Other Questions

One-Parent Family Payment

Willie O'Dea

Question:

48. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will conduct a review into the changes introduced to the one-parent family payment in view of the findings of a report (details supplied) on lone parents and activation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35935/16]

There is widespread agreement that the new system for dealing with single parents is not working. We had a discussion on Committee Stage of the Social Welfare Bill. A number of parties from all sides of the House tabled amendments to require the Minister to conduct a review of this situation. I have tabled this parliamentary question to keep this matter to the forefront.

I discussed the reforms to the one parent-family payment with the select committee on Committee Stage of the Social Welfare Bill last week, as the Deputy mentioned.

We are still at an early stage of the implementation of the reforms to the one-parent family payment. It will take several years before the full impact of the reforms can be assessed. This is because many lone parents, on foot of the changes, are taking up education, training or employment-support programmes, which will take time for them to complete and move into the workforce.

However, I listened carefully to the issues raised by the Deputy and other members of the select committee as part of last week's debate. I agreed that I would commission a report on the changes to the one-parent family payment. I will be introducing an amendment on Report Stage this week to that effect, writing it into the legislation as Deputies requested. The report will examine the financial and societal effects of the changes taking into account poverty rates and welfare dependency of those impacted by the reforms.

Dr. Millar's report is on activation measures for lone parents and does not purport to be an analysis of the lone parent reforms.

Given the title, it was my Department's expectation that the report would provide detail on the design of specific activation programmes that would help lone parents and also help us to develop further activation measures for these customers. That the report does not include such information is a lost opportunity.

The research commenced in January 2015 and, therefore, takes no account of the final phase of the one-parent family payment reforms in July 2015, or improvements targeted at lone parents in the 2016 budget, which resulted in lone parents benefitting more favourably than the average household.

The research commenced in January 2015 and therefore takes no account of the final phase of the one-parent family payment reforms in July 2015, or improvements targeted at lone parents in the 2016 budget which resulted in lone parents benefitting more favourably than the average household. Budget 2017 also includes a number of measures that result in further gains for lone parents, including an increase in the weekly payment, more incentives to enter education and the ability to retain more income that is earned.

The Minister has been critical of the Millar report but is he aware of the concrete suggestions put forward by Dr. Millar to alleviate some of the problems that arise from the changed system? What does the Minister think of those proposals? They appear to be eminently sensible to me. Is the Minister concerned that the organisations representing single parents have advised large swathes of lone parents who are currently in the workforce that when the back to work family dividend comes to an end later this year - it is a two year scheme with 100% in one year and 50% in the second year - they should sign off the family income supplement and sign back on to the jobseeker's transition payment? This means they would go from a work related benefit back to a jobseeker's payment. Does that not indicate that the reforms are achieving the opposite to what was intended with regard to activation?

We will have to see what people do. The back to work family dividend ended in July for some people and we have not seen a significant increase in people going from FIS to jobseeker's transition. I believe it was ended in July for some people but maybe it was a reduction rather than people losing the payment altogether. The back to work family dividend becomes tapered down at different points. We know that some 3,000 people have moved from one parent family payments to FIS, which is moving in the right direction. There has been much commentary on this and I will give one small example of some of the changes that have occurred in the last two years, on foot of the measures contained in budgets 2016 and 2017. A lone parent on the jobseeker's transition payment who works 15 hours at the national minimum wage will see an increase in their overall income of €16 per week, from approximately €334 in 2016 to €350 in 2017. Since 2015 this lone parent has seen an increase of almost €44 per week, or €2,300 per annum, between take home pay and State support. Inevitably the focus is going to be on people who have lost income but it is important to bear in mind that many people are much where they were and actually a substantial number are better off.

Maybe it is just me, but all the people who come to see me are complaining that they have lost income. Nobody is coming to me saying they have actually increased their income. I suspect that if one looks at the figures we will find that many of the lone parents who manage to increase their income did so because they took up more employment. There are many lone parents who are not in a position to take up more employment simply because they either cannot get it or they cannot do it because of their child rearing responsibilities. We look forward to the report the Minister is commissioning. Will he indicate when it will be available within the Department?

It is not just the Deputy. This goes back to my theme that when any reform or change produces winners or losers, it is of course those people who lose out who will come to Deputies' offices - for all the obvious reasons - and not those who have benefitted or who are better off. That is inevitable when one makes any reform.

We are working on the amendment for Report Stage of the Social Welfare Bill 2016. It is going to be an independent report, not done in-house by my Department, so it will have to go through the tender process. We will put the timelines into the Report Stage amendment. Ideally we would like to have it done before June 2017 so that it can inform decisions made for the next budget. I do not have exact timelines but that is the intention. The only thing that might go against us in that regard is that if it is going to be an independent report it has to be externally sourced and we must go through a public tender system for that.

