I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am very pleased to have the opportunity today to introduce the Bill to the House. As the rather unwieldy Title indicates, the Bill contains measures which will amend the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, the Pensions Act 1990 and the Civil Registration Act 2004.
The Long Title of the Bill also reflects the breadth of issues which I and my Department are dealing with. Since taking up office a few weeks ago, I have been struck by the scale of the operations being undertaken by my Department. It is fair to say, that in one way or another, the work of my Department touches on the lives of every person in the State.
The Bill before us today reflects this very point. It incudes, for instance, a measure which confirms the special position within the welfare code of guardians who take on the responsibility for caring for children who have been orphaned or whose parents are unable to take care of them. The Bill includes a measure supporting people with a disability who take up employment. The Bill will seek to offer greater protection to people who are members of defined benefit pension schemes. The Bill also provides for amendments relating to the Civil Registration Service, which covers key life events.
The Bill before us today is, in a sense, a work in progress. Many Members present will be keenly aware of the issues affecting the defined benefit pensions sector in Ireland in recent times. I will be introducing amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage in this area. Given the complexities involved, it simply was not possible to have these included in the published Bill. While we will have an opportunity to consider the amendments in greater detail, the fundamental point I want to make now is that the key purpose of the amendments is to better protect the benefits of scheme members.
Until now, there has never been a statutory obligation on employers under Irish law to engage with trustees and members to address proactively deficits in their defined benefit schemes, nor have conditions been put on employers, who wish to terminate their liability, to contribute to their defined benefit schemes. That will no longer be the case.
As Members know, defined benefit schemes have been facing substantial challenges over the past two decades. To put it simply, the cost of providing benefits has increased at a rate that has not been covered by the investment returns earned by pension schemes. I acknowledge that many employers and scheme trustees have made great efforts to ensure the ongoing viability of their schemes. The best outcomes are achieved when trustees, employers and members negotiate to reach agreement on what is needed to secure the scheme's viability. The amendments I will be tabling on Committee Stage seek to underpin this approach.
The amendments will not permit an employer to walk away at short notice. They will provide for a 12-month notification period to enable negotiation and discussion between all sides. Where a scheme is in deficit, it will require the employer to enter into dialogue with the trustees to develop a plan to sustain the scheme. It is only where these steps have failed and no funding proposal is in place that the Pensions Authority will determine a funding obligation in the form of a schedule of contribution amounts and dates by which those amounts have to be paid. These measures will encourage employers to engage with trustees and members to ensure schemes are well funded and managed. I should mention also that the provisions will allow for entitlement, in certain circumstances, to a spouse’s pension for civil partners and same-sex spouses who are members of occupational pension schemes.
As Members know, the general scheme of the Bill was the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny on 1 June, and I thank the Chairman, who has just arrived in the Chamber, and members of the committee for the manner in which they engaged positively in that process. The committee, in its report, highlighted concerns about heads 4 and 5 of the general scheme which dealt with measures designed to reinforce the Department’s ongoing efforts to deter fraudulent claiming of welfare payments. Having had the opportunity to reflect on head 5 of the Bill and also having listened to the concerns of the committee, I decided to drop this measure entirely from the Bill. Regarding head 4 of the Bill, Members will know that I have secured the agreement of the Government to accept a proposed amendment from Deputy O’Dea of Fianna Fáil which will provide that only the names of individuals convicted of fraud in excess of €5,000 would or could be published. Obviously it is up to the House to determine whether to accept that and we will talk about it in the course of this debate.
The Bill contains 19 sections and I will give a brief overview of its provisions. Sections, 1, 2, 10 and 13 are standard provisions relating to the Title of the Bill, any necessary commencements, and definitions of certain terms used throughout the Bill. Section 3 is an administrative amendment which simply provides certainty on the payments to guardians. In line with policy and practice in my Department, it provides that payments to a guardian in respect of an orphan do not affect the rights of the guardian to claim welfare payments in his or her own right.
Section 4 provides, from the beginning of 2018, for the quarterly compilation and publication of the list of persons who have been convicted of an offence under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 or welfare fraud related offences under the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001. The aim here is simply to increase public awareness of the consequences of such activity. After three months the list would be removed from the Department’s website which will be refreshed.
Section 5 introduces a number of changes to the arrangements governing the use of the public services card, PSC. It will allow for a cardholder’s date of birth, solely at their own request, to be inscribed on the PSC, in order that it can then be used by the cardholder as an age related identity card if they so wish. This section also allows the cardholder, on a voluntary basis, to use the card to confirm their identity in certain circumstances. Currently, a body that is not explicitly specified in the Act is prohibited from accepting the PSC as proof of identity. even in circumstances where the cardholder voluntarily tenders it for this purpose. This amendment will permit a customer to use the PSC at his or her own discretion without causing the person or entity accepting the PSC to be guilty of an offence. The section also clarifies that the ownership of a PSC is at all times vested in the Minister for Social Protection, in line with the practice for the use of other documents such as passports and driving licences.
