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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 6

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Social Welfare Schemes

John Paul Phelan

Question:

6. Deputy John Paul Phelan asked the Minister for Social Protection the amount that has been allocated for the working family payment scheme that supports parents at work in 2022; the additional allocated funding as part of cost-of-living measures; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14663/22]

I am taking this question and Question No. 8 on behalf of Deputy Phelan. I would like to ask the Minister about the amount made available this year for the working family payment scheme, which, as we know, supports parents who are at work, and the additional funding that will be allocated as part of cost-of-living measures.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The working family payment scheme is a demand-led scheme and is not budget capped. Based on current and projected claim volumes, my Department estimates expenditure of €348.6 million for the scheme in 2022.

In budget 2022, I provided for an increase in €10 per week in the working family payment income thresholds for all families. It is estimated that 45,000 recipients, with 103,000 children, will benefit from this measure. This increase was originally scheduled to come into effect from June 2022. However, as part of the package of measures the Government announced in February to assist families with cost-of-living increases, implementation has been brought forward. The higher income thresholds will now take effect from April. This will cost an additional €4 million. As part of the cost-of-living measures, the electricity costs emergency benefit scheme will support all families at a cost of €400 million.

Increasing the working family payment income thresholds is a targeted measure that is directly linked to household income and, therefore, directly supports low-income working families. Working family payment recipients are low-income families.

In recent years, we have also focused on other improvements for families with children, including increases to qualified child payments and the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. These changes help to deliver on the Government's commitment, as set out in the roadmap for social inclusion, published in January 2020, to continue to target a reduction in poverty among children and families on low incomes as part of the annual budget process. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for her response. The working family payment is a huge asset to many families. Many families on low incomes in my constituency find that the payment goes a long way in helping them to meet the shortfall between their income and expenditure.

I welcome the increase in the payment the Minister outlined and the additional €4 million her Department has allocated to support families who need the payment. There are huge pressures on families right now to make ends meet, put fuel in their car, heat their home and put food on the table. The increase in the payment, which the Minister is now bringing forward from 1 June to 1 April, will make a huge difference because families need this extra support now. Families on middle and low incomes are undoubtedly struggling the most. I worry that middle income families who are not captured by this scheme and other schemes may be falling through the cracks. Does the Minister have any plans to further extend the working family payment or increase the qualifying income threshold?

To qualify for the working family payment the average total weekly family income must be below the relevant income threshold for the family's size. The payment is calculated at 60% of the difference between the total family income and the income threshold that applies to the family. The rate of payment for those in receipt of the working family payment varies, depending on the number of children in the family, the level of hourly earnings, the number of hours worked and the level of other welfare payments, if any. The average weekly payment made to families is currently estimated at €140 per week. The legislation also provides for a minimum weekly payment rate of €20 for those who would otherwise qualify for a lower rate. We keep all of these schemes under review and any changes would be part of the normal budgetary process, which is later in the year.

It is encouraging to hear the Minister refer to an average payment of €140 per week for those families who qualify for this payment. It is important that we encourage any family who believe they may be eligible for the working family payment and are not currently in receipt of it to look into the matter and apply for the payment. Does the Minister have any idea of the number of families who would be eligible but may not have applied for the payment? It would be good if the Department were to undertake an information campaign around the working family payment to target information at relevant families. This could be done through GPs, schools and community centres. I am guilty of not realising until recently that someone may qualify for the working family payment if he or she is an apprentice moving between off-the-job training in an education centre and on-the-job training at an employer's workplace. That is great and it is a good support for apprentices who have children. It might be one of the lesser known facts of this scheme that apprentices with younger families might qualify for the payment. I commend the Minister on all the work she is doing in this area. I hope we can encourage more families to avail of this payment.

The Deputy is right that sometimes people are not aware of the many different supports that are available. I believe my Department makes more than 80 different payments, so there are quite a few of them. Citizens Information is a very good organisation and has good information on its website.

