Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Commencement of Legislation

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

45. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she has considered in the absence of commencing Part 9 of the Children and Families Relationship Act 2015, publishing a stand-alone Bill to correct the technical errors in Part 9. [53414/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

69. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when the amendments needed will be progressed to commence Part 9 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53207/18]

John Brady

Question:

73. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the commencement of Part 9 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015; if the amendments required in Part 9 in a stand-alone Bill will be expedited; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53332/18]

Louise O'Reilly

Question:

79. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason for the delay in the commencement of Part 9 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015; the steps she has taken to date to address the issue; when this Part of the Act will be commenced; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53440/18]

The Children and Family Relationships Act was enacted in 2015. It is now 2018 but Parts 2, 3 and 9, which is the one involving the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, have not been commenced. This has very serious implications for couples who are having children through donor-assisted human reproduction, in particular same-sex couples, as there is no proper facility for the registration of parents and children. People are at their wits' end wondering why the Government has not commenced these sections.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 45, 69, 73 and 79 together.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which it is particularly important to address now that so many people have been waiting for so long for ratification. I am aware of the pressing need to make technical amendments to the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, including those sections of Part 9 which provide for the registration and re-registration of the birth of a donor-conceived child and, in particular, make possible the registration of details of "parent", "mother" and-or "father", where required. I want to make these necessary amendments at the earliest possible opportunity, which is why it is my intention to bring forward a stand-alone Bill very early in 2019. Commencement of the amendments is dependent, however, on the commencement of Parts 2 and 3 of the 2015 Act, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Health.

Sequencing is perhaps the most important matter here. If I commence my Part before Parts 2 and 3 are commenced, there will be unintended outcomes of the sort neither Deputy Boyd Barrett nor I wish to see. It is therefore important for the Department of Health to put in place the administrative and operational arrangements necessary to facilitate the implementation of Parts 2 and 3 of the 2015 Act. That includes the establishment of a national donor-conceived person register and the appointment of authorised persons under the Act. It is the Minister for Health's intention to implement these provisions at the very beginning of 2019. As such, officials from my Department are working with the Civil Registration Service and the Department of Health to ensure that the appropriate legislative, regulatory, and operational mechanisms will be in place to permit the earliest possible commencement of all of the relevant legislation, including the relevant provisions of the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018, to provide for the birth registration of donor-conceived children and the right legal status.

I am glad to see the Minister is focused on this and that there is a plan. However, there is a great deal of frustration out there. One woman wrote to me in the following terms:

I am facing a particularly difficult situation where I am seven months pregnant and as it stands my wife will not be recognised as the parent of our child as certain Parts of the Child and Family Relationships Act have not been commenced. Whilst I acknowledge that some matters take time to be sorted out and implemented, it should not take years. I am extremely dismayed, horrified and disheartened by the repeated neglect and push-back on the implementation and enactment of this Bill.

That is the human reality of this situation. In June of this year, it was promised that Parts 2, 3 and 9 would be commenced by October, but it has still not happened. There were amendments to the children and family relationships legislation. I understand that it is a complex, interdepartmental issue, but the Minister can see the frustration that exists. People want a definitive timeline to ensure commencement takes place very soon.

The Deputy does not need to read me his letters because I get them myself, although it is valuable to read them into the record of the House to demonstrate to people the frustration being experienced. I might not get them every day but certainly I receive them every second day from families who just want to have their legal status recognised. I appreciate their frustration. I am not sure who gave the commitment to have this done by October, but I hope to God it was not me. The only commitment I can give to the House today is that I am bringing forward a stand-alone Bill to make the amendments required from my Department to facilitate the commencement of Part 9 of the 2015 Act at the beginning of next year. I will be seeking the support of the House to pass the Bill in a speedy manner, given that we all want the same thing, and I will take it through the Dáil and Seanad as quickly as possible. That is contingent, however, on the administrative actions of the Department of Health. Those actions are a priority of that Department in the period immediately after Christmas. To be fair to the Department, the team of people who will be looking after this are the same people who have been here every night for the past couple of months until 11 p.m. or midnight working on another matter. We cannot split ourselves to make nine people, but that does not discount the frustrations of those who are waiting on this commencement. My commitment to them is that my Part will be addressed at the beginning of next year. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, shares that commitment equally.

