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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 14 Jul 2022

Vol. 1025 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Budget 2023

Holly Cairns

Question:

82. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Social Protection the steps she is taking to provide a €20 weekly cost of disability payment. [38580/22]

Last week, the Dáil passed a Social Democrats motion to provide a €20 weekly cost of disability payment in the upcoming budget, recognising the additional cost of disability. Individuals and families dependent on disability allowance, the invalidity pension, domiciliary care allowance and other payments desperately need this increase. Given the Government has already agreed to this increase, I ask the Minister to outline her plans to implement this in the forthcoming budget.

The Indecon cost of disability report identified that the additional cost of disability is a wider issue than income supports and crosses a number of areas of expenditure. These include housing, equipment, aids and appliances, care and assistance services, mobility, transport, communications, medicines, and additional living expenses. The cost of disability can be defined as the amount it costs a person with a disability to achieve the same standard of living as a person without a disability. There is not a single typical cost of disability. Rather, there is a spectrum from low to high additional costs, depending on individual circumstances.

The findings of the research have implications for many areas of public policy and extend beyond the remit of the Department of Social Protection and, therefore, a whole-of-government perspective is needed to address the cost of disability. That 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. The group will consider and monitor recommended actions required by the various Departments biannually.

A number of the measures I introduced as part of budget 2022 in support of people with disabilities and their carers address some of the findings of the report and will go towards alleviating some of the costs experienced. These include a combination of increases to income disregards, core weekly payment rates and supports for employers. My Department is also committed to the development of, and consultation 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 cost of disability report when developing future options as part of this work.

I agree regarding the wider cost of disability highlighted in the Indecon report. We know from the Department's report that additional costs faced by individuals with disabilities range from €8,700 to €12,300 annually, on average. We also know that nearly 40% of those not working due to disability are at risk of poverty. That figure is three times higher than the general population. While all families are facing a cost-of-living crisis, it is being experienced more acutely by disabled people, given that they face additional costs. With the PUP, the Government established that €350 is the rate of payment that individuals should receive, yet disability allowance remains only a fraction of that at €208. Our motion last week, which the Government agreed to, called for at least a €15 increase in the disability allowance. The Minister mentioned an increase in the core rates. What increase is she looking at for the next budget? Will she answer my first question on the cost of disability rate, which is separate to the core rates of the social welfare allowance?

There is no recommendation to do this in the Indecon report. It states that the worst outcome for people with disabilities would be giving a little to everyone. That is not what we should do. We need to target this. We are looking at doing this better, with a tiered approach to disability payments. For example, a person with a profound disability who might never be able to work would get a higher level of payment than a person with a more moderate disability who is able to work. That is a fairer, more sensible approach, which means that resources are targeted at those with the greatest need. This is not without challenges either, because naturally everyone will want a higher payment. My Department is currently working on a straw man proposal relating to what this payment structure might look like. This complex work is ongoing. I want to get it right.

The Minister keeps referring to the Indecon report. Like I said, I agree with it. She said it recommends a targeted support rather than a bit for everybody. The motion we tabled called for a €20 cost of disability payment targeted at those people who need it the most. The Department's report and the Social Democrats' motion called for an action plan to implement that cost of disability report. It outlined the scale of the barriers faced by people with disabilities. Those obstacles are only increasing with the cost-of-living crisis. It is only an account of the situation. It demands an action plan for a strategic and well-resourced response to these systematic issues. The action plan to implement the disability capacity review is taking too long, but at least there is a plan. My last question, although answers to the other two would be good too, is about whether there will be an action plan in response to the cost of disability report. The report was only published after sustained pressure. Will it require the same pressure for the Minister to develop the action plan to go with it?

The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is heading a cross-departmental committee and leading the whole-of-government response through the disability inclusion strategy steering group, which she starts. In fairness to her, she is pushing that work on. She is a strong advocate and is passionate about the issue of disability. My Department is looking at the recommendations relating to the cost of disability payment. As I said earlier, we will develop a strawman proposal on that. I do not want to do so without consulting stakeholders. I was not found wanting in this year's budget when it came to supporting people with disabilities. I will not tell the Deputy what is in the next budget, but she can be assured that I will look at issues across the board, particularly with regard to people with disabilities. That is part of the budget negotiations. I was not found wanting in this year's budget, where I changed a number of things. I changed Catherine's Law so that people who had secured a scholarship could go on to do their master's degree. I am conscious of the challenges facing people with disabilities, but I am also conscious that there are profound, moderate and mild disabilities. I want to provide the most supports to those who need them most, since others do not need as much.

