Priority Questions

One-Parent Family Payment

Willie O'Dea

Question:

1. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection his views on the assertion by an organisation (details supplied) that the main impacts of the reform of the one-parent family payment have been to reduce the income of lone parents in employment and to reduce the likelihood of lone parents who are not in employment, education or training take up work or education in the near future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29009/16]

This question relates to the views given to the Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on the effect of the changes in relation to lone parents and I would like the Minister's observations.

The aim of the reforms to the one-parent family payment is to better engage with lone parents to assist in the transition from welfare into employment. Research shows that being at work reduces the at-risk-of-poverty rate for lone parents by three quarters, highlighting that the best way to tackle poverty among lone parents is to assist them into employment rather than through welfare.

Access to my Department's Intreo service is critical in achieving this outcome. Lone parents who move to jobseeker's transition or jobseeker's allowance have access to a case officer who assists them in producing a personal development plan. This tailored plan helps access appropriate education, training and employment support opportunities based on their individual circumstances and requirements.

I acknowledge that the reforms resulted in a reduction in the payments for some lone parents who were working while receiving benefits. However, the positive outcome of the reforms can be seen from the fact that 3,000 lone parents affected by the July 2015 reforms became new family income supplement, FIS, recipients last year. These lone parents have been lifted out of poverty due to a combination of earnings from work and FIS income support. FIS thresholds are such that it is not possible to be in receipt of FIS and in consistent poverty.

The latest Quarterly National Household Survey for quarter 2 of 2016 contains encouraging information in respect of employment rates by family composition. In the year commencing 1 July 2015, the number of lone parent families who were in employment increased significantly by 3.6 percentage points to 56.4% - a majority of lone parents are now working. This represents four times the increase of all adults with children in employment over the same period. Interestingly, lone parents whose youngest child is aged between six and 11 years experienced the single largest increase in employment. Over the year the percentage of these lone parents in employment increased by 7.5 percentage points to 57.2%.

These increases are based on all lone parents and reflect the increase in economic and employment growth generally. The magnitude of the increase for lone parents specifically, many of whom would have been affected by the changes of July 2015, is clearly significant and cannot be dismissed. It will take several years for the full impact of the reforms to be assessed. This is due to the fact that the various educational, training and other employment supports being taken up by lone parents on foot of the reforms will take time to complete.

I thank the Minister for his reply. We are dealing with a cohort of people, 11% of whom are living in consistent poverty. The figure for the population as a whole is 8%. We are dealing, therefore, with a particularly poor section of the electorate. The Minister will be aware of the views of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, to which I referred in the question. He will also be aware of the conclusions contained in the Millar report, which states that the changes that have been made have had unintended consequences, that their overall effect is to reduce family income and to discourage people from engaging in activation, whether it be by way of employment, education or training and that the new rules need revision. He will further be aware of the matrix published by Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids, SPARK, an organisation representing lone parents, which clearly shows the losses that working lone parents will incur when the back-to-work family dividend runs out. Is the Minister aware that some of the organisations that represent single parents are going to run a campaign to encourage people who are in receipt of the one-parent family payment or family income supplement, FIS, and who are also working to revert from FIS to the jobseeker's transition payment when the family income dividend runs out next year? The latter will put people who are at work back into welfare dependency.

The Deputy will have an opportunity to come back in. I call the Minister.

It is obviously open to people to apply for the jobseeker's transition payment or FIS and my view is they should apply for whichever of those two payments gives them the most at the end of the week. If people do that, then that is their choice. It should be borne in mind that some people who may be working and in receipt of FIS and who then return to education apply for the jobseeker's transition payment, which they are permitted to do.

I gave the Deputy the employment statistics and they tell a story. There has been a significant increase in the percentage of lone parents who are working, an increase much greater than among the general adult population. This shows that increasing numbers of lone parents are getting jobs and that is very encouraging.

In terms of the at-risk-of-poverty rates, I am sure the Deputy is aware that the percentage of lone parents living in consistent poverty was 50% in 2006 and that the figure for 2014 was 22.1%. My strong view is that we should not revisit what has been done but, rather, that we should introduce reforms that can assist more lone parents to get into education and into work. We will achieve that not through the provision of more welfare payments but rather by means of affordable child care and better supports to get into education.