While I welcome the fact that a stand-alone Bill will be brought forward to deal with the typographical errors in Part 9 of the 2015 Act, that Part and others were supposed to have been implemented within 12 months of enactment. It has taken three years to identify those errors and a further six months to rectify them. It has left hundreds of people feeling very vulnerable and at a loss as to what exactly is going on. I understand the Minister intends to bring a memorandum to Cabinet on 3 January and that the Bill will be brought forward then.

We need a commitment that it will be brought forward as quickly as possible, as the Minister has indicated. We need a commitment that it will be passed as quickly as possible. The Minister needs to give that commitment here and now to the many hundreds of people who have been left feeling very vulnerable because of these mistakes.

At the risk of repeating everything I have just said to Deputy Boyd Barrett, and in case Deputy Brady was not listening, I will reiterate exactly what I have just said. I plan to bring a memo to Cabinet at the beginning of next year. Deputy Brady obviously knows more about my schedule than I do given that he has a date and I do not. It will be the beginning of next year. With the co-operation of every Member of this House, we will get it passed very quickly.

Are there any supplementary questions?

Yes. Can we hold the Minister to that? I do not know who made the promise but I believe it was made in the context of the amendments in June, so it probably was not the Minister. It was said nonetheless and that is a frustration for people. I hope we can be sure on this.

The date I was given was 3 January-----

It was through our team. We put in many parliamentary questions on the issue and it was indicated that it was due to come to Cabinet on that date. I may stand corrected and I do not claim to have any inside knowledge into the Cabinet. The Minister can rest assured that she has Sinn Féin's total support to ensure the Bill passes as quickly as possible. I take it that a genuine mistake was made but it needs to be rectified as quickly as possible.

The Minister has clarified. We will move on.

Carer's Allowance Delays

Joan Collins

Question:

46. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason there are prolonged delays in processing payments for successful applicants of carer's allowance such as in the case of a person (details supplied); and the steps she is taking to eliminate these delays. [53445/18]

Why are there prolonged delays in processing payments for successful applicants for carer's allowance? At the time of my submitting this question, a constituent who had won an appeal on 25 September 2018 had still not received payment. She called in on Monday and told us that she has been paid eventually. This woman is looking after her grandmother and she only got paid this week after an appeal decision on 25 September. I put it to the Minister that this kind of serious situation requires redress.

The social welfare appeals office functions entirely independently to and separately from the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department. It is responsible for determining appeals against decisions in relation to social welfare entitlements. All decisions taken by my Department’s deciding officers and designated persons are appealable to the chief appeals officer. About 85% of all claims are awarded in the first instance when the application is made, and just 1% of the applications are appealed annually. The Department is concerned that these cases are dealt with as quickly as possible.

Where an appeals officer decides that a person is entitled to a social welfare payment, the case is returned to the Department to implement that decision and initiate payment to the person as soon as possible. Every effort is made by the Department to implement appeals officers' decisions as quickly as possible. I appreciate, however, that there are probably far too many people who experience extended delays. We are doing our best to make sure they get reduced by adding extra personnel to the management of the cases and by bringing on board extra adjudicators with expertise in the medical decision-making process, which does not come when one has just arrived in a job. Perhaps the Deputy is not aware that earlier we had referred to this issue during another question. A number of people have retired from that particular section of the Department within the past 18 months. Although they have been replaced, things would not have come to them as quickly without the experience of dealing with appeals. That expertise has been developed over the past 12 to 18 months. We are seeing our numbers coming down from 18, to 17 to 16 weeks, and it is the same for the appeals decisions. We are not finished and we do not accept that where we are is an acceptable position . The target is 12 weeks and we are an awfully long way from that.

In the case referenced by the Deputy, an appeals officer allowed the appeal for carer's allowance, subject to the discharge of the care recipient from hospital which, I am glad to say, has happened. I wish them well in the recovery and that the carer giving the care will mind and look after herself also. I offer good wishes from my Department.

I accept the Minister's address on this but the fact was that the appeal was cleared and the applicant won the appeal on 25 September. It then went to the carers section for payment. It took from 25 September until now for the payment to come through. I accept that the appeals office is separate to the Department but how could it be more linked in with the Department and is there a way to deal with that successfully? I do not accept that someone has to wait that long to get a payment that had been cleared. The Minister said that the carers' application form is to be introduced in the new year. This will be a good and helpful measure because when people made their first application, many were not too sure about what information exactly was being sought to make the claim and to have a successful claim.