Social Welfare Benefits

Colm Burke

Question:

83. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Social Protection when the extension of parent's benefit from five to seven weeks will take effect; the number of parents who have availed of parent's benefit to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34987/22]

Niamh Smyth

Question:

110. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Social Protection when the extension of parent's benefit from five to seven weeks will take effect; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34928/22]

This question may have been drafted before the announcement. When will the extension of parent's benefit from five to seven weeks take effect? How many parents have availed of parent's benefit to date? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 83 and 110 together.

I thank the Deputy for raising this. The Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 introduced two weeks of paid parent's leave for each parent to be taken in the first year after the birth or adoptive placement of a child. Following the commencement of the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2021, an additional three weeks of paid parent's leave is available to each parent, and the period in which the leave can be taken has been extended to the first two years after the birth or adoptive placement of a child. Budget 2022 provided for parent's leave and benefit to be extended from five weeks for each parent to seven weeks. I am pleased that this extension came into effect on 1 July. The additional two weeks of leave and benefit will apply to parents of children who are under the age of two in July 2022 or in the case of adoption, children who have been with their parents for less than two years at that point. Parent's benefit is currently paid at €250 per week. Parent's benefit can be paid in separate weekly blocks or can be paid over a consecutive period. Since the introduction of the scheme, up to the end of June this year, my Department has awarded more than 100,000 parent's benefit claims at a cost in excess of €65 million.

I am delighted that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and I have been able to progress this and increase it to seven weeks since it first started. The support applies to both parents. The Government's ambition is to ensure parents can enjoy meaningful, quality time with their newborn children in the knowledge that they will be financially supported. The Deputy knows that it is important that parents have the opportunity to spend time with their children in those early, formative years of their lives. I have a little grandson and I spend time with him at any chance I get. It is important that we give them that time because we can buy them all the things in the world, but at the end of the day, there is nothing like time with a child.

That is what makes the difference.

Parent's leave and benefit is available to anyone with a child under the age of two or who has adopted a child within the previous two years. The take up of parent's leave and benefit has increased threefold since 2020. In 2021 a total of 51,400 parents were supported compared to just 16,700 parents in 2020. Since the start of 2022 the total number of applications awarded reached over 28,000.

Already this year 28,000 applications are in and I am absolutely delighted to see that more and more people are applying for it. I note that the number of fathers applying is increasing but I would particularly encourage fathers to take up this benefit and spend time with their children. That is very important.

The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman and I continue to work on this. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has responsibility for the policy side and I administer the payments from my Department.

Since the formation of the Government we have increased the parent's leave and benefit from two weeks to seven weeks. This allows tens of thousands of new parents to take time away from work knowing that they are financially supported.

I thank the Minister. I am aware that the extension has only come into place since 1 July. I presume there is budgetary planning in respect of this. Does the Department have any idea of the numbers it expects to benefit from this scheme between now and 31 December?

With regard to ongoing planning, what is proposed to adequately plan for 2023 and 2024 to make sure there is adequate funding for the benefit if there is a further increase in numbers again?

This is a demand-led scheme. I can assure the Deputy that the people who qualify and submit their applications will get the funding. There is no doubt about that. With regard to the numbers who have claimed this year, it is some 22,000 people already. We would expect that to double. Last year in 2021 it was 51,395 applications. Up to the end of May this year 27,488 claims were awarded. Given it was 51,020 in 2021 and 27,488 to the end of May this year, I would be very surprised if we do not exceed the figures from 2021. The funding is there for it. I would encourage as many people as possible to take it up. In Deputy Burke's county of Cork, 6,629 people have claimed the parent's benefit from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2022. I have a list of the counties. Dublin, of course, is the highest with 13,400 people who have claimed the benefit.

The Minister will be aware that it is now a very challenging time for young families around the pressures of work and perhaps people do not take the time immediately after their child is born.

Will the Department be looking at the issue of caring and childcare in the budget in the context of forward planning? It is an extremely important area. I very much welcome the extension in the parent's benefits because it is important for parents that they can get this time after a child is born, and particularly in the first two years. It is about forward planning for that whole area and funding from the Department. I was wondering if the Department is having consultations with the various interest groups in that area, and especially with parent representative groups?

The people who qualify for this payment are the applicants who have received maternity benefit, adoptive benefit, or paternity benefit for their child. They will automatically satisfy the PRSI contribution requirements to receive parent's benefit. A person must be paying PRSI to qualify. The payment is €250 per week.

The question was asked whether single parents can get this benefit. Under the EU directive single parents cannot get this benefit on the double. The single parent can get it for himself or herself but they cannot get it a second time. The benefit goes to both parents, the father and the mother.

In 2022, 35% of the claims were from males and 65% were females. That trend is actually improving. In 2021 only 28% of applicants claiming the benefit were male and now it is 35%. In 2021 it was 72% female and that figure has gone slightly down, which is now at 65%. Hopefully, there will be more claims coming in. Parents have two years to claim the benefits from the time of the birth of the child. It was only one year but I have extended this to two years to make it easier.

