Social Welfare (Payment Order) (Amendment) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for the extension of the powers of the Liable Relatives Unit of the Department of Social Protection, to make a Determination Order in respect of Jobseekers Transitional Payment to one parent families, to include any necessary application to the District Court for a Payment Order, thus enabling the State to recoup, from a “liable relative”, a contribution towards the cost of providing said payment and related matters.

I am delighted to introduce this Bill in the House this afternoon. Before being elected to this House I worked as the party's adviser on social protection and I learned a lot about the issues facing lone-parent families in the State, as well as working alongside the organisations that represent them, SPARK and One Family.

For far too long in this State lone-parent families have not been listened to by the Government. In fact, decisions taken by successive governments have actively made life harder for lone parents and their children. A prime example of that is the 2012 changes to the one-parent family payment. These decisions have led to increased deprivation, and that has meant children who live in lone-parent families are three times more likely to live in consistent poverty than children in two-parent households. Central Statistics Office, CSO, data have also shown that deprivation in lone-parent households increased in 2019, and that was pre-Covid. These are the very consequences of the Government's choices. We have many steps to take to lift lone-parent families out of poverty, to support them and to break down the barriers that exist when it comes to education and employment. The Bill is just one small step we can take to support lone parents.

The Bill will remove the cliff edge currently faced by lone parents in respect of their social welfare supports when their youngest child turns seven. Figures show that nearly half of one-parent family payment recipients receive maintenance. This drops to 11% when a lone parent moves on to the jobseeker's transition payment. Lone parents applying for the one-parent family payment are required to prove they have sought maintenance from the non-custodial parent. On providing a name and address where they can, the Department of Social Protection liable relatives unit steps in to determine the amount to be contributed by the non-custodial parent and a letter is written to him or her providing two options. The first is to start paying the lone-parent maintenance directly, while the second is to start paying the Department directly. In the latter case, the Department keeps the entire amount to recoup some of the costs of paying the one-parent family payment. Once the youngest child turns seven, lone parents move on to the jobseeker's transition payment. At the same time, the Department of Social Protection writes to the non-custodial parent to tell him or her he or she is no longer obliged to make a contribution. If this Bill is passed it will put a stop to this and it will see non-custodial parents making a contribution beyond the child turning seven.

I acknowledge that this Bill is a sticking plaster, but it is a very necessary one to a much bigger problem, that is, how we treat child maintenance in the State currently, which sees a lone parent having to go to court to get maintenance, and even when maintenance is court ordered, if it is not paid in some cases, the lone parent has to go back to court. Regardless of whether the maintenance is paid, once the court order is given, it is counted by the Department of Social Protection as household means and it is taken into account against other social welfare payments which are then reduced.

I hope the child maintenance review group that is currently looking at child maintenance and how it works in this State will recommend at the end of this year that we need a statutory child maintenance service. On several occasions we have put forward proposals to mirror the service available in the North. Currently, the way we deal with lone parents when it comes to child maintenance by making them go to court to secure it is no way to treat lone parents and their children in this State and that must change. We need to support and assist lone parents when it comes to child maintenance because it has been proven time and again that where child maintenance is paid, it impacts on poverty. We need to see urgent action regarding poverty, especially in lone-parent families. Three years ago, a Fianna Fáil Deputy introduced such a Bill. I hope the Deputy will still feel the same way and Members will support the Bill when it moves to Second Stage.

Is the Bill 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.