To qualify for the working family payment a person must be engaged in paid employment, as an employee, which is expected to last for at least three months, and be working for a minimum of 38 hours per fortnight. A couple may combine the hours of employment to meet the qualification criteria. The applicant must have at least one qualified child who normally resides with him or her or is part of a family supported by him or her. For the purposes of this scheme, a "child" includes those aged between 18 and 22 years of age if in full-time education. The average total weekly family income must be below the relevant income threshold related to the family size. As I said, the payment is calculated at 60% of the difference between the total family income and the income threshold that applies to the family's size.

The Deputy is also right about communicating the scheme. We are publicising through social media and community welfare offices on the supplementary welfare allowance and other payments. We will continue to do so on a rolling basis to make people aware.

Social Welfare Schemes

Emer Higgins

Question:

7. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Social Protection the reason that persons in receipt of jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit, occupational injuries benefit, maternity benefit or disablement benefit are automatically excluded from the fuel allowance regardless of their income; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14660/22]

This question relates to the reason people who receive jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit, occupational injuries benefit, maternity benefit or disablement benefit are automatically excluded from the fuel allowance, regardless of their income.

Fuel allowance is paid to social welfare recipients such as pensioners, people with disabilities, lone parents and the long-term unemployed in recognition of their long-term financial dependence on their social welfare payment for all or most of their income. The reason jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit and maternity benefit are not qualifying payments for fuel allowance is that in the vast majority of cases they are short-term payments for those who suffer a short period of interruption to their employment. The payments are not means-tested and are based on a person’s PRSI record. The recipients still have an attachment to the labour force and there is an expectation that they will return to the workforce.

Death benefit and incapacity supplement, which are both paid under the occupational injury benefit scheme, are qualifying payments for fuel allowance. Disablement benefit is not a qualifying payment except in the case where a person is also in receipt of incapacity supplement. People in receipt of disablement benefit without another payment can work full time or part time and continue to receive the benefit payment. Disablement benefit can be paid at the same time as most other social welfare payments.

Following representations from other Deputies, I have committed to carrying out a review of the treatment of disablement benefit under the fuel allowance scheme where the person is on a qualifying payment for fuel allowance and is in receipt of disablement benefit at a rate less than the allowable means. Officials in my Department are working on this review. Any decision to extend the eligibility criteria for fuel allowance could only be considered in the context of overall budgetary negotiations.

I thank the Minister for the explanation that the fuel allowance is targeted at people who are long-term financially dependent on the State and means-tested for the benefits they receive.

This issue was brought to my attention by a number of my constituents over the past months. It seems unfair that a person who is in need of fuel allowance does not qualify because he or she receives one of the social protection payments I have listed. This is especially true in the cases of those who receive illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit, occupational injuries benefit or the disablement benefit.

It is great that the Minister has committed to doing a review of the disablement benefit scheme and how it can interact with the fuel allowance. That review will throw up some interesting facts, and hopefully it will help to expand the scheme to include these groups. These payments are mostly spent by the recipients on treatment, medication and perhaps special equipment. When these costs are accounted for there is often little left to help people with heating their homes, regardless of having a low income.

I welcome the Minister's review of the scheme. Will she consider expanding the fuel allowance criteria in the context of the budgetary negotiations ahead of budget 2023?

I understand the issue with regard to people on the disability payment. I, too, have a constituent who has been out sick with a bad back for the past two to three months.

She asked me if she could get the fuel allowance and I had to explain to her that she could not because she was outside the criteria. The payment is framed in this way in order to direct the limited resources available to my Department in as targeted a manner as possible. To qualify for the fuel allowance payment, a person must satisfy all the qualifying criteria. We are trying to ensure the fuel allowance payment goes to those who are most vulnerable to fuel poverty, including those reliant on social protection payments for longer periods, who are unlikely to have additional resources of their own. Any decision to extend the eligibility criteria for fuel allowance to those on short-term payments would result in significant extra funding requirements for the scheme and would have to be considered in the budget. However, the matter is being reviewed now and I would like to see what that review says.

I welcome that review. A constituent contacted me who is in receipt of disability allowance and the occupational injuries benefit because of an accident they had in the 1990s. Their spouse is also in receipt of the invalidity payment. Even though they as a couple are below the assessable income threshold, they cannot receive the fuel allowance because of those two benefits. The reviews being undertaken will help some people in this situation. I welcome the work the Minister is doing on this and the fact she is keeping this under review.