The Deputy asked about carers. These are all things that will be considered in the budget. The budget is not too long away now. The budget will focus on the cost of living as well as tax measures.

Social Welfare Benefits

Gino Kenny

Question:

84. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Social Protection if she plans to change the thresholds or to alter the qualifying criteria for the fuel allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34961/22]

My question centres on the fuel allowance thresholds and the qualifying criteria. This will be a very important issue in the coming months. I want the Minister's opinion on the thresholds by which people will qualify.

The fuel allowance is a payment of €33 per week for 28 weeks at an estimated cost of €366 million in 2022. It is a targeted payment to people dependent on specified long-term social welfare payments. The purpose of this payment is to assist those households most in need with their energy costs.

The criteria for fuel allowance are framed 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 including a means test and the household composition criteria. This ensures that the fuel allowance payment is targeted at those who are more vulnerable to fuel poverty including those reliant on social protection payments for longer periods who are unlikely to have additional resources of their own.

As part of budget 2022, an increase in the weekly fuel payment of €5 and a number of expansions to the eligibility criteria for the fuel allowance payment were announced, including expanding the means threshold for the fuel allowance by €20 to €120 above the appropriate rate of State pension contributory, which enables more people to qualify for this support.

With effect from September 2022, the qualifying period for jobseeker's and supplementary welfare allowance recipients to be in a position to access the fuel allowance payment will be reduced from 15 to 12 months. The Government has, therefore, implemented significant expansions in relation to the fuel allowance through budget 2022.

We are acutely aware of recent price increases and their impact on households that are dependent on social welfare. All options will be kept under review, together with trends in prices, to inform preparations for the budget later this year. We must, however, take account of the overall budgetary context and the availability of financial resources.

The Department of Social Protection provides additional needs payments as part of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme for people who have an urgent need, which they cannot meet from their own resources. These payments are available through our community welfare offices.

I thank the Minister of State. We can all agree that the fuel allowance at the moment is targeted in a certain way to a certain number of social welfare recipients. I believe this needs to broaden out to much more than the cohort of people who currently receive it. If a person is on illness benefit he or she does not get it. A person on disability benefit does not get the fuel allowance. There is a whole cohort of people who do not qualify. For example, a person may be on a small private pension along with a State pension. If this person is over the threshold by just €5 then he or she does not get the fuel allowance whatsoever. When one takes into account the spiralling cost of fuel the €33 fuel allowance is welcome but it must relate to the income a person has and the payment itself. A whole cohort who could benefit by a targeted measure are not benefitting. Perhaps the Minister of State will address this.

I also wish to allude to another important point after the response.

In response to those questions about the people who are outside thresholds by a small amount, or in payments that do not qualify, the mantra we will keep putting out, which we cannot do too often because people are not aware of it, is about the additional needs payment and the community welfare officers.

All those people the Deputy mentioned can go to a community welfare officer and explain their current situation. There are an increasing number of people in this situation. The Minister outlined how the applications for additional needs payments have increased compared with the five-month period last year. That is the short-term answer. For the longer-term and for the budget, we will have to take all the cases into account, and all the options will be assessed for the fuel allowance in budget 2023. For those in need now and who are outside eligibility, the immediate answer is the community welfare officer and the additional needs payment.

This winter we will see the apex of the cost-of-living crisis, particularly in energy prices. There have been 35 price hikes by energy companies in the past 12 months. The cumulative effect has been a 60% to 70% increase in electricity and gas prices. That is a fact. Another fact which the Minister will have to address is that since February this year, 20,000 people were refused fuel allowance. That is an enormous number. There is a lot of confusion in social welfare offices regarding those who are long-term unemployed for more than 12 months, for instance. They have changed the criteria, which is welcome, but there is a lot of confusion. That has to be addressed. It is only the tip of the iceberg. There are those who could benefit but who are not because of the confusion relating to the criteria.

The Taoiseach and all senior Ministers have given a strong signal that the budget will be a cost-of-living budget. The Department of Social Protection is part of that, as are other Departments. The national retrofitting plan and one-stop shops are also up and running. We have put €2.4 billion of measures in place and those are worth reiterating. They include the €200 energy credit and an extra €125 for fuel allowance recipients. There is a further €100 special payment for fuel allowance recipients, cuts to VAT on gas and electricity between May and October, a 20% cut on public transport fares from the end of April, reduced caps for multiple children on the school transport fees and the more recent announcement on free school transport in the year ahead. Another good anti-poverty measure relates to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and school meals. The Deputy made an interesting point about the refusals for fuel allowance. We would be wise to look at the reasons for refusal to see if they can be part of the considerations for budget 2023.

