Social Welfare Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

Sections 1 to 5, inclusive, agreed to.
SECTION 6

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are out of order.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 not moved.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, to delete line 5 and substitute “€960 in relation to an eight week period,”.

I welcome that the Minister has taken on board the proposals, and the concerns and views of the music and entertainment industry. I appreciate it.

I welcome that the Minister has agreed and has clearly engaged with musicians and others. I hope that this amendment will make a difference to many workers and their families at this time.

I thank the Minister for engaging. I worry that the money and supports are not getting down to ground level, that is, to ordinary musicians who might not have the wherewithal. Significant funding is going to certain groups. I raised this at the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht when Fáilte Ireland appeared before it. It is a big agency and has a number of sources of funding because it had the wherewithal to apply. I am worried about the man in the van, the girl in the van or the two together in a van, such as a duet like Fran Curry and Muriel and bands like that, or people such as Willie Bun, a fabulous entertainer. They are not able to get it. They need to be looked after because not only are they suffering because they cannot work and earn money, but the people are missing hearing, engaging with, dancing to and enjoying their musical talents.

I addressed this issue on Second Stage. Will the Minister clarify the position on expenses? I am aware that she intends to bring forward a statutory instrument to deal with expenses that would be taken into account when coming up with the income calculation for musicians. Can she give an indication of what type of expenses we are talking about? When will that statutory instrument be laid before the House and be available to committee members?

I am happy to accept amendment No. 3 from Deputies Joan Collins and Kerrane. We do not want self-employed people to turn down work for fear that it might impact on their pandemic unemployment payment. From my engagement with musicians and artists, they have said that €960 over eight weeks would give them a bit more flexibility when it comes to taking up occasional gigs. On that basis, I am happy to accept the amendment. This is a self-declaration process. There is no application process. We are trusting people, if they earn more than €960 over eight weeks, to come and tell us. I acknowledge and recognise the work of the Committee on Social Protection, Rural and Community Development and the Islands and its Chairman, Deputy Naughten, who raised this issue with me, along with Jackie Conboy of the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland. I also acknowledge Deputy Cannon, who spoke to me about it, and who is a passionate and committed supporter of our musicians. I am happy to work with Members and to accept this amendment. I thank the Deputies and the Committee on Social Protection, Rural and Community Development and the Islands for working with me and for their co-operation.

Deputy Naughten asked which expenses will be allowable. I will make a regulation on it and the expenses will include petrol costs and insurance costs. These are costs that I can prescribe in the regulations. These are general costs that business people have. One gets an income and takes away costs to get the profit. It includes normal business costs, such as wear and tear, insurance and repairs. Whatever income is after that is what we will calculate this on.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 6, as amended, agreed to.
Sections 7 to 10, inclusive, agreed to.
SECTION 11

Amendment No. 4 is out of order.

Amendment No. 4 not moved.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 6, line 5, to delete “June 2021” and substitute “January 2021”.

I am sure the Minister is open to looking at paying the carer's grant sooner than June, if that is possible. I ask for the Minister's opinion on that.

Assuming that the Deputies intended the amendment to have the effect of paying the grant in January instead of June, I would like to point out that the current date is well established. It is known to recipients of carers' payments and other new carers who wish to apply for the grant.

It would not be possible, from an administrative point of view, to implement such a change by January 2021. The Covid adjusted unemployment rate is 21%. The Department paid the Christmas bonus this week and last week 287,000 people received Covid pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, arrears. The Department is currently adjusting its ICT system so that the parents' benefit can be increased to five weeks. We are trying to get that out as quickly as we can. Changing the date to 1 January would not allow carers to have sufficient notice of the changes. The next planned payment date for the carers support grant is the first Thursday in June.

I believe in listening to the people concerned. My Department holds a pre-budget forum every year to which the representative organisations of carers are invited. I am very happy to engage with the relevant stakeholders and the carers groups. If carers would prefer this grant to be paid in January, it is certainly something that we will be happy to look at. We are unable, however, to pay it next month due to the demands relating to PUP. I will look at it next year if the carers' groups feel that there is a demand for this. Some people may be happier to get the payment in June because it gives them the opportunity to, for example, take a break. That is what it was intended for. It was probably paid in June in order that people could use the money to take a break. If one is in receipt of the carers payment, one will receive the Christmas bonus. I would hate to think that if this money were paid in January, it would go towards paying another bill. The fact that it will be paid in June might mean that people get to use it for the purpose of which it was intended. As already stated, I am happy to engage with the carers groups and if they want this changed, I will change it next year. Is that okay?

