Social Welfare Commission Bill 2020: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for the establishment of a commission to make recommendations and report annually on the adequacy of social welfare rates in the State; and to provide for related matters.

From a social protection perspective in recent months, Covid has done two things. It has put a spotlight on the adequacy and effectiveness of our social welfare rates and it has shown how quickly one Department can make big changes.

As soon as Covid hit, one thing became clear. People who lost their jobs could not live on €203 per week. In fact, the pandemic unemployment payment, when introduced in March, was up almost 75% from the regular jobseeker's payment of €203. That in itself is a recognition of the inadequacy of €203. That is an issue we must now look at to ensure our social welfare system can, at the very least, protect those relying on it from poverty. That should be a basic aim but we are not achieving it and I believe Covid has exposed that fact. Currently, weekly social welfare rates are set below the poverty line. This Bill ensures that increases at budget time are based on needs and evidence and it will put a stop to the political football we see every year approaching budget time. Nobody who relies on social welfare in this State should be left hoping for a fiver when the budget comes around. Social welfare rates should be set at the minimum essential standard of living to ensure adequacy and protection against poverty. That is the least that the most vulnerable in our society who rely on social protection deserve. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Social Justice Ireland, the European Anti-Poverty Network, the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, Age Action Ireland and the National Women's Council of Ireland have all called for social welfare rates to be set at the minimum essential standard of living. They are the organisations on the front line supporting and advocating for those who rely on social welfare supports and they should be listened to.

This Bill also makes provision for a poverty impact assessment on Government policy decisions before they are implemented. If that was in place when the age limit was reduced to seven on the one-parent family payment as well as the cut to the earnings disregard at that time, that policy would not have gone ahead and lone-parent families would not have suffered as greatly as they did. An Indecon report on the impact of those changes taken by Fine Gael and the Labour Party that we secured in the Social Welfare Bill in 2016 concluded that the evidence indicated it was that Government policy that increased the probability of lone-parent families being at risk of poverty as a direct result of those changes. Government policy actively made life more difficult for lone parents and their children and that should never happen. That policy was introduced with no regard for the consequences.

Similarly in relation to the increases in the pension age which began in 2014, such a poverty impact assessment would not have allowed such a policy to go ahead. As we sit here today, over 90,000 children are living in consistent poverty every single day. These children have been robbed of their childhoods, of that carefree nature, the fun and the make-believe. That has been replaced with fear, worry and uncertainty. Two months ago, a Central Statistics Office, CSO, report showed an increase in deprivation levels in the last year alone of over 45% of lone-parent families and over one in five children.

We are nowhere close to tackling poverty in this State. I know what I am proposing in relation to social welfare rates cannot be done overnight but we need to start taking steps to strengthen and improve our social protection system so that, at the very least, it guarantees an adequate payment and protection from poverty for our lone parents, for carers, for persons with a disability, for young jobseekers who are expected to live on €112 per week, for widows and for older people who have contributed so much in their lifetime to society. I commend this Bill to the House.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time"

Question put and agreed to.