Social Welfare Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages
Sections 1 to 8, inclusive, agreed to.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 7, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following:
"Report on extending availability of full Parent's Benefit to lone parents
9. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on extending the availability of the full duration of Parent's Benefit to lone parents to examine the effect that enabling all children to equally avail of the full duration of this Benefit would have and that the report shall be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within nine months of the passing of this Act.".
This relates to an issue I raised with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on a number of occasions, namely, the duration of parental leave, which has been extended to seven weeks per parent. While this is very welcome, I want to raise an issue affecting lone-parent families. If a child is born to a two-parent family, that family will get 14 additional weeks altogether, which is welcome, but if a child is born into a lone-parent family, it will mean just seven weeks, which is an awful lot less. I am aware that the measure was brought in through the EU. There were different ways in which it was brought in and there may have been difficulties, but I ask that we examine the benefit to ensure equality for lone-parent families and to ensure children born into and brought up in a lone-parent family have the same start in life as those born into a two-parent family. I ask that the Minister consider this or at least agree to doing so.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is not good practice to put references to the presentation of reports in primary legislation. All of us in this House give out about chunky Bills. The recent practice of requiring reports on legislation does not achieve anything. I can produce reports without having them provided for in primary legislation. When I give my word in this Chamber or at a meeting of a committee that I will produce a report, the Deputy will be able to hold me to account on that.
I ask that requests for reports are not put in primary legislation. I will be happy to give Deputy Kerrane and the other Deputies here such a commitment in respect of the various issues raised.
As for this amendment, my Department does the payments in respect of parent's benefit. It is the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth that has the policy responsibility and the legislative responsibility. I accept that Deputy Kerrane has brought this matter to my attention previously. It has also been brought to my attention by One Family and I have raised the matter. Under the EU work-life balance directive, parent's leave is not transferable between parents. This recognises the importance of equality between men and women in respect of labour market opportunities and the importance of fathers bringing up their children. It should encourage an increase in the number of men taking parent's leave. A provision to allow one parent to take the dual entitlement to leave would place an increased burden on that individual's employer. As the Deputy will be aware, the employee's eligibility for parent's benefit follows his or her eligibility for associated leave, assuming the social insurance contributions and other qualifying payments are met. The policy on parent's leave is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. As I said, he has responsibility for this and I am happy to raise it with him. It is something we should consider.
I wish I did not have to table long amendments relating to reports but, unfortunately, a report is the only way to raise this issue in the Social Welfare Bill. There was no agreement initially that this would be looked at, and I have raised the matter previously. We do not even need a report if the Minister wants to go ahead and introduce the measure. Unfortunately, however, this is the only way I have to raise issues when it comes to the Social Welfare Bill. I cannot seek for this to be done because it would result in a cost to the Exchequer, unfortunately, so it is not through want of trying. I would prefer not to have to do it but it is the only way I can raise the issue. It is an important issue. It has been raised with me by the lone parent organisations and it is important to take this opportunity to raise it here today.
I appreciate what the Minister has said about the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. I have raised this with him as well, but it was important to take the opportunity to raise it today. I appreciate that there is a greater impact on the employer where only one parent takes leave but I stress again that this is about the child. The child has to be central in this. One child gets 14 weeks; another gets only seven. It is not fair. I appreciate that this comes from an EU directive but I ask simply that what I propose be considered.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 9 agreed to.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 7, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
“Report on Parental Bereavement Leave and Benefit
10. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the introduction of Parental Bereavement Leave and Benefit for parents who lose a child under the age of 18 and explore the establishment of a statutory entitlement to two weeks leave and benefit paid at the same rate as Parent’s Benefit and that the report shall be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within six months of the passing of this Act.”.
Again, I have raised this issue previously with the Minister on a couple of occasions. It is also a measure I had brought forward in Sinn Féin's alternative budget. It should be considered. This has become available in the North of Ireland. Amendments were recently brought forward by my party colleagues in the North to extend this to women who sadly suffer the loss of a baby through miscarriage. I ask that the Minister consider giving this support in a statutory entitlement to a parent at probably the most devastating time in his or her life. We know that the position on this varies a lot between employers. Some give it; some do not. Some parents have to go back to work a short time after a bereavement and really struggle. A mother brought this to my attention. She had lost her son through suicide and really struggled. I ask that the Minister consider bringing in a payment similar to that available in the North of Ireland and that we seek to support parents at these really difficult times.
