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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Nov 2017

Vol. 962 No. 3

Social Welfare Bill 2017: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank Deputy Brady for sharing time and for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Sinn Féin regards social welfare payments as something of an equaliser in society and a mechanism by which the Government can redistribute payments, particularly to those most in need. There are those on the right of the political spectrum, including the Taoiseach and some in the media, who might seek to foster division in the masses and propound a distinction between strivers and those who take responsibility for their own lives and a minority of outsiders who seek to live by different rules. As some of us know, that is very far from the truth. Ordinary people know it is not true and that is why there was widespread anger and a level of disgust at the "Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All" campaign.

The Taoiseach and other members of Government have attacked members of Sinn Féin when we seek to represent ordinary people. They say we seek to exploit the misfortune of ordinary people, a claim that is utterly without foundation. That statement has been made on several occasions and should probably be corrected. It is the Government that seeks to create greater social divisions and erode cohesive social institutions. Trying to erode those institutions is vintage Fine Gael. It is its past, its present and will, unfortunately, be its future. Fine Gael seeks to exploit society, to divide and to moralise about social welfare payments and those whose who are less fortunate. The Taoiseach in particular, and the Government in general, have sought to moralise that social inequalities are attributable to individual effort rather than, as is so very often the case, an accident of birth. Such behaviour facilitates a politics of division and makes more difficult the task of designing an approach to social welfare that actively seeks to confront and eradicate those divisions. On these benches we seek to defend society and those who are less fortunate against those attacks. We will not take lectures nor sit by while broadsides are aimed at us by the most socially and economically conservative party in the State, headed by an individual who is the product of absolute privilege.

As regards the Bill, glaringly obvious in particular is the absence of any provisions to address the more than 42,000 older people in receipt of reduced State pensions due to the 2012 changes to the pensions bands and rates. Fianna Fáil, of course, did its usual: it talked an awful lot about it but, in the end, did nothing. It did not push for this, even after its pension motion passed only a few weeks ago. It was all talk and no action, which is the hallmark of this cosy little arrangement known colloquially by Fianna Fáil as the confidence and supply agreement. My colleague, Deputy Brady, will table amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage to rectify some of these glaring issues, and we sincerely hope those amendments will be accepted.

I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. The Social Welfare Bill is very important proposed legislation as it gives effect to the wide array of social welfare changes and related matters that were the subject of announcements when the Minister for Finance introduced the budget on 10 October last. Therefore, the Bill incorporates the €5 increases in the maximum rates of weekly payments for pensioners, lone parents, jobseekers, carers, people with disabilities, widows and people on unemployment programmes. It would be churlish of me and my party not to welcome the fact that these increases and improvements arise across a number of areas. They are not large or significant by any objective standard, especially for people on fixed incomes with little or no capacity to achieve any other income to enable them to increase their standard of living, but I hope and I trust that these increases will improve people's living standards in some small way and their quality of life over the next 12 months or so.

The regrettable aspect is the structure and implementation date for these increases to take effect, namely, 26 March 2018. Therefore, in effect, for 2018 the increase will be only €3.80, which is somewhat less than the increases given in 2014, and I must emphasise this. The 2014 increases drew some adverse comment. While the Minister will make a plausible argument about the available fiscal space to explain why these payments will be deferred for 12 weeks or so, the forecast budget for 2018 of slightly in excess of €20 billion is almost one third of the total expenditure being allocated to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. One of the objectives from here on is for these changes which give increased payments to become operative on 1 January following the budget announcements. After all, taxation changes and especially excise duties are implemented immediately. I note there is provision for a €2 increase for each qualified dependent child in respect of all weekly payments, and this is to be welcomed. I think the last time there was any such increase was as far back as 2010 or thereabouts.

The dependent adult and people on reduced rate payments will receive the proportionate increases, while younger jobseekers aged 26 and under on their reduced rates will get the €5 increase, again from 26 March.

Recently in the Dáil, when speaking about the need to update, revamp and streamline the current complex eligibility system for old-age pension qualification, which is, as I said at that time, riddled with anomalies, clearly not fit for purpose and discriminatory at its roots, I also referred to what I termed a bugbear, or aspect of the pension system I find very irritating. It feeds into other social welfare entitlements and payments. I refer to the clearly outmoded, outdated and old-fashioned concept of the qualified adult dependant, who is usually the wife or partner because the system at its inception was clearly based on the male breadwinner model. One big innovation or positive change the Minister could introduce would be to change this dependency concept. I know she is very open to innovation and I applaud, accept and acknowledge that. She could leave a significant mark in the Department by doing this.

I recall when the value of the adult dependant pension was about 65% or 70%, so a wife - we will use that example - who was entitled to a pension of €200 got €140 or thereabouts. I think it has now increased to 90% of the value of the recipient's pension, and this is welcome. However, equality is an important objective in practice, not just in theory, and it is generally wives or women partners who are being treated as appendages to their husbands or partners instead of the couple being treated equally as a unit.

If the husband, based on his contributions - or not, if in receipt of a non-contributory old age pension - receives €220, the wife or partner should be likewise treated and get the same amount. As I have said before in this House, it is only in very recent times that the wife or partner, as a qualified adult dependant, has been paid the reduced rate of pension in her own name. Previously, it was part and parcel of the husband's pension payment, and sometimes - let us be clear - the qualifying adult dependant never saw a red cent of that money, which was due to her. Let us see some real equality here and eliminate this concept of being classified as dependent. That would be very important, from my perspective.

While on this theme of equality, reduced payments to under 26s are a remnant of the dark recess of the undoubtedly vicious economic recession which we encountered from 2008 onwards. The current system is no longer sustainable in the longer term. As the economy recovers, people in similar circumstances - in other words, those who are unemployed and actively seeking work - should not receive a lower payment just because they are under the age of 26. All people should receive the same payment of €198 which will be payable in 2018. This is another anomaly introduced for economic and budgetary reasons which should now be redressed and reversed as quickly as possible.

It will be no surprise to anyone who has served with me in this House, particularly on social welfare committees, one of which I was glad to chair for five years, to know that my special interest group in the welfare system has always been the carers of Ireland. I wrote a report on them with 15 recommendations, eight of which were implemented. We did not have any consultants working on that report. That is part of the failure here: people want consultants for everything.

Carers deserve our deepest and sincerest level of gratitude for their unstinting and devoted work and Herculean efforts 24 hours each day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. These are the real unsung heroes of Ireland. If a proper honours list is ever introduced in this country or inaugurated by the Government in conjunction with the President, each carer should be honoured every year. We should forget about the tax exiles and the flash Harrys, who might turn their noses up if we had such an honours list. Carers are the real people. More than 300,000 of them are scattered across Ireland, saving the country in excess of €6 billion each year. If they downed tools today, the health system, the accident and emergency departments, the acute hospital beds and everything else associated with health would grind to a halt and collapse. Their work is invaluable and their contribution absolutely incalculable.

I intend to draft an updated carers' needs assessment Bill in order to try to put their requirements and the necessary assessments on a statutory footing. If we have more money or resources to distribute, they should always be first in line. I have spent 25 years advocating for their cause and will continue to do so for as long as I am in this House because they deserve not just our attention, not just lip service, but real payments to acknowledge their contribution.

The one-parent family payment is likewise extremely important as it is a means-tested payment made to a man or woman who is caring for a child or children without the support of a partner. The payment contains an earnings disregard. I welcome the positive changes to the scheme that the Minister announced in the budget. In July 2015 the age limit of children in respect of eligibility for the one-parent family payment was reduced to seven years of age for most claimants. When the recipient of a one-parent family payment no longer qualified for the payment due to the youngest child being aged seven, the Department established the jobseeker's transitional payment. This was paid to people not cohabiting whose youngest child was aged between seven and 13, I think. It aims to support those parenting alone to enter the workforce while acknowledging that they care for young children.

While all this was bright and rosy and dandy, as they say down in Westmeath, in theory it was not so bright and rosy, in particular due to the huge deficit in geographically dispersed child care facilities and local jobs or employment opportunities. These are vital in the absence of a transport network which, again, was in huge deficit across rural Ireland.

I read the Indecon report published in early October by the Minister's Department. It found that the reforms to the one-parent family payment were successful in increasing employment and reducing welfare dependency. Nevertheless, it indicated, despite this finding, and while accepting it was too early to examine the overall long-term impacts, a potential serious concern that many of those who lost one-parent family payment remained unemployed or in low-paid or part-time employments, echoing my own and many of my colleagues' fears when the reforms were first introduced.