Cost of Living Issues

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

85. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Social Protection the actions that she will take to urgently address spiralling coal costs to support families facing huge pressures taking into consideration the recently published report by an organisation (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34886/22]

There will be repetition with many of these questions. A large number of people are under severe pressure whether it is because of the cost of home heating oil, solid fuel or the spike in electricity prices. They will need some detail soon. We cannot wait until the day before the budget to find out what necessary mitigations are proposed for the conditions we have now.

The Deputy's original question also referred to the ESRI report on fuel poverty so I will refer to that. The report explores the issue of energy poverty and deprivation in Ireland. The Government recognises the pressures families are under in respect of energy prices and have taken a range of steps, including targeted and universal measures.

As part of budget 2022, a number of expansions to the eligibility criteria for the fuel allowance payment were announced at that time. The weekly means threshold for the fuel allowance scheme was increased to €120 above the appropriate rate of contributory State pension. With effect from the start of the next fuel season, the qualifying period for jobseeker's and supplementary welfare allowance recipients to access the fuel allowance payment will be reduced from 15 to 12 months. The rate of the fuel allowance was also increased by €5 a week with immediate effect.

As part of the Government measures to help mitigate the effects of rising energy costs, additional lump sum payments of €125 and €100, equivalent to almost seven weeks additional fuel allowance, were paid to all households in receipt of the fuel allowance payment in March and May. This means that low-income households saw an overall increase of 55% in fuel allowance support provided during the fuel allowance season. When taken in conjunction with the electricity costs emergency benefit payment, paid in April, these households received over €600 in additional targeted Government supports over the course of the 2021 to 2022 fuel season.

The Government has reacted quickly not only with social protection measures but also having implemented a wide range of initiatives covering tax, energy credits, excise and transport measures. The Department also supports people through additional needs payments and through a special heating supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. All of these measures will be kept under review, together with trends in prices, to inform preparations for the budget later this year.

Specific mitigations will need to be introduced. We all hear this in our constituency offices and I have no doubt that the Minister of State does too. People are under incredible pressure. We are dealing with a 38-year high in inflation at 9.1% in June. It has also been the fastest increase. It is incredibly difficult to deal with. People have problems with their bills and in my part of the world, a large number of people rely on solid fuels and home heating oil. We need these measures to be put in place as soon as possible. We will have to get some sort of indication of what will be proposed in the budget.

I am not in a position to give the Deputy an indication of what might be proposed in the budget.

We could keep it to ourselves.

The short-term measure, as I said earlier, is the additional needs payments. The community welfare officers have been given direction on what is viable to cover in respect of people's costs, and energy costs are certainly part of that. The medium-term intervention is the budget. It was been clearly flagged at an early stage that it will be a cost-of-living budget. All Departments have been asked to examine how they can assist in that; it is not only our Department, although we will have a key role. On the longer-term, we do not want to be here in three, four or five years still talking about the same people who need more increases to fuel allowance. The long-term plan, which has started, is the national retrofitting plan. It is gearing up and we have committed to investing a significant amount in that in the coming years.

A great deal needs to be done in the budget. It remains to be seen whether it will be but the pressure is on the Government. There is no doubt that people are under significant pressure. I agree with what the Minister of State has said about retrofitting. I would be delighted if people had alternatives that were not only environmentally better but also cheaper. We need to make sure that the schemes we have are changed slightly so that they become more targeted. I understand that does not fall under the Minister of State's remit necessarily.

The additional needs payment needs to be examined. There are still cases where it is incredibly difficult. Sometimes there are anomalous scenarios where people are under pressure but they cannot necessarily get the payment. I call for the household benefits package to be re-examined. Sometimes people do not have a gas point reference number, GPRN, when they are using a communal heating system. I am thinking of places such as Carlinn Hall where there is still major issues with the cost of the bills. It might be necessary to change the facility under the household benefits package.

I take the Deputy's point on retrofitting. It is just starting. Every year we look at how impactful it is. I refer, in particular, to the special enhanced grant equivalent to 80% of typical costs for attic and cavity wall insulation for all households. That can quickly reduce energy use as part of the Government's response to current exceptionally high energy prices.

On the additional needs payment, the Minister outlined earlier efforts to make it more accessible and we are looking at a way to apply for that online to do so. That is key. I take the Deputy's point about the importance of the budget coming up and the pressure that people are under.

The household benefits package looks for the GPRN. Some of the people in communal heating systems do not have a number.

These are people aged over 66 and some are over 70.

I refer to the GPRN. We need to look at that facility. Anomalies will arise from time to time.