Lastly, often when we look at the budget and the social protection system we look at the existing system. Where there are gaps, and there is a gap here, we need to act. The introduction of this would be a really welcome move for the Minister to make. I think it would be life-changing and would make a real difference to parents at such difficult times.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I understand what she is trying to achieve. It is an awful time for any parent when he or she loses a child. Caring leave such as force majeure and parental leave is, again, the policy responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. He is looking at the issue of bereavement leave, in particular for women who suffer miscarriages. I asked my officials to raise this matter with his Department in order that we may look at this within the wider context of a parent who loses a child.
As Deputy Kerrane will be aware, within the social welfare system there are a number of supports for people who suffer bereavement. If a person is in receipt of a primary social welfare payment which includes an increase for a qualified child and, tragically, that child dies, the qualified child payment will continue for six weeks after the child's death. In the case of carer's allowance, payment continues to be made for 12 weeks after the death of the person who was being cared for, including where this is a child. Domiciliary care allowance continues to be paid for three months after the death of the child being cared for. The working family payment and the back-to-work family dividend also remain in payment for up to six weeks after the death of a qualifying child.
In budget 2020, €60,000 was allocated to the Irish Hospice Foundation to carry out a research project on funeral poverty in Ireland together with the wider economic impact of bereavement. That project is expected to be completed in the near future. While I recognise and appreciate the intent behind this amendment and agree with what Deputy Kerrane says, I just cannot accept the specific amendment. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has already started some of this work. It relates to his Department. I support Deputy Kerrane in what she proposes. It is the right thing to do and we want to support parents who find themselves in these awful and tragic circumstances. My officials have raised this with their counterparts in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I will speak to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, about it. I know that in New Zealand they have passed legislation on miscarriages, but we should look at this as a broader picture. When somebody loses a child, what can we do to support him or her at that most awful time in his or her life? I will be in contact with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. I support what Deputy Kerrane says but I just cannot accept the amendment. We will work on this, however, and move it along.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 10 to 13, inclusive, agreed to.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 8, between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following:
“Report on the means-testing for Blind Pension and Disability Allowance
14. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the means testing eligibility requirement for Blind Pension and Disability Allowance and the impact that income threshold limitations have on access to these schemes and that the report shall be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within nine months of the passing of this Act.”.
I have also raised this issue with the Minister previously. The amendment relates to the job of work of a report on the means-testing of the blind pension and disability allowance, which can both cause major difficulties for those who are trying to apply for and obtain either payment and those who are already in receipt of a payment. The means test and the income limitations can cause difficulties to people who rely on these payments. This would be a really useful piece of work for her Department to take on. The matter has been raised by a number of the relevant organisations. Many times when speaking about the blind pension I have given the example of a person who is blind for life. I always refer to the woman who came into my constituency office with her partner. He had got a promotion at work and an increased wage and she lost her blind pension. She is blind but not entitled to the blind pension. That is wrong. I am not sure of the numbers, the cost and so on, and I appreciate that all of that has to be taken into consideration, but when a person is blind, he or she should be entitled to the blind pension.
I welcome the publication of the cost of disability report last week. However, taking blindness as an example, there is a cost to that. A person who is blind and in receipt of the blind pension should be able to retain that payment. That is really important. The issue of income and the means test for the disability allowance is one that comes up all the time. The cost of disability payment, when introduced, will of course make a difference. However, there are issues overall with the blind pension and disability allowance when it comes to the means test. It would be worthwhile if the Minister's Department would undertake some kind of exercise in relation to the means test, similar to that which I have called for elsewhere. The amendment provides that the Minister will prepare and publish a report within nine months of the passing of the Act, which is a fair period of time. Engagement with the sector will be important. I ask that the Minister consider, in some form, what is being requested in this amendment.
The Government is keen to support people with disabilities to engage in employment. In last year's budget, I increased the earnings disregard from €120 to €140 for both disability allowance and the blind pension. This means that the first €140 of weekly earnings is fully disregarded in a means assessment. In this year's budget, I announced that the earnings threshold, above which all means is fully assessed, is to be increased for both payments. This will be done by regulation. I am also increasing the general means disregard for disability allowance. I keep the means assessment for all social assistance schemes under constant review. In that regard, I am making significant amendments to the carer's allowance means test as part of this year's budget. I am also increasing the threshold for single-parent households in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. In last year's budget, I removed the earnings limit on the one-parent family payment. I assure the Deputy that while I do not propose to accept this amendment, I will keep the issue of the means test under review. Where I see inconsistencies or unfairness, I will seek to rectify the matter within the resources available to me.