The review is being carried out and I look forward to seeing what it has to say. There are always cases where you would love people to be getting something but unfortunately, when there are criteria some people will fall outside them and some will qualify. In budget 2022, the Government committed to very significant increases in a targeted package of social protection supports. The qualified child payment was increased by €2 per week for children under 12 and €3 per week for children over 12. The living alone allowance was increased by €3. The working family payment threshold increased and the fuel allowance was increased. There were a lot of changes and it was a €1 billion package. I take the Deputy's point. I have seen this happen myself.

Fuel Prices

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

8. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Social Protection if she intends on widening the eligibility criteria for the free fuel allowance and increasing the payment in order that the real purchasing power of the allowance is maintained in view of the recent rapid increase in the price of energy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14835/22]

The Minister has answered this question in various forms but we are back to the fuel allowance and the extraordinary increases in fuel costs over this winter, which are unlikely to abate given the situation in Ukraine and Europe. Will the Minister increase the real purchasing power of the fuel allowance? As other Deputies have asked, will she extend it to people who are just a small amount over the means test threshold?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government is committed to protecting vulnerable households from the impact of energy costs. As part of the overall welfare budget package of €600 million in increases secured for 2022, I increased the fuel allowance payment by €5 per week, effective from budget night. I also increased the weekly income threshold for fuel allowance by €20, which enables more people to qualify for this support. Further Government measures were recently announced to help to mitigate the effects of rising energy costs. As part of these measures, totalling over €500 million, an additional lump sum payment of €125 was paid to all households in receipt of the fuel allowance payment. It is estimated that this additional lump sum will cost €49 million. This lump sum payment, in addition to the budget increase, will mean low-income households will receive an increase of 41% this fuel allowance season when compared to last season. The recently announced electricity costs emergency benefit payment is another key measure and it will be paid in addition to the gas and electricity element of the household benefits package to qualifying households. Approximately 2.1 million households will benefit by €200 each from the new scheme. The combined worth of these payments to fuel allowance recipients is €325, which is the equivalent of almost ten weeks of additional fuel allowance payments. Furthermore, due to the continuing rise in inflation and as part of the economic consequences of the tragic conflict in Ukraine, the Government recently reduced excise duty on fuel.

The increases provided in the budget last autumn were given at a time of relatively stable fuel prices. They were given just to maintain the situation as it was and had nothing to do with what has happened since. At the end of December, 500 l of kerosene cost about €411. Today, it costs €760. That is an increase of 74%. That is the scale of the challenge. We have provided €125, because the other measures were pre-facto and were not based on anything to do with Ukraine, which had not become an issue at that stage. In view of the incredible increase in the price of fuel and the huge pressure on people at the lowest end of society, will further consideration be given to this issue? This will be particularly relevant if this kind of price, or the price on 12 March of €842 for 500 l of kerosene, is maintained.

The Government recognises the impact rising energy prices are having on people. That is why we have acted to assist families. We have brought forward a series of measures that cost over €1 billion to help to ease the burden on people. Last year, the fuel allowance was €784. This year it is €1,049 when the €125 lump sum payment is included. Adding on the €200 energy credit brings it up to €1,249. Compared with the €784 from last year, that is a 60% increase in the fuel allowance. In monetary terms, if my calculations are correct, that is an extra €465. I take the point that people cannot get over how much it is costing them to fill the tank with oil but the Government cannot just do everything. We have brought in a lot of measures and we are trying to help. Of course, we keep these things under review.

The Government raised the fuel allowance last autumn because it realised it was inadequate even at the old prices. The free electricity allowance has been at the same level for a long time. It no longer relates to units but to a cash amount. In the old days, if the price went up, the units allowed stayed the same so it made no difference and the cost did not increase. However, that was changed. The reality is that everybody got the extra money for electricity so nothing has been done for those on the household benefits package on the electricity side. I mean no disrespect to the Minister but she is distorting the figures slightly because she is conflating things with the fuel allowance that was given before the rise in prices due to Ukraine. What will the response be now that prices have gone up 74% due to Ukraine? There has been an increase of over 30% in gas prices and huge increases in electricity prices and €125 is the total response.