Cost of Living Issues

Joan Collins

Question:

86. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will reconsider setting up a cost-of-living hardship fund to be distributed by community welfare officers in the community and accessible by families and persons who are deeply affected by the cost-of-living increases in food, medical bills, essential clothing and back-to-school costs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34877/22]

I ask the Minister for Social Protection if she will reconsider setting up a cost-of-living hardship fund to be distributed by community welfare officers in the community and accessible by families and persons who are deeply affected by the cost-of-living increases in food, medical bills, essential clothing and back-to-school costs. I ask her to make a statement on the matter.

The Government is acutely aware of recent price increases and their impact on low-income households and those who are dependent on social welfare. For this reason, the Government did not await a further budget cycle to address these challenges but acted early. Overall, the tax and spending measures we have introduced to ease the burden and provide support to those most in need have amounted to €2.4 billion.

Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, my Department can make additional needs payments to help meet expenses that a person cannot pay from his or her weekly income. Also, under this scheme, a supplement can be awarded to assist with ongoing or recurring costs that cannot be met from the person's own resources and are deemed to be necessary. The Government has provided €45.75 million for these payments in 2022. A further provision of €5.3 million has been provided for supplementary welfare allowance payments in 2022, excluding rent supplement. This is the cost-of-living hardship fund. This is a demand-led scheme with no budget cap.

Payments are made at the discretion of the officers administering the scheme, taking into account the requirements of the legislation and all the relevant circumstances of the case in order to ensure that the payments target those most in need of assistance. The main items eligible for assistance include help with fuel, utility bills, repairs to or replacement of household appliances, clothing, child-related items such as cots and prams, assistance with funerals or burial costs and travel. Support is also available to assist persons under this scheme towards rent deposits.

In addition, the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance scheme operates from June to September each year and 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. Recently, I announced that an additional €100 will be paid in respect of each eligible child for 2022. This measure will have an immediate impact on families who are most in need of assistance at this time.

I accept what the Minister said about the availability of hardship fund with no limit. When I was first active in politics as a councillor, we worked very closely with the community welfare officers in the area. There was one in the health centre in Crumlin and one in Curlew Road health centre in Drimnagh, as well as others in Parnell Road and Walkinstown. People approaching me would be able to work very well with community welfare officers and let the person know where to go, etc. They were taken out of the community during the austerity years of 2011 and 2012, which was a mistake. They were introduced in the 1980s or 1990s by a Labour Party Minister - I cannot remember his name - because of the need to be close to people in the community.

As Deputy Kerrane said, some people are in a rural community and do not have enough money. In some cases, the partner may be spending the money on drink or gambling. Someone like that with two young kids will not be able to get to an Intreo office. Will the Minister consider introducing a pilot scheme to bring the fund into the community to see how it would impact, particularly in rural areas?

I am very aware of the importance of people having access to the community welfare officers. That is why we have had a very comprehensive media advertising campaign to make people aware that this payment is available. I have run radio and social media advertisements. I am sure the Deputy has heard them. We want to raise awareness and get the message out through our constituency offices. I would appreciate the help of Deputies in this House in helping to get the message out also. People affected by the current cost-of-living crisis may be accessing these payments for the first time. They might never have dealt with the Department of Social protection previously. I want to try to make things as easy as possible for them. That is why we have established a national helpline. The number is 0818 607080. Most people have access to a phone in this day and age. People should ring that number first. They will be dealt with confidentially. They will be directed to a point of contact in their local office who will look after them. People can download the application form from the website at gov.ie. They can complete it and post it in. It will be processed quickly.

I heard the media campaign which I welcome. I am sure it will have an impact when we get to see the figures for the past month or so. Obviously, the number of people looking for additional needs payments increased because of the cost-of-living increase and not because of the media campaign because the increase happened before the campaign. We should have a specific pilot scheme in a rural area and put a community welfare officer into the community to see how that impacts for people in the area. It is impossible for someone with no money who is in despair and in crisis to walk from a rural area to the city. Having community welfare officers in the community would allow them to know who is who and what the needs are. They would get to know the community in the area. That has been really badly missed in the community since the community welfare officer was pulled out into the Intreo offices. That has been my experience as a councillor and a Deputy.

We have community welfare offices in the 51 Intreo centres throughout the country. They talk to the people over the phone. They can meet them in the local branch office. They can even arrange to meet people in their own homes by appointment if that is what people need. We are also considering setting up a system where people can apply directly for additional needs payment online. As the Deputy knows, some people want face-to-face contact. They might need some help completing a form. Others would rather submit the form directly online. We are trying to give people as many options as possible. We are creating awareness and letting people know that the Department of Social Protection is here to help. Our primary function is to help people when they need it and allow them to get over the difficulties they are facing. To be fair, I do not think there are any more media I can use to allow people access to the community welfare officer. Obviously, I will continue to monitor the situation.

Social Welfare Schemes

Brian Stanley

Question:

87. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Social Protection if her Department will consider expanding the qualifying criteria for the working family payment scheme. [38131/22]

The working family payment scheme is very important for people in low-paid employment. Will the Minister consider expanding it in the budget?

