all see every day the distress, dashed hopes and hardship they cause. That is why we are dealing with unsustainable mortgage debt though legal reforms and a new advisory service that will strengthen the hand of householders in dealing with the banks. However, there is no economic recovery without jobs.

The Social Welfare Bill will give legislative effect to certain social welfare measures announced in the Budget Statement of December 2011, which are due to come into effect this year, as well as a number of general or miscellaneous amendments to the social welfare code. I am also introducing a number of amendments to occupational pension provision in this Bill.

Despite improvements made to the one-parent family payment over the years and significant spending on supports to lone parents, a large proportion of lone parents and their children still experience poverty and experience much higher at-risk-of-poverty and consistent poverty rates than other working age adults.

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

Changes in the one-parent family payment were introduced in 2010 to make payment until the youngest child reached the age of 14. This Bill contains further changes so that for new recipients, from May 2012, one-parent family payment will be made until the youngest child reaches the age of 12, the age of ten from January 2013, and the age of seven from 2014. For existing recipients there will be a tapered phasing-out period to enable them to access education and training and to prepare parents for their return to the labour market.

Many of those who have been concerned about the measures regarding the one-parent family payment being introduced in this Bill have said that seven is too young and obviously they are concerned about leaving a child alone without adequate child care. They have said it is too young for a parent to make the first steps back to the workplace and too young for the same parent to return to education or training. I entirely agree that seven is too young for anyone to seriously contemplate any of these things without there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place, similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries to whose systems of social protection we aspire. That is why I am undertaking tonight that I will only proceed with the measures to reduce the upper age limit to seven years in the event that I get a credible and bankable commitment on the delivery of such a system of child care by the time of this year's budget. If this is not forthcoming, the measure will not proceed. I will engage with my colleagues, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Education and Skills, to establish a co-ordinated, cross-departmental approach to ensure the required level of services are in place to support lone parents as their youngest child reaches the relevant age thresholds.

I am also conscious that all parents have a responsibility to provide maintenance to their dependent spouses and children. I recognise that many lone parents want to work and to obtain valuable work experience. Therefore, I will shortly bring proposals to Cabinet to open up JobBridge, the national internship scheme, to lone parents because so many of them have expressed an interest to me in the opportunities available through the scheme.

I am introducing a number of amendments to the occupational pension provision in this Bill. These amendments provide a requirement for defined benefits pension schemes to hold a risk reserve in addition to the funding standard requirements set out in the Pensions Act.

The sustainability of pensions into the longer term is a critical issue and the OECD is currently looking at the direction of all pensions policy. The purpose of these amendments is to underpin further the legislative provision applying to defined benefits schemes generally and which to help provide a secure pension for the members of the defined benefits scheme into the future and ensure the sustainability of defined benefits pensions. Defined benefit pension schemes are a very important element of pension provision in Ireland. Following the downturn in the financial markets, the funding standard was suspended in late 2008 to allow the trustees of pension schemes assess the impact of historically high volatility in the financial markets and the significant losses experienced. The amendments I am introducing facilitate the re-introduction of the funding standard.

The proposal in this Bill to introduce a risk reserve will provide a buffer to assist schemes absorb financial shocks in the future and in this regard will enhance the protection of the pension entitlements of scheme members against future volatility in the markets. It is recognised that many defined benefit pension schemes are in deficit and will need time to recover their funding position. It is therefore intended to introduce the risk reserve requirement over an extended time period. The funding standard will be introduced initially and, from 1 January 2016, pension schemes will be required to hold a risk reserve. Schemes will, however, be given up to 11 years from the re-introduction of the funding standard to satisfy the risk reserve requirement.

It is estimated the risk reserve will increase the liabilities of a defined benefit scheme but this will depend on the investment profile of each scheme. Changes to the funding standard guidelines will give credit to schemes that reduce their equity risk and will assist schemes to satisfy their funding requirements. Scheme trustees have options in this regard. Legislation has been introduced to provide for sovereign annuities. The Pensions Board published guidelines to assist potential providers with the development of sovereign annuity products. As part of this initiative, the NTMA will issue, subject to market yields, sovereign bonds of a long duration that will allow pension schemes to better match their assets to their liabilities. In addition, the Pensions Board is giving consideration to the provision of an enforceable employer guarantee to meet the risk reserve requirements.

I will be tabling a number of amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage on voluntary contributions for changes in the rules governing access to the facility to pay voluntary PRSI contributions and for transitional arrangements for the gradual reduction in the age limit of the youngest child for the payment of one parent family benefit. On mortgage interest supplement, I will put in place restrictions on the payment of the supplement to provide that it will not be payable for a person in the first 12 months of the mortgage arrears resolution process as set out in the code of conduct on mortgage arrears applying to mortgage lenders. The intention is that the financial institution would provide at least 12 months forbearance to borrowers in respect of their mortgage obligations and only after this 12 month period would mortgage interest supplement be available.

For data exchange there will be an amendment of section 265(1) on sharing information for student grant purposes to include reference to the Student Support Act 2011. There will also be provision to ensure that PRSI continues to be payable on income relieved under the special assignee relief programme scheme for income tax purposes and provision to provide clarity on share-based remuneration arrangements on which employer PRSI is not chargeable. There will also be changes in the financing arrangements for the social insurance fund arising from Government accounting requirements.

Provision will also be made to extend the household budgeting facility to include additional energy providers that are regulated by the energy regulator and to extend the list of specified bodies to include housing bodies that stand approved of by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to facilitate rent deductions under the HHB scheme for customers of these housing associations.

Under this legislation, it will be a requirement that tenants, who have signed up to the household budget service to have their local authorities differential rent deducted, cannot withdraw from that arrangement without the permission of the local authority.

I am changing the basis of calculating entitlement to jobseeker's benefit from a six-day week to a five-day week.

Welfare fraud is a serious crime and the Department of Social Protection is doing everything it can to crack down on people who abuse the system. It is a small number of people but any amount lost to fraud is significant. When high risk areas are identified targeted control measures are put in place to reduce the risk of fraud and abuse of the system. The Department has begun the phased introduction of the public services card with key security features, including a photograph and signature, which will be used to authenticate the identity of individuals. One of the advantages of the public services card is that it will help to reduce fraud and error which result from the incorrect identification of claimants. Under the existing legislative provisions there is no mandatory requirement for a person to allow for his or her photograph and signature to be captured and reproduced in electronic format for purposes of a PPSN allocation, public services card and claims for social welfare benefits. I will be proposing a change to provide for the introduction of a new condition for any new claim for social welfare payment that the claimant must satisfy the Department as to his or her identity including allowing for electronic capture of photograph and signature.

I am also strengthening the powers of social welfare inspectors to make inquiries in various circumstances at ports and airports and I am strengthening the powers of social welfare inspectors to make inquiries with landlords in connection with rent supplement claims.

There are also changes to the revaluation of scheme benefits under the Pensions Act changes to the issue of guidance and further clarifications to section 50 of the Pension Act on the timeframe required to satisfy pension scheme funding requirements. The proposal to provide a mechanism that requires a pension scheme to wind-up in certain limited circumstances will be brought forward in the next Social Welfare Bill.

On amendments to section 250A of the principal Act to provide that information which an authorised officer receives from a financial institution shall be provided to a social welfare investigator for the purpose of an investigation, I have been advised by Office of the Attorney General that this provision is not necessary and is therefore not included in this Bill.

I will outline the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, collective citations, construction and any necessary commencements and section 2 provides for definitions used throughout this Part of the Bill.

Section 3 provides for an increase in the minimum number of paid PRSI contributions required to be eligible to become a voluntary contributor from 260 to 520.

Sections 4 and 5 make a number of amendments to the one-parent family payment to introduce restrictions on entitlement for families where the youngest child reaches seven years. The age limit of the youngest child is gradually being reduced from age 14 in 2011, to age 12 in 2012, to age 10 in 2013 and to age seven in 2014.

Section 6 amends and extends the list of bodies that are specified in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 as being authorised to use the personal public service number for the purposes of carrying out transactions with members of the public, for sharing personal data and information amongst themselves for the purposes of carrying out relevant transactions, and for exchanging data. The Office of the Pensions Ombudsman is now included and VECs are now specified the purposes of sections 262 to 270 of the Act; they are currently specified for the purposes of section 266 only.

Section 7 provides for an extension to the list of payments that have been excluded from the disqualification of concurrent payment where a person is also on a community employment, CE, scheme. It is now extended to include all weekly and monthly supplements payable under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, that is, if people on community employment can qualify for mortgage interest supplement and the diet supplement, they can receive them.

Part 3 and sections 8 to 26 provide for amendments to the Pensions Act 1990. Sections 8 and 9 provide for the definition of Principal Act for the purposes of Part 3 and for the definition of common terms used in this Act. Section 10 amends section 7A of the Act to provide that any guidance issued by the Pensions Board or any other person specified by regulation under this Act cannot be changed without the prior consent of the Minister. Section 11 amends section 34 to clarify that the Pensions Board can issue guidance in relation to the calculation of the transfer value of pension rights.