We have to put this in perspective. We had a pandemic and we spent €9 billion on the PUP. In October, we introduced the largest social welfare budget in 14 years and in the last few weeks we have announced another €1 billion to assist with energy costs. We would all like to do more but the reality is that resources are finite. In fairness, when all the measures I outlined are counted up, compared to last year we have increased the fuel allowance by 60%.

We will keep all these things under review but it is a difficult time for everybody and I understand that.

Energy Prices

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

9. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Social Protection if her Department is monitoring the impact of recent cost-of-living measures with a view to their effectiveness, given both inflation and increases in energy prices; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14569/22]

I am taking this question on behalf of Deputy O'Dowd. Is the Department of Social Protection monitoring the impact of recent cost-of-living measures with a view to their effectiveness, given both inflation and the recent increases in energy prices?

On an ongoing basis and as part of the normal budgetary cycle, my Department takes careful note of trends in price and wage levels and takes account of research data, including that of the minimum essential standard of living from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. The social impact of budget measures is also modelled using the SWITCH model developed by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. It is through this approach that, over the past ten years, budget measures have exceeded inflation and have been targeted to support those most at risk of poverty. Having said that, I am aware that, due to the geopolitical situation, the increase in consumer prices, especially the increase in fuel and other energy prices, has exceeded even the highest forecasts for price increases. That is why this Government did not await a further budget cycle but acted early.

To help mitigate the effects of these rising costs, the Government announced a package of measures in February that will have a positive impact on the incomes of all households in our country. This package will cost in excess of €500 million. These measures include an additional lump sum payment of €125 to all households in receipt of the fuel allowance payment, which was paid last week at a cost of approximately €49 million. This means low-income households will see an increase of 41% in fuel allowance support provided during this fuel allowance season compared with last season. When added to the electricity costs emergency benefit payment of €200, which will be paid to each household in April, the combined value is €325, which is the equivalent of just under ten weeks of fuel allowance payment. The increase of €10 to the weekly income threshold of the working family payment is also being brought forward. This measure will now take effect from early April 2022 rather than from June. These measures are in addition to those introduced as part of budget 2022, which included the largest social welfare budget package in 14 years. In January, around 1.4 million people received a €5 increase in weekly payments, and more if they had dependants.

I thank the Minister for her response and I welcome the steps she, the Department and the Government have taken so far to help with the rising costs of living. That includes, as the Minister pointed out, the 60% increase in fuel allowance, the rise in social welfare payments and that €200 electricity rebate. I know the Government cannot completely cushion or shelter everyone from the impacts of rising energy costs and inflation and we all recognise that many elements of this are outside of our control and driven by global turmoil. It is very important we make sure the steps we take are having the desired impact. The Department of Social Protection is best placed to recognise those who are most at risk. Is the Minister is considering any further interim measures to assist with the rising cost of living? How many people are already benefiting from the extent of fuel allowance and that 60% increase in same?

In or around 400,000 people benefit from the fuel allowance. When I changed the means test criteria, that brought around another 30,000 people into it. It has brought more people into the fuel allowance net. The Government has sought to protect the most vulnerable from the rising costs of living through targeted increases to ancillary social welfare payments such as the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance and qualified child payments. There was an extensive budget package which we sometimes forget about. It was the biggest budget in 14 years and we had a €5 increase across the board. In addition to that, the living alone allowance went to €22 per week. Changes were made to the working family payment and those changes are being brought forward to April. Many things have been done.

Care Services

Colm Burke

Question:

10. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will report on the supports for carers to help them to take up training, education or employment while continuing to care for a person. [14840/22]

Will the Minister report on the supports for carers to help them take up training, education or employment while continuing to care for a relative or member of their family?

