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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 14 Jul 2022

Vol. 1025 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Social Welfare Payments

Claire Kerrane


78. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will confirm the updates to processes for the additional needs payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35174/22]

I ask the Minister about the new process in place for the additional needs payment.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The additional needs payment is available to people if they have expenses they cannot pay from their weekly income. In response to the cost-of-living crisis, I have taken a number of steps to simplify the process of applying for this payment. These measures include making it clear that the payment is available to both social welfare recipients and families on low incomes, including persons who work 30 hours or more; updating the income guidelines in line with the working family payment; ensuring community welfare officers, CWOs, continue to have discretion to issue payments to assist individuals or households in unique hardship circumstances; establishing a new national community welfare contact centre which can be contacted at 0818-607080; and running a major national awareness campaign, including national radio adverts, to promote and raise awareness of the additional needs payment.

Community welfare officers are available in 51 Intreo centres throughout the country to meet and assist customers five days per week. They can facilitate in-person and emergency meetings by phone or in any Intreo centre or branch office. If the need arises, a direct home visit appointment can be arranged.

The application form for an additional needs payment is also available online. The completed application form can be posted or dropped into the local Intreo centre where it will be processed promptly.

My Department is examining establishing a direct online application process for the additional needs payment. All information on how to apply for the payment is available at I want to ensure people know the additional needs payment is available to support them if they are experiencing financial hardship. The payment is demand-led and there is no budget cap on it.

It is really welcome and I welcome the income limits that are there as well. I welcome the advertisements, the fact that awareness is being raised of what is available and that it is available to workers as well as those who rely on social welfare.

I asked previously that putting this online be looked at because I came across a lone parent in her late 40s who had worked all her life. She is in that school situation whereby she has to sign on for the summer months. It was difficult for her. She said she could not go to her local community welfare officer because she would feel embarrassed and ashamed. She should not feel like that but we know, for some, that is how they would feel. Online access would be very important and make a difference.

On accessing the community welfare officers, the previous walk-in was important and is a loss because in some cases the Intreo centre is not in a person's town. He or she has to travel and that causes difficulties. That should be looked at.

The Deputy raised the issue of the online application and that is why we are working on doing that. My officials are seeing how we can put it online for some people. I am trying to make it as easy as possible for people to access this payment. I understand some people do not want to have to meet somebody so we have a central phone line. If somebody cannot go to an Intreo office, he or she can ring up and make an appointment and the community welfare officer can visit the house, if that is what is needed. A person can phone or email the community welfare officer. I have tried to make it as accessible as possible because this payment and support is the State safety net to help people who run into difficulty and need it. It is targeted at those on social welfare and low-income families. I encourage anybody having difficulties to contact their community welfare officer. Everybody is experiencing an increase in the cost of living and there is no shame in doing it.

Will all the data for those who apply and receive or do not receive an additional needs payment be collected?

I presume a person can ring the contact centre, ask for an application form and it will be posted to his or her house. That is welcome. While the online access will be helpful for some, as will phone and email, for others it will not be. In my home town we have Syrian and Afghan refugees and now Ukrainians. We do not have an Intreo centre in the town. There are difficulties. Previously, a person could walk into the local health centre and see the CWO. Some of them have little access to phones and do not have email. This has been raised with me by the local family resource centre. Others in opposition have raised the issue of accessing CWOs. I think it is an issue and that it should be looked at as regards walk-ins.

I have done everything I can to make access to the community welfare officer as easy as possible. In terms of the Ukrainians who have come here, our social welfare staff have gone out and visited them.

In terms of the numbers, between January and the end of May 2022, more than 27,800 additional needs payments were made, totalling almost €17 million. In the same period last year, 23,000 payments were made. That is a nearly 20% increase in the number of payments year on year for the first five months.

I have ensured there has been a widespread media campaign to tell people how to access their community welfare officer. Between us all as well, we can make it known on our social media that this is available and is there to help people.