I thank the Minister. As to her final comments, I would not agree with her in the sense that I fully trust the carers to decide when and how they get the money and how they should spend it, whether it in respect of Christmas or otherwise. I take the point that she is making, which is that she will engage and is open to changing it. On that basis, I will not press the amendment.

I am happy that the Minister has said that she will examine this and listen to the carers because they need to be listened to with regard to when the payment is made. I already welcomed the increase in the payment. Unfortunately, the reality is that it is meant to be spent on a holiday but it often has to be spent on getting extra hours of private care, on facilitating some very necessary repairs or in getting equipment to help the person being cared for. It is great, good and welcome and it is important to listen to them but carers need proper and more meaningful recognition and supports. The Minister did not reply to my question on children who are forced into a situation where they have to care for loved ones. This is just not right or fair and it is morally wrong.

I call Deputy Kerrane.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. I had a similar amendment which was correctly ruled out of order on foot of the cost to the Exchequer. I fully understand the ruling in that regard. Would the Minister consider paying half of the payment in January? As to listening to the stakeholders and carers themselves, the amendment I had put forward that it would be paid in two halves came directly from Family Carers Ireland, which, as the Minister will know, represents a very significant number of carers throughout the State. The organisation makes the point that in recognition of the difficult year that carers have had, where many of them felt very isolated, €925 could be paid in January and €925 to be paid in June. Family Carers Ireland actually suggested December but I have suggested January. This is what they are seeking.

I am conscious that Deputy Connolly has said that she is not pressing the amendment. Would the Minister like to respond to the points that have been made?

I fully understand and recognise the significant role that carers play in our society. There is no doubt about that. The role of social protection is to provide a basic income. I have asked and I want to engage with the Oireachtas committee because we all need to sit down and have a look at this. The Department of Health also has a role to play. I provide a basic income but we need to talk to the Department of Health in order to pay some carers for the amount of work they do. It is not the number of hours that this payment is for because these people are providing care 24-7. This is something that we have to look at and I am happy to engage with the committee. I have already spoken to its Chairman and indicated that we need to look at the issue and that the Department of Health should also be involved. There has been a carers strategy and a number of pieces of work have been done in that regard. However, it is incumbent on all of us, as Members of the Oireachtas, to sit down and look at what we can do to support carers.

As to Deputy Kerrane's question, I am unable to pay this in January. Everybody has recognised, and rightly so, the wonderful work that officials in my Department have been doing since March. I thank the Deputies for acknowledging that because since March they have made 13 million payments, which is the equivalent of seven years' worth of payments. One can only imagine the enormous level of work that that entailed. They have been working all hours and have had to adjust ICT systems because one cannot just change these with the stroke of a pen. Much work has to take place in the background before one can change these systems. As I said, I am happy to look at this proposal and at what will happen next year. I know that this has been a very difficult year for carers because they did not have the respite they would normally get. Unfortunately, the systems cannot be changed this year. I will look at it and perhaps next year, if that is what people want, I will be happy to accede to their request.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 11 agreed to.
SECTION 12
Question proposed: "That section 12 stand part of the Bill."

I raised a very specific concern on Second Stage regarding section 12 in the context of the working family payment and the discrimination against families with four or more children. They are the only children who are not been recognised within any increase in payments in this Bill. It is an overall cost to the Exchequer of €2.6 million out of a budget of €25 billion . That small cohort of children should not be excluded or discriminated against. I went through this point in detail on Second Stage and I ask for a detailed response because I have significant concerns about the provisions in this section as they stand, particularly in the context of the blatant discrimination against a very small cohort of children whose parents happened to be in receipt of social welfare payments. These are the only children whose parents are in receipt of social welfare payments who are not getting any increase in budget 2021 or under this legislation. When the Minister is responding, can she also clarify the position in respect of my query regarding the total contributions calculation for the State pension?

