Other Questions

Child Benefit Administration

Denis Naughten

Question:

6. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the steps she will take to ensure that children in receipt of child benefit meet the statutory requirement of attending school up to 16 years of age; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17237/15]

Every year the Department of Social Protection issues more than 600,000 letter to parents asking them to verify whether their children are in this country. One of the conditions of the child benefit scheme is that children up to the age of 16 must receive an appropriate education. However, there is no link-up in this regard between the Department of Social Protection and the education welfare officers who are in charge of school attendance. Can we break down the silo thinking and instead have joined-up thinking across the two Departments so that where children are missing from school this is linked with child benefit payments?

Child benefit is the main policy instrument for assisting families in Ireland with the cost of raising children. It is a universal payment paid in respect of all qualified children up to the age of 16 years, or to the age of 18 if the child is in full-time education or has a disability. It is paid to more than 615,000 families in respect of almost 1.2 million children, at a cost of €1.9 billion. It is one of the biggest payments in our social welfare system.

School attendance up to the age of 16 years is a statutory requirement under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. Consequently, all recipients of child benefit are legally required to attend school up to this age. There is a national monitoring system for statutory school attendance via the National Educational Welfare Board, which is now part of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Policy responsibility for school attendance rests with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

For children over 16 years and less than 18 years, continued payment of child benefit is dependent on the children attending school for these two years. Parents with children aged 16 and 17 years must, in respect of these two years, return to the Department of Social Protection on an annual basis a form confirming school attendance, signed by the principal of the school. If the Deputy has specific concerns about school absenteeism, the competent authorities to address these are the National Educational Welfare Board and Child and Family Agency.

I am satisfied with the existing steps that require children in receipt of child benefit to attend school up to 16 or 18 years of age, under both education and social protection policies. As I said, parents of children aged 16 and 17 years must provide confirmation from their school principal that the children are in attendance at school.

One in ten primary school children and one in six secondary school children miss more than 20 days per year in school, which equates to one eighth of the secondary school year. Almost 1,500 children left primary school last year and never turned up in secondary school. We are storing up a very serious social problem for the future. The Department of Social Protection will have to foot the bill for these people when they come out of the education system. Today I am asking the Tánaiste, as I have done on numerous other occasions, if, rather than stating that this is not her problem but is a matter for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, she will ensure that the IT system of the Department of Social Protection is linked with that of the National Education Welfare Board.

As I said earlier, it is a condition of the child benefit scheme that children receive an appropriate education up to the age of 16 years. The Department of Social Protection issues more than 600,000 letters annually asking parents to verify that children are in the country. All I am asking is that the two systems be linked so that where children are not attending school parents are issued with a notification indicating that if their children do not continue to attend school their child benefit payment will be under threat.

The Deputy is rightly concerned about the welfare of children attending school. The point I am making is that school attendance is not the province of the Department of Social Protection.

I politely suggest to the Deputy that this question would probably be more appropriately taken up with the Minister for Education and Skills.

As Deputy Naughten pointed out, the Minister for Education and Skills and that Department have a series of policies designed to monitor, report and assess attendance at school and a series of programmes to improve school completion rates in both primary and secondary schools. The Deputy will know that the country has progressed enormously in that respect. I share his concern that every child should attend school, but I am not clear as to why he would suggest that it become the responsibility of the Department of Social Protection rather than the responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills. The welfare element is dealt with in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In many cases where children do not attend school there may be welfare issues or family issues, but that is not within the remit of my Department.

We have heard from Ministers of this Government on numerous occasions that an issue is not the responsibility of one Department but rather that of another Department. The Tánaiste is the deputy leader of this Government and she is washing her hands of this issue. All I ask is that she link up the two IT systems so that where a child has, without good reason, missed school for 20 days, she can enforce the law under the child benefit scheme, under which a child must receive an appropriate education, by issuing a notification to the parent that if the child does not attend school his or her child benefit will be jeopardised. It would make far more sense to send such letters than to send out 650,000 letters a year asking parents to verify that their children are in the country. That is enough to wallpaper the pitch at Croke Park two and a half times.