It is noted in the Indecon report:

The objective of the policy changes which were designed to increase employment and reduce long-term social welfare dependency was a valid rationale for the policy changes. The findings in the report support the rationale and continued relevance of the policy changes [...] However, unless accompanied by further increases in employment the objective of reducing poverty will not be met for many individuals. Lone parents remain among the most vulnerable groups and demonstrate a high level of risk of poverty and social deprivation.

That finding needs to be taken on board, as do similar findings in the UNESCO report, Lone Parents and Activation, What Works and Why. The latter report notes that following changes in one-parent family policy, lone parents in part-time employment prior to the changes had experienced a reduction in income as a result. This change encouraged welfare dependency as lone parents found taking up work could actually reduce their income. It is clear that a lone parent's capacity for work cannot be equated with that of a parent in a two-parent family. A package of support for lone parents should include pre-employment supports, employment supports, financial supports and child care supports. As we all know, child care costs in Ireland are among the highest in the OECD. In this context, I welcome the increase in the earnings disregard from €110 to €130 per week from 29 March 2008.

Family income supplement, FIS, is being renamed. I was a little confused in this regard because there seems to be something of a subsuming taking place rather than the introduction of new schemes. The working family payment that was promised by the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Social Protection proposed a payment to families whose weekly income was less than a set amount and which would vary depending on family size. The payment would be calculated at 60% of the shortfall between the net weekly family payment and the applicable FIS threshold. I note that the threshold in question is to be increased by €10 for a family of one, two and three children. Of course, one of the major issues with FIS over the years has been the lower than expected take-up, in line with most means-tested social welfare schemes. As far as I can work out, the take-up is only 35%, or 60,000 families. An additional problem is that the scheme can be used by exploitative employers to allow them to pay less than they should because the State is taking up the slack. We will have to keep an eye on that.

I welcome the provision to continue the back to work family dividend scheme beyond 31 March 2018, with no closing date given. This is an important political instrument to encourage families to move from social welfare into work by offering financial support to people with qualified adult children who take up employment or self-employment and, as a result, cease claiming a jobseeker's payment or one-parent family payment. That support lasts for up to two years if the recipient remains in employment. It is not taxable and is based on the standard increase for a qualified child, which is now rising to €31.80, up to a maximum of four children. Will the Minister indicate how many applicants have taken up this scheme? Under the current payment of €29.80, a family of four would be eligible for an annual payment of €9,298.

The Bill proposes to make changes in the weekly rate for maternity, adoptive and paternity benefit and also provides for extended periods of entitlement to maternity leave and maternity benefit in the event of a premature birth. It also provides for an extension of the period after the death of a mother having given birth for the transfer of maternity benefit to the father. These are all welcome and progressive changes. The Maternity Protection Act 1994, as amended by the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004, made provision for 26 weeks of paid leave and 16 weeks of unpaid leave for mothers. The legislation also affords a father entitlement to the remainder of the maternity leave where the mother dies giving birth or while on maternity leave.

The Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 introduced paternity benefit and statutory paternity leave of two weeks. It is payable to employed and self-employed fathers who are covered by PRSI and in respect of every child born or adopted after 1 September 2016. Recipients are allowed to commence paternity leave at any time within the first six months following the birth of the child or adoption placement. It is good that we have made progress in this area. I understand Austria, for example, still does not offer any paternity leave or benefit to fathers. The Bill increases the weekly rate of paternity benefit from €235 to €240 in line with the corresponding increase in maternity and adoptive benefit. Is there any estimate of how many applicants will benefit from this increase in paternity benefit provision? I appreciate it may be difficult to arrive at an accurate figure given the six-month leeway for fathers taking leave.

Subsection 14(1)(a) of the Bill provides for a number of fundamental and serious amendments to section 47 of the principal Act. One of the effects will be to entitle the father of a child to receipt of that maternity benefit in the event of the mother's death following the birth of the child or following the due date and before expiry of the maternity benefit due to the mother had she not died. It also amends the requirements of section 48 of the principal Act, on contributions and receipt of maternity benefit, and section 50(b), which deals with failure to attend medical examinations, to specify that they are not applicable to fathers.

Section 15(1) of the principal Act is amended by section 14(2) of this Bill such that, from 1 October 2017, the entitlement to extended maternity benefit in the case of premature birth will be applicable where confinement occurs up to two weeks before the end of the expected week of confinement. The section amends various provisions of the Maternity Act 1994, in parallel with the amendments made in section 14.

An issue we have discussed extensively in this House is the increase in the qualifying age for the State pension. At this time, a person who started work at 18 years of age and is now 62 and whose employment contract ends at age 65 will not be eligible for a State pension until he or she is 67. That lack of provision is forcing people out of employment into poverty. The increase in eligibility age from 66 to 67 will come into effect in January 2021 but there is no provision for the people affected in the social protection system. Fortunately, we are now in a better economic state than we were when these changes were introduced in 2011, with the continued reduction in unemployment bringing in additional moneys for the Exchequer. In that context, any further increases in the State pension age must be stalled until we are in a position to deal with this anomaly in the system. Deputy Brady has introduced a Bill to deal with this issue and I urge the Minister to make any necessary amendments and advance those proposals. In the meantime, we should not race ahead of ourselves and other members of the EU by further increasing the age of qualification for the State pension. Above all, we must put in place measures to compensate workers who retire before reaching the qualifying age.

The Minister, being well aware of the needs of the self-employed, is committed to the introduction of a universal second-tier pension. The quicker the automatic enrolment scheme is put in place the better. Many business organisations were against bringing forward these changes in the past. They might have had a point during the recession but there is no reason to delay them now.

There has been extensive discussion in this House regarding the 2012 changes in the PRSI qualification bands and the implications of those changes for female workers in particular. We should not forget, however, that thousands of men have also been impacted. In fact, 38% of the affected parties are male. The changes are significant in terms of the prospects of the PRSI contributors concerned, both male and female, and there is an urgent need to address this issue. I understand the Minister is in discussions with her officials with a view to putting in place a system for ensuring those pensioners have their adverse situation rectified as quickly as possible. I hope that can be done. At the same time, I appreciate that she must be careful not to create further anomalies in the system. It is important, however, to show good faith in this regard and to act to remedy it.

It has to be done as a stand-alone issue. If it goes with something else it becomes integrated and that is where problems can arise. People are seeking commitments to make sure it is done.

I also welcome the improvements in the various benefits available to self-employed people. The guts of 400,000 people across the State are self-employed. During the recession they sometimes acted as the Lone Ranger, standing in the bearna or in the gap. They kept things going. Very often they were the last people who got paid as they tried to keep workers going. Many of them went to the wall and the social welfare system was highly antagonistic towards them and not nice at all, asking them where was the money they had earned the previous year. This is like asking where is the snow that was here 12 months ago. Thankfully, that changed and the whole attitude has changed towards self-employed people. We must recognise the role they have played in ensuring the economy's revival. They were the backbone in ensuring there was not a total collapse. I recognise the work, the entrepreneurship and the innovation of those people. I am glad they will begin to get something back for their contributions in respect of sick benefits and other benefits. The Labour Party will support the Bill going forward to Committee Stage as quickly as possible. We may put forward amendments to address some of the issues I have raised. Overall, however, it is important to get this Bill implemented. I am glad that despite the febrile atmosphere earlier, the Dáil has not collapsed and we can pass this Bill as quickly as possible to ensure people will get their due entitlements and increases in social welfare benefits as quickly as possible - notwithstanding the fact that they are small amounts.

Is Deputy Bríd Smith sharing time? No. She has it all to herself.

I intend to ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, a lot of questions and while I do not wish to be insulting, I must leave the Chamber after asking them. I will listen back to the Minister's answers tomorrow.

There are some small but good measures in the Bill, as mentioned by the previous speaker, such as the extension of social welfare benefits to women who have premature births, maternal death protection and adoptive leave. The inclusion of self-employed persons in the invalidity pension is very important as is the announcement of the reinstatement of the Christmas bonus to long-term recipients of social protection. I do not wish to be a killjoy but I will bring cases to the Minister tomorrow in which the bonus payment is being refused. The definition of "long-term recipient" needs to be looked at because I have some very sad and poor mothers looking at me and asking what they are they going to do as they are not getting the bonus. I would like to speak with the Minister on this matter over the next few days.