Sections 12 to 24 deal with the introduction of risk reserves into the funding standard for the regulation of defined benefit pension schemes. The proposed amendment to the funding standard will require defined benefit pension schemes to hold an additional funding reserve in addition to the level of funding required at present. This amendment will parallel the existing structure and requirements to satisfy the funding standard. In addition to the actuarial funding certificate submitted at present, the trustees of a pension scheme will now be required to submit an actuarial funding reserve certificate and if either certificate indicates that the scheme does not satisfy the funding requirement, the scheme must, except in certain circumstances, submit a funding proposal to the Pensions Board to restore funding by the next certificate date. Section 12inserts definitions for the purpose of this Part IV of the Act.

Section 13 amends section 41 of the Act to disapply the risk reserve requirement to regulatory own funds schemes as those reserve requirements are dealt with in Part IVB of the Act. Section 14 amends section 42 of the Act to require relevant schemes to submit an actuarial funding reserve certificate to indicate whether the scheme satisfies the risk reserve requirement. Section 15 amends section 43 of the Act to specify the date on which the assets and liabilities of the scheme for the purpose of preparing an actuarial funding reserve certificate are assessed and the time frame for submission of the actuarial funding reserve certificate to the Pensions Board.

Section 16 amends section 44 of the Act to set the level of reserve required to be maintained by relevant schemes. The risk reserve will reflect the level of risk undertaken in a scheme's investment strategy. It will be the aggregate of two amounts. The first is 15% of the amount of the funding standard liabilities less the value of EU bonds and cash and any other prescribed assets held. The other is the amount by which the funding standard liabilities would increase on the effective date of the certificate if there was a 0.5% fall in interest rates. As the Minister for Social Protection, I will have the power to prescribe a higher or lower percentage. Section 17 amends section 45 to change the reference from section 44 to section 44(1). This is consequential to the insertion of section 44(2) by section 16.

Section 18 amends section 46 of the Act to specify the matters to which an actuary must have regard when completing an actuarial funding reserve certificate, just as the actuary is already required to do when completing an actuarial funding certificate under that section. Section 19 amends section 47 of the Act to ensure that there is no doubt as to the power of the Minister to prescribe different requirements for different calculations for the purposes of Part IV of the Act. Section 20 amends section 48 to clarify the scheme liabilities which must be discharged before any resources can be returned to an employer on the wind-up of a scheme and to clarify the benefits to which the purchase of an annuity can apply.

Section 21 extends section 49 of the Act to require the trustees of a defined benefit pension scheme to submit an actuarial funding reserve certificate in addition to the submission of an actuarial funding certificate. If either certificate indicates that the scheme does not satisfy the funding requirements, the scheme must, except in certain circumstances, submit a funding proposal to the Pensions Board to restore funding by the next funding certificate date. Section 21 of the Bill amends section 49 of the Pensions Act to provide the Pensions Board with discretion to extend this period in circumstances which will be set out in statutory guidance and approved by the Minister for Social Protection.

Section 22 strengthens the provision in section 50 of the Pensions Act where the trustees of a defined benefit scheme fail to comply with the funding standard. Trustees will now be required to report to the Pensions Board within a prescribed timeframe on the measures taken to restructure scheme benefits on foot of a notice issued by the Pensions Board under section 50 of the Pensions Act. A new subsection (4) is being inserted in section 50 of the Act to empower the Minister for Social Protection to prescribe the guidance issued by the Pensions Board, setting out the form and detailed requirements of an application by scheme trustees to reduce scheme benefits.

Section 23 extends section 51A of the Act to include the completion of funding standard reserve certificates in the responsibilities of actuaries in relation to pension schemes. Section 24 amends section 53E of the Act by deleting the definition of "funding standard liabilities" which is being inserted in section 40 of the Act by section 27. Section 25 amends section 55 of the Act to require the trustees of a pension scheme to include a statement in the annual report indicating whether the scheme satisfies the funding standard reserve requirements. If it does not, it must notify the Pensions Board within a time limit which may be prescribed by me. Section 26 amends section 59G of the Act to require the consent of the trustees to an application of early retirement under the rules of the scheme where the actuary is not satisfied that the scheme satisfies the funding standard reserve requirements.

This Government continues to invest heavily in social protection for its citizens in spite of the economic recession. This reflects the importance attached to supporting the most vulnerable groups in society and to reducing poverty. This must, however, be balanced against the budgetary demands. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to an informed debate and to hearing Members' views on the measures in the Bill.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I will concentrate on the social protection area and will deal with the pensions issue subsequently. There are a number of changes in the pensions area and many people will be concerned about them. They do not appear to affect people immediately but they will further down the road. They are real and substantial changes which must be acknowledged.

There is some benefit to having a cash reserve in pension funds so that not too much of the fund is tied up in property or equities, but one might be concerned that it could be an over-restriction. Taken in conjunction with the pension levy, which was the raid on pension funds last July for the jobs initiative, it is a further attack on people's investment for their old age. I will come to that later. That relates to people who make contributions to their own pension schemes. However, much of what we are dealing with in this Bill relates to payments from the Department of Social Protection, where the Government is making provision for the payment. The legislation makes a number of changes and I will comment on some aspects of the Minister's speech, some issues she is looking at and some items she said she will consider in further detail on Committee Stage. The Bill proposes to increase from 260 to 520 the number of paid PRSI contributions to qualify for the contributory old age pension. That is a change from five years to ten years. This may bring the payment into line with some other entitlements, but some transitional arrangement will have to be made for people who will be short of the 520 contributions. In the past an arrangement was put in place for self-employed people who came into a similar scheme where, although there was a requirement of ten years' contributions, a half pension was allowed to people who had five years' contributions. The same arrangement should apply here. A half pension should be paid to those who have 260 contributions and cannot meet the 520 contributions. The scheme I refer to also involved a refund of PRSI contributions to people who did not qualify for the full pension because they did not have the required number of contributions. I hope refunds can be made on the same basis on this occasion.

This is a bad step and it is harsh on women. I am surprised the Minister is doing this. Many people who have been in the workforce but who left it for a number of years, for a variety of reasons, will find it difficult to make the required number of contributions. Most of these calculations are based on a person's working life and not just on the average contributions in the last number of working years. The average is based on one's working life, beginning when one started working and ending at retirement age. A person's working life will not tally exactly with the actual number of years in the workforce and paying PRSI. This must be examined. The measures impacts on women more than on men. They are the people who will find it hard to make up the extra PRSI contributions. I know the Minister understands the point I am making. On one hand, we look at the total number of years in a working life and than at the contributions over a specific period, which are different.

The main element of the legislation is an attack on one-parent families. Again, I am surprised at the Minister introducing this measure. One-parent families are, by and large, headed by young women. I know 10% or 15% of one-parent families are headed by men but the majority of them whom I deal with on a daily basis are headed by women. This is another attack on women. The Minister may say she is neutral on this issue, but these issues are being raised with me. These measures apply across the board to men and women but the greater number of people affected in this case are women.

I am talking about the phased reduction in the age limit for the youngest qualifying child in a one-parent family from 14 years to seven years. The age limit for the youngest child is being reduced in three steps: from 14 years to 12 years in May 2012; from 12 to ten years in January 2013; and from ten to seven years in January 2014.

I welcome the Minister's statement that she will proceed with the reduction of the upper age limit to seven years only in the event that she gets a credible and bankable commitment from the Government on the delivery of a system of child care by the time of this year's budget. If this is not forthcoming the measure will not proceed. This is an unusual way for Ministers to deal with items of legislation. The Minister has introduced the legislation but makes it clear she will not proceed with it if she does not get what she wants in the forthcoming budget. I hope she is not using the children of one-parent families as pawns in pre-budget negotiations between herself and the Minister for Finance. I welcome the fact that she is prepared not to proceed with this measure but I do not like the fact that single parents and their children will be pawns in budgetary tactics next autumn. The Minister has said that if she does not get a bankable commitment in the forthcoming budget she will not proceed with this measure. It does not help the dignity of one-parent families to be used a bargaining chip in this case. I would prefer if the Minister could say she had achieved her objective rather than put it in a budgetary context.

I note some conflict between the Minister's approach to various issues in the Bill and that of the Minister for Finance. The Bill includes a provision to ensure that PRSI contributions are paid on income relieved under the special assignee relief programme, SARP, scheme for tax purposes. The SARP scheme is an income tax relief scheme introduced by the Minister for Finance in the budget. However, the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill will ensure that PRSI is payable on the income. I suspect the Minister for Social Protection would not have exempted it from income tax either. A tax free scheme was introduced with bells and whistles on budget day by the Minister for Finance. We all congratulated him. If I recall correctly there were two schemes, one for people who were working outside the country for a number of days and the other for people who were coming to work in the country. The Irish taxpayer was to pay high-flying executives private school fees. The Minister for Social Protection has now come with a sting in the tail. These people may not have to pay tax but she will get PRSI from them. I see a contradiction in the messages sent by the Ministers for Finance and Social Protection to the people who will qualify for the SARP schemes.

