That Dáil Éireann:
— there are 218,817 lone parent families living in the State (Census 2016);
— Ireland’s level of lone parent families is amongst the highest in the European Union and growing;
— lone parent families have suffered disproportionately during the economic recession and in the subsequent period of economic growth;
— according to the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, in terms of the impact of social welfare supports, lone parent families are in deep income inadequacy;
— lone parent families experience consistent poverty at a rate five times that of households headed by two parents; and
— according to the latest Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) undertaken by the Central Statistics Office, 39.9 per cent of lone parent families live at risk of poverty (up from 39.4 per cent the previous year) and 44.5 per cent experience deprivation;
further notes that:
— lone parents are obliged to seek maintenance payments from the non-custodial parent as a condition of receiving the One-Parent Family Payment (OFP) and Jobseeker’s Transitional Payment;
— there is no State body or agency in place in Ireland to support or assist lone parents in seeking child maintenance for their child(ren);
— many lone parents have to go to court in order to seek child maintenance;
— the use of courts increases stress and conflict within families;
— an order to pay maintenance as determined by a judge does not guarantee the payment of said maintenance;
— child maintenance payments are included as household means in the assessment of social welfare supports for lone parents regardless of whether it is actually paid or not;
— a recent survey by the One Family organisation found that of the 1,068 respondents, 42 per cent of lone parents receive no child maintenance at all; and
— figures from the Maintenance Recovery Unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which pursues non-custodial parents to cover the costs of the OFP, shows that this Unit is ineffective;
— the 2017 Indecon report entitled ‘Independent Review of the Amendments to the One-Parent Family Payment since January 2012’, concluded that changes to this payment led to an increase in the percentage of lone parents who could not afford basic items such as a warm waterproof coat, two pairs of strong shoes, or turning on the heating at home;
— lone parent organisations, One Family and SPARK-Ireland (Single Parents Acting For Rights of Kids) have highlighted major concerns with the current arrangements in place for lone parents seeking maintenance;
— the 2017 report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended that Ireland ‘Consider establishing a statutory maintenance authority and prescribing amounts for child maintenance in order to reduce the burden on women of having to litigate to seek child maintenance orders.’;
— research has also concluded that in countries where maintenance is paid, it plays a role in reducing poverty; and
— research also shows that where maintenance payments are seen as a private family matter alone, without guaranteed maintenance support systems in place, the number of lone parents receiving child maintenance is low;
— Ireland has failed to meet its targets to date on reducing child poverty; and
— citizens can be imprisoned for not paying their television licence, yet parents who neglect their responsibility for maintaining their dependent child(ren) do so without repercussions;
and calls on the Government to:
— fund research into examining best international practice when it comes to determining, collecting, transferring and pursuing child maintenance payments;
— engage and include all stakeholders in this funded project from point of design and establishing terms of reference, to implementation; and
— establish, based on that research, a statutory child maintenance service with sufficient enforcement powers and links to Revenue.
I will be sharing time with my colleagues.
Three weeks ago, I met domestic abuse survivor and campaigner, Jessica Bowes, a lone parent to three children. Jessica, like many lone parents, took her former partner to court to pursue maintenance payments, having been directed to do so by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. One week later, Jessica was violently assaulted by her former partner. The assault was nearly fatal. That was the price she paid for taking her former partner to court to seek maintenance. That was her experience of seeking maintenance.
For Jessica and many other lone parents, I am delighted to bring this motion before the House this evening. I hope we will have a healthy debate leading to consensus on the need for a child maintenance service. I move this motion with the support of both lead lone-parent organisations, One Family and SPARK, which have consistently highlighted major difficulties with the current process which requires lone parents to take their former partner to court in order to seek maintenance payments, something no parent should ever have to do. I commend both organisations on the excellent work they do every day for lone parent mothers and fathers, and their children. I am delighted that some of them are in the Gallery this evening.
There are many reasons for the urgent establishment of a child maintenance service. The main reason is that courtrooms are no place for child maintenance payments to be determined. That is the bottom line. More important, the current process involving the Courts Service does not work. I will set out the current process to the House. A lone parent who applies for the one-parent family payment must prove that he or she has sought maintenance from the other parent in order to receive and retain this social welfare support. In essence, in order to receive a payment specifically for lone parents, lone parents are not entitled to this payment unless they can show that they have sought maintenance. This leaves lone parents with no option other than to take their former partner to court to seek that maintenance.
A court summons for maintenance cannot be issued by the court unless the lone parent can provide an address for the other parent, which is not always known. There are no statutory guidelines on how the rate of payment for maintenance should be set and instead it is left to the discretion of the judge of the day. Naturally, different judges make different determinations. If a maintenance order is put in place by the courts and the non-custodial parent does not comply, the lone parent is back to square one and left to issue enforcement proceedings.
If the non-custodial parent fails to appear at court proceedings, a bench warrant is issued. This typically sits on a desk in a Garda station gathering dust, adding further delay. At the end of it all, the lone parent is no better off. In many cases, lone parents are worse off because once a maintenance order is granted, it is taken as household means, reducing other social welfare supports regardless of whether the maintenance is paid.
In every country in the world where statutory maintenance arrangements are in place, child maintenance plays a role in reducing poverty, something the Government has failed to do. The rate of consistent poverty among lone-parent families is five times higher than in families headed by two parents. Some 39.9% of lone-parent families live at risk of poverty. By its own admission, the Government will not come anywhere close to reaching its target of lifting 95,000 children out of poverty by 2020. Establishing a child maintenance service would help to lift children out of poverty. More than that, a statutory child maintenance service would protect women who have to seek maintenance. It would support them and provide them with advice and assistance. It would put children first at long last.
I commend the motion to the House and I hope that we can work together to make it happen because lone-parent families deserve nothing less.