Priority Questions

Unemployment Levels

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Question:

94. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the number of persons who are long-term unemployed; the actions she has taken to address the challenge of long-term unemployment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41716/14]

This question seeks to explore issues around the plight of the long-term unemployed. Unfortunately, their numbers remain stubbornly high. We share a keen interest with the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection in the activation of those who find themselves in that particular position.

The most recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, data shows that the long-term unemployment rate has fallen from 9.3% two years ago to 6.8% in the second quarter of this year, a very significant reduction. There were 146,500 persons long-term unemployed in the second quarter, down from the comparable figure of 200,000 two years earlier. A key aim of our Pathways to Work strategy is to ensure that as many as possible of the jobs created are taken up by those on the live register. Over 55,000 people who were long-term unemployed at the start of 2012 have already found work since Pathways to Work was launched. I am confident the overall target of 75,000 by the end of 2015 will be achieved.

I announced several important measures in budget 2015 designed to help increase the pace of the progress we are making in helping people back to work. The new back-to-work family dividend will enable long-term unemployed jobseekers with children who leave welfare to return to work to retain the child-related portion of their social welfare payment on a tapered basis over two years. This includes those who move to self-employment including the construction sector. The scheme will be worth €1,550 per child in the first year of employment or self-employment and half that amount again in the second year.

I am also increasing the monthly rate of child benefit by €5 from January. This will help all families with children but also has the additional benefit for unemployed families in that it is work-neutral as it is retained in full when they return to the workforce. I also announced a doubling of the number of places on JobsPlus next year to further encourage employers to recruit from the longer term unemployed.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As well as rolling out these initiatives, the Department will next year continue to improve its services to long-term unemployed people, including an increased focus on encouraging employers to recruit from the live register. The recent launch of the employment and youth activation charter, a commitment by large employers to work with the Department to recruit staff from the live register, will help to form the basis for this engagement.

Notwithstanding what the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection said, the numbers of long-term unemployed, including the 74,000 young people still outside education, training or employment, remain high. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection and her Department have been the subject of criticism by the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, the IMF, for failing to hit labour activation targets. Indeed, in one European Commission report she has been described as having “a broadly flat and open-ended unemployment benefits” system which remains static. Irrespective of how long someone has been claiming, the report stated “more needs to be done to alleviate or eliminate work disincentives and unemployment traps caused by some features of Ireland’s benefits system”. It has to be noted that her own policies have contributed to anomalies. If one looks at the abolition of the weekly €100 PRSI allowance, it has given rise to where someone on an annual income of €18,304 has a take-home pay of €17,343 but if they earn €1 more, €18,305, they have a take-home pay of €16,612, a differential of €731.

Comments have been made on our benefits system by various international bodies. Several of them - I do not know whether the Deputy agrees with them - have indicated they would like to see reductions in the rate of payment to people on long-term unemployment benefits. I believe the way to go is not to reduce the weekly rates, as Fianna Fáil did when it was last in power by reducing the rate by as much as €16.40 a week, but to concentrate on activation, as well as getting people into education, training or work experience as a preliminary step to going back to work. The figures show this has already proved successful.

We inherited from Fianna Fáil a social welfare system that international commentators described as a passive system.

In other words, once people were included in the long-term jobseeker's scheme, they were left in it. There were very few activation measures, other than through the old FÁS structures which, as we know, had many limitations. Now everyone who is or becomes unemployed is dealt with in a case management system in which they are dealt with face-to-face. They are engaged with to see what we can do to help them to get back to work, the route to which may be through education, training or an apprenticeship, but whatever it takes, we will go the extra mile to get those who are unemployed back to work. That is the critical aspect.

Let me make it clear that I am not calling for a reduction in welfare payments; rather, I am calling for anomalies within the system to be addressed and eliminated, wherever possible. The Tánaiste talks about the inadequacies of the welfare system when we were in government, but she has practically been in government for four years, which is long enough to have rectified the anomalies she may have identified. Will she address the fact that her own policies, in particular, those surrounding PRSI, have disincentivised low earners from increasing their earnings and also the long-term unemployed from entering the workforce?

