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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018

Vol. 974 No. 8

Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The main purpose of this Bill is to provide the legislative framework for the implementation of the social protection measures contained in budget 2019. These include the €5 increase in the maximum rate of all weekly social welfare payments as well an important reform of the increases for qualified children to allow for a higher rate of payment in respect of children age 12 and over, as well as a significant increase in both payment rates. The Bill reflects the ongoing strong commitment of the Government to restoring and maintaining the value of core welfare payment rates. Equally, the Bill demonstrates our commitment to introducing changes that can deliver an impact in the alleviation of poverty for those groups most at risk. That is why we have again increased all core weekly payment rates by €5.

Crucially, we have also focused on measures for families with children. Provisions are included in the Bill, which provide for the continued payment of the domiciliary care allowance, DCA, for three months in cases where the child being cared for passes away and for increases in the weekly earnings disregard for recipients of the one-parent family payment. While some budget measures are not covered by legislation, they will also have an important impact. These include the increase of €25 in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, for instance, as well as the introduction of a disregard for maintenance payments for the working family payment. These measures will provide a great deal of help to families. Other important measures announced in the budget, including the extension of jobseeker's benefit to the self-employed and the introduction of a paid parental benefit scheme, will be legislated for next year and prior to their formal introduction before the end of 2019.

Some other matters are also being legislated for in the Bill. The most significant of these concerns changes which will have a positive effect for many of those who were awarded less than the maximum rate of the State contributory pension following changes to the rate bands introduced by the Oireachtas in 2012. It is a project we call T12 and a great deal of work has been undertaken over recent months on it. My Department has begun to issue letters to more than 70,000 resident contributory pensioners and plans to issue a further 8,000 letters to non-resident pensioners in December. The letter will explain the review process and inform pensioners that the Department will contact them directly with the outcome of their individual pension review.

The House will recall that the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill was published in May 2017 and contained key measures relating to defined benefit pension schemes. These measures will act to support existing provisions in the Pensions Act and will provide for further protection for scheme members' benefits and enhance employer responsibilities for their schemes. The defined benefit pension provisions are technical and involve complex policy issues. With a view to ensuring we end up with a solution that is resilient and effective, it has been necessary to carefully consider various aspects of these policies. When these matters have been resolved and amendments approved by the Government, an early date for Committee Stage will be requested. In the interim, we are providing in the Bill before the House for the essentially technical issues covered by the earlier Bill to progress them.

An important amendment to the Pensions Act is being provided for, which I expect will be welcomed by all Members. Section 20 contains provisions to provide a right of entitlement to spousal pension benefits in certain circumstances to same-sex couples where the scheme member could not have entered into a legally recognised relationship such as marriage or civil partnership, with his or her partner because the relevant legislation, namely the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 and the Marriage Act 2015, had not been enacted. The purpose of the provisions is to deal with an issue highlighted in a case brought by Dr. David Parris to the Labour Court, which was then the subject of a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union. Dr. Parris retired prior to same-sex relationships being legally recognised within the State as the relevant legislation to provide for legal recognition of such relationships had not come into force. I take this opportunity to thank publicly Dr. Parris, the members of the Pensions Equality group and Members for their work in highlighting the position of same-sex couples in this regard.

The Bill also includes some largely technical changes, which had been provided for originally in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017. The amendments provide for the implementation of administrative efficiencies within my Department. I stress that I remain committed to proceeding as soon as possible with that Bill.

I turn now to a brief outline of each of the provisions contained in this Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, its construction and citations and the commencement provisions.

Section 2 provides for definitions of terms used in Part 2 of the Bill, which relates to amendments of the Social Welfare Acts.

Section 3 provides for an increase of €10, from €376 to €386, in the reckonable earnings threshold for employees where employer PRSI contributions are paid at the lower rate of 7.8%. This change reflects the increase in the minimum wage from €9.50 to €9.80 per hour from 1 January 2019 and will ensure that the same proportion of employers’ contributions is paid at the lower rate.

Section 4 provides for the necessary changes in respect of PRSI collection to reflect the introduction in January 2019 by the Revenue Commissioners of a real-time system in place of the current monthly-annual return system. Under the new system, a return to Revenue will be required on each occasion a worker is paid. The amendment will take effect from 1 January 2019.

Sections 5 to 7, inclusive, provide for the increased weekly rate of maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit with effect from 25 March 2019.

Section 8 sets out the proportionate increases in the rates of jobseeker’s benefit which are payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings are less than a prescribed amount. The new rates take effect from 21 March 2019.

I mentioned that the Bill contains the necessary legislative basis to allow us to proceed to apply an alternative method, entitled the aggregated contributions method, for determining entitlement to the State pension (contributory) for persons who attained pensionable age on or after 1 September 2012, and who, under the existing yearly average method, are not entitled to a State pension (contributory) at the full rate. These are set out in section 9 of the Bill. I will be introducing a minor amendment to the provisions of section 9 to ensure that these positive changes can be applied to those in receipt of mixed insurance records, that is, people who have worked in both the private and public sectors. This amendment is currently being finalised with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.

Sections 10 and 11 address a gap in the current legislation to ensure that a person who was in the care of the State on attaining the age of 18 is fully exempted from the age-related reduced-rate payments of jobseeker’s allowance or supplementary welfare allowance. Currently, the exemption expires when the claimant concerned attains the age of 25, while the age-related reduced rates continue to apply until age 26.

Section 12 of the Bill responds directly to an issue which was raised with me at the pre-budget forum some months ago. It provides that domiciliary care allowance will continue to be paid for three months in those cases where the child in respect of whose care the allowance is being paid passes away. We already have a similar provision in the case of the carer’s allowance and I am pleased to be able to extend that approach to recipients of domiciliary care allowance under the Bill.

Section 13 is one of the technical amendments which we are lifting from the 2017 Bill and simply provides that decisions to award a social welfare benefit or payment which is to the benefit of a claimant, that is, a positive decision, may be made by an automated information system. Just as importantly, it also provides that decisions which deny entitlement to a benefit or payment may only be made by a deciding officer.

Section 14 provides for the formal repeal of the prescribed relative allowance, a legacy scheme which has been closed to new applicants since the introduction in 1990 of the carer’s allowance scheme. The last claim for this payment closed in 2017.

Section 15 and Schedule 1 provide for the necessary amendments throughout the Act to cater for the introduction of separate rates of the qualified child increase for children aged under 12 and those who are 12 years or over. This approach reflects the fact that research has consistently identified that older children have additional and different needs to children in younger age groups.

Section 16 together with Schedule 2 provide for new rates of social insurance benefits. All maximum weekly insurance-based pensions and benefits, including State pension (contributory), widow’s pension (contributory), widower’s pension (contributory), surviving civil partner’s pension (contributory), invalidity pension, carer’s benefit, maternity benefit, paternity benefit, health and safety benefit, adoptive benefit, illness benefit, injury benefit, jobseeker’s benefit, guardian’s payment (contributory) and disablement pension are to be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced-rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for, along with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 21 March 2019 and 29 March 2019.

Section 17 is one of the measures taken from the 2017 Bill and responds to a recommendation in the Make Work Pay report published last year under the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. In practical terms, the section dispenses with the practice of distinguishing between employment of a rehabilitative nature and work more generally for recipients of disability allowance, blind pension and some recipients of supplementary welfare allowance. In addition to making it easier for recipients of those payments to take up employment opportunities, this measure will also reduce the administrative workload for GPs and some staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

Section 18 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payment from €130 to €150 per week with effect from 28 March 2019. The effect of this measure will be to increase the amount of money that a lone parent will receive from employment without it reducing his or her social welfare payment.

Section 19, together with Schedule 3, provides for new rates of social assistance payments. All maximum weekly allowances, including non-contributory State pension, non-contributory widow’s pension, non-contributory widower’s pension, non-contributory surviving civil partner’s pension, jobseeker’s allowance, disability allowance, carer’s allowance, one-parent family payment, non-contributory guardian’s payment, farm assist and supplementary welfare allowance are to be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for, along with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 20 March 2019 and 29 March 2019.

Section 20, as I mentioned, provides a right of entitlement, in certain circumstances, to spousal pension benefits for same sex spouses and civil partners who are members of occupational pension schemes. These transitional provisions provide that where a defined benefit pension scheme has set as a condition for entitlement to a spouse’s pension that a scheme member must have been married or entered into a civil partnership prior to reaching a certain age or date of retirement, the scheme member will be deemed to satisfy that requirement where he or she satisfies certain specified conditions such as: the scheme member must have been in a committed relationship with the beneficiary at the time he or she reached the age or the date of retirement set out in the scheme rules; the scheme member must have entered into a civil partnership with, or married, the beneficiary within the specified period; and any contributions required for the purpose of obtaining entitlement to such benefits have been paid into the scheme.

Sections 21 to 23, inclusive, relate to the Civil Registration Acts and provide that the terms of office of the chief registrar and his or her deputy will be three years, renewable. These sections also provide that the chief registrar or his or her deputy may resign his or her office at any time.

Section 24 provides for an amendment to the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for a 0.1% increase, from 0.8% to 0.9%, in the national training fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in class A or class H employment from 1 January 2019.

The Bill will provide for an increase of €5 per week in social welfare rates for the third year in a row. It reflects the determination of the Government to ensure that the benefits of the continuing economic recovery should be shared by every citizen in the country. The additional resources being applied to the qualified child increase and the particular focus on the greater needs of older dependent children reflect my commitment and that of my colleagues to prioritise the needs of families, especially those on low or fixed incomes.

I hope and expect that the Bill will enjoy the support of Members on all sides of the House and look forward to hearing the contributions of my colleagues on it in the coming days. I commend the Bill to the House.

We will not oppose this Bill. As the Minister has outlined in some detail all of the favourable measures contained in the Bill, I do not see any need to rehearse them. I note that this year's increase in provision for the social protection budget is approximately 1.5%. That has to be measured against economic growth of more than 5%, which is what I understand the figure to be. As I will try to illustrate, I believe that with some administrative adjustments, some legislative changes and a small increase in expenditure, we could get much more value for the more than €20 billion we are spending on social protection.

I deeply regret that the old narrative about social welfare was resurrected during the recent presidential election campaign. Certain people sought to get cheap votes and attract popularity by saying that the source of all our ills in this country is the amount we spend on social protection. The depths of ignorance from which those people were talking were surely reflected in their failure to realise that jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance now account for less than 10% of total social welfare expenditure. The main forms of social welfare expenditure are payments to people who are too disabled or too sick to work, single parents who cannot go out to work because of the lack of childcare facilities in this country and pensioners who are too old to work or whose working lives have expired. We cannot forget that more than €2 billion in child benefit payments comes from the social welfare budget. I find it disgusting that anybody would suggest that by reducing payments such as the disability allowance, carer's allowance and State pension - we know about all the additional expenses faced by the elderly - or even by eliminating them, in some cases, we would suddenly have nirvana in this country. It is not the case that all our economic and social problems would suddenly end if we reduced the fairly meagre payments that such people receive. I remind the House that the weekly disability allowance payment for a single person is €198.50, although it will increase by €5 in March 2019. The weekly carer's allowance payment is €214 and this is also about to increase by €5. As I said last month, I certainly would not like to belong to a political party which includes a member who voices such sentiments.

The Minister and I did not get a chance to finish the discussion we had yesterday on foot of a question I tabled about young jobseekers. As politicians, we have to be careful not to say or do things that feed into the false narrative to which I have just referred. The Taoiseach played his part in promoting this narrative when he went after so-called fraudulent claims. As we know, the reality is that the vast majority of payments recovered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection can be attributed to overpayments. In the vast majority of cases, those overpayments are not the fault of the person who is ultimately forced to repay the money. Of course, fraud should be pursued and people who deliberately defraud the system should be subjected to the full rigours of the law, but the figure for fraud is minuscule. I regret that during Question Time yesterday, the Minister seemed to feed into the sort of false narrative. I asked her to explain the present rationale for the distinction between the rate of jobseeker's payments paid to people over the age of 26 and the rate paid to those under the age of 26. I admit that this distinction was first introduced in 2010-----

By Fianna Fáil.

-----albeit in a very small way. It has been magnified enormously since then.

Fianna Fáil opened the door.

Yes, we opened the door. The door was open a long time in Northern Ireland and the UK as well. When I asked the Minister for the rationale for the two rates of payment, she more or less told me that all the people in this country between the ages of 18 and 26 are the sort of people who would prefer to sit at home watching "Judge Judy" than to go out and get a job or take on training. That feeds into the narrative. She should withdraw the remark in question. While we are on the subject of jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit, I ask the Minister to use her response at the end of Second Stage to set out what Turas Nua's future will be. My understanding is that its contract is due to expire in 2019 or 2020. Will she assure the House that Turas Nua will end at that stage? The organisation has been well paid to achieve its objectives, but it is no longer relevant. The people coming to me now illustrate very clearly that it is now more of a hindrance than a help to those trying to join the workforce.

How many self-employed people have qualified for the invalidity pension? What is the position with regard to self-employed people who become ill, disabled or incapacitated for a short period? Are there plans to extend the illness benefit provision to the self-employed? If someone is to qualify for the invalidity pension, he or she must prove that he or she is more or less permanently incapable of work. Not everybody who becomes temporarily disabled can prove that he or she is permanently incapable of work, not least because not everyone in these circumstances will be permanently incapable of work. I welcome the Minister's announcement that jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed will be introduced from the final quarter of next year by whoever happens to be the Minister at that stage. Even though the amount of PRSI being paid by the self-employed is less than half of that being paid by workers, it is proposed to give them the same benefits. I am aware of a number of surveys among the self-employed which have found that approximately 85% of them are enthusiastic about making a contribution to the new system, rather than letting the cost of it be borne by the taxpayer.

One in 20 people in Ireland is caring for a family member. Collectively, they provide approximately €10 billion in unpaid care work to the State. We have to come to grips with and start planning for this. All the studies show that by 2030, which is not far away, demographic changes will require one in five people to take on a caring role. That will be a fourfold increase. Some 73,000 carers are paid carer's allowance or carer's benefit. This means that 75% of those who undertake caring duties do not get any payment at all. While the amount they are paid is more generous than jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance, the difference is just €16 a week. The eligibility criteria for carer's allowance are too strict. One or two people who receive carer's allowance have come to me in the past few weeks. They are caring for a family member who happens to be a child in each case. Both of them are self-employed on a part-time basis but have had to turn away a few hours of extra work, thereby depriving themselves of the ability to earn a decent income in addition to what they receive as carer's allowance as they seek to lift their families out of poverty. I realise why there must be a limit on the time a carer can spend working outside the home. If someone is working outside the home all the time, he or she cannot provide caring facilities. There should be some flexibility in this regard. I recently came across the case of somebody who is working irregular hours outside the home. This person works 17 or 18 hours some weeks, but just ten or 12 hours other weeks. On average, this person works less than 15 hours a week. This person has been told that they have no entitlement to carer's allowance because they work more than 15 hours in some weeks. This indicates that there is significant rigidity in the system, which should be examined.

Many people have complained to me that when caring ends while the carer is still of working age, there are a number of barriers to returning to work which often result in carers being locked out of the labour market. I would like to mention Family Carers Ireland, which is an excellent organisation, in this context.

My colleagues and everybody else read the very useful suggestions it put forward for changes to the system that would cost very little in the overall scheme of things but there is no sign of them being implemented. For example, it suggested that carer's allowance be disregarded in the calculation of differential rent, medical cards for carers, a reduction in prescription charges, the reintroduction of the transport support scheme to which I will return presently, improvement to the senior alert scheme and flexibility in the conditions. It suggests simple things that would not cost anything extra, such as an early alert system for entitlement to the old age pension when a carer is three months short of 66 years of age, as applies for people in receipt of other social welfare payments and, of course, a review of the rules generally to provide more flexibility.