Before I address my main concern, I wish to raise one other biting issue. In her original speech on the Bill, the Minister said she wanted to continue to build "a fairer and more inclusive society". Will the Minister clarify how this measures up when it comes to young people? A measure was introduced during the economic crisis, which was justified by that crisis by all the major parties in the House. It was another outrageous display of discrimination but was aimed at young people. The jobseeker's allowance is at a rate of €193 and although the rate granted to young job seekers has been partly reinstated, the rate is €147 for those under the age of 26. The insult, however, is for those under the age of 24 for whom the rate is €102 per week. Does the Minister know whether those who are under the ages of 26 and 24 pay cheaper bus fares, get cheaper groceries or pay less rent? How can we tell young people we value them if we treat them as being less valuable and continue to blatantly discriminate against them? There clearly is no need for that measure. We are out of the woods and in recovery and listen to boasts in this regard from the Government all the time. How do we justify this measure in the fundamental area of welfare to young people? The real purpose of this measure is as a message from the State to young people that they are disregarded. It tells them to emigrate, get out of the State or get a low-paid precarious job as that will do them. Insecure work is all they would be able to get. I believe we must seriously look at reinstating the rate. An injustice is being done to young people. If the Bill is about fairness and inclusion, then this measure is one of the worst aspects of it.

The most shocking aspect of the Bill is that it will become known, anecdotally and probably affectionately, as the bonkers Bill. It will be known as the bonkers Bill for an obvious reason. On the day following the budget, on national radio the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, was caught rapid by the husband of a woman who was being blatantly discriminated against regarding her pension. When asked about the discrimination the Minister said that he thought it was bonkers. The Bill will be known as the bonkers Bill because it has put a spotlight on an issue my group repeatedly raised during the last year and which has been raised by a plethora of Deputies in the House who will continue to raise it. I refer to the ongoing discrimination against pensioners in the way the contributory and the non-contributory social welfare pensions are calculated. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Doherty, about this privately. We had a set-to in the Dáil many times with the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, when he was Minister for Social Protection. When we raised the issue last year with the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, we pointed out that it was a double discrimination against women who raised their families prior to 1994 because there was discrimination in the way the bands were calculated. It was highly punitive of those who were entitled to an old age pension.

There are a number of issues here. Governments are consistently extending the working life of workers and are simultaneously extending the time at which people can qualify for an old age pension. I do not know what it will be when I retire but I reckon it will be around the age of 68 or 69. I keep forgetting that I am not in a normal job but were I in a normal job with a contract until the age of 65, I would be one of those pensioners who would have to find the money or save it up to be able to live between the retirement age of 65 and the pension age of 68. The key point is that this discrimination has so far affected some 42,000 pensioners. When we argued the issue here last year with the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, it was about 35,000. Each year, incrementally, more people join this queue of discrimination. Two thirds of these people are women and some are losing up to €35 per week. This is as a result of the changes to calculating the State contributory pension, which was brought in - as we all know - by a previous Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton.

Last year, Solidarity-People Before Profit and others tabled amendments to the Bill, which we lost, to try to address that. One thing we did not lose, however, and on which we had to haggle with then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was that he would produce a report on the matter. We wanted the report within three months but he said he would have it within six months. One year later, there is no sign of the report. It was supposed to look at implementing a newer and fairer method of calculating the pension.

We had thought this debate would be happening tomorrow but it does not matter that it is happening tonight rather than tomorrow. There will be a protest tomorrow outside the Dáil. It will be pensioners, mainly women, who want the Minister, Deputy Doherty, to listen to them and to act on this. I accept the Minister's bona fides on this issue and that she would love to do something about it. The Minister gave an interview to the Irish Examiner where she spoke of producing a memorandum to be brought to Cabinet by 14 November. That is the date I worked out through the interview. The Minister said this was an actuarial overview of what is possible. The Minister does not want to be sitting here next year with another 7,500 people being disadvantaged by the way this pension is calculated. The article goes on to discuss how much funding would be needed to cover this anomaly, that is, €70 million immediately and €290 million in total to resolve the issue. When the Minister and I spoke about this in conversation she did not believe she could bring it back to retrospective payments for those persons who had lost out but that she could ensure they would get some 98% of their pension reinstated. The acknowledgement that the Minister might be able to do this means that pensioners may feel if they can get 98%, why should they not get 100%.

Indeed, why should they not get retrospective payments? Some of those women will be here tomorrow. One of them, Ms Lillian McCarthy, has been mobilising her friends and going to meetings in different areas to make people understand what we are facing. The contributory pension involves a complex method of calculation and many people do not even realise what is happening until they turn 66 and try to sign up for it. It is not like the medical card which Fianna Fáil tried to remove almost a decade ago. When that happened, the grey brigade, as we are fondly called, were hit and responded in an amazing revolution saying, "In your face; we are not having this". In this case, however, people are being picked off almost like slices of salami year by year. They do not even realise it is happening. The good thing about the interview with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, was that when he said, "This is bonkers", it went viral. People began to listen and to understand what was happening to their pensions and their futures.

Lillian McCarthy is a strong example of what has happened. She started to work when she was 16 in 1965 and she retired at 66 in 2015. In the 1970s, she left the workforce to raise her family and she was out of work for approximately 15 years. In 1984, she returned to full-time paid employment until she retired 32 or 33 years later. She got up early every morning, as she wrote on her placard outside Leinster House when Deputy Varadkar was made Taoiseach. She had to get up at 5.30 a.m. to get from Rialto to Coolock to beat the traffic and keep her job.

As she started working so early in life and raised her family in the 1970s, Lillian is losing out through a calculation that brings her pension right back to the age of 16 and an averaging that brings down the bands. She is losing out even more because she raised her family for 15 to 20 years. That sort of penalty on women for raising the next generation of workers is unacceptable. There are other women I have met who not only raised the next generation of workers when they stayed out of the workforce, they are also minding the current generation. Not only that, they have looked after their parents' generation and kept them out of institutions and hospital beds by caring for them at home. They have done the State a huge service by saving so much money by looking after their children and then looking after the elderly, sick and disabled. They continue to do so, as do a certain number of men.

This is a really strong form of discrimination. I am baffled by it. We have anti-discrimination laws which I used to teach about when I was giving trade union courses. There are 11 grounds on which one cannot discriminate, including gender, age, religion, sexual orientation and so on. This method of calculating pensions ticks all of the boxes for discrimination by the State against its own citizens on the grounds of the first two, namely, gender and age. I do not know what it would take to get a case to Europe on this issue, but I am sure we would win it outright. The problem is that it would be slow, cumbersome and expensive.

As the years rattle on, the likes of Lillian are losing €33 a week. That is a lot of money over the course of a year. It represents a holiday or two, new windows for one's home, keeping a car on the road and all of the other things people have to do. There are many Lillians out there. I do not know how we can stand over this discrimination as a Dáil and a State and justify it on the basis that to get rid of it immediately would cost an extra €70 million and a further €200 million another year. In the name of God, people are watching us and they can clearly see that a State which has a problem collecting the Apple tax of €13 billion and which will pay money to lawyers across Europe to avoid having to take it, discriminates against people who have worked all their lives, got up early, reared children and looked after elderly and sick parents. It is outrageous, shocking and discriminatory.

When pensioners come to the Dáil at 6 p.m. tomorrow, I hope the Minister, Deputy Doherty, will meet them, talk to them and explain this. I hope all Deputies will make it their business to come out and reassure them that we are going to fight to change this outrageously discriminatory practice, get rid of the homemaker's scheme and narrow the bands to bring them back in line with a decent and dignified pension. If we keep going down this road, we will have a further cohort of old people on top of those we already have who must choose between turning on the heating or cooking a hot meal. That is a factual situation. Fuel poverty is rampant among the aged in this country. Age Action Ireland and the National Women's Council have done extensive reports on this which I am sure the Minister has seen. It is all evidenced, researched and proved. How we can sit here and deny it is beyond me. The fact that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, said it was bonkers but continues to implement it because of the relatively small amount of money involved indicates that, in fact, he is also bonkers. We will start to think the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, is bonkers too unless she begins to fight clearly for this. I ask everybody listening to be outside the Dáil tomorrow at 6 p.m. because whether one is a pensioner or not, this is going to affect one as a worker when one comes to face retirement. People will be hit hard unless we force the State to change its mind. I hope to see lots of people there and I certainly hope to see the Minister.

I understand that Deputies Joan Collins and Thomas Broughan are sharing time. Is that agreed? Agreed.

We are taking ten minutes each. Before I turn to the Bill, I wish to set out a few background points. In budget 2009, medical cards were means tested and the automatic entitlement to a medical card for over-70s was abolished. In the emergency budget of 2009, the social welfare Christmas bonus was abolished, jobseeker's allowance for those under 20 was reduced to €100 per week, children's allowance was subject to means tests and taxed, rent supplement was halved and overall education cuts, which affected many lone parents among others, totalled €134 million.