My Department provides a range of income supports to full-time carers, including 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. A primary qualifying condition for these carer payments is that the applicant provides full-time care and attention to a person in need of such care. The person being cared for must be so incapacitated as to require full-time care and attention and be likely to require this full-time care and attention for at least 12 months. However, to support a carer’s continued attachment to the workforce and broader social inclusion, carers may engage in some employment, education or training while still being regarded as being in a position to provide full-time care. In these circumstances they can continue to receive their full payments. The maximum period in which a person may engage in employment, education and training is 18.5 hours per week. I consider that limit of 18.5 hours to represent a reasonable balance between meeting the care recipient's requirement for full-time care and the carer's need to maintain contact with the workforce.

In addition to income supports, my Department has utilised the Dormant Accounts Fund to support projects that promote training and support for family carers. These projects include the provision of structured training, information and support networks, including the development of support groups to assist with transition at the end of the caring role. The projects are selected as part of a competitive process organised by Pobal. The Department provides a wide range of employment-related supports for all jobseekers. These include delivery of the State’s public employment service, which is delivered through the Department’s nationwide network of Intreo centres and by contractors such as the local employment service.

I welcome the Minister’s reply. She spoke about the 18.5 hours per week, and because of Covid we have moved to online training and people working from home. Can more facilities be put in place to assist carers? One of the problems carers have is that if the member of the family they are looking after passes away, they then find it difficult to get back into the employment system because things have totally changed. Can we do more to help people continue to provide care in the home and at the same time do some online training without them exceeding the 18.5 hours they devote to that experience?

To support a carer’s continued attachment to the workforce and broader social inclusion, carers may engage in some limited employment, education or training while still being regarded as being in a position to provide full-time care. During this time, adequate provision must be made for the care of the relevant person. Since budget 2020, the number of hours family carers can work, study or attend a training course has increased from 15 hours to 18.5 hours per week. The increase was made in response to requests from carers' organisations and from carers themselves, who found the 15 hours too restrictive. Those in receipt of carer's allowance, carer's benefit and the carer's support grant can avail of this change. Every increase in the hours allowed for a carer to engage in employment, education or training results in an associated shift of the balance towards the needs of the carer over the requirement for providing full-time care for the care recipient. That balance has to be maintained and we have to bear the recipient of the care in mind.

The Minister will have to accept there is a problem.

For instance, I have a constituent who looked after his elderly parents for eight years in total, and when he tried to get back into the workforce, he found there were many areas he was no longer able to work in. He had a health problem and he no longer qualified for any of the benefits because he was means tested for anything he applied for. There is a glitch in the system. Here is someone who saved the State a huge amount of money because he looked after two elderly parents for more than eight years, he probably saved the State well over €200,000 in real terms, yet when they passed away, he was penalised. He did not qualify for any other State support because he was fully means tested in terms of the income his spouse received.

I know that when people have spent a lot of time in the home, caring for people, it can be difficult for them. In December 2020, I approved funding of €577,890 to provide a range of training and supports for family carers for projects under the Dormant Accounts Fund. The purpose of the measure is to increase the employment, including self-employment, and education and training opportunities for carers and young carers. These projects run to the end of June.

In the almost two years I have been in this job, I have really focused on carers. In the first budget, I increased the carer's support grant to the highest level ever to €1,850, which is paid in June to all carers. This year's budget is the second budget in the Department for me. I reformed the carer's allowance means test in terms of the capital disregard and the weekly income disregard. A person used to be able to have up to €20,000. Now, a person can have up to €50,000. A couple can earn up to €750 and still get carer's allowance, and a single person can earn up to €350 per week. We have our decisions on the Pensions Commission's report, and it is a priority for me to provide a pension for carers.

Rural Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

11. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of her Department’s planned review of the rural social scheme; if Tús will also be examined; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14843/22]

My question concerns the upcoming review of the rural social scheme. Will the Minister of State provide a timeline on when that review will begin? Also, will he consider looking at the Tús scheme, either separate to that review or in parallel?

The rural social scheme, RSS, is an income support scheme for farmers and fishers who are in receipt of specified social welfare payments and are underemployed in their primary occupation.  The scheme offers participants the opportunity to gain valuable work experience, while providing services to local communities. To qualify for the RSS, a person must be actively farming or fishing, and satisfy the means test assessment required to qualify for the farm assist payment.