The Bill also makes provision for clarity on share based remuneration arrangements on which employer's PRSI is not chargeable. This looks like tidying up, from the Minister's point of view. On the one hand, I admire her for sticking to her guns and making sure that employee's and employer's PRSI are charged on both those areas. However, these issues should have been thrashed out on budget day rather than have the Minister for Social Protection clawing back some of the concessions made by the Minister for Finance in the budget.

I hope the Minister succeeds in avoiding the proposed reduction in the age limit for one-parent family allowance. The one-parent family allowance is €188 plus a payment for the children, which is very little.

I have always used the rule of thumb that a person in receipt of one-parent family allowance could earn about €160 per week while retaining the full social welfare payment. The figure may have been slightly lower but when one calculated the disregard and did some rounding up it came to approximately €160 per week. That figure has now been cut to €146. That money is being taken from people who are in the most difficult financial situation.

Section 6 amends the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act which authorises the use of the personal public service, PPS, number for the purpose of carrying out transactions with a number of other public bodies which share personal data and information among themselves for the purpose of carrying out relevant transactions. That will be extended to the Office of the Pensions Ombudsman and vocational education committees, for third level grant and education purposes. I see the purpose of that. However, I recently submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister for Social Protection on the use of the PPS number. It was regarding a public service identifier. I do not know the exact name. I recently had a case where a person had a PRSI number for years yet when they were changing jobs and were put on emergency tax it was discovered that the tax office did not have a record of the PRSI number. In checking the matter I submitted a parliamentary question recently to the Minister. While the Department of Social Protection is the data controller - or someone does it on behalf of the Department - the Revenue Commissioners do not have automatic access to such information. They receive it as required and they only put the numbers into use as required. The information is not shared automatically across Departments. I had not encountered previously that a live PPS number was not live with the Revenue Commissioners even though it had been in existence for years. The number must be physically clocked in as a live number. It is not sufficient for it to be live in the Department of Social Protection for it to be valid and in use in other Departments. Administrative tidying up is required. If the Minister looks at the parliamentary question I tabled recently she will understand exactly the which to which situation I refer. I tabled the same question to the Minister for Finance to get his take on the issue as well. The Minister will see the point I made in that regard.

On the exchange of data and information, it would have been preferable if the system had operated more effectively for the exchange of data between the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners rather than frightening the daylights out of 155,000 pensioners during the Christmas period when they got letters informing them they might have an increased tax liability. They were informed by the Department of Social Protection about their level of social welfare payments. In some situations the tax office was not aware of the level of payment. In some cases the tax office was not aware a payment was being made and in other cases it was not aware of the full details of the payment which resulted in some people getting letters who had an extra tax liability which was a major shock to them. Others got letters which were a major shock to them but it transpired that they did not have a taxable income even though the information in the Department of Social Protection was transferred to the Revenue Commissioners. Some of those who got letters saying they would have to pay more tax were inaccurate. I accept the sending of the letters was a rushed job prior to the Christmas period.

We had a detailed discussion on the matter at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform immediately when we came back in the new year. The Department of Social Protection attended and the Revenue. I do not specifically find fault as I genuinely thought the senior staff in the Department of Social Protection were very competent. I am always praiseworthy of staff from the Department who appear before the Committee of Public Accounts although I am not always as praiseworthy of some other Departments but, in general, the Department does a very good job in the area. However, a more immediate exchange of information must be carried out on a more long-term basis.

I wish to make one other point on the changes the Minister indicated she was considering making during the course of the passage of the Bill. I referred to voluntary contributions. The Minister said she would introduce transition arrangements for the gradual reduction in the age limit of the youngest child. I hope she will put that off altogether or perhaps the Minster for Finance will bring forward a measure in his budget next year and will inform the Minister for Social Protection of his intention prior to Committee Stage so that there will not be a need for her to proceed with her intention in that regard.

Another issue to which I wish to refer is mortgage interest supplement. It is a difficult issue because it affects those who are in the most difficult situations. I refer to the restriction on the payment of mortgage interest relief to provide that the mortgage interest supplement will not be payable to a person for the first 12 years of mortgage arrears resolution - in other words, to those people would have been in receipt of mortgage interest supplement. To get the payment in the first place is quite an achievement. I have come across several genuine cases of where people got mortgages from banks and were able to pay them at the time but when they lost their jobs they applied for the mortgage interest supplement to the community welfare officers and supervisors while all those further up the line said they should not have taken out the mortgage in the first place.

I tabled a parliamentary question on a particular case where a person is paying 6% interest. The Permanent TSB, which is a State-owned bank, is charging that rate. The company in the case to which I refer is Start Mortgages, or one of those other mortgage companies that are on a blacklist in the eyes of many people. Given that the mortgage interest rate a few years ago was higher than the prevailing rate, the community welfare officer and those higher up the line said the individual concerned should not have taken out the mortgage on such an excessive rate in the first place, notwithstanding the fact that if we look at such a mortgage today that kind of mortgage interest rate is compatible with rates being charged by other banks. However, I understand the logic that one cannot give a person mortgage interest supplement if he or she is not paying the mortgage interest.

The Minister might be curious about the next point I wish to raise, which leads me to those who are in a similar situation. I do not wish to give the Minister a bad idea in this regard but the Minister for Finance has had it already. I refer to tax relief at source for the same people who are getting mortgage interest relief. I again tabled a parliamentary question recently asking the Minister for Finance for details on financial institutions that had notified the Revenue Commissioners of accounts that were in arrears. They must have been in arrears for 18 months, at which time the financial institutions notified the Revenue that the people were in arrears and were not paying their mortgage interest and, by definition, their tax relief at source should be suspended. I asked him what arrangements are in place, if a person starts paying their arrears, to get mortgage interest relief again. The situation is that they must apply again for tax relief at source. I was given the figures by way of correspondence because they were not available in the four days available for the reply to the parliamentary question. Up to last year 12,000 people have had their tax relief at source discontinued in recent years as a result of not paying their mortgage. There is logic in that even though the people who are in that situation are getting a double hit in terms of losing their tax relief at source and losing their mortgage interest supplement, which is creating another burden on them. I urge the Minister to examine the matter again, jointly with the Minister for Finance. I understand the cold logic involved but it is very difficult in terms of dealing with the people who are in mortgage arrears who have now lost their job.

The Minister has also proposed changes to the financing arrangements for the social insurance fund arising from Government accounting requirements. I would welcome clarification on the matter in due course. Perhaps in responding to the debate the Minister would explain what that change will mean.

The Minister has indicated that she would like to extend the household budgeting facility to include additional energy providers that are regulated by the energy regulator. That should also include people who will be paying the new water charge in a year or two. I understand the regulator for water will be the energy regulator. The Cabinet decided today that Bord Gáis will be the body under the energy regulator which will be concerned with the household budgeting facility. If Bord Gáis is supplying two services to a household – water and gas - the Minister should factor that into her calculations. It could be possible that water services would be privatised, as responsibility for it is being given to a company that is on the list for the sale of State assets. I will return to the matter on another day with another Minister. However, there is a case for water charges to be included in the household benefits package because it will be provided by a company providing energy to households and it will be regulated by the energy regulator when it is introduced. Perhaps a waiver system will be put in place.

Another issue that will affect many people is the changing of the basis for the calculation of entitlement for jobseeker's benefit from a six-day week to a five-day week. People understand what is involved in that regard. It will make life more difficult for some. It is another example of the cuts that were announced on budget day. I do not need to rehearse them. The Minister knows the list off by heart. Depending on how much time remains I might get a chance to repeat it.

On fraud control measures I would welcome if the Minister could outline the cash savings that have been achieved. I do not like the word "fraud". I prefer to use the term "control measures". In the case of the one-parent family payment, sometimes a person might have earned over the allowed limit and because there is no instant exchange of information between the Revenue and the Department of Social Protection on how much a person is earning one can find that a person has accrued considerable social protection payments that must be refunded to the Department because his or her income has exceeded the level for a number of weeks or months during a particular year. I do not consider that fraud. It is an error. I urge the Minister to ask her staff, in so far as that is possible, not to use the term "fraud" unduly in drafting the Bill. As the Minister correctly indicated, it is only a small minority of people and it gives fodder to people who question those who are in receipt of social welfare, as most of them are fully entitled to what they receive. Most of the projections the Minister gives for control savings are on the basis that the payment is to continue for the next 12 months, 18 months or two years. For several years I have heard figures of €400 million, €500 million and €600 million that have been saved as a result of fraud and control measures. If one were to factor those in over recent years, the social welfare bill should only be approximately €10 billion at this stage because every year another €400 million or €500 million is being saved. These are notional savings. I was a TD for a number of years reading of those savings and by the third or fourth year, the penny dropped and I said that there cannot be savings at this level every year. Through the Minister's good friends and officials at the Committee of Public Accounts, we got the exact formula the Department uses and how many weeks or months it projects the potential saving to be. I would ask the Minister to be a little more specific when she speaks about the cash savings in those areas.