I appreciate what the Minister said. One makes a choice as to which system suits one better. However, if one makes the choice of jobseeker's transition payment as opposed to FIS, it means that one is going back from work into welfare dependency, which is the exact opposite of what the policy is supposed to be about.

The Minister is aware that single parents in receipt of rent supplement will not qualify for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants and that - as a result of the changes introduced - single parents with children aged over 14 will only be entitled to the back-to-education allowance, whereas previously they were entitled to both the one-parent family allowance and the SUSI grant. These two issues have been identified as barriers to lone parents who want to return to the education system. Has the Minister any plans to deal with them?

Obviously, the rules relating to eligibility for the SUSI grant are a matter for the Minister for Education and Skills and his Department. That Department, with our assistance, has commissioned research examining the barriers to education for lone parents. The matter is being considered in the context of next week's budget in terms of what we can do to assist lone parents. That will involve access to education and affordable child care, it will not involve going back to more welfare.

I am going to be strict on time with all contributors on the basis that if we run over time on a question, we will push out another Member who has tabled a question.

Jobseeker's Allowance

John Brady

Question:

2. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Social Protection the progress of the report into the impact of the reduced jobseeker's payment rates for jobseekers aged 18 to 25 years, as committed to in the Pathways to Work 2016-2020 strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29008/16]

In a number of budgets from 2009 onwards, discriminatory cuts were made to jobseeker's payments for those under 26 years of age by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Young people were one of the first groups to shoulder the burden in the early stages of the economic crisis and these cuts have left 18 to 24 years olds on €100 per week, 25 year olds on €144 per week and those aged 26 and upwards on €188 per week. A report, to which the Government had committed, to examine the impact these cuts have had has still not been published. Where is the report committed to in the Pathways to Work strategy? Will the Minister acknowledge that the cuts that were first introduced by Fianna Fáil and followed up by Fine Gael have been discriminatory to those under 26 years of age?

The CSO's most recent monthly unemployment figures released this week show that youth unemployment had fallen to 15.9% in September. This is a significant decrease of five percentage points, from 20.9%, in the past 12 months. Therefore, in just the past year youth unemployment has fallen from over 20% to 15.9%. The overall unemployment rate fell by 1.2 percentage points in the same period, from 9.1% to 7.9%.

Reduced rates for younger jobseeker’s allowance recipients were first introduced in 2009 under the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government and were further extended to apply to jobseekers under 26 years of age by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government in subsequent budgets. These measures were introduced as they were considered to prevent young people from entering welfare dependency by providing young jobseekers with a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training or to take up employment. Should a young jobseeker on a reduced jobseeker’s allowance payment participate in an education or training programme, he or she will receive a higher weekly payment of €160.

The review of jobseeker’s allowance rates for young persons under 26 years of age will examine the effectiveness of the reduced rates in encouraging young jobseekers to avail of education, training, employment programmes and opportunities. As part of a wider effort to encourage and promote research based on the Department’s administrative data, researchers from the National University of Ireland Maynooth have been provided with data on all jobseeker's allowance claims since 2007 for persons aged under 28 years. They intend looking specifically at the impact of changes in rates on the duration of young people’s claims and on their subsequent employment experience after exiting from unemployment. It is hoped that their analysis will have preliminary results before the end of the year.

The Department of Social Protection continues to identify effective measures to support young people in finding and securing sustainable jobs through engagement processes and by incentivising them to avail of educational and training opportunities, thereby enhancing their employment prospects.

I am not talking about unemployment rate, I was referring to the rates for the unemployed. The Minister may have missed that point. The OECD report to which the Minister referred, which was released yesterday, showed that Ireland has the highest rate of young people receiving unemployment and disability benefits across all 35 member countries of the OECD. The rate in question relates to over one quarter of people aged between 16 to 29 years of age. The Minister will have to agree that this is a shocking statistic but I await his response to the question as to whether he believes the cuts implemented are discriminatory, which is certainly the case.

We are all very aware of the Minister's attitude towards young people. At a recent committee meeting he stated:

... young people coming to Ireland get off the plane from Eastern Europe, from countries such as Poland, probably with neither good English nor good qualifications, and within a week or two they find a job ... we must ask why any young person in Ireland, particularly in this economy where jobs are not that hard to find, is in a situation ....