The association put forward another initiative at which the Government should look very carefully. There are a number of services relating to carers that are funded but not uniformly or evenly throughout the country. The amount of assistance a person receives under various schemes depends on where in the country he or she happens to live. It is the postcode lottery. The proposal from the organisation in question clearly shows the requirement for some rebalancing of existing local budgets and an overall increase of approximately €3 million per annum, which is not a fortune, to guarantee services such as respite, individual supports, training of carers, information and advocacy in a fairly uniform way throughout the country. Surely regardless of where people live they are entitled to the same service as everybody else.

Disability is an area where poverty seems to be increasing rather than decreasing despite the economic growth we have enjoyed in recent times. More than one in three, that is, 39.1%, which is, in fact, almost one in two, of people who are unable to work due to disability live below the poverty line. In its pre-budget submission Inclusion Ireland highlighted the lack of workplace supports for people with disabilities. It is not enough to identify a job for a person with a disability. In many cases the people must be supported in the workplace, at least in the initial stages.

The national disability inclusion strategy includes a target to increase public sector employment for people with disabilities from 3% to 6% by 2024. At the rate of increase we have at present according to figures produced by the National Disability Authority it will be 2041 before the 2024 target is met. I urge the Minister, as I have urged the Taoiseach on many occasions, to let us have the motorised transport and mobility allowance back. It was frozen in 2013. Thousands of people have qualified for it since but every time I or anybody else asks when it will be restored we are told it is very complex and detailed, that it involves legislation and that this person is looking this and another person is looking at something else. For heavens sake, it has been more than five years.

Advocacy for families with disability is virtually non-existent so the personal advocacy service provided under the Citizens Information Act 2007 should be commenced immediately. Will the Minister comment on why 73% of decisions on disability allowance cases are overturned on appeal? There is almost a knee-jerk reaction to refuse disability allowance applications. Do not give me the old story about holding back documentation for the appeal. In my experience that is not a widespread practice among people applying for disability allowance. They provide all the documentation and anything to support their claims. In 73% of cases appeals are partially or wholly successful. If up to three out of every four decisions of a judge at whatever level were reversed we would surely conclude there was something fundamentally wrong.

I welcome the increase in the disregard for lone parents although it is far short of what was sought. As the Minister is aware, the committee on social protection did a lot of work and research on how to improve conditions for lone parents who were very adversely affected by Deputy Burton's changes in 2012. The reaction of the Department to the report was most disappointing. The report makes several very good suggestions that would cost relatively little, peanuts in many cases, and would substantially improve the position of single parents. I cannot understand why the Department does not take them on board.

Yesterday, we discussed the idea of a maintenance recovery unit. Will the Minister comment on the fact that at present if somebody goes to court for maintenance and the recalcitrant partner decides not to pay, some social welfare officers at least insist on assessing the maintenance against the individual even though that individual is not being paid any money? Surely this discourages people from pursuing maintenance. They open themselves to a terrible risk. If they get the order but the money is not paid a social welfare official will state that according to the information available the person has maintenance of a certain amount per week and therefore it will be assessed against the person. That is a practice and make no mistake about it.

With regard to pathways back to work for lone parents the situation is still very unclear. There is a lack of co-ordination between various Departments. For example, financial support appears to be available only for full-time courses, which does not facilitate the caring responsibility of single parents.

With regard to pensions, I note section 9 of the Bill and we will return to this in more detail on Committee Stage. I realise the 40 year baseline is only for the calculation of what is due to post-2012 pensioners but when the new system that will replace the total contribution system is being established we will urge the Minister very strongly to use a baseline of 30 years. We will also very strongly recommend reducing the huge hurdle to qualification of 520 paid contributions back to 260 contributions.

I note from my brief perusal of section 9 that if somebody claims home carer credits and separate credits, such as for periods when they were unemployed or on disability, there is a cap. The cap on home carer credits is 1,040. A person can have up to 539 non-home carers credits but if he or she has both he or she is still restricted to 1,040, which is extremely restrictive.

There are a number of other issues. For example, recently a colleague brought to my attention an anomaly in the provisions of the domiciliary care allowance. What happened in the case in which she was involved was joint custody was granted and each parent was spending equal time each week with the child. They have both been refused domiciliary care allowance on the basis the relevant legislation states the parent must spend at least five nights per week with the child. I will send the details to the Minister.

I thank the Deputy.

In this particular case the child is being discriminated against. Incidentally, I am disappointed there are no changes in the regulations and conditions of the working family dividend. This was the replacement for the family income supplement and we were told it was a magical panacea that would encourage work and would combat poverty and reduce inequality. It is the old family income supplement that has been renamed.

There was a change in the budget.

It was very minor.

Either there is a change or there is not.

I will rephrase what I said. There was practically no change.

These are some of the issues we will raise on Committee Stage. As I said, we will not oppose the legislation on Second Stage. I have no intention of opposing increases for people on disability allowance and jobseeker's payments. The one point I will make is these changes only kick in from the end of March whereas the tax changes kick in from 1 January. This is fundamentally inequitable. It means that although the Minister said at the end of her speech that she is giving a €5 a week increase she is not. She is giving an increase of approximately €3.75 per week because it will not kick in until the end of March.

These are the main items. We will be looking more carefully at section 9 and a number of other sections. We will table amendments on Committee Stage in so far as we can. We are still constrained by the crazy rule that we cannot table an amendment that will cost the Exchequer an extra cent because it will be ruled out of order. Within this constraint, while we will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage we will do our very best to make it even better on Committee Stage.

We cannot discuss this Bill this evening without referring to the 2017 Bill, which has been at a complete standstill for over a year. This is ridiculous. That Bill was debated here 13 months ago, on 4 October, yet it still has to progress to Committee Stage. I understand the Minister has attributed this to provisions in the Bill concerning defined benefit pension schemes and protections for members of those schemes. Whatever the legal and complex policy issues, there are certainly no excuses for leaving members of defined benefit schemes any longer without basic protections. When previously asked about the 2017 Bill, the Minister said the key priority of her Government was to provide additional protections for scheme members. There are no protections for scheme members and that is the crux of the problem.

We have seen employers who are not in any financial difficulty walk away or make a decision to walk away from their pension obligations to their employees for absolutely no reason whatsoever. We saw that most recently with Irish Life. This has happened over and over and, if the truth be told, the Government just stood idly by.

In the OECD review of Ireland's pension system, published in 2014, Ireland was criticised for its weak legislation on the protection of defined benefit scheme members. The report recommended that the legislation be strengthened but that call has been ignored. We have to make it illegal for companies that are financially sound to walk away from their pension obligations. At the very least, the Government needs to end the current practice. The Minister will be aware of three Opposition Bills that would achieve this. In fairness, they have not been pushed in the hope that the Minister will step forward and put in place the protections. She has failed. We are not talking about companies in financial difficulty but about profitable companies that make a choice to remove the risk on their books and place it firmly on the employee alone. I ask the Minister to examine this as part of the solution.

Most of the sections of this Bill allow for increases in social welfare payments or introduce technical and necessary measures, including some taken from the 2017 Bill. These are welcome. It is a pity this year again that payment increases will not be made until the end of March, especially given the increased costs for households, particularly energy costs over the winter months. It appears the delayed increase is becoming commonplace. I urge the Government to try to avoid this in the future. Where increases in payments are necessary and announced as part of the budget, they are needed immediately, not five months after they are announced.

What is the basis on which social welfare increases are decided? I am aware the Minister engages with organisations in a pre-budget forum. That has to be welcomed. One of the key findings brought to the Minister's attention at the pre-budget forum was benchmarking in respect of adequacy. The Minister should examine the Social Welfare Commission Bill 2018, which I recently sent to her having introduced it in the Dáil. That Bill would take the political football out of the budget process every single year. It would ensure that vulnerable households receive an income that is adequate to meet their needs and would result in an adequate standard of living. This is a very basic objective to meet when it comes to our social protection system and what it should aim to achieve. I urge the Minister to consider the Bill I have introduced. I have engaged with many organisations on it. They see its merit and the need for it. I hope the Minister will examine it and agree there is a need to remove the political football from the setting of social welfare rates. I hope she will help to make progress on the legislation.

I note that the extension of the jobseeker's payment for the self-employed is not included in this Bill. I am aware that there were reasons for this and that the provision will be included in separate legislation next year, or so I am informed. I would like the date on which the Minister envisages this will happen.

There is also no timeline included in this Bill for the introduction of the differing rates, based on age, that will be introduced for the qualified child increases. The Minister mentioned the end of March. I would need that to be confirmed. The recognition by the Government of the increased cost of raising a teenager and subsequently the increase in qualified child income for the over 12s was probably the most welcome measure announced as part of budget 2019. Again, however, we need a date. I believe the Minister mentioned the period from 22 March to 29 March.

It was 20 March to 29 March.

I thank the Minister.

With regard to the earnings disregard for recipients of the working family payment towards housing costs, child maintenance should be regarded as an income for the child and not as household income. I questioned the Minister on this yesterday. She does not agree with me. In not agreeing with me, she does not agree with the organisations that represent real people. I do not understand why the Minister insists that child maintenance should be calculated as means towards an array of social welfare payments. This is totally unfair and it should stop.

I welcome the full exemption of age-related jobseeker payments for young jobseekers in State care. This was an important move by the Minister. It has been requested for some time and it is a welcome move.

I ask the Minister to consider the age-related jobseeker payments and the impact of the reduced payments on those between 18 and 24, in particular. These reduced payments are leading to homelessness. We can see that from the homelessness figures. It has been stated by numerous organisations representing homeless people that this discrimination in the system is having an impact in terms of homelessness. It is ensuring young people are trapped in homelessness. Therefore, I urge the Minister to consider this.

The Minister ignores the simple fact I have outlined. Every year the gap between jobseekers is widened based on age. This makes it increasingly difficult to close. It is deeply regrettable that the Minister continues with this failed policy of discrimination, introduced by Fianna Fáil, and it ignores the impact it is having on young people. It was interesting to listen to Deputy O'Dea. Yesterday he tried to defend his party's introduction of the arrangement and blamed the current Government for presiding over it. It was unacceptable when introduced and it is unacceptable now. The discrimination needs to end.

With regard to JobPath, Turas Nua was mentioned. There is another private company involved, Seetec. I have raised concerns about the 15,000 people who have been referred to JobPath for a second time. This has been referred to as a hindrance. It is a waste of money. I have stated the two companies are rubbing their hands with glee. They are making millions upon millions of euro from the State through the privatisation of the system. It needs to end. My party and I are not the only ones with a difficulty with this. Members throughout the House, from all political parties, have raised serious concerns about it. I speak to real people on a daily basis, as I am sure does the Minister.

I query whether the Minister has not had issues brought to her directly in her constituency from people who have been referred to JobPath, whether it is Turas Nua or Seetec. There are major issues with it and I am not dreaming them up. They have been presented to every Member. Sticking one's head in the sand and ignoring them is wrong. It is particularly wrong on the part of the Minister, who has direct responsibility and is presiding over this system, to stick her head in the sand and continue to have people referred to this privatised industry that is making millions of euro.

Finally, the 2017 Bill is in limbo. Crucial provisions in it must be implemented. It appears we will not see the 2017 Bill this year, which is unacceptable. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on whether that Bill will be taken off the shelf, dusted down and brought forward. The Bill before us contains nothing that will have it held up or delayed. I assume that is intentional. Certainly my party will not stand in the way of letting this Bill progress. However, we cannot have a trend where difficult provisions are left behind and the nice provisions giving people entitlements and increases are welcomed and progressed. The Minister has to deal with the difficult issues such as the DB schemes. People are crying out for this. Schemes are closing down and people are getting knocked out. The Minister must confront and deal with that, and I urge her to do so as a matter of priority.

I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute on behalf of the Labour Party to the debate. As Deputy O'Dea said, the Bill gives legislative effect to the various measures announced in the budget on 9 October and deals with increases in weekly rates of pensions, benefits and allowances, including the qualified child increased payment which we especially welcome. I support the extension of the period of payment of DCA for an additional three months when the child being cared for passes away. The increase in the weekly earnings disregard for the one-parent family payment will be of assistance to lone parents and help to make work pay and with incentivisation.

I note the amendment to the Pensions Act which provides for the right of entitlement in certain circumstances to spousal pension benefits for same-sex spouses and civil partners who are members of occupational schemes. I salute that important advancement. The Minister will acknowledge that this issue has been championed by my colleague, Senator Bacik, for a long time. The Labour Party supports this enabling provision in terms of equality of treatment in respect of pension entitlements. It is clearly related to the case of Dr. David Parris which was brought to the ECJ.

Significant parts of the Bill are devoted to contributions and the pensions entitlements arising therefrom. It deals with the significant problem caused by changes in entitlements made in 2012 whereby people who attained pensionable age on or after 1 September 2012, due to the new averaging system that was introduced, lost their entitlement to a full rate of State contributory pension. My Labour Party colleagues and I are pleased that this issue can now be addressed by the Minister and that the additional resources, which will be available as a result of the strong economic growth that was fostered during that time, can be allocated to remedy the situation for once and for all. I am glad this is now right. However, I wish to raise an issue with the Minister. I was contacted by a former Member regarding the pension equality review. It will only benefit people born after 6 September 1946. That date should be 6 April 1946 as the changes were introduced on 6 April 2012. This is a very smart former Deputy. He said that the creation of the inequality happened on 6 April 2012, but the Minister is setting the date at 6 September 2012. He is a retired Deputy but he has given me the case of a woman who was born on 10 April 1946 who was negatively impacted by the 2012 changes. It appears she will not benefit from the current review. I ask the Minister to take that into account and amend the date. It probably affects only a handful. Unfortunately, these old Deputies never retire, and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is the same. The boots are always on.

It will be no surprise to the House that I have taken a keen interest in pensions, State pensions and the protection of defined benefit schemes, particularly against unscrupulous employers who have left their employees short or deprived them of their rights at the stroke of a pen. I spoke about the delay with the 2017 Bill on Question Time yesterday. I have delved into the history of pensions and I have spoken on it previously in the House. When the first old age pension scheme in the world was introduced by Bismarck in 1889 in Germany, the pension was payable at 70 years of age. At that time only 10% of Germans lived for more than five years after receiving their pension. The cost of old age pensions was, therefore, only a small part of government spending.

Today life expectancy in Ireland at 65 years of age is 18 years for men and 21 years for women, and these expectancies are rising rapidly. Until recently Ireland has had a low age dependency ratio because, sadly, many emigrants of the 1950s who should be growing old in Ireland are growing old in the UK, the USA and other countries. At present, the old dependency ratio in Ireland is 21% compared to an average of 29% for the EU. We are fortunate to still have a relatively young population, but the birth rate is declining and this combined with increased longevity will cause a rapid increase in the old dependency ratio over the next 20 years. This increase in the dependency ratio is being referred to as the pensions time bomb. I hate that term. It is as if increasing life expectancy is a bad thing. Increased life expectancy is only a problem if a large proportion of the population is inactive or requires care. A leading English geriatrician recently suggested abandoning the terms associated with ageing and simply classifying people as active or inactive adults.

An ever increasing proportion of the population over 65 years of age is in good health, thankfully, and capable of working, but many are required to retire at 65 regardless of whether they wish it. Those dependent solely on the State old age pension which is payable at age 66, and that age will increase, are often forced into the humiliating position of having to claim unemployment benefit until they reach 66. The legislative intervention in recent weeks dealt with the public sector retirement age and means that public sector employees have the option of working until they are 70 if they wish. However, many private sector workers do not have that option, and there is a strong argument for putting arrangements in place to enable all private sector workers who will be solely dependent on the State old age pension to work until 66 years of age. Again, it would be voluntary, not mandatory. Japan has increased the age at which workers can draw a state pension to 70 and there are proposals to increase the pension age to 75. Some workers who do hard physical work should be allowed to retire at 65 or even 60. It is hard, physical, manual work on building sites for construction workers. However, many workers may well be in better shape and able to work beyond 65 and they should be facilitated to do so.