Jobs Initiative

John Brady

Question:

49. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will provide a full list of the companies that were removed from, or initially prevented from participating on, the JobBridge scheme when it was in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36023/16]

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. There is no doubt that the JobBridge scheme was a disaster. If one was not of this opinion initially then the report conducted by the Minister's own Department would quickly change it. I welcomed the end to the JobBridge scheme when it was announced. At the time there were a number of companies that were removed from the scheme. Will the Minister provide details and name the actual companies that were removed?

All JobBridge participants are entitled to a quality work experience and every reasonable effort is made to minimise the risk of exploitation of the scheme by host organisations. All complaints are taken seriously, fully investigated and appropriate action taken in any cases of non-compliance. In addition to responding to complaints, the Department operates a robust monitoring regime and has conducted over 13,000 on-site inspections. The evidence from these inspections is that the vast majority of host organisations are fully compliant with the terms and conditions of the scheme. In fact, of more than 19,000 host organisations that have participated in JobBridge, a total of 86 have been suspended from participating in the scheme. The level of misuse of the scheme is therefore much lower than is popularly thought and this position has been confirmed by the recent Indecon study.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge the public interest in disclosing the names of organisations that breached the conditions of the scheme. There are, however, restrictions and difficulties associated with such publication as the scheme administrative rather than a statute based scheme, like for example taxation. Taking account of the fact that, on its inception, host organisations were not notified that their names might be published, the Department was concerned at the consequences of disclosing information that could result in a material financial loss or prejudice to the position of a host organisation in the conduct of its business. The Department is aware, for example, of instances where bona fide host organisations had their premises picketed and of one employer whose business was subject to denial of service attacks by anti-JobBridge protesters.

In addition, naming and shaming requires a high standard of investigation. In this regard the Department has had to take account of recent decisions of the Information Commissioner in line with the Freedom of Information Act and a ruling from the Information Commissioner which issued on the 2 October 2015. In line with this ruling the Department cannot release the names of companies suspended from use of the scheme as the decisions to suspend host organisations were taken on an administrative basis by individual inspectors and the host organisations had no recourse to a review or appeal of the decision.

In light of the Information Commissioner's ruling, new procedures were put in place in April 2016 which enable the names of errant host organisations investigated since that time to be published. Accordingly the Department can, and will in future, name organisations that are banned from participating in JobBridge or its successor, although this point is somewhat moot given that the JobBridge scheme is now closed to new entrants. I will, however, ensure that this issue is considered in finalising the design of any new work experience programme that I institute to replace JobBridge.

The Minister's own Department internal report on the JobBridge scheme highlighted high risk concerns. These were the same concerns that Sinn Féin Deputies, and especially my colleague Deputy Ó Snodaigh, had raised continually from the outset of the JobBridge scheme being introduced in 2011. The Department's own auditors had expressed concerns over a lack of initial validation of the employers' eligibility and whether the use of interns could lead to a possible displacement of real jobs. The report also noted that no checks whatsoever were carried out on the redundancy payments issued by companies who hired interns which could mean that some companies may have laid off workers, the positions being filled by interns. The auditors questioned the accuracy of data supplied by so called host organisations, specifically with regard to the number of staff that the companies claimed to employ.

I thank the Deputy.

The Minister, Deputy Varadkar likes to refer to the Indecon report when I raise questions about JobBridge.

I thank the Deputy.

One of Indecon's key findings in that survey was that nearly 30% of employers using the JobBridge scheme said that they could have taken on a person in fully paid employment.

The Deputy has exceeded his time.

I urge the Minister to release the details. He said there are 86 companies that had been removed.

I urge him to release-----

The Deputy will have to respect the rights of other Members.

-----those details.

I would not have any difficulty releasing the information other than the fact that the ruling of the Office of the Information Commissioner ties our hands in that regard. From April onwards, if there were any abuses that required publication then I would not have any difficulty doing that. I am sure, however, that the Deputy is not actually advising me, in this House, to disregard a ruling on data protection by the Office of the Information Commissioner. I hope that is not what he is seriously asking me to do. A previous Minister got into a lot of trouble for doing that sort of thing on "Prime Time" and I am certainly not going to do it.

It is important to say the internal audit report is available on the Department's website. The team did not find any evidence of employers acting to abuse the scheme. All of the managers' responses were accepted by the internal auditor and the internal audit committee is responding adequately to the issues raised in the initial report.