That is unacceptable. The cuts that have been made are discriminatory. There are no incentives for young people to get back to work. I put the question again to the Minister about those cuts being discriminatory.

If the Deputy is going to quote me, he may wish to quote me in full. Our attitude is very different. The Deputy is interested in welfare rates for young people. I am interested in getting young people into work. Youth unemployment has fallen by 23% in the past year; it has decreased from over 20% to 15.9%, which means that youth unemployment is falling substantially faster than general unemployment. That must be happening for a reason. It is not necessarily because of the rates being lowered but is, rather, a reflection of our policies - as a suite of measures - being successful.

The OECD report is inaccurate. First, it refers to figures from 2014.

This is not 2014; it is nearly the end of 2016. A lot has happened in the Irish economy in the past two years. It also uses data from the survey on income and living conditions, SILC, rather than from the actual unemployment data. If one looks at the unemployment data, youth unemployment in Ireland is now below the OECD average.

The Deputy has one final minute.

All we have are the figures in front of us. Some of the most recent figures released by Focus Ireland show the impact of cuts to the under-26s. I am interested in the rates because they are having a direct impact on youth homelessness. If one looks at the figures that have been published by Focus Ireland and other organisations they show that young people are more at risk of homelessness. That is a result of numerous measures including the cuts to jobseeker's payments. The Minister's Government sent back €30 million in European funding for a youth guarantee, which was a specific initiative to get young people back to work. I question the Minister's sincerity in trying to ensure that young people get back to work when the Government handed back €30 million of funds that could have been directly accessed to get these people back to work. Sinn Féin is committed to reversing some of these cuts, particularly the cuts to young people. We have committed to a €40 increase in jobseeker's payment for the under-26s in our budget submission.

Will the Minister commit to reversing these discriminatory cuts, as Sinn Féin has, with €40 this year and €40 next year to bring it back up to the €188 that it was? Will the Minister commit to ending this discrimination against young people and restoring the cuts that have been introduced by Fianna Fáil and continued by the Minister's Government?

Deputy, please. The Minister has a final minute.

No, I will not commit to that. Even though the rates are lower, they are still much higher than in Northern Ireland where the Deputy's party has been in Government for a very long time. I will commit to continuing to bring down youth unemployment-----

The Minister is not answering-----

-----which is already down.

He is hiding behind false facts.

No interruptions, please. The Deputy went way over his time. Please do not interrupt the Minister. I have given the Deputy a lot of latitude.

The Minister throws in this red herring time and time again.

Will the Deputy please allow the Minister to reply?

It is true; it is less in Northern Ireland.

Fianna Fáil started these cuts. The Deputy should just sit there because Fianna Fáil started the cuts.

When Sinn Féin has power it does nothing.

The Deputy is better off just sitting there-----

It is easier to talk when-----

The Deputy is better off just sitting there because Fianna Fáil is as guilty.

The Deputies are eating into the time.

It is easier to spend money when-----

Deputy Brady and Deputy O'Dea should allow the Minister to reply.

What I have said is that jobseeker's rates for young people in Northern Ireland are much lower than they are in the Republic of Ireland. Deputy Brady has said that is untrue. I would welcome a fact check on that, perhaps on thejournal.ie. We will see how that comes out.

I am saying the Minister should work with us to have one system across the State as opposed to Westminster dictating the rates. The Minister knows the facts.

Can we move on to Question No. 3, please? The Deputy has had more than his time.

I did not have a chance to give my answer because I was interrupted twice.

I will give the Minister an opportunity because he was interrupted.

He was not providing an answer; he was giving red herrings.

Will the Deputy allow the Minister to speak? Nobody interrupted Deputy Brady.

I will give an answer. May I be permitted to speak? This is still a democracy.

Will Deputy Brady let the Minister reply without interruption?

I will not make the commitment the Deputy seeks. What I will commit to is to continue to reduce youth unemployment which is down substantially this year. If there are any increases, they will be increases given to young people who take up education and training opportunities. I do not think somebody who is 18 or 19, many of whom are living at home with their parents, should get €188 a week. I do not think that is good for them.

The only policy that is working is emigration.