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to support Deputy Naughten on section 12 because this is discrimination against large families. The children of such families need to be fed, clothed, looked after and educated as well. It is discriminatory and I would like to see the Minister address this point because we are supposed to treat all of our children equally and it is very important that this negative impact on families of more than four children is not allowed to continue. It should be a level playing field that is fair and equitable.

First, the increase in the working family payment income threshold for a family with one, two, or three children in recent budgets is a targeted measure benefiting the majority of low-income families who are in receipt of the working family payment. As of June, this cohort represented 86% of all working family payment recipient households. The Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025 contains a commitment to instituting a review of the earnings thresholds used to qualify for in-work income supports for families on low incomes.

It is envisaged that the next review of the income thresholds for working family payments will consider increases for larger families. This proposal can be also taken into consideration in the development of policy proposals for next year's budget.

I am disappointed the Deputies are using words like "discrimination". There is no discrimination here. We are not trying to discriminate against anybody. I have absolutely nothing against families with three or more children. In fact, I am from a family of three myself.

Four. Okay.

It is important to bear in mind that the threshold for a four-child family is still €834. That is significantly higher than the threshold for a one-child household, for example, which is €531. Therefore, we are trying to help those where the threshold kicks in earlier. I take on board the Deputy's point. The Roadmap for Social Inclusion commits to reviewing the income limits so we will be investigating that next year.

The reason I did not answer the Deputy was that I ran out of time. Regarding the interim total-contributions approach, my officials tell me the arrangement applies up to the 66th birthday.

I thank the Minister for her clarification on the social protection calculation in terms of the total contributions.

Now, can we get back to the meat of the issue? The fundamental problem I have with these provisions is that the affected children are the only children whose parents are in receipt of a social welfare payment who will get no increase next year. Bizarrely, parents in receipt of the working family payment who have up to three children will be €936 better off next year. With regard to the other social welfare schemes, the child dependant allowance is being increased across the board. An unemployed family with four children, two of whom are under the age of 12, will be €728 better off, yet we are saying the working poor with four or more children are entitled to nothing. Every other child whose parents are in receipt of a social welfare payment will get an increase. Will the Minister explain to me how it is not discrimination if we are picking out a small cohort of children who will not get any benefit?

Let me remind the Minister of the reason payments have been increased across the board for children. The funding is coming from the carbon tax so people on low incomes and social welfare payments will not be hit unduly by that tax. Families with four children or more are hit by the carbon tax also. These are the working poor. It is not right that we should send out a message from the national Parliament that we are not interested in families among the working poor who have four or more children.

The reality is that this is not an issue that has arisen only this year. On the last two occasions that the working family payment thresholds were increased, families with four or more children were not included. This is the third time that a Minister for Social Protection has come in here and left out that group. The fundamental difference on this occasion, however, is that every other child whose parents are in receipt of a social welfare payment is to get an increase next year. They are getting the increase next year because of the impact of the carbon tax, yet we are saying that the group of children in question will not get the increase and will have to carry the full burden of the tax. It seems to have happened just at the stroke of a pen.

I could understand it if budgets were tight and if we were talking about a prohibitive cost. I acknowledge the Minister's sincerity in this regard but we are talking about €2.6 million out of a budget of €25 billion. It makes no sense that the small group of affected children should be discriminated against while every other child whose parents are given a payment is to get an increase and is acknowledged. This is an anomaly in the legislation that I, for one, cannot accept.

On the very same issue, as outlined by Deputy Naughten, it is discrimination. The Minister said she was disappointed with our use of the term. It is basic, naked discrimination against large families, especially considering the impact of carbon tax, which we are to have for the next nine years. It was forced through, or voted through, in the Finance Bill. Large families have lots of expenses. If they live in the country, they will have to pay even more carbon tax because they have to travel and there is no public transport. It is unfair. When considered in the context of such a large budget, as Deputy Naughten put it, the payment is very mean. I believe it was Deputy O'Dea who once christened cuts as the 12 mean cuts. What is being done now is mean. As it happens, it is not the first time that larger families, with three, four or more children, have been discriminated against. It is not acceptable. All children have a fundamental human right to equality.

I did say I will review it this year and I made that very clear. The qualified child payment includes all children. It is not true that the budget does nothing for the children in question. They will all get the qualified child payment. I remind the Deputies that I have not forgotten the children. They will get support through the qualified child payment but I will consider the issue of the fourth child in the context of next year's budget.