As the Deputy stated, we have just published the cost of disability report. There is a recommendation that there be graduated payments based on the disability. I will ask the national disability inclusion strategy steering group, which is examining the report, to consider the specific issue the Deputy raised regarding the blind pension and disability allowance. I spoke earlier at a meeting of the steering group, which is chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It received the cost of disability report today. Indecon, the company that prepared the report, gave the group a full, in-depth explanation of where it got the data. One of the main recommendations of the report, which runs to over 200 pages, is that disability payments be graduated based on a person's disability, which is individual to different people. The means test can and should be looked at in this context. The question is whether we should have two separate payments, a blind pension and a disability allowance, or one streamlined payment based on disability. That is the question we need to ask and consider.
I will refer this specific issue to the national disability inclusion strategy steering group for consideration as part of its overall discussions. We will wait for it to come back to us with its findings on the matter. I am working closely with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on the issue.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 14 and 15 agreed to.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 9, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:
“Report on rates based on Minimum Essential Standard of Living (MESL)
16. The Minister shall carry out a review on introducing social welfare rates which are benchmarked to the Minimum Essential Standard of Living (MESL) to study the effect that adequacy of social welfare rates could have on addressing poverty levels and that the report shall be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection ahead of Budget 2023.”.
This amendment relates to an issue I have raised repeatedly. Every year in July, in the pre-budget forum meeting with the numerous stakeholders and organisations working on the ground, adequacy is always cited as one of the key priorities. The use of the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, is consistently raised by organisations working at the coalface. The Minister is well aware of this. In 2021, the basic aim of any social protection system should be to protect those who rely on it from poverty. Our system does not do that.
This year, the minimum essential standard of living has been calculated at €252 per week. Basic payments will increase from €203 by €5 to €208 in January. While this is welcome, it is far from achieving the minimum essential standard of living. I acknowledge that we cannot introduce the MESL overnight. If the Government had at least indicated it was moving towards the MESL and would do so with €5 increases or whatever the figure may be, at least we would be moving in the right direction. However, that commitment has not been made. The organisations are repeatedly calling for the MESL. It would be useful if the Department were to undertake to review the introduction of these rates benchmarked to the minimum essential standard of living. That would protect from poverty those who rely on these payments. It would be an important measure and would benchmark our social protection payments, protecting people from poverty and allowing them a decent standard of living while they rely on social protection. It would be a worthwhile exercise for the Department if the Minister would consider it. I have raised this issue repeatedly.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The Government has committed to applying a benchmarking and indexation approach to State pension rates. The roadmap for social inclusion also contains a commitment to prepare a report for the Government on the potential application of the benchmarking approach to other welfare payments. I understand that my officials are working on that. Significant work has been carried out to develop a methodology for benchmarking and indexing State pension rates. This proposed approach has been endorsed by the Pensions Commission. In addition, the Commission on Taxation and Welfare will examine the social welfare system more generally as part of its work, and will submit its report to the Minister for Finance not later than next June.
The Department has used the MESL research as a key input into the consideration of budget options in recent years. I value the insights that the data provide. The research recognises that increasing income supports is not the only means by which individuals and families can meet the minimum essential standard of living. Improved services such as the extension of GP visit cards for children, as well as the affordable childcare scheme, can result in significant reductions in the minimum income standards needed by households. In this respect, the MESL relates to issues wider than social welfare issues. We do not believe it would be appropriate to carry out a review in isolation.
I assure the Deputy that my Department will continue to support the MESL work as it is done for many years. In fact, we funded the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice to produce a report on the issue. We take it very seriously and we examine it. The research the partnership produces and its recommendations have underpinned our budgets over many years. That is why we introduce targeted measures. If we implemented all the recommendations in the MESL report, it would cost €2.7 billion. We take advice from a number of different sources, such as the Central Statistics Office, the Economic and Social Research Institute, as well as the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice.
We have used the MESL research to inform policy. For example, the higher rate of payments for children aged 12 years and over was introduced as a direct result of this research. In addition, targeting resources at vulnerable populations at higher risk of poverty, for example, pensioners living alone, was also informed by the MESL research. To bring all welfare payment rates up to the MESL would cost an additional €2.7 billion. The Deputy raised the question of the number of people who would benefit.
We expect the figure to increase from 365,000 at a minimum to 400,000 people next year. This is with regard to the fuel allowance. It will bring in many more people. The Deputy will appreciate that we always like to do more. This has been the biggest social welfare budget in 14 years. We will continue to work on it. The ESRI report stated the four lowest income deciles will benefit from the tax and welfare measures announced in the budget with the largest gains in the bottom two deciles. The ESRI analysis shows that the increase for qualified children, the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance will particularly benefit groups at higher risk of poverty. We have many reports and we do not need to prepare another one.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 16 and 17 agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 18 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 10, line 15, after "benefit" to insert "and jobseeker’s benefit (self-employed)".
