Topical Issue Debate

Suicide Prevention

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue. I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for coming in to hear what I have to say and to give her opinion on it.

The lack of priority afforded to the filling of the post of director of the national office of suicide prevention, NOSP, is indicative of the priority the Government is giving this most serious issue of suicide prevention and mental health. In the past 12 months, two directors have departed the office. Geoff Day quit the post expressing concern about the lack of resources and staffing with a budget of €7 million this year and Dr. Susan O'Keeffe, appointed to the role in June, lasted only three months before being poached by the Department of Health. The HSE said the vacancy would be filled by October but the acting director of the office, Martin Rogan, said this would be more likely to happen in mid-November. Once again, it will be filled through an internal process. Can we have confidence this process will ensure the best candidate is recruited? Can we be confident the Department of Health will not seek to poach the new director, as happened previously? It is regrettable that, in the past year, three different directors had to be appointed and there were periods during which nobody was in the post, thus highlighting a lack of leadership and direction in this critical office.

Noel Smith, founder of suicide charity, the 3ts, said, the vacuum at the head of the NOSP was telling about the Government's attitude to suicide. This is happening at a time, unfortunately, that the number of people dying by suicide is increasing. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate among 14 to 24 year olds in the EU and the third highest among young men aged between 15 and 19 while the preliminary figures indicate that 525 people died by suicide last year. I am conscious that only this week a leading psychologist, Dr. Tony Bates, suggested that the intense focus in society on suicide is conditioning some people into thinking that it is a viable option in their options. He talked about focusing on strengthening the mental health of young people rather than emphasising the issue of suicide.

Will the Minister of State confirm that she has devolved responsibility from the senior Minister for mental health? Why does the €35 million which was redirected from the health budget to community mental health services remain largely unspent? If this remains unspent, the cut to mental health funding will be 8%, not 1%. I understand recruitment for a number of positions is ongoing but no one will be appointed prior to 10 December and, therefore, none of the €35 million will be spent. This signals the lack of commitment by the Government to mental health. Following one full year of promising to spend €35 million on community mental health services, it remains unspent.

When will the post of director of the national office of suicide prevention be filled? Is the Minister of State confident adequate resources will be in place to ensure the new director will be able to do his or her job? Is she happy the internal recruitment will deliver the best person for the job and there will not be a repeat of the Department poaching the appointee? Will any of the €35 million budget be spent this year? If so, how much? Will any of this money be used to plug the large deficit in the general health budget? As Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, will she give a clear assurance that the Government's commitment to provide €35 million per annum for community mental health services will be honoured?

I raise this because I have a deep interest in this issue. I am a founder member of the North Westmeath Suicide Prevention Group and I am a member of the cross-party committee on mental health. I acknowledge the Minister of State has a deep commitment to this issue and I hope she will alleviate some of the concerns and fear I have raised.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. It is one I never tire of talking about and it is one in which I have a deep interest. I am glad he has as well. The national office for suicide prevention, NOSP, was established by the HSE in 2005 to implement Reach Out, our national strategy for action on suicide prevention. The national office plays a key role in developing and supporting initiatives related to suicide prevention. Since the launch of Reach Out and the establishment of the office, a significant volume of cross-sectoral work has been undertaken, which has resulted in considerable advances in suicide prevention. Initiatives include the ASIST and Safetalk training programmes; the tough economic times programme; mental health awareness campaigns; supporting voluntary organisations in their work on suicide prevention; and the piloting of a system of suicide crisis assessment nurses working with accident and emergency departments and general practitioners, GPs, which will be rolled out nationally this year. I will explain this to the Deputy, if needs be, when he asks his supplementary questions.

The first director of the national office retired in September 2011 and the position was immediately filled on an acting basis pending the running of an internal competition for the permanent post. The new appointee elected from that competition took up the post in June. Everybody was of the opinion that not alone was the acting director an excellent person, but the person appointed was equally eminently qualified. Unfortunately for the office, that person was soon after selected to play a key role on a new national project and was seconded to the Department of Health in that context on 10 September.