As I stated, this is the third budget in which this has happened. The Minister is saying the qualified child allowance is paid on top of the working family payment. If that is the case, I will reluctantly concede on this occasion but I do not want to see this happening again, for a fourth time. We cannot have the affected families singled out for special treatment. It is not right.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 13 to 17, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 9, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:

"Reports

18. (1) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Minister shall produce a report to the Oireachtas on the levels of fuel poverty in the population, the impact of increased energy and heating costs and the advisability of increasing the income thresholds for access to fuel allowance supports.

(2) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Minister shall produce a report to the Oireachtas on the impact of the operation of EWSS on employees’ income, including the levels and amounts of employer top ups, and the access of these employees to additional State support such as Jobseeker’s payments for short-time working.

(3) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Minister shall produce a report to the Oireachtas on the implications for the Social Insurance Fund employer’s contributions in order to fund additional benefits including the possibility of reducing the State retirement age to 65, and the reversal of changes to the number of contributions needed to qualify for the contributory pension. The report shall also examine among other matters the levels of employer contributions in other EU states.

(4) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Minister shall produce a report to the Oireachtas on the impact on the mental health, living standard and general welfare of lower rates of Jobseeker’s Allowance for those aged 18 to 24 who are not classified as living independently.".

This is just calling for a number of reports. Such reports were very useful in the past. When we did get them, they led to changes in budgets afterwards. An example concerns the restoration of the pension for those who spent years child-minding and the stay-at-home years taken away from women in the past. I would be very interested in hearing whether the Minister will agree to the production of the reports. I spoke about all of them this morning so there is no point in repeating myself and taking up time. The reports would cover fuel poverty; the employment wage subsidy scheme; the contribution to the Social Insurance Fund and changes to the retirement age; and the jobseeker's allowance for younger people.

The amendment asks for the provision of a number of reports and I will go through each one separately. The first point I will make is that my Department recently did two reports. One was on the impact of carbon tax on low-income families and the other was on the qualifying conditions for fuel allowance with specific reference to jobseeker's allowance and supplementary welfare allowance. Both reports were laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and I can arrange to send the Deputies copies of both reports.

Energy poverty, which includes fuel poverty, is not the responsibility of my Department but instead comes under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Research indicates that fuel poverty is best tackled in the long term by improving the energy efficiency of housing, which, of course, falls under the aegis of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

The fuel allowance is a contribution towards the cost of heating a household. It is intended to provide income support for low-income households, not to address the entirety of issues leading to fuel poverty. A review of the implementation of the strategy to combat energy poverty will be completed in 2021 by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. Alleviating energy poverty will also be a key consideration for the national retrofit plan and will be published next year by that Department. There is ongoing work in that area.

The amendment also calls for a report on the operation of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. The legislation establishing the EWSS was brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas by my colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to accept this amendment. Deputies will be aware that Revenue operates this scheme and therefore has access to the information that the Deputies seek.

Regarding the report on reducing the pension age, the Government has just established the Commission on Pensions, as Deputies know. The commission's terms of reference encompass consideration of issues such as PRSI contribution rates, State pension age and contribution requirements, all of which are mentioned in the proposed amendment. The commission will also be considering international comparators as a part of its work and it is due to complete that work and report by June 2021. It would be pre-emptive and futile to accept this amendment because work on these matters is already under way.

The amendment also calls for a report on jobseekers aged between 18 and 24. A further amendment, in the name of Deputy Kerrane, is on the same issue so I will address both amendments at the same time. It is not within my remit, as Minister for Social Protection, to report on the mental health of social welfare recipients. However, I can confirm that my Department is currently finalising a poverty impact assessment of age-related rates of jobseekers or young people aged 18 to 24. I expect the report will be available for me to consider within the coming weeks. Jobseekers under 25 years of age who have qualified children, those who were in the care of the HSE immediately before they turned 18 and those who are in receipt of housing supports in their own right and living independent of the family home, for example on rent allowance or housing assistance payment, HAP, are not subject to the reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance. This ensures that the most vulnerable young people are provided with the higher rates of payment. Deputies will be aware that the Government has committed to improved jobseeker supports for people aged under 24 over the lifetime of this Government and I feel that the best way to support young people is to prepare and support them into employment. That includes young people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. As the public health crisis subsides, we will engage with them to offer access and supports to return to employment.