Notwithstanding the difficulty in the length of time for processing an initial claim and then for a claim to go from review to appeal or from appeal to the deciding officer, it is genuinely unexplainable and unacceptable that when an appeal is made and the deciding officer decides in the positive for the carer, a carer would have to wait as long as the Deputy's constituent has. I am not justifying the delay in any way, shape or form, but applications or appeals go back to departments and are put on a pile with other applications and are dealt with chronologically. When a person's application is deemed successful, however, we should find a different way of doing it. I will certainly make it our intention to look at that in January.

Illness Benefit Waiting Times

Thomas Byrne

Question:

47. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the burden imposed on those who were denied rightful entitlement to illness benefit at various points during 2018; and the way in which she plans to address same. [53255/18]

I raise this question in relation to the scandalous recent and ongoing delays in illness benefit payments. The introduction of the new IT system platform launched in the summer was very poorly handled. Constituents cannot understand how the most vulnerable citizens, those who are working and have had to leave employment because of serious illness, are left in a completely penurious state. It is unacceptable. What is the Minister going to do beyond simply words of apology? If it was a bank, we certainly would not simply accept an apology from them.

I thank the Deputy for bringing up this issue, although he might be late to the party. We have had a number of discussions on this issue over recent-----

It is an outrageous statement that I am late to the party.

My Department-----

This is no party for my constituents. I have been in touch with the Minister's office over this. It is not a party.

I wish to make it clear that all Deputies of the House are not expected to be here. I am sure they are expected to be in the House for their own questions. I do not think a Deputy should be reprimanded for not being here earlier.

I certainly was not reprimanding anybody about their presence. I was-----

Well, whatever the word is. A reminder, if you will.

I mean no disrespect to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle but there is no need to remind me. I was referring to-----

The Minister said "late to the party".

We are talking about people who have cancer.

I ask the Minister to continue. We will not solve problems by splitting hairs.

No. We certainly will not. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. My Department transferred the administration of the illness benefit, IB, scheme from a legacy IT platform to its newer core IT platform in August 2018. Although the system change has worked effectively for more than 80% of illness benefit customers, significant difficulties arose for a number of customers following the implementation. This was a matter of great concern and genuine regret to my Department and to all of the people in the illness benefit section.

My Department took three main steps to resolve the issues impacting on payments. First, it deployed additional staff to process work and respond to the customer enquiries, which were in the thousands. Second, it developed some new IT workarounds to address the payment gap issues and to ensure a faster flow-through of payments to illness benefit recipients. Third, we continue to review the design rules in the new system to afford greater flexibility in the processing of claims and certificates. I believe we have made good progress in this regard, with payment levels returned to and maintained at the expected norm of more than 50,000 customers paid each week for the past two months. Arrears payments have also been made to customers whose payments were delayed. Telephone helpline and call handling performance has also been addressed and is now, thankfully, back to normal levels.

Currently, people who are due a payment and whose certificates and claims are in order receive their payment entitlement promptly. It is important to note that there are always cases where a person makes an application and expects to receive a payment but the payment is legitimately stopped or paused for a variety of reasons.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In addition, there will always be cases where errors are made that impact on payments to individual customers. While we endeavour to keep these to a minimum, it is inevitable that some errors will be made in an illness benefit scheme that processes more than 9,000 transactions per day. To ensure we learn from the lessons of the transition of the IB system onto a new platform, I have arranged for an independent review into how the changes to IB were planned, implemented and - importantly - communicated to customers. I expect this work to be completed early in 2019. Finally, I sincerely apologise again for the difficulties and burden experienced by customers earlier this year and believe the action taken to address these issues has worked and is continuing to work to ensure customers receive a good standard of service.

For the benefit of the House, I am sure Members are aware that if there is another question, it cannot be linked with a priority question. This is the rule of the House and I want to make it known to those who may not be aware. Deputy Byrne may now ask his first supplementary question.

