I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
As set out in its Long Title, this is a Bill to make provision for a statement of principles to inform the interpretation and administration of the Social Welfare Acts to provide for a social welfare charter, to impose a duty to promote the take-up of social welfare entitlements, to set out certain rights to information, advocacy and supports for social welfare recipients and applicants, to confer additional functions on the Citizens Information Board and to provide for related matters.
Section 1 provides for the Short Title of the Bill and for the collective construction together with the Social Welfare Acts. It also provides that the Bill comes into operation six months after its passing. I am given to understand that is not likely but I will try, nonetheless.
Section 2 is an interpretation section and defines terms used in the Bill. In particular, “the Acts” means the Social Welfare Acts, “the Board” means the Citizens Information Board, “assistance” means any social welfare assistance, benefit or payment provided under the Acts, “Minister” means the Minister for Social Protection, “officer of the Minister” includes, with regard to supplementary welfare allowance, an appropriate employee of the Health Service Executive, HSE, and “social welfare system” means the system for giving assistance to persons in accordance with the Acts.
Section 3 sets out the social welfare principles that: the social welfare system contributes to realising economic, social and cultural rights that are indispensable for personal dignity and the free development of human personality; the social welfare system progressively achieves commitments made in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 45 of the Constitution; social welfare is an investment in the people and is, accordingly, for the public good and general benefit; the delivery of social welfare is a public service; respect for the dignity of persons should be at the heart of the social welfare system; the social welfare system should contribute to reducing poverty; the social welfare system should be designed on the basis of evidence; the social welfare system should be progressively improved in ways which put the needs of those who require assistance first and advance equality and non-discrimination; and the social welfare system should be efficient and should deliver value for money.
The section provides that all those concerned with the interpretation or administration of the Acts or performing functions under them must have regard to the social welfare principles. In addition, a court or tribunal in civil or criminal proceedings may take the social welfare principles into account when determining any question to which the principles are relevant. Nothing in this section of itself, however, gives rise to a cause of action in respect of anything done in the administration of the Acts or the performance of functions under them.
Section 4 provides that a social welfare charter is to be prepared, published and from time to time reviewed. The charter must set out what is to be expected from the Government and the Minister when developing social welfare policy, from the Minister, his or her officers and others when administering the Acts or performing functions under them and from persons who apply for and receive assistance through the social welfare system.
The charter must reflect the social welfare principles, as spelled out in the Bill, and the Minister must prepare the charter within six months of this Act coming into operation. In preparing the charter, the Minister must consult the board and persons who receive assistance through the social welfare system, or their representative bodies, together with such other persons or bodies as he or she considers appropriate. The Minister must lay a draft of the charter before both Houses of the Oireachtas for their prior approval and make the charter publicly available by appropriate means.
Section 5 requires the Minister to review the charter within five years of its being made, and every five years thereafter, involving the same consultation process. Following that review, the Minister must decide whether to make any changes to the charter and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report setting out the consultation undertaken in carrying out the review, the reasons for the decision to make changes or not, and if the Minister has decided to make changes, a draft of the charter showing the changes he or she intends to make. The Minister must lay a draft of any changes to the charter before both Houses of the Oireachtas for their prior approval.
Section 6 provides that a court or tribunal in civil or criminal proceedings may take the social welfare charter into account when determining any question to which the charter is relevant, but that a failure to comply with the charter does not of itself give rise to grounds for any legal action.
Section 7 deals with the Minister’s duty to promote take-up. The section provides that the Minister must keep under consideration what steps he or she could take to ensure that persons are given what they are eligible to be given through the social welfare system, and where the Minister considers it appropriate to do so, take any of the steps identified by that consideration.
For this purpose, the Minister must have regard to the importance of communicating in a way that ensures persons who have difficulty communicating with regard to speech, language, and so forth can receive information and express themselves in ways that best meet their personal needs.