The reason I bring this issue to the Minister's attention is that teachers the length and breadth of the country have told me that some parents lack the motivation to ensure that their children attend school. I have given the Minister examples of instances in which a threat to the payment of child benefit has motivated parents to ensure that their children attend school. Even if it gives one child a chance, is it not worth doing?

The Deputy and I share a common ground with regard to children or their parents who have problems with attending school, which is that those children and their parents should be encouraged in so far as possible to enable the child to attend school fully. However, the Deputy is in effect suggesting that a family which may already be on a low income or experiencing unemployment should have its child benefit removed-----

I am talking about threatening to remove it.

I ask the Deputy to bear with me. We had a discussion earlier about the necessity of children's attendance at school. I refer to the small number of children who for some reason may not have had a proper breakfast before leaving home. Several agencies and the Department of Education and Skills are dealing with those issues. The Deputy is correct in his concern for the children, but I am not sure that his solution, which is baldly to eliminate part of the family's income, is the appropriate solution-----

It has to be part of the toolkit.

-----because, in my view, the appropriate solution is for the teachers to work with those families and with the parents and, if appropriate, to involve the education and welfare service and Tusla. It is important that every child goes to school, but I would not suggest that the arbitrary cutting off of child benefit is necessarily the solution to the problem the Deputy has identified.

One-Parent Family Payment Eligibility

Paul Murphy

Question:

7. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection if she will consider reversing the planned cuts to eligibility for the one-parent family payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17324/15]

The results are now available regarding the changes in eligibility for the one-parent family payment which the Minister implemented.

Rather than supposedly supporting a return to work, the payment represents one of the most regressive swingeing anti-woman policies implemented by this Government. Would the Tánaiste agree, therefore, that instead of continuing with the transference of another 40,000 parents - overwhelmingly women - from this payment in July of this year, the cut should be reversed?

Social transfers have provided a hugely important buffer in reducing poverty. Expenditure on this scheme is estimated at €607 million in 2015 with almost 70,000 recipients. The problem is that despite a major investment in the past in respect of lone parents and their children, lone parents remain particularly at risk of poverty.

The first phase of the one-parent family payment scheme age change reforms will take place this July, when the maximum age limit of the youngest child at which a one-parent family payment recipient's payment ceases will be seven years of age. Approximately 29,400 lone parents will transition from the scheme at that date. Then, if the child is between the age of seven and 14 years, lone parents will transfer to a jobseeker's transitional payment. They will get exactly the same amount of money, but all our services in education, training, work experience and community participation will become available if the lone parents want to take them up. We will be talking to them to encourage them, where appropriate, to take it up.

That is why lone parents are being provided, when their youngest child is seven years of age, with intensive support from the Department. They will be supported to produce a personal development plan through one-to-one meetings with case officers. They will have enhanced access to education, training and employment supports. For example, if they take up employment, they will have the back-to-work family dividend and their employer will have the option of JobsPlus. The back-to-work family dividend will give them an additional €30 per week in addition to the family income supplement - a significant payment - if they get employment in excess of 19.5 hours.

I note the Tánaiste referred to intensive support for lone parents. In 2012 with a similar line she said that this cut would not go ahead unless she got a credible and bankable commitment on investment in a system of child care and that if this was not forthcoming, it would not proceed. The Tánaiste would have to admit that such an investment in child care has not taken place. The result is that we have a back to work family dividend, which is €120 over the course of a month, while the average monthly cost of child care is €659, a cost that is simply unachievable for many.

This is the point about the idea of a specific payment for lone parents. We need to treat lone parents and the specific problems they have in terms of child care in a particular way as opposed to lumping them in with all others who are unemployed. In particular, I call on the Tánaiste to comment on those who are currently in part-time work and who would have been able to avail of the payment in advance of the threshold dropping to €90. That has meant a cut for some poorly-paid lone parents of approximately €200.

Currently there are lone parents throughout the country calling into their local Intreo offices, which are provided by the Department of Social Protection, and looking at how they can significantly increase their income. In particular, if they move to 19.5 hours or more they will qualify for the family income supplement which, depending on the number of children they have, is an extremely attractive payment, for which we have very significantly increased the funding.

That is important.