Those are my responses to the different reports that have been requested.

On each of the answers, bar the one on the wage subsidy scheme, all the Minister has done is to pass the parcel for matters that are her responsibility. The proposed report on fuel poverty is not looking to establish the impact of increased carbon taxes or the qualifying conditions but is to assess the fuel poverty that exists in the population. Nobody seems to want to touch this matter. As I said earlier, it was the job of the Joint Committee on Climate Action to recommend that it happens but it never did. I doubt if the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications will touch the matter either. It is shameful that the Government is not willing to do it.

The Minister has a point on the wage subsidy scheme if the office of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is willing to cover that. I do not accept what the Minister said about the impact of the austerity measure on young people. I do not think that an austerity measure should be reduced over time; it should be removed and the people affected should be given back their right to full unemployment benefit.

Will the Minister repeat what she said about the implications for the Social Insurance Fund and employers' contributions? With respect, I ask her to give that to me again.

Will the Minister clarify that matter? We understand that the Minister cannot accept an amendment where the statutory responsibility rests with another Department, but perhaps the Minister could clarify the points that Deputy Bríd Smith made latterly.

I am not clear what the Deputy is asking. Many young people have obviously been impacted by the pandemic and have accessed the PUP. We will have an intensive programme to help them to get back to work, whether through upskilling, reskilling, job placement programmes or whatever. We want to try to get those people back to work as quickly as we can.

I made the point that jobseekers under 25 years of age who have qualified children, those who were in the care of the HSE immediately before they turned 18 and those who are in receipt of housing supports in their own right and living independent of the family home, for example on rent allowance or HAP, are not subject to the reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance. I am not sure if that was the point that the Deputy wanted me to clarify. Perhaps that brings some clarity to matters.

I was looking for clarity on the proposal for a report on employers' contributions to the Social Insurance Fund. Will the Minister repeat what she said about that? I think she is excluding a whole cohort of young people who do not fall into the categories she listed and they are the ones about whom I am concerned. Obviously, it does not impact on them if they are living away from the home, but those living at home are impacted. I do not accept the Minister's view. The Minister is rejecting my amendment. I would like a bit more clarity on the point in the amendment about a report on employers' contributions to the Social Insurance Fund.

I see now from where the Deputy is coming. As I said, the Government has set up the Commission on Pensions and has asked it to look at all of the matters mentioned in the amendment. The commission is doing its work and I do not think there would be any point in us starting to prepare a report. We will provide the commission with all of the supports that it needs to deliberate and look at all of these issues. That would be a better exercise so that we can provide the members of the commission with all the information they need to make a recommendation by June of next year.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 9, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:

"Report on the effectiveness and adequacy of the Fuel Allowance

18. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the effectiveness, adequacy, coverage and eligibility of the Fuel Allowance Scheme in addressing the heating requirements of households experiencing energy poverty and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within nine months of the passing of this Act.”.

I will speak briefly to this amendment. I appreciate what the Minister has said. During Committee Stage of a number of the most recent Social Welfare Bills, a number of Deputies, including from Sinn Féin, have brought forward similar amendments relating to the fuel allowance. I also appreciate that energy poverty falls under the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, and that is fine. We are looking at the fuel allowance, which is a payment made by the Department of Social Protection and no other.

I appreciate that the Minister has mentioned a report dealing with eligibility and I will look at that. I did not know it had been published, so that is welcome. A report of the Department of Social Protection on the impact of the increases of the carbon tax on low-income households stated that low-income households will be disproportionately impacted and that steps need to be taken.

One of the steps we could take is looking at the adequacy and effectiveness of the fuel allowance payment. At the end of the day, the St. Vincent de Paul Society says 28% of the population is affected by energy poverty. In fairness to St. Vincent de Paul, it is at the coalface on this issue. In 2018, it spent more than €5 million helping families just with energy costs. That is a huge amount of money for a charity and voluntary organisation to give to people. St. Vincent de Paul has also made the point, which I highlighted earlier in relation to household debt, that a big part of household debt coming down the tracks is people owing money on utility bills. St. Vincent de Paul has pushed this and the amendment I have tabled comes from that organisation, which is looking for the Minister to take action on this. I agree with Deputy Bríd Smith that we need to look specifically at the fuel allowance payment. I ask the Minister to reconsider.

