Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

State Pensions

Mark Ward

Question:

22. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if a person will be entitled to a State pension when they turn 66 years of age before a review is completed by the commission on pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17967/20]

James Lawless

Question:

26. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when the commission on pensions will be established; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18964/20]

Niamh Smyth

Question:

81. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of plans to set up a commission to review the pension age; if the details of same and clarity will be provided in relation to the matter; her plans in relation to same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18472/20]

Peter Fitzpatrick

Question:

92. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when the required amending legislation to postpone the rise in the qualifying age for the State pension up to 67 years of age due to take place in January 2020 will be published in order to comply with the commitment in the programme for Government; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19023/20]

I am in the cheap seats in the back. The Government has decided to defer the issue of the pension age and commission a review. Before the review of the commission on pensions is completed, will a person be entitled to a State pension when they turn 66?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 22, 26, 81 and 92 together.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government stated in the Programme for Government - Our Shared Future that the increase in the State pension age planned for next year will be deferred.  This will require the amendment of primary legislation. The Government will bring the necessary legislation before the Oireachtas later this year.

The public policy and social issues related to funding a sustainable and adequate State pension system are complex.  We are therefore establishing a commission on pensions to examine a range of issues including contributions, calculation methods, sustainability, eligibility and intergenerational fairness.  Intergenerational fairness concerns how the decisions we make will impact on the young people of today by the time they reach pensionable age.

The terms of reference for the commission on pensions are currently being developed and options for its membership are being considered.  I will bring proposals in that regard to the Government as soon as possible.  It is anticipated that the commission will be considering submissions from a wide range of stakeholders, including key NGOs in the area.

Once it has concluded its deliberations, the commission will report to the Government by June of next year.  In the meantime, pending this report and decisions taken on its recommendations, this Government has clearly stated that the State pension age will remain at 66 years and will not be increased to 67 in January 2021 as currently legislated for.

This Government is acutely conscious of the need to consider the sustainability of the State's finances.  However, this is not the only consideration when thinking of the State pension age.  The State pension is the bedrock of the pension system in Ireland.  It is extremely effective at ensuring that our pensioners do not experience poverty.  The Government is committed to ensuring that this remains the case.

I thank the Minister. Let us be honest. The Government has kicked the issue of the pension age down the road. It became such a hot potato during the February election that neither Fine Gael nor its coalition partners could handle it.

Fianna Fáil flip-flopped on increasing the pension age to 67, while Fine Gael, as we heard a few moments ago, wanted to cobble together an idea for an early retirement allowance, which would have hit people in the pocket by up to €2,000 a year. There was no consensus from the Government. What Sinn Féin wanted to do was reduce the pension age back to 65 so that people who have worked for their entire lives can retire with the dignity they deserve. That is without the indignity of having to sign on for jobseeker's allowance for a year prior to going on the State pension or being forced into job activation measures.

When will the review be complete? Will the Government consider bringing back the State pension age to 65?

To clarify, if someone reaches the age of 65 and has to retire for whatever reason, he or she does not have to sign on, as is the requirement for jobseeker's allowance. He or she has just to fill out an application form. Furthermore, such an applicant does not have to be actively seeking work and he or she will receive a payment of €203 for the duration of the year before going onto the State pension.

I too have been on the doorsteps and I also listen to people. We are taking a fresh look at everything, which is why we are setting up a commission. This is in the programme for Government. We have all signed up to it and we have collectively agreed to it.

From personal experience, I have a different view on the matter. I would like to tell the Minister about my father, who started work at the age of 12, having left school very early, as was par for the course back then. He joined the Defence Forces at the age of 17 and served the State for 25 years, both here and abroad. He then, ironically, started working for the Department with responsibility for social protection, which he worked for up to the age of 65, when he retired last April. After spending 53 years working in the State, instead of being allowed to retire with dignity and with a State pension, my father was forced to go onto jobseeker's allowance for a year. That indignity was not unique to my father; there are thousands like him.