I am certainly not late to this issue. On one day in recent months my office handled 17 separate complaints, including one from an individual from an estate within walking distance of the Minister's office who was not able to get any satisfaction from that office. Another case the Minister describes as a party is that of a lady with breast cancer who initially came to me through a pharmacist and who could not get a medical card. She told me that the reason she could not afford her medicine was because her illness benefit had not been paid. We took that on as a separate issue. That is what the Minister describes as a party. It is no party for my constituents. If a bank were to do this to these constituents, if it were to deprive them of money through negligence, not only would the money be repaid but interest and compensation would be paid. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection needs to look at itself extremely carefully. For the Minister to describe this as a party is absolutely devastating for the constituents affected. We have raised this on numerous occasions. I thank the staff because when a Deputy's office rings there is a mechanism with the Department to sort these issues out relatively quickly once that call is made. I feel sorry for those constituents who did not think to ring a Deputy's office or who could not get through on the phone lines. I thank the staff but the Department must come up with better than criticising the Opposition and describing the issue as a party.

I probably owe Deputy Byrne an apology if he thinks I was criticising him or the Opposition. The Opposition from all sides of this House has been nothing but incredibly helpful with regard to this process in recent months. I have acknowledged this on so many occasions that I have forgotten how many, but I will do it again. When we changed over in August, we upset a system with the premise of trying to make it more efficient for the more than 50,000 recipients who receive illness benefit, to which they are absolutely entitled. They get it because they pay into the Social Insurance Fund and they get it every single week. When we tried to introduce efficiency to the system we cocked up. We made an entire balls of it. We messed up. We have apologised profusely, and I will do it again. To all of those people who for far too many weeks and months were ill-affected by the changes in the Department I sincerely apologise.

We have done three things in recent months to ensure that the efficiencies which were originally anticipated are brought to the system. We have co-operated with our GPs who, in fairness, have worked with us tirelessly in recent months to make sure that the system is efficient. Initially it was efficient for 80% of the people. The GPs have worked incredibly effectively and hard with us in recent months for the 20% who were maligned by the new system. I am happy to say we have reached a new agreement with the IMO and all of our GPs with regard to the new systems and ecertification to start next year.

With regard to the phone lines, the number of calls is right back down to a manageable amount. As I said here earlier, although I know we should not be linking old questions with different questions and for that I apologise, the number of people who have been coming to us through Deputies' offices has significantly reduced in recent months. As I said earlier to all of the Deputies here, if anybody, including Deputy Thomas Byrne, has any constituency issues they would like to bring to the attention of the Department, I would be very happy to take them and have them resolved immediately.

My colleague, Deputy O'Dea, tells me that it is not correct that all GPs have signed up. In fact more than 70% of GPs have confirmed that they are still using the old form. As recently as yesterday we were on to the Department about a constituent who religiously and routinely sends in her certificates weekly but who has been deprived of payment. We do not want apologies. We have heard the apologies. We want practical help for the people who have been put in really difficult situations, the consequences of which are still affecting them. This is no party for anyone on illness benefit. Illness benefit is a payment people get when something tremendously bad happens in their life which prevents them from continuing to work. Only people in the most serious of cases get illness benefit. I accept the Minister's apology, but to describe it as a party really shows the attitude of the Minister and within the Department which led to this situation festering over the summer and recent months. I contend that it is still affecting some constituents of which I am aware.

I have been told that a fix has been put in place in the illness benefit section which will mean that all medical forms will be certified to cover the Christmas period. I see that as trying to put off any negative press for the Department and for the Minister. I am told that there will be a litany of problems come January because of this blanket certification which is being put in place over the Christmas period. Will the Minister give us categorical assurances that there will be no further problems with the automated system come the new year?

The Department is not employing any blanket certification currently. Deputy Brady will see in every single local and regional newspaper throughout the country that we have spent a significant amount of money to inform people as to when their payments will be made over the Christmas period. There will be no changes to effective illness benefit whatsoever. People who get paid on a Monday will be paid on a Monday, and it will be the same for those paid on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. There is no blanket certification.

I am not sure what Deputy Byrne means by his claim. The 9,000 certificates we receive every single day come in on the new forms. There are some old forms still in existence in our GP services. We have agreed with our GPs that claims on these forms will still be paid until all of those old forms are exhausted and they move on to the new forms. For the record of the House I will say for the third time that the IMO and the Department successfully concluded negotiations last week. I look forward to a continued prosperous relationship between the two.