The Minister gave the number of 86 companies and we know that the Indecon report raised serious concerns which were not acted on at that stage. I imagine the number is far higher than 86. When we look at the type of jobs being advertised, a well-known company which I will not name advertised for a sandwich artist. A deli assistant position was advertised as a sandwich artist position. The company hired many people using JobBridge and essentially it was free labour. The Minister has outlined his intention to bring forward JobBridge 2.0. My concern is that the 86 companies - I imagine the number is far higher - will be allowed to take part in the next scheme. Will all of the companies which abused and exploited the predominantly young people on JobBridge be allowed to sign up to JobBridge 2.0? We still have not seen the detail of the Minister's replacement scheme. Will he outline it?

The Deputy has not seen it because there is ongoing public consultation on it. We have received Sinn Féin's proposals for a new work experience scheme. Something I learned in going around the Intreo offices around the country, including the one in Arklow in the Deputy's constituency, was that among the really strong supporters of JobBridge were the case officers.

And the employers.

They are not employers; they are civil servants in the Department. They have huge experience with people who they were trying to get into employment and who had no work experience. A total of 70% or 80% of the jobs are in the private sector, in SMEs.

What work experience does someone need to have to make a sandwich - a half an hour's training?

Perhaps the Deputy might think working in a restaurant or cafe is beneath people, but as somebody who worked in a restaurant and a shop, I do not think it is.

It certainly is not beneath them, but they should be paid.

The Minister to continue, without interruption, otherwise we will move on.

I do not think it is beneath people. The evidence and advice I receive from case officers working with people who are trying to get a job - perhaps they are trying to get a job in a cafe or a restaurant; good for them if they do - is that if a person has on his or her CV real work experience with a small employer, an SME, it is valuable and makes it easier for him or her to get a job than it is for somebody who has no work experience with a real employer.

Pension Provisions

Thomas Byrne

Question:

50. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Social Protection to outline his plans to end the inequality of treatment of women in the contributory pension system. [35975/16]

I am delighted to be able to raise this issue. Deputy Willie O'Dea earlier got to the nub of this issue which Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin raised last week as a Topical Issue. It is hugely important and given that so many Deputies are raising it, I implore the Minister to look into it and do something about it.

The rate of payment of a State contributory pension to a person is related to the number of contributions made by the person during the years into the Social Insurance Fund. There is also a widow’s contributory pension which is generally paid at the full contributory pension rate. The exact same rules apply to women as men. Entitlement levels are calculated by means of a yearly average calculation, where the total contributions made or credited are divided by the number of years of the working life. Payment rates are banded. For example, someone with a yearly average of 48 contributions will qualify for a full State pension, whereas someone with a yearly average of 20 will qualify at 85% of the full rate. More generous conditions apply to widows' pensions.

The homemaker’s scheme was introduced in 1994 to make State contributory pension qualification easier for those who had taken time out of the workforce for caring duties. It allows up to 20 such years, in the period since its introduction, to be disregarded when a record is being averaged for pension purposes.

Where people do not qualify for a full rate contributory pension, they may qualify for an alternative payment. If their spouse has a contributory pension, they may qualify for an increase for a qualified adult amounting up to 90% of a full rate pension which by default is paid directly to them. Alternatively, they may qualify for a means-tested State non-contributory pension which amounts to up to 95% of the maximum contributory rate.

It is planned that a total contributions approach will replace the yearly average approach from around 2020 and the position of homemakers will be carefully considered in the context of that reform. Officials of my Department are working on the detailed development of the new total contributions approach, with a view to making proposals for consideration available to the joint Oireachtas committee in the first quarter of next year. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

A change was made by the previous Government whereby the minimum number of contributions rose from 260 to 500. This had a devastating impact. As far as I can see, it is always women who are affected and there are no men in the category, certainly none who has come to my office. Typically when we look at the PRSI records of women, they have a contribution record which started sometime in their teens. They probably started working before they started to make contributions. In the case of my mother, she started work at 13 years of age. I am not saying she is affected by this because she is not, but she started work at 13 years and many women are in the same boat. The contributions tapered off in their early to mid-20s when they got married and had to leave the workforce. We have a provision in the Constitution - everybody laughs at how outdated it is - which recognises the work of women in the home, but here is an instance where we should be looking at the Constitution and stating the women in question left the workforce, in some case because they were forced to do so, to work in the home which the Constitution praised and supported, yet they find when they reach pension age having worked from a very young age that they lose out big time. Men have not suffered in the same way.

The Deputy has spoken about three aspects of the issue. People have to have made a minimum number of contributions to receive a contributory pension. This means that during the entire course of their working lives they must have worked for ten years, or 520 weeks. Out of the entire course of a normal working life of perhaps 40 to 45 years, someone must have worked at least ten years and there are no proposals to change this requirement. The second issue is that of averaging, which is a different aspect, on which I take the Deputy's point. We are trying to develop a solution which is moving away from when people made their contributions to the total number they made throughout their working lives. The third issue is that people were forced to leave the workforce. We must bear in mind that most of the people in question, in fact, almost all of them, were public servants pre-1995 who never made contributions, or made reduced contributions which did not entitle them to a State contributory pension. Even if they had not been forced to leave work and never got married - even if they were men - they would not now be entitled to a State contributory pension because public servants pre-1995 paid stamp at a different rate which did not give them any entitlement to receive the State contributory pension. That is still the case.