Following publication of the Bill the officials realised that jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed should also have been specified in the Bill to make it clear the increase of €5 as announced on budget day should apply equally to these recipients. I have tabled these amendments to correct the omission in the published Bill and ensure that recipients of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed also receive their increased payment.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 18, as amended, agreed to.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 11, line 6, after "benefit" to insert "and jobseeker’s benefit (self-employed)".
Amendment agreed to.
Section 19, as amended, agreed to.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 13, between lines 34 and 35, to insert the following:
"(c) The Minister shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on welfare measures which can support land mobility and environmental sustainability.".
I flagged this amendment on Second Stage. I am using this as a vehicle to raise the issue. I hope the Minister can consider it. I accept it is not good practice to include reports in primary legislation but it is the only mechanism available to us. Section 20 of the Bill makes provision for income disregards for farm schemes. We all welcome this. It is very constructive. The objective behind it is to try to encourage farmers to participate in the various farm schemes. The list is being updated in the legislation before us. We want to try to see low-income farmers supplement their income but take on board environmental measures that not only benefit their farms but also benefit our water quality, the environment generally and reduce our overall emissions profile. As the Minister knows better than most, in our part of the country the age profile of suckler farmers, in particular, and beef farmers is quite high. If we are going to bring about innovation and reduce the overall carbon footprint of this sector of agriculture, it will only happen if we can significantly reduce the age profile of these farmers and encourage younger farmers into agriculture to get access to the land and carry out the type of measures and alteration of farm practices that will reduce the carbon footprint of those farms.
I accept that under the social welfare code, where a son or daughter of the retiring farmer continues the practice of farming, there is no issue. The difficulty arises, as the Minister and I both know, with farmers who do not have a son or daughter and who are leasing out the land. They are left with a dilemma. If they lease out the farm and have a stranger come in and work their farm where they have no control over it, every cent generated in the farm lease is deducted from the non-contributory old age pension. There is absolutely no incentive for farmers in receipt of the non-contributory old age pension, who do not have a successor, to lease out the land. We all know what they do. They continue to slobber along doing what they have always done and what was done by their parents before them and the generation before that. This is having an impact on the overall emissions profile of our suckler herd throughout the country and on reducing the carbon efficiency of the herd.
I want the Minister to look at this particular cohort of older farmers and see whether we can put some incentive in place for them to lease out their land. If farmers go into various agricultural schemes, there is a disregard. If farmers were to go out and work, there is a €200 disregard for them. However, if they lease the land to a young progressive farmer, whereby we would reduce the carbon footprint of that farm holding, we are saying that we will give them no credit whatsoever. There is something wrong in a system that does not give some acknowledgement for this. In fairness, the social welfare code recognises the need to encourage farmers to improve their carbon efficiency profile and improve environmental sustainability. It is set out in section 20.
I ask the Minister to look at the issue of leasing land whereby some encouragement would be given. I accept she will not waive the full value of it. I am not asking that the full value of it be waived. However, perhaps a proportion could be waived, such as half of the disregard for someone out working. Even if it were a disregard of €100 a week at least it would be some incentive to encourage people to lease the land and improve the emissions profile of the holding. I hope the Minister can ask the officials to look at this. I do not think a huge cohort of people is involved. It would make a significant difference to the emissions profile of our overall suckler herd.
I thank Deputy Naughten for raising this issue. I fully understand the points he is making. I accept the age profile of the suckler herd owners is increasing and there are challenges. We have to try to address some of these challenges so that young people can get an opportunity. I know the Deputy wants to see the income disregard introduced for older farmers who lease out their land. He raised it on Second Stage.
As the Deputy is aware, the Bill extensively extends the list of agri-environment schemes that attract a disregard for the farm assist scheme and the non-contributory State pension. The measure supports the Government's climate change agenda and will act as an incentive for farmers to participate in these schemes. The measure also extends the list of environmental schemes that attract a disregard in a corresponding way for the farm assist scheme and the non-contributory State pension.
The measure in the Bill will, therefore, support older and younger farmers availing of these grants. I do commit to carrying out a report on increasing the disregard for leasing land for the State non-contributory pension and farm assist. The Deputy will be aware that the rent per acre of land has gone up in value and, in order to target resources at those most in need, we could not ignore entirely the rental income from leasing the land. I take his point that we should consider giving some disregard there. He will understand that I do not wish to put this into legislation, but I give him a commitment that I will carry out this report. He has my word on that. I will do it in such a way that we can take account of it ahead of the next budget.