Question No. 48 replied to with Written Answers

International Agreements

Bernard Durkan

Question:

49. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the extent to which her Department has direct contact with other jurisdictions with which a bilateral arrangement for social welfare exists with particular reference to the need to ensure a smooth and expeditious process in dealing with claims particularly in circumstances in which contributions in two or more jurisdictions arise; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53447/18]

This question relates to the countries with which we have bilateral arrangements in respect of pensions or entitlements for which contributions have been paid in more than one jurisdiction and to the need for the Department to play a leading role in this area. If it does not, it may take a long time for the constituents falling into this category to have their cases processed.

I thank the Deputy for this question in particular as it is an issue on which we exchange correspondence weekly. In addition to the general EU regulations governing interoperability of social welfare between the 28 member states of the EU, Ireland has concluded ten bilateral agreements on social security with jurisdictions including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Quebec, Switzerland, USA, South Korea and Japan. The agreements are limited to certain social welfare benefits and are mostly pension related.

In considering the need to negotiate a bilateral social security agreement, priority is given to countries with which there are the highest levels of worker migration and countries in which Ireland has greatest economic interest. The nature and scope of the social security system in operation in that country is also another significant consideration. The main purpose of these agreements is to protect the pension rights of people who have worked and paid social security contributions in Ireland and the countries with which Ireland has such agreements. This is achieved by allowing reckonable social security contributions paid in one or more of these countries to be aggregated with Irish full-rate social insurance contributions for the purposes of qualifying for certain contributory payments in Ireland or in these countries. Liaison arrangements are in place with the relevant authorities of the countries with which Ireland has social security agreements for the transmission of, or request for, information in order to compile the full extent of a claimant’s insurance record. These agreements are underpinned by legislation.

If the Deputy is referring to a particular case, he might give me the details and we will see if we can resolve any existing issue.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The Department previously pursued applications for such benefits abroad, particularly in the UK, as if they related to this jurisdiction. That was very satisfactory. In the current circumstances the Minister might consider ensuring that our Department plays a lead role and pursues applications for entitlements to a satisfactory conclusion. Particularly in cases where entitlements arose in two jurisdictions, and where responsibilities and entitlements were divided, the attitude of the other jurisdiction seems to be arbitrary. We need to contest that vigorously because the people concerned made pension contributions in the UK and are entitled to recompense by way of pension.

I believe the Deputy is talking about preparations for Brexit and the security of the common travel area in particular. For the record of the House, I met with Esther McVey MP at the beginning of 2018 when she was the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Both of our Departments have subsequently been in constant negotiations and discussions with regard to preparations for the variety of possible outcomes of the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU 27 which may take effect in March. I have recently been in contact with Amber Rudd MP who, as the Deputy will know, is the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We are working together with a view to establishing a bilateral agreement under the auspices of the common travel area. That will replace the current working relationship we have enjoyed under EU Regulation No. 883/2004. It is anticipated that the existing rights and arrangements we have enjoyed for many years will continue to be enjoyed by the Irish and the British living in one another's countries.

Working Family Payment Data

Deputy Penrose will ask Question No. 50 on behalf of Deputy Burton.

Joan Burton

Question:

50. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of civil and public servants, respectively, in receipt of the working family payment; the number of payments made and estimated amounts paid in 2017 and to date in 2018; and the number of payments made in respect of members of the Defence Forces in 2017 and to date in 2018. [49208/18]

Significant concern has been expressed about the number of civil and public servants who must resort to relying on the working family payment. Does the Minister agree that this is a significant indication of the inadequacy of the current wage levels and structures?

The working family payment, WFP, is an in-work support which provides an income top-up for employees on low earnings who have children. The WFP is designed to prevent in-work poverty for low-paid workers with children to offer them a financial incentive to take up employment.

Our latest figures, which are from the end of November 2018, show the WFP was in payment to 3,239 civil and public servants, although the information available to the Department does not allow a distinction between the two groups. Some 86 members of the Defence Forces were in receipt of WFP at the end of November. In total, the WFP was in payment to 53,384 employees at the end of November 2018, supporting more than 120,000 children, and expenditure on the scheme to that date was €380 million. The estimated total expenditure for 2018 is €411 million.

At the end of 2017, the WFP was made to 57,745 employees and expenditure for 2017 was an estimated €415 million, which was almost the same as for 2018. At the end of last year, some 104 Defence Forces employees were in receipt of WFP. The number is, therefore, reducing. The number of Defence Forces families in receipt of the WFP at the end of December 2017 was 104, whereas some 86 Defence Forces families were in receipt of the WFP at the end of November 2018.

