That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection entitled Report on the Position of Lone Parents in Ireland, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 16th June, 2017.
At an early stage in formulating the work programme of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, now the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, we recognised that the position of lone parents in Ireland should receive particular attention. Our interest was particularly in lone parents accessing various support payments and schemes, mostly but not entirely from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We recognise that there are many lone-parent families that make their own arrangements in pursuing work and educational opportunities, but the joint committee is concerned about the position of those families who require assistance.
The work of the joint committee was done with a view to the report being published in a timely fashion to afford the Minister an opportunity to reflect on it in order that it would have budgetary implications. In that regard, the report was published in June 2017 prior to the announcement of budget 2018. The Minister appeared before the joint committee where many of the issues were discussed. The final comment I will make about the Minister's appearance at the joint committee is that before she left, she told it, with regard to the preparation of the budget, that if we had one or two particular issues that were of significant importance, we should highlight them and that she would act on them. We duly acknowledged that lone parents and the 2012 pension anomalies on which we had also produced a report were issues of significant concern to the joint committee. It was one of a number of reports available to the Minister which had been carried out by Indecon and Dr. Millar and Dr. Crosse from NUI Galway. There were a variety of reports dealing with this issue.
Since the budget, I have asked what has happened and where we are. I want to outline the changes the Minister has said she has made. She said in a reply to a parliamentary question:
Budgets 2015, 2016 and 2017 included a range of measures that benefited lone parents. I ensured improvements for lone parents ... in Budget 2018 by introducing the following measures:
- an income disregard for lone parents on [one-parent family payment] and the jobseeker’s transitional payment (JST), to be increased from €110 a week to €130 a week with effect from 29th March 2018;
- the qualified child (IQC) rate to be increased from €29.80 a week to €31.80 a week with effect from 29th March 2018.
A number of other budgetary measures will also benefit lone parents, including the €5 primary rate increase, the additional week to the fuel allowance and the Christmas bonus of 85%, which was paid in early December.
These changes will see a lone parent on [one-parent family payment] or JST working 15 hours a week on the National Minimum Wage gain by almost €1,000 per year in their overall income.
My Department’s social impact assessments of the last four budgets show a cumulative increase of €36.75 in the average weekly household income of employed lone parents and €33.60 for unemployed lone parents. This compares favourably with a weekly increase of €34.45 for the average household.
The Minister went on to say:
I intend to continue to prioritise supports for lone parents, particularly those which incentivise work over welfare. I stated at the publication of the Indecon report that I intend to provide for the further review of the [one-parent family payment] scheme.
I thank the Minister for her response. It is up to others to judge on the issues highlighted by the joint committee and whether they are adequate, but it is fair to indicate what the Minister said has been done and her acknowledgement of what still needs to be done.
Being a lone parent carries its own particular difficulties. Being the sole carer makes it difficult for the parent to avail of full-time and better paid employment or access educational opportunities that would facilitate future access to better paid employment. The State must, therefore, provide a range of measures, including but not confined to housing support, child care access and educational prospects, to empower these families to break free from the dangers of long-term deprivation.
In considering this matter the joint committee met many stakeholders with expertise in the different challenges facing lone parents. We heard from the Department on the availability of various supports, from Barnardos on cycles of poverty and disadvantage, from the UNESCO child and family research centre at NUI Galway on lone parent activation, from the group Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids, SPARK, on perceived inadequacies in available supports, from Focus Ireland on the issue of homelessness and from One Family on work and education supports. The joint committee’s report was laid before the Houses in June 2017 and its findings were underpinned by the presentations, the delegates and their accounts. I acknowledge the time they took to appear before the joint committee. It is clear from its analysis that the main challenges facing lone parents are child poverty, housing costs, child care costs and its availability, obtaining maintenance, job activation, access to education and changes to the one-parent family payment.
According to census 2016, 25.4% of all families with children are lone-parent families. There are over 350,000 children living in lone-parent families, with 86.4% of the parents being female and 13.6% male. The lone-parent population is a diverse group. Lone parents may be single, separated, widowed or divorced. Lone parent families contain parents who cohabit with partners, or with partners and their families in so-called blended families. The lone-parent population is diverse in the age of the parents and children, the size of families, work participation rates and the range of educational levels. The available data suggest some lone parents have comparative disadvantages in certain areas, with fewer completing second level education and more likely to be unemployed. This leads to fewer opportunities to achieve higher earnings.
Longitudinal research in Ireland and other countries indicates that it is poverty, not family structure, that is the key determinant in predicting outcomes for children and that lone-parent families are at much greater risk of poverty than other groups. According to the CSO, lone-parent families have the highest consistent poverty rate of 26.2% of any group in Irish society and suffer higher rates of deprivation, at 57.9% compared to 25.5% among the general population. Children living in one-parent families are three times more likely to live in consistent poverty than in families with two adults with one to three children. To help to reduce the level of poverty in this group, the joint committee recommended the removal of some payment anomalies. It proposed the full restoration of the income disregard for those on the one-parent family payment and the jobseeker's transitional payment. It also recommended that lone parents be able to remain on jobseeker's transitional payment until their youngest child is 18 years rather than the current cut-off age of 14. I note that in budget 2018 the income disregard was increased by €20 to €130 per week, which is welcome. All of these measures have to be acknowledged.