When a person reaches the age of 65, he or she should have a right to the State pension. For Sinn Féin, the idea that somebody would be forced to continue working until almost 70, or that people of 65 or 66 years old would be sent down to the dole queue, is absolutely disgraceful. Has the Government any plans or intentions to reduce the pension age back to 65, to allow people to retire with the dignity they deserve?

I reiterate that that has been changed. If someone reaches the age of 65 and is going to retire, he or she must fill out one form and that is it. He or she will not be asked to sign on again and will receive the payment for the full 12 months prior to reaching the pension age at 66. That is an improvement.

Nevertheless, I accept what the Deputy is saying. For people who have worked all their lives, it was unfair that they had to sign on for jobseeker's allowance. That has been changed and such people will now be able to get that payment for a full 12 months. They do not have to be actively looking for work.

The pension age is currently 66. As I said earlier, we will be setting up a commission on pensions. This is a complex area. The commission on pensions will review the whole matter and I will then bring a report to the Government.

Farm Assist Scheme

Brendan Smith

Question:

23. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if insurance contributions will be credited to farmers for pension purposes for the time they were in receipt of farm assist; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18806/20]

Brendan Smith

Question:

44. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if insurance contributions will be credited to farmers for pension purposes for the time they were in receipt of farm assist, which caused a break in their insurance contributions records; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18805/20]

As the Minister will be aware, a cohort of people have reached, or about to reach, pension age, and they have been paying social insurance contributions towards a contributory pension. Now they have found that because their insurance record was broken while they were in receipt of the farm assist payment, they are now entitled only to a reduced contributory pension.

I believe that this is a small cohort of people. I am very anxious that those people who had to go on the farm assist payment because of reduced farm income should, for the periods they were in receipt of the payment, be given due recognition with contributions credited to their insurance record to ensure they are not all deprived of the full contributory pension.

Currently, PRSI-credited contributions or credits are awarded to former employees only, to cover gaps in social insurance where they are not in a position to pay PRSI contributions, such as during periods of unemployment or illness. Self-employed workers do not qualify for credits as one social insurance payment per annum provides the full 52 contributions for that year.

The farm assist scheme was introduced in 1999 to provide income support for low-income farmers. It replaced the former smallholder's unemployment assistance payment, in line with the then arrangement for unemployment assistance, including the smallholder's unemployment assistance and the pre-retirement allowance. The non-welfare income of farm assist payment recipients was exempt from the payment of class S PRSI for self-employed workers. Recipients of the farm assist payment who had previously paid class S social insurance contributions had the option of making voluntary contributions to maintain their social insurance record, provided they satisfied the qualifying conditions to do so.

Since 1 January 2007, the exemption from class S PRSI has been removed and those self-employed persons receiving jobseeker's allowance or the farm assist payment are subject to class S PRSI as self-employed contributors on their self-employed income, provided their annual income is €5,000 or more. Any self-employed person, including farmers, with an annual income of less than €5,000 can make voluntary contributions to maintain his or her social insurance record for pension purposes, once qualified to do so.

A person aged 66 or over with insufficient PRSI contributions to qualify for a full State contributory pension may claim a State non-contributory pension if he or she has an income need. The maximum weekly personal rate is €237, which is more than 95% of the maximum State contributory pension rate. While it is means-tested, there are very significant disregards to the benefit of claimants and a significant majority of such pensioners are paid at the full rate. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

As the Minister quite rightly pointed out, the farm assist scheme was introduced in 1999. Deputy Ó Cuív, who is here, some others and I were strong advocates for changing the then smallholder's farm assistance payment because it was based on historical farm income. The farm assist scheme was quite rightly introduced to take account of present income circumstances. As we know, there can be a very sudden change in farm income circumstances, perhaps due to an outbreak of disease in a herd, a sudden drop in international prices for commodities or weather-related events, which can impact very severely on farm incomes.