That 3,239 civil and public servants had to resort to this payment indicates the inadequacy of their current wage levels and structures. Thankfully, the payment is available to them. The Minister mentioned expenditure of more than €400 million for the whole cohort of people who rely on the payment, but how much of that is devoted to the civil and public servants who must rely on it?

On the 86 members of the Defence Forces to whom the Minister referred, she will be aware of the significant campaign against the abysmal level of pay for the Defence Forces. The pay is insulting to those who give their lives and put themselves on the line to protect their country, doing excellent work abroad. If not for the overseas payment they receive, Defence Forces families would often fall below the poverty line. This is an important issue. The Minister said only 86 members of the Defence Forces have applied but, as has been made clear to me and other Deputies, a larger number than that qualify for it. While the low number of applications is some relief, it cannot disguise the fact that members of the Defence Forces, with whom I am very familiar, have suffered a great deal both through pay and allowances, which is why they must resort to this payment. In that context, how much has the Minister provided for these payments for 2019? Is she satisfied that the number of applications will continue to reduce?

I am not sure that more than 86 families applied. Although I may have given the impression that other people applied for but did not receive the payment, that was not what I intended to say. Rather, my point was that some 86 members of the Defence Forces were in receipt of the payment at the end of November.

The rates of pay in any public sector occupation are not set by reference to the size of the employee's family, whereas the working family payment is a scheme specifically designed to help people with their families, especially those with larger families. It is not the case that every job at every level is designed to provide sufficient remuneration to sustain larger families, even though it potentially should be. If it was, labour costs, not least for public services, might become prohibitive.

I do not have the exact number for the fund for 2019 but I expect it to be higher than this year given that we introduced extra disregards and changes in the budget. I will revert to the Deputy later with the exact figure for what is in the Estimates for 2019.

I take the Minister's point. It is great to have a family payment because, as the eldest of ten children, I remember there was no safety net like this and, therefore, I welcome it.

Is it not indicative that if people cannot rear a family on their level of wages, they will have no chance of securing or paying a mortgage or anything else? It is a circular argument and it must be recognised that, as the economy improves, the pay and conditions of public and civil servants, particularly the Defence Forces and their allowances, will have to be addressed in any forthcoming negotiation and review of payments?

I agree with the Deputy that in a world where any man or woman goes out to work, he or she should be able to earn enough to sustain a family. My point, which may have been made clumsily, was that when we sit down for negotiations with the public sector, we do not decide what a nurse should be paid if he or she has two, four or ten children. The salary is the salary, which is why it is more important we have payments with added disregards such as the working family payment.

The payment, which was established by the former Fianna Fáil Government and then modified in the past number of years, is definitely a worthwhile support. We wish we did not need it and that everyone went to work as much as necessary to provide for himself or herself. Until that day of utopia, however, the working family payment is important in all its guises.

Sula mbogaimid ar aghaidh go dtí an cheist eile ón Teachta O'Dea, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh na daltaí atá anseo ó Phobalscoil Chloich Chionnaola i nDún na nGall i in éineacht lena múinteoirí. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh siad sult agus sásamh as bhur dturas anseo go Baile Átha Cliath, agus go háirithe anseo go dtí Dáil Éireann. Tá fáilte rompu.

Budget 2019

Willie O'Dea

Question:

51. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on a recent ESRI report which found that as a result of budget 2019, lower income households will face proportionately greater losses than higher income households that benefit more from cuts to the universal social charge and an increase in the higher rate threshold for income tax; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53321/18]

My question relates to the recent Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report on the effects of overall income distribution of the budget. Will the Minister comment on the report?

The ESRI report assesses the impact of the tax and social welfare measures in budget 2019, using SWITCH, the ESRI tax and benefit microsimulation model. As the Deputy will be aware, my Department also uses SWITCH to produce an annual social impact assessment of the main tax and welfare budgetary measures every year. In general, SWITCH analysis shows that households at the lower end of the income distribution benefit from increases to welfare payments while income tax measures are more beneficial for those who earn much higher salaries.

