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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 4

Principles of Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]

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.

Thank you, Deputy Sherlock. I would like to propose a slight reordering of how the House transacts this business. I note that Deputy Kerrane is the only Deputy offering. With the agreement of the House, I propose that we hear Deputy Kerrane and then go to the Minister and Minister of State for a response and thereafter to Deputy Sherlock once again. Is everybody happy with that?

Is it agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to go ahead. I welcome the Bill and commend an Teachta Sherlock on bringing it forward. There are some really interesting elements to the Bill and, overall, it aims to improve our social protection system. That system is quite complex and can be difficult to navigate for some people.

One of the principles of the Bill is that the social welfare system should contribute to reducing poverty. I acknowledge that it does this already but it is important to say that it must do more. In the past two budgets, core social welfare rates did not move. More and more people are experiencing deprivation, according to the figures in the 2019 Survey on Income and Living Conditions. After the Covid pandemic, especially, we need to see a real focus on tackling poverty. Part of that needs to be an alignment of all social welfare rates with the minimal essential standard of living, rather than the over and back we see every year as we approach the budget, with announcements of a fiver for this group but not for that group. Those decisions should be evidence-based and that is where we need to go in terms of our social protection system generally.

It is positive that the Bill proposes the creation of a charter that will reflect the principles that are laid out. The Bill seeks to ensure that people are provided with information about, and access to, social welfare supports to which they are entitled. That is really positive. I am sure many Deputies have dealt with situations where, for example, people are left on illness benefit for longer than a year or two and, as they approach the pension age of 66, realise they do not have the required number of stamps. People in those circumstances often do not realise that they should have perhaps moved on to the invalidity pension but, by the time they do, it may be too late. This happens a lot with different payments and schemes. We see many cases within the social protection system where people are either locked out of receiving supports and face financial hardship as a result or are locked in and made dependent on payments because of impossibly strict eligibility criteria.

An example of what I am talking about is the case of a wonderful young artist I met earlier this week who is partially blind and in receipt of the blind pension. She has to be careful of every gig she takes and any bursary or award she might win. Such opportunities can almost be a hindrance because taking them means she risks losing her blind pension, which is her only guaranteed income. That is wrong. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to live with that type of worry when one is partially blind or blind. As it stands, when people apply for benefits such as the blind pension, they are, understandably, required to submit medical evidence that they are eligible, which in this case means evidence they are blind or visually impaired. However, they are also subject to means testing of the income of their entire household. This means that blind and visually impaired people cannot earn a reasonable income by themselves and may be linked to a partner's income, which makes no sense.

We know there is a financial cost to disability. People do not cease to be visually impaired or blind because their income exceeds a very specific and low threshold or their spouse or partner has an increase in income. The social welfare system should seek to make people's lives easier, not harder. When I met the woman to whom I referred, I was reminded of another case that came up in my constituency office nine or ten months ago that also involved a women who was blind and in receipt of the blind person. When her partner's income increased on getting a promotion at work, she lost the pension. I ask the Minister to look at this particular payment. It should be paid to everyone who is blind or visually impaired, the number of whom is small in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of what they earn or what any person living with them earns, they should be entitled to the blind pension. When one reviews the list of social welfare payments that are means tested, this one really stands out, particularly where it is something people are dealing with throughout their entire life. I ask the Minister to look at it.

I welcome that the charter provided for in the Bill seeks to make access to advocacy and advice on social welfare more readily available. Citizens Information provides invaluable support to many people seeking advice on their entitlements under our sometimes illogical social welfare system. By enabling Citizens Information to report on the real-life challenges and successes it encounters, we will have an opportunity to improve the design and roll-out of social welfare measures and support families and individuals in accessing them.