In 2017, the total number of places on the RSS was increased to 3,350. On 21 December 2021, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys and I were pleased to announce several changes to the RSS and community employment schemes.  These changes included a provision to allow RSS participants who reach 60 years of age to remain on the scheme until they reach State pension age.  This will immediately benefit 390 existing RSS participants over 60 years of age who commenced on the scheme since 2017. They will now be able to stay on RSS until they reach State pension age.

The Department continually monitors all its income and employment support programmes to ensure they are achieving the best outcomes for participants and for the local communities in which they operate.  As the Deputy indicated, it is intended to undertake a specific review of the operation of the RSS in 2022.  This will be timely, as it will enable us to assess the potential impact of the changes introduced in 2017, in particular the introduction of the six-year time limit for new participants, from that date.  The first group of participants will not be leaving the RSS under the six-year rule until 2023.  The scope of this six-year rule has also been limited to those under 60 years since the start of the year.  It is timely to reassess its impact across all age cohorts in light of the current labour market context. It will be some time before the impact of the changes, implemented from 1 January 2022, on the RSS are fully known, so it is best to carry out the operational review later in 2022.  This will also allow time for schemes to return to normal, post-Covid operations.

It is not intended to carry out a specific review of Tús at this time.  An interdepartmental working group report, which examined the operation of employment schemes, was published in December.  The Department will again examine the recommendations in this report, including any impact on Tús, in light of the reforms introduced in December and the changed environment in which all schemes are operating following Covid and the changed labour market.  

I welcome that review and it is particularly important, as the Minister of State said, given the six-year rule. I know he has engaged with a number of schemes across the State and many of the supervisors and those involved would have told him what they told me. They are very concerned about the impact of the six-year rule. Some of those I met will lose 15, 16, 17 people next year. They have no idea how they will replace them because they are already struggling to fill places as it is. I do not see why we need to enforce a limitation, such as the six-year rule, on schemes where they cannot find people. It would be different if there were massive demand and people were trying to get on the scheme and could not access it but, unfortunately, that is not the case in many parts of the State and we need to have flexibility in that regard. The six-year rule needs to be examined and that is why the review is so important. Will the Minister of State give an indication of the time of year it will take place because obviously it is important it happens well ahead of next year so we can look at the impact of the six-year rule?

There are 2,969 people on the RSS at present and 1,493 of them will not be impacted by the six-year rule. There are also 381 vacancies. It is not impacting capacity and there is spare capacity there, but I take the Deputy's point about the six-year rule, it has been raised with me. It is very much on our radar in terms of looking at it as part of the review. There were also changes brought in with the budget which will broaden the eligibility for income disregard for argi-environmental schemes. They do not come into play until June but once they do, we will start a more formal process. I am doing a lot of ground work in terms of assessing what the opportunities are in relation to the rural social scheme because I believe it has a future. We may also need to look at how we ensure it has a future in the process of the review.

I also want to raise the issue of eligibility as part of the review. Is this an overall review of the entire scheme? The eligibility is quite limited. It has been raised with me whether people with herd numbers could use nieces and nephews or in-laws so that they too can access the scheme because it is quite limited at present. I referenced Tús because issues have been raised about it being a one-year long scheme. It is quite limited. They are struggling to fill places. They have told me they received the list of referrals from the Department. They contact people and people know they do not have to engage with Tús so they struggle with the list of referrals they receive. In some cases, very few people are actually willing to engage and that also needs to be looked at.

Lastly, if the six-year rule is being looked at through this review, and the Minister of State has acknowledged the importance of looking at its impact given the fact it has been raised, it is also an issue for community employment, CE, schemes. If the impact of the rule for the RSS, the Minister of State might also consider looking at it in the context of CE.

On Tús, the numbers are in excess of pre-pandemic levels. The spaces are full and we have more to go because of the July stimulus package, but they have exceeded pre-pandemic levels. Referrals to Tús and CE are quite healthy. CE has not recovered in the same way that Tús has. There is a bit of work to do there yet.