I thank the Minister for her comments. The late Seymour Crawford, her predecessor as Deputy for her local area, is probably looking down on us tonight and would tell her to consider this issue. The particular farmers to whom I refer are not going into these schemes. Many of them want nothing to do with paperwork. Many of them are probably not even getting their area-based payments at all. We just want to address that issue of succession in the context of land and getting it to the hands of young people. I do not want a complete disregard. I am not looking for that. Some small acknowledgement of the environmental benefit of transferring the land to a young and progressive farmer, even if it is a condition of a long-term lease that is not 11-month land, would go a long way. I thank the Minister for her comments and, in light of them, I will withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 20 agreed to.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 15, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following:
“(3) The Minister shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the inclusion of all half-rate carer’s allowance recipients under the fuel allowance scheme.”.
This, too, is an issue that I raised on Second Stage. I tabled the amendment on foot of the experience of a constituent of mine and Deputy Kerrane's with whom I am personally dealing at the moment. The husband of the constituent in question is in receipt of a contributory State pension. She is getting the qualified adult allowance and the half-rate carer's allowance. That is the only income going into that household. The difficulty is that under the fuel allowance scheme as currently drafted, the half-rate carer's allowance is considered income. If this woman's husband had not paid PRSI and, as such, was in receipt of the non-contributory State pension, and she was receiving the qualified adult allowance and the half-rate carer's allowance, they would be entitled to the full fuel allowance. On top of that, she could actually go out and earn up to €120 a week and still get the fuel allowance. People who paid PRSI are significantly worse off due to this anomaly whereby the half-rate carer's allowance is considered income under a contributory pension but not under a non-contributory pension in the context of eligibility for the fuel allowance. It is an anomaly in the system. It is discriminating against this couple with no income other than what is coming in from the Minister's Department. They have no supplementary income but they are in receipt of the half-rate carer's allowance, which is considered income. If it is not considered income under the non-contributory State pension, a similar situation should pertain under the contributory State pension. The half-rate carer's allowance should not be considered as income in that context. That would ensure the couple would receive the fuel allowance just like everyone else. There is probably only a relatively small number of people affected by this anomaly. I do not think there is a big cost involved. I ask the Minister to consider addressing this anomaly in the context of the Bill before the House.
I welcome the amendment. It is important that groups such as the people mentioned by the Deputy are included. The fuel allowance scheme is very important for families on low incomes but it is narrow enough in terms of the definitions and who gets it. In our alternative budget, Sinn Féin proposed extending by two weeks the period in which the fuel allowance is paid, but also broadening the eligibility bands.
I know it is not dealt with in the Bill, but perhaps in future years a discretionary fund could be set up through the community welfare officer system such that a payment would be made to help people who have very high costs. There should be some kind of discretionary fund to assist people. That has been put forward by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It could be administered through the community welfare officers. It is something the Department should seriously consider.
The fuel allowance scheme is welcome and it is always good that it is there to help people at that crucial time. God knows, bills are sky high this year. The measures are necessary, given the scale of the crisis we are facing, with unprecedented increases. Households are facing the highest increases in my lifetime. On average, fuel bills have gone up by 28% or 30% in the past 12 months. That adds an extra €450 or €500 this winter for using a similar amount of energy to last year. The increase in carbon tax has added to that cost, although I know the Government would say it does not add to it significantly. This issue needs to be factored into future budgeting. In the area in which I live, a bale of briquettes was €3.50 a short time ago. One shop is now charging €6.70 per bale. That is a significant increase. The increase in carbon tax alone put an extra 20 cent on a bale of briquettes. A bag of coal increased by 89 cent. The increase in the carbon tax alone has added €20 to the cost of the average refill of home heating oil. I point that out to bring home the significant cost coming onto families. It is placing enormous pressure on families who are struggling.
As the Minister is aware, in rural areas it is different from urban areas. There is no piped gas. Laois-Offaly, for example, has the highest number of homes that are dependent on solid fuel. Let us be fair about it. Those houses will not be retrofitted. There will not be a significant number of them retrofitted this year or next year. It will take time to get through all of that. We cannot have people freezing with the cold in the interim. The charity ALONE has estimated that there are in the region of 3,000 deaths directly or indirectly related to fuel poverty each year. That is one of the highest rates in Europe. Almost 400,000 people experience some level of fuel deprivation in the State each year.
The Government announced the payment of €100 to offset the increase in energy bills. Any such payment is welcome but I ask the Minister to try to fast-forward that payment. It would have been great to see it coming before Christmas or very soon thereafter. My understanding - the Minister can correct me if I am wrong - is that the payment may not come until late March. I am not sure whether that is the case. I ask the Minister to clarify that. The payment is welcome.