The pensions time bomb lobby argues that providing a State pension will be unaffordable in the future because of the numbers of people who will be eligible to receive it. Pension reform is part of the free market economics consensus of organisations such as the OECD and the World Bank. The OECD, in a report on the Irish pension system, ominously states: "Pension reforms are part of many austerity programmes and seen as a key element in reassuring markets that future commitments to pay back explicit and implicit public debt are credible". In these discussions there is no mention of the fact that in Ireland employer PRSI contributions are among the lowest in the developed world. The solution to the crisis is always to make workers pay more and to privatise as much of the pension system as possible. A major so-called reform of Irish pensions was the introduction of personal retirement savings accounts, PRSAs. Although they have been in operation since 2003, only 50% of employers provide access to PRSAs and only 4% of employees and 10% of the self-employed are contributing to them. While an attempt was made to cap the costs of PRSAs, the charges are higher than in the UK, USA and Sweden. The UK has several PRSA-type schemes and none has been successful. The only beneficiaries of the UK schemes have been the insurance companies and their agents who provide them. There have also been mis-selling scandals. Despite these failures, the main proposal for private pensions is a continuation and expansion of these schemes in Ireland. Now we are discussing automatic enrolment so it is an important issue. There are generous tax reliefs for PRSAs but, as with most tax reliefs in Ireland, those on the highest incomes benefit most.

The proposals for existing private pension schemes include measures to improve governance. If this to become a reality, the light-touch regulation operated by the Pensions Board will have to become a great deal tougher. Although Ireland has only 1% of the EU population, our 164,000 occupational pension schemes constitute 50% of such schemes in the EU. There are significant economies of scale in pension schemes and the Pensions Board should consider how these schemes could be consolidated. Despite the plethora of occupational schemes, only 35% of private sector workers have private pension cover even with the generous tax reliefs. That is what the Minister is trying to tackle now.

All the countries that have a higher level of cover have mandatory or quasi-mandatory schemes, but they are mainly large schemes with low management costs and good returns. The main development in private pensions in Ireland in recent years has been the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution schemes. This is why the 2017 legislation is so important. This shifts all the risk to the employee. While some defined benefit schemes may have been over generous, the shift to defined contributions is likely to mean more people partly dependent on the State pension to survive in old age. The Government’s main role in the area of private pensions should be to reduce costs and investment risks. The continuation of tax reliefs should be contingent on providers delivering defined benefit promises and defined contribution providers delivering a guaranteed lump sum on retirement. This lump sum should be the amount generated when contributions and investment returns grow at a nominal rate of 2% per annum. Reducing risks would, in time, also reduce the possibility of the State having to rescue failed private pension schemes as happened with Waterford Crystal and SR Technics. I hope to be making a contribution to what is going to happen in a few years' time when I have left the House.

For the foreseeable future, the State pension will remain the main income source for most pensioners. Currently the old age pension replaces 35% of average earnings. This, with the additional non-cash benefits, is adequate to keep pensioners out of poverty but will only do so in the future if it is maintained at this level in real terms by adjusting it to average earnings. I am concerned that the Government seems eager to push a greater number of people into private pension schemes to reduce public spending on pensions. The policy of increasing coverage of private pensions has failed. It has increased subsidies to higher income earners, substituted individual pensions for occupational pensions and shifted risks from employers to employees. The focus on increasing private pension coverage through an auto-enrolment scheme is the primary objective of the national pensions framework. This ignores the failures of the private pension system and ignores the significance of State pension as most important source of income for pensioners. The main policy goal for Ireland's pension system should be to improve the coverage and adequacy of the State pension. The State pension should be a universal scheme and the replacement rate should be increased to 40% of average industrial earnings. Immediately there will be cries that we cannot afford to implement these proposals but a well-researched study by Social Justice Ireland that estimates the costs of a universal pension scheme shows that in the long term paying for a universal scheme would be no more difficult than funding existing arrangements.

I shall now turn to my favourite topic. Perhaps this time next year this could be over for the likes of me, but I will certainly go out on the topic of caring in Ireland today and the plight of carers. Unashamedly, and with great energy during my time in political life, especially in the Dáil, I have been a strong advocate for carers. My aim and objective is to continually improve their lot. They are genuine and wonderful people and they are the unsung heroes. There is a crisis in family carers. That was the message that emerged from the RTÉ "Prime Time" special programme in December 2017. Five family carers bared their souls to the nation in the hope of highlighting their plight and representing thousands of carers across Ireland. Many carers in crisis have told their stories since with little or no response. Sometimes they tell their stories to us in private.

Family carers such as Anne Quinn, who won carer of the year in Westmeath, and many others throughout counties Westmeath, Longford, Meath, Offaly and Laois and so on do not want to be patronised. They do not want our praise or pity nor do they not want to be canonised. They are not saints and they will tell anyone that. They are ordinary people who are struggling to care for their loved ones without the supports they desperately need. They are angry at a system that exploits, and sometimes abuses, their family bonds and that only pays lipservice to the demands of caring safely for their loved ones. They need respite, they need training and some need a downstairs bathroom. Others need home help hours when they need them and not when the system decides they can be give them, if indeed ever. Thousands of family carers are living in crisis and urgently need a break. Their own physical and mental health is suffering, and they cannot secure respite care, even emergency respite, when they can no longer provide care.

In Ireland today, all home care supports are discretionary and, therefore, the service is resource rather than needs-led. This equates to a system which is inequitable, inconsistent and flawed. I understand that a statutory entitlement to home care is coming down the tracks but that is two, three or four years away. Family carers cannot afford to wait that long; they need support now.

Deputy O'Dea made a good reference to the postcode lottery for carer supports and services. Where a person lived often determines what supports he or she will get and this has to change. If I am out in the sticks in a simple village such as Ballinacarrigy, I should be able to get the same service as in a large town like Mullingar or Athlone. People who live in Emper, Ballinacarrigy, Sonna, Rathowen, Castletown, Moyvore or Ballymore or wherever should get the same service that is available in the larger towns. Carers must have access to key supports in their community throughout their caring roles such as timely information, in-home and residential respite care, peer support groups and ongoing training in line with the demands of their caring roles. Family Carers Ireland presented the Government with a solution to eliminate the postcode lottery. For an additional € 3.5 million per annum, the organisation can provide access to core supports for carers in their community, including emergency respite care, essential training and peer support. This proposal, however, appears to have fallen between the cracks and disappeared.

One in twenty of Ireland’s population is a family carer. I obtained some figures from Family Carers Ireland prior to coming to the House, and as Deputy O'Dea said, by 2030, demographic patterns predict that this ratio will have fallen to one in five people. International evidence is clear that the burden of care increases with time and without appropriate support, carers slide from capability to coping to crisis. After almost ten years of cuts to services - some public and overt and others covert and hidden - too many individual carers in Ireland have moved from coping to crisis. To avoid crisis, family carers must be supported throughout their caring journey and in accordance with their individual needs. These needs will be minor for some. They need a few more hours of home support, but others require more extensive support as their role intensifies.

I recall the Government’s response to RTÉ "Prime Time - Carers in Crisis" programme. It was swift but it was probably not adequate. There was an announcement on 15 December of additional funding to improve respite care services and to ensure that all carers could access GP services without charge. We must welcome any measure that is brought forward. We cannot be churlish and we have to be constructive and they were certainly steps in the right direction but they go nowhere because of the depth and the scale of the crisis. Despite this announcement, the figures for respite service provision in the first quarter of 2018 were down on figures for the same period in 2017.

Pension entitlements is another area of concern for family carers. There remains in Ireland today a small number of long-term carers who have cared for in excess of 20 years who do not qualify for a State pension, contributory or non-contributory, due to their caring responsibilities and the assets of their partner, and, therefore, receive no acknowledgment from the State of their years of care and the enormous contribution they have made to our society. I understand that the Minister is trying to tackle this with her recent announcement that she is moving to address this inequitable situation. I look forward to her reply and confirmation that carers will be duly acknowledged in the total contributions system that is being prepared. Carers have saved the State tens of billions of euro. The entire system would have collapsed, including the hospital system, the accident and emergency system, all the home care packages and everything else.

Thousands of family carers remain in crisis and they are battling all the time against a system that requires carers' allowance recipients to provide full-time care, which Deputy O'Dea referred to as a minimum of 35 hours a week. They receive just €16 more than recipients of the jobseeker's allowance for doing a minimum of 35 hours per week. They are being paid buttons. Recipients of carer's allowance, carers benefit or the carer support grant are prevented from working or studying more than 15 hours per week. Admittedly the carer has to be in the home, but they are there. They are there right throughout the night, with the alarm switched on. An in-law of mine sleeps with the alarm in the ear. It denies carers the right to a break.

It consistently reduces the number of home support hours available for an older person or someone with a disability in circumstances where there is a family member in receipt of carer's allowance. It very often expects a carer to carry out essential tasks single-handed where health and safety regulations prevent paid care workers from undertaking such tasks due to risk of injury.

Deputy O'Dea referred to the failure to replace the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant, which were withdrawn. The system means tests carers' access to the GP visit card - they feel very hurt by this - by offering it only to those in receipt of carer's allowance, while providing universal, non-means tested access to people aged over 70 and children under six. We should do the same for the carers. As for the rigorous system of means testing, I think the time has come to abolish the means test for carer's allowance altogether. I have held that view and never changed it. This was one of the recommendations I, as Chair of the then Joint Committee on Social Protection, brought forward in 2003. It was the only one of the major recommendations we made that did not get through. More time is spent on administration of the carer's allowance. If the person being cared for is deemed medically to require care, that should be enough. People who are very rich are able to buy in care in any event. It is a universality issue.

I am asking the Government to invest in home care now. For too long, home care has been underfunded, inconsistent and inequitable, leaving families with little choice but to choose care homes over home care. In its pre-budget submission, Family Carers Ireland called for an investment of €102 million in order to increase the number of home support hours by 25%, from 17.09 million to 21.4 million. Ireland’s first national carers’ strategy was published in 2012, signalling the Government’s commitment to respecting carers as key partners and supporting and empowering them in their caring roles. The strategy has now come to the end of its timeline and I am calling for ring-fenced funding to be provided for phase 2 of the national carers' strategy for the period 2019 to 2022.

Family carers are propping up our struggling health service. They save our State €10 billion each year. The question should not be whether we can afford to support them but whether we can afford not to.

We are debating the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill of 2018. I had hoped and thought that this might be somewhat similar to the 2017 legislation, which is still before the relevant committee. That version contains some of the measures the Taoiseach used to scapegoat the unemployed - naming and shaming them. The latter is a theme he seems to have left behind since he became Taoiseach, although it was recently taken up with glee by a candidate in the presidential election. The 2017 legislation contains some measures to deal with the onslaught on the defined benefit pension scheme for workers. I am continually amazed and amused at how this Government is so slow and unwilling to speed up the protection that might be afforded by that Bill. It is looking after companies and that is the reason the Bill from last year is stuck instead of being before the House.

We know there are 700 schemes still in place, but hundreds have been savaged and closed. The most recent, which we discussed at the committee and in this House, is the scheme relating to Irish Life, a hugely profitable company that looks after other defined benefit pension schemes. The scheme was well in surplus and very healthy but the employer just decided to walk away from it. We have been waiting over a year and half for the legislation to which I refer and which, weak and all as it is, could have done something to protect workers on defined benefit schemes. The Minister stated that it is complex - I am sure it is - but given the changes in the original general scheme of that Bill and the current proposals, it is clear that it is not just a question of the proposals' complexity, it is also the lack of political will to challenge the companies that are decimating their workers' defined benefit schemes when there is absolutely no need for this.

It would be possible for the Minister to introduce some simple measures to help retired workers who were employed by semi-State companies. This could be of assistance to pensioners who have not had an increase in their pensions for over ten years, thousands of whom were employed by semi-State companies and who are faced with real problems as a result of decisions made by those companies not to fund their scheme to the degree that was needed and by rules relating to minimum funding standards. The underfunding of those schemes is often tied in with Government underfunding of the companies - such as, for example, what has happened with CIÉ in the past ten years of austerity - or with decisions made as a result of overall Government policy. It is the Government's fault that these people do not qualify for State pensions and suffer as a result of decisions and regulations made by the Department. We should try to remedy the suffering and injustice for these pensioners.

I want to make a few observations on the Bill before the House and then I will shut up. On the contributory pension schemes, I am happy that we have made progress in redressing the cuts implemented in 2013 by the former Minister, Deputy Burton, in respect of those who qualified for State contributory pensions. Not only did those changes mean thousands received reduced pensions, but they did not remove the blatant discrimination that women who had raised their families before 1994 faced. I congratulate the campaigners who revolted against those cuts by the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, but it is still only a partial reversal as the deepest cut, the increase in the qualifying bands, remains. Even the proposed new method of calculation will not address that or the reduction that many suffered. We will still need to campaign to reverse all those cuts.

I am curious about the section that will remove some young people from the blatant discrimination they face when accessing jobseeker's allowance. It is outrageous that we still have three tiers of payment for young people. From the age of 18 to 24, a person gets €107.70; at 25 years old, he or she gets €152; at age 26 and over, he or she gets €198. Section 10 extends the existing legislative provisions in order to ensure that someone in the care of the State on attaining the age of 18 is not subject to age-related reduced rate payments. The same applies in respect of the supplementary welfare allowance. A person who has been in the care of the State is not subject to the reduced rate payments.

I note what Deputy O'Dea said about a sort of "Judge Judy" syndrome whereby young people are kept impoverished and just stay at home watching telly all day. That seems to be the object of this provision. Someone in the care of the State cannot be accused of sitting around watching telly all day, although perhaps that is exactly what one does when one is in the care of the State. I do not understand the logic of reviving it for some sections but not for others. It shows utter contempt for young people and sends out all the wrong messages in a society that speaks very frequently and proudly about how we are in recovery and how it is great that we are coming out of the dark ages, that we are all doing well and are slán abhaile. If that is the case, then we should scrap this injustice and also the discrimination that the previous austerity regime has inflicted on young people. It is shameful that we are maintaining this. It says a great deal about the snobbery of a Government that thinks a certain cohort of young people do not need as much money to live on as others who are close in age to them.

Deputy Mick Barry: I thank Deputy Bríd Smith for the extra three minutes and 43 seconds.

I hope Deputy Barry does not talk for that long.

The Government trumpeted the budget as awarding the princely sum of €5 a week to people on social welfare, although they have to wait until March to get it. However, Social Justice Ireland’s verdict on the budget is that it lacks any serious initiatives to begin to significantly reduce poverty and that the Government’s choices and priorities have given the least to single, welfare-dependent households and those on the lowest earnings. Nobody is going to get too excited about a fiver but when we put it in context of the scale of poverty and inequality in this country, it is even less impressive.

I will provide some information on the scale of poverty and inequality. Some 780,000, including 250,000 children, are poor.

That is one in six of the population and almost one in five children. Nearly half of those, 8.3%, are living in consistent poverty. Some 100,000 of those at risk of poverty are workers with jobs. One in five workers is on low pay. Students, mainly young people, have nearly twice the risk of poverty of the general population at 30% as opposed to 16.5%. Disgracefully, 39% of people with disabilities are poor.

The latest available figures for 2016 show rents so out of control that 14.3% of private sector renters paying market rents are living in consistent poverty. This is a massive increase compared with 2011 when 6.8% of private renters were in consistent poverty. As those are 2016 figures, I suspect it must be even higher now. Some 22% of people renting below market rate or rent free - mainly people paying differential rents in council housing or HAP - are living in consistent poverty, showing the failure of the Government’s social housing and social welfare policies.

Some 42% of unemployed people are living below the poverty line. An extra €5 a week will do little to change this, especially for those aged under 26 who continue to be discriminated against. From March, they will be still getting only €112.70 a week in jobseeker's allowance.

