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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 4

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Pensions Reform

Niamh Smyth

Question:

6. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Social Protection her strategy to address the proposal to remove the exemption to pay PRSI on supplementary pension income, occupational and personal pensions and public sector pensions, as contained in the report of the Commission on Pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5384/22]

The proposal of the Commission on Pensions to change the PRSI system and charge PRSI on supplementary pensions is a real worry for people, especially those for whom the pension is the only source of income. Can the Minister outline the strategy for dealing with this? Will she resist it?

The report of the Commission on Pensions was published on 7 October 2021. It established that the current State pension system is not sustainable and that changes are needed. The report set out a wide range of recommendations in relation to the State pension system and social insurance fund, including PRSI base broadening measures.

In the interests of older people and future generations of older people, the Government intends to consider the comprehensive and far-reaching recommendations in the commission's report very carefully and holistically. The report has been referred to the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands. That committee published its views yesterday. My officials and I will obviously include these in our deliberations over the coming weeks.

Separately, as set out in its terms of reference, the Commission on Taxation and Welfare is considering the report of the Commission on Pensions in the context of its review of potential changes to the social insurance system, including relevant PRSI rate and coverage recommendations. In addition, my officials are examining each of the recommendations and consulting across government through the Cabinet committee system.

It is really important that we complete that work and obtain those views before reaching conclusions on any one recommendation, such as the recommendations to remove the exemption to pay PRSI on supplementary pension income, occupational and personal pensions and public sector pensions. I intend to bring a recommended response and implementation plan to the Government by the end of March this year.

The State pension is the bedrock of the pension system in Ireland. It is extremely effective at ensuring that our pensioners do not experience poverty. This Government is committed to ensuring that this remains the case for current pensioners, those nearing State pension age and today's young workers, including those who are only starting their careers.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

As the Minister stated, the State pension is a bedrock of the system; however, there are people who, for different reasons, do not qualify for one. The draft commission report recommended that pensioners pay more PRSI, but through having the solidarity rate and by the removal of the exemption on supplementary pensions. A supplementary pension sounds like something extra. For many, it is their only source of income.

I am pleased that the joint committee published its report and made recommendations on the PRSI changes, but the whole question around supplementary pensions needs to be addressed. Pat, a constituent of mine, and a number of others have written to me to outline that the supplementary pension is their only source of income. They have already paid the pension levy. Purchasing power has been reduced. What certainty can the Minister give people, especially those in receipt of supplementary pensions, that they will not see a cut to their pensions?

There is a process, and I have outlined what is still to happen in that regard. The Deputy will appreciate that I am not in a position to stand here today and tell the Deputy which recommendations the Government will accept or otherwise. The discussions will continue over the coming weeks and months. The plan is that the Government will outline its full response to the commission's recommendations by the end of March. I appreciate that there are concerns, but let us not be in any doubt that there are no easy options. People are living longer, which is very positive, but it means there are challenges.

Today, there are 4.5 people working for every pensioner. By 2050, there will be two people working for every pensioner. The current pension system is not sustainable and there is no getting away from that fact. Of course, this is not a problem that is unique to Ireland. Countries all over the world are grappling with the same issue.

Many of those who contacting me point to the fact that was no pensioner on the Commission on Pensions. They worry about how they are going to have their say and how their voice is going to be part of the whole engagement. In the absence of pensioner representation, they see these different proposals coming forward. They are threatening proposals that they feel will reduce their only income. How does the Minister propose that their voices will be heard within the system in view of the fact that there was no pensioner on the commission?

Actually, there was a broad range of people on the commission, including a representative of Age Action or Age Friendly Ireland. I cannot remember off the top of my head which organisation was represented. It was either Age Action or Age Friendly Ireland. There were a lot of experts on the commission. As the Deputy will be aware, Ms Josephine Feehily headed up the commission. We included a broad range of people. When I announced the members of the commission it was broadly welcomed by everybody that there was a good mix of people. There are some young people, older people, academics, actuaries and experts on pensions. The unions, including SIPTU, were represented. A broad range of people were represented. The commission spent a great deal of time considering the matter. The report runs to hundreds of pages. To be fair to the members, they did a huge body of work. As I said to the Deputy earlier, I am not going to start commenting on any specific measure. We cannot pick and mix. It is a package of measures and the Government will make a decision on it. We will bring a recommendation forward at the end of March.