I do not know whether the Minister is deliberately not listening or not understanding the point. When I say they were forced to leave the workforce, I am not referring to the marriage bar in the case of public servants. I am referring to women who, by the rules of society or the expectations of married women at the time, were forced to leave the workforce. They left and their contribution records stopped. The Minister raised the issue of averaging issue and I am glad to see that it will be looked at. The minimum number of contributions was changed during the term of the previous Government from five to ten years contributions. This has had a devastating impact on women and I am not speaking about civil or public servants who, by and large, have their own pensions. The women in question would do anything to receive the State pension of €230 a week, but they simply cannot receive it. In some cases, they may have land with a paper value, but it has no practical value for them and they do not qualify for a non-contributory pension. This is very much a women's issue and one of fairness. The women in question will have to be looked at. Many of them have just passed pension age because these rules were introduced in 2013, while others are approaching it. It affects a certain cohort of women who are in the older age bracket and who are being adversely affected.

The requirement to have 520 contributions affects many men and women. If we think about it, I do not believe a requirement to have made during the course of one's entire working life contributions for ten years is unreasonable. People, men and women, who worked for 40 years might have a difficulty with somebody who worked for only ten receiving the same pension as them.

It was only changed three years ago.

I raised a similar question in which I included self-employed persons and returned emigrants, as well as women. I would welcome a review to try to bring about a fairer system.

I have a case in my constituency of a person who worked for two summers as a 16 and 17 year old, emigrated for 20 years and is now a victim of a very harsh averaging system. There are similar situations for self-employed people whose contributions are not being recognised so it would be welcome to review the situation. I know a lot of expense is associated with this and the Minister's reply to my last parliamentary question suggested it would take between €200 million and €300 million to address all the cases.

Does the Minister want to make a short reply?

It is difficult to make a short reply to these issues as they are so complicated. The Deputy's points are noted. We are trying to look at all the anomalies and are hoping to put something before the committee in this regard. We are looking to provide the costs and options for solutions in each case. Whereas a lot of people lose out from the averaging system, a lot also benefit and somebody who only took up work for the first time in their 50s and paid ten years' contributions would be entitled to a full pension, and there are a lot of them around.

Rural Social Scheme

Tom Neville

Question:

51. Deputy Tom Neville asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of the expansion of the rural social scheme following budget 2017; the way the extra places will be spread throughout the country; when this will take place; the funding that is being put forward for the scheme in 2017; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35718/16]

As part of the social welfare budget package for 2017, I announced a €5 increase in the weekly rate of payment for rural social scheme participants from March, and an additional 500 places on the scheme. This will increase the overall number to 3,100. The level of funding allocated to the scheme for 2017 will increase to €47.6 million.

Deputies on all sides of the House are fully aware of the positive benefits derived from schemes like the rural social scheme. While communities benefit from the skills and talents of local farmers and fishermen, participants also have the opportunity to improve existing skills, or develop new skills, while performing valuable work in their local communities. Community groups have benefitted from the many projects undertaken through the scheme with minimal cost to the Exchequer. The scheme has also played an important role in sustaining rural communities.

A request for expressions of interest in the additional places was recently sent to all rural social scheme implementing bodies which administer the scheme on behalf of the Department. My Department intends allocating these places as early as possible in 2017, taking into account a number of factors. These include the number of places already allocated, the demand for places in particular areas, work opportunities available and the numbers of farmers and fishermen and women in receipt of income support.

It is not possible at this stage to give the exact locations as to where these additional places will be allocated. In order to qualify, all new entrants to the scheme will have to be over 25 years of age and, in addition, a six-year overall participation limit on the scheme will be introduced. This will ensure that there will be a throughput of places available and it will align the rural social scheme with other employment programmes.

I welcome the Minister's statement on the expressions of interest and extra allocations in 2017. In my own constituency there has been a lot of good work done on this, particularly in my own parish of Kilfinny and in Grange, Knockaderry, Adare Templeglantine, Ballyhahill, Mountcollins, Newcastle West and Killeaney, for GAA clubs, soccer clubs and housing developments. It is important that the Department makes its decision on the allocations as quickly as possible because, given the positive outcomes there have been so far, we want to get moving on it.