I do not agree at all. A number of popular initiatives have been launched during the Government's period in office. For instance, Momentum is specifically targeted at the long-term unemployed. It means that when people take a course - most courses are up to an academic year in length - they will continue to receive their social welfare payments. At any one time there are well over 20,000 people participating in the back-to-education initiative. We also have an extremely popular enterprise scheme. In addition, with the help of the Labour Market Council which I established, we have incentivised employers to give persons on the live register, particularly those who have been on it for a long time, an opportunity to attend interviews and compete for jobs. The JobsPlus scheme which we put in place last year is already catering for over 3,000 individuals. Some 60% to 70% of those who have been taken onto the scheme are unemployed for more than two years, which means that they are long-term unemployed.

One-Parent Family Payment Payments

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

95. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection if the cuts that had been scheduled to be made to the one parent family payment scheme next year, including the lowering of the cut-off age to seven years and the reduction to the income disregard, will now proceed in view of her statement in the context of the latest budget that there would be no reductions to social welfare payments in 2015. [41714/14]

On budget day the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection said there would be no reductions in social welfare payments in 2015. In the light of that assertion, will she confirm whether she will now proceed with the planned reductions to the one parent family payment scheme next year, namely, her plan to lower the cut-off age to seven years and further reduce the income disregard from €90 to just €75 from 1 January 2015?

The one parent family payment, OFP, scheme supports 71,095 recipients at an estimated cost of €865 million in 2014. The reforms to the scheme to reduce the maximum age limit of the youngest child for receipt of the payment to seven years of age from July 2015 and to reduce the scheme’s income disregard to €60 per week by January 2016 are provided for in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. Budget 2015 maintains the OFP personal rate of €188 per week, with €29.80 per week payable for each qualified child. In addition, the rate of child benefit per child will increase from €130 to €135 per month in January - a measure that will benefit over 611,000 households with children, including OFP recipients.

I am pleased to say I am partially restoring the Christmas bonus this year. A bonus of 25% will be paid in early December to over 1.1 million recipients, including all recipients of the one parent family payment and the jobseeker’s allowance transitional payment. Budget 2015 also introduced a new back-to-work family dividend.

One-parent family recipients who go back to work become eligible to receive the dividend. I explained that this means they will keep the payments with regard to children on a tapering basis for two years. In addition, the amount we pay in family income supplement has increased significantly, particularly for one-parent families.

The survey on income and living conditions, SILC, is often quoted in this House and was released in April 2014. It confirmed that one-parent families are those most at risk of poverty, with the highest consistent poverty rate, at 17.4%, a rate of deprivation of 49.5%, and nearly 30% of families are at risk of poverty. However, the Minister cannot give a simple answer about whether she is going ahead with a cut in the social welfare rate for one-parent families from €90 to €75 for the income disregard. This was indicated last year for January of next year. It is a simple question. Is the Minister going ahead with this? If so, does she understand that it contradicts what she said on budget day that there would be no reductions in social welfare rates in 2015?

With regard to one-parent families, the critical thing is to provide a supportive framework for parents to get back to work in the way that happens in the North when the youngest child is well settled in school. That is why the age of seven years was selected. It is what applies in the North and in the UK. In Scandinavian countries, the age is lower. If the Deputy does not have a problem with it in the North, I wonder why he has a problem with parents in one-parent families being enabled and encouraged to return to work. The most significant way for younger lone parents to get back to work is to take up educational opportunities. The Department of Social Protection provides a varied and extensive range of back to education courses on offer in PLCs, colleges and universities throughout the country. The best way of reducing poverty levels is to ensure the lone parent has an opportunity to take up work. That is the best way of significantly increasing someone's income and providing for their financial security.