I notice the Deputy did not deny that, notwithstanding the amount of money the State pays to help give lone parents an income, there is a problem with lone parents being at risk of poverty. Over an extended period of time, our social welfare system anticipated that many lone parents, having had a child or children in their 20s, would stay on social welfare for up to 22 years in respect of each child. What we are doing now is offering lone parents a very specific opportunity, when their youngest child is between seven and 14 years of age, to get enhanced support, particularly in regard to education and training but also in regard to going back into employment, if that is a possibility for them. Some 17,000 lone parents have transited up to now and the feedback and the experience is extremely positive, unlike what the Deputy is suggesting. At the end of the day, the best way out of poverty is to get a qualification, because people who have qualifications tend to get better paid jobs, and then to get employment, because being in employment is generally significantly better than having an income that is entirely made up of social welfare only.

I do not at all deny the fact that lone parents are the social group most at risk of poverty. They have the highest deprivation rate at 63% and the highest consistent poverty rate at 23%. That is partly as a result of successive cuts by this Government and previous Governments, including cuts to child benefit, rent allowance and maternity allowance. The answer to this poverty, however, is not more cuts and more attacks, which is what the Government is proposing. It follows a Thatcherite logic that says the way to get people out to work is to say they will be cut unless they go to do it. The logic is that those who do not go onto transitional allowance but go onto regular jobseeker's allowance, and whose youngest child is over 13, can now be faced with a situation where, if they refuse, for example, to engage in JobBridge or in Gateway, which would cost them huge amounts of money in terms of child care but yield them very little in terms of income, they can face a penalty rate cut in their social welfare. Is that not the case?

With regard to the evidence, I would take the evidence of the group One Family, which says that of the 95,000 parents in receipt of the one-parent family payment when reform was announced, none has benefited from the reform, approximately 10% are worse off financially as a direct result of being activated and all are worse off due to the cuts. The calls total to One Family's "Ask One Family" helpline is approaching an increase of 50% in the past 15 months. Is that a success?

The Deputy answered his own question when he said that lone parents had a higher risk of poverty. Unfortunately, that is true for them and their children. My objective is to end that situation for lone parents and to move them out of the category of being at risk of poverty, and particularly to remove their children from that risk. This will be achieved by first giving them opportunities in regard to education, training and qualification so that, when they do take up employment, whether full-time or part-time, particularly when their children are over 14 and settled in school, they will then be in a position to earn an income that can support them and their children.

The irony is that during the Celtic tiger years, when this country was doing very well and we pretty much had full employment, unfortunately, because our social welfare system seemed to require people to stay on social welfare for up to 22 years for each child, as the Deputy is suggesting, the result was that we had more lone parents and their children at risk of poverty than we do now. We are now going to put a significant additional amount of public funding from our taxes and PRSI into, for example, the back to work family dividend, where if a lone parent does take up employment he or she will get to keep all of the child welfare payments of up to €30 a week that they receive in respect of each child for a year, and 50% for the next year.

As the Minister has not arrived for the next business, I will take one final question from Deputy Joan Collins.

We have got through just eight questions and mine has just been dumped into the last few minutes because the Minister is not here. We should be getting through at least 12 or 14 questions in the time provided. Members have been sitting waiting in the Chamber.

First, the Deputy's question was not dumped in; her question is being taken. Second, my role as Chair is to remind Members when their speaking time is up. If they do not adhere to that, and I think everybody is guilty of that at some stage, it is very difficult to control at times. However, I take the Deputy's point and I will pass that point on to the Ceann Comhairle.

People have put a lot of time and effort into these questions.

Gender Recognition

Joan Collins

Question:

8. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection her views on the upcoming Gender Recognition Bill; that the proposed criteria for 16 and 17 year olds to access the legislation is onerous, as it requires parental consent, letters from two physicians and a court order; that it will also leave transsexual and intersex individuals under the age of 16 in legal limbo; and her plans to deal with these issues. [17347/15]

Since the Gender Recognition Bill has been put on hold in regard to discussions with GPs on the medical aspect, is the Minister of State linking in with the opinions of transgender young people on this Bill? I do not think we have adequately dealt with the under-16s or the 16 to 18 year olds and how they are recognised. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has called for this and has said there should be more leniency on this issue.

