Other Questions

Departmental Investigations

Dessie Ellis

Question:

60. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of personnel involved in the investigation unit of her Department; the number of joint checkpoints with An Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise there were in each of the past five years; and a regional breakdown of those checkpoints. [33264/13]

There is a total of 91 staff assigned to the Department’s special investigation unit, SIU, and their function is to investigate and report on fraud and abuse within the social welfare system. As part of a range of initiatives to prevent and detect fraud, the unit participates in multi-agency vehicle checks, MAVCs, on an ongoing basis. Members are probably familiar with them. These are primarily set up by An Garda Síochána and are planned in consultation with other participating agencies such as the Revenue Commissioners and my Department. MAVCs facilitate an approach whereby all agencies can comprehensively identify individuals engaged in vehicle tax evasion, road traffic irregularities or social welfare and tax fraud in particular locations.

In line with powers that are specifically provided for in social welfare legislation, SIU officers participate in these checkpoints in the detection and prevention of social welfare fraud. The general focus of inquiries is related to individuals driving commercial vehicles – haulage, transport and taxi – including those at taxi ranks at airports. Where inquiries suggest that irregularities have occurred, they are pursued further. A significant number of cases are subject to court procedures subsequently.

Statistics on MAVCs undertaken by the SIU have only been collated with effect from 2010. In the period 2010 to date, there was a total of 230 MAVCs. Up to the end of May 2013, there was a total of 24 checkpoints across the Department’s regional network.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In the Border, midland and western regions, a total of 33 checkpoints were put in place with An Garda Síochána and Revenue in 2010, and there were 30 in 2011 and 25 in 2012. In the southern and south-eastern regions, a total of 28 checkpoints were put in place with An Garda Síochána and Revenue in 2010, and there were 29 in 2011 and 29 in 2012. In the Dublin region, no checkpoints were put in place in 2010, and a total of 18 were put in place in 2011 and 14 in 2012. Up to the end of May 2013, a total of 24 checkpoints were put in place across the Department’s regional network. I believe that these checks are a very useful element of the overall control activities undertaken by the SIU and they facilitate a joined-up and integrated approach to the investigation of a range of offences.

I welcome the response. On looking at the figures, it will be interesting to see the exact extent and success of the project announced, which was aimed specifically at those involved in the transport network who had been abusing the social welfare code.

The full benefit of this to the Department will be interesting. Many hours were spent on this issue, with 230 checkpoints over two and a half years. I hope this will have the benefit of not only recouping money to the Department but also of discouraging others. Will the Minister outline the number of people who have been charged as a consequence of these checkpoints? Do Garda immigration officials also participate at these checkpoints? It has been indicated in the past there was significant fraud in the immigration area. Sometimes the truth is that this is not the case.

I will get the Deputy the detailed figures, but in 2010, for instance, 2,400 people were questioned; in 2011, 3,400 people were interviewed as a consequence of checkpoints; in 2012, 2,672 people were interviewed; and so far this year there have been 24 checkpoints and 20 detections, resulting in a saving of approximately €130,000. I refer to a number of examples. Members will be familiar with inspections at taxi ranks which are popular with legitimate taxi drivers, both at the airport and other ranks. At an MAVC the driver of a Volkswagen Caddy was interviewed by the SIU. He described himself as a self-employed IT engineer working on contract to various companies with no employees. On checking with Revenue, he had made no return since 2006. Revenue carried out an audit, agreed a settlement of €30,500 and the individual concerned made a payment in full within one month of being interviewed. He was obviously fully occupied but not paying tax. Elsewhere, a passenger in a van being driven by someone in the building trade admitted that he was working for the driver and gave a false name. Further investigations revealed his true identity and the employer co-operated to give details of his earnings. He was in receipt of social welfare payments and subsequently interviewed under caution. His case has been recommended for prosecution. People who have been out sick sign off soon after being stopped at a checkpoint.

It is early days in the context of figures and it can be difficult to gauge success, but it must be a success based on the cases mentioned by the Minister which resulted in the recoupment of €130,000. How many people have suddenly signed off after being interviewed? Are the checkpoint interviews detailed or is there only cursory questioning relating to name, address, PPS number and so on? Are people called to a subsequent more detailed interview?

I will get the Deputy a more detailed answer on the numbers and actions taken by the Garda. Gardaí take over if there is evidence of a criminal offence and prosecutions take time, but a number of people have appeared before the courts. For example, a social welfare customer with a Dublin address was interviewed. He was driving a van with the name of a courier service on the side. He said he was too busy at work and had not got a chance to sign off. He then signed off, but unless documentation such as invoices is found in the van, it may be impossible to prosecute. Perhaps his brother had just given him a job the previous day.