Deputy, please. We are moving on to Question No. 3. Deputy Willie O'Dea has 30 seconds to introduce the question.

Child Poverty

Willie O'Dea

Question:

3. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection his plans to reduce child poverty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29010/16]

I will not take 30 seconds. The question is self-explanatory.

Tackling poverty continues to be a priority for Government. The updated national action plan for social inclusion identifies a wide range of targeted actions and interventions to achieve the overall objective of reducing poverty. The national social target is to reduce consistent poverty to 4% by 2016 and to 2% or less by 2020.

The CSO survey on income and living conditions, SILC, for 2014 shows that 11.2 % of children were in consistent poverty, a slight decrease on the 2013 rate of 11.7%. The full impact of the recovery is not yet reflected in these figures. Ireland has returned to strong economic and employment growth. The monthly unemployment rate in September 2016 announced by the CSO this week was 7.9%, down from a peak of 15% in 2012. As unemployment is strongly linked to poverty, we can expect further decreases in poverty as the figures for 2015 and 2016 become available.

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people, published by the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in 2014, includes a specific target to reduce child poverty by two thirds by 2020. Meeting this target means lifting 97,000 children out of poverty. Under this framework, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in collaboration with my Department and other relevant Departments is taking a whole-of-Government approach to tackling child poverty.

Social transfers play a crucial role in alleviating poverty and inequality. In 2014, social transfers reduced the at-risk-of-poverty rate in Ireland from 37.2% to 15.6%, thereby lifting over a fifth of the population out of income poverty. Ireland is among the best performing EU member states in reducing poverty through social transfers. Continued economic recovery, together with Government action to sustain and develop the social welfare system, will support further reductions in poverty over the coming years. Reducing child poverty is not just about income supports and welfare. It is also about getting into work and reducing the cost of living for families, which includes child care, education and health.

The Minister is right, the latest figures come from 2014 and show 11.2% of children in consistent poverty. The Minister says that things will have changed by now because we have not taken into account developments since 2014. What disturbs me somewhat is that the figure moved from 11.7% down to 11.2% over the period referred to during which there was substantial improvement in the economy. Can the Minister give us any indication when he will have updated figures on this so we can pursue these matters properly? It was the Government's policy to take 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. The figure has been revised to 94,000. Could the Minister explain why? I presume it is because the poverty line has changed with increases in income. Is the Minister optimistic that he will achieve that target by 2020?

The next set of figures will be released in the CSO survey on income and living conditions which is expected in November. We will have the 2015 figures next month. We have revised the figure up to 97,000 children. The Deputy is quite right that it is not because children have become poorer; it is because median incomes have gone up and therefore the poverty line has moved. It will be a very hard target to meet but I am determined to meet it through improvements in services like child care, education and health and getting more people with children into work and also through changes to welfare payments. There has been an enormous focus on what is in the budget for pensioners but I am determined that there will be something in it for people on welfare who have children. They are very often the children in poverty. That includes lone parents, carers and people on disability allowance and jobseeker's payments.

One of the systems the Government has announced a few times in this area is the new working family payment. It will be one of the tools the Government will use to combat child poverty. Can we expect that to be announced in the budget?

It will not be announced in the budget. We are working on it for budget 2018. The plan is to develop it, publish what it will look like in quarter one or quarter two of next year and cost it. It will cost if it is to be done in such a way that there are no losers as opposed to winners and losers. I intend to consult with the committee and the other parties on what the working family payment will look like. Essentially, it will be designed to do two things - reduce child poverty and ensure no family is better off on welfare than in work.

We can now say we now know one thing that will not be in the budget. Does the Minister have any more information for us?

Fianna Fáil knows that already. It should not come as a surprise to it.

Only some of them.

Only some of them.

Community Employment Schemes Review

Michael Collins

Question:

4. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Social Protection his views on the effectiveness of the re-entry provisions for the community employment schemes in rural areas and if he will consider implementing separate rural and urban work schemes; when the additional places in the rural social scheme promised in the programme for Government will be allocated; and if the future of the Tús schemes is secure. [29208/16]

My questions are on work schemes and their effectiveness in rural communities which are areas where I see serious issues. Will the Minister comment on the effectiveness of the re-entry provisions for the community employment scheme in rural areas? Will he consider a rural and urban CE scheme?