The fuel allowance scheme requires changes and fine tuning. The issue raised by Deputy Naughten in respect of those on half-rate carer's allowance in circumstances where a spouse is on a contributory pension is one that needs to be addressed. There is also a need to consider part-time workers and low-paid workers. Some of those households are among the poorest in the State. Deputy Kerrane's office carried out an online survey for Sinn Féin recently. The response from full-time workers, not to mention part-time workers, showed that a significant number of workers are experiencing poverty. That is a reality we must face. Bills have gone up and wages are not keeping pace with them.
As we move forward, we should keep such matters under review while trying to ensure as many people as possible are assisted under the fuel scheme each year.
I will be brief in speaking in support of amendment No. 8 because this is clearly an anomaly that has been identified. Where this happens and there are clear anomalies, they should be rectified. Deputy Denis Naughten spoke about working and paying PRSI and I brought to the Minister's attention another anomaly that only recently came to my attention. It relates to illness benefit and the fact that lone parents and widows who are working and paying PRSI cannot access this benefit. If we are talking about anomalies involving people who are working and paying PRSI but who cannot access these payments, it is important to rectify such issues. I had a case of a lone parent whose child got sick with Covid-19. She applied for the Covid-19 illness benefit payment and could not access it because she was getting a payment because she is a lone parent. It is also an issue for a widow receiving a widow's pension and who is working and paying PRSI. She cannot access that illness benefit despite being very sick with Covid-19. She ended up with long Covid and could not get illness benefit.
This is an anomaly. When people are working and paying PRSI, they should be able to access illness benefit. I have written to the Minister about this and I hope she will take a look at it. I support amendment No. 8.
I thank Deputies Naughten and Kerrane for raising this matter. I understand why we need to compile such a report, and that is okay. I am happy to do the report, although I would prefer not to put this in legislation, as I have said, because it makes the process clunky. I am happy to give a commitment to carry out a report on the inclusion of all half-rate carer’s allowance recipients under the fuel allowance scheme. I will ask my officials to do that and bring the report before the House.
The fuel allowance is currently being paid to more than 365,000 households most at risk of fuel poverty for 28 weeks between October and April at an estimated cost of €300 million. As part of budget 2022, the rate of the fuel allowance was increased by €5, as Deputies noted, to €33 per week, effective from budget day. An increase in the means test threshold of €20 has also been implemented with effect from budget day. That did not happen before and we made sure both those measures kicked in from budget day. The Department of Social Protection also pays an electricity or gas allowance under the household benefits scheme and the household benefits package is separate from the fuel allowance scheme. A further €195 million will be spent on that scheme in 2021. More than 482,000 households will benefit from this to assist with their gas and electricity bills.
I know Deputy Kerrane has raised the question of a discretionary fund. Supplementary welfare allowance is there for people who are experiencing genuine difficulty. There is no limit on it. This is a demand-led scheme that is there to help people with costs, such as those relating to fuel bills, that they cannot afford to pay. It is for people who have genuine problems and who cannot afford to pay bills from their own resources. People can apply for that through their local community welfare officer.
The Government has also announced a €100 payment that will be made as soon as possible. I do not have the date but we will do everything to get that out to people because we know they want it. There have been a number of changes in the budget and we will continue to support people in every way we can. I will leave it at that. Speaking specifically to the amendment, I am happy to do the report spoken about by the Deputies.
I would rather if the Minister did not, and instead amended the legislation. The reality is a small number of carers will miss out on the fuel allowance for a full 12 months because we will not have the opportunity to look at this again. I submitted this amendment in plenty of time, and I am sure the officials looked at the figures. I stand to be corrected but I suspect we are talking about a very small number who would fall into this category with no supplementary income and the only "income" is the half-rate carer's allowance. If that half-rate carer's allowance is not considered income under the fuel allowance scheme if the person is in receipt of a non-contributory pension, why in God's name would it be considered as income when the person is in receipt of a contributory State pension?
This is an anomaly. The people involved are being discriminated against. I would like to see the Minister address this in the legislation before us. She knows I cannot move an amendment in this respect, although I wish I could. I know the complexity of the issue if the Minister accepts the principle of what I am saying. It will not be possible for her to go back to the Cabinet to get that approval before this Bill goes to the Seanad. There is a minimal cost relating to it. Is there some way we can resolve this matter for the small number of people who are being discriminated against? It is blatant discrimination. They are not in receipt of anything else that others are not. As they paid into the social insurance fund, the same payments are being treated differently.