Perhaps the Minister does not remember it because her memory seems to be fading. The Government has already cut the income disregard from €146.50 to €90 and now to €75. When the Minister introduced changes to the one-parent family provision, she said she would not proceed without "a credible and bankable commitment" from the Government putting in place a system of "safe, affordable and accessible child care". That does not exist. Is the Minister proceeding with the cut in the income disregard for one-parent families on 1 January and is this equivalent to a cut in social welfare rates, which she said would not happen in 2015?

In the budget, there have been modest but significant tax reductions, USC reductions and increases in social welfare payments as well as significant increases in areas like health and education. The effect is that everyone, including one-parent families, will share in the dividend.

I have outlined what one-parent families will share. It is really important that as a society we make provision for lone parents - those parenting on their own - where they have either not been involved with the labour market at all or been out of work for a period. As with everybody else who has become unemployed or is not working, and where children are settled in school, we must provide really good mechanisms to allow parents return to work. Normally, the mechanism for this is access to enhanced education opportunities, as the Deputy may know. That is what I have been seeking in the Department, as we provide for very significant numbers of lone parents and others in taking up educational opportunities while retaining the lone-parent payment. It is the best way of helping people to financial independence.

It is not what the Minister promised.

Invalidity Pension Appeals

Tom Fleming

Question:

96. Deputy Tom Fleming asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection if she will review the existing processing and the adjudication of invalidity pension applicants due to the high percentage of initial refusal decisions being reversed following reviews and appeals; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41748/14]

I ask the Minister if she will review the existing processing and adjudication of invalidity pension applicants due to the high percentage of initial refusal decisions being reversed following reviews and appeals. There is an increasing trend towards obstacles and barriers in initial stages, although decisions may be subsequently reversed. Will the Minister intervene and use her good office to resolve this problem?

One of the main reasons there is a high disallowance rate of invalidity pension applications is that, in common with all the illness and disability schemes, claimants and their doctors often do not provide full and comprehensive details of their condition or disability until they receive notification of a disallowance. In this regard, it should be noted that invalidity pension is a long-term payment for insured people who are permanently incapable of work due to illness or incapacity. Accordingly, it is vital that comprehensive medical data is provided at the claim stage in order to facilitate a fully informed decision. I urge Members of the House to use every opportunity to get the message out that there is a need for comprehensive medical information from the individual and the medical advisers in order to have a reasonable chance of a claim being allowed.

As Members will be aware, the Department has a series of stakeholder forums with disability organisations and representative groups and the Department, in this context, takes every opportunity to emphasise the importance of providing full information at initial claim stage. With the recent improvements in information technology and other changes, I am happy to say we have now introduced a review process whereby illness benefit recipients are identified as potentially having an underlying entitlement to invalidity pension. This process utilises the medical and contribution information already available to the Department. The customers concerned are only required to complete a short supplementary application form. These claims are processed promptly, ensuring an improved and streamlined customer service.

I welcome the Minister's statement about the review group being set up and I hope this will be a workable and efficient process that will expedite the work. The statistics for 2013 speak for themselves. There were 6,958 appeals for invalidity pensions.

Overall, some 80.04% of appeals by applicants were successful, with 32% of decisions being reversed in the initial stages by deciding officers. There was a huge about-turn when matters went before an independent appeals officer at an oral hearing, when decisions in some 50% of cases that had initially been refused were reversed. This is disastrous as people are in dire straits. I believe some medical professionals are making a full diagnosis in the early stages and there are unnecessary barriers and obstacles, with people being made to jump through hoops for no reason.

The new system will identify people who can be transferred based on information the Department has on file. This information will include a description of the illness or disability and the period for which it may be endured. Improved information technology, IT, has made this possible. When I became Minister, I inherited an enormous backlog in this area and there were many discussions in this House on the issue. The problem remains, however, that when people submit applications, they are often inadequate initially - this may be because applicants lack the knowledge of the Deputy and others. It is up to applicants and their medical advisers to submit information needed to support a claim. That is why applications are refused. When people appeal a decision, they tend to produce more detailed and substantial information in support of a claim, which is why awards are often made on appeal.