The Minister mentioned the change in the PRSI exemptions in 2007. I am talking about the cohort of farmers between 1999 and 2007 who had a break in their insurance contributions due to availing of the farm assist scheme. They did not know that their record was broken. People generally understood that if someone went onto the social welfare payment, his or her insurance contribution would be maintained. I have spoken to accountants, predominantly small-scale ones such as the Minister would know from her two counties. They have said that in many instances, farmers came to them when they reached pension age and were horrified to learn that their insurance record was broken and that they did not have an entitlement to a full pension.

I believe, through my constituency work and from checking with other colleagues who deal with small-scale farm holders, that there is only a small number of people involved. They are being denied justice through not having the knowledge at the time or because they were never informed by the Department or the Revenue Commissioners that they needed to make a contribution while they were in receipt of the farm assist payment.

The farm assist scheme is absolutely essential. There are farmers who benefit from it and need it to put bread on the table.

I am absolutely committed to the scheme.

The Deputy is referring to a particular cohort of farmers who were in the scheme from 1999 to 2007 and I take his point. I am very new in this job but I would be happy to sit down with the Deputy and try to find some resolution. As he said, the number of farmers involved is not huge and I agree that they did not realise they had to make these payments. Some of them have visited my office. They did not have to pay tax so they may not have had an accountant to help them to send in returns and make contributions. I accept the Deputy's point. It would be useful if we could meet and examine the matter with my officials.

I welcome the Minister's approach. I would be glad to sit down with her and Deputy Ó Cuív to go through the particular lacuna in the legislation. This is a crunch time for this small cohort of people because they are approaching pension age. I hope we can make progress on the issue and ensure that these people are not denied their maximum pension contribution. As we know, they work very hard. In many cases, their incomes were below the living standard for many years, through no fault of their own. They worked very hard over the years and only availed of State assistance when absolutely necessary. Many were shocked to find when they reached pension age and filled out the forms that their insurance contribution records were broken.

I would be happy to examine this matter with Deputies Smith and Ó Cuív to try to find a resolution for this particular group of people. As I said, I am new to the job. Sometimes decisions made in one area can have unintended consequences in other areas. I will arrange the meeting as soon as we can. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

We will move to Question No. 25 as the Deputy is not here to ask Question No. 24.

Question No. 24 replied to with Written Answers.

Social Welfare Schemes

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

25. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the review she plans to carry out of the means testing of social welfare payments and payments under the community employment and rural social schemes to ensure means testing is not acting as a disincentive to saving money or to the increasing of employed or self-employed income; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18538/20]

Since moving to the west many years ago and finding out about the means testing system, I have always believed it to be penal. We often speak of how the tax system can act as a disincentive to workers saving but it also fair to admit that the social welfare system does that more. I will give one example. In the case of most working age means tested payments, with the exception of disability, which I will discuss when we reach Question No. 28, any savings over-----

The Deputy should only introduce the question.

-----€40,000 are considered as if they generated an income of 20% per annum.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I understand the question seeks my view on whether the weekly payment rates for schemes such as the community employment, rural social and Tús schemes represent a fair and adequate incentive to a married person to participate in the schemes. My Department provides a range of social employment and training programmes that are targeted at long-term unemployed jobseekers and those most distant from the labour market. These supports include the community employment, Tús and rural social schemes.  The rural social scheme provides local employment opportunities for low income farmers and fisherman. Deputy Ó Cuív is very familiar with the rural social and Tús schemes as he designed and introduced them as Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.  I commend him on that initiative as I am very aware of the benefits that these schemes bring to communities throughout Ireland, in particular rural communities.

 The aims of the community employment programme and the rural social and Tús schemes are to enhance the employability of disadvantaged and unemployed people by providing work experience and training opportunities for participants.  The payment rates for participants on these schemes are based on the underlying value of their social protection payment plus an additional payment of €22.50 per week, with a minimum payment to each participant of €225.50 per week.  In addition, a participant may be eligible for additional weekly payments in respect of any qualified dependent adult and for each dependent child, depending on the household composition and means.