Since that date, the assistant national director for mental health, Mr. Martin Rogan, assumed responsibility for the director's duties. During this time the office has continued to function very effectively. It hosted its major national suicide prevention forum at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham on 10 September, with over 100 participants from the statutory and voluntary sector. It has also published a detailed annual report for 2011, which was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas last week. On 27 September, expressions of interest were again sought from general manager level grades and above within the HSE for the permanent position of director of national office for suicide prevention. The closing date for receipt of applications is 10 October and the interview process will be held on 22 October.

Mental health and, in particular, suicide prevention are priorities for the Government. In this regard a special allocation of €35 million for mental health was announced in budget 2012 in line with the programme for Government commitments. Funding from this special allocation will be used primarily to further strengthen community mental health teams in both adult and children's mental health services and to initiate the provision of psychological and counselling services in primary care, specifically for people with mental health problems. From this allocation, an additional €3 million has been made available to the national office for suicide prevention to implement prioritised suicide prevention initiatives, including GP training in suicide prevention, improving access to services for those who self harm, interconnecting existing suicide prevention helplines and expanding the national mental health awareness media campaign to target men aged 35 and over. If the Deputy has any additional questions, I have no difficulty in answering them.

The Minister of State has outlined the timeframe and I welcome the fact that interviews will be held. I ask the Minister of State to answer a number of points I raised about the level of confidence that the best candidate will be found in the internal process and whether there will be further changes. While there has been someone acting or in the position for the past 12 months, there has been an inconsistency. Chopping and changing the person at the top of any organisation is not good. No one is casting aspersions on the ability of Mr. Martin Rogan but we have had a lack of consistency over the past 12 months in an important national office. A previous director, Mr. Geoff Day, quit and cited concerns about the lack of resources. Is the Minister of State confident adequate resources will be made available to the successful candidate to ensure the office does its job well? This is a serious problem in our country.

How much of the €35 million, to which the Minister of State referred, has been spent? How many additional people have been hired to further strengthen community mental health teams in both adults and children's mental health services and to initiate the provision of psychological and counselling services in primary care? I made a valid point about the 10 December target. Are people being recruited to start on 10 December? Will the €35 million be available next year and will the €35 million for 2013 also be spent? That will amount to €70 million next year.

I hope I remember the Deputy's questions because I cannot find my pen. On the question of whether the internal process will give us the best candidate, I can only judge the history of the people we have recruited. My advice is that the first and the second director were excellent candidates and eminently suitable. I assume the same will be true of this process.

It is pointless giving me €35 million if I cannot recruit. A breach in the embargo was far more important than the sum of €35 million. The 414 additional posts is the key point and these will be in place. They are being recruited as we speak. It may be someone from abroad and there must be checks with the Garda Síochána. Professional credentials and other matters must be taken into account. It is vitally important. The posts will give us a fully fleshed out and robust community mental health team and a psychological service. That is important to me. It will take place on 10 December and it should have been earlier but that is the date because of the checks and balances that had to take place. Is instability a bad thing in an office as vital as the National Office for Suicide Prevention? Of course it is. I have asked the national office to pare back to the bone the advertising and recruiting process because these matters can sometimes drag on. I hope the new director, whether male or female, will bring the stability we need in the office.

Job Losses

Sunday, 7 October will mark one year since 525 people lost their jobs in Waterford with the closure of TalkTalk. The last time I raised the matter of unemployment in Waterford and the south east with the Minister was last June. At that time, the Minister said Waterford was being treated as a special case by development agencies and that this point needed to be reflected elsewhere across Government in order to meet the infrastructural problems in the area. Since then, there has been more joined-up thinking between the Departments and progress has been made. However, generally, the situation in the south east is getting steadily worse. Last week, another 55 jobs were lost at Kel-Tech Engineering and many jobs are being shed, including those at engineering companies, electrical firms and small businesses.

