Is ceist phráinneach í seo. Molaim an Bille. Tá gach duine ar gach taobh den Dáil i bhfabhar an méid atá ann. We are fully behind this Bill and it has cross-party support. It addresses a significant problem that could arise and has arisen in some cases.
One of the provisions of this Bill will prevent employers stopping contributions to a pension scheme for a period of 12 months. Until the legislation is passed, there is nothing to prevent employers from abandoning schemes with no notice or minimum notice to the scheme trustees, regardless of the financial position of the scheme or the damage to scheme members' pensions. That is why this Bill is urgent, important and necessary. It will allow time, which I understand will be a 12-month period, within which discussions, consultations and negotiations can take place so that there will be a better outcome, in particular for those who paid into pensions for a significant period of time. Closing off that loophole is hugely important.
The Bill also gives power to the Pensions Authority to impose an obligation on employers to resolve pension scheme funding problems where there is no plan in place to so do. This must be done if schemes are to make their way back to a healthy position where they can pay members benefits. Obviously as people get older their health does not necessarily improve and they look forward to their pension entitlements and the security of their old age. That is what they are entitled to and that is what this legislation is supporting and making sure that, if anything acts against them in relation to their employer, the Government will take the necessary steps to ensure fair play. It also contains a provision that will allow civil partners and same sex spouses who are members of occupational schemes with marriage age rules to obtain a spouse's pension in certain circumstances and there is, again, broad support for that.
I welcome the interest that the new Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, has shown in her brief and her willingness to listen to Deputies from all sides of the House. I would like the Minister to listen to the voice of a constituent of mine, a female farmer, regarding pension equality for women. She wrote setting out her concerns about the inequality and injustice experienced by women farmers and, indeed, many women within the current pension system. Many women farmers are facing an old age in poverty because the State still fails to recognise their work as unpaid carers for both the families they have raised and for other relatives. Many more are still disadvantaged by the historic legacy of the marriage bar which barred people from working in the past. She says that the gender pension gap, which measures the gap between the value of pension payments to women and to men, is 37%. It is the fifth-widest pension gap in the EU. As our economy is improving and as more money is available, this significant inequality needs to be addressed, in particular for women. It is clear the current averaging system discriminates against women in particular who may have worked within the PAYE system for a number of years and then left due to the marriage bar, to raise a family or to care for an older relative and returned to insurable employment in later years. My constituent calls on the Government to address past injustices for Irish women at or near pension age by introducing a total contribution system in 2018 for the purposes of calculating the level of contributory pension. In addition, the pension scheme must recognise the significant and crucially important role that women play in providing unpaid care. Men also fulfil that role, and all Members know of such people in their constituencies.
When pension contributions start is determined by the age of entry to work. If one starts work at the age of 18, one's period of work until the age of 66 is much longer than that of a person who begins work at 30 or 40 years of age. However, if, having started work at 18, one leaves work for ten years to look after one's family or for whatever good reason, one is at a disadvantage compared to other people. I am sure the Minister is knowledgeable of this area, as are all Members. We need to take steps to close the gap and ensure that women in particular, and also some men, do not continue to be disadvantaged.
Contributions were changed in approximately 2012 when the country was in very difficult economic circumstances. One previously could get a pension equivalent to 98% for the yearly average of 21 stamps but that was changed to 85% without any notice whatsoever, which was unfair and unjust. That needs to be addressed because many people in that situation, women in particular, are at a significant loss of at least €40 per week, which is unfair and unacceptable as the economy improves. I was on the side of the Government at that time. I acknowledge that very difficult decisions had to be made. We must now start to address those inequalities.
There is another inequality with which I wish to deal. I thank the Minister for listening to this case and for the interest she and her staff have shown in relation to carer's allowance, which is an entitlement that only goes to those who look after family members or those in their community who are significantly ill and need full-time care and attention and need this allowance to help them cope with the cost and the effort they put in to caring for their relative. The case that has come to my attention involves a child who has been in an intensive care unit in a Dublin children's hospital for six months because the child is very ill. Thankfully, the child's condition has improved. Once the child had been in the intensive care unit for 13 weeks, the Department cut the carer's allowance of the child's carer.
It cuts the carer's allowance because the regulations governing the allowance state that if the person being cared for is in institutional care, which is understandable, or in an acute hospital setting, the carer loses the allowance. For a person from the country to have a seriously ill child in intensive care in a Dublin hospital is a cause of huge emotional and personal trauma. It is a trauma for the child, the family and indeed the whole town of Drogheda which supports this case. How is the injustice righted? If somebody spends 13 weeks in an acute hospital their carer should not lose their allowance. That bar should be removed from that family. That is fair and reasonable. I have not yet tabled a question to find out how many people have suffered in this way but I have discussed it with the Minister. I acknowledge her understanding and appreciation of the situation. It must and should be addressed in the next budget.
There is a human reason: the lives of people caring for family members who are in intensive care are turned upside down. They have to travel more and spend money on meals they would not normally have to buy. They are put at a huge financial and emotional disadvantage. In the case I have raised the community welfare officer, CWO, assisted but why should somebody have to go to a CWO to get something he or she should be entitled to? If the child or adult who was in intensive care had been in long-term care the barrier as defined to me would be understandable but not when he or she is in a life-threatening situation and need acute hospital care.
I acknowledge the cut we made in the telephone allowance but it is having a serious adverse impact on services for those entitled to it. Those people would not make many calls and one might ask why they could not use their mobile phone but most of the assistance services operate from a landline. We did not appreciate the stress this cut would cause people. Of all the issues we can address that is one the Minister could consider in the next budget.
The economy is improving. There is more money available in this republic of opportunity and I welcome that in the context of tax relief. We need, however, to address the hurt visited on people who could not get up early in the morning because they were sick and on pensioners who did not have the capacity to work. When we decided in 2012 to change the requirements for the 98% pension entitlement that affected a defined number of people who could not go back to work for the period that was left to qualify because they would have reached the age of 66. The Minister should consider restoring the years which people could not avail of because that came out of the blue in 2012. Someone who was aged 64 then could not possibly address the deficit he or she faced going into their golden years, unlike someone who was aged 50 or 55 at the time.
I welcome the work the Minister is doing, her interest, knowledge and concern, which percolates through her office and staff. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is always extremely helpful. The staff available on telephone hotlines to give information and help clarify an entitlement are extremely well trained and committed to helping people. They are a beacon for how Civil Service, local government and all State services should be delivered. The service is humane, person-centred, knowledge-based and easily accessible.