In that case, however, his jobseeker's allowance would have been terminated. If the issue appears to be more serious, it will be the subject of investigation and the Garda and the tax authorities may be involved.

Rent Supplement Scheme Administration

Dara Calleary

Question:

61. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Social Protection the actions her Department has planned to ensure that rent supplement is only used as a short-term solution to the current backlog in social housing; the plans she has to ensure that the 43,891 persons who have claimed rent supplement support for more than 18 months are provided with a more long-term solution; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33238/13]

Pearse Doherty

Question:

115. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will provide an update on the discussions between her Department officials and officials of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government regarding the announcement with much fanfare of the housing assistance payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33260/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 61 and 115 together.

The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term support for eligible persons living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. There are approximately 84,000 rent supplement recipients, of whom more than 53,000 have been in receipt of the supplement for more than 18 months. The Government has provided more than €403 million for the scheme in 2013.

In 2012 the Government approved in principle to transfer responsibility for the provision of rent assistance for persons with a long-term housing need, namely, for more than 18 months, from the Department to housing and local authorities under a new scheme, the housing assistance payment, HAP. Officials in the Department are working closely with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to assist with the necessary work required to introduce the new scheme in terms of enabling the priority drafting of the required legislation, initiating the business planning process, including dealing with all of the IT changes required, examining the possibilities for providing for direct deduction from social welfare payments, including an amendement to the household budgeting facility, completing the economic assessment and initiating the piloting of the HAP scheme.

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has recently commenced a business processing development exercise to determine the business processes and officials from the Department of Social Protection are fully engaged in this process. The outcome of the initial exercise will provide an indication of the requirements and resources required for the implementation of the HAP scheme for both the Department and the housing authorities.

I apologise for getting the number wrong in my question, but the Minister has updated me in that regard. As was stated, this was supposed to be a short-term solution. A person who is homeless and cannot afford to rent privately is entitled to support from the Government to rent appropriate accommodation. However, even though this is supposed to be a short-term solution, currently there are 53,000 people who have been in receipt of rent supplement for more than 18 months. Last year, as the Minister noted, there were 85,000 in receipt of rent supplement, at a cost to the Exchequer of more than €400 million. Regardless of whether we mean the old rent supplement scheme or the new, preferable, HAP scheme, what will happen to this large cohort? Are we going to continue indefinitely in a situation where we depend on private landlords to provide the necessary accommodation, paying a king's ransom into their pockets each year? Does the Government have a social housing policy to provide sufficient social housing for the people concerned to enable them to come off these schemes within a shorter timeframe than 18 months?

In the way it grew the rent supplement scheme was meant for people in employment who lost their jobs suddenly and could no longer afford to pay their rent because they had no wages. The scheme then migrated, particularly during the period of office of the Deputy's Government, to provide a general catch-all housing supplement which, as the Deputy noted, was far removed from what had been intended originally. The Government is now returning it to what it was meant to be originally, namely, a short-term temporary payment. On the other hand, that requires local authorities throughout the country to update and revise their differential rent schemes.

There are at least 66 separate computer systems in different local authorities dealing with housing. If the Deputy thinks about the amount and variety of local authority accommodation available, the age of the people involved, the size and composition of the families, there are many variables and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government would like the Department of Social Protection to deduct that rent at source. We can only do that if the different local authorities can nominate to us the correct amount of the rent to be deducted. As the Deputy knows, local authorities have built up significant arrears difficulties, many of which have nothing to do with people on rent supplement but they have been anxious to see the Department of Social Protection help people to pay their rent by direct deduction at source through the Department. That, however, is a very onerous requirement whereby we will have to work out the IT involved. There is huge work going on in that respect.

The HAP payment was announced in the budget last year. Will progress be made before the budget this year or when is it expected that the new system will be in place because it is a transfer of payment? Will this payment also allow for those people who do not currently qualify for rent allowance? Many people on low rent are now living at home, often in cramped conditions, with family, and have no option because there is a shortfall in social housing and a long waiting list, and because they cannot qualify for that allowance and rents in some areas of the city continue to increase. Will it capture that cohort of people who do not qualify for rent allowance and who qualify to be on the housing list? There is a difference between them.