The last time I raised this matter with the Minister, I pointed out that the national unemployment rate in 1989 was 18.7%. In the south-east today it is 20% and the rate in some parts of Waterford city is 25%. The last time I raised the matter, I pointed out that we had seen a significant number of job announcements, such as Allergan Pharmaceuticals Ireland in Westport, Abbott, Big Fish Games, Hewlett-Packard, PayPal in Dundalk, Eli Lilly and Apple in Cork, and Mylan and Cisco Systems in Galway, but nothing in Waterford. That trend has continued. Since June, we have seen Fujitsu in Galway, 350 jobs at Electronic Arts in Galway, 400 jobs at the Northern Trust in Limerick, and further jobs at Radio Systems in Dundalk and Aspen in Dublin but nothing in Waterford. Someone in a senior position in a local authority in Waterford reminded me today that the last major announcement by a foreign multinational in Waterford was 11 years ago.

I received a letter from a small businessman in the city on Monday and he correctly identified the mood in the city. He said that on one day he had spoken to two established traders who believed they are weeks away from closing and he pointed out that the city will lose yet more jobs and services and that other businesses will suffer a knock-on effect.

He says that for most of these businesses, his own included, the only reason doors have remained open is that everyone is taking his or her share of the burden. Suppliers are discounting and trying to keep their own ships afloat and staff are taking pay cuts and reduced working hours while working extremely hard and giving great value to their employers. Landlords are taking a hit and most business owners are taking home little or nothing. That, pretty much, sums up the mood in the business community in the city.

There is another issue, about which we must be careful. Social problems tend to manifest themselves when there are long-term, ingrained and chronically high levels of unemployment. When Garda numbers are being reduced the medium and long-term risks of serious crime heighten considerably. Waterford city, in particular, faces that scenario.

When the Minister has responded I would like to make a suggestion to him.

I thank Deputy Deasy for raising this matter. I understand that Enterprise Ireland was informed in late September that Kel-Tech engineering was facing a situation involving some of its customers which would have a significant immediate impact on the business. Enterprise Ireland has been informed that a number of jobs will be lost immediately, as all the business concerned has been pulled back in-house by the customer.

I am conscious of the anxiety job losses create for the workers involved and their families, as well as the local community. I assure the House that Enterprise Ireland will continue to work with the company to find replacement business for it. The State agencies will make every effort they can to develop new employment opportunities and support existing jobs in Waterford and the south east.

As the Deputy acknowledged, I initiated the south-east employment action plan, following the closure of TalkTalk in 2011, and I instructed all the State players to work together for job creation in the region. The severity of unemployment in the region has been a long-standing problem going back many years and will not change overnight. I have been to Waterford several times this year to ensure the urgent focus on employment in the region is maintained. Notwithstanding the regrettable loss of jobs in Kel-Tech and the entrenched nature of unemployment in the region, some progress is being made, as Deputy Deasy has acknowledged.

The agencies under the remit of my Department are actively focused on bringing employment to the south east. Following my direction to assign a clear priority to the region, the number of IDA company site visits there in the first six months of 2012 was greater than the total for 2010 and 2011, which is a positive indicator of future progress in attracting foreign direct investment to the area. Enterprise Ireland supported the establishment in Waterford of the Eishtec call centre, where employment has reached 230. That was a significant achievement and came from the skill sets in TalkTalk. Former employees of TalkTalk were at the back of that establishment.

Other recent initiatives by Enterprise Ireland include the approval of 14 high quality projects under its competitive feasibility fund, 12 companies being approved for graduate placement. In addition, five community enterprise centres have been approved for funding for full-time business development managers and a high take-up of the Enterprise Ireland innovation voucher scheme has been recorded in Waterford. The two county enterprise boards in the city and county have created 59 new jobs and the South-East Regional Authority has secured EU funding for a number of enterprise and innovation focused projects. Science Foundation Ireland has funded eight research awards to the Waterford Institute of Technology.