Question Nos. 7 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.

Social Welfare Benefits

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

9. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Mayo in receipt of the carer’s allowance; if they will receive a bonus payment for their contribution throughout the pandemic; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5491/22]

I was pleased earlier when I heard that the Government is going to examine cost of living again and the impact that it is having. My question is very pertinent because it is about giving the Covid bonus payment to the 500,000 family carers around the country. There would be no better way of showing that the work of carers is really respected and that the Government recognises the severe impact that energy prices and fuel prices have had on carers throughout the State. I ask the Minister to go back to Cabinet and fight for them.

My Department provides a comprehensive package of carers' income supports, including the carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Combined spending on these payments to carers in 2022 is estimated to exceed €1.5 billion. There are currently 2,976 recipients of carer's allowance in County Mayo. The Minister for Health has confirmed the payment of a Covid recognition payment, ring-fenced to certain workers ordinarily on-site in Covid-19-exposed healthcare environments. This payment is a matter for him and is not under the responsibility of my Department.

In so far as my role as Minister for Social Protection is concerned, I have done my utmost to support the invaluable work and role played by carers in our society. Despite the extra financial demands due to the Covid-19 crisis, I increased the carer's support grant by €150 to a rate of €1,850. This is the highest rate since its introduction. In budget 2022, I introduced a range of measures benefiting family carers directly, including a €5 increase in maximum rate of all core weekly payments with effect from January; a €3 increase for qualified child dependants aged 12 and over, and a €2 increase for those up to age 12, in all core weekly payments; a €5 increase in the fuel allowance from €28 to €33 per week from 12 October 2021; an increase in the weekly income disregard for carer's allowance to €350 a week for single carers, and to €750 for carers with a spouse or partner; and an increase in the capital or savings disregard for carer's allowance from €20,000 to €50,000. I assure the Deputy that I am very aware of the key role of carers and, in particular, the challenges they faced in light of Covid-19. I trust this clarifies the matter for her.

I would still ask the Minister to go back to Cabinet and highlight the issue. I know that the Covid recognition payment is a matter for the Minister for Health, but there is an opportunity for the Department of Social Protection to look at the cost of living in terms of the 500,000 people who have probably contributed the most during the pandemic, and to give them the Covid payment. The past two years were tough for many. I wholeheartedly welcome the bonus of €1,000 for front-line healthcare workers, including ambulance workers and others. I understand that many other groups of workers also had reasonable requests for some recognition of their contribution. However, carers' shifts never end and they had no respite during the pandemic. They often did not have the time to do homeschooling either. They really were the ones that were there, and they did not get a break at all. We all know the carers in our communities, as I am sure the Minister does. I ask the Minister to go back to Cabinet and fight for carers at this particular time. There are carers living in rural areas who have to pay for fuel for going to hospital appointments and so on, and for energy to heat their homes. The Minister knows of the extra costs involved. This payment could be given to them as a once-off payment in recognition of their work.

The Deputy is correct. Carers do incredible work; I accept that. I meet them in my constituency. We help them fill out the forms and we help them to get the benefits, and all those things. I am the first Minister in 14 years to do anything about the means test for the carer's allowance. It was an issue that I was very passionate about. That change means that all carers currently are reduced rate of payment will see their payment increase from next June. It will also mean that tens of thousands more carers, who did not qualify up to this point due to the income threshold, will now qualify for the payment. The increase in the income disregard for a couple was something that I really wanted to improve, because I was aware that in many cases a partner who was a carer, and usually a mother, might have to give up her job to care for a sick child, but because the husband was working or they had savings, they just did not qualify for the benefit. As a result of the changes I am making, a couple can earn up to €750 a week, and the first €50,000 in savings will not be impacted or counted. I know the family carers and Care Alliance Ireland have warmly welcomed these changes. We have increased the carer's support grant, we have increased the weekly payment and we have reformed the means test. My next priority is to ensure that we can provide carers with a pension. That is something that I hope to progress as part of our consideration of the report of the Commission on Pensions.