School Costs

Matt Shanahan


79. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Social Protection the steps her Department is planning to offset September back-to-school costs, given they are just around the corner. [38907/22]

Will the Minister outline the steps her Department is taking in terms of supporting back-to-school expenditure?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance scheme provides a once-off payment to eligible families to assist with the costs of clothing and footwear when children start or return to school each autumn. The scheme operates from June to September each year. This scheme recognises the pressures families with schoolgoing children are under at this time of year, particularly given the cost-of-living challenges people are facing. This year I have increased the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance payment by €100 for the 2022 scheme year, building on the previously announced budget 2022 increase of €10.

The increased rates of payment for the 2022 scheme are €260 for children aged between four and 11 and €385 for children aged 12 and older. These changes and increases are really important in assisting families with purchasing school uniforms and other back-to-school related costs. The scheme will remain open for applications until 30 September. A total of €84 million has been secured for the scheme this year, an increase of €26 million. To qualify for this allowance, a person must meet a number of conditions including an income limit test. I have increased the income limits for one-parent families this year to bring them in line with the income limits for two-parent families, widening the eligibility for that cohort of customers. This was an issue that had been raised with me by lone-parent groups and I was glad to be able to respond.

In addition, I recently announced that the provision of the hot school meal option will be extended to all new DEIS primary schools and the cold lunch option to all new DEIS secondary schools at a full-year cost of €26 million. That will benefit some 60,000 additional children. There are approximately 317 new DEIS schools and those schools will have the option to apply for the school meals programme so there will be 60,000 more children getting a school lunch.

I thank the Minister. I would never say that she is a person who does not have concern for those going back to school. I welcome the expenditure she has secured in terms of advance steps. I will refer to those who are not eligible for back-to-school payments. Recent surveys have shown that the average cost of sending a child back to school is now nearly €1,200 for a primary school student and nearly €1,500 for a child in secondary school. The Irish League of Credit Unions recently released the results of a survey that showed that nearly 24% of families get into debt at this time of year. It is a significant cost and, as the Minister knows, it is also rising rapidly. I welcome the Minister's announcement with regard to subsidising school transport and the additions she has outlined but are we doing enough to address the core of the issue of school costs?

I will raise the issue of school contributions, which every family faces at this time of year. It is very hard to avoid them. It is very hard on kids to feel excluded or to be sent home with envelopes asking for school contributions when their parents are really struggling. It may be time to look at capitation grants. Will the Minister speak to the Minister for Education about increasing capitation grants to schools nationwide?

Any increase to capitation grants would be a matter for the Minister for Education. Free school transport will be a big boost for many families because it costs in the region of €500. That will be a big help to families who were facing that cost. It has been waived for this year so they will not have to worry. That will give them a bit of extra money that they can put towards the other costs of going back to school. To be fair, €260 for a child under 11 and €385 for a child 12 or older represents a good help. The payment was never designed to cover all the costs of going back to school. I understand that this is a very expensive time for parents. I know that. I worked in a credit union and saw it myself. However, as I said, we have increased the rates and provided an extra €26 million this year towards the cost of going back to school.

As the Minister will know, many people who are in receipt of social welfare payments are not eligible to receive this allowance. These include those receiving rent supplement, the guardian's payment and benefits for the blind. There are people who need this support who are not eligible. I have specific concerns for the squeezed middle, for example, families where there are two working parents whose income renders them ineligible for any support from the State in sending their children back to school despite being the ones who are commuting, doing the drop-offs and paying for childcare. How can we give support to such people? They are the productive people in the economy who are making PRSI contributions through their employment. They are seeing a significant uptick in the cost of living and, unfortunately, this is not reflected in their take-home pay. We all agree that we want to give all our children the best chance in education but that requires us to ensure that their families at home have the financial ability to provide such opportunity without being driven into penury. I ask that we do more to increase eligibility among those in that squeezed middle bracket.

Over recent months, the Government has announced a package of €2.4 billion to help people meet the cost of living and the cost of fuel. I am the Minister for Social Protection and my priority is to assist those on low and fixed incomes and to keep people out of poverty. That is my number one priority. We have the working family payment. I understand that there are people who do not qualify for this payment. I accept that they are working hard but the best way to support them is through a comprehensive tax package. The Deputy knows that the Government has committed to providing a comprehensive tax package of more than €1 billion in the coming budget, which is less than 11 weeks away now. That is how we can help those people who do not qualify for these payments. However, the Deputy will appreciate that, as Minister for Social Protection, my number one priority is to keep people out of poverty and to target those on low incomes and those most in need.