In 2010, jobseeker's allowance for those under 21 was cut to €100, the minimum wage was cut by €1 per hour, there was a 4% cut in social welfare payments, excluding the old-age pension, and child benefit was cut by €16 each month. This is a list of all the budget cuts since 2008. In budget 2011, there was a €20 cut in child benefit for a third child and a €10 cut to child benefit for the first and second child, an €8 cut in the jobseeker's payment, pension contributions were made subject to PRSI and USC and carer's allowance for those under 66 was cut by €8 to €186 per week. In 2012, child benefit for a third or subsequent child was again cut, disability allowance for new claimants aged 18 to 21 was cut from €188 to €100, JobBridge was introduced, and the winter fuel allowance was cut by six weeks and €120 per year. The list goes on for 2013 and 2014.

Everyone who is getting a €5 increase has suffered eight years of austerity and they are still trying to recover from it. While it is welcome that there is a €5 increase rather than a €5 decrease, it is an underwhelmingly small amount. The Government is also adopting the pattern of last year by bringing in the changes in March 2018, which is a third of the way through the year. The change will be impacted by the rise in electricity, gas and other fuel costs in February and March next year when the big companies introduce their increases. Tenants who get a €5 increase in their pensions will have so much taken out through increases in their local authority rents. It is not an effective budget. I was speaking to some lone parents who told me that while they welcome the income disregard increasing from €110 to €130, the partial restoration of the income disregard still leaves it €16.70 per week lower than when it was introduced in 1997. It is clearly an important point. Compared to 1997, these women face inflation in the costs of getting children to school and so on. As such, the budget fails to deal with the real crux of eight years of austerity and does very little to reverse it.

I do not think the Minister is taking the issue of maintenance recovery very seriously. Deputy Brady is putting forward a proposal in the AV room next week but I have received an email from SPARK. A lone parent contacted us last week. She is a mother of a young baby who was contacted by the maintenance recovery unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, who told her that under the conditions of the one-parent family allowance she was obliged to seek maintenance payments and a failure to comply would mean her payment would be ceased. She was assaulted during her pregnancy and she had a safety order against the father of the child. She advised the Intreo office of this when she initially applied for the one-parent family payment and also provided them with a copy of her safety order. She does not want to apply to the courts for maintenance as to do so she would have to reveal her address on the court summons and she does not want to see her ex-partner again.

This letter caused the mother huge stress at a very vulnerable time in her life. This woman is not only struggling to rebuild her life as an abuse survivor but is also raising a young baby alone. Fortunately, the mother contacted the maintenance recovery unit who were very understanding and told her they had not been notified of the safety order from the local office. There is a breakdown between the Intreo office and the maintenance recovery office and information has to be passed on more effectively. Maintenance recovery has to be looked at again because when a child turns seven the Department will not be able to get maintenance from the liable relative as the mother will lose one-parent family payment. Lone parents were badly affected during the recession and the Indecon report stated that the State saved €261 million on changes to the one-parent family payment between 2013 and 2016 while lone parents and their children at the consistent poverty rate increased by 50% from 2012 and 2015, according to the EU SILC report.

I debated the introduction of the anomalous pensions legislation in 2012, which was one of the most despicable acts by any Minister, especially given that it was a Labour Party Minister. I have consistently raised it in the Dáil with Deputy Burton, the Taoiseach and the Minister. It has to be dealt with and it cannot go on. I am pleased the Minister is attempting to deal with it. I have an amendment calling for a report on the 2012 anomaly and for it to be reinstated at the next budget at the latest, with a report to be laid before the House in three months' time.

This was supposed to be the social welfare and pensions Bill but we are told the pensions Bill will come in separately at a later date.

There are two separate Bills.

Deputy Daly has tabled amendments to delete the reference to Social Welfare Act 2017 and substitute "Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2017". She has tabled a number of amendments to the Pensions Act 1990 to the effect that solvent firms should not be allowed to close a defined pension benefit scheme except when the scheme has reached a minimum standard of six consecutive weeks.

Another amendment reads as follows:

The Pensions Act 1990 is amended in section 50 by the insertion of the following new subsections after subsection 1d:

2) Before making a direction under section 1, 1a or 1b the Pensions Authority shall require from the sponsoring employer a statement of account regarding its financial capacity to meet the underfunding in the scheme from its own resources or those of its parent without precipitating wage cuts or redundancies,

3) The Pensions Authority shall not direct the trustees of a pension scheme to reduce the benefits paid in respect of persons receiving benefits under the scheme or persons who have reached normal pensionable age, members in relevant employment who have not reached normal pensionable age and members whose service in relevant employment has ceased and have not reached normal pensionable age with an entitlement to benefits the payment of which has not commenced, where a sponsoring employer or its parent has the financial capacity to meet the underfunding in the scheme without precipitating wage cuts or redundancies.

Another amendment is to the Pensions Act 1990. It states:

47a) No action which would have the effect of amending or winding up a scheme may be taken by an employee, a trustee or a board under section 48, 49, 50, 50a or 50b prior to a negotiation process with scheme members the nature and scope of which negotiating process shall be laid out by the Minister in regulations,

2) Upon the conclusion of a negotiation process neither the board the relevant employer or trustees may issue direction to wind up the scheme without first obtaining the consent of the majority of members to do so.

I wanted to read the amendments into the record because they have been ruled out of order. I presume that is because they are not part of the Bill, but we will be seeking to have the inserted into the pensions Bill. It is a very important aspect of the Bill because many people are angry and annoyed that while they were included the first proposal in May this year, they were removed in June and inserted into a separate Bill.

I will clarify something for the Deputy. We have two different Bills. We had the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill and this is the Social Welfare Bill. The other Bill is still under consideration. Committee Stage will be taken in the next couple of weeks and that is where the amendments should be considered.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly on the Social Welfare Bill 2017 before us today. There are some welcome measures in the Bill which will give legislative effect to the changes announced in budget 2018 and in order to effect those changes the Social Welfare Acts, the Maternity Protection Act 1994 and the National Training Fund Act 2000 will be amended and extended. The Government decided to continue with its partial restoration of social protection payments for next year with €5 increases across most payments. Disappointingly, and in keeping with last year, these partial restorations will not come into effect until the end of March 2018.

In my pre-budget submission to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, I called for a social protection package with an increase of approximately €500 million in Department allocations which would have included €7 per week increases. In the event, the Government chose to increase the social protection budget by less than €300 million, or under 1.5%, and most of this increase is funded by savings from the fall in unemployment.

I welcome section 12 as it partially restores the weekly earning disregard for those in receipt of the one-parent family payment from €110 per week to €130 per week. In my own submission, I had called for full restoration back to €146.50 per week at an estimated cost of €11.1 million. In some of the Government’s cruellest austerity years cuts, lone parents were targeted and the weekly income disregard dropped to a low of €75 per week in 2015 and €60 per week in 2016. Surveys and CSO statistics have been showing for years that lone parent families experience higher consistent poverty rates than any other cohort of Irish society. In the most recent survey on income and living conditions, SILC 2015, this rate was 26.2% for consistent poverty, while 57.9% experience deprivation compared to 25.5% of the rest of the population. Despite this, the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012 further discriminated against lone parent families by ceasing payment of the one-parent family payment once the youngest child reached seven years of age. At that point, lone parents were switched to jobseeker’s transitional payment and while studies show that these draconian reforms did move some parents into employment, the majority of which is low paid, part-time and precarious employment, they also led to over 30% of recipients of the new payment losing over 10% of their weekly income. Losing 10% of one's weekly income when one is already in poverty is soul destroying and the previous Government should have done everything in its power to reverse changes that meant this cohort of families are being pushed further into poverty and consistent poverty. The Indecon report on those changes was published by the Department at the beginning of October 2017, so what action will the Minister take on foot on that?

At the Dáil Committee on Budgetary Oversight last week we had a lengthy briefing and discussion on gender inequality and gender proofing of budgets into the future. The committee, under the chairmanship of the Minister's colleague, Deputy Josepha Madigan, is determined to take this issue in the context of budgets 2018 and 2019. A key issue I raised again, and has just been raised by Deputy Joan Collins, was changes made in budget 2012 to the PRSI contribution bands for the pension, which also disproportionately impacted on women. On 19 October, the Dáil voted on the motion on correcting pension inequities and on 21 of February this year I raised the topic during Leaders’ Questions with the then Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, when I called for a reversal of the budget 2012 changes and for those affected to be reimbursed.