Section 6 provides for the repeal of section 282 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 which provides for reduced-cost life event certificates, such as birth, marriage and death certificates. This provision will be formally introduced in parallel with the commencement of sections 27(a) and 30(a) of the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014. Consequently, the powers to set the level of reduced-cost fees will lie with the Minister for Social Protection.
Section 7 provides that decisions to award a social welfare benefit or payment which are to the benefit of a claimant can be made by an automated information system. Importantly, it also provides that decisions which deny entitlement to a benefit or payment must in all cases be made by a deciding officer. In other words, IT decisions will be in the affirmative only. All others will have human interaction.
Section 8 is concerned with the arrangements governing the recovery of benefits from compensators, typically insurance companies, in cases where a compensator is paying compensation in respect of the same injury, accident or disease that gave rise to a claim for a social welfare payment. This section provides for the inclusion of supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, in so far as it relates to payments paid as a result of a personal injury, on the list of benefits which may be recovered from the compensator by the Minister. The inclusion of SWA in the list of specified recoverable benefits will enable full recovery from the compensator of the basic supplementary welfare allowance payment, together with any exceptional needs payments and urgent needs payments that arise as a consequence of the injury, accident or disease that gave rise to a claim for compensation. This section of the Bill also provides for the adjustment of the period within which the Minister must respond to a request to provide a statement of recoverable benefits to the compensator from four weeks to 25 working days.
Section 9 addresses the fact that, under the existing legislative provisions, recipients of disability allowance, blind pension and certain supplements under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme only benefit from the disregard of earnings from employment where the employment, or self-employment in the case of disability allowance, has been certified by the recipient’s general practitioner as being of a rehabilitative nature. In line with the recently published report of an interdepartmental group established under the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities, the Make Work Pay report, this section dispenses with the practice of distinguishing between employment of a rehabilitative nature and work more generally. We view all work to be of a rehabilitative nature. In addition to benefiting recipients of the schemes mentioned, this change will also reduce the administrative workload for GPs and the Department of Social Protection.
Section 11 provides for some of the necessary amendments to section 43 of the Pensions Act to underpin the annual preparation of actuarial funding certificates and funding standard reserve certificates and to require the submission of such certificates to the Pensions Authority within six months of the effective date. Further changes will be introduced on Committee Stage to complete the changes required.
Section 12 provides for amendments to section 49 of the Act to specify that funding proposals must be submitted to the Pensions Authority within six months of the effective date of the actuarial funding certificate or funding standard reserve certificates to which it refers.
Sections 14 and 15 provide for the deletion of the provisions in the Civil Registration Act 2004 concerning the terms of office of an tArd-Chláraitheoir, Registrar General, and an tArd-Chláraitheoir Cúnta, the Deputy Registrar General, as those are unduly restrictive and unnecessary in practice.
Section 16 addresses a gap in the current legislation by providing a role for a "qualified informant", usually the next of kin or relative, in the registration of a death where a coroner is involved.
Sections 17 and 18 extend the existing legislative provisions which provide that records of births, deaths and marriages may be shared by the General Register Office with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, to provide that those records may also be shared with a body under the aegis of that Minister.
Section 19 provides that the country of birth and the country of citizenship of a deceased person are to be added to the particulars of a death to be entered in the register of deaths. This provision, as well as providing a richer source of data in the records of deaths held by the General Register Office, also responds to the State's obligations under EU regulations in this area.
I had hoped to be able to bring this Bill into law before the summer recess but that will not now be possible. In the intervening period, my officials, together with their counterparts in the Office of the Attorney General, will be working to refine the text of the amendments, in particular around defined-benefit schemes, which will be introduced on Committee Stage in the autumn.
The reason we are here to talk about this particular Bill today arises from four different Private Members' Bills introduced by Members of this House and Seanad Éireann. One was from Deputy Willie O'Dea of Fianna Fáil, another was from Deputy Willie Penrose of the Labour Party and there was one from his colleague, Senator Ivana Bacik, and the fourth Bill was from Deputies John Brady, David Cullinane, and Denise Mitchell of Sinn Féin. The Bill is an amalgamation of issues that have been recognised by all parties in this House. I acknowledge everybody's contribution and I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies from all sides of the House on the content of the Bill in the course of the Second Stage debate and in particular when we get to Committee and Report Stages, please God in the autumn.