There is a difference between the conclusions reached by the ESRI and my Department's assessment. This is because the ESRI analysis benchmarks the budget measures against a scenario where all social welfare payment rates, tax bands and tax credits are increased in line with a forecast 2019 average wage inflation rate of 2.9%. Therefore, rather than comparing changes against the reality, or the "as is" situation, the ESRI compares the changes with an anticipated future state, but that is often not achieved. The ESRI report states that the budget 2019 measures will result in household incomes being 0.66% lower than estimated in this projected future state, with households at the lower end of the income distribution being more affected than those at the higher end of the income distribution.

By contrast, my Department's social impact assessment provides a straightforward year-on-year comparison which shows an increase in the average household income of 0.7%, with households at the lower end of the distribution showing above average gains. The main welfare rate increases of €5 per week announced in budget 2019 are well ahead of the forecast inflation of 1.2% next year, resulting in increases of between 2.5% and 4.6% for people of working age and 2.1% for pensioners compared with 2018 rates.

My Department will publish the budget 2019 social impact assessment before the end of this year.

There are different ways of measuring income, and there is no rule that says one way is better, more equitable or correct than another. The ESRI, using its measurement system, concluded that the budget represents a small net loss for households on average, with larger than proportional losses for lone parents, retirees and lower income households. Page 14 of the report states:

losses of disposable income are on average largest for the third lowest income decile (0.94 per cent) and smallest for the highest income decile (0.37 per cent). With the exception of the very lowest income decile, households in the bottom half of the income distribution ... lose by more than those in the upper half ...

Is that not a very compelling case for the budget to be poverty proofed, or equality proofed? Various commitments were made publicly that it would be done. What is the position in that regard?

The budget is poverty proofed every single year because the aim in giving back workers more of the tax the Government takes out of their pockets is to improve their financial status. The aim in increasing financial payments under every single scheme in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is to improve the financial status of those who are entirely reliant on social welfare. When we look at the recent poverty data from the 2017 survey of income and living conditions which was published in recent weeks, they show significant reductions in the two main poverty rates. The consistent poverty rate for 2017 was finally down, which I was not expecting because I felt the qualified child increases and the changes we had made to payments for lone parents in last year's budget would not have had as much of an impact as they did. We have moved from a consistent poverty rate of 8.2% to 6.7%, which is nowhere close to the targets we have set for 2020, but given that we increased significantly the qualified child increases in this year's budget, I am hopeful that next year's figures will be even better. The deprivation rate is 18.8%, down from 21% in 2016. We have a long way to go, but what is most important is that there is a continuing downwards trend in the rates of consistent and persistent poverty and that there is a continuing upwards trend in employment, which is the single and most effective route out of poverty for any person or family.

I have also studied the recent figures and what the Minister did not say was that some of the movements were extremely slow, while others have moved in the opposite direction. However, I do concede that the position is generally improving. Nevertheless, I put it to the Minister that many people have still been left behind. One in five children is living below the poverty line. Some 10,000 people, 4,000 of whom are children, will be forced to spend this Christmas in emergency accommodation. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul tell us that it is receiving 1,000 calls per day in the run-up to Christmas. Is the Minister optimistic that she will achieve her stated targets to reduce the rates of consistent poverty and child poverty? When is it proposed to publish the national action plan for social inclusion 2018 to 2021?

I am especially mindful of the draw on people's pockets at this time of year, not just of the the people about whom the Deputy is talking who are entirely reliant on social welfare, and it was the main driver of my seeking an increase in the Christmas bonus, a term I do not like. I think we should call it something else. The extra payment given to families who are entirely reliant on social welfare payments was increased to 100%, having been drastically cut in recent years because we did not have the money to make it. That is a small indication of the Government's intention to try to address the extra costs people face at this time of year.

The funny thing about statistics is that different people read and interpret them in different ways. The only way I can determine the survey of income and living conditions, SILC, and the ESRI's determinations is that the levels of consistent and persistent poverty for families, especially children, are reducing. They might not be reducing as fast as the Deputy and I would like, but they are definitely reducing, which is incredibly positive.

The small increase in qualified child increases to which we agreed in this House last year in budget 2018, in addition to the changes in employment practices and circumstances, the income disregards introduced for both the working family payment which has been designed to help people with families who are in employment and lone family and working transition payments, have had a significant impact on the rate of consistent poverty which has reduced from 8.2% to 6.7%. Given that we have introduced multiple disregards and increases this year, I hope they will have a significant impact on the figures at the end of 2019, but we will not know that until next year. However, I am genuinely positive. For me, the single biggest driver and the fastest route out of poverty for a person or family is a job. That is the reason I fight with Deputy John Brady week in and week over JobPath-----

I am afraid the Minister's time is up.