Another issue the Minister mentions affects her Department as well as other Departments and it is one I also want to raise with her. The Minister will strengthen the powers of social welfare inspectors to make inquiries with landlords in connection with rent supplement claims. Obviously, that is a big issue. For a start, legally all landlords are meant to have registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. The number who are registered, which is almost 70,000, relates to almost 100,000 tenancies because tenants come and go during the course of a year. If that tallied with the rent supplement, as I think we all would agree, there should be no landlord in receipt of rent supplement who is not registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board.

However, I have seen an insidious move in this issue in recent times by the Minister with responsibility for housing. The housing forms that are now in vogue in all local authorities state that the person must complete the form in its entirety. A new supplement has been added to the form in County Laois in recent weeks and I am checking whether it is the case in other local authorities. I do not know how many questions are on the form, which extends to 16 pages, and the form can be returned to applicants if they do not give the PRTB number of the landlord. The Government is using tenants in a vulnerable position to get at landlords. Most of these tenants are on social protection payments because they would not get rent supplement if they were not. The Government is using them as the meat in the sandwich to get at landlords for enforcement of tax and registration with the PRTB. It has got to the stage in Laois - perhaps rightly so - and it must be the same everywhere because housing officers do not make unilateral decisions like this, that an application will not be accepted if the address is not registered with the PRTB. I have come across cases where tenants have had to leave private rental accommodation because the landlords were not registered. They could not force the landlord to register and they had to leave the flat or apartment, uproot their family and move on again.

The funny aspect of the PRTB is that the landlord cannot register the property until the tenant moves in and there is a signed lease agreement. One cannot register a lease agreement before one has a lease agreement. The tenant must move in, sign the lease agreement and then that form is sent off to the PRTB where there is often a waiting list. The tenant is relying in good faith that the landlord will do that and the tenant has no control over this. These are the Department's clients or customers because they all are on social protection. If it transpires two or three months later that the landlord has not done that, the tenant must leave that house. That is very unfair on the tenant. There should be some other way through the taxation system of getting at an unregistered landlord without using the person on a social welfare payment who is looking for a rent supplement. I think the Minister gets the point I am making on that issue.

I should say I am standing in for my colleague, Deputy Cowen. When we get to Committee Stage, we will have a number of amendments dealing with this issue.

There are 92,000 families in receipt of the one-parent family payment at a total cost to the Exchequer of approximately €1.1 billion, a number of which will be seriously affected by the changes. The Minister hopes to save €20 million in 2012, and perhaps €100 million in a full year through this reduction combined with other one-parent family payments. This is a very large and severe figure and I would ask the Minister to do so as sensitively as possible.

I would also ask her to reconsider the level of income a person in receipt of that payment can earn without having his or her payment cut because we must encourage people, where possible, to get back into employment, even if it is only part time. Earnings of €160 a week relate only to a part-time job anyway. In most cases, it is a few days on a cash register in a filling station or shop, and recipients should be encouraged to take up such employment.

The other aspect of the Bill which will occupy many people is the level of reserve required to be maintained by pension schemes. The reserve will be the aggregate of two amounts and, generally, approximately 15%. I do not have a problem with that issue. I note the brokers' association has been on to us and we have suggestions and some amendments to make, but I do not see anything wrong with maintaining a certain amount of cash reserve. Over the years most of the money was invested in equities and some of it was invested in property, and we all have seen what can happen to equities and property. It is no harm to have a little old fashioned cash in the bank backing up pension funds. Perhaps one of the reasons brokers are not too happy with it is that they will not make much commission on money sitting in a bank but, in principle, I agree there should be a certain amount of cash reserve in that area.

The Minister must clarify her statement that she will have power to prescribe a higher or lower percentage, and she might tell us whether she will be doing that by statutory instrument or by primary legislation. If we set a figure of 15% in this legislation and while it is all well and good for the Minister to take this enabling provision to herself, it is not good enough that a fundamental issue like this can be changed behind closed doors, as it were, with a statutory instrument. Somebody told me that 26,000 statutory instruments passed through the Oireachtas since its inception and I do not think a single one of them has been changed on the floor of the Dáil. There are 21 days after the Minister signs one in which the Dáil can vote to overturn it, and I do not think that procedure has ever been invoked. The reason I am coming back to that one-----

Deputy Fleming has only one minute left.

I am concluding on this, and I thank the Acting Chairman for telling me that. I am coming back to my first point, that in the private pension area there are approximately 200,000 people on defined benefit schemes and 150,000 people on defined contribution schemes. Obviously, the latter number is rising because nobody is getting into a defined benefit scheme anymore, and one can understand the reason for that. The funding of pension schemes will be made that little bit more difficult by having that cash reserve in addition to the pension levy, where the Government decided, by way of a jobs initiative, to take €500 million per annum out of private pension funds last year and the same again this year. The pension levy is 0.6% of the value of the funds each year for four years which amounts to €2 billion the Minister is taking out of the pension funds. While the Minister is doing her best to protect the solvency of pension funds, the Minister for Finance was in here last year making sure he would raid them to the extent of €500 million a year for each of the next four years. While one Minister is trying to help the pension fund business and people's pension provision for the future, at the same time another Minister is doing the direct opposite.

We will discuss those matters on Committee Stage. I hope the Minister can reconsider some of the draconian amendments she is suggesting, especially in terms of the one-parent family payment.

Ta sé tráthúil go bhfuilimid ag déileáil leis an mBille Leasa Shóisialsigh agus Pinsean 2012 ach ar bhealach eile is trua go bhfuilimid á dhéanamh toisc an stuif atá ins an mBille. Ba chóir go mbeimís i gcónaí ag díriú orthu siúd atá ag brath ar an Stát ó thaobh pinsin agus leasa shóisialta de, ach is í an fhadhb atá agam ná nach bhfuilimid ag cuidiú leo siúd atá ag brath ar an Stát i gcomhthéacs an Bhille seo, ach a mhalairt.

Sinn Féin will be opposing this Bill, regrettably. There are two parts to this Bill. One deals with pensions and in the main is welcome. However, the fact these provisions are tied to odious changes in this Bill, in particular to the one-parent family payment, means that my party must oppose it.

I will set the context, which is very interesting. Hopefully, the Minister will listen to what her party colleague said in regard to similar moves in the past by a Fianna Fáil Government. Less than two years ago, the Fianna Fáil Government dropped the cut-off age for lone parent payments to 14 years. Alongside Sinn Féin, the Labour Party objected to this move on the grounds that the necessary supports and services were not in place. That reality has not changed but now the Labour Party and the Minister are dropping the cut-off age further to seven years. Where do they think seven year olds will go after school, given that, out of school hours, child care provision is practically non-existent, which the Minister accepted earlier?

We are emerging from a decade of revelations about child protection scandals but the Government parties seem to have learned nothing, given they have put such proposals on the agenda today. The Government clearly believes a child does not need parental care and supervision beyond the age of seven. If it did, this would not be in front of us. When it comes to children, this Government is worse than the last. As I said, the last Government reduced the cut-off age by four years whereas this Government is intent on cutting it by seven years. Let us not forget that this Bill follows in the wake of budget 2012, which was a targeted attack on lone parents. The Minister made cuts to their earnings disregards, to payments while on CE and to qualified child payments. Coupled with the cuts to back to school allowance, rent supplement and fuel allowance, the Minister is guilty of a disproportionate attack on lone parents and their children.