Disability Services

Claire Kerrane


80. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection when her Department will introduce measures to reflect the additional cost of disability; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35175/22]

When will the Minister publish the implementation plan to address the cost of disability?

The issue of the cost of disability is broad and extends beyond the remit of the Department of Social Protection. This is why this important and much-needed research was carried out. The Cost of Disability in Ireland research report will now inform policy from a whole-of-government perspective. The Indecon report identified that additional costs of disability run across a number of areas of expenditure including housing, equipment, aids and appliances, care and assistance services, mobility, transport, communications, medicines and additional living expenses. Indecon also found that there is not a single typical cost of disability. Rather, there is a spectrum from low to high additional costs of disability, depending on individual circumstances.

As the findings of the research have implications for many areas of public policy, a whole-of-government perspective is needed. This is why the Government referred the report to the national disability inclusion strategy steering group, which is chaired by the Minister of State with responsibility for disability. This group comprises relevant Departments, agencies, a disability stakeholder group and people with disabilities and will consider and monitor recommended actions required from the various Government Departments on a biannual basis.

As a starting point, a number of the measures I introduced as part of budget 2022 to support people with disabilities and carers reflect some of the findings of the report. These measures included supports to employers and increases to income disregards and core weekly payment rates. Under the Roadmap for Social Inclusion and Pathways to Work strategies, my Department has committed to developing and consulting on a straw-man proposal for the restructuring of long-term disability payments. The main objective is to simplify the system and remove anomalies. The straw man will also take account of the conclusions of the cost of disability report as part of its work.

With regard to the report now going to the steering group, is there a timeline for the work the group will do on the report and when it will come back to the Minister? Will the straw-man proposal to look at restructuring long-term disability payments include the domiciliary care allowance? I believe it should. Most people would agree that there are ongoing difficulties in this regard. When you deal with someone applying for domiciliary care allowance, you find that it can take two or three applications before that person qualifies. There are difficulties and, when we are looking at disability, we need to look at all of the payments that are available. How does the Minister envisage this working? Does she foresee a cost-of-disability payment for people who are in receipt of the likes of the disability allowance or the invalidity pension or does she foresee a complete restructuring of existing payments? Will the Minister give me her view on that?

This report on the cost of disability has implications right across Government and various Departments with regard to things such as access to services, healthcare, transport, mobility grants, the housing adaptation grants available through the local authorities and so on.

There is a lot there. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is leading on the whole-of-government response through the disability inclusion strategy steering group, which she chairs. In fairness, there is no better woman than Deputy Rabbitte to do that job because she is very passionate and a very strong advocate for disabled persons. She is hammering on with that. In my Department, we are looking at the recommendations around the cost of the disability payment. The report recommends a tiered approach to disability payments. This will be a major review. The Deputy and I both know people who have profound disabilities and who might never be able to work. I honestly believe they should get a higher level of payment than a person with a more moderate disability who might be able to do a bit of work. We have to be more targeted in our approach. I will be publishing that straw-man report.

I ask the Minister to give a timeline as regards publishing the straw-man report because it is important that this work is done. It is welcome it is being done but a timeline would be helpful, particularly for the implementation plan on the back of that cost of disability report, which the organisations are seeking. I hope too that in the work that will be done now on restructuring those payments, what they look like and how they work, we also look at people in receipt of disability allowance who are working. There was a briefing a few weeks ago by disabled artists and academics. It is a great shame people with such amazing gifts and talents cannot show them off, sell them or perform because they are so worried about winning a bursary or prize that will impact their disability allowance. That is a great shame and we must look at how work actually interacts with the likes of the disability allowance. People will get their disability allowance, and if they work, they will pay taxes. We need to look at all of that as well.

My Department is working at present on a straw-man report as regards what this payment structure is like. The work is ongoing and very complex. The Deputy will appreciate it is also a very sensitive area. I hope we will have that report ready in the autumn. I will then be able to sit down with the various disability representative groups and the Minister of State and talk them through it because we want to get their views and input. The one thing I do not want to do is make changes in this area that do not have the support of the sector. It is crucial we engage with it and bring proposals forward in a way that works for people and is fair. That is the plan there.