Social Welfare Benefits

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

10. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Social Protection if there are plans to review the household benefits package due to the increases in cost of living; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5021/22]

Every family is worried about the cost of living increase. They are worried and fearful about their next energy bill, in particular. Will the Minister review the household benefit packages due to this significant increase in the cost of living, and will she make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government is committed to supporting households to control and meet energy costs through a combination of monetary supports as well as investment to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock. The household benefits package comprises the electricity or gas allowance and the free television licence, and is just one of a range of supports my Department provides to assist people with their fuel costs. My Department will spend approximately €273 million this year on household benefits, supporting more than 484,000 households. As part of the overall welfare budget package of €600 million in increases that I secured for 2022, I was pleased to be able to increase the fuel allowance payment by €5 per week, effective from budget night. The rate now stands at €33 per week and supports more than 375,000 customers, at an overall cost estimate for 2022 of €366 million. Other payments, such as increases for qualified children, the living alone allowance and the working family payment, are also shown to be effective in supporting those households who will be most challenged by increases in energy costs. Again, I was pleased to be able to bring forward increases in these payments, valued at €98 million in a full year, as part of budget 2022. Any decision to enhance the household benefits package would have budgetary consequences and would have to be considered in the context of overall budget negotiations.

In addition to the regular weekly and monthly payments, the Department can also support people through the use of discretionary payments, including the exceptional needs payment and a special heating supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. The recently announced electricity costs emergency benefit payment is a key measure being developed by the Government and led by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, to help mitigate the effects of the recent rise in electricity prices on all domestic customers.

I thank the Minister. I congratulate her on the excellent work she is doing. As she stated, uniquely, she has made significant changes for the first time in 17 years. The problem we have is recognised by the Government. At the time of the budget, inflation was predicted at 2.2%. It is now in excess of 5%. Regrettably, and through no fault of the Government, many families are choosing between buying food or fuel. That is the reality of the situation. I appreciate the Minister stated it has to be a budgetary matter. If it means a supplementary budget is needed to increase the fuel allowance – I am referring specifically to the household benefit package - to either increase the benefits or reduce the qualification restrictions for it, all Members would support that because it is the right and proper thing to do in a modern democracy faced with the economic challenges we are facing. In light of the high buoyancy in our finances at the moment, let us spend that on the ordinary people who need it now.

I thank the Deputy. He will appreciate that budget 2022 delivered the biggest social welfare budget package in 14 years.

I accept that totally.

I provided the across-the-board increases and, in addition, targeted measures to support the most vulnerable, based on recommendations by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. The budget increased the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance and the qualified child payment. Of course, we are considering this issue as a Government. Despite what some people say, we are not removed from reality. We see what is happening on the ground and we know the cost of living has gone up. I know people are struggling to meet some of these costs. I have asked my officials to look at what we can do. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are also committed to taking action on this issue. We, as a Government, are committed to looking at what can be done. It does require a whole-of-government approach. Inflation is not just impacting on people on social welfare; it is also impacting on people who are working. This is across the board, so it has to be a whole-of-government approach.

I very much welcome the Minister's comments. She has the support of every Member, those of all parties and none, to do what needs to be done. I accept and acknowledge that is her absolute intention. The key point is that older people, as well as those who are sick or disabled, need more heat than younger people do. That is why these schemes are there. If she can increase them, she should do so. I have no issue with a supplementary budget being brought forward if that is needed. I do not know what the alternatives are, other than the Minister doubling the allowances for a certain number of weeks and so on. If that requires a budget, that should be done. We have to reach out to all of those people. The Minister rightly pointed out that everybody is suffering, but the older, poorer or more disadvantaged a person is, the more this issue will proportionately impact on him or her due to reduced income in many respects and increased demand for energy.

I understand that old people living alone in particular have additional costs because they only have one income coming in. I accept that. That is why in the past two years since becoming Minister for Social Protection I have increased the living alone allowance. I have always been of the opinion that it takes the same amount of fuel to heat a house for two people as it does for one person. It is something of which I am very conscious. As I stated, the Government will look at this issue. It is like everything else; there are always difficult choices, but we are certainly committed to examining what we can do. I am going to do what I can in my Department of Social Protection.