I am happy to engage with the Deputy but putting a request for reports into legislation is probably not the best way to do things. I give the Deputy a commitment that I will engage on this matter and we will work with St. Vincent de Paul to look at it. The fuel allowance, as it stands, is to keep people out of poverty, not to pay the full cost of their fuel, which is obviously a problem. We need to look at it in its entirety, so we need to look at the retrofit programme and how people can improve their houses and reduce their fuel costs. At the end of the day, we want people living in warm, comfortable homes. I cannot accept the amendment but I am happy to engage with the Deputy, if that is okay.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 9, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:

“Report on income limits for Carer’s Allowance

18. The Minister shall carry out a review on the income limits for Carer’s Allowance and explore the expansion of the income limit to allow for those on average industrial incomes to qualify for the payment and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within six months of the passing of this Act.”.

This amendment calls for a review of the income limits or earning disregards that apply to people who are at work while on the carer's allowance. There was a commitment in a previous policy proposal put forward by the Government in 2016 which said the Government would look at allowing those on the average industrial wage to be able to apply for and qualify for the carer's allowance. In the last budget, the hours worked or the hours of study outside the home was increased for those in receipt of carer's allowance from 15 to 18.5. While carers could go out and work more hours, if they earned more it would impact their carer's allowance. The increase in the hours should have come with a corresponding increase in the earnings they could make.

It is fair to say the income limits have not changed since 2008, which is a very long time. The Minister said in relation to the earlier amendment that carers work 24-7. I appreciate what the Minister said in relation to reports but a couple of years ago, I recall that we asked for a report which Indecon produced. It was on the 2012 changes to the one-parent family payment for lone parents. When that report came back, it showed precisely that Government policy had an impact and made life more difficult for lone parents. Had that policy not been introduced in the first place or had a poverty impact assessment been done on it, perhaps many lone parents and their families would not have suffered so much. In some respects, reports can make a difference and the Minister should consider this. She has also made reference to the national carers' strategy, which was brought out in 2012 with no funding whatsoever. That was accepted by carers at the time. The money was not there and that was fine. A new one will come and that needs to have funding. On the income limits specifically, they have not moved since 2008 and the Minister should really look at this issue.

I will speak briefly to amendment No. 8 proposed by my colleague, Deputy Kerrane. The amendment asks to look at the income disregards for those applying for the carer's allowance. It has not been updated in almost 13 years and the cost of living has certainly changed in that time. I acknowledge that the number of hours a carer is allowed to work outside of his or her caring role was increased from 15 to 18.5 last year and that was welcome. However, in many cases, carers who work the additional hours end up losing out because the carer's allowance is a means-tested payment which ends up being reduced. The stringent means test means that family carers who perform invaluable work which saves the State billions of euro every year often feel worthless at the end of it. It was supposed to be looked at by the Government which made a commitment to do this in 2016. I ask that something be done about the income disregard. Carers feel worthless as they are constantly means tested and, in many cases, they end up caring for someone all their lives. They are not allowed to work very many hours and coming to pension age, they are means tested for that again. I would like the Minister to address this.

A comprehensive policy review of carer's allowance, including the means test, was prepared by my Department and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas on 28 August 2019. I am happy to provide a copy of that. In addition, on 15 August last year, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published a spending review of carer support. Among its key findings was that the carer's allowance accounted for 77% of total carer support spend.

Given how little time has elapsed between the publication of these two in-depth reports on carer schemes, there is little benefit in doing another report. However, as said earlier, I think we need a wider conversation about the important role carers play in our society and I suggest, as I did earlier, that the Committee on Health and the Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands engage on this.

The two principal conditions for receipt of carer's allowance are that full-time care and attention is required and provided and that the means test which applies is satisfied. If somebody was an employee and leaves work to become a carer, carer's benefit may be the appropriate payment for him or her.