The working family payment is an in-work support which provides an income top-up for employees with children who are on low earnings. It is designed to prevent in-work poverty for low-paid workers with child dependants and to offer a financial incentive to take up employment. Eligibility for the payment is not linked to receipt of a social welfare payment but rather a person must be in employment for at least 38 hours per fortnight.

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 income threshold increases with the number of children. For example, the weekly income threshold for families with one child is €551 and for families with two children it is €652. Budget 2022 provided for a €10 weekly increase in the working family payment income limits for families of all sizes. As part of a package of measures to assist families with the cost of living, implementation of this increase was brought forward to April of this year.

The average weekly payment made to families is currently estimated at €140 per week. Approximately 47,000 families with 103,000 children are in receipt of the working family payment. Based on current and projected claim volumes, the Department estimates expenditure of €348 million on the scheme this year.

Any further expansion of the scheme must be considered in a budgetary context.

The Minister of State will be aware of the report published yesterday showing that there are now 62,000 children living in consistent poverty. That this is the case in this day and age is one of our greatest sources of shame. I accept we have the roadmap to social inclusion, which is important, and I know work is under way in regard to that, but this is something we really need to get to grips with. One of the targeted measures put forward yesterday by the Children's Rights Alliance was to extend the fuel allowance to recipients of the working family payment. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has sought that for some time and it should be considered in the budget. That is the reason I raise the matter this morning.

We know there are approximately 370,000 people in low-paid work. Pre-Covid, it was approximately one in five people. That is very much at odds with the fact that there are just 47,000 people in receipt of the working family payment. Perhaps the promotion of the scheme could be considered again. I know that has been done but the figures do not seem to add up.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of child poverty. The working family payment and other targeted measures such as the increase for a qualified child are specifically designed to assist with that. We have introduced other measures as well. We recently announced changes to three initiatives to assist families with children. The back-to-school costs package is worth a total of €67 million. As a result, the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is being increased by €100 for each eligible child under the scheme. In addition, the school meals programme is being extended to a further 310 schools that were designated as DEIS schools - delivering equality of opportunity in schools - in March. Students availing of the school transport scheme will not be charged fees for the next academic year.

We will look at the working family payment. In another piece of research published by the Department and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, earlier this year the working family payment was identified as being particularly effective in alleviating poverty levels, so we will look at that payment.

I welcome the measures that have been taken. I also welcome the increase in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. That is an important initiative and it is important that it was increased, especially this year.

Something does not add up if we have approximately 370,000 people working in low-paid jobs and we have 47,000 people receiving the working family payment. Many more people should be accessing the working family payment, which is an important support, in particular when it comes to the current level of child poverty. I think it was the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that put forward a proposal to establish a cross-party committee of the Dáil to consider child poverty, which is clearly growing and should be causing alarm bells to go off for everyone in this House. That we have 62,000 children living in consistent poverty in 2022 in one of the richest countries on the globe is a major issue. It is something we have not got to grips with, and we need to do so very quickly. The Government should consider establishing such a committee.

I have been working with my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. We had a formal meeting about issues relating to child poverty and setting a new target to reduce it. We will have the successor to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures as well. We are also in the process of bringing on board an EU child guarantee. Those are frameworks that will push matters on politically as well.

In terms of people who are working and are also under that line, the Government wants to ensure the welfare system supports people in taking up employment and increasing their level of employment. The Pathways to Work strategy includes a commitment to prepare a paper on options to modify the longer term jobseeker's assistance payment by utilising the Revenue real-time earnings data to adjust payment levels in line with a person's weekly earnings to guarantee a basic income floor and ensure that in all cases a person's earnings increase when he or she works. When people are on a welfare payment, especially if they have children, there is always a decision to be made on whether it is worthwhile to take up employment. We want to ensure that is always the case and the options paper will help us to get to that point.

Community Welfare Services

Pearse Doherty

Question:

88. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Social Protection if she has considered the effect of the additional workload, arising from the introduction of the additional needs payment, for community welfare officers; and if she has considered employing additional staff at already short-staffed centres. [34903/22]

The additional needs payment was one of the Government's ways of dealing with the cost-of-living crisis. We know it is not the panacea that has been suggested. However, the problem is that it does little to help those struggling. Furthermore, it has resulted in an increase in the workload for already overworked community welfare officers, CWOs. Does the Minister have any plans to employ additional staff to already short-staffed centres to aid these officers with their increasing workload and ensure there are no delays in getting payments out to those who may be eligible for them?

I thank Deputy Doherty for raising this question. The delivery of crucial community welfare services to meet the challenges and the needs of citizens across the country remains a priority for me and my Department. It is important that the community welfare service, CWS, remains accessible, flexible and responsive to meet the varied needs of vulnerable people, particularly in a time of crisis or emergency.