On the rural social scheme, I would take the opportunity to promote it as well. I was in Offaly a couple of weeks ago where the implementing body is making efforts to reach out to eligible people in the local community via the farm assist payment. There is knowledge of who is eligible for farm assist and I would encourage any implementing body to spread the word about the rural social scheme. It has huge potential. I was at a scheme in Mayo. The South West Mayo Development Company is co-operating with the National Parks and Wildlife Service to implement a biodiversity project in controlling rhododendron in Mayo. There are many opportunities in the areas of biodiversity and climate action for the rural social scheme into the future.

Question No. 12 replied to with Written Answers.

Pensions Reform

Dara Calleary

Question:

13. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Social Protection her strategy to address any decrease in income arising from a removal of an exemption to pay PRSI on supplementary pension income, occupational and personal pensions, and public sector pensions as contained in the Commission on Pensions report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14818/22]

The recommendation of the pensions commission's report in relation to putting the cost of PRSI on private pensions is causing significant concern to people around the country, particularly those who are already in receipt of pensions and do not have the ability to make any further cuts to their wages.

Where are we at with this recommendation? What plans does the Minister have to give reassurance to those people who are on a private pension and who do not have any room for further cuts?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The pensions commission’s report established that the current State pension system is not sustainable into the future without changes. In this regard, it set out a wide range of recommendations, including potential measures to broaden the PRSI base. In the interests both of older people and future generations of older people, the Government is currently considering these comprehensive and far-reaching recommendations very carefully.

As part of this consideration, the commission’s report and recommendations were referred to the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands and also to the Commission on Taxation and Welfare for their views. The committee published its views on 2 February 2022. The Commission on Taxation and Welfare submitted its comments on the PRSI-related recommendations at the end of February and indicated its support for the broad approach recommended by the pensions commission. These various views are now being considered as part of our deliberations and the Government will finalise its position in the coming weeks. It is really important that we complete that work before reaching conclusions on any one recommendation, such as the commission's recommendation to remove the exemption to pay PRSI on supplementary pension income, occupational and personal pensions and public sector pensions.

As the bedrock of the pension system in Ireland, the State pension is very effective at ensuring our pensioners do not experience poverty. This Government is committed to ensuring this remains the case for current pensioners, those nearing State pension age and today’s young workers. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister. It actually does not but I understand her timeline and her wish to try to come to a conclusion. I will express a concern. We had a debate here on the commission report some weeks ago. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, took the debate for the Minister, who was away. The Minister of State seemed to give a presentation in that debate that suggested a certain direction with regard to the pension age, which I would be very concerned about, and that direction seemed to be set.

On this issue, I have many retired semi-State workers from ESB, Bord na Móna, etc., in my area. Because they have that small pension, they are excluded from many other payments that those completely reliant on the State pension will get. Now, the proposal is that their small extra pension will be taxed even further for PRSI and they do not seem to be getting any extra benefits. As the Minister can imagine, they are very concerned. They do not have the capacity to make any extra income. Has the Minister looked at the implications of the pensions commission's recommendation for this cohort of workers?

Before the Minister to responds, I am conscious there are two Deputies present who have not yet put their questions. If it is okay with her, I will ask the Minister to respond and then ask the two Deputies to introduce their questions. We will then take a response from the Minister if people are happy to proceed in that way.

I thank Deputy Calleary. There are not going to be any easy decisions here. Some people want to cherry-pick the nice things and not deal with some of the other issues. I see this as an all-of-government approach. We have to bring it to Cabinet. I read the pensions commission report in its entirety. It is a comprehensive document that outlines the pros and cons and then comes forward with its recommendations. One thing I do know is that we must do something about it.

As we stand here at the minute, four and a half people who are working contribute to one pensioner. By 2050, there will only be just over two people working for every pensioner. We must, therefore, do something about this. It will be looked at in its totality. My officials are working on it at the minute and it is my intention to bring this forward through the Cabinet committee process. I am sure it will get much discussion. We will try to do everything we can to make sure we do it in the best interests of everybody. There are no easy decisions.

Social Welfare Payments

Neale Richmond

Question:

14. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Social Protection the steps that are being taken to ensure that Ukrainian refugees can access the supplementary welfare allowance and child benefit quickly upon their arrival in Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14468/22]

Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken or are in place to ensure Ukrainian refugees can access the supplementary welfare allowance and child benefit quickly upon their arrival in Ireland? Will she make a statement on the matter?