While progress has been made under the auspices of the south-east region employment action plan, I believe there is a need to develop new sectors in the region and to upgrade the skills base in general. The enterprise development agencies have adopted a spotlight on Waterford and the south east region and implemented such actions as continue to focus on the sustainability and growth opportunities through intense engagement with their existing client base, building on the potential in cleantech and life sciences for the region, pursuing opportunities for Waterford in the area of cloud computing, e-games, international financial services, e-commerce and other content businesses and building in particular on the evaluation and research strengths in the region. My agencies and I remain committed to working with Deputy Deasy and others to ensure the sharp focus on job creation in the region established under the south-east action plan is maintained.

I am somewhat encouraged that the latest quarterly national household survey data show that employment in the south east, which had fallen by 38,000, or 17%, in the three years to the first quarter of 2011, has stabilised and the latest data show an increase of 1,300 people at work in the past 12 months. This is a small but welcome sign that there is something of a turnaround. That is not to understate the need for a continuing focus on the region, which I will pursue with vigour.

My guess is that 1,300 have left the region.

The figure is for people at work. There are 1,300 more people at work.

I am guessing that 1,300 people have emigrated.

When the jobs were lost in TalkTalk the Government initiated the south-east area action plan. The Minister has shown a real commitment to the region, and I appreciate that. There has been progress in the interdepartmental joined-up thinking process that is important with regard to infrastructure.

At the time, the Minister acknowledged that new industry had not taken hold as strongly in Waterford as in other regions. We know that to be true. Since then, we have seen more site visits organised by the IDA, more itineraries and far more activity by the development agencies. Again, I thank the Minister in that regard. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen any tangible benefits. Much is going on in the Minister's Department. He has been extremely inventive with regard to designing measures to spur employment creation.

I have a suggestion with regard to Waterford and the south east. It would be helpful, in order to maintain the focus of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland on the south east and Waterford, for the Minister's Department to arrange briefings, at least quarterly, with officials of the Department, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland on their efforts to bring industry to Waterford and the south east. If necessary, this could be done on a confidential basis.

The situation is getting worse. I appreciate the efforts of the Minister and his officials to date. However, a new protocol needs to be put in place to make sure the level of intensity by the development agencies does not fall away. This is a very serious situation and new arrangements have a place. I hope the Minister can help in facilitating that arrangement.

I thank Deputy Deasy for his constructive approach. I already have regular follow-up meetings with the various agencies which have made commitments. We have structured those into a programme against which people measure performance and movement and we have a better matrix and vision of what the various agencies are doing. We are getting a level of collaboration that was not there before.

We would like to see more flagship projects to show progress. The data I quoted, however, at least show that enterprise in Waterford, as in the rest of the country, is undergoing a transformation. Good stories are coming out of Waterford, just as there are continuing difficulties in some sectors.

I would be happy to meet public representatives from the region on a regular basis and update them on what is happening. I would be happy to organise that. I go to Waterford and meet groups, particularly those within my own remit, but also other important regional players such as the city and county managers and Waterford Institute of Technology.

I thank the Minister and I appreciate his offer. It is important the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the people who are active on the ground and doing their job in the region would be included in these meetings.

When I go to the south east, I work with authorities that are well beyond my own departmental remit. It is vital that we bring in other players and get joined-up thinking. I would be quite happy to have representatives of my agencies come with me to meet Deputies in the region.

Gangland Killings

The past number of weeks have seen an escalation of gang violence in the streets of Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland. This poses a number of challenges to the State and our communities. I am glad to have the opportunity to raise these challenges with the Minister and to ask him to ensure that adequate steps are taken to address them.

The spectre of gang violence on our streets poses a threat to the safety of the public and to people's lives. Moreover, it poses a threat to the rule of law. It is a direct challenge to the authority of the State, a challenge that must be faced down immediately. This goes to the core of the State's credibility. When this type of violence is allowed to occur, it poses a question as to who controls our streets. Is it not the State that decides who has the authority to use guns on the streets, an authority that is vested in a very select few people who are well trained and committed to guarding the peace? This authority must be upheld.