The Department has maintained staffing levels in the CWS nationwide in recent years during times when demands decreased, reflective of the commitment to continue to support the delivery of locally based services to customers. The Department has introduced innovations this year, which have increased efficiency in processing applications for supplementary welfare allowance payments. These innovations and the maintenance of staffing levels have led to the CWS being in a stronger position to respond to increases in the demand for the service as they occur. This was borne out when a surge of claims was received arising from significant numbers of displaced people arriving from Ukraine. It is, therefore, anticipated that there is sufficient capacity within the CWS to manage the increased level of claims arising from the promotion of the additional needs payment during the recent advertising campaign.

Among the innovations that the Department has introduced to help citizens and to support community welfare officers, where possible, is that the preparatory work on applications, for example, the gathering of supporting documentation that is necessary to assess and finalise a claim, is carried out largely by a back-office team. However, the assessment and decision on claims and any further customer interactions are then carried out by locally based CWOs, as has always been the case.

The delivery of a locally based community welfare service remains a cornerstone of the system. This method of processing applications has been found to be very effective in improving service to customers and balancing the work of individual CWOs, especially at times of particular pressure. Having said that, it is important to note that claims activity within the CWS is closely monitored at all times and resources are deployed as necessary. There is now a national organisational structure in place to oversee the operation of the service across the entire country. As the Deputy is aware, when people need money, they need it now and not down the road.

My office has been contacted by people who work at the front line in the administration of these payments and they tell me they are at breaking point because of the understaffing, not just recently but for some time, and the demands that have been placed on them. It is not helped by Ministers telling everybody who cannot afford to put petrol in their car to run to the community welfare officer and everything will be fine. All the problems and solutions seem to be pointing in the same direction. It is left to those on the front line to break the news to people that many of these statements are inaccurate, misleading or grossly exaggerated.

Those on the front line also claim that the recent introduction of the additional needs payment was not communicated to them - the people who administer it - until the day after it was announced to the public. This raises the question of how much thought, preparation and planning have been put into it. We know this payment is desperately needed by so many right across the country. The payment is administered to them by the Government and it is important that we ensure people get it in time.

My colleague, Deputy Kerrane, has been championing the issue of making sure that people can access the payment online. I understand that the Minister responded to the call earlier. That is one solution. It should have been done long before now. Deputy Kerrane has been calling for this for some time. Does the Minister have any other solutions or will she take up that proposal, along with other solutions, to alleviate the burden on those who are on the front line? The Minister should pay the staff respect when communicating the introduction of a new payment.

The community welfare officers across the country are a great resource to the Department of the Social Protection. In my experience, I have always found them to be exceptionally helpful. They have always gone beyond the call of duty in trying to help people who need support at particular times in their lives.

As Deputy Doherty is aware, we started a very active media campaign to make people aware that this service is available. We have been running advertisements on radio and social media. We have constantly tried to raise awareness and get the message out.

I am sure the Deputy will have seen those advertisements himself through our constituency offices. I would appreciate the help of all Deputies to enable us to get out that message.

The community welfare service is closely monitored at all times and resources are deployed as necessary. As I said, other staff have been able to do some of the back-office work but the community welfare officers are there to meet people. They cannot be contacted by email or phone and I am working on an online application process. It takes some time to provide these services because they have to be designed. We are trying to make it as easy as possible for people to access the additional needs payment.

Will the Minister confirm whether those working on the front line and administering the additional needs payment were given advance notice before a public announcement was made? Were they given training on what this would pertain to? Is it the Minister's position that no additional staffing support is required for those working on the front line as community welfare officers and is she satisfied the timeframe from application to grant payment is sufficiently short in all areas of the State to avoid undue delays at a time when the rate of inflation is close to 10% and when every day is crucial to these families? What is her understanding of an acceptable timeframe from application to payment?

The additional needs payment is not a new scheme and it comes under the remit of the general supplementary welfare allowance scheme operational guidelines. A briefing note with information on the additional needs payment has issued to all staff in the Department, setting out the role of community welfare officers in assisting customers with cost-of-living expenses. It directs community welfare officers to use their discretionary powers in considering applications for additional needs payments and places significant emphasis on assisting customers with cost-of-living expenses.

Where there are household income guidelines, it has been emphasised to the community welfare service, CWS, team in my Department that these are guidelines only and that customers' needs for assistance arising from difficulties in meeting increased costs for food, fuel, electricity and heating are the primary consideration. The briefing note was augmented by a training webinar for all community welfare officers, CWOs, nationwide with the national CWS management team and a training bulletin has issued to all CWS staff in regard to the increased costs of living and the additional needs payment. I have asked my deputy Secretary General to meet the community welfare officers and to report to me on that meeting. While she is in constant contact with them, she will also meet them.