On 4 March 2022, the Council of the European Union unanimously adopted the implementing decision regarding the temporary protection directive to protect and support Ukrainian citizens and others fleeing Ukraine. My Department is doing all it can to ensure that those who need our help will receive it as quickly as possible during this very traumatic time for them.

My Department is working closely with the Department of Justice, which is responsible for providing the letter to those arriving confirming that they are covered by the EU directive. Officials from my Department and the Department of Justice are currently based in Dublin Airport in a sort of one-stop shop to meet with those who have arrived from the Ukraine, where they will go through the processes with them to ensure the supports are made available quickly. My Department has also established a number of additional dedicated centres in Dublin and Cork cities and intends to open a further centre in Limerick. Community welfare officers and interpreters are available at all these centres.

Three key supports are immediately available from my Department, the first of which is to provide a personal public service number, PPSN, in order for people to access Government public services. That is the key to get them in to get the full suite of supports. The next thing we want to give them is some money in their pockets. They will get access immediately to the supplementary welfare allowance, which is payable at the rate of €206 per week. Qualified adults will also get the increases if they have children. A person will get also get access to child benefit if he or she is a parent or guardian of a child.

A dedicated web page has been published on my Department’s website to ensure those arriving from Ukraine are aware of the supports and services available to them. The web page is entitled "Social welfare supports for those arriving from Ukraine under the EU temporary protection directive". The information on the web page is in English, Ukrainian and Russian. There is a list of all the locations of all the Intreo centres. When people get the approval to get the payment, they go to their local post office and get the money there. The post offices are very willing to help in this regard as well.

All income support claims are being fast-tracked for processing and all resources are being made available to ensure PPSNs and payments are issued quickly. I thank the staff who are in Dublin Airport at the minute. It is not an easy job. I thank the staff of the Department of Social Protection in all the places around the country.

Question No. 15 answered with Written Answers.

Social Welfare Benefits

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

16. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Social Protection her plans to review the means testing of carer’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14824/22]

As the Minister knows, carer's allowance is means tested for people living in the State providing care and attention to a child or adult with such a disability that he or she requires full-time care as a result. I know the Government's budget 2022 introduced new measures that will take effect in June. Family Carers Ireland estimates that only one in five of Ireland's 375,000 carers receive care allowance due to the strict eligibility criteria attached to the payment. We do not acknowledge how families are really giving the State a dig-out. There are so many issues in that regard.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The main income supports to carers provided by my Department include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Spending on these payments in 2022 is expected to exceed €1.5 billion.

The current income disregard and means test for carer’s allowance is the most generous within the social welfare system. The amount of weekly earnings disregarded is €332.50 for a single person and €665 for a couple. In acknowledgement of the important role that family carers play in our society, I introduced a number of measures as part of budget 2022 in relation to supports provided by my Department. These include the following changes to the carer's allowance means test, which will take effect in June of this year. There will be an increase in the weekly income disregard for carer’s allowance to €350 per week for single carers and €750 for carers with a spouse or partner, and an in increase in the capital savings disregard for carer’s allowance from €20,000 to €50,000. The Deputy's colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, is a wizard on these things. It was something he raised with me, in fairness to him.

A more generous means assessment for carer’s allowance has been called for over successive budgets by organisations representing carers. This increases the general weekly income disregard and will enable more carers with modest incomes to become eligible for carer’s allowance and, therefore, provide an income support to carers whose earning capacity is significantly constrained as a consequence of their caring responsibilities. Increasing the capital disregard will allow carers who have accumulated relatively modest savings, often to provide sufficient moneys to care for a loved one, to retain these savings without it impacting upon their carer’s payment.

It also brings the capital formula applied to savings in the means assessment for carer’s allowance in line with disability allowance. Notwithstanding the increased level of support that in place for carers, I have asked my Department to keep these measures under review as part of the annual budgetary process. We are currently doing a review of recipients of carer’s allowance so that they can immediately benefit from the changes that we will bring in in June. There are thousands of carers on the reduced rate and they will get an increase because of those changes. We are doing the review and it is important that we review all of these schemes during the year.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie .
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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