Likewise, we are resolutely opposed to the cuts proposed to jobseeker payments. The affected jobseekers have had their hours reduced as a consequence of the recession but the Minister is punishing them for being in this predicament. She has claimed they are nervous about entering the world of full-time work, despite economists of all hues unanimously agreeing that any growth in full-time job opportunities is a long way off in this economy. Tá an Bille Leasa Shóisialaigh agus Pinsean 2012 ag teacht anuas ar na hionsaithe ar thuismitheoirí aonair i mbuiséad 2012. Tá seacht mbliana ró-óg. Tá sé sin le léiriú ins na scéalta ar fad atá curtha chun cinn ag tuismitheoirí atá sa stad sin agus nach bhfuil ábalta brath ar thacaíocht ina gceantair féin nó ó thuismitheoirí eile nó ó cháirde. Níl an córas ann chun aire a thabhairt do pháisti tar éis na scoile nó le linn laethanta saoire scoile, do pháistí idir seacht mbliana agus ceithre bliana déag ach go háirithe, ach do pháistí faoi aois a seacht chomh maith. Níl aon loighic sa mhéid a dúirt an t-Aire níos luaithe, is é sin nach mbéadh aon athrú ar ráta an leasa go dtí go ndéanfar cinnte de go mbeidh na tacaíochtaí sin ar fáil. Ní cóir go dtiocfadh an t-athru seo os comhair an Oireachtais go dtí go bhfuil na tacaíochtaí sin ar fáil sa chéad dul síos. Sin mar is cóir an t-athrú seo a dhéanamh. Nuair a chuirfidh mé leasú chun cinn chun an chuid seo den mBille a scrios, tá súil agam go seasfaidh an t-Aire liom, mar ní chóir go gcuirfear an beart seo chun cinn. Speaking as Labour Party spokesperson on social protection when the Fianna Fáil Government introduced the legislation lowering the cut-off age to 14, the then Deputy Róisín Shortall, now Minister of State, outlined her party’s position, which was the position it took to the polls last year. The Labour Party’s assessment of the Fianna Fáil Bill at that stage is even more relevant to the Labour Party’s own hypocritical offerings which we are debating today. In some ways, I am sorry to have to quote so much from Deputy Shortall but I find myself in agreement with most of what she had to say on the occasion of the introduction of the legislation by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. She stated:

The problem is that the Bill is not about activation; it is about cut-backs and the optics of doing something about long-term welfare recipients. How can one call it activation when in the first instance there are so few jobs of any description available? That is the big issue; the jobs are not there.

The reality has not changed; in fact, it has got worse. The jobs are still not there and that remains the big issue. The live register stands at 434,300, the standardised unemployment rate stands at 14.3% and 185,000 people have been on the live register for more than a year. We currently have more people who are job-ready than there are jobs. The European Vacancy Monitor published in January by the DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion of the European Commission demonstrates there is currently one vacancy for every 50 jobseekers here. While Germany, the Netherlands and Austria enjoy record low unemployment levels, Ireland has 300,000 jobseekers actively seeking just 6,000 vacancies, which is 50 jobseekers for every one vacancy, well above the EU average of nine jobseekers for one vacancy. We can see where our money is going, namely, to create jobs in Germany.

Deputy Shortall continued:

There is no provision for extra training or for extra after-school care for the children of lone parents. There is not even a commitment from the Minister on ring-fencing any money that might be saved for helping welfare claimants into work or training.

For lone parents, the costs of engagement in activation, training and work are higher because the associated parenting responsibility and costs cannot be shared. A 2011 report published by the UCD School of Social Justice demonstrates that even during the so-called boom years, after-school provision remained sparse. It states that between 2002 and 2007 the proportion of households using non-parental child care for pre-school children increased from 42% to 48% whereas the comparable proportion in regard to primary school children remained unchanged at 25%. If anything, as the recession deepens the availability and affordability of these services is getting worse, not better.

Deputy Shortall reminded the Dáil:

Lowering the qualifying age was meant to go hand-in-hand with better child care and training services, the introduction of a parental allowance to replace the one-parent family payment and the ending of the ban on cohabitation. Where are these reforms? There is no sign of them in this Bill.

Nor is there any sign of them in this latest Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. So strongly did she feel on the issue that she accused the then Minister Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív of doing "the dirty work of the former Minister, Deputy Hanafin". Given what is in front of us today, the Minister, Deputy Burton, is continuing that dirty work.

Deputy Shortall went on to say:

The likelihood is that all that will happen is that an extra 12,000 lone parents will transfer to jobseeker payments over the next six years. This will inflate the live register figures by another 12,000 as people on one-parent family payment are not counted at the current time. It is hard to know what the point of all that will be.

This Bill will add thousands more.

The national employment and entitlements service, NEES, and Pathways to Work cannot cope with the current numbers on the live register, and this Bill will compound the situation. The NEES, which is currently being established, does not have the capacity or the infrastructure to meet the needs of those currently on jobseeker's allowance or benefit. Adding even greater numbers to this system will only overburden and further stretch an already struggling system which is in the process of reform.

Sensitive profiling, strong case management and professional development and learning is vital for service providers as is cognisance of and responsiveness to the needs of those on the live register. These needs include mental health, educational attainment, literacy, numeracy, parental responsibility and accessibility and mobility needs. Understanding motivation and coaching and mentoring will be pivotal to the mutual success of the service for users and providers. The service is resource-intensive and requires significant upskilling and training of existing staff. Additional staff will be required as well. There is an acknowledgement of this and this is why the national employment and entitlements service, NEES, will not be in place immediately. It also requires a cultural shift throughout the Department that will take time. All of these changes will require additional resources and staff. To date I have seen no commitment from the Government for additional staff over and above what existed in the various component parts which have been squeezed together to make up the NEES. None of this addresses the fact that the Government will now add to the numbers on the live register of those who will be obliged to engage the services of the NEES.

Previously, Deputy Shortall stated that the single greatest effect of these changes would be to deprive lone parents of the opportunity to take up part-time work. She was correct. This was before the 2012 budget put the boot in and ensured that it would be more difficult, if not impossible, for many lone parents to avail of part-time opportunities or some of the training schemes. The particular rules of the one-parent family scheme, including the earnings disregard and the transitional payments, have enabled a significant proportion of lone parents to engage in work around their parental responsibilities in the past. The Government has eroded or eliminated many of these rules. It appears there is a move to merge the one-parent family payment with the jobseeker's allowance or the single working age payment, a regrettable step.

The Bill before House represents an attempt to do this. The jobseeker's allowance scheme uses a measure of several days work to determine the eligibility for payment. This does not accommodate lone parents who may be able to work for several hours each day while their child is in school and who benefit from such work. This must be changed and a change to the number of hours worked rather than the number of days worked should have been included in the Bill. The Minister has announced several amendments including one to reduce the number of days calculable from six to five. This will represent a significant cut for many of those on part-time or reduced working hours. Such people are under-employed in our society.

The entire jobseeker's allowance scheme and the "genuinely seeking work" condition should be reformed as recommended by the all-party Oireachtas committee last month. The committee recognised that full-time, secure employment is no longer the norm for the majority of those of working age in modern Ireland. Many contracts are based on hours rather than full-time employment or a full day of work. Counting two hours in a given day as if a person worked a full day is no longer appropriate. I hope the Minister will bring forward amendments to this Bill or changes in the next social welfare Bill to reflect the changes in working practices in Ireland. The all-party committee concluded that the jobseeker's allowance rule should be changed to take account of hours rather than days. I understand a further committee report is being prepared by another Deputy which deals with part-time work and under-employment situations. It is intended that this report is will be discussed and passed at the committee meeting next week. Perhaps the Minister will take the time to read it. That report is not authored by myself, unlike the other one. A Government Deputy is responsible for this work and the draft findings I have read are in line with what I have said to date and what many organisations have highlighted in recent years.

The all-party committee also concluded that the 2006 discussion paper proposals for supporting lone parents included an important point of relevance to lone parents and all those of working age. The paper acknowledged that a full-time working week no longer reflects the atypical working patterns of many in Ireland today, especially women. This is increasingly the case. Accordingly, it recommended that to meet the "genuinely seeking work" condition, work amounting to 19 or more hours should be sufficient. Members from all parties in the Oireachtas committee endorsed my recommendation that the "genuinely seeking work" rule be reformed to make it flexible enough to allow all parents to take up whatever work is available and that could be balanced with parental duties. This is especially the case for those parenting alone. The Bill ignores the considered findings of the Oireachtas committee.

Out of disgust at the Fianna Fáil proposal to lower the cut-off age, Deputy Shortall asked whether it was Government policy for 13 year olds to have no parental supervision and to be left to their own devices during the three months of their summer holidays. That was Fianna Fáil policy at the time. However, it turns out that the policy of Deputy Shortall's Government is for eight year olds to have no parental supervision and to be left to their own devices if the parent is in full-time work. The Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, complained at the time that there was no allowance made for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, challenging behavioural patterns or physical or mental health difficulties. Deputy Shortall noted that the parents of these children simply could not be in two place at once. I am putting the question she put to the then Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív. If the parent of a child in those circumstances is required to be at work, what arrangement will the Government put in place to ensure adequate care and protection is provided for young people at risk?

It is not good enough for the Minister to state that she will not proceed with this provision if she does not get a credible and bankable commitment from the Government on the delivery of such a service. I have seen no such system. I have seen no sunset clause in the Bill because it does not exist. There is nothing to suggest the Minister will not proceed with these changes. Nothing is indicated in the list of amendments, which we have not seen although the Bill is due on Committee Stage next Tuesday. There is no reference to any such amendment. The Minister has not guaranteed that any savings will be ring-fenced. There is nothing here. This is a fig leaf for the Minister to hide behind for several weeks, just as she has done with the community employment, CE, review which was to be held and finalised in March. It is the same fig leaf that the Minister has used in respect of the disability allowance. It is the same fig leaf the Minister for Education and Skills used for the DEIS programme cuts. It serves only to take some of the heat out of the Opposition for a few months.