Social Welfare Payments

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

89. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Social Protection the work that has been carried out in the past year to review the terms of the various means tested schemes to make them more equitable and to increase the incentive to work for persons in receipt of means tested social welfare payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38516/22]

As the Minister will be aware, I have raised time and again the issue of means testing. What work has been done in the past year to review the various means-tested scheme to make them more equitable and to increase the incentive to work? We have discussed this matter a number of times and I believe we need urgent and radical reform here.

My Department has carried out extensive work on the policies surrounding means-tested schemes over the past year and I have also made commitments in regard to further reviews. Means tests are kept under regular review and a number of significant changes have been made in recent years. In particular, I have introduced a number of changes to means testing that provide for higher income disregards. These disregards ensure that, where people are in receipt of a social assistance payment and are working, a certain level of income from that work is not assessed in the means test. On foot of the commitment in the programme for Government and the rural development policy 2021-25, my Department recently reviewed the means assessment disregards for the farm assist. The report is available on the Government's website. One of the key recommendations of the report was to provide for an extensive expansion to the list of agri-environmental schemes that qualify for a disregard, a policy I introduced with effect from June 2022.

In addition, I have agreed to carry out a review of how income from land leased by farmers is treated in the means assessments for the State non-contributory pension and the farm assist scheme. I have also introduced several measures that aim to encourage and support people with disabilities to pursue their employment goals, including a higher earnings disregard for the disability allowance and the blind pension. Moreover, I have significantly increased the income disregard for the carer's allowance. This enables more carers with modest incomes to become eligible for the scheme and allows carers and their families to earn more from employment while retaining their carer's payment.

My Department will continue to monitor and review policies for all social welfare payments, including means assessments. The Deputy and I have discussed this matter and I have been listening to him. While I have made changes, I acknowledge he has more ideas for further changes. As always, I would be happy to discuss them with him.

One of those changes related to people who are severely disabled from birth. If the parents die and leave their estate to their children, the family home might be sold. If they leave, say, €200,000 to each of the children, in the case of the person in receipt of the disability allowance, what will happen once he or she receives that is he or she will lose the entire disability allowance. I do not think that is equitable, fair or just. The siblings who do not have a disability, on the other hand, will get their money totally free of tax and there will be no penalty.

There is also the example of a couple with a dependent adult in a one-income family. In one case, they might put the money into joint bank accounts, and in another, they might put it only into the income-earner's bank account. In the first case, they will be means-tested on the increase for the qualified adult. There are any number of examples that are totally anomalous and the system needs to be reformed.

As I said, the Deputy and I have discussed these issues. He raised an example of somebody on the disability allowance whose elderly parents have been living frugally in order that they can leave an asset behind, when they pass on, to their disabled child. They may then find that the asset, or their savings as the case may be, has an impact. I take the Deputy's point and, as I said, I have made some improvements. In the context of the budget, I will consider the list of proposals he gave me because there are anomalies and we would like to try to help people, which is what the Department of Social Protection is here to do. It seeks to support people and target those who are vulnerable or on low incomes. Many changes have been made but I am happy to consider more if there are suggestions.

In regard to the incentive to work, if a self-employed person is on the jobseeker's allowance, 100% of his or her income from self-employment will be deducted from the jobseeker's allowance. Another situation I find totally anomalous is that if somebody is receiving a non-contributory pension, he or she can earn €200 a week and receive the full pension, but if he or she gets that from self-employment, it will be deducted from the pension. There is no logic for having such a difference between self-employment in farming or fishing and PAYE employment.

I reiterate the Department has carried out numerous reviews of policies surrounding means-tested schemes over the past year and the Deputy has given me a list of suggestions. In line with a commitment in the programme for Government and the rural development policy, a review of the means assessment disregards for the farm assist has been completed and a key recommendation from the review was to extend the list of agri-environmental schemes that qualify for a disregard. We have made some changes and will continue to look at these issues and do whatever we can to assist.

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan has time to introduce one final question.

Cost of Living Issues

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

90. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Social Protection the measures that she is considering along with the additional needs payment to support those who do not qualify for social welfare payments and who also are struggling financially due to current increasing inflation and the cost of living; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34753/22]

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. People who do not qualify for social welfare but are just outside the threshold are working away on ordinary incomes.

The Minister for Finance will know them as the middle four deciles. These people are under increased pressure on their finances, which makes it difficult to meet the costs of living. Has the Minister looked at measures to see if they can qualify for different schemes to support them with the costs of living, whether it is working family payments or income disregards for pensioners and people who are just on that threshold?

The time has elapsed now for Question Time, so the question will be answered in written form. Our thanks to all the Deputies and to the Ministers for their assistance with Question Time.

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