A previous question asked about work experience and I have my own experience of that, having done the student scheme back in the 1990s in which I worked 200 hours for £600. It was extremely positive and it gave me great experience as a young student, which I later used to get jobs in the hospitality industry. The first thing a person is asked when they walk into a sandwich bar or a pub is if they have experience. It is important that experience is provided for these people, no matter what the field because skills can be transferred to other situations.

In Limerick there are 73 participants in the rural social scheme and 163 on farm assist who could become eligible for the rural social scheme. Two development companies in Limerick participate in the rural social scheme, namely, West Limerick Resources and Ballyhoura Development and both have requested an expansion of their schemes. They will certainly be considered as favourably as possible when we make the allocations in the new year.

I thank the Minister again. It would be very much appreciated if he could move it on as quickly as possible in 2017.

There is some indication from the groups that the criteria for the scheme will be changed. A person on farm assist who qualified for the rural social scheme would stay on that scheme for a number of years but now it seems there is a cap of three years, after which people have to break of three years before returning to it. It is almost like a CE scheme and this could be detrimental to the future of the rural social scheme. Does the Department have plans to put a cap on the rural social scheme? Have the Minister and the Department thought through the consequences of this? The rural social scheme will run out of participants in this case. Is it the aim to dissolve the scheme in the long term?

No, the aim is to retain and expand the scheme in the long term. There are 500 additional places for 2017 and requests have come in for 1,000 additional places. If things go well in 2017 I anticipate looking for a further allocation to increase the rural social scheme in 2018. There will, however, be a six-year limit for new entrants as we want some turnover within the scheme, rather than people being on it for life, and we want other people from the community to have the opportunity to take part, just as is now the case with CE.

Questions Nos. 52 and 58 replied to with Written Answers.

JobPath Implementation

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

53. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Social Protection the requirement for newly qualified teachers to engage with a company (details supplied) as part of JobPath in training and activities not related to teaching; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35720/16]

I have brought JobPath to the Minister's attention previously and earlier today we had a discussion on its operation and the fact that people are selected by the Department on a random basis, with people in our area being sent to Seetec. A specific problem has arisen in the case of second-level teachers, although others are also affected. They are required to pursue JobPath training activation but effectively are casual workers doing substitute work in different schools, including preparatory work. They also have to be available for work at literally a day's notice.

The key objective of activation policy and labour market initiatives is to assist jobseekers to secure work and achieve financial self-sufficiency. Ideally, this will be in the preferred profession or field of work of the unemployed jobseeker but this cannot always be the case. In particular, people who have been unemployed for a long period of time should be open to preparing for and taking up employment in occupations or sectors outside of their preferred field of work.  This applies to people from all backgrounds, trades and professions.

All the jobseekers referred to JobPath have been registered as unemployed and have had a live claim for a period of at least 12 months. On referral to a JobPath service provider they are assigned a personal employment adviser who works with them to identify potential employment opportunities and support them in overcoming any barriers to employment. This may include, depending on the individual, the provision of training in job search and interview skills, or indeed in certain vocational skills.

In addition JobPath service providers will tailor their approach to accommodate and support people, such as teachers, who can secure part-time or short-notice substitution work. Accordingly participation in JobPath should not hinder people from taking the steps necessary to secure work in their chosen field. In addition participants on JobPath who secure employment continue to receive support for at least three months and up to 12 months while in employment.

During this period the JobPath service providers actively support people to move onto another job if such a move provides a better outcome for them. It should be noted that the fees paid to JobPath service providers are dependent on sustained employment outcomes.

Given this payment model, the suitability of employment for the jobseeker is a key factor in ensuring that jobs are sustained. If people are not placed in suitable jobs they will not stay in them and, therefore, JobPath service providers will not get paid. There is therefore an inbuilt incentive in the contract model to encourage the service providers to find the best fit between the jobseekers' skills and the aspirations and employment opportunities to which they are directed.

Why did the Minister not seek to agree a protocol with the different professions where people are in casual employment as part of their training, in this case perhaps through the INTO, the ASTI and the TUI trade unions? The Minister in one of his press releases referred to 60,000 people participating in the JobPath programme. Its purpose is to target the long-term unemployed. It does not seem to refer to newly qualified teachers or people who were beginning the process of apprenticeship, effectively, in teaching and going on to become full-time teachers.

I thank the Minister for the replies he sent me on that but some of them appear to be contradictory in that he said there is no restriction on unemployed teachers taking up short-notice substitution, yet he also stated that jobseeker's payment is conditional on the person seeking employment and being willing to take up suitable employment. However, with the very nature of teaching in terms of the preparatory work and these casual workers being on-call to go into class to do the 300 hours for second level qualification, JobPath makes it almost impossible for them. The Minister mentioned that it is a rewards-based system for Seetec, for the private company. That makes it extremely difficult for young professionals in training.