The fuel allowance is a non-statutory scheme so it does not need legislation. I give a commitment that I will look at this and see what I can do. Is that okay?
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 21 agreed to.
Sections 22 and 23 agreed to.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following:
"Back to Education Allowance
24. In relation to the scheme administered by the Minister and known as the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA), the terms of the scheme shall be amended so that the qualification period for BTEA are deemed to be met, for all BTEA applicants commencing any year of a new course of education from September 2020, where the applicant closes their pandemic unemployment payment claim and establishes an entitlement to a Jobseekers (or other qualifying) payment.".
The measure that allows the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to be a determining factor when entering the back to education allowance scheme is welcome but we feel strongly that this should be expanded to include all those who, unfortunately, had to claim the PUP and who are seeking financial support to continue studies. This mainly affects those who are on the healthcare front line. Nurses and care assistants were able before the pandemic to work in care homes but they have been forced to stop. They went on the PUP and now find themselves unable to get employment in care homes again and, as such, their financial supports have been swiped from under their feet. The same supports had enabled them to continue education.
Individuals have contacted the office of Deputy Sherlock about this. We can send those communications to the Minister. I will not read any into the record. This change would not impact many students but for those who it would, it could be a significant difference in continuing their education. In many cases this is training for nurses, more of which we desperately need, and this would restore people's faith in the system who now feel let down. Many of these people are mature students and have reared kids before going back to education with the support of this allowance. The pandemic meant that, unfortunately, they had to apply for the PUP and, through no fault of their own and in crazy circumstances, they now find themselves without supports. This is something that could be amended, and we ask the Minister to do that.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. This proposal does not require legislation. The back to education allowance is an administrative scheme. If there is a specific case the Deputy wants me to examine, I am happy to sit down and speak with either him or Deputy Sherlock about it. I am just not sure what he was getting at.
I was very keen for us to continue paying students who found themselves out of work because of the restrictions. They lost their jobs the same as everybody else.
Now that they have gone back to full-time education, they no longer receive the PUP. In the case of students who have received the PUP during their first year of college because they had no work, it would not be fair if they received the back-to-education allowance for years two and three if they did not qualify for it in the first instance. We just want to be careful here.
I reiterate I am happy to sit down and talk to either Deputy Duncan Smith or Deputy Sherlock about this.
I will pass that information on to Deputy Sherlock, who has the details. I think this could be done on a case-by-case basis or through a regulation. On that basis, I will withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 10 has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 10 not moved.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following:
“Report on the treatment of cohabitants under the Social Welfare Acts
24. The Minister shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the treatment of cohabitants under the Social Welfare Acts, with particular regard to the differences between the treatment of a married couple and a cohabiting couple.”
I am disappointed amendment No. 10 was ruled out of order, given there are many issues in that area.
Turning to the amendment before us, the concept of the family has changed and it is time to bring Ireland into the 21st century. We want all families to be treated fairly, whether people are married or not. This issue is experienced by a huge number of people. The 2016 census shows there are almost 75,000 cohabiting couples with child dependants, a figure likely to be even greater when the next census comes around. If a couple are cohabiting, the Department of Social Protection will assess both their means when carrying out a means test for social assistance payments such as jobseeker's allowance or the carer's allowance. It does not provide any guarantee to contributory social protection payments such as the widow's pension when one of them passes away.
The amendment seeks to make the treatment of all citizens equal. Cohabiting has an impact on many State payments and supports, that is, not just social welfare payments but also medical cards, payments to mature students and many more examples. A cohabiting couple cannot claim or transfer unused tax credits between themselves and there can also be an inherent tax burden when a partner passes away. For the assessment of eligibility for social welfare payments, a cohabiting couple are treated as together for income assessment, just as married couples are, but not if one of them dies.
Some laws do not discriminate. For example, the recent Affordable Housing Act provides for equal treatment of cohabiting couples to qualify for the purpose of an affordable dwelling if they plan to live together. Cohabitation is recognised for some laws, therefore, but not for others. It is time the law caught up with modern family life. The citizens' assembly has called for Article 41 of the Constitution to be amended to protect private and family life not limited to the marital family.