-----because it is the most significant and impactful scheme we have ever had in the history of the State in helping those who are long-term unemployed to get back into employment. I am sorry, a Cheann Comhairle.

State Pensions

Martin Heydon

Question:

52. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the ongoing review of those in receipt of contributory pensions since 2012; when the reviews will be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53388/18]

Martin Heydon

Question:

59. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when women on reduced contributory pensions since 2012 owing to time spent caring in the home can expect to hear the results of their reviews; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53438/18]

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

61. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the review of pensions affected by the social insurance band changes in budget 2012; the number contacted to date for assessment; the number of assessments completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [52802/18]

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

87. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when the entire review process for those affected by the 2012 contributory pension changes will be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53416/18]

Will the Minister update the House on the ongoing review of those in receipt of contributory pensions since 2012? When does she expect the review to be completed? As people throughout the country have received the letters about it, it would be good to receive an update on its status.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 52, 59, 61 and 87 together.

I might attempt to finish on a positive note. I thank Deputy Heydon who has had a particular interest in recent months in representing women in the main from his constituency until we get this over the line.

In late September, following the phased recruitment of more than 70 temporary staff, the examination of approximately 79,000 individual social insurance records of pensioners identified for review commenced. The work will continue until the end of the year. Given that we are close to that time, I expect the review to come to an end at the end of this week. The number for review will increase weekly, as new non-maximum rate contributory State pension claims are awarded. Information letters have issued to the 79,000 pensioners to let them know that their social insurance records are being examined. Once the legislation is enacted which happened yesterday, my Department will commence the reviews and calculate their pension entitlements using the interim total contributions approach, TCA. As the reviews are processed, the pensioners involved will be notified of the outcome of their review, or if it is not obvious to us owing to gaps in payment records, they will be asked to provide further information to allow the review to be concluded. Where the review results in a rate increase, their weekly payment will be adjusted and arrears owed will be backdated to 30 March 2018, or the pensioner's 66th birthday, if later than 30 March 2018. Where an increase is not awarded, their personal rate of pension will remain unchanged.

Given the numbers involved, I expect it to take my Department a number of months to work through all of the claim reviews and give a final award settlement to those who are successful. Work on the reviews will continue until all identified pensioners have been notified of their review outcome. I hope that brings the Deputy up to date.

When does the Minister expect the first decisions to be made? I accept that the entire process will take some months to complete and that it will be some time before the final payments are made. Difficult cases in which information must be provided will take longer to complete. Can some people expect to receive confirmation of decisions in January or February? Does the Minister expect a significant number of payments to be made in the early part of the year? I continue to ask about this issue because there is significant interest in it. Up to the point when letters arrived people probably doubted that anything was happening. It is important for them to be reassured that the payments will be backdated to March 2018. Will the Minister give a broad outline of when she thinks the first decisions will be made and how many cases will be processed in the first few months of 2019? I accept that 79,000 is a significant number of cases for the departmental officials to examine.

The Deputy should not apologise for asking questions. I doubt that there is any Deputy in the House who does not meet women who ask the same questions at the weekend. I certainly do. Of the 79,000 who received a letter, we have completed a review of social insurance records for approximately 55,000. Therefore, there will be no need for us to interact with that cohort as the system is automated. However, one cannot automate everything on day one. The process will start in January and people will begin to receive notification, week by week, as we go through and complete cases.

Where people have gaps in their records, they are also very clear and obvious to us and they will receive a letter asking them to log on to the mywelfare.ie page to fill in the gaps or contact the local office to give it the information. It will be evident early in 2019 that people will start to receive not only their increased payments but also their backdated payments to March 2018. Those who have gaps in their records will be contacted where we cannot find an obvious explanation, for example, for missing contributions in 1972 or 1979 because we cannot match them with the PPS number of a child who was born in the same year. We have done all of the preparatory back-office work with individuals where we can. That is how we have been able to provide complete records for approximately 55,000 people.

Where we do not have those complete records, we will contact people very early in the new year and ask them to come forward. The Deputy will see movement. If somebody is at home and does not get a letter or payment by the middle of February, he or she should not worry. We took on 70 new staff to do this but there are 79,000 individual records. We have allocated for January, February and March.