Post Office Network

James O'Connor

Question:

11. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Social Protection her strategy to support the rural post office network; the additional departmental services that could be provided via the network; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5388/22]

My apologies; I have just come from a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts. I wish to ask a quick question regarding the post office network. As a rural Deputy, I acknowledge the tremendous work the Minister has been doing for rural affairs. However, in improving our rural post office network, what additional services can her Department work with An Post to provide across so many rural communities to strengthen the existing service and secure its future?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The Government sees the post office network as a key piece of the financial and social infrastructure of the country. I have seen at first-hand the value of post offices in towns and villages throughout the country and the essential service they provide to people young and old. Throughout the pandemic, post offices stayed open and continued working under very difficult conditions. Indeed, many of them are part of a shop and many of those shopkeepers stepped up to the plate and delivered groceries to their customers when nobody else could. I know that is what my local post office in the village beside me did. They delivered and helped people and we have to recognise that. My Department and myself are very appreciative of the sterling work carried out by post office workers who ensured that a full range of services continued to be delivered to the public through the past two difficult years.

My Department is the largest customer of An Post. More than 24 million social welfare payments were issued via post offices last year and I was pleased to announce recently that the Department has renewed its contract with An Post for cash payment services for another year. This year, my Department expects to spend approximately €56 million in fees to An Post for over-the-counter cash payments and for postage. Last week, I was pleased to announce that payments for all new jobseeker applications will be dealt with directly in post offices. In the coming months, we will extend these measures to other jobseeker payments. This will bring much-needed footfall into post offices in local communities and it is a clear signal of the commitment of the Government to supporting the network as a whole.

My Department has also actively participated in the Government’s interdepartmental group to explore the potential of a one-stop-shop approach for the delivery of Government offline services. The group is co-chaired by the Departments of the Environment, Climate and Communication and Public Expenditure and Reform. I thank postmasters, postmistresses and An Post for their continued efforts to serve our shared customers.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an t-Aire. I am delighted to hear of the return of the jobseeker’s payment to the post office system. It is worth putting on record that what happened in the banking sector in rural Ireland is a cause of worry. Services were stripped away and, unfortunately, many banks throughout rural Ireland became untenable. It is very important that we continue to support and bolster any degree of activity that goes on in post offices, from which departmental payments and grants can be administered. Of course, it is very welcome that the Minister is putting in that degree of effort.

I thank her for visiting my constituency. I know she has a strong appreciation of the challenges that face the people of rural Ireland. Her home county of Monaghan is in a rural constituency, similar to my constituency of Cork East. It is worth putting on the record that this is a good and positive move and very much to be welcomed.

I thank the Deputy. It was a pleasure to visit his constituency. There are great things happening in Cork. I know he is absolutely committed to his local post offices. He has raised with me previously the need to maintain services there. I was delighted to be able to return the jobseeker's payment to post offices. I met An Post and the Irish Postmasters' Union and spoke to them on this issue, as did the Deputy. This is a service they wanted to bring back because it is about footfall, getting people into towns and villages and making sure post offices are sustainable. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, has responsibility for post offices. I know she is working to examine what other services can be provided via the post office network. I am happy to work with her on that. In fact, I am meeting her later this afternoon to discuss the matter and see what we can do.

Tá sé sin ar fheabhas ar fad agus gabhaim buíochas mór leis an Aire. I must return now to the Committee on Public Accounts. I thank the Minister very much for answers.

I thank the Deputy.

Questions 12 to 14, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Social Welfare Eligibility

Martin Browne

Question:

15. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Social Protection her views on the back to education allowance guidelines that refuse applications on the basis that the only master's degree that is allowed for the purposes of the allowance is a master's in education; and her views on the situation in which some unsuccessful applications are being advised to give up their education in order to avail of State income supports. [5420/22]

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. She has timed this well. Why is the only master's degree allowed for the purposes of the social welfare allowance the master's degree in education? I ask this question because I have been contacted by a mother of two, a lone parent, who, after a period of ill-health, is trying to do right by herself and her boys. However, she has been told to give up her education if she wants to receive any support to keep her family going. This constituent contacted me on this matter to enable the Minister to appreciate the context.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The back to education allowance scheme provides people with a second chance education that will improve their prospects of securing employment. It enables eligible people to pursue approved education courses and continue to receive income support for the duration of a course of study, subject to meeting certain conditions. The provision for the scheme for 2022 is €105.4 million and it is supporting just over 5,500 students.