The State also lays down assumptions about how civil society should work. People should be able to live their lives free of fear, intimidation, the threat of guns and the illegitimate taking of life. They should have the freedom to raise a family in peace and safety. These are values that the State nominally places at a very high level, but they are being eroded and undermined. The challenge that the criminal use of guns poses, and the by-product of this at community level in engendering fear, undermining public safety and undermining the rule of law, weakens the legitimate expectations and aspirations of citizens in a modern state.

The spectre of brutal violence on our streets also poses a major challenge to our communities. A sense of community pride and neighbourhood, and a feeling of safety within a community, should be a given. However, when violence is brought onto people's doorsteps, it has the potential to seriously undermine the community. The disposition of 99% of people in any community is to contribute, to enjoy their homes and their area. A community is the product of the voluntary efforts of the people in an area. A community has the right to define itself by what it achieves through its collective efforts, rather than being unfairly branded by the acts of individual gunmen. Cherry Orchard, for example, is now a vibrant area which has fought hard to overcome a difficult start, to secure services and to build a community. It is now home to a leading football club, employment projects, a men's club, crèches, a brilliant new school and a children's orchestra that has famously represented the city in concert halls abroad and on RTE. This is a community that has grown together; it is a good news story. However, the single image on last Friday's news of a man gunned down on his doorstep can undermine that and undo decades of community building.

The recent escalation of gun violence associated with organised crime poses twin challenges to the authority of the State and to the rights of our communities, and the families and individuals within them. It places us precariously at the top of a slippery slope. Are we going to recognise that we have stepped onto this very slippery slope? Do we recognise the danger of the spectre which lies at the bottom of this slope? Are we prepared to take action to stop the slide?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue which is clearly a source of great concern to him, all Members of this House, the Government and particularly to me. I share the widespread outrage at the type of criminality to which the Deputy refers and I fully appreciate the concerns of communities, including the Cherry Orchard community, who find this violence taking place on their local streets.

We have all been shocked by the callous murders and other serious crimes which have been carried out recently. The brutal nature of these crimes is a stark reminder of the mentality of those involved in organised criminality and the danger which they pose to our society. I am in ongoing regular contact with the Garda Commissioner about all aspects of serious crime. The Garda will continue to bear down heavily on the activities of those involved in gangland crime, uphold the rule of law and ensure the authority of the State is respected. That is clear from the extent of the Garda operations launched against gangs as well as the many drug seizures that have taken place in recent months and weeks.

I should also mention the most recent recorded crime statistics, which were released last week and which show that most categories of crime are decreasing in number. That reflects well on the work of An Garda Síochána at all levels. The figures showed that in the 12 month period to the end of June the incidence of murder had decreased by 8% and assault offences were down by 9.7%. Of course, we have experienced a particularly bad week with a series of murders in different parts of the country, some of which are known to be gangland murders.

We should not underestimate the difficulties the Garda faces in trying to prevent gangland killings and related crimes and in bringing the perpetrators to justice. These crimes are carefully planned and are carried out by people who are very familiar with criminal and forensic investigation techniques. Moreover, even where members of gangs are clearly at risk, not only will they generally not co-operate with the Garda but they will do everything they can to avoid Garda attention.

Some have characterised the issues in this area as budgetary matters. There are no budgetary issues that in any way inhibit the Garda addressing the issue of gangland crime or the horrific and barbaric atrocities that have taken place, visiting death on a number of individuals. There has been gangland violence for some time in Ireland, and the number of murders was a good deal higher when Garda numbers were higher than they are today. It is also unrealistic to expect that the Garda Commissioner can devote his entire resources to individually protecting people who are routinely trying to avoid the Garda so they can continue to engage in criminality. Such an approach could only come at the expense of ordinary Garda activity to protect the community generally.