Rural social scheme participants work 19.5 hours per week and the agreed hours are based on a farmer or fisher-friendly schedule.  This is to ensure that participation on the scheme does not adversely affect normal farming or fishing activity. 

Participating on employment support schemes such as the community employment and rural social schemes also provides participants with an opportunity to pursue additional employment outside of the 19.5 hours required of the schemes.  In the case of the rural social scheme in particular, it should be noted that scheme participants have other income from self-employment as farmers or fisherman.

If the Minister reads the question, she will see that it covers all means testing on social welfare schemes, community employment schemes and the rural social scheme. I presume she is aware that where a person on the jobseeker's allowance, for example, has income from self-employment other than farming, the Department means tests that self-employed income at 100%. In other words, if a person earns €30 a week from self-employment, he or she will lose €30 a week from the jobseeker's allowance. In the case of farmers, with the exception of the environmental schemes, for every €100 earned, €70 is taken back. The top tax earners in the country are not penalised like that. Does the Minister believe that is fair? Is it not time we looked at this again and introduced a much fairer system for people who have small incomes from self-employment on farms?

I would be happy to sit down with the Deputy to discuss these schemes, which are good initiatives. If improvements are necessary, I would like to hear what they are. I will meet the Deputy with my officials to examine this issue and hear how he believes the schemes can be improved. I want the system to help people and to be fair and equitable. I do not want to see people disadvantaged.

There is an open door for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for the very positive response. In the standard reply she provided, she implied that the rural social scheme is an activation scheme to help people get employment. That is certainly not the way the scheme was designed. It was designed as a supplementary income scheme in return for a substantial contribution to services in local parishes up and down the country by small farmers to supplement their income. It has been very successful in that regard.

Until Joan Burton was appointed Minister for Social Protection, people on the rural social scheme were entitled to the full basic entitlement, in other words, there was no penalty for having a farm because by definition all participants had a farm. Now we expect people to work for 19.5 hours per week for the generous sum of €22.50. This is not an activation scheme but a work scheme. Does the Minister believe that a rate of just over €1 per hour is recompense for the high quality work being done by these workers? Will she also discuss this with me when we meet because I would like to discuss the idea behind the scheme? It was definitely not an activation scheme; it was a work scheme in return for an income.

Another door for the Minister to open.

The Deputy and I have worked on a number of issues to which we got very satisfactory resolutions. I am happy to go through these schemes with him. He will be able to give me valuable information. I want to work with people on examining issues and, where possible, improving them.

Question No. 26 answered with Question No. 22.

Child Maintenance Payments

Claire Kerrane

Question:

27. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the difficulties faced by lone parents in terms of child maintenance payments; if reform in the area will be a priority; if so, the timeline for such reforms; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19007/20]

Is the Minister aware of the difficulties being faced by loan parents when it comes to the collection of child maintenance payments? Will reform in this area, as indicated in the programme for Government, be a priority for her?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am conscious that the Covid-19 public health restrictions have added to the strain on all parents, and lone parents in particular. While my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, has lead responsibility for maintenance issues, my Department has moved swiftly to address issues that have been raised regarding maintenance for lone parents as a result of the pandemic.

At the outset of the pandemic, my Department ensured that the pandemic unemployment payment could be paid concurrently with certain social welfare payments, including the one-parent family payment and the jobseekers' transitional payment. My Department has also simplified the system for lone parents to declare the non-payment of maintenance. This ensures that lone parents who are not receiving maintenance do not have to wait until the court order is changed to get their one-parent family or jobseeker's transitional payments reassessed. This measure aims to ensure that lone parents in receipt of these schemes do not experience major income losses due to their maintenance payments ceasing.

Regarding longer term reform, my predecessor established a child maintenance review group to examine a number of issues relating to child maintenance. Specifically, the group is tasked with examining whether there is a case for the establishment of a child maintenance agency. The group is being chaired by former Circuit Court Judge Catherine Murphy. The programme for Government reasserted the commitment by the Government to be guided by international best practice and the findings of this review.