Age Action Ireland's excellent report, Towards a Fair State Pension for Women Pensioners, researched and written by Ms Maureen Bassett, set out in detail the number of people impacted by the change from four bands to six and highlighted that almost two thirds of those affected pensioners were, and continue to be, women. Many people reaching pension age are not even aware of these changes and are often shocked, upset and angry when they realise what was done. I am sure the Acting Chairman has found this in his information clinics in Kildare. They are even more so when they learn the Government of the day had been warned that such changes would disproportionately affect women who had little or no child care supports while rearing their families and so had no choice but to stop working in many cases.

While the €5 increase in weekly pension rates this year and last year are, of course, welcome, there are many who would think the underhanded austerity years changes should be reversed and that pension inequalities should be corrected. We have heard the Minister's comments on this and she clearly thinks it was a crazy decision, although she voted for it. Now she is in ministerial office in the Department and has the opportunity to reverse it and ensure we bring justice to these women, whom I meet week in and week out, who have lost €30 or €40 due to those changes for the rest of their lives. This would be a good ambition for the rest of the Minister's term in office.

Another important point on equality is the continued discrimination against those citizens under 26 in their lower rates of jobseekers' payments. While this year they are receiving the full €5 weekly increase, they still receive far less than other jobseekers. Young citizens aged between 18 and 24 years will receive jobseeker's allowance of only €107.70 a week even after this Bill is passed. In my submission I called for an increase of €30 per week for all those aged under 26, at a cost of €24 million. The Government narrative that young people all live at home with their mammies and daddies, who pay their rent and buy them food, is completely disrespectful to those who do not have this safety net and who are trying to afford city rents while looking for jobs. This year, we saw a huge increase in homelessness in the 18 to 24 year old age group.

Section 3 amends the definition of "share-based remuneration" because of the introduction of the key employee engagement programme announced in the budget. However, reports suggest this share option, while initially welcomed, will now have a minimal positive impact for employees of many innovative business sectors.

I welcome sections 4, 5 and 6, which increase the rates of maternity, paternity and adoptive benefit to €240. Section 8 renames "family income supplement" as "working family payment", and this renaming comes into effect from 1 January 2018. However, the new income thresholds of €521, €622 and €723 do not come into operation until the end of March. Once again, I note how, as with the changed name and function of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which reminds me of the Department for Work and Pensions, that we always seem to follow British models with regard to necessary social protection supports. We have renamed virtually all of our social protection supports after what the British were doing, but we would be bitterly opposed to the austerity approach of successive Tory Governments.

I note the number of FIS recipients has now risen to almost 56,000 families, from 22,000 a decade ago. It is also good to see the back to work family dividend extended beyond March 31.

Section 14 is a welcome provision and should have been introduced long ago. It provides for the payment of maternity benefit in cases of premature birth.

Section 16 in Part 3 amends section 4 of the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for the increase to 0.8%, and this will come into effect on 1 January 2018. This levy is set to increase annually to 2020, to 0.9% in 2019 and to 1% in 2020. I had called for it to be increased to 1% from 2018, which would yield a much needed €200 million for third level funding. The Minister might remember that the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, refused to indicate to me during Leaders' Questions not too long ago whether he has made a decision on student loans. This is a major feature of funding third level education.

The Minister’s Department is our largest in terms of expenditure, with 32.8% of our total expenditure. However, as the Minister knows, more than half of this is funded through social insurance. I understand the level of transactions under way at the Department is staggering. The Minister has told us that figures from the 2015 annual report show that 1.6 million people received a payment from the Department, 1.7 million applications were processed and 8.3 million telephone calls were answered. This is very impressive, but I want to raise a few issues about the way in which the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection works. The length of time for processing applications and appeals remains far too long for many payments. As a volunteer director of community projects and organisations, I have first-hand experience of the requirements involved in employing community employment participants and I have noted the frustrations of our staff and management in navigating what seems to be an ever more complicated system. Are there plans to move the Department more towards a user-friendly system? Does it have the personnel resources? Earlier, we heard the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, state the Department of Justice and Equality seems to be down by one third of its staff. What is the situation in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection?

I want to raise the issue of the interpretation of exceptional needs. I have been contacted by an outstanding lawyer in my constituency, who highlighted that Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection staff recently stated that in order to approve an exceptional needs payment the need must also be unforeseen. In a reply to a parliamentary question on 7 November, the Minister stated:

Under the supplementary welfare allowance (SWA) scheme, the Department may make a single exceptional needs payment (ENP) to help meet essential, once-off and unforeseen expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of their weekly income. The Government has provided €31.5 million for exceptional and urgent needs payments in 2017.

However, as the barrister who raised the issue with me said, if a person's mother is ill and dying for a number of months, the funeral costs may indeed be exceptional but not unforeseen, and issues such as this are arising in departmental offices, definitely around Dublin but probably in other areas of the country also. I would like the Minister to look at exceptional needs.

In my submission I included a request for a pilot basic income programme to be proceeded with to see how feasible it would be to introduce basic income on a larger scale. Finland and perhaps one or two other countries have been experimenting with this.

As always, I want to mention very briefly the Social Insurance Fund, which last year stood at just under €11 billion. I understand the fund is now back in surplus and in her reply perhaps the Minister will tell us what is the current standing of the fund this year. Does the Minister have any plan to expand the range of benefits available, especially to workers and their families?

In general, I welcome some of the partial restorations provided for in the Bill, but I believe the Government has the resources to do much more, especially in the area of gender and disability equality proofing.

I may deviate a bit from what is in the Bill, but my points apply to whether people receive social welfare, and I need to highlight something which is ridiculous. We all encourage people to start working when they are young, because if they develop a work ethic when they are young they tend to continue with it. However, the way the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant is set up at present, if a youngster earns more than €4,500 it puts him or her over the threshold for receiving the grant. This encourages them to stay at home and draw social welfare. This should be remedied, and youngsters should be allowed to earn as much as possible during holiday time and at other times when they can source work.

Many people on back to education courses are required to attend Turas Nua offices every week. Even though they have proof they are on courses, such as people who want to be carers and who must do courses, they are still required to travel distances. I know one person who travels 27 miles every Monday to be asked whether he has any proof he is looking for work. Surely the fact he is on course to become a carer and is trying to improve himself should be proof enough. Here we are, paying someone in Turas Nua to meet this man every week.

It is absolutely ridiculous.

With regard to self-employed people, some of the work they get is seasonal. They encounter an absolute stone wall when they try to get payments to tide them over for a short time. They are put through hoops and it is weeks before they get anything. People in these situations have come to me and told me they are hungry. That is a fact. They end up going to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. That is the truth, and it is not right. These people pay taxes when they are working. Their contributions pay for us here and for services in the country. However, if they find themselves without work, as can happen and it is still happening in Kerry even though the country is supposed to have been turned around, they are unable to tax their vans or pay their insurance. If they could get something to tide them over for a short time, they are very confident of getting work again. I know several people who have had to go to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in recent months to get food to feed themselves. That is not right.

The back to education allowance is for people who wish to return to education. There are silly and stupid obstacles preventing people getting the back to education payment. If a person wishes to take a second level course, he or she must be getting a social welfare payment and it must be in payment before that person starts the education programme or prior to getting the back to education allowance. If somebody becomes unemployed and wishes to go on an education course and get the back to education allowance for a second level course, he or she must be on the social welfare payment for three months. If the person only becomes unemployed in July and the course is starting in September, the person will not be on the payment for three months, so the person will not qualify for the course. The person will have to stay on jobseeker's payment for another 12 months until the following year. That is ridiculous. For third level courses a person must be on the social welfare payment for nine months. If the person has not been on the social welfare payment for the nine months preceding September the person will not qualify for the course and must stay on jobseeker's payment for the rest of the year. That is costing the country money. Time spent in prison in the State can count towards a qualifying period, provided the person has established an entitlement to a qualifying social welfare payment. It appears that a blackguard who finished up in prison is being better looked after than the person who was working up to near the date of seeking the back to education allowance.

I am happy to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The Bill is important as it provides for the social welfare measures announced in the budget for the coming year. Many of these measures, such as the increase in maternity and adoptive benefits, are more than welcome. However, the measures only come into effect at the end of March 2018. As I asked the Minister during my statement on the budget, why is there a delay in implementing these increases? Why do mothers, fathers, adoptive parents and one-parent families have to wait almost seven months for their increases? Why did these measures not come into effect immediately, like the introduction of the sugar tax and other taxation measures in the budget? This is simply not good enough.

Any increase in a social welfare payment, however small, is welcome. However, many people who are relying on social welfare are struggling. Old age pensioners are struggling for pennies after working all their lives. They feel they have been forgotten and rejected by this and previous Governments. That is very sad. During the debate on the budget I raised the important issue of pensions for women who left the workforce to raise their families and who are now being discriminated against for doing so. This anomaly should have been addressed in the Bill.