The complexity of that question is probably better addressed to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. What is important from the point of view of the Department of Social Protection is that one of the biggest poverty unemployment traps arises when somebody on rent supplement is offered employment and loses the whole of the rent supplement whereas if they are on the RAS or move to the HAP they will be provided with accommodation via the local authority and will be on a differential rent scheme. If they are offered a job they will be able to calculate according to their family circumstance what the likely increase in the rent will be, just as if they were in a traditional local authority programme. That is the enormous advantage of this kind of scheme to Irish society and to me as Minister for Social Protection because it removes one of the unemployment traps.

The local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government have committed us to beginning several pilots. I hope to see that as soon as possible but certainly no later than the start of the new year. I do not want to underestimate how challenging it is to bring in this new system. People who have served on local authorities and been involved in the complexity of housing cases will understand that it involves a large IT commitment for the local authorities. Returning to Deputy O'Dea's point, the provision of additional social housing is critically important to deal with the difficulties of the people he has instanced looking for housing.

The Minister anticipated some of what I was going to say. I do understand the complexities of transferring from the rent supplement scheme to the HAP scheme but the elephant in the room is the lack of social housing. Under whatever scheme the Minister assists people the lack of social housing is a constant. There is a gross lack of social housing at the moment.

Does the Minister agree with Social Justice Ireland and others that the Government’s provision for 5,000 extra social houses in last year’s budget only scratched the surface? In her previous incarnation as a spokesperson, I recall the Minister expressing the hope and aspiration that there would be a social dividend from the National Asset Management Agency. Has anything by way of social housing come from it?

Is there any indication as to the size of the pilot projects and their locations? I presume it will be a portion of a local authority rather than the whole which will transfer. Will the pilot project be for one year or two years? While the pilot project will not start before January next year, will the Minister indicate when it will be rolled out nationally?

I will have to come back to Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh on the details of the project. Yes, there is a role for enhanced investment in social housing, particularly at a time when we need stimulus programmes. We need to see some of those in the construction industry who have been long-term unemployed get back into employment. Under the recent stimulus programme my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, provided €50 million for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government for insulation retrofitting of local authority houses.

When I was on the other side of the House, Deputy Willie O’Dea’s late predecessor and my constituency colleague, Brian Lenihan, accepted my social dividend amendment to the NAMA legislation. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning are actively pursuing this matter with NAMA. One of the problems for NAMA is that many of the properties it has available are not necessarily in areas where people wish to live and some are in unfinished estates. There are ongoing active discussions on some properties which would provide good accommodation, particularly in major urban centres.

Paternity Leave

Seán Crowe

Question:

62. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Social Protection if she examined the possibility of introducing paid paternity leave; if she has discussed with the Department of Justice and Equality the possibility of introducing paid paternity leave. [33248/13]

While male employees are not entitled under law to either paid or unpaid paternity leave, they may be entitled to parental leave. Parental leave entitles parents who qualify to take a period of up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave from employment, generally in respect of children aged up to eight years. While there is no provision for a social insurance based payment for periods of parental leave, employees may be entitled to credited contributions to maintain their social insurance record for the period.

The introduction of paid parental leave, or paternity leave, would have significant cost implications for employers, the Exchequer and the social insurance fund. In addition, introducing a paternity benefit payment would depend on establishing an underlying entitlement to statutory paternity leave in the first instance and would require legislation on the part of the Minister for Justice and Equality. The potential for introducing paternity leave was formally considered in the review of the Parental Leave Act, published in 2002, but the working group concerned did not reach a consensus. Similarly, a working group set up under the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, examined the provision of support in this area but did not identify an agreed way forward.

The Department is also in regular contact with the Department of Justice and Equality regarding issues on maternity, adoptive and health and safety leave. In these ongoing contacts general issues regarding the provision of supports for fathers are discussed. In this context, the potential for development of the already substantial supports provided for parents are kept under review.

This issue has been examined as far back as 2002 and in the Towards 2016 report.

Has there been any recent working group? Will the Minister set up another working group to look at this aspect of leave? Other countries have managed to put a system of paid parental leave in place, which is ahead of where we are in Ireland. When will the working group examine the issue rather than just ticking it off from a list of matters at every meeting?

About 23,000 women take maternity leave every year. If it were available, it is estimated that half of all fathers would take some paternity leave. I favour the idea in principle. The cost of maternity leave is about €300 million. The difficulty with previous working groups was agreeing how such leave would be provided for and who would pay for it. There would have to be an agreed system of payment if it were to be brought in. However, one alternative for fathers in some occupations is to take the unpaid parental leave option. I am aware that a number of employers currently have de facto arrangements and pay fathers up to three days leave on the birth of a baby. I know the Deputy's question refers to a wider provision, but that would have to be funded. We could look at that issue again in the future. With the current state of the economy, it might be difficult to fund it. An argument was made before that employers should fund it, but they had an issue with that in the past.