Social Justice Ireland has been calling for social welfare payments to be benchmarked against average incomes. There has been no attempt to match social welfare increases even to the small rises in wages, let alone the massive increases in rents, profits and wealth. I want to focus on this. For someone on jobseeker's benefit, €5 extra a week is a 2.5% increase from €198 to €203. For someone under 25 on jobseeker's allowance, it is a 4.6% increase. That needs to be compared with the following. To match the increase in rents in the past year according to the latest report, social welfare payments would have had to increase by €31, or 11.3%. To match the 9.2% rate of annual increase just in profits on rents of dwellings, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office, jobseeker's benefit would have needed to have increased by €18.20.

Corporate trading profits, increased by 9.7% from €87 billion in 2016 to €95 billion in 2017, which is more than €9 billion more than all the wages and employers’ social insurance contributions paid for all workers. The amount of profits declared here have more than doubled since 2010 when it was €41 billion. If the same had happened with social welfare rates, jobseekers’ benefit would now be €454 a week.

Household wealth increased by 9.2% or €62 billion between quarter 1 of 2017 and quarter 1 of 2018, according to the latest figures from the Central Bank. According to the Credit Suisse annual global wealth report for 2018, Ireland had the fourth highest percentage wealth increase of 52 countries, with 118,486 dollar millionaires, 15,000 more than in 2015, including 14,353 people worth more than €5 million.

The CSO household wealth and consumption survey 2013, published in 2015, was the first and still the only in-depth analysis of the distribution of household wealth. That report found that the top 1% of households owned 15% of net wealth; the top 5% had 38%; the top 10% had 54%; and the top 20% had 73%. However, the bottom 20% of households owe more than they own and the bottom 70% own only 15.4% of the wealth. That is the scale of inequality and social injustice in Leo Varadkar's Ireland.

The failure to increase social welfare rates by anything close to the increases in wealth, profits and rent reproduces at the level of the State how the profit share is rising at the expense of the wage share. Workers are being increasingly exploited in the workplace while continually receiving less of the value of the goods and services they produce with only small wage increases while profits skyrocket.

Simultaneously, capitalists, especially bankers, corporate landlords and developers, are doubly exploiting workers and the unemployed by using their accumulated profits to invest in the housing market. This is driving up house prices and rents, and transferring even more wealth from workers’ pockets to wealthy people’s bank accounts. The Government can dance a jig, rub its hands and claim credit for increasing social welfare payments by €5. Social welfare recipients will have to wait until next March. When this is viewed in the context of the massive profits, the massive rent roll and the massive increase in the wealth of people at the top of Irish society, we can see that in reality this is a mere pittance - a drop in the bucket.

Obviously the contents of the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registrations Bill 2018 reflect the Minister's budget announcements. The Opposition cannot table amendments that would be a cost to the State. It is a case of put up and shut up; this is the Bill and that is it.

Social welfare payments are increasing across the board by the small amount of €5, but not until March 2019. As a previous speaker pointed out, when that is averaged out over the year it comes to €3.80 a week. This anomaly of delaying increases in social welfare payments was introduced during the austerity years. It used to be from 1 January, but in the past six or seven budgets the increases have been brought in later in the year at the end of March. This has to change in future. I could try to change it by way of amendment, but as it would not be accepted there is no point. Therefore we need to make the point here in the Chamber. This can be contrasted with the tax cuts that come into effect on 1 January to benefit mainly people at the top end of the wage structure.

The fuel allowance is to increase by 84 cent per week which hardly reflects the amount people are now spending on fuel, gas and electricity where prices have increased recently. A whole layer of people will continue to experience fuel poverty. There has been a general welcome for the full restoration of the Christmas bonus. The spousal pension benefit for same-sex spouses and civil partners who are members of occupational pension schemes has been also generally welcomed.

Section 10 which extends the existing provisions contained in the Act to ensure that a person who is in the care of the State on attaining the age of 18 is not subject to age-related reduced-rate payments of jobseeker's allowance. This amendment will come into effect on 1 January 2019. The Minister cannot argue that a person aged between 18 and 26, who is not in State care, should not get the increase. That needs to be the next step. This is pure and utter discrimination against a section of young people. The Minister will need to bite the bullet in the next budget and increase that payment to the full amount of jobseeker's allowance. How can the Minister regard one section of 18 year olds as not equal to another section of 18 year olds? It just does not make sense.

The problem is that the increases do not address the structural effects the austerity cuts inflicted on people.

The Bill and budget have failed the one in every six people in Ireland who live with an income below the poverty line, which is 16.5% of the population. This means 780,000 people live below the poverty line, 250,000 of whom are children and more than 100,000 of whom have jobs. People who are working are included in those figures. The Government has made a number of statements that the way out of poverty is into a job, yet 100,000 people who have jobs live below the poverty line. Poverty levels reached their lowest point in Ireland in 2009 when 14.1% of our population was considered poor. Since then the rate has increased. The budget lacks any serious initiatives to begin to significantly reduce poverty. At rates of near full employment, the simple policy solution to create more jobs no longer stands. Targeted measures aimed at high risk poverty groups, including children, people with an illness or disability, and people trapped in long-term unemployment, are needed. Social welfare payments must be increased to meet the cost of living. Budget 2019 has failed to start this process. The figures from Social Justice Ireland, some of which have been referred to already, show that 5.6% of people at work are at serious risk of poverty and 41.9% of unemployed people, 33.3% of students, 25.7% of people at home, 11.8% of retired people, 39.1% of ill and disabled people and 19.3% of children from zero to 17 years of age are at risk of poverty. The Minister has not even attempted to try to address those crucial issues in the Bill. The budget has failed to ensure that Ireland meets its child poverty target of lifting 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. In 2011, 107,000 children lived in consistent poverty. The 2016 figure was 142,000. The budget and the Bill have introduced small measures but they are not enough to ensure Ireland meets its 2020 target on child poverty.

The budget and this legislation failed to deal with the restoration of the jobseeker's allowance rates for under those under 26. I made that point already. Lone parents and other parents are still waiting for the Nordic childcare model since the former Minister, Deputy Burton, made her austerity cuts for lone parents in the last Government.

When many of us heard the title of the Bill, we expected before we were briefed that the long-awaited legislation on the defined pension scheme was included in the Bill. We were advised yesterday in our briefing that no date or indication could be given as to when that legislation will be introduced. Can the Minister give a date for it? The outline of the legislation was introduced last year and in the meantime a number of companies, such as Irish Life, have stopped paying the defined benefit pension scheme. If that legislation had existed, there could have been some protection for those workers. A number of Deputies and I received emails from semi-State retired staff associations such as Bord na Móna, ESB, RTÉ, CIÉ, Bord Gáis, Eircom, Coillte and aviation staff. I know the Minister also received a letter because they said so in the covering note they sent with the email. The email I received states:

It is not commonly understood that many thousands of Irish citizens do not have a state pension or any of the associated benefits (medical, optical etc). The paradox is that a high proportion of these retired people have devoted their working lives for the benefit of the State. They provided the nation's electricity, gas, peat, radio and television, telecommunications, aviation and myriad other state services which we all take for granted.

The letter continues:

They do have company pensions, none of which have delivered any increase in pension for ten years. Furthermore, many pensioners in this category had their pensions reduced as a result of Minister Noonan's levy. These are NOT private pensions - they are semi state pensions under ministerial control.

The Retired Pension Associations of these companies have formed a united group to provide a single voice and we have written to Minister Regina Doherty explaining our case in detail. While we have received an official acknowledgement, we have not had a response from the Minister. We had the opportunity to present our case to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection after which we were asked to present our case for legislative changes. This is our response to that request. It is most important to us that you understand fully the reality with which so many former state servants are living.

I could make a few points about their proposals. Some of their proposals are very good. I cannot understand why the Minister has not replied in more detail to some of the proposals. They call for a review of the minimum funding standard to potentially include flexibility on funding measures where necessary to avoid the overstatement of liabilities in pensions funds. They state that binding arbitration by mutual consent is essential and that definition of ultimate responsibility for funding deficits in public sector company pensions funds is needed. They state that the extension of employer debt to include a balance of funding proposal beyond a walk-away 12 month period is required in amendments to the Bill.

Some of their points are very progressive. Have they been taken on board? Are they being discussed as part of the legislation for which we cannot get a date because it is so complicated? We can reject the Bill. Many pensioners have told me that while the €5 is an increase, it is meaningless in terms of what they can buy with it. We are talking about a sliced pan and a box of tea bags per week. They might be able to afford that with the €5. The Government's policy of not addressing the fundamental structural issues which faced society before the austerity measures were introduced, but particularly after austerity measures were introduced, does not go far enough.

I am delighted to have a brief opportunity to comment on the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018. There are welcome features in the Bill, including the increased maternity, adoptive and paternity benefits; the increases and proportionate increases in social protection payments; and the measures to address the budget 2012 pension anomaly, to which my colleague has referred. In my pre-budget submission to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, which I entitled A Budget For All Our People, I asked for at least a general rise of €7 per week, which the Department costed for me at €485.94 million, which is nearly €500 million, among other general increases, some of which I will touch on later. It is regrettable that the increases provided for in the Bill will not take effect until March 2019. Households will be under extreme pressure during the Christmas and New Year period and the March provision, as in 2018, is simply to push necessary Exchequer expenditure into the future.

Sections 10 and 11 extend the provisions in the Act to ensure care-leavers receive the full rates of jobseeker's allowance and supplementary welfare allowance, rather than age-related reductions. That is very welcome.

Section 12 sets out that domiciliary care allowance will be paid for three months after the death of the child being cared for. I welcome that the Minister has introduced that in the Bill.

The total budget 2019 package for the Department was €20.5 billion, about 46% of which is composed of the social insurance fund. The budget office gave us a brief note on it. It is €9.3 billion from social insurance and €10.8 billion of actual additional Government expenditure.

The Department of Finance has rigorously suppressed social welfare spending to the €19 billion to €20 billion range over the past eight years of austerity. The expenditure ceiling included €14 million capital expenditure and allowed for savings of €50 million due to increasing employment figures which meant fewer people on the live register. With the big surplus in the social insurance fund, the Minister could have been more expansive. There are many other issues she could have addressed or paid back for longer periods such as the 2012 people. The Minister had more than enough money to have gone to €7 a week. That is the reason I proposed it.

I also called for the income disregard - I give the Minister credit for this - for the one parent family payment to be restored to €146 per week and the Minister has brought it to €150 per week, which is noteworthy and creditable. Recent research by the ESRI funded by our excellent Parliamentary Budget Office on the gender impact of Irish budgetary policy shows clearly that women were most adversely affected by the austerity budgets from 2008 to 2012. Some of those budgets were supported by the Minister. I welcome the increased focus on the worrying trend of the feminisation of poverty and homelessness. I would have liked to have seen the Minister read out an equality budget statement on budget day, which is what we called for on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight.

Perhaps the Government will consider working towards it if there is another budget during this Dáil or if there is any other opportunity. The most vulnerable are always targeted because they are the least likely to have the time, energy or money to stand up for themselves. I spoke recently on the excellent gender budgeting report produced by the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and I await the Department’s social impact assessment of budget 2019.

I welcome the increase in the qualified child payment and I hope it will have a positive impact on child poverty. As my colleague said, youth unemployment is still concerning. More than 14,000 people under the age of 26 are on the weekly jobseeker’s payment of €107.70, while more than 2,000 are in receipt of €152 per week. Given the resources at the Department's disposal, it could have moved towards equalisation in this regard. I am also disappointed to see the age-related discrimination in social welfare payments continue. I notice the Minister abandoned the Action Plan for Jobs. She said she is bringing forward a new programme, but at least with the Action Plan for Jobs there was a programme we could use to measure whether the Government was achieving what it set out to achieve over the past number of years.

The increase in the national training fund levy from 0.8% to 0.9% is welcome, although I advocated an increase to 1%. Promoting apprenticeships, in particular among women, is important.

In regard to fuel poverty, I proposed an increase of €7 in the weekly rate of fuel allowance, at a cost of €72 million, and an extension of the season by four weeks. While the one week extension is welcome, additional resources were again available to the Department to do more.

Section 9 provides for the long awaited and much-debated aggregated contributions method for contributory State pension calculations, which will address the anomaly introduced in budget 2012. Two thirds or more of the pensioners are women, and I am glad the significant anomaly is finally being addressed for the 70,000 pensioners concerned. At last, they are being contacted and they will, I hope, be entitled to a higher pension rate with payments backdated to March 2018, although some of them have complained that they cannot see why it cannot be backdated to the period when they began their pension. Nonetheless, it is being rolled out for everyone from 2020, when the old averaging approach will be replaced by the new method.

I welcome section 20, whereby same-sex spouses and civil partners will have a right and entitlement to spousal pensions.

Section 4 provides for the new PAYE modernisation system that is coming into effect on 1 January 2019. It is a real-time system which seems to offer important advantages for workers and employers to ensure, as Revenue states, the right deductions are made at the right time, deducted from the right employees and paid by employers, which is a welcome development.

I also welcome changes to the principal Act in section 17 relating to earnings disregarded for disability allowance, blind pension and certain supplements payable under supplementary welfare allowance whereby the phrase “of a rehabilitative nature” is deleted. General employment will no longer be distinguished from employment of a rehabilitative nature.

The budget 2019 allocation for the disability sector was disappointing and I note the criticism from disability advocacy groups. In the press release at the time, the Minister stated she was providing funding of €300,000 to commission research into the cost of disability. As she will know, throughout my career in this House I have repeatedly suggested the introduction of a disability allowance because people with a disability bear an extra cost in their lives due to their disability. While a serious study on the matter is welcome, I wonder if it is just a sop to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who failed to start the programme this year and who may well be jettisoned by the Government during or after the next election. The Disability Federation of Ireland costed a payment of €20 per week and estimated it would cost approximately €130 million. Again, with the resources available, surely the Government could have begun this programme this year.

While partial restorations in the public sector have begun, following years of austerity, increases will not be paid until the end of March, a point which almost everyone has made.

The social protection system is a floor income to protect many citizens and it is known that social transfers reduce the risk of poverty. Pre-budget briefing papers reported: "In 2016, social transfers (excluding pensions) reduced the at-risk of poverty rate from 33.6% to 16.5%, or 17.1 percentage points in absolute terms. This represents a poverty reduction effect of 51%”. The Think-tank for Action on Social Change did much good work on this issue, showing that social transfers have a significant positive impact on low-income families. It is still the case in the social protection system, however, that applicants for so many benefits and forms of assistance must jump through various bureaucratic hoops.

It is time to look seriously at a basic income for all citizens. A few years ago, I tried to introduce a High Pay and Wealth Commission Bill which would ascertain levels of income and wealth at the higher end of society. My colleagues, Deputy Joan Collins and the Solidarity-People Before Profit have entered the same territory. We are talking about dividing the pie. We are supposed to be the second wealthiest country per capita on the planet after Luxembourg, according to the most recent World Bank figures. Perhaps looking at the concept of a basic income as a right for every man, woman and child of our nation is the way that a Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection should proceed.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018. It is designed primarily to give legislative effect to a range of social welfare measures announced in the expenditure report of 9 October 2018, including increases in weekly welfare rates and pensions. It will also provide for the continued payment of the domiciliary care allowance for three months in cases where the child being cared for dies, and increases in the weekly earnings disregard for recipients of the one-parent family payment.

Section 16 and Schedule 2 provide for new rates in relation to carer’s benefit. In my pre-budget submission, I supported the budget priorities of Family Carers Ireland, FCI. I salute the organisation, its manager in south Tipperary, Councillor Richie Molloy, Ms Catherine Cox and all the carers for the invaluable and unquantifiable work they do in keeping people out of hospitals and in their own environment, where they are happiest and where they make better recoveries. The organisation calls for the home care crisis to be urgently addressed pending the introduction of a statutory home care scheme. It is a crisis because people cannot even afford to get sick, they cannot get time off work and they cannot get basic rights. As we know, there are many categories of care, but it is astonishing how much "juvenile care" there is, about which I have cited figures ad nauseam. Young people, who should be doing their homework or enjoying sport, are caring for loved ones in their home. It is unfair and illegal.