Ultimately, the only effective way to combat organised crime is by disrupting and prosecuting those involved in its operations, and especially the drugs trade which is at the heart of much of its profits. Substantial efforts by An Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise are therefore devoted to damaging this lucrative business. Only last week gardaí seized a major cache of drugs in Dublin, valued at €1.5 million, and a number of persons are charged before the courts as a result.

I also share the general concern about the incidence of attacks and attempted attacks using pipe bombs, which has become more frequent. I am particularly familiar with this because as Minister for Justice and Equality I am familiar with the Garda involvement and as Minister for Defence I am aware of the involvement of the specialist group within the Defence Forces which is too regularly called out to neutralise improvised explosive devices of some description or other. There are substantial Garda operations in place to tackle this problem, with strategies firmly focused on disrupting the use of pipe bombs and bringing those involved before the courts. Indeed, Deputies will be aware of the significant Garda action taking place in Dublin city today in this regard. Furthermore, there are substantial penalties available to the courts following conviction for explosives-related offences, including a penalty of life imprisonment for causing an explosion likely to endanger life.

As Minister, I will continue, with the full support of the Government, to do everything in my power to assist the Garda in its work. There is already very strong anti-gangland legislation in place and I have made it clear to the Garda Commissioner that if he feels there are other measures which might be taken in this area, I will examine them positively. However, the issue the Deputy raises is not something that can be resolved by simple legislative solutions. If that were the case, an ideal legislative measure would have been enacted a long time ago.

Despite the difficulties gardaí encounter, the Garda has been able to bring people before the courts, particularly in respect of a number of high profile killings in the past couple of years, even though it will be some time before those cases are concluded. Arrests have been made in respect of a number of the recent killings. The Garda Commissioner has my full support in continuing to confront this type of criminality and in bringing those involved to justice. I take this opportunity to congratulate him and all the members of An Garda Síochána on their successes in tackling serious crime in all forms.

As far as I am concerned, we are not on a slippery slope.

The rule of law in the State will be upheld and we will surrender no part of this country to any criminal gang of any description, nor will we do so to the criminal gang made up by the so-called Real IRA.

I thank the Minister for his response. The escalation of gangland crime has the potential to undermine the authority of the State, to throw communities in Dublin into disarray and to undermine the excellent community-building work that is done in places like Cherry Orchard and elsewhere. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Shatter's recent commitment to "resolutely support the gardaí in every way we can in counteracting this evil menace in our society". This will require resources and it may also require legislation. The Minister has asked his officials to review the Criminal Justice (Amendment) 2009 with a view to strengthening it. Could the Minister let us know when we can expect to see the outcome of this review, and what new measures he proposes to introduce?

I would expect the review to be complete by the end of the year. As the Deputy said on the issue, it is important we take account of the fact the Garda has been successful in bringing to justice a number of people who have been brought before our courts and found guilty of the most heinous offences. The Garda is vigorously investigating the recent offences that resulted in the deaths of a number of people. I must be careful in what I say that I do not prejudice any prosecution that may take place but there have already been arrests made and further arrests are anticipated. The Garda is doing everything it can to prevent gangs from continuing with their activities and we have some so-called former prominent criminals in the prison system.

Unfortunately, however, when individuals are committed to crime and have no respect for human life, when they seek substantial monetary gain for themselves by the importation or sale of drugs and when they compete with other gangs, the sad reality is that it leads to violence. The Garda is doing all it can to disrupt gangland activity.

It is a great pity that many of those engaging in thuggery and barbarism, with no respect for the people who live in their local communities, do not take cognisance of the fact that the history of drug gangs in this State and elsewhere is that whatever brief feelings of power they have and for whatever brief period they gain wealth from their activities, most of these individuals have brief lives of violence that end violently. I am sure they do no listen to what we say here but it is time they considered the impact on their families and communities as a result of their conduct.