I believe Ireland is going to get to where we need to go in respect of cohabiting couples and I hope we can get there a little more quickly. With the Minister's help, we can do that through amendments to the Bill or some commitments that these kinds of changes can be made.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and acknowledge Deputy Kerrane tabled a similar amendment, which we will get to shortly. The amendment before us concerns a very broad measure that relates to many schemes in my Department but also concerns matters beyond my Department's remit, including potentially wider, constitutional matters. Entering into a marriage or civil partnership is a legal act that confers both rights and obligations on both parties that do not exist in law between cohabiting couples.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Oireachtas recently established the Special Committee on Gender Equality as a result of recommendations made by the citizens' assembly. This committee is considering the recommendations contained in the report of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality together with the response of the Government to each recommendation and is due to report within nine months of its establishment. These matters should be examined in the round by the committee and we can then consider its report in regard to specific policy contexts, including social protection schemes.
Notwithstanding that, in order to be helpful, my Department will carry out a report on this issue and feed it into the Oireachtas committee, which is examining this in the round. As I said, Deputy Kerrane has tabled a similar amendment that we will reach later. I give them both a commitment that I will ask my officials to carry out a report on how cohabiting couples are treated in the social welfare system. I will refer that report to the Oireachtas committee, which can consider it in the round. I reiterate marriage conveys legal rights in a number of areas, particularly succession rights, that go beyond the remit of my Department. The issue needs to be examined on a whole-of-government basis. I understand Deputy Bacik is chairing the committee. I will be happy to feed this information into that committee.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following:
“Report on maternity and related benefits
24. The Minister shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the adequacy of the level of payment of maternity benefit and other child-related leave benefits, and report with proposals to link these benefits to earned income.”.
With each passing year, it seems the adequacy of maternity benefit and other child-related leave benefits diminish, for a range of reasons. I am interested in hearing the Minister's response to the amendment and her plans to address the inadequacy of these benefits.
Benefits such as maternity benefit are paid at the same rate, which is currently €245 per week. Any proposal to change the rate of payment can be considered only in the overall budgetary context. As a result of budget changes provided for in the Bill, there will be a €5 increase in all core working-age weekly payments, including maternity, paternity, adoptive and parent's benefit, from January 2022. The new rate of payment will be €250 per week. Over time, parent's leave and benefit will increase to nine weeks for each parent, in line with the EU work-life balance directive. This will bring paid leave in Ireland up to a combined 46 weeks for a two-parent family by 2024.
The Government has committed, as part of the programme for Government, to examining pay-related benefit for people who lose their jobs. As part of next year's budget, I intend to bring forward proposals on pay-related benefit for those who lose their job. That will involve a major change in the social welfare system, and if we get it right, we can then examine widening it out to other benefits. I think it is best to focus on pay-related benefits for the unemployed first, and once we have that principle, we can consider it in other areas.
I am a strong supporter of pay-related benefit. The PUP is a very good example of pay-related benefit. Nevertheless, I have to take this one step at a time.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following:
“Report on the current criteria for Widow’s, Widower’s or Surviving Civil Partner’s Pension
24. The Minister shall review the current criteria in order to qualify for a Widow’s, Widower’s or Surviving Civil Partner’s Pension, including the Non-Contributory and Contributory payments, specifically the marriage requirement and explore removing this clause to acknowledge long term partnerships and dependent children and that the report shall be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within nine months of the passing of this Act.”.
I have raised this issue with the Minister on a number of occasions. The year is 2021. This concerns partners who have been together for a long time, especially where they have dependent children, and where, sadly, one of those partners pass away. The other partner is then left with no entitlement to the widow's pension. As I have said to the Minister previously, given this is the 21st century, that clause in respect of the marriage requirement should not continue to exist, especially where there are dependants and children are concerned. I nonetheless welcome the Minister's commitment to examining this, so I will withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Deputy. This is an issue we will examine. To find the correct solution, we have to look at it in the broader context. We will feed in the report to the committee that has been set up and it will examine the issue.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 14 to 17, inclusive, are out of order.
Amendments Nos. 14 to 17, inclusive, not moved.
Section 24 agreed to.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 18, line 23, after “Benefit” to insert “and Jobseeker’s Benefit (self-employed)”.
Amendment agreed to.
Schedule, as amended, agreed to.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and Deputies for their co-operation on this Bill. I also thank colleagues for the work they have done over the past year. Sometimes we might not agree on the process or on certain points but, ultimately, we all have the same aim at heart, which is to help and support citizens in their time of need. In addition, I thank the staff of the Department of Social Protection, who are a wonderful group of people. Whether based in Dublin or up and down the length and breadth of the country, they have done tremendous work during the pandemic. I thank them as we draw to the end of another year. I know Deputies agree that staff have worked extremely hard in sometimes difficult circumstances. I wish everybody a happy Christmas and thank the Ceann Comhairle again for his co-operation.
Thank you, Minister. I thank everybody for dealing so efficiently with this important business.
Question put and agreed to.