Schoolchildren over 18 years of age and their parents receive no assistance from the State. It is scandalous that children who are in education and costing parents huge amounts of money are not even entitled to child benefit. That is wrong. It is hurtful for many parents as it is a huge financial burden for many families. Second level education is very expensive and the back to school allowance does not extend far enough to cover the year-long costs that face older students, especially as many might need additional classes or grinds in the leaving certificate cycle.

It is good to see the amendment of the Maternity Protection Act addressed in this Bill. I commend my colleagues in the Green Party on introducing this vital measure which extends maternity leave for the parents of premature babies.

Another matter that comes under the Minister's brief and which should be discussed is the death benefit. It is a huge issue for many families at a very difficult time. I and other Deputies get a huge number of calls when somebody has lost a loved one in the family asking whether there is some form of benefit to pay off the funeral bill. It was a savage and brutal cut for many families and it must be addressed.

We also must examine the schemes that are in place. Many are like vultures. As soon as somebody leaves work or a scheme, he or she gets a letter straight away from Turas Nua to call the person in. I do not know who is making money here. Is Turas Nua making some type of profit or is it on some type of percentage? It is definitely like a vulture. It is making innocent people thumb on the side of the road, getting soaked, to get to the nearest town. Some people do not have transport. The person could be going from Castletownbere to Bantry. This must be examined because it is totally unfair.

The treatment of people on social welfare in this country is becoming appalling. There is a belief here. Somebody rang me the other day after going to see a community welfare officer in west Cork. The person came out of the meeting crying. They are no longer community welfare officers but community "get rid of you" officers. The Minister must stand by the people. She must stand up to these people and accept that some people are in difficult circumstances and that in some rural areas there is not as much employment as there is in the bigger cities. There is an assumption that people must get off welfare, but that is not good enough. I ask the Minister to look into this. She is a Minister one can liaise with and speak to and, in fairness, she does her best. I grant her that and I am not criticising her personally. However, there is a perception that because there is employment in Dublin, there is employment throughout Ireland. In rural Ireland there is little or no employment. Companies such as Turas Nua, which are profiting from getting people back to work, are acting like vultures. They are forcing people into situations which the people do not feel they are able for. We must find out if such companies are on a percentage. If they are, it is obvious what they are doing.

With regard to community employment, Tús and rural social schemes, which are in the Minister's brief, I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss them at some stage. One shoe does not fit all. The CE scheme is great in many ways but some people are going back on welfare when they would appreciate spending another year on the scheme, and the community groups would appreciate having them for another year. The same applies to Tús and the rural social scheme. In fairness, the Minister secured extra people and that is commendable. Many issues must be addressed in the future and I look forward to working with the Minister on them.

I am delighted the Minister is here for this debate. This Bill is designed to give legislative effect to a range of social welfare measures announced in the expenditure report of 10 October 2017, including increases in weekly rates of pensions, benefits and allowances and proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants as well as an increase in the qualified child payment. I welcome those but, like my colleagues, I am annoyed that people must wait until next March or April to get them.

The Government could fall in the mean time - it nearly fell today - and they would get nothing until the Government came back, which, again, could be next March or April.

Provisions are also included that provide for the extension of entitlement to maternity benefit and maternity leave in cases of premature births. Indeed, as I understand it, the extended period of benefit will be equivalent to the duration between the actual date of birth of the premature baby and the date when the maternity leave was expected to commence, that is, ordinarily two weeks before the expected date of birth. This new measure will increase the duration of maternity leave and the associated maternity benefit to be paid in cases where a baby is born prematurely. This is an issue that is close to my heart given my own experience as a grandfather of a child, Amy-Berry, who was born very prematurely and who I hope is at home watching me tonight and who is doing fine, thank God. We needed to be sensitive around those areas.

I also think it is important to speak on this Bill in light of the recent analysis performed by on the levels of severe deprivation within the EU. Indeed as has noted, EUROSTAT recently published data to the effect that 7.5% of the population both in Ireland and the EU suffers from severe deprivation. This is a large number of people. The number ranges from 0.8% in Sweden to 31.9% in Bulgaria, which is a staggering difference. Ireland is in the middle rank of countries with rates of deprivation of between 5% and 10% of the population alongside the UK, Slovenia, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Slovakia and Portugal. If we look at the definition of severe deprivation that is employed, we can see that the situation really is quite shocking. Severely materially deprived persons have living conditions constrained by a lack of resources and experience at least four out of nine deprivation items the individual cannot afford. They include an inability to pay rent, a mortgage or utility bills on time and to keep a home adequately warm. Heat is very important for all of us. Although there is too much heat in here at times, it is different when we are in a cold house. They also include an inability to face unexpected expenses, and some of my colleagues have referred to death grants, an inability to afford to eat meat, fish or a protein equivalent every second day, which is not too much to ask for, and an inability to afford a one-week holiday away from home. Another such item is a car because if people living in the countryside do not have a car, they might as well be confined to their house because there is no public transport and they cannot afford taxis, even if they could get them. Other indications of material deprivation include an inability to afford a washing machine, which one would not think of as being luxury item, a colour TV or a telephone, including a mobile phone. I note the telephone allowance was cut some years ago, which was an awful blow to people. It should have been replaced because a lot of pendant alarms went with them.

Will this Bill assist our people to move out of the kind of severe poverty I have just mentioned? We must wait and see. The actions of the Government to date would largely suggest that it will not get people in any of those categories out of those situations. While some of the measures of this Bill are indeed welcome, as I have noted about the prematurity payment, much of it does not go far enough. Mar a deirtear sa seanfhocal, tús maith, leath na h-oibre, and I wish the Minister well in her post. I have dwelt with her as Chief Whip and in other positions. As she always has been engaging and helpful, I look forward to working positively with her.

I invite the Minister to come down and visit the social welfare offices in Cahir. We might pay a visit to what I call Turas uafásach but what the lads call Turas Nua. Turas uafásach means a terrible journey. It is a scandal. It was brought in here from across the water and anything good never came in from there. We see it with Brexit. That is what I mean. I am not being racist. A private company got this job. I know the farm relief service has it. To answer my two colleagues present - if the Minister does not answer them, I will - they are correct in that each candidate it gets in the door is taken off a valuable community employment scheme and the company gets money for them. It just want to get them in. Some people have received awful abuse at the hands of some officials in the Turas Nua office because the people behind the counters knew an awful lot less about the schemes than the people who go into them. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and others are right. Regarding transport, it is just hauling candidates into town 20 miles away once a week. They could be doing valuable work on community employment schemes at home, which many of them did, but they are denied that. I have been calling for an evaluation of the community employment schemes for at least ten or 12 years to demonstrate the value of those schemes. We are losing people all over the country. When they reach a certain age, they are put off. Where are they going to get work at the age of 57, 58 or 59? As we need some sensitivity, the Minister needs to come and see what is happening on the ground. I am sure she is well aware of it.

I also refer to widows who did not get anything in this budget and to women who were forced out of the workforce when the marriage bar was in place. The Minister must make a start here. There was no start. She said she could not afford to start it. A total of €5 million would have gone a long way towards starting to help those people who are being nakedly discriminated against every week when they get their cheques in the post in comparison with those of their husbands or partners or anybody else for doing a noble duty, that is, for having, rearing and educating children and making sure they made their way in life.

The Minister could start doing something with the €5 million that the Taoiseach, St. Leo, got for his communications unit. It was fairly banjaxed during the past couple of days. They could not communicate with one other, never mind communicate with the country and backbenchers. I bear the former Tánaiste no ill will. I wish her well. I think she was hard done by in many ways but all communications and no substance is no good. Regarding these gurus who have been hired, some of that money should be put towards looking after the widows, children and the deprived and the Minister should try to see what Turas Nua, or Turas uafásach, is doing. It should not be called Turas Nua. The Minister said she could not give it all in one year because of how much it would cost and I accept that but tús maith, leath na h-oibre. She should start it and make some kind of balance, as the Government did with maternity leave so it would be in some way sensitive. I know it is not in the nature of Fine Gael ever to be really sensitive to the ordinary people but it should at least show it has a heart.