As Minister for Justice and Equality, I want to re-emphasise that we are not on a slippery slope. We have a superbly professional police force in the Garda Síochána led by an extraordinarily good Commissioner and under him very talented Assistant Commissioners. Substantial work is being done by the specialist units within the Garda Síochána to target the gangs engaged in criminality, to investigate events that have taken place and to prevent crime. I have full confidence in the Garda, as does the general community.

Social Welfare Benefits Applications

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue today. In these times of severe economic difficulty, people are under tremendous pressure to make ends meet and some are finding it extremely difficult to keep going. If in times like these a worker is unlucky enough to lose his job, he can avail of social welfare, which will ease the burden somewhat. There is, however, another branch of society that historically found it even more difficult to keep going in hard times, the self-employed. I was on local radio a short time ago and people were ringing in, saying they were unemployed and finding it difficult to access social welfare. They also told me family resource centres are where the self-employed tend to look for entitlements. There is a myth that a self-employed person is not entitled to any social welfare payments. This is simply untrue but the myth is sometimes perpetuated. Since I was elected, I find a great deal of politics is about perception rather than hard fact. We should promote the message among the self-employed that help is available from social welfare.

Another problem is that those who need help think they must de-register as self-employed workers to avail of social welfare, which is yet another myth. I call for forward planning in better times. Would it not be possible to design a scheme for self-employed people to pay into? At present, they pay S class PRSI that does not entitle them to the full range of social welfare benefits. Given that the recession has thrown up such difficulties for the self-employed, we should design a scheme that would be of some help to them in the future. A companies Bill will be introduced shortly in the House. Could such a scheme be considered in that Bill as it would relate to sole traders and the self-employed?

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue and I welcome Deputy Phelan also raising this important topic.

We are all aware of the hardships being faced by many people currently. When someone is made unemployed, paying the bills and mortgage, while putting food on the table, is a daunting prospect. While some supports are available to help those in need, life is still a struggle. As it stands, however, the self-employed who find themselves in a similar situation are not entitled to that support and are left with nothing. That is not right and should not be allowed to continue. While social welfare may be available through jobseeker's assistance, jumping through the necessary hoops to show they have a need and can satisfy the means test is very difficult for self-employed people.

There is a high level of unemployment and many were self-employed but because of their status, they are not entitled to jobseeker's benefit or disability benefits, which can have untold consequences on the individual and his or her family. I realise a situation exists where on an actuarial basis self-employed contributors receive a lot more than they contribute to the Social Insurance Fund. These people must be protected when they are unemployed, however, like every other person. By doubling self-employment contributions from 4% to 8%, with such qualifying contributions being made for no less than 104 weeks, we could provide for such people to be eligible for jobseeker's benefit and disability benefits without it having a massive impact on the Social Insurance Fund.

The Minister for Social Protection previously suggested voluntary contributions could be an option but I disagree. We have already seen how voluntary contributions worked for fishermen, with only 20 individuals availing of this option in 2009 out of 1,400 fishermen. Many of them subsequently probably regret the decision not to pay the additional contributions. It is for that reason the contributions must be mandatory for the system to work.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. Self-employed individuals who have fallen on hard times or who are without work for some time may establish entitlement to assistance-based payments.

Those who have been previously self-employed can apply for the means-tested jobseeker's allowance if their business ceases or if they are on low income as a result of a downturn in demand for their services. In general, their means will take account of the level of earnings in the last 12 months in determining their expected income for the following year and, in the current climate, account is taken of the downward trend in the economy. As in the case of a non-self-employed claimant for assistance-based payments, the means of husband or wife, civil partner or cohabitant will be taken into account in deciding on entitlement to a payment.

As for social insurance benefits, self-employed persons are liable for PRSI at the class S rate of 4%, which entitles them to access long-term benefits such as State pension, contributory, and widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's pension, contributory. Ordinary employees who have access to the full range of social insurance benefits pay class A PRSI at the rate of 4%. In addition, their employers make a PRSI contribution of 10.75% in respect of such employees, resulting in the payment of a combined 14.75% rate per employee under full-rate PRSI class A. I note that for employees earning less than €356 per week, the rate of employer's PRSI is 4.25%.