People feel strongly that genuine applications are deliberately delayed and refused initially as part of wider efforts by the Department of Social Protection to crack down on fraud. They believe they are the victims of such an approach and I have anecdotal evidence of similar cases. An independent oral hearing can take from 12 to 18 months and many of those involved suffer from cancer, terminal and psychiatric illnesses. It has happened that appellants had died by the time an oral hearing was held. I commend the Minister for the review process which I hope she will police effectively. I hope the process is expedited and that those involved see justice in their applications. What is happening is not good enough.

In 2013 there were 9,640 applications, while this year 6,933 applications were received by the end of September. Some 9,494 claims were awarded in 2013, while this year 5,373 claims were awarded by the end of September.

Obviously, they are not the same people because there is a considerable period during which claims are processed. With the new information technology, I can put it absolutely to the Deputy that if a person has the support of a medical adviser or advisers and this is clearly indicated in the documentation, it will vastly improve his or her opportunity to receive a favourable decision. That is really what it hinges on.

Personal Public Service Numbers Data

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Question:

97. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection to set out the actions she will take to protect the use of PPS numbers against abuse; if she will consider new legislation to increase the offences relating to the wrongful use of a person's PPS number; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41717/14]

This question focuses on the decision of the Government a little over 12 months ago to ram through the House the legislation to establish Irish Water, wherein provision was made for the collection of individuals' personal public service, PPS, numbers. The Government is in regret and apology mode. Against this background, we want to know what the Tánaiste is prepared to do about the growing public concern around the issue of the collection of PPS numbers and their potential abuse thereafter.

Social welfare legislation specifies that the PPS number can only be used by specified bodies and agents acting on their behalf and only for the purposes of public service transactions. Provision is also made for sharing a person's PPS number between specified bodies.

The PPS number is a unique identifier. It was introduced in 1998 and is used to provide access to an important range of public, civic and other services. It replaced the old revenue and social insurance, RSI, number, which had been introduced in 1979 for engagements between individuals and Revenue or the then Department of Social Welfare. The introduction of the PPS number made it accessible by specified bodies, rather than only by Revenue and the Department, in transacting public services.

At its core, the PPS number is a device to assist in and enhance the efficiency of the provision of public services for the public. Such public services vary greatly. Thus, the PPS number is used widely, for example, by all employers in their transactions with Revenue and the Department in the delivery of social welfare payments and services, including dental, optical and audiological services, mainly provided by private practitioners, as well as financial institutions and the health and education sectors.

It is an offence for persons other than specified bodies, their agents or those to whom the number refers to use PPS numbers or otherwise seek their disclosure. A person convicted of such an offence is liable to a fine not in excess of €1,500, or, on conviction, a fine not exceeding €25,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or both.

The Department is committed to protecting and facilitating the use of PPS numbers in accordance with the law. In this regard, it monitors compliance with the legislation among the specified bodies and deals with identified and reported cases. The collection, storage and use of PPS numbers are subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Acts.

What the Tánaiste has said is very interesting, especially against the background of the information divulged by my colleague, Deputy Willie O'Dea, who has accessed the Department's staff bulletin board. Some entries indicate that staff within the Department have expressed serious concerns about the use of PPS numbers. They expressed doubt about the legal basis of Irish Water checking numbers. They were uneasy about the conflict with their duty to protect members of the public. Staff also expressed concern about the lack of information on the issue. Some staff have gone as far as to say they would be reluctant to provide their PPS numbers in such circumstances.

The Minister has come here and expressed satisfaction. Are we to take it that, although the Minister and the chief executive of Irish Water have apologised and the Taoiseach has said that not everything that should have been done was done and the entire matter has not been handled very well, the Minister is perfectly happy with the manner in which the PPS issue has been handled in the Irish Water debacle?