I would like to see a situation whereby a teacher is not on jobseerker's allowance. I know there are reasons that is the case. Some relate to pay while others relate to the fact that there are irregular hours depending on the subjects a person teaches and so on. I am hoping we will get to the point sooner rather than later where there are more permanent contracts and better pay for teachers and where this issue would not arise in the first place.

The provider informs us it is willing to offer engagement and appointment times in the early evening, which would be after school hours and, obviously, that should not be a problem for teacher to do his or her engagement at 4 p.m., 5 p.m. or 5.30 p.m. as the case may be. I am not sure how many teachers have been referred to JobPath. I will check that and if it is a significant number I will certainly give consideration to the Deputy's suggestion that some protocol be arranged with respect to teachers and their unions.

I welcome the Minister's comments. It is striking he does not have direct information on that, and I know that from the replies he sent me. Certainly with Seetec, there seems to be an impetus to drag people in and place them at all costs. The system Seetec is operating is the one it operated in the north of the United Kingdom for a number of years. Clearly, in terms of young teachers taking up employment, it seems to be particularly jarring. I would welcome if the Minister would provide that information and if he would organise to discuss it with the relevant professional bodies and trade unions to ensure young trainee teachers who are in the position of being casual workers depending on substitution work will not be put in this very difficult position.

I thank the Deputy for his co-operation. The Minister has a final minute to reply.

Okay. We will move on to the next question.

Social Welfare Code

Willie Penrose

Question:

54. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Social Protection his plans to carry out a study on the way the social protection system can better protect widows and widowers. [36034/16]

There has been a major deficit in the social protection system with respect to widows and widowers under the age of 66 and the vulnerable circumstances they find themselves in. We need to show maximum compassion to those people, especially widows or widowers with children. Perhaps it is time to review the role of system, particularly with a view to extending the household benefits package to those people at that time.

Widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory pension is a weekly payment to the husband, wife or civil partner of a deceased person. Unlike other social insurance schemes, entitlement is based on either the claimant’s or the deceased partner’s social insurance contributions. Virtually all social insurance contributions count towards this pension, including contributions paid by the self-employed and by pre-1995 public servants. The payment lasts as long as the claimant does not remarry or is not cohabiting. If someone is divorced but would have become entitled to such a pension had they remarried, they still keep their entitlement to the pension.

A claimant may also qualify for an increase for a qualified child and the pension is payable regardless of other income.

Where a person does not qualify for widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory pension and is under 66 years of age, they may apply for the non-contributory pension. This is a payment for widows, widowers or surviving civil partners who do not have dependent children.

Surviving spouses and civil partners who have qualified children are also eligible for a widowed parent grant of €6,000. Recipients of widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory and non-contributory pensions who are full-time carers can also qualify for payment of the half-rate carer’s allowance. I want particularly to acknowledge the role of Deputy Penrose in progressing that initiative in years gone by and, particularly, when he was the chairperson of the then social welfare committee.

I consider overall that the protections for widows and widowers under the current social protection system are very good. My Department will keep the position under review and is open to any proposals the Deputy might make. Recipients of these pensions will benefit next week from the 85% Christmas bonus and next year from the €5 per week increase in the maximum personal rates of payment. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Those increases are acknowledged and they are a help to people, and I acknowledge the Minister's role in that regard. He will appreciate the vulnerable circumstances of a family when the main breadwinner has been lost, especially in the period to when children are of school-going age. Perhaps he might review the household benefits package with a view to extending it to that cohort of people. It is not a tremendously large group and we hope it remains small and that people enjoy good health but sudden deaths and accidents can occur.

Regarding non-contributory pensions, is it not the position that widows who have children do not get the child benefit portion in that regard? Is that not an anomaly that needs to be addressed? A person in receipt of a non-contributory widow's pension does not get the child benefit portion. That forces her into the jobseeker's allowance payment or, alternatively, into the one-parent family payment, in respect of which there may be restrictions and that also has to be reviewed. That is an anomaly that we could iron out. The Minister might examine those two areas. I appreciate addressing this will take time and that it has to be done within the budget.

I will have to check whether a person in receipt of the non-contributory widow's pension does not receive the increase for a qualified child. It seems incorrect so I will check it.

I believe I am correct.

I think the Deputy is correct.

Deputy Penrose might be right.

I was shocked that I was correct about that. I, like the Minister, thought it was the other way around.

That would seem anomalous. I will definitely have that checked out.