If the Minister believes the logic of her statement today then she would agree with my proposal to delete these provisions from the Bill in their entirety on Committee Stage and wait until the services are in place before proceeding with the changes. There is no point in putting this in place and suggesting that at some stage in future the Minister for Education and Skills will put in place an after-school programme. Such programmes have been promised by every Government under the sun. They have promised to look after the needs and provide the supports required for children but it has not happened. Unless the Minister can guarantee that such supports are in place - it is not sufficient to give a commitment in writing - then she should not proceed with the relevant provisions in any shape or form in this legislation.

Another highly objectionable trait shared by the Fianna Fáil Bill is that they are both steeped in archaic judgmentalism and prejudice. In a scathing critique that is equally applicable to the current Bill , the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Róisín Shortall, as a then Opposition Deputy, stated in reference to the previous Bill:

Allowances are made for lone parents who have suffered a recent bereavement, but why do they stop there? Why are other reasons for lone parenthood, such as abandonment or separation treated any differently? Do people in such circumstances not also need what the Minister describes as time to come to terms with their new status? There would seem to be some element of discrimination ... Do people who have been suddenly abandoned not need the same consideration as people who find themselves suddenly widowed?

Summing up her assessment of a Bill that was only half as bad as the current one, she said of the proposal to lower the cut-off age in respect of lone parent payment:

It reveals the crude recklessness and devil-may-care attitude of the Government regarding the poor in our society. Some of the underlying motivation which concerns me in this Bill is that it would seem that it is not about the welfare or protection of vulnerable people, rather, it is about the welfare and protection of the Government. It is designed to appeal to the prejudices of those sections of the public who believe all lone parents and all jobseekers are sponging off the State. I do not think the Minister should feed that view.

I remind visitors in the Visitors Gallery that clapping is not permitted.

When it comes to lone parent and child income supports, the Government parties have been speaking out of both sides of their mouths. Last weekend the Labour Party Conference passed the following laudable motion:

Conference recognises that the single biggest barrier to the labour market for lone parents is the availability and affordability of child care [ESRI report on Female Participation in the Irish Labour Market 2009] and that the demand for such child care is not being met.

Conference recognises that lone parents of both genders often experience difficulty in accessing work, education and training opportunities because of a lack of good quality affordable child care and after-school care. This means that job choices are often limited and low-paid.

Conference notes the negative impact that budget 2011 had on lone parents and in particular recognises that the cuts in CE schemes impacted significantly on lone parents.

Conference therefore calls on the Labour Party in government to:

- Refrain from imposing any further cuts to benefits for lone parent families that would create further barriers to accessing work and education opportunities;

- Devise a focused and targeted scheme providing high quality, affordable child care for lone parent families;

- Develop a system of mutual obligation, similar to that of Nordic countries where parents are obliged to look for work, and, in return governments are obliged to provide employment and child care supports.

We saw it with child benefit and now in regard to lone parent supports - when it comes to child income supports, the Labour Party makes all the right sounds and then does the opposite in government. I appeal to Labour Party Deputies to think carefully before voting on this Bill. They clearly understand what is the right thing to do. The Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, articulated it well in the last Dáil from the Opposition benches, and their colleagues re-affirmed it last weekend at the party conference. Now it is time for them to have the courage of their convictions by voting against the Bill if the sections the Minister of State rightly identified as unacceptable to her party in opposition are not deleted.

It is ridiculous that we have legislation which purports to deal with two specific areas of social welfare provision, namely, lone parent payments and pensions but which the Minister now tells us will include major changes in 12 additional areas by way of amendments on Committee Stage. As a Whip, I have some idea of the timeframe scheduled for next week in terms of amendments. I understand Committee and Report Stages will be squeezed into a three-hour window, with a guillotine to be imposed next Wednesday. This is deemed sufficient time to deal with amendments from other Members in addition to the amendments the Minister has indicated she will bring forward. That is rushed legislation and it is entirely unacceptable. I urge the Minister to return to the Government Chief Whip and demand a proper Committee Stage debate with the necessary time allocated to tease out all of the details in full. I have tried to use my time today to fast-track some of the debate before next week. I will deal with the proposed cuts in job seeker's allowance and benefit when the amendments are presented. I hope the Minister understands that in terms of any changes in regard to days worked and so on, unless she moves towards the hour mechanism rather than days, it will end up in a cut for those who are underemployed or in part-time work.

In regard to the regulatory provisions relating to defined benefit pension funds, the Bill is a missed opportunity and should go much further. In this regard, I acknowledge the Minister's commitment to address some of the other changes required in terms of pensions in the next Social Welfare Bill. The provisions may have the effect of encouraging some of the funds to invest more prudently and in Ireland's economic recovery, but that is not guaranteed. Irish pension funds fell much harder than those in other countries in large part because they invested so disproportionately in equities. That they continue to do so suggests they have learnt very little either from the dotcom crash in the early 2000s or the latest financial crash. I support the direction in which the Minister is moving, but stronger legislative provisions will be required to ensure greater diversification and prudence in the future. Likewise, this Bill should have been used to ensure more private sector pension funds, currently estimated by the Irish Brokers Association to be valued at some €80 billion, are invested into specific, strategic and employment-intensive investment initiatives here in Ireland. A greater degree of such investment would create jobs and help to dig us out of the hole we are in. I acknowledge the changes that have been made but a great deal more must be done.

Unfortunately, the Acting Chairman has indicated that I have run out of time. I hope the same will not happen on Committee Stage where we will be debating the vast range of issues we have discovered are to be included in a Bill which was originally intended to deal with only two or three. I ask the Minister, in her summing up, to outline how she will give effect to the commitment she made earlier. Will she agree to delete the provision whereby the cut-off point in respect of lone parent support is to be reduced to seven years? In the absence of this and other changes, I am opposed to the Bill.

I propose to share time with Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan, Clare Daly and Mattie McGrath.

I was somewhat surprised by the Minister's opening contribution in the Chamber this evening when she announced her intention to implement the cut reducing to seven years the age limit for the lone parent allowance but stated she recognises that seven is too young to be left without a backup in respect of adequate child care. It is too young for a parent to make the first steps back to the workplace and too young for the same parent to return to education or training. The Minister stated: "I entirely agree that seven is too young for anyone to seriously contemplate any of these things without there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place, similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries." As the previous speaker pointed out, Members have heard this for years but the Minister proposes to try to ascertain whether it can be brought in within two years. I put it to her this simply is a way to maintain the Government's commitment to the troika on cuts and savings while at the same time covering the Minister's political base and alleviating the pressure that was being brought to bear on her by organisations such as Barnardos, the National Women's Council of Ireland and OPEN. Such groups seemingly had good contacts previously with the Minister with regard to the lone parent payments and so on. Deputy Ó Snodaigh also made some excellent points on comments made by former backbenchers in the Dáil while in opposition about cuts to the lone parent allowance and how it would affect badly that group of people and children.

Ultimately, only approximately €7.6 million will be saved by this cut because within the space of a few years, the age limit has been reduced from nearly 18 in 2010 to seven years by 2014. I consider this to constitute the virtual abolition of the lone parent allowance and is yet another attack on a group of people who are known to be particularly vulnerable. The European Union's survey of income and living conditions in 2009 showed that in Ireland, 16.6% of lone-parent families live in consistent poverty, as against a rate of 5.5% among the population as a whole. Moreover, when one talks of lone-parent families, one is referring to one in five Irish families and one in five children. I also ask the Minister to note that 86% of parents in this position are women.

I do not know whether the Minister saw the programme but on last night's edition of "Tonight with Vincent Browne", the economist Jim Power made a stupid, ignorant and offensive remark about lone parenting being a choice. While one might expect something like that, he is supposed to be well educated through our State-supported education system and to display a little more intelligence. It demonstrates there is an attitude among elements of the better-off and those who are well sheltered from the crisis who believe that people in receipt of welfare benefits, including lone parents, are making lifestyle choices, that is, they are too lazy to work and are milking the welfare system for whatever it is worth. This definitely was indicated by the comment made last night by the aforementioned economist, Jim Power. It was an absolutely disgraceful reaction. Unfortunately, such reactions and attitudes are reinforced by Ministers talking about lifestyle choices or massaging the figures to fraudulently claim there is widespread fraud within the social welfare system. In fact, the majority of the approximately 200,000 lone parents work. In 2009, approximately 90,450 people were in receipt of lone parent payments and of that number, 60% were working, most of whom were women working part-time.