FCI called for an increase in carer payments of €20 per week and the carer support grant to be increased to €2,000. It also recommended increasing the income disregard for the important carer's allowance from €332.50 for a single person and €665 for a couple to €450 and €900, respectively, and extending allowable deductions. While the Minister went some way to meeting those recommendations, she knows the job carers do as well as I do and she should not have to be told. I also called for the Minister to address the anomaly affecting carers who have no State pension entitlement and to extend eligibility for carer’s benefit to include the self-employed, as well as the extension of the free travel scheme to children in receipt of domiciliary care allowance, which is vital. FCI also called on the Government to disregard carer's benefit and fair deal contributions in the assessment of student universal support, SUSI, grants, reduce processing times for carer's allowance and establish a centralised medical assessment unit.

It takes too long. If anyone becomes sick, especially the self-employed, and they need a carer, the process is too slow and cumbersome. The Minister needs to make efforts to speed that up and make the process more transparent and more relevant to the situations in which people find themselves. I sincerely hope progress can be made on all of those issues, notwithstanding the changes made in the current Bill, some of which I welcome. The Government kept talking about recovery during the last election campaign and paid a price for it. The recovery is timid, feeble and very slow.

One aspect of the budget is discrimination in allowances. There are some people aged 18 who get them and others who do not. That is unjust and not right. According to official statistics, 100,000 in work are on the poverty line, which is bizarre. Work must be viable and it must be profitable for people to work. They do not need huge profits but it make sense that people who are working are not in poverty, if they are working 40, 50 or 60 hours a week. The Taoiseach, the Government's great leader, is always talking about the man who gets up in the morning but 100,000 people go home in poverty. It is a shocking figure. Work must be rewarding and there must be incentives. We need to correct these anomalies.

Earlier I was contacted by a man from County Wexford. An employer approached him last week who had a job for someone in the retail trade. Ten minutes into the interview the gentleman told him that if he could not earn €600 in take-home pay, he could forget it. Thee employer told him that he would pay him a good rate for every hour he worked but the man said that it did not matter, that he could forget it if he did not take home €600. He explained that he was on a CE scheme, and earned €200 odd on that, and was able to work an additional 19 hours a week through which he earned another €350, mostly cash. He also qualified for a medical card and, through that, for school books, the school bus, medicines, SUSI grants and everything else. Above the 100,000 employees in poverty, people earn €40,000, €60,000 or €70,000 who do not qualify for the medical card or any grant. There is an inequality there and it gets worse by the year. That must be dealt with. These people are being discriminated against. They go out to work, and want to work, but it is not right that the gentleman I mentioned could say that to an employer. It is clearly wrong. I do not begrudge him a medical card or anything else if anybody is sick but what about the working man who is barely above the thresholds for everything? They are the new poor and they are ordinary working people, including small farmers, shopkeepers and the self-employed. They are getting tired of this. We must look after them because they get up in the morning. They are the makers and shakers and if they are self-employed, they also provide jobs. We must do something. Some 33% of students are at risk of poverty and 9% of young people.

The legislation also relates to defined pensions. Many people, from many Government agencies, have contacted us. They worked tirelessly all their lives for the State in Bord na Móna, RTÉ, the ESB, county councils and so on. They worked, paid their stamps and everything else and now they are being discriminated against, which is totally unfair. These people did some service to the State, they built up this country and did the work.

I welcome the extra week of fuel allowance. Under section 9, I want the anomaly where 70,000 pensioners, mainly women, are being punished to be rectified. Section 4 provides for the real time payment of deductions by employers. As an employer, which I should have declared at the beginning, that is welcome but we must give some supports. The self-employed must do this weekly. Where are they to get the man or woman power to do this? In my case, my wife is the business secretary, but it is so onerous. I agree that every penny which has been deducted must be paid over and the employees looked after; most small businesses have a good relationship with their workers, it is a two-way street. They work diligently and the business owners look after them. However, making these decisions is very well, but the more onerous these schemes are, the more paperwork and bookkeeping that has to be done by the self-employed. There is no allowance for the extra paper work. Then each letter that arrives from Revenue contains a threat of significant penalties and fines, and even imprisonment.

The Government is driving people out of self-employment, and thereby losing jobs. These are the people who made the recovery, small as it is. They do not get foreign direct investment grants, although I also welcome those companies. They do not get the IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland grants, they just give sweat and blood, and work hard on a 24-7 basis. The Minister should think when she makes these sweeping changes every week. It takes a great number of man or women hours with no allowance. There is also the matter of cashflow. The Minister said that deductions should not be used for cashflow but there is an overall system in business where they pay wages, insurance, PRSI and everything else. Before there were VAT cycles of two months and sometimes 12 months. It is more onerous, difficult and time consuming and is unfair to self-employed people who we should encourage. Mol na daoine agus tiocfaidh siad. They will keep giving, but they cannot keep giving if the Government is going to penalise them day in, day out in the budget with little care given by officials for the painstaking hours and sweat and blood they put into their businesses to provide those jobs, for themselves, in the first instance, and then others in their communities. We cannot always make it too onerous on them.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, which gives legislative effect to a range of social welfare measures announced in the budget. It is important that I mention homemakers. These women have stayed at home to care for their children. While the homemaker's scheme introduced in 1994 went a long way to increasing the rights of homemakers by making it easier for them to qualify for contributory State pension, a generation of women have still been forgotten. A group of women are in limbo and have been actively discriminated against by the introduction of the homemaker's scheme. It is an issue I raised immediately after my election and I have continued to do so since.

Earlier the Minister said the Department wrote to some of these women last week and will write to more of them this week. I strongly believe that every woman who stayed in the home to care for her children should not suffer a loss in their pensions and they should be compensated. The Fine Gael-Labour Government caused much distress to women and it is imperative that the Government writes to every one of these women without delay.

I cannot go on without mentioning carers who provide more than 6.5 million hours of care each week in Ireland. They care for their loved ones for almost the equivalent of a full 40-hour working week. Almost 9% provide 24-hour unpaid care, with no break at all. Carers are waiting months from the time they apply to receive payments. It is outrageous as, in many cases, the carer has given up employment to care for a loved one, yet they are expected to survive on nothing until their payments come through. It is clear as day that this is not feasible for any carer. It must be the case that on the first day that it is proven, with medical evidence, that a loved one requires care, a social welfare payment should be made to the carer. That would cut out entirely the shambolic carry-on of leaving a carer five, six or seven months without any payment, something which is nothing short of outrageous.

I realised something only recently that the Minister might look into. There could be a situation where a mother is looking after a very sick child and the child ends up in hospital.

Thirteen weeks might seem a long time for a child to be in hospital but that happens and in some cases the child may be there even longer. In most cases, the parent stays with the child throughout that time but he or she, whoever is the carer, will lose his or her carer's allowance after 13 weeks and if the child is discharged, he or she must reapply for it. That is very cold and callous. Surely medical evidence can be brought into play to ensure that is no longer the case. People are in extremely difficult circumstances if they are at the bedside of a loved one for 13 weeks but for them to lose their carer's allowance and perhaps reapply for it is very unfair.

In December 2017, I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group tabled a motion on home care packages. In that motion we called for a home care package scheme to be established in law to allow everyone an automatic right to the service under the scheme. We are still waiting. I met a man in my constituency whose elderly mother was unable to avail of any home care despite her age and frail demeanour. That person requires constant care and her family are only able to provide so much. They were refused any home help hours. That is a disgrace and appalling treatment of an elderly person who deserves more from our State.

Regardless of the way this Government devises the budget, we still see that old age pensioners are left scrambling for pennies having worked all their lives and having paid taxes in this country. Those people believe they have been forgotten and rejected by the Minister as well as by the previous Government.

I was approached recently by a constituent of mine who sadly lost her husband and is suffering following that bereavement. For any widow, it is an extremely difficult time and no widow should have to suffer undue stress. It has come to my attention that a widow on a contributory State pension is not entitled to the six-week payment but if that person was on a non-contributory pension, they would be entitled to the six-week payment after the death of a spouse. I understand that has always been the rule but the guidelines around the rule were highlighted recently to social welfare staff in a bid to tighten them up. This is a rule about which there may have been some leniency in the past. I argue that all widows should be entitled to this six-week payment regardless of whether they have a contributory or non-contributory pension. We need to support widows in what is a terrible time in their lives and we need to make their lives as stress-free as possible. They lost the death, or bereavement, grant. This is the only little bit of compensation they have to try to get their lives back to some level of normality. It reminds me of a Minister in a previous government who said they would follow people to the grave. The Government seems to be going about that in a professional way.

Since August of this year, there has been a constant footfall through my door of very distressed constituents who are affected negatively by the change in regard to illness benefit. It changed recently to a new online GP certification system that was introduced without adequate consultation with GPs and which, in turn, left thousands of people on illness benefit without payments for weeks on end. When they eventually got paid, their payment amounts were irregular and they were underpaid. That is an absolute disgrace. People were coming into my office in despair, crying and stressed out, as they had no money in their bank accounts to pay their bills. Some even had direct debits rejected, which, in turn, cost them money in the form of a penalty from the bank. That should never have happened. The Government owes more than just a simple apology to those people.

It is important to mention a point I raised following the last budget because it is clear to me that I am not being listened to. School children over the age of 18 and their parents receive no assistance from the State. Second level education is very expensive and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance does not extend far enough to cover the year-long costs older students face, especially as many of them may need additional classes or grinds in the leaving certificate cycle. We need to invest in the children of today as they are the future.

I raise another important matter raised with me on several occasions by many people, namely, the community employment, CE, and the Tús schemes. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are on these schemes. They are happy to be on them because it gets them back to work and, from that, they may get further employment. As the Minister is aware, they get €22.50 a week onto their payments while on these schemes. That is very little for someone who is willing to go out and work hard. They deserve a far bigger reward to encourage them to stay working. I wrote to the Minister in July asking her to consider raising the €22.50 social welfare payment in the budget as it is not sufficient in the current economic climate when one considers the extra costs such as travel costs, etc., people on these schemes incur. I welcome the fact the budget provided that from March next year, social welfare payments will increase by a maximum of €5, which includes the payments under the CE and Tús schemes. However, the people on those schemes, who are willing to travel to work, and God knows they do brilliant work in their community such as doing meals on wheels or working on the local Tidy Towns association or community council, deserve much more than they are getting. This has been an issue for some time; it is not something that started yesterday morning.

I dare not start talking about Turas Nua because the issues with it will be the subject of an inquiry this country will face in the future because the way people are treated is nothing short of appalling. I am aware of one man living on an island who was told he had an appointment at a certain time in the morning but the ferry did not leave on time. He would have had to swim to make the appointment with Turas Nua but what did it do? It cut his welfare. He was making a 26-mile journey. He was trying to make his way from an island but there was no understanding or consideration shown to him.

I know another gentleman who did a year with Turas Nua only to be told how to shower. That is appalling in this day and age, but, of course, it docks the figures for welfare so it looks good. We have to look into that scheme. The Minister has stood idly by and accepted it as being a solution but I do not accept it as being one.

I did not accept that but I fully support it.

I did not interrupt the Minister. I ask her to give serious consideration to how that scheme is being run. We need to be given a full account in Dáil as to how it is being run, how much it is costing the State and what percentage people are on for bringing in people from all over the country.

I support the small increases the Minister has made in the budget but I would have liked them to have gone much further. I hope she will take that into account for next year's budget.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is a mixed bag in many ways. There are measures to be welcomed, measures that have been omitted and other areas where the Minister has not gone far enough. There is no doubt the situation this year is less tight than it was in previous years, and that is to be welcomed. More funding is available within the social protection budget, and that is a good thing. What I do not get from this budget is a clear strategy as to how the Government intends to proceed in respect of providing supports to people to ensure they are raised out of poverty and, to the greatest extent possible, facilitated and supported in getting back into the workforce and not only into any job but into a decent job. That is much more complex than simply the approach, which the previous speaker mentioned, we are seeing from Turas Nua and Seetec, which is more about box-ticking than identifying a young person's needs, particularly in respect of training and education.

From my experience of having spoken to people working in this area and following on from the experience of the Youth Guarantee initiative in Ballymun, the reality is that the level of need on the part of many young people who have dropped out of school is such that it is not just about sending them off to pack shelves in the local supermarket. The approach should be much more complex in terms of identifying the basic educational needs many young people have. Many young people who find themselves on a reduced rate of the jobseeker's allowance and without many choices in life are in a situation where their needs are extremely basic. They often have literacy needs and needs in terms of being able to get themselves organised to get up in the morning to get out, where they may be coming from a family situation or a community where it is not the norm for people to get up and go to work or to have a longer-term ambition to develop a decent career. It is much more complex. It is essentially a reflection on our social policies, in particular our education policies in that many young people have been failed by the education system.

It is due to myriad reasons obviously. However, there must be a recognition of the basic needs of young people who are on jobseeker’s benefit at a young age. There must be an earnest attempt to match those people with the kind of training and education opportunities which exist. They may find themselves in a job where they are only earning money within a matter of months or even years. It can be much more beneficial to the individual concerned and to society if that person can be trained up and their educational gaps filled to ensure they are in a position to access a better paying and a more satisfying job. A mistake was made in forcing young people into situations which do not hold out much prospect of developing themselves and their careers into the future.

Getting back to the point about the lack of a strategy, at a point when we are close to full employment, it has to be recognised that children have borne the brunt of austerity over the past ten years. I welcome the fact that the Minister has managed to put the focus on children in this budget. That is a good development. The increase for a qualified child is important but should have happened a few years ago. It is good it happened this year, however. Improvements in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance are also good. The two weeks’ paid parental leave for each parent is good. I welcome the Minister starting a pilot programme in respect of hot meals for children in DEIS schools. It is quite incredible when one considers that all schoolchildren having access to hot meals has been standard practice in the UK for donkey’s years but we are at the stage of talking about a pilot project in some DEIS schools. It shows how far behind most other countries we are in that regard. I recognise it as a start, even if it is only a pilot, however. The focus on children is good but it needs be ramped up quickly.

Sections 5 to 8, inclusive, 15, 16 and 19 deal with payments and rate increases announced in the budget. The €5 a week increase across the board is to be welcomed. However, if we are serious about tackling the issue of poverty, a whole strategy needs to be pursued to address it. It has been a long time in this country since the issue of poverty was addressed in any serious evidence-based way, particularly regarding children. We know the rate of child poverty doubled during the recession and the years of austerity. That significant figure of between 8% and 9% is a terrible reflection on our society and the Government. It indicates the extent to which children and families got left behind during the austerity years and bore the main burden of austerity at a time when it could have been shared much more fairly and equally across society. That was a big mistake.

For many years to come, as a society and an economy, we will pay the price for the fact that so many children are now living in poverty as a result of government policies over the past ten years. We see that at its most dark in terms of children who are homeless. However, it is there in so many other ways such as lack of access to decent food and clothing, a warm house, as well as being able to participate in sports. These are all basic items which most of us take for granted. These will have a real, severe and lasting impact on children's lives to the extent that they lose significant parts of their childhood. The likelihood is that they will never make up for these. Whatever about adults living in poverty and putting up with hard times, when it comes to children doing that, they lose years, opportunities and learning periods which will never be recovered. That kind of child poverty leaves lasting scars on people, does lasting damage and has a lasting impact on society. The current level of child poverty is shameful. It cannot be described in any other way. We need a clear strategy to tackle deep ingrained child poverty which tends to be area-based. We need clear strategies to deal with that through income support, as well as ensuring good quality services for children living in those circumstances. It is not just equality of opportunity. It is not just about the services available to every other child living in a family that is in a position to nurture and care for them. It is about compensating for the gaps in those children's lives. That must not just be done through income support but really good services. Unfortunately, poor children, in the main, have access to much poorer childcare, educational, housing and health services. We should be reversing that and ensuring children who are living in dire poverty have access to good childcare and health services in order to counteract and compensate for those other shortcomings in their lives. We have not done that, however.