The purpose of the child maintenance review group is to consider and make recommendations on the current treatment within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of child maintenance payments, the current provisions relating to the liable relatives regarding child maintenance, and the establishment of a State child maintenance agency. It is envisaged that the group will undertake a consultation exercise with representative groups and the public as part of its work. The group will be holding its first meeting in the coming weeks and it is intended that it will submit a report to me within 12 months.

I acknowledge the commitment in the programme for Government to reform our child maintenance system. My party tabled proposals in 2018, and a revised version in 2019, on establishing a child maintenance service, which is badly needed. Lone parent families feature too highly in rates of consistent poverty, deprivation and beingat risk of poverty. They need to be considered. Evidence shows that the payment of maintenance can make a difference when it comes to poverty. As such, I welcome the Minister's commitment in that regard. I appreciate that this interlinks with the Department of Justice and Equality, but I see no reason it could not be done if the two Departments worked together. Will the Minister examine Sinn Féin's proposals on establishing a child maintenance service similar to the one that works well in the North?

There will be a North-South Ministerial Council meeting on Friday and I will be happy to hear from my counterpart in Northern Ireland as to how its child maintenance agency works. I thank the Deputy for that suggestion.

This is a complex issue. As the Deputy knows, parents have a responsibility to pay maintenance for their children. However, some do not pay. I saw that at first hand when I worked as a manager of a credit union, where parents - mainly women - were down at the breadline because they could not get their maintenance payments. It was a very difficult time for them. As such, I am glad that the review group has been established and I look forward to its findings. I am happy to work with the Deputy on this matter. It is something that impacts on women in particular. I want to see improvements in the area.

I take it from that that the Minister will examine our proposals. I am happy to furnish her with a copy of them. They have been published twice in recent years.

There are two issues with child maintenance. First, where those payments are actually made, they are viewed as household means for many social welfare supports. That is wrong and the Minister needs to examine the matter. Child maintenance should be viewed as a payment towards the child's upbringing, not as household means for social welfare supports that are badly needed by lone parent families.

Second, the Minister mentioned the liable relative in her response. The liable relative is pursued by her Department when recouping costs under the one-parent family payment, but he or she is not pursued for child maintenance. The issue is firmly left with the Courts Service, which is no place for a lone parent. Nine times out of ten, lone parents will not even bother going down the court route because they do not want to be in the court system. There are no statutory guidelines on how maintenance should be paid. It is left up to the judge on the day. If the non-custodial parent does not pay the maintenance order, it is on the lone parent to pursue the matter. That is too much for a lone parent. We need to support lone parent families.

The review group will examine the treatment within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of child maintenance payments, the current provisions relating to liable relatives regarding child maintenance, and the establishment of a child maintenance agency. There are very experienced people on the group and I look forward to receiving their report in due course.

Disability Allowance

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

28. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to change the rules in respect of the treatment of savings for those on disability allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18539/20]

We are back to my old hobby horse, that of means testing. There are people who are so disabled from birth or an early age that they will never be able to get employment or make social welfare contributions. The only social welfare payment open to them is the disability allowance. The way that income, capital and savings are assessed against these people is unfair. I would be interested to hear what the Minister intends to do to reform this system.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The system of social assistance supports provides payments based on an income need. The means test plays a critical role in determining whether an income need arises as a consequence of a particular contingency such as disability, unemployment or caring. This ensures that the recipient has a verifiable income need and that resources are targeted at those who need them most. The means test takes account of the income that a person or couple has in terms of cash, property other than the family home, and capital.

Disability allowance is unique in the social welfare system, as the first €50,000 of capital - savings, shares or property - is fully disregarded in the capital means test. This compares with €20,000 for most other social assistance schemes. After the first €50,000 of capital is disregarded, the next €10,000 is assessed at €1 per thousand, the next €10,000 is assessed at €2 per thousand and the remainder is assessed at €4 per thousand. The disregard results in approximately 98% of people on disability allowance with capital means having no capital actually assessed as means.