When will additional places in the rural social scheme, promised in the programme for Government, be introduced? Will the Minister clarify the future of the Tús scheme?

Employment programmes form an important pillar in the strategy to assist long-term unemployed people return to the open labour market. This is achieved through the provision of opportunities within local communities to gain work experience while at the same time supporting the delivery of important services to communities. To be considered for re-entry to community employment, CE, once a person has exited, a period of 12 months needs to have elapsed and that person must be in receipt of a qualifying payment for that 12-month period. Lifetime participation on CE is capped at three years for those aged under 55 years and six years for those aged 55 years and over.

The Department is acutely aware of the differentiated impact of unemployment across local areas. The live register figures by office are closely monitored, along with work programmes in rural and urban areas to ensure maximum utilisation and value is gained from these programmes in all areas.

The rural social scheme, RSS, provides work opportunities for 2,600 farmers and fishermen who have an entitlement to specified social welfare payments. In addition, Tús currently has places for 8,000 participants.

The appropriate level of expenditure, the number of places and the criteria for participation on employment schemes, including CE, Tús and RSS, will be considered in the context of budget 2017 and subsequent budgets. In this context, the Government is conscious of the valuable contribution these schemes make through the provision of services to individuals and communities throughout Ireland.

Community and voluntary organisations throughout the country, in particular in the Cork South-West constituency, value the work carried out by CE workers. In many cases, such as with meals on wheels and looking after local graveyards, they are doing work that used to be previously funded by Departments, whether through county councils or other agencies, but which has been affected by recruitment embargoes. These workers have now been asked to go home and have no gainful employment. It particularly affects those in rural communities where there are no great employment opportunities, bar seasonal employment during the summer.

Will the Minister comment on this? Can we work on a rural and an urban CE scheme? Places on the rural social scheme are limited to 2,600. There has been no increase over recent years. Farmers and fishermen are struggling greatly on low incomes. Workers on the Tús scheme want to continue working and do not want to go back on social welfare. Will the Minister also comment on that?

Two weeks ago, I went to Caherlistrane, near Tuam, to see a rural social scheme in operation with the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney. I was very impressed by it. I compliment Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív on setting up the scheme when he was Minister. It is a useful scheme in areas on the western seaboard where there is not much opportunity for off-farm income. I hope we will be able to provide extra places for it next year. However, that is a budgetary matter currently under negotiation. The Deputy is correct that it is specifically mentioned in the programme for Government.

It is intended that the Tús scheme will continue. It is important to bear in mind there are many schemes in place such as CE2, JobBridge and Gateway. A number of scheme places were flexed up during the recession and are now beginning to fall off with the economy recovering. I acknowledge there are different parts of the country where employment is hard to find. We may need to consider a different set of rules for these areas, especially where they cannot fill places.

I appreciate the Minister’s reply and the fact he has seen the good works the rural social scheme and its workers have carried out down through the years. These are 2,600 diligent people who do not want to earn soft money at home. Instead, they want to work for what they earn. They have to be commended on the work. Visiting a community which has benefited from this gives the Minister a clear insight as to what has been carried out.

Will he look further into a rural and urban aspect to these schemes, particularly the CE scheme? I am inundated, as I presume are other Deputies, with requests from CE workers who want to continue working, earning very little but happy to do so. Unfortunately, they are being sent home, only to look out the window. It is not good for their physical or mental well-being. Whether it is a CE or a Tús scheme, a year-long scheme does not fit all situations. I would appreciate it if the Minister could examine it further.

We are going to look at the rules and make them more suitable for current times. As unemployment goes down, many of these schemes become as much about social inclusion as they do about employment activation.

However, the Deputy should bear in mind that if people are allowed to stay longer in such schemes, say three or four years, it prevents others from getting on them. No matter how many schemes there are, the places are finite. He should also bear in mind that we want to avoid people ending up in a cycle of scheme training welfare. We do not want people to end up on schemes for too long. People can already be on schemes for up to six years in their lives, which is quite a long time.

Deputy Eamon Ryan is not in the Chamber, so we will proceed to Question No. 6.

Question No. 5 replied to with Written Answers.