The main reasons lone parents are poor include low-paid employment, the problem of affordable child care - with which the Minister is familiar - the lack of family-friendly work arrangements and the lack of after care. I note the Minister states she intends to address the latter, although she will bring in this legislation anyway, thereby forcing many lone parents into part-time work. Such work tends to be in low-paid minimum wage jobs and tend to be in those areas covered by the joint labour committee, JLC, agreements. These are the very workers whose wages and conditions are being attacked by the Government. Another problem facing lone parents is gaining access to training or further education. This means of securing a better paid job again faces the same barrier, namely, the lack of affordable child care. The cost of child care in Ireland is approximately twice the European Union average cost and consequently, Ireland does not have affordable child care.

At the time of the last budget, the Minister stated the best route out of poverty was through paid employment and she reiterated this point in her opening contribution this evening. There are two ways in which to consider this statement. The first is to state that it is true. If the aim is to secure jobs with decent pay and conditions, this implies a serious commitment by the Government to create employment and not the Mickey Mouse schemes and spin that have been evident thus far. It also implies real action to provide affordable child care, training, skilling and opportunities for further education. I believe the JobBridge initiative was even being criticised at the Labour Party conference over the weekend for its inadequacies in respect of providing people with skills and the manner in which it is being used. I note the Minister now suggests that lone parents also are be included in this scheme.

On the other hand, this statement could be a cover for cutting welfare costs by driving people into low-paid minimum wage jobs and into the arms of ruthless exploitative employers. While they still would be trapped in poverty, as a statistic to the State they would be off the live register. I believe the latter possibility to be the approach of the Government. I am greatly concerned by this approach and note that those who attended the meeting held today with representatives of the National Women's Council of Ireland, Barnardos and OPEN will have encountered a highly disgruntled and angry group of people who believed they had been completely disregarded by the Minister in respect of this cut to the child's age with regard to the receipt of lone parent payments. It constitutes a clear attack on these people and on children.

The only other point I wish to make in this regard is that I oppose the reduction of the basis on which jobseeker's benefits are calculated from six days to five days. This again will affect those whose access to jobs, full-time work and so on already has been affected and this measure should not be brought in. The Minister should reverse this measure and my group certainly intends to table an amendment to so do. I intended to focus my remarks on the one-parent family payment because this constitutes the crucial part of this Bill. I believe the Minister is making a mistake and if she really believed what she has stated in this Chamber, she would delay bringing in this cut for three or four years after which, if the adequate child care facilities were in place, she could attempt to make that decision.

I must bring to Deputy Collins's attention that during her contribution, she criticised someone who is outside the House. I also must bring to her attention a comment she made regarding the Minister.

I believe that any discussion on social welfare must be guided by two principles, namely, fairness and social justice. However, those principles are very much under threat and at times, one can discern the manner in which they have been maligned and that those of us who are guided by principles of justice and fairness are almost perceived to be figures of fun who trot out such cliches. However, across the River Liffey in the constituency of Dublin Central, I can see where they are not cliches because there are plenty of examples of unfairness and injustice. Decisions undoubtedly have been made by the Government - regardless of the intention - arising from which the needy and vulnerable are suffering disproportionately. Again, I note terms such as "vulnerable" and "needy" are almost looked upon scornfully by certain sections of society and in the media. Some people in society are not unduly affected by the cuts. I refer to Members of this House, as well as people in certain positions in State, semi-State and private organisations. They are not unduly affected and the significance in this regard lies in the word, "unduly". Obviously, no one wishes to pay additional taxes, direct or otherwise but one must accept that some people can afford to pay more. This brings one to a fairer system of taxation in which those who earn more pay more. Were the State to have such a fairer system of taxation, it would not be making demands on those who are dependent on social welfare. In part, this pertains to the sacred cow of the 12.5% corporate tax rate. One cannot even consider a slight increase in the rate, which would realise significantly more income. At the very least, one should ensure that the full 12.5% is collected.

Various crises in the country have led to the term, "the new poor". People are now entering the social welfare net who would not have been part of that net until recently and consequently, massive demands are being placed on the services. I consider the main criterion to be that social welfare payments should go where they are most needed and that one should not ask those who are totally dependent on social welfare to face any additional burden in respect of further taxes, be they direct or indirect.

The most significant aspect of the Bill is the targeting of payments to one-parent families. As a result of what is envisaged, such payments will eventually cease when the children involved reach the age of seven years. Like previous speakers, I acknowledge the "Seven is too young" campaign. Has there been much engagement between the Department and organisations which work directly with women and children who are particularly vulnerable or is everything guided by the economics and figures involved? A particular report recommended that seven years was a good age at which to cut this payment and suggested lone parents were stuck in a poverty cycle. It also stated there was a need for incentives to move such parents away from social welfare and towards work. There is a need to respect the rights of lone parents whose choice is to remain at home. They must be supported by means of a social welfare payment which allows them to live in dignity. Comparisons were made with the position in the Nordic countries which have very extensive support systems in place for lone parents who wish to work outside the home. I acknowledge what the Minister said about trying to ensure there would be adequate supports available in this country in time. On the question of where are the jobs for people who wish to move, I do not know whether the JobBridge scheme is going to realise the results for which the Minister is hoping.

We have been informed that some 700,000 people, including 200,000 children, are living in poverty in this country. I acknowledge the work of Social Justice Ireland on this matter. It has produced figures which indicate that those among the poorest 10% of the population have an average disposable income of €210. This compares with an average disposable income of €2,276 for those in the richest 10%. Earlier today the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade discussed the issue of development aid and considered the question of sustainable and shared growth in developing countries in Africa in the context of not increasing the grip of the class system. We need to look to ourselves in the context of this matter. Social Justice Ireland has proposed that we broaden the tax base and eliminate those tax breaks which solely benefit those on the highest incomes.

When one considers lone parents, one is obliged to wonder how representative are the memberships of the Dáil and the Seanad of those in this group. One is also obliged to ask how many officials in the IMF and the ECB are lone parents. I am sure those who are have massive support systems in place and are not obliged to deal with the predicament which many lone parents in this country face. We continue to make allowances for and pay obscene salaries and bonuses to bankers and directors. However, we cannot maintain the lone parent allowance at a level which would allow lone parents to retain an element of dignity in their lives.

Community employment schemes provide services for many lone parents. I hope the review will lead to the schemes being strengthened and the elimination of the fears of many of those on such schemes. Disallowing supports to lone parents entering community employment schemes - I refer, in particular, to some of the very vulnerable women on the schemes in my constituency of Dublin Central - makes a savage statement of discrimination against them and their children. Those to whom I refer need more, not fewer, supports. Such supports must come in the form of realistic opportunities in training and education in order that the women concerned do not end up being exploited within the shadow economy, be it black or grey.

On the pension legislation and the attempts to extend further protection to individuals and families, I wonder whether the Government is going far enough in putting in place stringent regulations to ensure pension funds will have sufficient reserves in order that pensions will be fully protected.

My penultimate point relates to rent supplement and I hope social welfare inspectors will take on board what I have to say. Dublin Central is plagued by rogue landlords who are charging exorbitant rents for accommodation which is both appalling and overcrowded. I hope action can be taken to tackle this matter. I am concerned about tenants who are in receipt of rent supplement and who, through their anti-social behaviour, are causing absolute havoc in communities. It seems local authorities are powerless against these individuals. At least in the context of local authority housing, there are procedures which can be employed by officials to deal with tenants who engage in anti-social behaviour. There is too much happening under the radar in respect of this matter.

Earlier this evening I launched a photo exhibition depicting people who had previously worked on Dublin's docks. Obviously, the men in question are all now well advanced in age. They were employed for all of their working lives on the docks where they engaged in extremely hard work in difficult conditions. They paid their taxes and reared their families and are now dependent on their pensions and social welfare payments. It was heartbreaking to hear men who had worked in appalling conditions on the docks acknowledging that they were afraid that further inroads would be made into their pensions. As I travelled to Leinster House after the launch, I was very conscious of that group of elderly people who were completely dependent on their pensions. They cannot take any more cuts and do not deserve to do so.

It is probably ironic that we are debating this Bill on the same day on which I introduced a Private Members' Bill designed to allow for abortion. In the run-up to its introduction, many were clamouring and demanding rights for so-called unborn children. I contrast this with the virtual silence on the deprivation and dire straits many children born in this country experience on a daily basis. A report in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times indicated that, according to the Irish health behaviour in school-aged children survey, in 2010 one in five children in this country had either gone to school or bed hungry because there was not enough food in their homes. This represents a massive increase on the previous figure. In the main, the children to whom I refer are in the lower socio-economic groups and generally quite young.