My view with regard to Irish Water, and I said this a number of weeks ago and before other people commented, is that the undertaking is of such a significant size that it will take a considerable number of years to roll out. I said that in the Dáil more than a couple of weeks ago. That is the first point.

Second, PPS numbers are already used in communications with utility companies and An Post as unique identifiers, for example, for household benefits customers. Financial institutions are required to use PPS numbers under the legislation of 2008. I am sure the Deputy is familiar with that. The PPS number is used to access a wide variety of services, such as social welfare services, free travel, pupil identification in the context of education, public health services, including the medical card and drug payment schemes, optical, dental and audiology benefits which may be provided to people by practitioners, child immunisation, all the Revenue Commissioners' schemes, housing grants, driver theory testing, driver licences, school transport schemes operated by the Department of Education and Skills, passport applications and passport renewals, and civil registration services including birth, death, marriage and civil partnership certification. All of this is regulated both by the legislation under which it falls and under the remit of the Data Protection Acts.

The litany of instances the Minister outlined in which PPS numbers are provided are instances where the public is quite happy to provide PPS numbers. However, there were people among the 150,000 or 190,000, whatever number one accepts, who marched last weekend throughout the country simply and solely because of their concern about the issue of PPS numbers. Certainly, I have had the experience, and I will be amazed if the Minister's colleagues have not had the same experience, of people telling me that one of their principal concerns about this utility company is that they do not wish to provide their PPS number to it, that they will not do it and they are unwilling to participate in that way. Is the Minister saying that those people's concerns are misplaced? Is she also saying that the apologies that have been tendered do not include apologies in respect of the demand for PPS numbers?

The PPS number has been in existence for a long time. It is one of the factors that enables much better delivery of public services among the wide range of services I mentioned earlier. It is governed by extremely tight data protection regulations and it is a criminal offence to misuse PPS numbers. I appreciate the concerns people have expressed on this issue but in the case of Irish Water it is in order to provide access to allowances. One of the concerns that have been mentioned has been in respect of children's PPS numbers. However, there are only two items of information that could be sought by Irish Water in that respect or only two questions that can be asked. One is whether it is a real and valid PPS number.

The second question is whether the person to whom the PPS number is assigned is aged under 18 years. Apart from answering these two questions and contrary to what people appear to believe, no other data exchange is involved. The data are confined.

Water Charges Administration

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

98. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the number of recipients of jobseeker's allowance or jobseeker's benefit who will not receive either a Christmas bonus or a water support payment next year. [41715/14]

This question seeks to gauge whether the Minister is fully aware of the hardship water charges will wreak on households and if she appreciates the gross inadequacy of the measures she announced in the recent budget.

I understand the question relates to the Christmas bonus.

It also refers to water support payments.

May I deal with the first part of the question, which relates to the Christmas bonus?

The Christmas bonus, which was paid each year in the period from 1980 to 2008, inclusive, was abolished by the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government in 2009. I am pleased that I am partially restoring the bonus this year, with the result that a bonus of 25% will be paid in early December to more than 1.1 million recipients, including all long-term welfare recipients, such as pensioners, carers and long-term jobseekers. I am taking this initiative in recognition of the fact that most social welfare recipients rely either wholly or mainly on their weekly payment.

The Christmas bonus this year will be paid to the beneficiaries of all schemes to which it previously applied, including schemes previously administered by other organisations such as the community employment scheme. Short-term jobseekers who have been on the live register for less than 15 months were never eligible for the bonus and this condition will continue to apply this year. It is estimated that approximately 304,000 jobseekers will receive a weekly payment at the end of November. Of this number, some 79% or 212,000 people will receive the 25% bonus at an estimated cost of €10.4 million.

I announced in budget 2015 that recipients of both the household benefits package and-or the fuel allowance will also receive an annual environmental water support payment of €100. This will benefit 650,000 households at an annual cost of approximately €66 million. Other households will benefit from the tax credit of €100 announced in the budget.

The Minister's time for this question has expired.