On putting €5 million into spin for the Taoiseach, St. Leo, he could spin so much he will not be able to get out of it and he will fall out on his ear. The whole lot will collapse around us, there will be no Government, there will be nothing else and as I said at the beginning, we will not get the pensions. The widows will have to wait for the pensions until 1 April, April Fool's Day. They will be made a fool of because there will be no Government to pay them and Fine Gael will be out then knocking on doors and there will be another three months of negotiations to try to keep his sainthood in government but the gurus in the communications unit will be off in some other job like Carr Communications or some other big job. They do not care about the ordinary people. All they are paid for is spin involving the Taoiseach with a hard hat turning a sod and everything else. We do not see him standing in front of social welfare offices with #leoforthepeople. We do not see him standing in front of Turas Nua offices, #leofortaoiseach. It is #tohellortoconnacht for the ordinary people and it is not acceptable.

With the permission of the House, I wish to share my time with Deputy Healy.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The contents of this Bill are to be broadly welcomed in so far as they offer a small increase in payments for those in receipt of social welfare benefits. It is about time we started to begin the catch-up that is required regarding the incomes of those in receipt of social welfare benefits. They certainly went with very little or no increases for a long period, at a time when the cost of living was increasing for a great many people in terms of the additional charges and taxes that were introduced by the Government over the austerity years with which people are still saddled. It was people on fixed incomes, pensioners in particular, who were most negatively affected by those cuts. They had a fixed income and yet all of these additional charges and taxes came in without any consideration for people's ability to pay.

I also think this legislation lacks ambition in so far as the proposals are about maintaining the status quo with a small increase and do very little to address some of the systemic problems in the welfare system. I will start by talking about the national training fund. We are always hearing about the need to train, retrain and upskill the Irish workforce to reduce the very high rates of long-term unemployment. There is no doubt that this is very much needed. This is the reason why the national training fund levy increase was introduced but it is quite a small increase of 0.1% from 0.7% to 0.8% in respect of reckonable earnings. This is the first time this levy has been increased since the fund was established 17 years ago, which is just incredible given the level of demand for upskilling within our economy.

It also speaks volumes in light of the lack of action, for example on the new national internship programme.

We were promised when JobBridge was abolished that there would be something coming in to replace it. There is a need for a much greater level of investment in a training programme. We heard to much fanfare about the youth guarantee that was introduced on a pilot basis in Ballymun. It was reasonably successful but unfortunately it was not properly funded and was only a pilot scheme. That kind of approach is very much needed for young people who, for one reason or another, have fallen out of the education system at an early stage. Many have been failed by the education system because it has not been responsive to their needs. We have a significant cohort of young people who are trying to cope with a whole range of social problems affecting them or family members. In circumstances such as that, where people come from very disadvantaged families and communities, often the obstacles facing them in terms of staying in school, achieving in school and going on to further education or training are too great. There is a need for specific, targeted programmes to tackle that kind of deep-rooted, cultural problem of long-term unemployment. That was the thinking behind the youth guarantee but unfortunately it did not come to anything.

There is a need for a much more targeted approach in that regard. To a large extent, there are an awful lot of young people coming from disadvantaged families who are simply not in a position to avail of opportunities that are out there. It is fine to say there are equal opportunities for people but people do not start from the same position. The objective should be to achieve equal outcomes. That means recognising that some people are starting from a much lower or much more difficult position and very often are not able to avail of the opportunities that are there. Clearly there is a need for tailored interventions in that regard. Too often we fail young people, in particular young men, from difficult backgrounds because we are not providing the supports they need to participate fully and to be able to avail of education and work opportunities. It is an area that urgently needs attention.

The area of pensions is a very significant one and there are many different aspects to it. The €5 increase to the State pension is welcome but an awful lot of pensioners have been hit with very significant increases in the cost of living as a result of policies implemented by the previous Government. That €5 does not go very far in terms of coping with that. In a general sense, right across Government, there should be a much greater emphasis on cutting the cost of living whether for welfare recipients or people who are working. If we can cut the cost of living, the value of what people get in their welfare payments or wages would be greater. It makes much more sense to take a universal approach. If we had universal health care, universal free education, which we do not even have at primary level, and a universal programme of child care, wage and welfare payment demands would be much lower. It is a much more sustainable approach to our economy.

Another pensions issue is the very thorny issue of the people affected by the 2012 changes. There are people who are now approaching retirement age and who feel very hard done by and sore that they took time out of the workforce to look after children or do other caring duties. In many cases they were forced out of the workforce because of the marriage bar. They find themselves at 63 or 64, coming up to retirement age, being penalised for having done that. It is deeply unfair. At the time, in 2012, it was done as a way of saving money when the coffers were very bare. It was a very unfair measure. It discriminates and militates against women in particular because the vast majority of people affected are women. When this was highlighted in the media, the Minister said she would deal with it. It was reported she would bring a memo on the issue to Cabinet within a matter of days yet she seemed to back off it completely. The line from the Government completely changed. We had the Taoiseach repeating the mantra that the approach would change, it would be a total contributions approach, we would have the report on it and the changes will be introduced in 2020. Those kind of changes will not benefit people who are finding themselves facing their retirement years with significantly reduced pension entitlements. As the Minister recognised a number of months ago when she was new in the job, it is an issue that needs to be tackled. There is a growing movement among women in their 60s who are determined to see this injustice put right. The Minister gave them a commitment that she would tackle it. She needs to do that now at an early stage and not with some measure in 2020. It is people facing into retirement this year and next year who need to be given that kind of fair treatment.

The other point on pensions is the area of private pensions and defined benefit pensions. We had the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill earlier in the year. The expectation was it would provide for new legislation to prevent solvent companies walking away from defined benefit pension liabilities when the pension fund was in difficulty, which can happen even though the company is doing extremely well. There have been a number of examples of where it was allowed to happen and workers were left high and dry. It is not allowed to happen in the UK. It is not on for employers to treat their workforce like this. It should not be allowed here either. There was an undertaking in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill that it would be dealt with. The issue had come to prominence at the end of last year before that Bill was published, with the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, highlighting it. It was made very clear in the scandalous behaviour of INM towards its employees and pensioners. We were promised this loophole in the legislation would be addressed yet when the Minister, Deputy Doherty, produced the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill it was not provided for in it. We were told before the summer that the Minister would table amendments on Committee Stage. What is holding it up? There seems to be a very long delay with it. When will we see it? When will we see the Minister's amendments? As we speak, there are employers winding up their pension schemes and pensioners are losing out. We should not be wasting any more time on this. There is the other issue of giving people notice of the intention to do this, which is an invitation to some employers to get in fast before the law changes. There is a real urgency about that.

The other issue is that the pension age has gone up to 66. The intention has been set out very clearly to increase it incrementally over the years. The problem is it has not been co-ordinated with the retirement age. I have been asking questions about this for the past two years. When will the retirement age be brought into line with the pension age? It is an extraordinary indignity to people who have perhaps worked since they were 15 years of age and find themselves having to retire at 65 because they have reached retirement age according to their contract. Such people have to retire but do not have an entitlement straight away to a contributory pension even though they may have paid into it for 50 years. It is a disgrace that we have that situation.

There is an urgent need for that working group involving the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which I understand has been meeting for some time, to come up with a solution to that. It is no way to treat pensioners.

I note the change of name to the working family payment and there has been a small increase, which is to be welcomed. However, as many of us often repeat, the scheme needs to be advertised much more widely because the uptake is not as good as it should be. Social Justice Ireland has criticised the complexity of the application process. Its operation is complex in itself, but the application process has been criticised and the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, may have a role in simplifying it, especially as many of the people applying may have literacy difficulties.

Maternity leave and paternity leave are very important. While the Bill provides for small increases, it is important to point out that we are starting from an exceptionally low base. In most other European countries there is a full replacement rate for a person's salary. Our equivalent in full salary replacement terms only comes to 8.9 equivalent weeks. We are way behind our European neighbours and need to start to make significant progress in that area. On paternity leave, we are only at 0.6 weeks full-rate equivalent in European terms, which is a huge gap to be filled.

Of course, we need to extend the right to flexible work options and even unpaid career breaks. There is a very big demand for that and we should at least do that at an early stage.

I do not really have time to talk about the delays in processing payments. I have counted at least nine payments with a waiting time in excess of six months, which is not acceptable.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill 2017. Women, in particular, are being discriminated against and being treated unfairly and unequally by our social welfare system, specifically in the rules and regulations governing the State pension entitlement. The averaging of bands and minimum contribution changes made by the former Minister, Deputy Burton, in 2012 mean that women are being seriously disadvantaged and discriminated against. Of course, the Government is continuing that discrimination and inequity in this Social Welfare Bill. Everybody is aware of this situation, which has been raised by Members across the House.