Another entitlement that a widow, widower or surviving partner can receive is the fuel allowance, which is a payment of €22.50 for six months of the year. In terms of the household benefits package, it is probably a little more complicated. It would depend on age, means testing and so on. If we were to do something simple, it might be the increase in the grant for children immediately after bereavement. I noted an article in the Daily Mail recently, written by somebody in receipt of the widow's pension who was disputing the fact that she should be entitled to it, because, as the Deputy knows, one can have it in addition to one's income. That is one of the reasons people pay pay-related social insurance, PRSI. They pay it in the knowledge that should something happen to them and they die their widow, widower or civil partner will have the security of an income and be able to earn income in addition to that.

I thank the Minister for his response and he has pointed out some aspects. I am not clear on this but Deputy O'Dea seems to be very clear on it. I was shocked about this and it only came to my attention recently. That would be an anomalous position and it would compel people into other forms of social welfare which may not suit their circumstances. If a person is compelled into jobseeker's allowance, they would have to be available for employment but the person might have two or three children and be rearing them alone at that time. That aspect could be examined. I appreciate the Minister cannot over-extend with respect to the household benefits package and that means testing would be required but perhaps it might be extended to this group for a limited period of two or three years to get people over the hump after losing a partner.

Not everyone can go out to work and maintain an income, but the Minister could curtail that in terms of someone who had an income along with the widow's or widower's pension as he or she would not be entitled to the household benefit. Those with no other source of income could be dealt with under the means-tested situation, even if just for a two or three year period.

Clearly I am not in a position to make those changes now with the Estimates being done. However, I will take the suggestions the Deputy makes under consideration for inclusion in the next budget package.

Social Welfare Appeals

Mick Wallace

Question:

55. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Social Protection his plans to reform the social protection appeals system, in view of the almost 60% appeal success rate in 2015 which was highlighted as a concern by the UN; if he will publish the results of all appeals made through this office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36053/16]

The country rapporteur for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights commented in June 2015 that Ireland continued to take austerity measures and to focus on cutting the budget and that rates of poverty, including food poverty, and youth unemployment had increased. At the same UN committee, concern was expressed at the high number of initial social welfare decisions which were overturned at the appeal stage. The UN committee recommended that appeals be decided in a consistent and transparent manner and that the appropriate training be provided to decision makers at first instance. Will the Minister consider introducing reforms to the appeals process and do so soon?

I acknowledge that the Deputy is correct to say that after the period of recession and economic crisis, poverty and youth unemployment increased. They have also been falling in recent years as a consequence of the recovery. In fact, youth unemployment has pretty much halved in the last couple of years. I am sure it was an omission, but the Deputy did not quite acknowledge that.

Over 1.7 million new claims were processed in 2015, 85% of which were awarded. The number and outcome of appeals finalised must be considered in this context. Of the 25,406 appeals finalised in 2015, 58.8%, or 14,946, were successful. However, this does not mean that the initial decision was incorrect. An appellant may submit additional information which allows the Department to revise its decision without involving an appeals officer. Of favourable appeal decisions in 2015, 35%, or 5,200, resulted from revised decisions. Where decisions remain unchanged, the appeal proceeds to an appeals officer who will accept evidence at all stages of the process and this may impact on the decision. The appeals officer may also gain insights at oral hearing into the appellant's circumstances which lead to a favourable outcome. The appeals officer's role is to examine entitlement as if for the first time, not to check that the original decision was valid. The officer looks at cases afresh. Given the degree of subjectivity in some scheme criteria, it is reasonable that a second decision maker might make a different decision to the first.

The publication of appeal decisions would be a vast undertaking requiring the allocation of significant resources. This would undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on how long it would take to process appeals. In 2011, the courts found, given the significant costs and questionable benefits involved, that there was no duty on the appeals office to publish a database of decisions. However, the chief appeals officer publishes a sample of decisions in her annual report to clarify the process by which appeals are determined.

I accept partially the Minister's first point. Unemployment has fallen in many areas, especially in Dublin where the Minister comes from. In places like Wexford and certain black spots, however, we are still in the dark ages and things are very difficult.

The processing time for appeals and their high success rate highlights that there is definitely something wrong. The Minister has probably seen that free legal advice centres, FLAC, has pointed out that the fact that decisions on social welfare appeals are not routinely published means people appealing decisions are forced to work in an information vacuum and are unclear as to how cases are decided. FLAC also points out that people cannot access free legal aid for advice and assistance in what can be a complicated process. Am I right to say that the average waiting time for an appeal is approximately 20 weeks? Deputies from all over the country are forever putting in questions about this. I believe it is over 1,000 questions a year at a cost of €200 a go, which means that over €200,000 is being spent in that area alone. While the Minister says changing things is expensive, not changing them is also expensive.