The conditions under which the scheme operates are designed to ensure that they address the objective of supporting longer term social welfare customers into employment. It is not intended to provide a basis for a long duration participation in extended education. Evidence from econometric studies shows that the "lock-in" effect of long duration return to education programmes can exceed the "progression effect", thus impairing employment prospects. This scheme should not be viewed as an alternative to the student grant system.

The circumstances in which the back to education scheme can be approved for postgraduate studies are limited and include a higher diploma in any discipline, a professional master's in education or a master's degree based solely on life experience, where the applicant holds no other third level qualification. I am satisfied with this position as people in possession of a third level qualification have already achieved a high level of academic attainment. The possession of a master's qualification is not regarded as a prerequisite to re-entering the workforce. The appropriate mechanism for supporting students pursuing a master's qualification is through the SUSI grant. I trust this clarifies the position.

The woman in question has been left virtually without income because she is trying to improve her job prospects in order that she can look after her two children. As she is excluded from the back to education allowance, she was subsequently told that jobseeker’s allowance will also be pulled, leaving her without any supports for rent, fuel and so on. It is crazy that she is being been told to give up her education if she wants to have any supports.

The Minister indicated she wants to have skilled workers in the labour force, yet the only support available for studying for a master’s qualification is for a master's in education. The lady in question wants to transition out of teaching and go into research. The question I ask the Minister to focus on is why these limitations apply and what supports are available to a full-time student with a child in this situation.

While I am relating this issue to the case of one individual, others are coming across it too. It is a matter that needs general attention. It is of particular importance to the constituent about whom I am speaking. If she pursues any master’s programme other than a master's in education, she is simply seen as someone who is unwilling to make herself available for work.

This scheme was originally intended for people who had not completed their secondary education and wanted to get back to work. The Deputy will appreciate that if we were to say that people could get a payment throughout their education cycle, the costs of funding people the whole way through their education would be significant. We consider that people with primary degrees are well-placed to get jobs. There are exceptions such as the higher diploma in education and master’s in education because people cannot become a teacher without these qualifications.

If someone wants to do a master’s degree, he or she should look at the SUSI grant, the support that is intended to help in such circumstances. Many people can work part-time while completing a master’s degree.

That is the position. As with all these supports, we must target this grant where we feel it is most needed. I have spoken to my officials about this matter and, to be straight with the Deputy, we do not intend to change the position.

I appreciate what the Minister is telling us but there are anomalies in everything. It seems the unique position of single parents is being ignored here. A mother who has dependants and wants to further her education for the benefit of her children is being prevented from doing so by criteria that were not designed for people in her situation. For a representative of the Department of Social Protection to advise people in her position to give up their education if they want to maintain their supports is outrageous and it needs to be addressed.

This constituent is packing her master’s course into one year. It is due to end in August but the two arms of the State which matter here, social protection and higher education, are preventing her from doing this. There is no back to education allowance or jobseeker's payment available to her and under the SUSI payment, she receives the adjacent rate for the sake of 500 m. She is well aware that she will never own her own home and will have to rent for life but the demands of the system will make this as difficult as possible on her. We hear constantly of the need for a skilled workforce, yet lone parents are being treated in this disgraceful way.

My constituent has appealed the decision to withdraw the jobseeker’s allowance but was told by the Minister’s office that she had not raised any contentions in her appeal to warrant a change in direction. For her and her family, and other families out there, and especially given that she is looking after her child on her own, I urge the Minister to address this issue and examine the anomalies.

I cannot go into the details of the individual case the Deputy has raised but if he wishes to forward me a note on it, I will be happy to examine the matter.

I will forward the details to the Minister.

My Department's allocation of €96.5 million for 2021 has been increased to €105.4 million for 2022. This is a considerable investment in supporting participants to acquire the necessary education and skills to re-enter the labour market. Giving those who already have a degree further supports to obtain a master’s qualification, other than in the exceptional circumstances I mentioned, would create a situation where we end up funding everybody who wants to do a master’s degree. We consider that where people have a third level degree, that should allow them access to the labour market.