That is why we need to develop quickly an ambitious anti-poverty strategy. We have waited too long for that. It should be all-encompassing with an all-of-Government approach. I recognise work is going on with early years but it has to be a whole-of-childhood approach to ensure that current levels of child poverty are eliminated. They also have to be eliminated in a short time. While Governments might take that longer term view, that does not apply to children. We owe it to these children to ensure they are lifted out of poverty and provided with the kind of compensating services as soon as possible.

An issue which has been raised with me several times this year relates to increases across the board in social welfare payments, particularly where an individual or a couple has a State pension, an occupational pension and an entitlement to a medical card. Several people have spoken with me who are concerned that, as a result of the €5 increase in their State pension, it will take them above the income limit for a medical card. Medical cards for the over 70s involve gross income with no disregards. I have put down parliamentary questions on this but I have got vague responses from the Minister stating she would keep it under review. The likelihood is that it will be a real situation for people. The medical card income limits have not changed. As a basic, they should keep up with inflation and reflect increases in welfare payments. I am concerned that when the increases kick in that we will have this issue where some over 70s are in danger of losing their medical cards. Will the Minister address that issue?

We need to ensure the long waiting times for access to some social welfare benefits are eliminated.

They are extremely long for certain payments. For example, it takes 17 weeks to process a carer's allowance application which means a person must wait four months for a payment. It is similarly the case in relation to carer's benefit, the State pension and disability allowance. In this day and age, with computerisation and improved technology, we should be able to reduce those unacceptable waiting times.

For some time, there has been a dire need to increase the number of medical officers available to assess applications for medical-based payments. There is a very high rate of refusal for some medical-based payments but when those refusals are appealed, the appeals are upheld at a very high rate also. Something is critically wrong there. It is costing the Department in administration terms and it is also imposing a cost on the individuals concerned. This has been a stand-out area that needs attention and I urge the Minister to look at it. It is clear that something is wrong when payments are awarded at such a high rate on appeal. As such, the initial review appears to be merely a desk-top exercise before one has all this back and forth and paperwork. I ask the Minister to consider tackling that at its root source.

There are a number of anomalies in relation to pensions. People who attained pension age on 1 September 2012 or after are not entitled to a full State pension as a result of the yearly averaging method. The Bill seeks to amend this 2005 change, which is welcome but there is an issue. While the changes announced are fine and deal with a lot of the cases concerned, there is an issue about failing to backdate payments. If it is wrong now, it has been wrong over the years since 2012. It is going to be a real problem once the payments start and people are told about their entitlements. I would have thought we should be seeking to go back further. A pathway should be set out to restore most of that. As others have said, letters are going out and it is a matter that must be addressed very quickly. It was a real slap in the face, in particular to the women concerned who took time out of the workforce. I hope the matter will be addressed, that those letters will go out quickly and that people will be put on the payment. I also hope, however, that the Minister will review the matter of backdated payments.

Sections 10 and 11 close a loophole which saw those in State care receiving a lower level of jobseeker's and supplementary welfare allowance in certain circumstances, which is welcome. However, one must also ask why it has taken so long. There is a concern that the provisions do not address the scandal of the fact that, according to Focus Ireland figures, 15% of individuals exiting State care this year are homeless and face the myriad problems that involves. I accept fully that HAP is not within the Minister's area of responsibility but more work must be done to ensure that those exiting State care move into housing. There is a requirement for a much better level of co-ordination between the Minister's Department and Tusla and local authorities.

Section 12 of the Bill provides for domiciliary care allowance and its welcome continuation for three months after a child passes away in those tragic circumstances. It is a very important measure. There is some lack of clarity, however, around the respite care grant and whether it is payable for a person who passes away before the point in the year when it is paid. It arises now in respect of domiciliary care allowance, but there is also an issue in relation to other people because of the fact that the payment is claimed early in the year but is not paid until June or thereabouts. If a person dies in the meantime, there is a lack of clarity about the payment.

In relation to the earnings disregard for disability allowance, blind pension and supplementary welfare allowance, section 17 ends the stipulation that those working part-time while in receipt of those payments could only engage in work of a rehabilitative nature. That is a very good thing as we should encourage people to get out and work without this back and forth to a GP. As such, I welcome the measure strongly. Section 18 deals with the one-parent family payment and this applies to some extent also to the working-family payment. The Bill provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payments and I welcome very much what the Minister has done in that regard. However, we also have a situation in respect of childcare. The Minister will recall that when a predecessor of hers was making those cuts, it was promised that they would not kick in until we had a Scandinavian style of childcare provision. Unfortunately, we are still very far away from that. This is something that needs constant attention. We must ensure people are supported and facilitated to return to work. A great deal of the work lone parents who return to the workforce do is low-paid yet they are expected to meet very expensive childcare costs. While a start has been made in that regard, a great deal more must be done.

While a number of measures in the Bill are welcome, the main thing is to ensure a strategy is put in place to tackle child and adult poverty. We must have a clear way to get from where we are now to a situation in which everyone is assured of support in work or on welfare such that their basic needs are cared for. I acknowledge the work of the Vincentian Partnership. I am sure the Minister is familiar with it. When one considers the basic things people need to live a life with dignity, we are still a way from providing them for certain categories of welfare recipients. The aim should be to reach those levels of provision.

I wish to share time with Deputy Frank O'Rourke. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018 which largely gives legislative effect to the budget day announcements and deals with a number of other pensions and civil registration issues which it was intended to deal with in the 2017 Bill. I will allude to that in a couple of moments. I thank the Minister's officials who ran a briefing session for Members yesterday which was helpful and informative. It is important to note that. I will not go through every section of the Bill given that I am sharing time, but I acknowledge the main provision in the budget which was an increase of €5 across most payments for those in receipt of full payment amounts. It would be remiss of me to fail to acknowledge the earlier contribution to the debate of my colleague, Deputy O'Dea, who has since left the Chamber, and I do so now. He always strikes early on behalf of pensioners with his call for an increase in pension payments. He is first out of the blocks on that one on an annual basis.

As I said last year, the Minister is the one sitting here and she is getting the brunt of my contribution, but many of the issues I will raise are not referable to her Department in isolation. This is about joined-up thinking in government. The people we are here to serve, represent and look after do not look at the Department and at Opposition, they look at Government and how they are being served and dealt with. As we go through programmes, it is important to look at things from that perspective and not in isolation. I acknowledge that I have only the Minister here tonight and that she cannot be held responsible for every other Department but it is important that the public has a sense that there is a joined-up approach to what we do. Specifically, I make the point that it seems somewhat unfair and unreasonable that the people who will benefit from increases in social welfare will only receive those increases in March.

However, workers who receive an increase as a result of a tax adjustment will benefit from that in January. Somewhere along the way, the Government must get its act together. Benefits being given to people who are finding it difficult to survive on social welfare payments or who are in low-paid jobs should be delivered at the same time. I understand that the Government only has a certain amount of money, but this is an important point.

I acknowledge that some of the budget day announcements did not require legislation. I particularly wish to mention the Christmas bonus which was announced but which is not referred to in the Bill. It is important that there is clarity and understanding regarding the extra week paid at Christmas. People have begun to rely on it and it should be established as a regular annual payment rather being treated in a discretionary manner year after year.

I wish to refer to statistics because sometimes when we discuss increases in social welfare payments, people not in receipt of them fail to realise the importance of the payments and the difficulties experienced by some of those who do receive them. Incrementally, there has been a slight improvement in the rates year by year. Some 11.1% of children were in consistent poverty in 2016, an improvement from 11.5% in 2015. Some 25.2% of children experienced deprivation compared to 31% in 2015. Those are improvements but the figures are still high and I doubt that the Minister is happy with them. I wish to put on the record the importance of each social welfare Bill. Those figures will improve as a result of the measures being brought in by this year's budget. However, it is important that we are constantly mindful of the outstanding issues.

When the Minister appeared before the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection last year, she asked what are the most important issues for the committee. The two issues highlighted to her were the 2012 pensions anomaly and lone parents. The issue of lone parents will not be solved as quickly as the 2012 anomaly. It will take consistency over several budgets to do so. We know that the rate of consistent poverty is far higher among lone parents than the general population. I acknowledge that improvements are being made on an annual basis.

Organisations such as St. Vincent de Paul are receiving twice as many calls this year as they were a decade ago. The Minister heard the figures referred to by other Members. Some 780,000 people in Ireland live below the poverty line. That is the context in which the Minister is bringing forward the Bill. It is important that we do not think of it as a giveaway. It is a lifeline and a necessity for those dependent on social welfare.

I wish to again refer to sections 20 to 23, inclusive. Section 20 provides a right of entitlement in certain circumstances to spousal pension benefits for same-sex spouses and civil partners who are members of occupational pension schemes. Sections 21 to 23, inclusive, relate to the Civil Registration Act. I support the amendments and am glad they were brought forward. However, I am disappointed that the primary Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017 has not been advanced. As I stated, it is a bit of a mess in the sense that the heads of the latter were published but then the Second Stage debate commenced without some critical elements regarding defined benefits being in place. However, the Government's hand had been shown. No progress has been made on the Bill for a year. Although I acknowledge and support dealing with those issues now because they need to be dealt with, I encourage the Minister, insofar as is possible, to try to advance the 2017 Bill in regard to defined benefits in order to bring clarity. The longer it is left open, the more opportunity there is because the heads of the Bill have been published.

Last week, the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection began to examine bogus self-employment contracts and so forth. Although a representative from the Department commented that the number of self-employed as a percentage of the total workforce is diminishing, the self-employed still account for a significant 15% of a total workforce. That percentage is greater than it was one, two or three years ago. I acknowledge that the Government has improved the lot of the self-employed. I was self-employed for several years before I was elected to the House. I understand that the issue of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed will be advanced at a later date but I would like it to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Last year, there was much debate on the State pension, which is addressed in section 9 of the Bill before us. Section 9 deals with a matter which was discussed at committee and was the subject of a Fianna Fáil motion in the House. There was complete agreement that the matter had to be dealt with. I welcome that section of the Bill. As I stated to departmental officials at the briefing, I am glad that there is clarity on a date to which the payments will be backdated. I acknowledge that other Members have asked why they are being backdated to 2018 rather than 2012. The Minister will say that she does not have the money to backdate them to 2012. We were bogged down on the issue for a considerable time. People were very unfairly dealt with and this section affords an opportunity to remedy that.

As I informed the Minister on Question Time, that issue should not be seen as setting a precedent for the separate issue of the new total contributions system. While I acknowledge that the aggregated contributions system is on a 40-year basis with up to 20 years provision for caring, the new total contributions system may not employ the same mechanism. I ask the Minister to consider the issue of people keeping their own records. When a person applies for a contribution statement, the period of caring does not clearly show on it as a credit and it is difficult for people to ascertain the extent of the Department's knowledge in that regard. The Minister should examine that procedure from an administrative point of view and consider a situation whereby the credits for a person who takes time out of work to care for children for two or three years appear as they go on his or her statement and he or she receives the disregard at some point in the future. That does not currently seem to be the case.

I welcome section 12, which deals with the domiciliary care grant. I welcome that the grant has been extended for the families of children who die during the relevant period. Deputy Shortall raised the issue of the accompanying respite care grant. The respite care grant is generally paid if one is in receipt of this payment in the month of June and I assume that will continue to be the case. My experience is that there are higher levels of appeals of application for the respite care grant in certain areas and it seems to be more difficult to get the grant in such places. I ask the Minister and the Department to examine that.

Section 3 rightly deals with the employment contribution. It provides for an increase in the reckonable earnings threshold for employees from €376 to €386 where employer PRSI contributions are paid at the lower rate. In the light of the earning threshold increase, the Minister is ensuring that the situation remains neutral. As I stated, the Minister cannot do everything. The logic behind the section must apply everywhere. The point made by Deputy Shortall is that people who would previously have been eligible, whether through a medical card, GP card or over-70s medical card, may now not qualify based on increases they will receive. The Minister has recognised that and taken appropriate action in the Bill. I ask her to work with colleagues to ensure that the same principle applies across the whole of Government.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I thank the Minister for her attendance. I wish to touch on some of the positives in the recent announcement which result from the Minister's input and the confidence and supply agreement, such as the €5 per week increase in social welfare payments, including the old age pension. The reinstatement of the 100% Christmas bonus is very welcome, as are the reduction in prescription charges for the over 70s, the extension of the fuel allowance payment to 27 weeks and the increase in the back-to-school allowance which affects many people in that category of need.

However, I would like to mention some areas it might have been better to have looked at in a more positive light.

It is disappointing that the living alone allowance has not been increased because those who receive it feel somewhat disenfranchised. Obviously, they are extremely vulnerable. They would have liked an increase in the living alone allowance. Even though many people who live in urban and remote environments rely on their phones, there was no further enhancement of, or attempt to reinstate, the allowance to help such people. Those who live alone depend on their phones to contact the outside world when things go wrong. They also need phone connections to facilitate panic and security alarms. The mobile phone network is not always reliable or consistent and can vary from location to location. I am asking for the phone allowance to be looked at because it is of great importance for elderly people who live on their own and need their phones for contact and especially for security.

Self-employed people need to be able to access better supports when they are out of work. Many of them create employment in their own right and thereby create vibrancy in the local economy. If they end up out of work for any reason - perhaps because of a slowdown in their jobs or because they are out sick - they continue to have to contend with outgoings like mortgages and living costs. They cannot access the State payments or supports that can be accessed by others who are not self-employed. This is something that needs to be examined because, for reasons with which we are familiar, self-employed people who create employment are the lifeblood of local economies. They should get better supports. We should seek to roll out support mechanisms to them over a phased period so that they are not disenfranchised in the way they have been up to now.

I would like to mention two other issues, the first of which relates to defined benefit scheme pensions. A number of people in my constituency have brought to my attention an issue that arose when a defined benefit scheme closed down. The retired members first made a claim under the insolvency payments scheme in respect of unpaid employers' contributions as long ago as 2010. Eight years on, no decision has been made on that. I ask the Department to consider the need for a body or organisation to which these grievances can be referred. The pensions organisations do not have the resources to challenge pension schemes or well-financed companies. That is causing a major problem for people who have done the right thing by making contributions, but in whose cases returns have not been made by their employers. Such people are finding a major negative. There are considerable time delays in having such issues dealt with.

I wanted to raise an issue relating to the Tús scheme with the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty. It is a pity that she has left the Chamber. I am well aware that she has been here all evening. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, will bring the point I am about to make to her attention. There is a lack of flexibility in the Tús scheme. As public representatives, we all see this in our communities. People who have been on the Tús scheme for 12 months have to move to the JobPath scheme. When they have moved to JobPath, they are not allowed to pursue, or engage actively with, the Tús scheme in parallel. This is causing major problems. As unemployment decreases and employment increases, fewer people are coming through from the social welfare system to fill positions on the Tús scheme. I have worked closely with my colleague, Deputy O'Dea, on this issue. The Minister accepted the proposals made by Deputy O'Dea regarding the CE scheme. The flexibility that was afforded in that case should also be afforded in the case of the Tús scheme.

People who work with voluntary groups and organisations all over the country - the list is endless and it includes football clubs, athletics clubs and tidy towns committees, etc. - have to finish up with the Tús scheme after 12 months and go into JobPath. As we know, JobPath involves meeting a team leader or case worker once a week to get help in putting CVs together as part of the effort to access full-time employment. That does not take up 19.5 or 20 hours a week. I have raised this with the Minister and her officials. I hope she will consider the introduction of some type of flexibility in this scheme. There is no cost to the State. I am well aware that we cannot make changes that would impose a cost on the State. To the best of my knowledge, having spoken to and received information from officials in the Department, there is no cost to the State. It is clear that after people have done a Tús scheme for 12 months, they have to move to JobPath. They should be afforded some flexibility so that they can continue on the Tús scheme while engaging with their JobPath case workers in parallel. The coaching they receive in the context of JobPath helps them as they try to get into full-time employment. I understand that meetings with case workers take up approximately two hours a week. This means that community groups and clubs could get 17 hours a week, as opposed to the 19.5 or 20 hours a week they currently get. This would be extremely welcome because they are getting nothing in these circumstances at the moment.