The issue of providing access to short-term benefits to the self-employed was examined in the recently published third actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund, as at 31 December 2010. The report on the review was completed by consultants KPMG in June 2012 and laid before each House of the Oireachtas on 24 August 2012. The review covers a 55-year period from 2011 to 2066 and builds on the findings of the 2000 and 2005 actuarial reviews of the fund. The scope of the 2010 review was to update the results of the 2005 review, taking account of the policy, economic and demographic changes with particular reference to income and expenditure projections, as well as break-even contribution rates. The review also considered the effects of the various policy options, existing Government commitments and planned reforms. One of the issues examined in the review was the long-term cost implications to the Social Insurance Fund, SIF, and the break-even contributions rates required to provide invalidity pensions to the self-employed and to provide jobseeker's benefit for self-employed workers. The report found that the effective annual rate of contribution or the required contribution as a percentage of salary needed to provide the core full-rate State pension, contributory, which is the benefit currently available to self-employed contributors, is approximately 15%. This compares favourably with the 4% rate currently paid by the self-employed. An incremental increase in contribution rates from approximately 15% to 16% would be required were jobseeker's benefit, in addition to core State pension, contributory, to be provided. The average contribution rate required for the core State pension, contributory, plus jobseeker's benefit and the invalidity pension is estimated to be approximately 17.3%.

Last year the Minister for Social Protection established an advisory group on tax and social welfare and one issue currently under consideration by the group is that of providing social insurance cover for self-employed persons to establish whether such cover is technically feasible and financially sustainable.

I accept the points made by the Minister of State. A contribution of 17.3% would constitute a significant increase. However, I will await the outcome and advice provided by the aforementioned advisory group on tax and social welfare. I still believe this matter is worth pursuing because this recession has revealed that unless we learn the lessons from the mistakes we made in the past, we are bound to repeat them. I encounter much misery at present and while I acknowledge people may not wish to pay an average of almost 17.5%, the other side of the coin is their current plight is not a nice scenario either. Consequently, this is a matter that should be pursued.

This issue should not be considered solely on the basis of an actuarial review. It is cold comfort to those in their mid-30s, who had started a business and who perhaps provided employment in the past, to think they will benefit greatly when they reach pensionable age having paid their contributions as self-employed people. In 2011, 2,300 people started businesses in Ireland. These people are classified as being self-employed and are those whom it is hoped will employ others in the future. Consequently, such a measure should be considered as a stimulus package. Members should take the perspective that people who are self-employed are probably less likely to become unemployed or to be unemployed for long periods but that they need social protection and social benefits. Consequently, the overall benefits of having a system in which self-employed people can enjoy some protection, in the form of a social welfare benefit during short periods of unemployment, far outweigh any of the potential costs. Serious consideration should be given to this possibility. Moreover, initially there would be substantial benefits to the Social Insurance Fund because the additional contributions would help to partially close the existing deficit. Consequently, I ask that serious consideration be given to this proposal.

The advisory group's overall method of work is based on producing modular reports on the priority areas identified in the terms of reference. Where possible, the aim is to provide recommendations that can be acted on in time for the annual budget, Estimates and legislative cycle and to allow the Government to best address its commitments under the EU-IMF programme of financial support. I completely understand the points made by Deputies Pringle and Phelan regarding the issue of getting support for those who are self-employed and are in business. I fully appreciate the point that they find it very difficult if they go out of business. The group has been considering the issue of social insurance coverage for the self-employed and will submit its report once its examination of the various questions has been completed. Any proposals to extend additional cover to the self-employed must be considered in a budgetary context, taking account of the finding of the actuarial review that the self-employed achieve very good value for money compared with the employed when the comparison includes both employer and employee contributions in respect of the employed person. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, will study this report and its recommendations very closely and will take on board the views expressed today by the Deputies. Obviously, the publication of that report will be an occasion for further debate in this regard.