We are not asking the Minister to look at every case.

We must move to the next question.

Pension Provisions

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Question:

16. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will report on the progress on introducing the auto-enrolment pension programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5013/22]

This question, which is in the name of Deputy Carroll MacNeill, seeks to ascertain the progress in respect of the auto-enrolment pension scheme.

I thank the Deputy for asking this question. The programme for Government commits to introducing a pensions automatic enrolment system. The objective of this commitment is to increase the proportion of employees in Ireland with supplementary pension cover, which includes both occupational and personal pensions.

According to figures from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, the rate of supplementary pension coverage is around 56% of the working population. This is based on the Pension Coverage Survey 2021. It is estimated that this figure reduces to less than 35% when the private sector is considered in isolation. As a consequence of this low supplementary pension coverage rate, many retirees may suffer an unwanted reduction in living standards when they retire.

The Government, recognising the exceptional strain that both employers and employees are under as a result of the Covid-19 emergency, will seek to gradually deliver an automatic enrolment system. This will be based on the following principles: there will be a phased roll-out over a decade of the contributions made by workers and employers; matching contributions will be made by both workers and employers and the State will top up those contributions; there will be an opt-out provision for those who choose to opt out; workers will have a range of retirement savings products to choose from; and there will be a charges cap imposed on pension providers.

My Department has finalised a proposal on the overall design of the auto-enrolment system and I intend to bring that to Government for formal approval very soon.

Once the final design is agreed it is intended that the necessary legislative organisation and process structures for implementation will follow over the course of this year and next, as set out in the economic recovery plan for 2021. I hope that I have clarified the matter for the Deputy.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: From the interest shown to date by the employers and employees, is the Minister satisfied that adequate progress is being made, that sufficient interest is being generated and that the scheme will meet its anticipated targets in due course?

As we know, the State pension provides a basic level of income and an effective protection against pensioner poverty. It is not designed or intended to secure full pension adequacy for all retirees in the sense of replacing employment income on retirement. One does have a situation where people have a sudden drop in their income and that is where one needs to have a supplementary pension.

Only 35% of private sector employees have a pension. The fear is that when those people reach retirement they will have a huge reduction in their living standards so I am going to bring a proposal to Government, in February, to finalise the design of the auto-enrolment system. People will have to sign up to the auto-enrolment system and the employee, employer and the Government will all contribute towards it. I am trying to design the system so that it is fair and attractive. The system must be attractive so people will want to enter into it because I know that when I was in my late 20s and early 30s a pension was far from what I was interested in. Instead, I was interested in getting a deposit on a house.

Again, the emphasis must be on generating and retaining interest in the system. It is true that inadequate provision has been made in many cases. Is it possible to take into account the emergency need to ensure that those who have no provision become involved in their own interest at the earliest possible date to cover the age group to which the Minister has just referred?

Yes. Everybody will have to sign up to the system and people will get the choice to opt out at certain stages. We have looked at international experience and, in general, when people sign up for a pension most of them continue. Some younger people will think that if they have saved money and put it into a pension pot for five or six years that they should be allowed access the money. I believe that there is no point having a pension pot and accessing it in order to pay a deposit on a house. I know that dipping into the pension pot sounds very attractive but there is no point in doing that and we must make a pension scheme attractive. We have done a lot of work in the Department on pensions. I have brought a proposal to a Cabinet committee and I will bring it to Government in February because we just have to get on with it and do something about pensions. I am very conscious of the need and I want to do that.

Social Welfare Appeals

Bernard Durkan

Question:

17. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social Protection the extent to which backlogs in respect of applications for support are being eliminated; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5340/22]

We have inherited some backlogs over a long number of years and there has been a build up in backlogs. I seek to ascertain the extent to which, for example, outstanding issues, appeals, oral hearings etc, can be implemented in order to address emerging issues as we emerge from Covid.