I know about the disabled artists. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media has brought in the basic income for artists, and some disabled artists will be better off with that. My problem here is somebody who is an artist getting more money than somebody working in a supermarket who has a disability. I do not want to treat people differently. That is the problem.

Disability Services

Joan Collins


81. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Social Protection the estimated amount it would cost to amalgamate four grants (details supplied) into one overall scheme, similar in structure to the access to work scheme in the UK. [38601/22]

What is the estimated cost of amalgamating the four grants that comprise the reasonable accommodation fund, namely, the workplace equipment adaptation grant, the disability awareness support scheme, the personal reader grant and the job interview interpreter grant into one overall scheme, similar in structure to the UK's access to work scheme? The Minister of State knows where I am coming from on this as AsIAm has already sent him a submission on it. We just need to get feedback on that.

I thank the Deputy for the question. The reasonable accommodation fund is comprised of four grants, which are available through the Department's Intreo centres. The grants have been designed to assist jobseekers and existing employees with disabilities, and to encourage employers in the private sector to recruit and support existing employees with disabilities. The four grants are the workplace equipment adaptation grant, the job interview interpreter grant, the personal reader grant and the employee retention grant. Another support is the disability awareness support scheme, which provides funding for private sector employers to provide disability awareness training for employees. It is important to note both schemes are demand-led. The overall value of the funding provided rises and falls in response to the number of applications received each year.

Given these grants are demand-led, and as the UK operates a different model of supports, it is not possible to estimate a cost in the manner requested. However, under the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities, the Department has committed to review the existing supports and a review of the reasonable accommodation fund is currently under way. The review will look at how to improve the effectiveness of the grants and identify gaps in provision. It also aims to improve the application and payment processes. A public consultation took place from 31 March to 13 May. Officials are now analysing the responses received and a review report will be published in the third quarter of this year. Officials are also conducting a literature review, which will look at similar schemes in other countries, including the UK's access to work scheme. Reviews are also planned for the wage subsidy scheme for later this year and for the disability awareness support scheme next year. We look forward to receiving the reviews and further developing the supports for people with disabilities.

I welcome that. Bringing the four schemes together is helpful in that it can make the scheme easier to access for both disabled jobseekers and employers. That is where AsIAm is coming from. What is currently provided for by the Department is not sufficient to help some cohorts access the workplace, such as members of the deaf community. There is no structure in place for people who want to access other supports that are not provided for by the reasonable accommodation fund, such as in-person supports. I will be interested to see the review and what the Department comes back with. This has to be accessible for employers and those who want to go into the workplace.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the scheme because we want to raise awareness about it. This is not just something that is nice to have. The Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015 oblige employers to take reasonable steps to accommodate the needs of both employees and job applicants with disabilities. To be honest, the uptake for the fund over the years needs to be improved. We are looking at a range of measures to encourage and support people with disabilities into the employment market. For example, both the disability allowance and the blind pension are structured to support recipients to avail of opportunities to pursue their own employment ambitions, be that self-employment or insurable employment. When individuals commence employment, they can avail of an income disregard of €140 per week. In addition, 50% of earnings between €140 and €375 per week are also disregarded for the purpose of the means test. We are looking at a range of ways to improve the situation for people with disabilities.

The Minister of State is quite correct that employers are obliged to work under the Disability Act, but if they do not have support themselves, they cannot do that. That is why it is important employers are aware of these schemes and we should have a one-stop shop for access to them. Is the Minister of State thinking of setting up a reasonable support passport or something like that, which could help the employer and the prospective worker engage with what is available?

The Deputy makes a fair point. As we stand at the moment, Intreo engages with prospective employees and employers, and the employability services throughout the country do so as well. There is a job of communication there and that will be looked at as part of the review. As I mentioned, the wage subsidy scheme will also be reviewed. I am saying this for the purpose of raising awareness. This scheme provides financial incentives for the private sector to employ people with disabilities as well. Regarding the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities, the design of the new action plan underpinning delivery is being led by my colleagues in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The Department has actively fed into the design of that new action plan and there are a range of actions and associated timelines in that. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, already mentioned the straw-man proposal, which is another project we have in train to improve the situation.