People receiving disability allowance may also be eligible for secondary benefits such as free travel, fuel allowance, the household benefits package, the living alone allowance and the telephone support allowance. In addition, disability allowance recipients may also work and earn up to €120 per week without their payments being affected.

In addition, disability allowance recipients may also work and earn up to €210 per week without their payment being affected. Any proposals to change the capital means assessment for disability allowance would have to be considered in the overall budgetary context.

Let us go back to the cohort I spoke about, who are so disabled that this talk of getting employment just does not arise. I have come across cases where a parent dies and leaves, say, €100,000 to an adult child who has been disabled since birth. In that case the disability allowance payment dropped from €203 to €53 per week. If the parents leave €110,000 it reduces the payment to €13 a week. If parents die and a family home is sold, if they left €120,000, then the person with a disability would be entitled to no disability allowance. We have to remember that these thresholds are way beneath the inheritance tax threshold. For this very vulnerable group where parents make a huge effort to leave them something, is the Minister willing to look at it again? I am talking about people who have always been disabled and will never have an opportunity to make a social contribution in terms of getting an invalidity pension.

I hear what the Deputy is saying. There are disregards there, as I have pointed out. The first €50,000 of the €100,000 is disregarded and the next amount is done on a sliding scale. The disability allowance covers a wide range of recipients. I will have to speak to my officials about this. I take the point the Deputy is making. The matter would need a fairly in-depth analysis as to what we can do in this space.

I will give the Minister another example, a real-life case. A parent scrimped and saved throughout their life and wanted to make an extra provision for their disabled offspring. They bought a pension of €100 a week and gave it to the adult offspring. In this case, it reduced the disability allowance by €100 per week which meant the parent would end up saving the State money but doing nothing for their own child. When I and the Minister meet, maybe we could also discuss these cases. They are not hypothetical but real cases of families where there might have been a middle-class income and they really wanted to provide for their disabled children but they find all the time that the more they do, the more is taken away by the State.

I am happy to talk to the Deputy about this issue. I take the point. There are always going to be cases and it is important that we look at the system to make sure we are not leaving anybody out or causing difficulties for people.

Would the Acting Chairman mind if I made a short statement to the House on the pandemic unemployment payment, with the permission of Deputy Carroll MacNeill?

I thank the Acting Chairman. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, was introduced to support people who lost their jobs overnight as a result of Covid-19. It was a solidarity payment to protect people's income at a time of national crisis. I strongly believe that any person who breached that solidarity by claiming a payment they were not entitled to because they were no longer living in the country should have their payment stopped. Of the 2,500 PUP claims that have been stopped since March, the vast majority of these, over 90%, relate to people who were permanently leaving the country.

I have listened to the concerns expressed in recent days relating to people whose payment was stopped due to the fact they were travelling abroad on a holiday. I know that there are cases where people may have travelled abroad and genuinely not been aware of the travel guidance or criteria which applied to the PUP. Indeed, the Acting Chairman, Deputy Lahart, raised that himself yesterday. I accept that my Department could have communicated more effectively on this issue. For that reason, I have directed my Department to review all cases to date where people went on holiday and had their payment stopped.

Since the regulations relating to jobseekers were signed on 10 July, the Government’s travel advice has changed with the publication of the green list last week. On that basis and in line with the Government’s travel advice, I have now asked my officials to amend the regulations so that people on jobseeker's payments who wish to travel to any of the countries on the green list can do so and continue to receive their payment. For countries that are not on the green list, persons can travel for essential reasons only. For example, if someone is going to a non-green list country, it must be for essential reasons such as a bereavement or health reasons. If such people inform their Intreo office in advance, their payment will not be impacted.

The pandemic unemployment payment was established on an emergency ad hoc basis under the Social Welfare Act and was paid out as an exceptional needs payment. My officials advise me that under this scheme, there was no provision to receive a payment while out of the country under any circumstances. As I am currently bringing legislation through the Oireachtas to put the PUP on a statutory basis, I intend to sign regulations that will bring the PUP payment in line with jobseeker's payments. That will mean persons on PUP can travel to green list countries and their payment will not be impacted. As with jobseeker's payments, persons travelling to countries outside the green list can only do so for essential reasons.