The provision in the Bill on promoting take-up of benefits is really important. The example I gave regarding illness benefit shows that people may not be informed about, or may not realise, the negative impact of certain scenarios in respect of the social welfare system. The Minister recently introduced a very welcome change to the one-parent family payment by removing the earnings threshold where the applicant's child is under the age of seven. I would love to see that welcome change more widely promoted. People need to know about it. It would also be great to have access to information on PRSI contributions and stamps. Under the current system, people can make a request in writing for a history of their contributions. Many will do so, if they know about it, but it would be useful in this day and age to have some kind of online system, whether an app or something else, that would enable people to log in and track their PRSI contributions throughout their working lives. They could see where they stand, whether they qualify for things like treatment benefit and how far away they are from the required number of stamps for the State pension. Something like that would be hugely helpful.

The Bill contains a number of very interesting components. I commend an Teachta Sherlock on his work in bringing it forward.

The Minister and Minister of State may wish to combine the time available to them, which is 20 minutes in total.

I thank Deputy Sherlock for bringing forward this Bill. It is always good to have a constructive debate in this Chamber and I appreciate that the Deputy's intentions in this matter are absolutely in good faith, with a view to ensuring our social protection system works well for all our people.

Everybody in this House wants a system that abides by strong principles, one that delivers for its people and ensures they get the payments and services they need when they need them and that all information is given to them to ensure they are availing of the broad range of supports the Department of Social Protection provides. I do not believe in opposing Private Members' Bills for the sake of it. However, this Bill, as drafted, raises considerable complexities which could give rise to significant unintended consequences which I will set out.

Even before I became Minister for Social Protection, I was aware of - and as a local representative had personal experience of - the great work the Citizens Information Board does for people in local communities throughout the country. For many people, it is the first port of call for information on services provided by the State. The work done by the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, is also a vital support for many people. Indeed, I have had occasion to refer many people to MABS and they get excellent service there. The role of the Citizens information Board is set out in legislation and the agency has a very strong working relationship with my Department. However, this Bill, if enacted, will give inappropriate power to a State body under the aegis of my Department to scrutinise regulations, which could actually lead to delays in implementing urgent legislation. The appropriate place for oversight of the functions of Government is here in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Such scrutiny, by bodies other than these Houses, would lead to additional layers of bureaucracy when necessary, and often urgent, action is required. For example, if this proposed legislation had been enacted early last year, it would have meant that any regulations or legislation that needed to be enacted urgently would first have to be revised by the Citizens Information Board. That scrutiny is the job of the Oireachtas. To add an additional layer would have hindered the agile and responsive approach we took in providing immediate income supports to assist people financially impacted by the public health crisis caused by Covid-19. Many Deputies in this Chamber have rightly praised the work of the staff of the Department of Social Protection. While there needs to be a legislative basis for our actions, sometimes that action has to be swift so that the right policies are implemented to provide support to the right people at the right time.

This Private Member's Bill cuts across constitutional and statutory functions already in place, for example the Social Welfare Appeals Office, the Ombudsman and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Again, while I recognise the Deputy's good intentions of ensuring people can access and are aware of their entitlements, the Bill provides for an unnecessary statutory basis to underpin the excellent service the Department already provides to people in need. For example, the Department makes significant efforts in promotion and outreach work to make people aware of their social welfare entitlements. These include promoting the take-up of social welfare payments through numerous online and other media awareness campaigns. For example, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and I extended parent's leave and benefit to new parents. That was extended from two weeks to five weeks. There was a campaign around that and it worked very effectively because in the space of just a few weeks, more than 9,700 parents have taken up the additional leave. The recent campaign on the enhanced treatment benefit scheme regarding hearing aids also involved a national campaign both on social media as well as in print media. Even at the moment, my Department is running an ongoing campaign on broadcast media to make people aware of the current problems with scam phone calls. I again remind people that my Department will never ask for bank details over the phone. Please do not engage if you get any such phone call.

As Deputies will be aware, the Department also provides constant and ongoing advice on eligibility through its nationwide network of Intreo centres and call centres. With the easing of restrictions, Intreo offices are again open five days a week and our income support helpline also remains available. The Department regularly consults with customers through its customer fora and is also obliged to ensure its communications are in an accessible format for persons with disabilities. These are just a few examples of what my Department currently does but of course social protection is much more than the work of one Department.