The means test for carer's allowance is one of the most generous in the social welfare system, in that €332 of gross weekly income is disregarded in the calculation of means for a single person. The equivalent for someone who is married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting is €665 of combined gross weekly income. This means a couple with two children can earn in the region of €37,500 per annum and qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance. A couple earning €49,750 can, due to the tapered withdrawal approach, retain a payment of just under half rate as well as getting the full carer's support grant every June. Carers may also, subject to certain conditions, qualify for the household benefits package and a free travel pass. A half rate carer's allowance is also payable with other welfare payments, such as pensions and disability payments. The application of a means test not only ensures that the recipient has an income need, but also that scarce resources are targeted to those with the greatest need.

I assure the Deputies that the Government is very aware of the key role carers play in society and will continue to keep the range of supports available to carers. I can update the figures in the existing report. I am happy to do that and provide that to the Deputies. As I said earlier, the role of the Department of Social Protection is to provide a basic income. It is not its role to pay people for the important job they do. That involves the Department of Health and I believe that Department has a responsibility. As the Deputies know, the Department of Health has responsibility for the national carers' strategy. There needs to be a joined-up approach and my Department preparing another report will not in itself solve the genuine concerns Deputies have. The Department of Health has a role to play in this. I am happy to engage with the Deputies on this matter through the committee.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 9, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:

“Report on the effectiveness of the JobPath scheme

18. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the effectiveness of the JobPath scheme and the impact it is having on the sustainability of other job activation schemes and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within six months of the passing of this Act.”.

I am back to JobPath. I hope the Minister will at least consider this amendment. A number of Deputies from all parties have raised concerns about the amount of taxpayers' money being spent on JobPath. Last week and again during my Second Stage contribution today, I asked a number of questions on the referral fee. Every time a person is referred to Turas Nua or Seetec under JobPath, the company gets €311 once the person is signed up. In more than 33,000 cases, the same person has been referred twice. Is a payment of €311 made a second time? For the more than 1,300 people who have been referred a third time, is the referral fee paid a third time?

Now that the Government is extending JobPath for a further 12 months, is there a clause in the contract that allows the fees to be examined and reduced? The Minister has made reference to the fact that Turas Nua and Seetec are not private companies, but I do not mind what they are. My issue with JobPath, and what sets it apart from all other schemes, is the level of payments made to it – the referral fee and four other job sustainment fees, which start at €613 and grow to more than €1,100. That is what makes JobPath unique.

The second part of the amendment relates to the impact on other schemes. I do not know whether this point has been put to the Minister, but it has been put to me. Community employment, CE, schemes cannot fill their places. Referrals to the local employment service have fallen continuously because everyone is being pushed into JobPath. People can participate in Tús and CE schemes on the side, but they have to keep up with JobPath. If JobPath is so wonderful and great and people are happy on it, why can we not make the referrals no longer mandatory, let people who want to go on it go on it and let others do something else? CE schemes bring significant benefits to communities. Where people want to participate in a CE scheme, they should be allowed to. I do not see why we have to keep pushing JobPath and ramming it down people's necks. It takes a considerable amount of taxpayers' money. We need to examine this issue.

JobPath leaves much to be desired. Turas Nua and Seetec are not private companies per se, but they are acting like private companies. This is the wrong formula. They get paid when someone is referred to them and when someone gets a position. I have dealt with some awful cases where mental distress has been caused by the abuse people received and the hardships they were forced through under JobPath. "Turas Nua" means "new journey", but I call it "Turas Uafásach", which means "awful journey". It has been an awful journey. JobPath is a shameful scheme.

I have been a chairman of a CE scheme that has been running since 1988. We do very valuable work under our supervisor, Mr. Seán Byrne. As its committee members and directors, we have an onerous job. Everything has to be accounted for, and rightly so. I thank the people in the Department who look after us. However, we cannot get participants now because they are all tied into this Ponzi scheme. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck. It is a horrible scheme and a turas uafásach. I appeal to the Minister to do something about it. People are being bullied and intimidated. Some are on the verge of doing something awful because of the treatment they have received. They have to get buses because they do not have transport to get to the towns where the offices are located. Some of them are very intimidated.

It is a shame that JobPath is focused less on supporting the person than on just ticking boxes, getting people into jobs that they are unsuitable for and then collecting lucrative payments. Whether they are private companies, semi-private companies or set up as limited companies, this is not right. Two wrongs will never make a right, and this is very wrong. It needs to be reviewed and this turas needs to be stopped in its tracks. That CE schemes and other schemes cannot get participants while this crazy structure is running alongside them is wrong.