The Government is committed to protecting people and that is why we have extended the PUP until next April. We will continue to keep all regulations under review in line with the Government’s travel and public health advice.

Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance Scheme

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Question:

29. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance; if persons in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment will be eligible to apply for the scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18809/20]

I wanted to ask about the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. I have already heard the Minister state that it is going to be extended to people on the PUP. She might outline the way in which they might go about making the application and the timing in which they might get it. For some on the Covid payment this might be the first time they have applied. Will the social welfare offices be reaching out to inform them that this is available to them?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. This year, the eligibility criteria for back to school clothing and footwear allowance have been extended to include the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment as a qualifying payment for the allowance. Recipients of this payment will also need to satisfy all the other qualifying conditions to qualify.

The back to school clothing and footwear allowance scheme provides a once-off payment to eligible families to assist with the costs of clothing and footwear when children start or return to school each autumn. The scheme operates from June to September each year. The allowance paid for each eligible child aged from four to 11 years on or before 30 September 2020 is €150 while an allowance of €275 is paid for each eligible child aged over 12 on or before 30 September 2020. The allowance is payable for eligible children between the ages of four and 17 in respect of whom a qualified child increase is being paid. It is also payable to those between the ages of 18 and 22 who are in full-time second level education and in respect of whom a qualified child allowance is being paid.

Similar to previous years, the majority of customers are awarded back to school clothing and footwear allowance automatically and notification of the awards issued to these customers in late June.

This year, 115,000 families have been automatically approved for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance in respect of 211,000 qualified children. Payments amounting to €43 million were made to these families in the week commencing 13 July 2020.

I thank the Minister. As I understand from her answer, these were people who were already in receipt of the allowance and who would have expected to be in receipt of it again. However, for that cohort of people on the Covid payment who have not gone through this process previously, how many people does the Minister believe that will apply to in those circumstances? The Minister confirmed that the other qualifying criteria - the means test and the necessity to be part of an approved scheme - are still in place. Could she confirm those to the House?

The scheme opened to new applicants on 6 July 2020. To date, a further 21,500 applications have been received. Payments of €1.25 million have already been made to 2,900 families in respect of 6,200 qualified children from the applications received to date. Anybody can apply for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance on-line at www.welfare.ie. To apply online they must have a public services card and a verified my.Gov.ie account. It is an important support for parents because, as we know, the return to school is an expensive time. Parents have to buy their children's uniforms. This money is available for all those on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and it is important that they get that support.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Sorca Clarke

Question:

31. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if an anomaly will be addressed in relation to the exclusion from the enterprise support grants eligibility criteria for the pandemic unemployment payment for trade operators who remained operating on an emergency call-out basis during the pandemic thereby ensuring homes and businesses remained safe and secure. [19014/20]

Claire Kerrane

Question:

47. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the fact that many trade workers who undertook emergency work during the Covid-19 pandemic have been locked out of supports as they return to work; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19006/20]

That question is grouped with No. 47 in my name. I ask the Minister if her attention has been drawn to the fact that many trade workers who undertook emergency call-outs during the pandemic have been locked out of supports. Specifically, I am referencing the enterprise support grant. The Minister might comment on that.

I thank the Deputies for these questions. I propose to take Questions Nos. 31 and 47 together.

The enterprise support grant is being extended to assist eligible self-employed individuals who are exiting the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment or jobseeker's schemes after 25 June 2020 to restart their business which was closed due to the impact of the pandemic.

The grant of up to €1,000 will be payable to self-employed microenterprises which employ fewer than ten people, have an annual turnover of less than €1 million and are not eligible for support from the Covid-19 business restart grant or other similar business reopening grants.  The Department is currently developing the systems to put this support into effect and will communicate how to access the grant in the coming week or so. Funding of €12 million has been approved for this grant.