Lone parents are less likely to be in employment than at least one parent in a two-parent family. Child care, or the lack of child care supports, is frequently cited as a barrier to labour activation. A lone parent’s capacity to work cannot be equated to that of a parent in a two-parent family. Lone parents devote more of their time to caring responsibilities, responsibilities which impinge on their availability for work. Among other difficulties, child care costs in Ireland are among the highest in the OECD. Lone parents, as the sole carers of their children, are more affected by these costs. They simply have no one else to help them to bear them.
A key concern raised by the joint committee was the recent change in the one-parent family payment policy. Recipients who were in part-time employment prior to the change experienced a reduction in income. This encouraged welfare dependency as lone parents found that taking up work could actually lead to reduced income. Given the specific challenges facing lone parents in trying to access employment, the joint committee agreed with the recommendation of Dr. Millar and Dr. Crosse of NUI Galway who gave evidence to it that a package of supports for lone parents should include pre-employment supports, employment supports, financial support and child care support.
According to evidence given to the joint committee, homelessness disproportionately affects single-parent families. Everyone is aware of the stark and ongoing increase in rental costs. By their nature, lone-parent families are less likely and less able to keep pace. It was made clear to the joint committee that the value of family income supplement, now the working family payment, had been eroded for many. It was traditionally seen as a means of lifting families out of poverty, but local authorities, in considering applications for rent supplement and SUSI grants, among other payments, were including FIS as a source of income. While recognising that homelessness among lone parents is only part of a much larger problem, the joint committee strongly urged that rent allowance be decoupled from family income supplement.
In a 2003 report the OECD suggested long-term poverty might be reinforced by the one-parent family payment if there was a lack of government engagement with lone-parent families.
This engagement should monitor changes to supports and schemes to ensure they are actually helping those they were designed to assist. The most significant issue affecting lone parents since 2012 has been the change to the administration of the one-parent family payment, OFP, introduced in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. These changes were applied to new and existing recipients and the age of the youngest child at which payment ceases was reduced from 18 to seven. Stakeholder groups expressed concern to the joint committee about anomalies which caused incomes to drop for those in work. Although the reforms were intended to encourage lone parents off social welfare and onto an in-work payment, many parents who transferred to family income supplement would now be better off transferring back to jobseeker's transition payment.
The joint committee recommended that the Department introduce markers within its systems to ensure that those leaving OFP are still recognised as lone parents, even when they are in receipt of another payment, such as jobseeker's allowance or family income supplement. This would allow proper monitoring through comparative data on outcomes and progression for lone parents on these schemes, thus ensuring additional supports could be offered or accessed as required. The joint committee also recommended that caseworkers assigned to support lone parents on one parent family payment or jobseeker's transition payment should be given training to ensure that they fully understand the challenges and needs of lone parent families, and to enhance their ability to intervene as effectively and beneficially as possible.
The joint committee paid particular attention to the issue of maintenance. It found the introduction of the one-parent family payment scheme extended the requirement for lone parents to make efforts to obtain maintenance from their former spouses to unmarried cases. Previously, this provision only applied to separated spouses. Although the scheme sought to relieve hardship for lone parents who had not secured adequate, or any, maintenance from the other parent of the child, there were unfavourable consequences for lone parents. The cost of any support given to lone parents from the other parent of the child now became recoverable by the State. Further, the requirement to contact the former partner brought unintended potential negative consequences. A lone parent may not have contact details for the second parent or there may be difficulties in their relationship, such as abuse. Despite assurance from the Department that it will not require a lone parent to seek maintenance where there has been an abusive relationship in the past, such a relationship may have existed without having been proved to exist and the lone parent may find it impossible to demonstrate. Even if there is no difficulty in making contact, a lone parent is forced to seek payments through an adversarial and costly court system if the second parent is averse to making payment. In Ireland only 35% of lone parents receive child maintenance payments.
The joint committee noted that Ireland has no state body with responsibility for child maintenance payments, whereas in other jurisdictions, such as Sweden, New Zealand and Canada, the state is involved in facilitating the transfer of maintenance to parents. The committee recommended that such a state body should be put in place to appropriately seek and pursue maintenance payments, and urged strongly that lone parents should ever have their social protection payment threatened or reduced due to non-receipt of maintenance from the other parent. The obligation to pursue the liable adult should be removed from the lone parent.
We have all met lone parents at our clinics who have been unable for a variety of reasons to approach the other parent. It is very telling to meet them, some with the fear of God in them. We can all cite case studies. It is time that the Department considered an alternative system where the individual starting out as the vulnerable one is better protected by the State. It is not always a question of additional payments but of a better and fairer process for that parent.
All of the joint committee's recommendations have been made with the interests of lone parents and their children in mind. The problems of poverty, homelessness and educational disadvantage are not of course confined to lone parents, but their particular set of circumstances results in each individual problem exacerbating the others. As a society, we want to help all families and especially all children to reach their full potential. For that to happen, it behoves us to assist in breaking cycles of poverty and help avoid creating multi-generational disadvantage.