My Department understands the many pressures faced by customers and always seeks to ensure that claims are handled quickly and efficiently. I am pleased to report that claim processing is up to date with processing targets met, or exceeded, on average for all the main scheme areas. As an example, over the past two years substantial improvements in processing performance was achieved across most schemes but especially in the carers and disability areas, where claims are now consistently processed within four to five weeks, compared with 14 weeks in 2019. I am particularly pleased that the positive processing times have been maintained through the period of the pandemic.

My Department is committed to providing a quality service to all customers and ensuring that claims are processed as quickly as possible. Any backlogs arising are addressed without delay through a range of measures, including system changes and the allocation of additional resources where needed.

While there have been high volumes of Covid enhanced illness benefit applications over the past month as a result of the transmission of the Omicron variant, 92% of these applications are being processed within a week. Applications that require a manual intervention are taking approximately two weeks to process but my officials are working hard to minimise any delays. There are no backlogs arsing in respect of standard illness benefit applications. Delays can arise where a person submits an application without all of the necessary supporting documentation. It is important that anyone applying for social welfare payments should provide as much information as possible when sending in a claim as this will enable a decision to be made much more quickly.

Overall, I am very proud that my Department continues to ensure that the customer experience has not been diminished by the effects of Covid-19, and that the customer service has been maintained at a high level.

I am so aware and I congratulate the Minister on the work that has been done during the very challenging past two years. The Minister and her Department can rightly take a bow for the work that has been done.

Obviously oral hearings could not take place due to regulations so a number of them are outstanding at the moment. How does the Minister propose to give the people concerned their chance for an oral hearing as soon as possible?

For the record, the staff of the Department of Social Protection have processed over 1.8 million applications for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, alone during Covid. There is normally about 200,000 applications per annum for the jobseeker's allowance. We have all acknowledged the good work that my staff have done and it is important that we do not forget that my staff have processed ten years' worth of applications.

The Deputy has raised the issue of oral hearing and appeals before with me. I know that he has a keen interest in them. I also know that he does a huge amount of work, on behalf of his constituents, in terms of helping them. Sometimes oral hearings can be nerve-racking for the applicant and I know that the Deputy is always there to help his constituents. We have improved the times. I think that the Deputy has one case with me at the minute and my Department is looking into it. If the Deputy has an issue that he wants me to raise then I am happy to follow up the matter.

I thank the Minister. Huge improvements have taken place and huge volumes of responsibility have been taken on, and discharged, in an exemplary manner. I thank and congratulate the Minister and her officials on that work.

I have long had an interest in oral hearings. It is important that we get them up to speed as quickly as possible and I know that the Minister is attending to that at the moment. The important feature of oral hearings is that they give constituents an opportunity of having their say face to face. Most often, information is revealed that was either overlooked previously or was in the system but was not in the right place at the right time. An oral hearing gives people their full constitutional rights in an upfront face-to-face situation.

The Deputy is right. It is hard to beat a face to face interaction. Many times applications are turned down because all of the information has not been provided and perhaps people are unaware that it was an important piece of information that would help make a decision on their application.

We were able to do some oral hearings and appeals online during Covid. We continue to use new technology to make our systems more efficient. As the Deputy has said, oral hearings are important. I do not have the figure for the number of hearings that are currently in the system with me and I will get that figure for the Deputy.

It is important we do that and that our customers are looked after and served in a timely and efficient way.

We can go back to Question No. 14. We had skipped it so the sequencing is out.

Disability Services

Pauline Tully

Question:

14. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Social Protection her plans to address the finding and conclusions of a report (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5399/22]

Things went a bit faster than I anticipated. What are the plans of the Minister and the Department to address the findings and conclusions of the Indecon report on the cost of disability published a number of months ago?

The cost of disability research is significantly broader than income supports and it is clear that the findings in the research will have implications for many areas of public policy, including the delivery of care services, health, housing, education, transport and income supports. These relevant Departments have been requested to examine the work they are currently committed to undertaking and review these in the light of the cost of disability report. Furthermore, they have been asked that any future actions would also be considered in the context of the report.

It is very important that these actions are monitored closely right across the whole of government. The national disability inclusion strategy provides the overarching framework for policy and actions relating to people with disabilities. The Government has decided that the cost of disability report is to be referred to the national disability inclusion strategy steering group, which will take responsibility for monitoring actions taken by Departments on foot of the research. This steering group, which as the Deputy knows is ably chaired by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, is the most appropriate forum in which actions arising from the report can be driven forward.