As Deputy Ó Fearghaíl noted, approximately 150,000 people - as many as 190,000 according to some estimates - took to the streets last weekend to say "No" to water charges. I have no doubt that these protests put the fear of God into the Government. The marchers included young and old people, the unemployed, people who depend on social welfare and people in employment, all of whom were united in their opposition to the Government's water charges. Their message was that water charges are unfair, they cannot pay them and they should not be asked to pay them.

The question asks how many of those who depend on social welfare payments will not benefit from either the Christmas bonus or the water support payment. While the Minister did not answer this part of the question, I estimate the number involved to be approximately 200,000 people.

Thus far, the Government's response to the demands of the people in respect of water charges has been to admit it got the issue a little wrong and state it had experienced problems with its communications. That is not good enough. Is the Minister aware that even if she were to extend the water support payment and tax relief announced in the budget to a greater number of people, it would only be a matter of time before these measures were withdrawn and the charges hiked? Is it reasonable to assume that once water charges have been introduced, they will be increased?

That will impose a greater burden on those households which come under the remit of the Minister, namely, those who will be in receipt of social welfare in the years ahead. If she does not think that will happen, why would she refer to a freeze in the first place?

The social welfare package in this budget is the first since the fatal bank guarantee introduced by the previous Government to benefit very significant numbers of people. The restoration, on a partial basis, of the Christmas bonus has been very widely welcomed by the 1.1 million people who will benefit. One of the reasons for the different numbers quoted by the Deputy is that water charges are a household matter, whereas the Christmas bonus is a question of payment to individuals, many of whom may reside in the same household. In terms of the figures quoted by the Deputy, there is probably some confusion between individuals and household numbers.

Let us be very clear. Every man, woman and child in the country needs a supply of clean drinking water. As a country, we need to invest at least €600 million a year for the next three years in water services and thereafter we need to invest at a rate of about €1 billion a year. This time last year, pubs and restaurants in the Dublin region were about to close down because the capital of the country did not have enough water to supply all the people living in the city. We know about the situation in different parts of the country, such as when Galway could not provide drinking water for its population a number of years ago because of cryptosporidium. The objective of providing a supply of quality clean water for individuals, businesses, industrial development, tourism and agriculture is important.

Does the Minister accept that her Government's water charge will exceed the miserly social welfare increases announced in budget 2015? Does she intend to increase the so-called water support payment to cover the full cost of water charges for those dependent on social welfare? Does she intend to introduce the equivalent support for the low paid? If these things are not done, everything she has said means that those in our society who are low paid or dependent on social welfare will be less well off after the budget and as a consequence of the water tax.

If the Deputy reads the analysis on people being better or less well off, he will find it has been my concern in the budget to ensure that 80,000 people are lifted out of the universal social charge. The two lower rates of the universal social charge, which mostly apply to the people on lower pay to whom the Deputy referred, have been reduced by half a percentage point each. That of course benefits everybody else. When those on low pay get their wage packets, slips and statements in January and February they will see a very significant saving in regard to the USC, the first in a long line of budgets. I would like it to be more, but it is a start. Some 1.1 million of those living exclusively on a social welfare income on a long-term basis will receive in the first half of December a Christmas bonus of a quarter of the weekly rate.

The water charge will take it away in January.

That has been widely welcomed.

They are giving out a fiver.

The Deputy's suggestion is that somehow or other the payments to people in the budget are not significant.

They will have to pay more. The payments are not significant if more money is being taken from them.

The Tánaiste should conclude, I must move on to other questions.

For instance, in the first week of January parents will receive an additional €5 per month per child. I understand the Deputy might not welcome improvements in social welfare payments but I must confess that I am disappointed that Sinn Féin is so negative about increased payments to people on social welfare who need and welcome those payments.

I always welcome improved social welfare payments. I would laugh except it is not funny. The payment is being given with one hand, but taken away with the other.

I understand, and we are making provision for extra income for people on social welfare. The Deputy is just a bit sour.