The Minister must have regard to the importance of providing information in a way that is accessible for persons who have a sensory, physical or mental disability; the importance of ensuring that any information required to be given to a person is done so in a format that is accessible to that person, and that any information required to be made publicly available is done so in formats that are accessible to persons with a sensory, physical or mental disability; the possibility that information obtained for the purpose of determining a person’s eligibility for one type of assistance might be used to identify his or her eligibility for other types of assistance; and the role of the independent information, advice and advocacy services provided by the board in ensuring that persons are given what they are eligible to be given through the social welfare system. The steps to be taken by the Minister must include measures to provide, or ensure the provision of, information about the independent information, advice and advocacy services provided by the board to applicants.
Section 8 requires the Minister to prepare a strategy to promote take-up, which sets out his or her best estimate of the extent to which all those eligible for assistance through the social welfare system are being given the assistance they are eligible to be given, and the steps under section 7 that the Minister intends to take during the strategy’s lifetime.
Section 9 provides that, where, in the course of determining a person’s entitlement to assistance, it appears to the deciding officer that the person may be eligible for other assistance, the officer must so inform the person, and if it is not reasonably practicable for the officer to proceed with a determination of the person’s entitlement to that other assistance, he or she must provide the person with information about how to apply for it. This does not preclude an officer from requesting further information for the purpose of determining the person’s entitlement to the other assistance.
Section 10 provides that officers of the Minister must comply with a person’s wish to have another person, that is, a supporter, present during any interview relating to the person’s entitlement to assistance, unless the wish is unreasonable. The role of such a supporter shall be to support the person in question during the interview, including making representations on the person’s behalf. The Minister is not required to provide or pay for a supporter.
Section 11 confers the following additional functions of the Citizens Information Board to scrutinise legislative proposals in accordance with section 12. It must prepare and submit to the Minister, or to an Oireachtas committee, a report on any matter relevant to social welfare that the board is requested to examine and report on. It must also prepare and submit to the Minister and both Houses of the Oireachtas, and publish, an assessment of the extent to which any or all of the expectations set out in the social welfare charter are being fulfilled and make recommendations for improvement where those expectations are not being fulfilled. In performing its functions under the Bill, the board must have regard to the social welfare principles and it may consult any persons it considers appropriate.
Section 12 provides that where the Minister proposes to make social welfare regulations, he or she must first inform the board of the proposals, notify both Houses of the Oireachtas that he or she has done so and make the proposals publicly available by appropriate means. Having been informed of the Minister’ proposals, the board must then prepare a report setting out its observations and recommendations and submit a copy to the Minister and both Houses of the Oireachtas to publish the report.
When laying regulations or draft regulations before both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Minister must also lay before both Houses either a response to the board’s report on the proposal for the regulations or a statement explaining why the Minister considers it appropriate to lay the regulations or draft regulations before the Houses before the board has submitted its report.
Section 13 deals with liability in respect of overpayments under the Acts. It provides that a person who is liable to repay the value of any assistance that was given due to an error is not so liable if the error is neither the person's fault nor the kind of error that the person could reasonably be expected to notice. An error is a person's fault if it is caused or contributed to by the person providing false or misleading information, failing to notify an appropriate officer about a change in circumstances where obliged to do so or causing another person to do either of those things. In considering whether an error is of a kind that a person could reasonably be expected to notice, regard is to be given to the extent to which the value of the assistance given in error exceeds the value of the assistance that would have been given had the error not been made and whether any information given to the person prior to, or immediately after, the assistance was given would have alerted a reasonable person to the fact that a decision had been, or was to be, made on the basis of incorrect information or a wrong assumption.
Section 14 requires the Minister, before the end of each year, to prepare a report stating what he or she has most recently calculated to be the impact on social welfare payments of the rate of inflation in the State. The report would also outline how the Minister calculated the impact, what he or she has done, or intends to do, in the light of the calculations and the reasons for that decision. The Minister must lay a copy of the report before both Houses of the Oireachtas and make it publicly available.
Section 15 requires the Minister, as soon as practicable after the end of each financial year, to lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, and publish, a report on the performance of the social welfare system in that year. The report shall include a description of what the Minister has done in that year to meet the expectations of the social welfare charter.