I am keen to address the concerns raised by the people who live with the daily reality of disability and I, along with my Government colleagues, will use the results of the research to inform potential measures to address these concerns. From the perspective of my Department, it is worth noting a number of measures were introduced as part of budget 2022 for people with disabilities and their carers that will go towards alleviating the financial costs experienced. These include a combination of core weekly payment rate increases, increases in earnings disregards and supports to employers. Furthermore, under the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025, my Department has a commitment to develop and consult on a "strawman" proposal for the restructuring of long-term disability payments. I have asked my officials to revisit the strawman proposal to take on board the findings in the cost of disability research.

I thank the Minister and acknowledge that the report requires a whole-of-government perspective and support. I also acknowledge that it has been referred to the national disability inclusion steering group for further work.

The report confirms what was widely suspected but perhaps not acknowledged, which is that the cost of disability is quite significant. The cost of disability amounts to the extra spending that a person with a disability must face in daily life that able-bodied people do not have to face. It is the same for a family with a member with a disability. This report puts the average additional cost of disability to a person with a severe disability at between €9,600 and €12,300. For a person with a less severe disability, the cost is between €8,700 and €10,000. These are averages so clearly there are some people and families spending a lot more than that. The cost depends on the severity of the disability and where the person resides. There are also unmet costs for many as they are currently unaffordable. Looking at some aspects of the report, it indicates this country spends the fourth-least of its social protection budget on disabilities in a comparison with 31 other European countries.

Dealing with the cost of disability requires a whole-of-government approach. The reform of disability payments will take on board the recommendations of the report and it is clear a whole-of-government response is needed. There are recommendations in respect of housing, health, education, transport and others, and from a social protection perspective one of the recommendations is a payment linked to disability. The Deputy knows that currently it is a flat rate of €208 whether a person has a mild, moderate or profound disability. Some people with a mild disability could do some work, as we know, and there are others with a profound disability who cannot work at all. Should the payment be graduated? That is something we must look at and we should examine if a person should get more if he or she has a profound disability rather than a mild disability.

I acknowledge there has been an increase in the weekly payment and weekly disregard but we can see how rapidly the cost of living has increased. The increases in the weekly payments and disregards do not even cover that cost of living increase. We have a very poor record of employment for disabled people in this country and more support must be provided for people to support themselves. Perhaps, for example, we can revise the current timeframes for reducing social welfare supports for people going back to work or engaging in self-employment. Perhaps we could introduce appropriate training tailored to the individuals, as training for an able-bodied person would be different from that of a disabled person. It may take longer because of quicker onset of tiredness or whatever.

Many disabled people do not take up community employment schemes. If they do, they get the equivalent payment with a €20 top-up, which is fine, but when they revert back to disability payments it is not a seamless process and it can sometimes take months for the payment to be rectified. It is something that could easily be looked at. I do not understand why that happens. We should be encouraging more people to take up employment opportunities.

I agree with the Deputy that we must help more people with disabilities get back to the workforce. That is very important. I worked to extend the Ability programme last year. That was funded through the EU and funding was due to finish but I met the appropriate people and ensured the Dormant Accounts Fund could support this excellent programme. I was given an outline of what the programme does and it really is fantastic work. They are working with people with disabilities and employers. They are getting people back to work. Employ Ability also provides a great service and it is a question of how we can build on that. As I have said, we will work across government to improve this.

We will certainly take the Deputy's points on board, particularly on the report commissioned by my Department. The steering group is looking at it and there are a number of different options we need to look at.

Questions Nos 18 to 20, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Employment Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

21. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if referrals to JobPath ceased at the end of 2021 as planned; if the scheme will be reviewed; if the numbers who gained employment as a result of the scheme will be collated; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5331/22]

Did referrals to JobPath cease at the end of 2021, as planned? Will the Minister advise if she plans to review the scheme from when it was first piloted in 2015 right through to its end? Will she put together those results and publish a review on the success or not of the scheme?

I apologise but I did not expect to get to this question.

It is fine to reply in writing.

If that is okay I will get the reply sent to her. We were very quick getting through questions today.

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