In order to be eligible for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment an individual must have lost his or her employment due to the pandemic.  Self-employed persons must have suffered a collapse in their trading income to the extent that they are available to take up other full-time work.  This means that a self-employed person can engage in once-off or sporadic emergency work and still retain eligibility for this payment.  In cases of doubt where emergency work is undertaken, an individual should discuss the matter with the Department.

If self-employed persons are ineligible for the pandemic unemployment payment, as they are engaged in regular employment or it generates significant income, they may be entitled to support under the jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance scheme depending on their individual circumstances.

I have asked several times how people will go about applying for that enterprise support grant. Will the Minister give an indication as to when she believes those matters will be decided and made public to allow people apply for them. Will those on the PUP who have returned to work without being able to apply for this payment and who do not pay rates and therefore cannot apply for the restart grant be able to apply for this enterprise support grant when they are already back at work? We have to remember that those over the age of 66 who are working - the self-employed or otherwise - who could not receive any support, including the pandemic unemployment payment, cannot access this enterprise support grant nor can they access the restart grant based on nothing other than their age. They were excluded from any supports, albeit they and their businesses suffered because of Covid-19. They were excluded based on their age. Is there a timeline for when the Minister will have the information on how people can apply for this grant?

Officials from my Department are currently developing the systems and the application process for this grant. Applicants will be asked to send their application form to their local Intreo centre to be processed for payment. Details on applying for the grant will be released early in August along with the grant application form. All details on the grant will be available on www.gov.ie.

If Deputies are happy to do so we will go back to Question No. 30 in the name of Deputy Lahart.

Pensions Reform

John Lahart

Question:

30. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the timeframe for the introduction of a pension auto-enrolment system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18961/20]

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating me. I ask the Minister about the timeframe for the introduction of a pension auto-enrolment system. She might make a statement and give some additional details on that topic.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Compared with other countries in the OECD, the proportion of employees in Ireland with supplementary pension cover is low, with just over 50% of the working population having an occupational or personal pension.  This rate reduces to 35% when the private sector is considered in isolation.  As a consequence of this low supplementary pension coverage rate, many retirees may suffer an unwanted reduction in living standards when they retire.

To address this low coverage rate, a system of automatically enrolling employees into a quality assured retirement savings plan, with freedom of choice to opt-out, has been progressed by previous Administrations. Although A Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-2023 provided for the development and implementation of an automatic enrolment, AE, retirement savings system by 2020, this Government recognises the exceptional strain that both employers and employees are now under as a result of the Covid-19 emergency. 

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection continues to work on the design of the AE system.  There are five main areas where work is ongoing so as to produce design options for Government to consider.  These areas relate to: the scope and role of the central processing authority; the nature and functions of the registered providers; the investment framework and funds to be offered by registered providers, including the design of the default fund and the pay-out phase; the design of the State financial incentive; and the phasing of implementation.

In progressing this work, the Department is receiving technical support from the European Commission’s DG Reform, which assists EU member states implementing administrative and institutional reforms. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for the reply. The Minister stated that she was aiming for 2022 but because of the strain that both employers and employees are now under as a result of Covid-19 she is implying, without actually saying it, that the date will extend beyond that. Could she be more specific as to when we can anticipate that auto-enrolment scheme to be introduced?

A Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-2023 provided for the development and implementation of the auto-enrolment retirement scheme by 2022.

This Government recognises the exceptional strain that both employers and employees are now under as a result of the Covid-19 emergency. The Government will, therefore, seek to gradually deliver the AE scheme, which will include a phased roll-out of contributions over a ten-year period. A phased introduction of the system is believed to be achievable in the current situation. It is widely recognised by many stakeholders in the public consultation process that full implementation of the AE scheme by 2022 was extremely ambitious. The AE programme management office in my Department will work on developing options for the Government to consider in order that the system can be introduced on a phased basis. Until decisions have been made on these options, it is not possible to give a more detailed timeline for the introduction of the AE scheme.