All of the studies and many of the slightly off-mainstream media outlets have focused on the dramatic rise in the level of inequality in Ireland during the current recession. People in receipt of jobseeker's allowance, lone parent's allowance, etc., are among those experiencing the highest levels of deprivation. In recent years and in statistical terms, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened unacceptably. This was graphically highlighted in the case of lone parents, even prior to the most recent budget. The National Women's Council - thanks to the great work of many of the campaigning groups - was able to reveal at the time that it was lone-parent households which had reported the highest levels of deprivation in Irish society. Almost 63% of individuals from these households experience one or more forms of deprivation. This compares with a figure of 29% for those who experience more than one form of deprivation at an overall State level. Over 44% of individuals in lone-parent households experience two or more forms of deprivation. It must be remembered that 98% of lone parents are women. I do not believe it is possible to repeat these statistics often enough. It is absolutely necessary to view the Bill in context of the fact that the most vulnerable, deprived, marginal and poorest people in our society are lone parents.

What does the Government propose to do about this matter? It has introduced the Bill which actually makes matters worse. This legislation represents what is probably the most dramatic shift in social policy that has ever taken place in Ireland in the treatment of children and parents. It is astounding that the very group which survey after survey has deemed to be the most vulnerable in society is being targeted to shoulder the brunt of the cuts in this instance. It has come as a real shock to those - mainly women - who are in the position of being lone parents and the groups which represent them that these proposals have emanated from a Department which is headed by someone who is both a woman and a Labour Party Minister. People are finding this really difficult to take. What is happening is extremely ironic, particularly when considered in the context of the speech the Minister made when she was her party's spokesperson on finance prior to the previous budget when she made the point that it was reprehensible that cutbacks had been targeted at women and children. She attributed this to the fact that the senior ministerial position was not occupied by a woman, yet here she is in the driving seat and bringing forward what is probably the most regressive measure relating to lone parents and vulnerable children that has ever been introduced. What is happening is disgraceful, particularly when one considers that those who caused the economic crisis, namely, those who engaged in speculation and profiteering in the property market and irresponsible bankers, have left the country to shoulder a massive financial burden. The price being demanded is being put on the shoulders of women and children, which is absolute madness.

We must take a step back. The groups campaigning against this Bill have done us a great service by isolating the shift in policy to which this is leading. The group is Seven is too Young! , and the group does not argue this wilfully. The argument is well founded in international research taking in areas like the United States, where similar legislation has been introduced and the impact of that shift has been devastating to poorer women and their children. We saw very good articles in the newspapers last week signed by leading academics, quoting international research, which indicates that leaving people in a position with no proper child care support means low-income one-parent families are left with the option of either living with children in poverty or taking up very low-paid work and neglecting young children at home. The problems caused by this for society in the long run are almost unquantifiable. It is truly anti-family and anti-women, and this is exemplified in the level of deprivation that already exists.

Previous all-party Oireachtas committees dealing with such issues have argued that there should be no reform of social welfare policy until child care and other supports are in place, which has not happened yet. The idea of pushing lone parents into non-existent training schemes for jobs that are not there - forcing them to abandon children at home when they reach seven years old - is absolutely ridiculous. Even at this late hour I appeal to the Minister to abandon the process, as it is very narrow-minded and will cause significant problems for lone parents. It is completely the wrong way to deal with the economic crisis, as we should be implementing more support rather than less.

I am delighted to be able to comment tonight on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012 and I wish the Minister well on her first year in office. I worked with her in committee for the four years of the previous Government and it is a significant change for her to go from Opposition spokesperson to Minister. She has reformed some aspects of the Department, and she has a certain understanding of these issues as she is a woman and was in opposition for so many years. I thank her for the effort being made on certain new schemes and some bold measures she is taking on. I ask her to stand up for herself and not be afraid of Fine Gael attacks from the likes of Deputy Charles Flanagan, who mentioned that she must have a death wish for the Government. I know she has no death wish and wants to get her policies implemented. I know she has some very good officials working hard in the Department. I do not know why the Acting Chairman finds that funny as he is from south Tipperary as well.

The Minister has a very complex Department with a significant budget. There are pressures arising from the representatives of the troika being in town today but the Department needs a root and branch review. There should be an evaluation of where funds are going. We have seen headlines in the newspapers regarding social welfare fraud, and there is some, but I would love to know its extent. It is easy to say it is there but we can compare that fraud with the blackguarding and criminality that was evident in banks and institutions of the State. Nobody has been arraigned or brought before any court arising from those actions. There is no sign of it either and I know how frustrated the Minister and her colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, are about that. I was frustrated with the last Government in that respect also. The issue sticks in the craw of people, as certain individuals seem to be able to laugh all the way to the bank; they are laughing from inside the banks and abroad as well. We can only consider how people are pursued for social welfare fraud from such a perspective, and it is very hard for people to stomach it. The problem must be tackled with an eye to fairness, equity and respect, and I wish the Minister well in that regard.

I urge caution, particularly with regard to community employment, CE, schemes, of which I am a passionate supporter. I know the Minister did her best in Cabinet to fight off the attacks on such schemes but although she promised a review, it is not happening. We are still in the wilderness and facing a 66% cut in training budgets. We cannot survive that. I have said privately and publicly that we could survive with half the funding and we would take a 30% cut. We cannot take a 66% cut as volunteer bodies cannot afford to keep going. They cannot keep the doors open, paying insurance and everything else, with that cut.

I seek progress on the issue of PRSI for the self-employed. We need those people to stay in business, although many have already gone out of business. We have heard bad stories of people left with bad tastes left in their mouths because they paid PRSI, taxes and VAT in good times while looking after their staff, which most people involved in small businesses do. They work very close and have tight-knit operations. When everything went belly-up, everybody got some support except those people who created jobs; these are the innovators, the shakers and the makers and without them we will not be able to revive the country. We must consider this issue seriously. Those people will pay into a system to provide for a rainy day and would have had to do so anyway. They have now lost whatever pensions or savings they had and have been left penniless and destitute. Banks, the Revenue Commissioners and sheriffs are persecuting them, which is deplorable. We must examine the matter. We have a new poor, and the people I described comprise it, along with small farmers and others.

Rent supplement must be reconsidered, and local authorities which provide housing would be more in touch with that issue. The system is widely abused and we saw for years that when the payment was increased, rents were also increased. People are now being told to negotiate rents with landlords, which is fair enough, although it is not easy if the money is not there. Sometimes it cannot be done and some landlords may tell a tenant to get lost or demand that the balance be paid in cash out of meagre social welfare payments. There is fraud ongoing in that respect. Some of these people are not easy to handle or deal with as they are above and beyond ordinary people, who may be nervous and intimidated because they may be moved from their house and not have a home for their children.

I have already mentioned how the pension funds seem to be raided for everything. I know the National Pensions Reserve Fund was seriously raided for the so-called bailout, which was more of a clean-out at the time. I was told this morning there was a statement on Tipperary radio that we would raid the pension fund in order to fit water meters but I was told that Siemens offered to fit those meters free 18 months or two years ago. I am not saying there are any free lunches and nor would I expect any but I would like a thorough evaluation of how we can gain value for money with a competitive process for people fitting those meters. A sister-in-law of mine was on the television news tonight in connection with a story about a group scheme in Monaghan, where meters were bought for €60 and fitted for €100. How can we be told the cost will be closer to €400?

The Deputy will get another opportunity to speak about that.

Of course I will but I am talking about value for money and how the pension fund is being raided. I will debate the issue with the Acting Chairman any time and on any radio station. We must be very careful about the pension fund, which was hard-earned and is there for the rainy day. It should not be whittled away and repaid over the next 20 years.

We must look again at the cut to lone parents and I support the Seven is too Young! campaign. I compliment the Minister on the JobBridge scheme and I thank her for meeting representatives of Muintir na Tíre on Friday. There is much scope to support community groups through unemployed people who want to give their time to such organisations. We are only talking about €50 extra per week but these people want to give of their time and use the valuable knowledge they have gained through degrees and diplomas. It is a good scheme that must be expanded.

There should be caution exercised on the sick pay issue with regard to private employers. Such people are fading like the snow from the ditch in winter and we must support and reinvigorate their efforts. We cannot be too harsh on them, as we are at present. I am referring not to this Department in particular but to several others; for example, a transport Bill was introduced in the Seanad today with another punitive set of measures dreamed up by a former Minister, Noel Dempsey, in his prime. That Bill should be shredded because business owners will not be able to afford new punitive taxes and levies on lorries. Road hauliers provide valuable employment but they are on their knees. Agricultural contractors are struggling and banks are removing their overdrafts so they cannot get the credit to run their operations. These people may have temporary employees for summer work, like the tourist industry, and they will not be able to afford the sick pay scheme. I am not arguing that sick people should not be looked after but we cannot go from cover for two or three days to cover for four weeks. It is not possible.

The Chairman is looking at me intently so my time must be nearly up.

It is now 11 p.m. and I ask the Deputy to adjourn the debate. His time is almost up and he has less than a minute left.

I will have a lot to say when I return tomorrow.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 April 2012.