The Minister recently gave the impression that she would deal with the problem or at least make a start at treating women fairly in State pension entitlement. We understood that a memorandum was to go to Cabinet on 14 November to make a start on the various changes. However, that has not happened. The changes were not made and are not included in the Bill. I raised this issue in the budget debate on 10 October. I particularly raised the changes made by Deputy Burton in 2012. These changes affected approximately 25,000 women. Many of their pensions were reduced and some pensions were wiped out altogether. Some women were made dependent on their spouses or partners.

It has been suggested that it would cost about €70 million to reverse the 2012 changes with somewhat higher figures for retrospective backdating of the changes made. There is no doubt that that money is readily available. This is a very wealthy country and choices were made by this Government and the previous Government that could have been different and could have tackled this issue. The Government could still tackle the issue. In recent budgets approximately €100 million a year was given back to the top 5% of earners, people whose average income would have been €180,000 per annum. We could have used the tax forgone in the next 21 years as a result of not taxing the banks. Of course, we could use the moneys available that we will discuss tomorrow when we debate the Public Service Pay and Pensions Bill 2017, where the Government proposes to give a €15,000 pension increase to former taoisigh, such as Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. There are choices the Government could have made and should make to give proper treatment to women who have been disadvantaged and discriminated against in regard to the State pension.

Many other aspects, particularly relating to children, need to be addressed. Some 3,500 children are homeless and 132,000 children, representing 11.5% of the total child population, are living in consistent poverty. These children need to be treated properly and we need to eliminate that poverty trap. Related to that, one in four one-parent families live in consistent poverty. These families were subject to cuts introduced by the former Minister, Deputy Burton, of the Labour Party. Those cuts need to be reversed urgently.

Many other areas need to be dealt with, including the question of the payment of jobseeker's allowance to young persons at the reduced rate, which needs to be increased. Other areas are the pension age and family income supplement, which has only been increased by €10 for the first three children with no increase whatsoever for each subsequent child.

The Minister should make a start to end the discrimination against women regarding the State pension and it should be done sooner rather than later.

The Social Welfare Bill 2017 is concerned with putting into law the measures announced in budget 2018 on 10 October, which are due to come into effect on or after 1 January 2018. These include measures to provide for increases in the maximum payment rate for weekly social welfare payments and with proportional increases for claims of reduced rates and qualified adults with effect from the week commencing on 26 March 2018.

The Bill also provides for increases in the weekly rate for maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit, and also for extension of entitlement to maternity leave and maternity benefit in cases of premature births beyond the 26 weeks already provided for. It will also expand the circumstances in which paternity benefit will be paid to the father of a child whose mother has died. These measures will take effect in respect of babies born on or after 1 October 2017.

The Bill proposes to change the name of the family income supplement to the working family payment, WFP. The working family payment is a weekly payment for people in low-paid employment who have at least one child.

The working family payment is payable to a family where the weekly income is less than a set amount, which varies depending on the family size. This income was designed to incentivise employees to take up or remain in employment when they might have been only marginally better off had they been claiming social welfare benefits. The payment is based on 60% of the shortfall between the net weekly family income and the applicable weekly family income supplement threshold.

The combined income of a couple, married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting, is taken into account. To qualify for the working family payment, a person must be in paid employment which is expected to last for at least three months, work at least 38 hours a fortnight, have at least one child who normally lives with and is supported by him or her, and have an average weekly income below the designated income threshold for the family size.

It was announced in budget 2018 that, from 29 March 2018, the working family payment income thresholds will increase by €10 for families with one, two or three children. This means that in the case of a family which includes only one child, the weekly payment will increase to €521, in the case of a family which includes two children, it will increase to €622, and in the case of a family which includes three children, it will increase to €723.

Maternity benefit will increase by €5 per week to €240, as will adoptive benefit and paternity benefit. The proposed changes in social insurance payments include an increase of €5 per week in the following: the maximum weekly contributory State pension, widow's-widower's-surviving civil partner's contributory pension, deserted wife's benefit, carer's benefit-constant attendance allowance, disablement benefit, jobseeker's benefit, illness or health and safety injury benefit, maternity-adoptive-paternity benefit, and death benefit. There are also proposed changes to the social assistance payment with an increase of €5 per week in the non-contributory State pension, disability allowance, blind pension, widow's-widower's-surviving civil partner non-contributory pension, pre-retirement-deserted wife's allowance, supplementary welfare allowance and farm assist.

There will be changes to the one-parent family payment. This is a weekly payment to men and women aged under 66 who are bringing up children without the support of a partner. To receive this payment, claimants must meet certain conditions and satisfy a means test. The one-family payment is a taxable source of income. To qualify for it, a claimant must satisfy the following conditions: be under 66 years of age, because on reaching 66, a person becomes eligible for a State pension; be a parent, step-parent, adoptive parent or legal guardian of a relevant child, this meaning the child must be under the relevant age limit; and be the main carer of at least one relevant child who must live with the person. The payment is not payable if the parents have joint equal custody of a child or children and have gross earnings from insurable employment or self-employment of €425 or more per week. Furthermore, to qualify for the payment one must not be living with a spouse, civil partner or cohabiting. This payment will increase by €20 to €130 per week from 29 March 2018. Census 2016 shows that 25.4% of all families with children were families headed by one parent. This accounted for 218,817 family units with children of any age and headed by one parent. The census also shows that 356,203 children live in one-parent families, accounting for more than one fifth of children in family units.

In terms of labour market participation, 53.5% of lone parents are not in employment; 23.9% work part-time and 22% are in full-time employment. This is an area that requires more assistance because lone parents generally have lower levels of education when compared with the general population. The level of education attained by parents tends to influence the level of education of their children which, in turn, has an impact on economic outcomes and mental and physical health. In Dundalk, we have the Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. A good feature of it is that 80% of the children who attend the DkIT are from local families. Most of their parents would not have attained third level education. Institutes such as the DkIT are doing a fantastic job.

Child care costs, which is a major issue in Ireland, are among the highest in OECD countries. Lone parents as the sole carers of children are more likely to be affected by child care costs. What is more, the cost of caring for teenagers is higher than that associated with younger children. The one-family payment and related payments end when a child reaches a particular age or finishes education. Low levels of maintenance are also paid to lone parents by their former partners.

The rate of unemployment has fallen from a high of 15% to 6%, which is good news. I come from Dundalk in County Louth. We were very lucky this week as a company has located in Dundalk and created 300 high-spec jobs, which is fantastic. It has enabled people with skills and who were unemployed to remain in the area. Two weeks prior to that, we were very lucky when another high-spec company located in Drogheda in County Louth, and it created another 200 jobs. That is fantastic. We are lucky in that we have highly educated people in County Louth. With all the foreign direct investment in recent years, one in every ten jobs generated by foreign direct investment has come to Dundalk.

The economy is improving. The Minister has done a good job in this her first year as a Minister. She deserves many compliments. I note she gives an answer to any question she is asked, and what I like about her is that she gives an honest answer.

I am glad we will not have a general election before Christmas. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should be praised for what they have done to avoid that. I wish the former Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, the very best. She has done a very honourable thing. It is not very often that one sees a person like her, who has done a fantastic job in recent years, put the country first. Anyone who would make a snide remark against her would be wrong to do so. The last thing this country needs at present is a general election.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for this opportunity to speak to this Bill which, among other things, will ensure that one-parent families in this country are better supported financially into the future. It will ensure that mothers who have given birth to their newborns prematurely are allocated extensions to their entitlements for maternity leave. It will ensure that all social welfare recipients will receive an increase in their weekly payments from March of next year.

The fact that we are here today introducing yet another positive Social Welfare Bill, which will ensure that increased funding on social security is made available to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, must be welcomed, especially when one considers the difficult years of cuts and austerity, from which we have only recently emerged. It was very difficult in those dark economic days, which must never be forgotten by us as legislators when introducing this type of social welfare legislation, which, as I am sure we would all agree, will introduce positive changes for many people across the country. I say that as many of those on the Opposition benches, and I heard some of their contributions, would believe that blank cheques should have been written by the Government to introduce increased spending levels at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection that would simply be unsustainable to afford and that would not be in keeping with the policy of ensuring that the books are balanced and that we have control on our spending into the future.

As the Minister and other Members will be acutely aware, we have experienced a lost decade in this country due to an irresponsible and negligent fiscal approach, which led to the former Department of Social Protection ultimately becoming heavily restrained in its efforts to provide the assistance needed for many years. I am glad we as party are not repeating the said approach while in government or in this Bill before us.

There are many particular positive elements contained in this Bill which I want to welcome briefly. Before I deal with those sections, I welcome the fact that we are back in this House dealing with this legislation, considering that for many hours during the past weekend we were all thinking that this debate would not be resumed and that we would not be able to progress its provisions.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 November 2017.