The Minister mentioned the current position whereby many employers provide three days pay for paternal leave, but that is not mandatory. Has there been any discussion on moving towards an interim measure between full paternal leave and a temporary three days paid leave?

That is a de facto arrangement with employers, rather than a universal legislative arrangement, and it varies from employer to employer. If we were to change the system, there would be very significant issues of administration. None the less, especially as the economy recovers over time, it might be something we would consider as a socially progressive measure that would give more recognition to the role of fathers. My colleagues from Scandinavia find that the provision of paternity leave underscores for employers the fact that babies have two parents and that their obligations and commitments to bringing up their children ought to be recognised.

Mortgage Interest Supplement Eligibility

Clare Daly

Question:

63. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will remove the 12 month interest-only criterion to enable a person to receive mortgage interest supplement. [32891/13]

Mick Wallace

Question:

86. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will review the mortgage interest supplement scheme in view of the increased numbers of homeowners in difficulty with their mortgage repayments who cannot afford an interest-only arrangement for 12 months; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33206/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 63 and 86 together.

The purpose of the mortgage interest supplement scheme is to provide short-term support to eligible people who are unable to meet their mortgage interest repayments. There are currently some 12,000 people in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, for which the Government has provided almost €42 million in 2013. To ensure that those who are in mortgage difficulty engage with their lenders under the mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP, and avail of its forbearance arrangements, from June 2012 the mortgage interest supplement is not payable until applicants have agreed with their lender and complied with an alternative payment arrangement for a cumulative period of not less than 12 months. This measure is in line with the recommendations of both the Department's Review of the Mortgage Interest Supplement Scheme, published in July 2010, and the report of the mortgage arrears and personal debt group chaired by Mr. Hugh Cooney and published in November 2010.

The process acknowledges that it is in the interest of both the lender and the borrower to address financial difficulties as speedily and effectively as circumstances allow. The underlying principle is to ensure the MARP functions alongside State supports. The MARP provides protection for customers without the need for State intervention. The Central Bank has introduced a revised code of conduct on mortgage arrears, or CCMA, which came into effect on 1 July 2013. I am satisfied that the mortgage interest supplement continues to provide suitable support within the revised CCMA framework and I have no plans to amend the conditions of the scheme at this time.

I must say that there is a real problem with this scheme. As the Minister pointed out, only 12,000 homeowners are in receipt of it, yet we have almost 100,000 people in mortgage arrears, many of whom have lost their jobs. The reality is that some of those people do not have the economic wherewithal to sustain an arrangement with their lenders for 12 months of interest-only payments. They are too poor to do that, so if the Department does not give them mortgage interest supplement they are in danger of losing their homes and then coming back to the Department looking for rent supplement. It does not make any sense to me. A number of homeowners in my area are in that situation. The process needs to be reformed straight away.

The number of people in mortgage difficulty is growing, not decreasing. It is pretty obvious that anything the banks are doing in this area is not substantial enough. The decision not to give people mortgage interest supplement when they need it will drive more of them into it. They are not getting the money when they need it. The supplement is being offered after 12 months, but many of these people will lose their homes in the next 12 months and it will not be any good to them. There is no logic in not helping people who could work their way out of their difficulties. It was fine to give €67 billion to the banks, but the Government will not help people retain their homes by giving them a bit of relief when they need it, and not later after they lose their homes.

We are spending €42 million on this very important supplement, which is being received by around 12,000 people who are in difficulty with their mortgages. The critical issue is that there must be a solution between the borrower and the lender - namely, the bank and the person who is in difficulty. The Department of Social Protection spends €42 million on mortgage interest supplement that is then passed on to the banks. If a person receives a supplement indefinitely, as can be the case with rent supplement, he or she can end up in an unemployment trap in which it can be difficult to take up a job due to dependence on the mortgage interest supplement. That is one of the downsides to how the scheme operates.

We have worked very closely with the various agencies to ensure that the focus is on a sustainable resolution and not simply on something that actually locks a person into not being able to take up a job. That was an unintended consequence of how the scheme worked. If the banks engage with the individual, which they are required to do, then, if the individual has lost his or her job, he or she may be eligible for the supplement. Some 12,000 people get the supplement at a cost of around €42 million.