The proposals in the Bill are focused on one Department but do not take due account of the complex range of services provided in the field of social welfare across the policy functions of other Departments. Delivery of social protection and achievement of social inclusion is not confined to the payment of benefits. As recognised in Article 45 of the Constitution and in reports like the National Economic Social Council, NESC's, Developmental Welfare State, social protection is a complex interaction of services, payments and active supports that cuts across health, housing, education, rural and community development and employment law. Accordingly, the development of social protection cannot be progressed in isolation but requires a whole-of-government approach.

Turning to the Bill itself, section 2 sets out high level principles to be adhered to in the social welfare system. However, such principles are already set out in Article 45 of the Constitution and in the Department's statement of strategy.

Sections 3, 4 and 5 make provision for the preparation of a social welfare charter. Again, this appears to be duplication with the Department's statutory requirement to produce a statement of strategy, follow public consultation procedures and for the published version to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. I remind Deputies that the Department of Social Protection also already prepares and publishes a customer charter and action plan.

Sections 6, 7 and 8 make provision for promotion of social welfare take-up. As I have outlined, my Department already invests significantly in promoting the take-up of social welfare payments and services in multiple media channels. I am absolutely open to working with the Deputy if he feels there are areas where we can improve upon this service. Allowing a person to view his or her PRSI contributions online, as suggested by Deputy Kerrane, is actually a very good idea and something I will certainly look at.

Section 9 provides for a support person to accompany a person during a social welfare interview. In reality, many customers of the Department are digital by desire. They apply to and interact with the Department online. Currently there is nothing, bar public health guidelines, to preclude a person accompanying a customer to an Intreo office. The Department also provides an official translation service where necessary.

Section 10 gives very extensive powers to the Citizen Information Board including pre-legislative scrutiny, which is normally a function of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 10(4) provides that:

The Board may do anything which appears to it be necessary or expedient for the purposes of, or in connection with, the performance of its functions under this Act or to be otherwise conducive to the performance of those functions.

This would create a situation whereby a Minister is held accountable by an agency of their Department to explain the rationale and merits of specific legislative proposals. This would be done in a context whereby the agency is legally responsible for reporting to the Minister who appoints all members to the Board. Article 28 of the Constitution is very clear that the Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann.

Section 10(5) of the Bill provides the Citizens Information Board with the right of access to any relevant information held by any Minister, the HSE, local authority or relevant public body that it may reasonably require for its functions provided in this Bill. Given the broad powers provided by this provision, it is very questionable that this would be in compliance with the principles of General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR.

Section 11 of the Bill provides that where the Minister proposes to make regulations under the Social Welfare Acts, he or she must inform the Citizens Information Board, notify the Houses that he or she has done so, and make the proposals publicly available. The board then has the opportunity to make recommendations in relation to the proposals with no time limit as to how long it may take to consider the draft regulations. When laying the regulations before the Houses, the Minister is then required to provide an accompanying response to the board's recommendations. This requirement, if enacted, would add considerable delays to the process of making regulations. It would have significant, costly and unnecessary intrusions into the business of Government and as I mentioned earlier it would actually have the effect of complicating and slowing down important work.

Section 12 provides for a duty to consider the effects of inflation. This provision does not take account of the fact that the Department undertakes a social impact assessment each year to assess the impact of social welfare measures contained in the annual budget process and how they impact on each income decile.

Section 13 makes provision for an annual report. The Department already submits an annual report every year. Again, this would represent a duplication of work.

I hope, in going through the Bill by section, the Deputy will accept my bona fides that my officials and I have examined the Bill in detail. I acknowledge the spirit in which it has been brought forward and the good intentions behind it but I regret that it would have many unintended consequences, so the Government cannot support it. However, I assure the Deputy and colleagues throughout the House that my officials and I are happy to work with them if there are areas they feel can be improved. We all want to ensure our social protection system works as efficiently and effectively as it can for all our people.

Since the onset of the pandemic, more than €7.6 billion has been paid through PUP, with in excess of 23 million payments issued to more than 850,000 people. During that period, in excess of 10 million phone calls have been answered by staff in the Department. That demonstrates very clearly that the Department wants to help and we are here to help people. Where improvements can be made I am happy to work with Deputies on them.