I am deeply conscious of the sensitive issues which arise in regard to transgender children. The purpose of the Gender Recognition Bill 2014 is to provide that a person’s preferred gender will be fully recognised by the State for all purposes. This is a significant step and one which requires that the applicant is sufficiently mature to understand the implications of securing such formal legal recognition. The provisions contained in the Bill in regard to transgender children have been arrived at following extensive consideration of the issues involved, including pre-legislative scrutiny by the joint Oireachtas committee. They reflect the requirement on the State to legislate to protect the best interests of all children.

The provisions in the Bill to provide for the granting of a gender recognition certificate to a person aged between 16 and 18 go beyond what is available in most countries currently. I have also brought forward an amendment to the Bill which provides for a formal review of its provisions after two years. As I have already said in the Seanad and the Dáil, and have made clear at every stage, that review is not just a tick-box process. This is one of the very positive suggestions made in the Seanad. It is such a sensitive Bill that it should be reviewed within two years. The appropriateness of the measures contained in regard to children, and the specific safeguards in place in regard to 16 and 17 year olds, will be assessed under that review.

Separately, I am pleased that my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, has committed to taking steps, in consultation with the transgender community and other stakeholders within the education system, to explore the policy options available to address the needs of transgender children within the school system.

We, including the Minister of State, have an opportunity to review the three key areas that have been particularly raised by the transgender community. The fact a 16 to 18 year old has to get two medical consultants, convince his or her parents and go before a judge before getting a certificate is too onerous, and we should seriously look at accepting the self-certification of 16 to 18 year olds. The fact those under 16 are not even recognised means they are going to be a hidden group of young children who have no opportunity to be recognised, even where their parents recognise they are transgender and would like to get a certificate for them, or even a half-way passport or something of that nature.

If they are not recognised, they do not get services. What if a transgender child is in State care? How does a person looking after that child deal with the issues the child has in regard to their gender? If the services are not being matched with recognition, they are not going to be really adjusted. It is the same with regard to disability.

When a disability was legally recognised, the Government then had to link in services for the group of people who needed them.

It is hoped that Committee Stage of the Bill will be taken shortly and we can debate the matter much more fully. It is a very sensitive matter. As the Deputy made her contribution, several contributions were made in the Seanad on this matter. That shows there is a lack of in-depth research on this area. One country has recently reviewed its policies and while it has self-certification, it has not allowed anything for those under 18 years of age. In contrast, we have a very limited process for those aged under 16 years.

It is very important that we continue the engagement on this issue once the Bill has been passed. There has to be an ongoing debate and discussion because this does not just concern birth certificates. Rather, it is about how transgender people and children are dealt with at all stages of their development. It goes far beyond the right to a birth certificate and how we treat and interact with our citizens.

We have gained a better understanding of the issue since the Bill came before the House. The Government and I have approached the issue with openness in listening to the concerns of different groups and taking the views on board. The two year review is significant and we have put it on hold because we listened to other contributions in the House over two sessions.

I am looking forward to dealing with Committee Stage. There is an onus and responsibility on us to try to make sure that the Bill is passed this year under the current Administration, and I and the Tánaiste are committed to getting the Bill through as soon as possible. I thank the Deputy for her contribution.

Has the Minister of State or Department engaged with children aged under 16 years who have declared themselves to be transgender or with intersex children to get their feedback? When does the Minister of State think Committee Stage of the Bill will be dealt with?

I hope the Bill comes back before the House as soon as possible. We are in discussions with the Royal College of Physicians. I understand the HSE is in contact with the IMO, but I will update the Deputy as soon as I have additional information. Subject to the ongoing consultation, I would hope to deal with Committee Stage as soon as possible.

I have met almost everybody who has requested a meeting. I have had ongoing meetings with TENI and, as soon as I have finished discussions with the Royal College of Physicians, I intend to consult it again. I have also met parents. It is an extremely sensitive issue and everybody in this House is trying to do their best to do the right thing as much as possible. We may not always agree on this, but we have a responsibility to make sure that we do our utmost to protect children.

The Deputy has seen my efforts in this House to go as far as I can. The Dáil and Seanad have been extremely open in regard to the Bill. There is an onus and responsibility on us to get legislation on the Statute Book this year and then carry out the review in a very consultative and informative way.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.