I have always been a bit sceptical about that €200 per answer thing, but I take the Deputy's point. I wondered myself when I was appointed to this office why appeals were so successful. If appeals are successful 58% to 60% of the time, it indicates on first pass that something is wrong. However, it seems one of the major reasons there is such a high rate of success in appeals is that we allow new information to be presented on appeal. That is what produces the high success rate. In other countries, for example Britain, one cannot put new information in. That is one change we could make. The concern the chief appeals officer has about publishing all of the decisions is that it would create a great increase in delays on foot of the additional burden that would be incurred.

In regard to unemployment and the south east, I have good news for the Deputy, which I am sure he will wish to tweet out right away. According to the quarterly household survey figures published today, the number of people employed in the south east has gone up in the last year from 207,000 to 215,000 while the number of people who are unemployed has gone down from 28,500 to 24,900. The south east is increasing jobs, unemployment is falling and great economic progress is being made there. I hope there will be much more.

The Minister will be sorry to hear that most of the young people have left the county and gone to a different country. I do not know if the Minister has seen the film "I, Daniel Blake". Has he seen it?

It depicts individuals in England who were trying to access what they were already entitled to. Is this an aspect of the system in Ireland? I do not know myself what the truth is, but is there a deliberate attempt to make it as difficult as possible for some people to access what they are entitled to or is the problem that people are not as well trained in this area as they should be?

Of the 60% that succeed on appeal, what percentage refers to reviews? A review is done by the deciding officer. It does not actually go to the appeals officer. In reality, how many appeals are successful which go to an appeals officer? Does the Minister have any plans to put the appeals office on a statutory footing?

I have no plans at this stage to put it on a statutory footing. I am told that 35% of favourable appeal decisions result from revised decisions rather than having gone to an appeals officer. The figure of 58.8% is very misleading for that reason

I have seen "I, Daniel Blake", which is a great movie and I recommend that people go and see it.

The Minister has plenty of time on his hands.

I am thinking of putting on a screening for my senior officials. I might suggest that the movie comes from a particular perspective and that somebody could do a movie about some of our other customers which would be a very different story. I can guarantee it.

We are not going into the movies now.

I could do a great movie about some of our customers. Certainly, our policy is to ensure that people get the benefits and assistance to which they are entitled. However, we do that in a context where a lot of people are trying to collect benefits and allowances to which they are not entitled.

I am very anxious to get to the Minister's party colleague and we are eating into his time on the final question. There is an awful lot of discussion about films in this Chamber.

It is relevant. The film is about social welfare. It is worth watching.

Is there no censorship?

Question No. 56 replied to with Written Answers.

Registration of Births

Brendan Griffin

Question:

57. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Social Protection if his Department has assessed the impact on youth poverty of the lower rates for unemployment allowance; if so, the findings of such an assessment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35711/16]

I thought for a second I would have to go "Back to the Future" to get this question in. I acknowledge the Minister's swift work upon assuming office in dealing with the issue of the grossly insensitive practice of the State charging people to register stillborn children. Further to the changes already introduced, I ask if this can be extended to children who pass away shortly after birth in relation to the registration of both the birth and the death.

In July of this year, I introduced regulations which provided that no fee would be incurred where parents request a certificate in respect of a stillborn child. At the time, I told Deputy Griffin that I would examine the cost of certificates to parents registering the birth and death of a baby on the same day. I gave an undertaking in the House that I would at the earliest opportunity make regulations reducing the fee payable in the case of a baby's death. In the meantime, I have considered how best this can be done and have now decided that the simplest approach would be to waive the fee for certificates for the simultaneous registration of the birth and death where the baby dies within its first year of life.

I also propose to extend this to the registration of the death of a baby within that period.

The HSE has responsibility for the day-to-day running of the Civil Registration Service and any revenue raised from fees for certificates is used to fund the service. I am mindful of the impact on revenue. However, in this case the amounts involved are very small. I have consulted with my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris and I am happy to confirm he concurs with me on this matter. I can assure the Deputy that I am very conscious of the distress the death of a baby causes to a family and my intention is to alleviate any additional distress which may arise during the registration process to parents who have lost a baby. Now having agreement on this matter, I intend to introduce the necessary regulations in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister. I very much appreciate his response and thank him for acting so swiftly. I raised this matter in the previous Dáil. Unfortunately, action was not taken. The Minister has shown that it was possible to address this issue.

It represented a gross insensitivity on behalf of the State for people who were faced in their darkest hour with having to pay money in addition to the misery they were going through. As the Minister said, this does not generate massive revenue for the State, but he has decided to do the right thing. I again thank him for his efforts in addressing this matter. As he said, it is something that will not cause any further distress and offence to people in their time of pain.

I thank Deputy Griffin for bringing this matter to my attention some months ago, on foot of which I abolished the fee to register a stillbirth. I will now abolish the fee to register the death of a child in the first year. I want to acknowledge in particular my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, for being so quick to approve and agree this change.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.