I have contacted the Department and tabled parliamentary questions to ascertain why people are not coming through in various areas to fill vacancies. As we all know, the reason is that some people are ineligible and others might not meet particular criteria. As the rate of unemployment decreases, the numbers are not there. The fact that someone is on a Tús scheme or a CE scheme for one or two years - I am focusing on the Tús scheme at the moment - will not prevent him or her from seeking out full-time employment. I do not see a negative here. Participation in a Tús scheme is not a negative against a person. It does not prevent him or her from getting full-time employment. That will not happen. If he or she is driven by the search for full-time employment, he or she will seek it out in its own right without engaging with JobPath. I understand the policy that is there. I understand the regulation which provides that a person in these circumstances must engage with JobPath after a year. That is fine, but I ask the Minister to look at making the regulation more flexible so that people can engage with JobPath while working on a Tús scheme at the same time. That would be of considerable benefit to JobPath participants, especially those who are socially excluded for the time during the week when they are not involved in any scheme. It would also be a major advantage for host groups, such as sports clubs, and for the community. The added value that these schemes and those who participate in them bring to host groups and communities is underestimated. Without this extremely valuable work, we would not have the wonderful organisations and communities that we have. I hope the Minister will consider this point.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018. This debate gives us an opportunity to reflect on the contents of the Bill and to examine the complexities of the entire social welfare system. I welcome the €5 increase in various weekly social welfare payments. People who depend on social welfare for their entire income are being pushed and put under enormous pressure, particularly with the cost of living going the way it is. At a time when the cost of everything is escalating, it is only right that we should look after those who are most vulnerable.

I would like to raise a number of issues. There has been a great deal of talk about the disproportionate effect of the cuts that were made in 2012 on the pensions of those who spent a number of years out of the workforce. One of the most difficult things I encounter in my constituency office and my clinics is when people - predominantly women, but men in some cases - tell me that their weekly pension payments have decreased considerably because they do not have enough self-employment contributions. The changes in the system that came into force in 2012 are extremely unfair. During the Order of Business this morning, the Minister outlined what she hopes to do. It is not before time. It is vital that we deal with this matter urgently and adequately. We must make sure everything possible is done to make sure people get fair and adequate pensions. These people have worked all their lives and have contributed significantly to society in all the roles they have played.

There are a number of ongoing issues in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

These include the very long delays in processing applications, particularly for those benefits with medical elements, namely, disability and illness benefit, invalidity pension, carer's allowance and carer's benefit.

To go back to the carer's allowance, many people must make a decision about taking time off work to care for an elderly relative or a relative who requires full-time care and assistance. These people can work for up to 15 hours but they must go to their employer and state they are either giving up work completely or reducing their hours. I will take the example of somebody applying for the carer's allowance today who will give up work completely. The application process will take 14 or 16 weeks and, in some instances where there are issues with the application, it could take anything up to five or six months. The Department will state that the payment will be backdated to when the application was made but it is not much good to tell an electricity supplier, a bank or anybody else that a decision will be made in four or five month's time. That is simply not acceptable. We meet many people who consider their family circumstances when making decisions. They go to their employer to state their intention to leave work. They must then be without income or work for a certain period. There are issues with how people will pay their bills during this period. Carer's benefit has been availed of by many people in order to care for children, parents or siblings. The position regarding carer's benefit, which was introduced in 1999, should be examined. It is to be availed for a period of two years and extending it needs to be examined because people need care for a long time.

There are massive delays with carer's allowance applications and these are unacceptable. I have come across instances where families make decisions and there are major delays. The State is always trying to protect its financial resources but, by and large, carer's allowance is granted and backdated to the application date so there is no financial gain high up or low down for the State.

Is there a shortage of medical assessors in the Department? Is there an issue with the constant backlog relating to applications? When we follow up on applications, we are told the Department is dealing with a particular week. What is the position with the backlog? Can additional resources be made available? These applications are made on very sound grounds. Claims are also made on medical grounds. People submit their applications, medical assessments are made and, where they occur, refusals are reviewed or appealed. The appeals officer will hear about the exact care being provided and he or she will grant the application. If a decision is made to refuse an application, there should be a simple way of dealing with it rather than going through an appeals system for a year or a year and a half. In some instances, we have had carer's allowance applications that were ongoing for almost two years. This is simply not acceptable. Action needs to be taken. People making applications for carer's allowance has the best interests of their loved ones at heart. They are also saving the State an awful lot of money. In today's edition of the Irish Independent, there is a story in respect of the famous "bed blockers", which is a terrible phrase but it is the language that is used. Carers free up services and beds to allow people to use them. The position in this regard should be considered.

I have examined the costs and other aspects of JobPath and it is completely beyond its sell-by date. It is time the Minister examined it. JobPath was introduced at a time of high unemployment, which we do not have at present. People on JobPath are not available for CE schemes or any other schemes through which they could enhance their lives, contribute to their communities and return to the workforce in a meaningful way. All of the people on CE schemes take huge pride in the work they do in their communities because they get recognition from local people. JobPath is a joke at this stage and should be seriously examined. We have had many debates about CE supervisors. The Department will state that they are section 39 workers but this is not the case. What has happened to the review? A Labour Court decision was made in 2008. Why has it not been followed through on? What can be done to ensure proper pensions for people on CE schemes? This is very important.

As we are discussing social welfare, I want to raise another issue. We have spoken about the absolute delay regarding illness benefit. It is very difficult to understand what advice or information the Department received. My understanding is that the new software is not able to deal with the application forms. Many people have been left without payments since June or July this year. No one can do without an income. Illness benefit should be examined.

The new carer's allowance form is 40 pages long. The disability allowance form is 36 pages long. The farm assist, invalidity pension and non-contributory pension forms are each 20 pages long. The form for the family income supplement, which is now the working family payment, is 16 pages long. For a carer's allowance application the details of the applicant, the details of their spouse or partner and the details of their children are required as are details of their financial resources and those of the person for whom they are caring and the medical report of the person for whom they are caring. In the name and honour of God, it takes 40 pages to do this.

Many people completing these forms go to public representatives seeking assistance. This morning, we had a discussion about public service reform to try to bring Government closer to the citizen and ensure every citizen of the State can get their benefits or access to the State when he or she requires it but we have introduced a new application form that is 40 pages long. Looking at the bureaucracy, and I will stick with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, every form has been made more complicated. Applying for something gets more and more complicated and the services of the State are thereby made less accessible to citizens, particularly people on the carer's allowance in their time of trouble or, for that matter, those on any other social welfare payments in their time of need.

The disability allowance form, which is a means-tested payment, is 36 pages long. One could write a great deal in 36 pages. We need to simplify the bureaucracy. We need to get the information and simplify it. We need to make sure that if these applications are to be made online that it is simplified. For carer's allowance, so long as there is a detailed medical report and the income details of the applicant, it should not be so complicated as to require the use of a form that is 40 pages long.

Many have applied to participate in farm assist in 2018. It has been a very difficult year, particularly in the spring. There was an escalation in farming costs this year. Farmers have been submitting accounts for 2017. The system needs to be able to assist farmers or fishermen, through farm assist or fish assist, when there is serious or immediate pressure in a particular year. Farm assist is to help farmers when they experience financial difficulty. They should be eligible when they are in financial difficulty, not the following year or the year after that.

There are anomalies associated with farm assist payments that we have addressed through appeals and a meeting of minds with social welfare officials. Farms now exist in many forms. Partnerships are featuring whereby two members of a family may be involved in farming. Farm assist should be able to take account of their circumstances. One partner might be very seriously ill or have dementia. In such cases, it becomes an awful struggle to get farm assist for that person.

There needs to be genuine flexibility. I acknowledge that the Department will want to protect itself and ensure the moneys in the Vote for any scheme or measure are spent in the best way possible. There is a simpler way of proceeding. The system could not be more complicated and difficult. People who depend completely on social welfare for their income feel isolated and challenged enough already. We hear about the growing economy but there are many who, through no fault of their own or through ill health, for example, need assistance. A huge Vote is put through for the Department every year. Public sector reform is fine but the service of the State should be brought closer to the citizen. The citizen should be empowered to get the desired information. If an individual encounters complications on websites, be it that of the Department or Citizens Information, he or she might not apply for assistance.

The working family payment has been great, particularly where there is but one member of the family working. It has been examined. Although the application form for the working family payment is 16 pages long, the new system is operating reasonably well. We cannot find fault with it. We should, however, encourage people to apply for the payment because, even if the amount of money received every year is small, it is beneficial.

Let me return to the issue of JobPath. There is a challenge associated with the rural social scheme because of the growing employment opportunities. We all welcome these. The rural social scheme has been very good around the country. There are also the Tús programme and CE schemes. For as long as I have been here, there has been an aversion to the schemes, particularly at certain times. They have always been challenged. I believe we need to simplify the system by having just one or two schemes. Tús, the community employment schemes and rural social scheme need to be simplified. There should not be JobPath or any other diversions. The Minister and Department should seriously examine JobPath and its development over time. They should determine the benefits to the individual participant. What have participants gained from it? Serious questions should be asked about it, particularly in regard to 2018. Going into 2019, I believe it is well past its sell-by date.

When will the new home-care credit system for calculating the contributory pension be in place? People currently applying for pensions may benefit under the new scheme but have to proceed under the current rules. When the rules change, what will be the position of somebody who has not made enough contributions to get a full pension? Are such individuals in limbo? Should they apply under the scheme? Will there be backdating? Will individuals be facilitated? There needs to be a very clear, simple leaflet to show exactly what people should be doing. When people are approaching 60 or 65 years, they look for the records. I thank the Department and the Minister for their actions in this regard. I refer to going online to get records. The Department did open up and allow us to get our records again. I thank the Department for this because many people looking for their records do not have broadband and would be the least likely to have computers or the Internet at their disposal.

I welcome the overall thrust of the Bill and some of the schemes referred to in it.

Every Deputy is inundated with questions on the contributory pension. The sooner we have factual documentation on it, the better. For God’s sake, will the Department get to grips with the delays in processing applications? They are causing considerable undue hardship, particularly in respect of the carer’s allowance, illness benefit and disability payment. People who are very vulnerable and their families are being put at a disadvantage because they are not getting the answers they require as early as possible. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill.

Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an mBille. There are many things that need to be addressed. One of the disappointing features of the recent budget has been the lack of basic reform. There had been talk of introducing a working-age payment whereby, rather than having a myriad of schemes, there would be one working-age payment. That seems to have died a death. There was also the concept of partial capacity, which was partially introduced. The idea was that it is unhealthy for people to be idle when they could do some work. There are many in receipt of disability payments, the disability allowance or the invalidity pension – long-term disability payments – who could do some work. The idea was to encourage as many people as possible to get work, even if it was not paying a lot of money. That is why one has to leave the welfare in place. It is well proven medically that idleness leads to more morbidity, higher mortality and more frequent visits to the doctor. I am disappointed that there seems to be no wide vision. There are some small changes but there does not seem to be a wide vision in terms of the reform of social welfare.

The way people who claimed illness benefit in recent months were treated was terrible. It is fine to say there was only a certain amount and that there was only a few hundred euro or whatever but I am referring to when people are depending on a weekly payment and have very little else. A couple approached me recently about this. The man had a small farm and a job in a factory but got seriously ill. The payments came erratically but the bills do not come erratically. One has to keep paying the bills. In the old days, one would have gone to the local community welfare officer and got the payment made up, and then one would have paid it back. To go to a community welfare officer now, one has to fill out an eight-page form. It takes two weeks to proceed so one is still caught. The old days of instant solutions in the circumstances in question are gone.

The idea of a basic wage has a great attraction, that is, one pays a basic amount to everybody and if people earn money beyond that it is taxed. There is a completely linked-in system that does not have many crinkles in it. From the minute somebody starts earning money he or she gets money to take home. Our system is based to an extraordinary degree on a Victorian model of social welfare, that is, we will only pay somebody the money if the person is available for work but does not work. If I earn €200,000 per year the maximum tax is approximately 55% if I am self-employed. In PAYE employment it is 4% for PRSI, 40% for tax and 7% for USC over €100,000. That is 52%. We will call it 50%, give or take. It is 50% if I am on €200,000 per year and if I earn another €100,000 I get to keep the guts of 50% of it.

However, because our attitude towards welfare is that we are generous to people on welfare and that people are sitting with their hands out rather than not being able to get a job for one reason or another, we take a totally different approach under the social welfare code. Depending on the scheme somebody is on, a person can be penalised up to 100%. Some 100% of everything somebody earns can be taken in a means test. If a couple falls beneath the threshold of €300 per week and one person earns €100 per week, the Department takes €100 away. That is the highest tax rate in the country if one considers taking money a form of taxation. As it is a reduction in one's welfare it is not seen that way, but when somebody's money is taken away he or she does not care about the guise under which it is taken. All the person knows is that he or she sweated to earn €100 and somebody just came along and took it.

Farm assist is considered a generous scheme, but 70% of everything the farmer earns on the little farm in Connemara or on the hills of County Wicklow is taken away. The person on €200,000 does not pay 70% of everything he or she earns. Then we wonder why these people do not have an incentive. That is why I am attracted to the basic wage. Under that system people get their payment and when they earn money they pay tax at the same rate as everybody else. As they earn more, they pay more tax. However, they would not find that when they fall beneath the magic threshold of the social welfare rate suddenly the effective tax rate, called a means test and a reduction in the payment, becomes 50%, 70% or 100%. That is not the experience of many people. Most people who have had PAYE jobs never face this. They go on illness benefit or jobseeker's benefit for nine months and, if they are lucky, they get back into the system before they get caught in the jobseeker's allowance. However, for many people in many areas in this city and in places such as Connemara, east Galway and Wicklow, this is the wall they face, and we appear to make no progress.

There are two ways of tackling this without jumping to a basic wage. Going to a basic wage immediately would be a big step that is probably too radical for the system. Let us start with a basic premise of what can be done to reform the system. First, one could state that no means test reduction will be at a rate of higher than 50%, that is, no matter what one earns one always gets to keep 50% of it. That would still be equivalent to the highest rate of tax, including PRSI and USC. That incentive, given where people are now, would be a great leap forward. One could justify it being 20% but let us start with 50%. One has to move forward in slow steps because the system and particularly the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform do not get these concepts. One must lead them by the hand, show that the sky will not fall in and that it is just and fair.

I wish to discuss the new change the Minister introduced for those who got caught by the decision made by the then Minister, Deputy Burton, to reduce the payments for those who had a low average amount of contributions paid or credited to entitle them to the State pension. Before doing so I will address an issue that also causes many problems for people, namely, how capital is assessed. I will spell out how capital is assessed in the social welfare system. In most schemes it is quite simple, although there are exceptions such as the carer's allowance which is much more generous. The first €20,000 of savings are ignored. That is not too bad. The next €10,000 count as income of €10 per week, which one can live with. With the next €10,000 the system says the person is earning €20 per week, which is €1,000 per year plus two weeks. It is €1,040, to be precise, on that €10,000 in the bank. If somebody has savings of €50,000 the last €10,000 is assessed at €40 per week on that amount. That is an interest rate of over 20%. Please tell me what bank in Ireland is paying 20% interest rates on deposits these days. One might say it is a large amount of money to have in the bank. I know people who live in very poor circumstances who save money. They work very hard and spend very little. I have seen people living in very poor circumstances but, unfortunately, I could not persuade them to do up the house and get rid of the money so they could get a proper social welfare payment. That is the reality.