Before I joined this Department, I had the same concerns some of the Deputies have raised. However, I have gone into this matter in great detail. JobPath is providing a service. It is only one part of the jigsaw. I have been in touch with local employment service providers and want to increase the local employment service's capacity by 50% from 20,000 people to 30,000. I also want to increase the number of officials in Intreo offices by a further 100 case officers so that they can deal with the workload. This is all part of the jigsaw to try to help people, prepare them with their CVs and give them advice and all the assistance they need to identify jobs that suit them and return to the workforce.

I will make the general point that legislation is not the appropriate vehicle for seeking reports. My officials have explained to me that it is a stubborn creature and, after the report has issued, the relevant section is required to be repealed. We can carry out reports without putting that requirement in legislation.

Last year, my Department, in partnership with the OECD, published a comprehensive and detailed review that measured the effectiveness of JobPath service provision. I have recently provided this report to the select committee. My Department intends to continue reviewing the operation of the JobPath programme and will update the findings of last year's review in due course. The OECD report indicated that the weekly earnings of people who secured employment following JobPath engagement were 17% higher than the weekly employment earnings of people who secured employment without the support of JobPath.

JobPath is a mechanism through which support is provided. It provides long-term unemployed jobseekers with access to an employment assistance and advice service for a period of 12 months. It is a payment-by-results model with the day-to-day operational costs and risks borne by the contractors. They are paid on the basis of performance. With the exception of the initial registration fee, payments are only made when a client achieves sustained full-time employment. Job sustainment fees are payable for each 13-week period of sustained employment up to a maximum of 52 weeks. The total cost since 2015 has been €247 million. Given the number of engagements with almost 284,000 people, the average cost per client is €873. To answer Deputy Kerrane's question, while the JobPath companies get paid for a second referral, there will be no more third referral fees. There will be two and two only.

JobPath is not an obstacle to filling places on CE schemes or other programmes. Since June 2018, persons availing of the JobPath service may also participate in CE or Tús schemes. It is not the case that everyone is being sent to JobPath. When my departmental officials examine the figures, they see that so many people go to JobPath, so many go to CE schemes and so many go to the local employment service.

Now would be the wrong time to withdraw this service, given that there is 21% unemployment. We need to keep it as part of the overall service. In January, the main focus will be on trying to help people find jobs and get them back to work.

The Minister has stated that not everyone is going to JobPath, but more people are being referred to it than to any other scheme. That has been the case for a number of years.

Regarding the more than 280,000 people who have been referred, the success rate where a job is sustained for longer than 52 weeks is 7%.

I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement that the referral fee of €311 is paid twice where a person is referred twice. That is a large amount of money just for sending a person to the same scheme twice.

I really do not think that is value for money. I appreciate what the Minister said with regard to not seeking reports through legislation but, unfortunately, there does not seem to be any other way to do so. Perhaps she will consider producing the report without having to do so through legislation because JobPath is having an impact on other schemes. Those involved with those schemes will tell the Minister that. JobPath is costing the taxpayer a huge amount of money. More people are being referred to it than any other scheme. I ask the Minister to reconsider.

I will continue to review it. It was only extended for one year and the service it provides will go out to tender at some stage during 2021. As I said, I will continue to look at it. We all want the same thing. We want good value for money and I am told the JobPath service, at an average cost of €800, is much cheaper than some of the other services we provide because they are done on a different system. In fairness, my Secretary General gave a full report at the Committee of Public Accounts. The other services cost in the region, or in excess, of €1,000, on average, and this one represents good value for the taxpayer.

I take on board the Deputy's concerns. As I said, when I came into the Department, I had similar concerns to the Deputy but I have gone through it in detail and I will continue to keep it under review.

I thank the Minister.

The time permitted for this debate having expired, I am now required to put the question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of 8 December: "That in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in Committee; the Title is hereby agreed to in Committee; the Bill, as amended, is accordingly reported to the House; Fourth Stage is hereby completed; and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put and agreed to.

I thank Members very much. The Bill will now be sent to the Seanad.

I thank Deputies for their co-operation in passing the Social Welfare Bill 2020. This is my first Social Welfare Bill and it has been a pleasure to work with Deputies and I thank them for that.