I call the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien.

Perhaps I could save some time.

We are all for saving some time.

I can save the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, a little time, if he allows me to intercede at this juncture.

Go on. Intercede away.

I thank the Minister for what is a very considered response to the Bill, which is full of good intentions. I accept the arguments and rebuttal of the Minister.

Would you not let the Minister of State give his considered opinion of the Bill? It appears he does not mind. The Deputy may proceed.

It would be a fair guess to say the Minister of State is ad idem with his senior Minister. He would not be at variance with her views.

We are very lucky in this country that we have a very good social protection or social welfare system. It works extremely well for people on a daily basis. I acknowledge that and as a public representative of some years, my day-to-day interactions with officials within this Department are nothing short of excellent. The culture that exists is one that seeks to help citizens, and that is self-evident. From time to time, the process breaks down but those times are few and far between.

This Bill is an attempt to codify a culture and set of principles that are self-evident in the Department. The Citizens Information Board is a very important mechanism for citizens, as not only do people have local public representatives to act as advocates but they have the board to act as a key advocate. I have witnesses more people using that service.

Deputy Kerrane made a very good point on PRSI contributions, for example. This Bill is designed to try to give effect to processes that could be devised to make systems more efficient. The Deputy proposed notifying people of their yearly PRSI contributions, which might stave off cases where the citizen coming up to retirement has to phone a Deputy, who must then go through a process of engaging with the Department. I am absolutely delighted to do this on behalf of the citizen but if the citizen had been informed of the PRSI contributions every step of the way, the system would be more efficient. This Bill is designed with such systems in mind.

I accept the arguments made by the Minister in respect of the Citizens Information Board and I admit I had not thought of it when we devised the Bill. I accept her offer to seek to engage where there are perceived failures or where improvements could be made.

As an example, I am currently dealing with Aer Lingus workers. There is a category of workers who because of the Covid-19 pandemic are on what might be called the casual jobseeker's benefit. I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions to the Minister and we are engaging with her and some of her officials on this. People are finding themselves on what could be the wrong category of payment and they might need to be in another category so they do not fall off a social welfare entitlement cliff where payments might cease overnight. This category includes Aer Lingus workers and a new batch of workers that have come on my radar in the past 48 hours from the automotive sector. These are the Kostal workers in north Cork, Limerick and my home town of Mallow.

These workers may not meet the criteria set out in current policies and principles that determine payments. This is all to do with the fact that the working week is still Monday to Friday but there should be some changes to the system to have regard to the new categories of workers emerging in society who present for social protection but the payments cease as a result of a round hole with a square peg. They do not fit a category and are, therefore, kicked from the system.

The purpose of this legislation is to seek to put in place systems so individuals from different parts of the country, when they present a case to a local Intreo office, do not get conflicting information from various officers because a system can be put in place to "triage" such cases. A red light could be put on these types of queries if a category of worker is encountering difficulties. It could then be dealt with up the line in a timely fashion. I am confident the two categories of workers I speak of will be dealt with but my Bill would have gone some way to responding to those types of scenario.

I do not intend to push this to a vote and I accept the Minister's arguments and bona fides about working with Deputies on all sides of the House when matters such as this arise. If Deputy Kerrane's very innovative proposal was taken up, we would support it. If that emerges from my Bill falling at the first hurdle, I would not see it as a pyrrhic victory. We would still progress the social protection system as a whole.

I thank all the Members for their pragmatic approach to this position. It is somewhat uncharted territory.

I can provide some information. I have a note that may be useful. A person may check PRSI contributions on I did not realise that. If we need to carry out more improvements, I am happy to do that as well.

I thank the Minister for her constructive approach to the proposal for the Opposition. Should I take it that there is agreement that the Bill in this case is not read a Second Time?

The question could be put to determine if the Minister is formally opposing the Bill on Second Stage.

Question put and declared lost.
The Dáil adjourned at 8.10 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 25 May 2021.