Let us consider another scenario. Due to the change made by Deputy Burton when she was Minister, many people depend on the increase for a qualified adult, IQA, or what was the adult dependant allowance. In other words, the person gets the State pension based on his or her spouse's or partner's contributions. When one is considered a dependant adult one's income cannot be greater than €100 per week. That looks fine until one encounters certain scenarios. One is where a person works in the public service all his or her life, ends up on a finishing salary of €80,000, does not read the rules of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and retires and gets the lump sum of one and a half times his or her salary, which is €120,000. In the first scenario the person puts it in the joint bank account of the person and the spouse. In that case, the person has just disqualified the person and the spouse from the adult dependant allowance because when one works the magic formula one finds it is over €100 per week. The person will not get the full adult dependant allowance. That applies even if the couple has no other savings.

However, in the second scenario the person read the small print on the tin and knew not to put it into a joint account but into a personal account. Since it was the personal money the person had earned, not the spouse's, the couple will legitimately get the full adult dependant allowance.

This is reality. I have cases of people who are getting caught in this. Consider the couple who always had joint bank accounts. If they have any extra property over and above, even if it was totally paid for by the income of the one working and not the dependant's income, and if they are stupid enough to put it into two names thinking they were being very wise and doing what the State has always said to do which is to put everything in both names, they will suddenly find the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection writing to them asking them what they have in the bank. If they knew to put it just into the one name of the person who had earned it then they could not be touched. It is quite farcical. The whole way of assessing capital needs to be reformed.

I will move on to JobPath. I believe JobPath is a total waste of money, and I say that as someone who has had the advantage of employing people in the past. I do not know why we keep following these schemes that come in. It used to be said "Tá na Francaigh ag teacht thar sáile, arsa an tSeanbhean Bhocht", but what we have nowadays is "Tá na scéimeanna ag teacht thar sáile, arsa an tSeanbhean Bhocht". The schemes are all coming in and we look at somebody, but we never analyse whether it is in any way sensible or not or whether it actually does anything. I ask Members to think about this. If there is an employer out there, and if there are people who are very employable, then I can guarantee those people will get employed, but without JobPath. Obviously, if they are forced onto JobPath they will go onto JobPath and then JobPath will claim that it got them the jobs. That, however, has not been my experience and I am interested to hear Deputy Fitzmaurice's comments because he too has worked in the real world and has employed people. I do not know if he goes to JobPath or through CVs or if he finds out through interviews or some other method where a good and likely person is to give him or her a job. One looks for someone who will get the job done. In my previous life as a co-op manager I had a fair number of people working, and some of them have since become hugely successful in their own private lives. Some of them did not get many educational chances, but they had the magic factors: hard work, a good personality and drive.

I do not believe that JobPath is doing what it is supposed to be cracked up to do. It is driving a lot of people around the twist in the way it is rigidly applied. Companies only get paid by putting on the churn so even if a person does not need them he or she is forced into them. Even if the companies are doing nothing for the JobPath people they are forced into them. Even if a person is never going to get a job he or she is forced into them. I know plenty of people who were called into them and they went along because their payments would have been stopped otherwise. They were put to doing things that they were convinced would never serve them on any great path. The reality is that the normal problem with unemployment is that there are more people than jobs. There is another aspect that we seem absolutely reluctant to admit exists, namely there are some people who will never get commercial jobs. I stress that there is nothing wrong with them, except that they will never get a competitive commercial job no matter how long one is at it, just as I could never be taught music. I hope nobody faults me for that. I just cannot do it. This is a reality that we seem absolutely blind to.

This leads me to the scheme jobs. We are so cruel and mean, because there are people who will never get commercial employment. All they ask of us is the opportunity to go on a scheme and to stay on a scheme. They keep doing the Tidy Towns and the janitorial work in local halls. They perform a whole lot of services that we urgently need in our communities and they do so for a minimal cost to the State. Tús placements cost in the region of €5,000 or €6,000 per year. When people are earning in that way it does not take into account all the other intangible benefits to the State, including on the health service, of a person getting up in the morning and going out to work. What we say to these people is you get a year and then it is good luck. This is in a situation where we cannot fill the Tús places. Recently I asked for the figure, and I will check it, but I believe we now have some 100,000 people who have been long-term unemployed for more than one year. Yet, we will not allow those people to stay in the Tús scheme where there are no other people who are eligible, especially in rural communities, to continue to provide the very necessary services we all enjoy. In the Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road or in Croke Park, people are paid to keep those places and the dressing rooms spick and span and they will get wages. In rural Ireland our other Croke Parks are fantastic sporting facilities. There are also fantastically well maintained community centres. I doubt any other country has the sporting facilities in as many rural areas as we have. We have fantastic dressing rooms and everything kept as Croke Park is kept with regard to goalposts, lines, grass cut and the whole lot. That is all being done by people working on schemes. Do we not think this is important work? Our kids have the great luxury these days of growing up and finding these well-run and well-organised facilities, but we do not think this is important. I find this absolutely extraordinary.

When I introduced the Tús scheme I had never intended for it to be a one-year scheme. The Department of Finance at the end of 2010 said I could either take the scheme with that codicil, which I did not agree with, or have no scheme. So I took it and I am still glad that I took it because now at least there is the Tús scheme on which to build. It was supposed to be the match of the then rural social scheme that has been madly and meanly cut in various ways, including a means test. The Tús scheme was supposed to be the match of that where urban people, or non-farmers in rural areas, could get onto a scheme and stay on it for a lifetime if they never got anything better, and they could continue to do the useful work we all need done.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I will not hold the House too long. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I welcome the increase that will apply to pensioners and others in receipt of social welfare. There are some worries, however. As every Deputy is aware, there are people in the State who might have worked for a few years and put up a few stamps or they may not have put up stamps and got back into work later on. When they apply for their pension they are basically cut because their contribution is averaged out over the number of years. This is a problem for them and it needs to be addressed. I am aware that a scheme was brought in, and rightly so, where if a person in the farming community had paid in for the past ten years he or she could get that pension. We need to address the anomaly. There will be another Bill to address the issues of women in the State who had to give up work, and those who stayed at home to care for their children. Instead of being rewarded for the service and for what they did for their country they are now being penalised, which is absolutely disgraceful. I am aware that the Government has a Bill coming in to address that, but I hope it is not just tightened up and left in a way that is impossible to get to.

Deputy Ó Cuív referred to employing people. I would say that 99.9% of employers do not phone JobPath. They try to suss out someone in a local area who is fit to do a job and they employ that person.

That is not the way it works in the SME sector or in small businesses around the country. A lot of them would not even be registered with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to get this. As was pointed out, there is a major problem. It happened a year ago and it is coming again this year now that Christmas is coming. I remember speaking to the Minister about it. We cannot put a price on it. It is great that our tourism figures have gone up. It is great that the number of people coming into the country is rising. However, we must tackle a problem that is happening right around the country and especially in the rural areas, in the community employment, CE, schemes and the Tús schemes. That problem is not having people to do work in the Tidy Towns. We talked about sports facilities but a great amount of work is done by Tidy Towns. Tourists drive around Ireland and look at our towns.

Deputy Ó Cuív said we have 100,000 long-term unemployed people. It is a sad damnation on the Department that there are Tidy Towns committees that have to pay people to do the work because Joe, Mary, Tom or Pat does not qualify because their year is up or for whatever reason. That should not be allowed. I am a firm believer that if people are unemployed, for the sake of their own mental health and feeling involved in a community, for the €20 a week or whatever they get they would be better off out doing something than being inside a house. It would cost more because we would need a few supervisors or whatever but the payback to the country in all those areas - cities, towns and small villages in rural areas - would mean we would be gaining from what had been achieved. It is good that people are getting more work. There is no-one criticising that. It is good that the economy is picking up but with that comes situations such as what we are dealing with now. Five or six years ago, we would have had plenty of people for CE schemes or FÁS schemes but now the criteria are beating us. At the moment if a committee has not got somebody and it makes an application for Joe who is a great fellow, or Mary, saying it wants to keep them on, Joe or Mary do not qualify. That one thing would help so many people.

On top of that there is the well-being of those people to be out talking to someone, doing a bit of work. It is absolutely crazy that we do not give that opportunity to them. If that was the only thing we looked at in the next few weeks I ask Ministers to do so. Especially in small rural villages, people are crying out trying to keep their villages in good nick. They are volunteers and they cannot get someone on the CE schemes. The rural social scheme has been a great success. We need more people on it. It keeps a lot of family farms viable in rural areas and gets a lot of work done.

There is one part of social welfare that I can never understand. If somebody was working, in Dublin or anywhere else, and for the love of his or her mother or father, if one of them got sick, the person would go home to help care for that parent. Say the woman's husband was on whatever amount or on the income threshold, and she wanted to look for carer's allowance to mind her loved one, she will be refused carer's allowance. By the way, giving it to her could save the State probably €800 a week even though it cannot see that, because if the parent was in a nursing home it would cost that. If the woman shows she is giving something up, I cannot understand for the life of me how she would be refused when the State is saving money. If they decided to bring the parent to Dublin to a nursing home, what would the figure be then? It would probably be €1,200 or €1,400. I cannot understand why we are doing stuff like that.

There is a need to take care of the self-employed as well, for example if they get sick. Generally we have seen down through the years how an employee would rightly qualify for some provision but the self-employed person would have to go through the rigours of everything to try to keep food on the table. We need to respect those who are self-employed. I welcome the tax measures in the budget for self-employed people and see that we are starting to move another bit in the line of balancing it. I think it has gone up €230 and one more round might get it level with the tax credit for the €1,650. That is welcome. We need to make sure for those people who take risks that if something goes wrong there is a back-up plan.

I am not going to hold the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, all night. I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is looking to get in. I ask the Minister of State to look at those CE and Tús schemes because they are crucial. We are going to see this backfiring because there will be towns that will do less well than they are doing at the moment. Ireland is relying a lot on tourism, especially in the west, and we do not want to have anyone saying a place was dirty or there were papers lying around, or the flowers were not done. A great amount of work is done and I cannot fathom how it does not cost an awful lot extra. Let us look at ways of making sure it is efficient in the way it is done but for people who are unemployed there should be a system in place so that they are given that facility. What it does for them as well down the road is a help.

The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is not in the Chamber. I would like to thank Deputies Ó Cuív and Fitzmaurice for their contributions this evening and Deputies on all sides of the House for their contributions to this Second Stage debate. Unfortunately, the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, could not be here for all of the debate this evening and has asked me to convey her apologies but I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this very important legislation.

The Bill reflects the ongoing strong commitment of the Government to restoring and maintaining the real value of core welfare payment rates and to delivering measures which can have a tangible impact in terms of alleviating poverty for those groups most at risk. The increase of all core weekly payment rates by €5 for the third successive year, the targeted reform of increases for qualified children, and the enhancement of earnings disregards for lone parents are all aimed at delivering on those commitments.

I appreciate that Deputies acknowledged that the Bill contains a number of very positive measures. I would like to respond to a few of the specific issues raised in the course of the debate.

I confirm that the increases in the age-related qualified child payment will be introduced at the same time as the increases in the primary rates on dates between 20 and 29 March 2019. These new rates are specifically included in sections 16 and 19, and in Schedules 2 and 3 of the Bill.

Separately, section 15 and Schedule 1 provide for the changes that must be made throughout the Bill so that where, up to now, the reference was to a qualified child, in future we will be referring “to a qualified child who has not attained 12 years of age or a qualified child who has attained 12 years of age”. These changes will be introduced by commencement order in tandem with the rate increases in March of next year.

Many of those who spoke pointed out that the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018, including key measures relating to defined benefit pension schemes, has yet to reach Committee Stage. I understand the frustration of Deputies in this regard and I know that it is shared by the Minister. In July, Government approval was obtained to draft additional provisions to be included in the Bill on Committee Stage, including provisions relating to defined benefit schemes. In developing these, it is essential to recognise the current pension landscape in Ireland in order that a balanced, proportionate approach is developed and that unintended negative consequences do not arise.

Under existing pensions law, there is no legislative obligation on the employer to make contributions to a scheme. The provisions of the 2017 Bill, however, will introduce a new regime into the Pensions Act 1990 that, among other things, will ensure an employer cannot walk away at short notice from the pension scheme it is supporting by providing a 12-month notification, and will enable the Pensions Authority to make a funding obligation direction specifying payments to be made by a sponsoring employer to the pension scheme where no agreement is reached, within a specified time period, to resolve a funding deficit.

The defined benefit pension provisions are very technical and involve complex policy issues. It has been necessary to consult and obtain numerous legal advices from the Office of the Attorney General on various aspects of this policy to achieve a resilient solution. When these matters have been resolved and amendments approved by the Government, the Minister will immediately look to proceed with Committee Stage.

On the 2012 pensions issue, I am glad that the provisions at section 9 of the Bill have been generally welcomed here. These are designed solely to address the position of those affected by the changes to the rates band introduced in 2012. The changes involved took effect from September 2012, when the rates of State pension (contributory) paid to those who had a yearly average of less than 40 contributions were lowered, as a step towards a more proportionate system.

The House will be aware of the separate process under way to develop the formal total-contributions approach which is planned for 2020, drawing on the extensive public consultation the Minister has undertaken. To ensure that a clear distinction is drawn between these two approaches, the terminology employed in the Bill to provide for the 2012 issue is “aggregated contributions approach”.

Alongside the legislative provisions being provided for in the Bill, significant preparatory work has been undertaken within the Department, for example in designing and developing the necessary ICT system changes. The latest data identified approximately 79,000 pensioners to be reviewed, of whom just over 70,000 reside in Ireland. The first 11,000 information letters issued last week to Irish residents and it is expected that the remainder will issue by the end of this week or early next week at the latest.

The letter informs pensioners that the Department will contact them again directly with either the outcome of their individual review, where sufficient information is already available, or to request further information regarding gaps in their social insurance records. The examination of social insurance records is under way. Reviews and payments will commence in the first quarter of 2019. Where an increase is awarded, it will be backdated to 30 March 2018, or the person’s 66th birthday, if later, and arrears paid. Pensioners who do not qualify for an increase as a result of this review will continue to receive their existing rate of pension.

The level of child poverty among children was raised in the course of the debate. This issue has been a priority for the Minister since coming into office. All sides of the House recognise and accept that it must be a priority. Under the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures Framework, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, in collaboration with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and other relevant Departments, is taking a whole-of-Government approach to tackling child poverty.

The years 2015 and 2016 saw the first reductions in the number of children in consistent poverty since 2008. As new figures are produced by the CSO, I am hopeful that the impact of the economic recovery will be reflected in those figures, given the strong link between unemployment and poverty. The Government continues to focus on activation to help people back into the workforce. The measures contained in this budget, particularly the increase in the qualified child payment, will also contribute.

Social transfers play a crucial role in alleviating poverty and inequality. Ireland is among the best-performing EU states for reducing poverty through social transfers. In 2016, for example, social transfers more than halved the at-risk-of-poverty rate for children, from 40.3% to 19.3%. It is worth reiterating the point that reducing child poverty is not just about income supports and welfare. Rather it is also about supporting parents to make the transition into employment and assisting families through the provision of quality affordable services in areas such as education, health, housing and childcare.

Deputies O’Dea and Brady, among others, commented on the increase in the weekly rate of social welfare payments to come into effect towards the end of March next year. The Minister would have liked to have been in a position to introduce these with effect from January, but this would have meant that the amount of the increase, which will of course continue into future years, would have been reduced or some category of social welfare customers would be excluded altogether from the increase. I am certain that the House would not have wished to see that happen.

The Minister will be introducing legislation in the coming months in good time to ensure that the legislative base for the extension of jobseeker’s benefit to the self-employed and the new parental benefit scheme will be in place before these important reforms are introduced before the end of 2019.

Deputies raised a considerable number of other issues which could not be addressed in the budget or in this Bill, including matters relating to carers and people with disabilities, in which I have a special interest. The past three budgets have introduced major increases in services for carers and for people with a disability. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, have played a major part in that. In addition that requires a whole-of-Government approach.

As is always the case, the Minister had a limited amount of resources available to her in framing the 2019 social welfare budget. It was simply not possible to address everything that the Minister and the Government would wish to address but there are, of course, areas which will be considered in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.