I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it to discuss the mid-year position on the 2015 Estimates for the Department and to look ahead to budget 2016. Late last week, my officials provided briefing material for the use of the committee at this meeting. This includes detailed financial data for 2015, including the mid-year position. Briefing on mid-year progress on the Department’s performance outputs was sent to the committee secretariat over a month ago.
Each year we make about 85 million payments. That is the first output. The major element by far of Department of Social Protection expenditure is expenditure on weekly rates of payment. At the end of August, there were over 1.4 million people in receipt of a weekly welfare payment in respect of almost 2.2 million beneficiaries. This is in addition to 611,000 families in receipt of a monthly child benefit payment in respect of almost 1.2 million children. The scale of these numbers means that the payments and services operated by the Department impact, either directly or indirectly, on the lives of almost everybody in the State in one way or another. These social transfers play a pivotal role in alleviating poverty and Ireland is the best performing member state in the EU in this regard.
Welfare expenditure also contributes, directly or indirectly, to the wider economy, as people spend their benefits and pensions each week, thereby adding to domestic employment and economic activity. The importance of welfare spending as a key tool in stabilising demand is recognised here and abroad. Finally, social transfers provide support across the life course, from helping to protect children from disadvantage to ensuring an adequate standard of living across all age groups. In this regard, it is worth highlighting that almost half, 47%, of social welfare expenditure relates to payments to pensioners and children.
The Government is driving an economic recovery, stabilising the nation's finances and increasing employment. Getting people back to work is the Government's priority and we continue to be absolutely focused on helping people to build better futures for themselves and their families through employment. The Department's Pathways to Work strategy plays a crucial role in this. Pathways to Work aims to ensure that as many newly created jobs as possible go to people on the live register. Pathways to Work has a specific focus on the long-term unemployed or those at risk of becoming long-term unemployed. This focus is paying off. Central Statistics Office, CSO, data for August show that the monthly unemployment rate has now fallen to 9.5%, down from a crisis peak of 15.1%.
It is particularly welcome that long-term unemployment has decreased at a slightly faster rate than the overall reduction in unemployment. It is now down from a peak of 9.5% to 5.5% in the second quarter of 2015. Since 2012, 70,000 long-term unemployed jobseekers have moved to employment and we are on track to reach our 2015 target of 75,000. Most encouragingly, CSO data show that employment has increased by well over 100,000 people under this Government. It now stands at 1.96 million people. This means that our ambitious employment target of 100,000 additional jobs by 2016 was achieved one year early.
Budget 2015 continued the priority focus on increasing employment. We introduced the new back to work family dividend scheme and expanded JobsPlus. There were also a series of measures to help families and the vulnerable. We increased child benefit, the living alone allowance and funding for school meals. We also reinstated, at a rate of 25%, the Christmas bonus, which was where the previous Government made its first reduction.
Getting a job benefits individuals, their families and their communities but it also benefits the public purse, with jobseeker payments falling and tax revenue and social insurance contributions increasing. While it was the norm for the Social Insurance Fund to require annual Exchequer subventions, the fund required a subvention of over €2 billion in 2012 because of the recession.
In fact, we had discussions in this chamber about the "hole", as it was called, in the social insurance fund and all of us were incredibly worried about the potential impact of that on provisions, particularly for pensioners and retired people. Since then, however, the deficit has declined significantly and the 2015 Revised Estimates provide for a much reduced subvention of €180 million this year. This is very important and welcome progress. It is very good news, particularly for our pensioners.
Apart from providing income supports and helping jobseekers return to work, the Department has an important role in the development of social policy and legislation. A recent example is the Gender Recognition Act, which enables a person to have his or her preferred gender recognised by the State. This is vital legislation for transgender people and their families and represents another significant milestone for equality in Irish society. In developing the legislation, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, and I took on board the views of representative groups, transgender people, parents of transgender children, medical practitioners and citizens. I thank the many members of the committee who assisted enormously in the long parliamentary and consultation process.
One of the reasons for inviting me to appear before the committee today is the mid-year review of the Department's performance targets. There has been some discussion about the appropriateness of the Department's targets, particularly regarding policy-related targets or targets on internal corporate processes, such as those relating to human resources, HR, or information technology, IT, systems. I have just mentioned how important the development of social policy and legislation is to the core work of the Department. The progression of the Gender Recognition Bill earlier this year is a prime example of this work because it provides real, tangible impacts for the people who will benefit from it. It is, therefore, among our most important work, including the work of this committee.
Regarding internal targets, it is vital to point out that one of the priorities of the Department is continually to improve its processes and services for the people we serve, and that is many people in Ireland. It is worth reflecting briefly on the changes the Department has undergone in recent years. The Department has welcomed staff from the former Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation as well as Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, fondly known as Craggy, staff of the former community welfare service, who were formally integrated into the Department in 2011, and former FÁS staff who joined the Department in January 2012. There was an inflow of more than 3,000 staff to the Department. That is a transformation of unprecedented scale in the Civil Service in Ireland.
The work of the Department has also been transformed. The roll out of Intreo offices across the country provides one-stop-shops where a person can make a social welfare claim, avail of the former community welfare services and be helped to return to work, training or education, all in one place. I believe most of the members have visited these bright, clean, painted offices which treat the staff with dignity and, more importantly, treat the people who visit to avail of social welfare services with dignity. That was not possible three years ago. A customer who needed to avail of these three services would have had to register separately three times, resulting in a duplication of time and effort. They registered once in the social welfare office, once in the community welfare service and once in the FÁS office. That has now been reduced to one registration and it is all interactive. This fundamental change has necessitated the integration of very different work practices, cultures and IT systems, while ensuring that the daily work of the Department is maintained at a high level.
When one considers this context, it is understandable that the Department has focused many of its performance targets on ensuring the success of this transformation. As time goes by, and the OneDSP programme becomes fully embedded, these types of targets will no longer feature to the same extent. I recognise the crucial role of the committee in the scrutiny of the Estimates. The Department will take on board any comments or suggestions committee members may have about improving the presentation of targets in order to assist in the process.
I also want to mention updates in the area of fraud and control. It is essential that we maintain public confidence in the welfare system by vigorously tackling any fraudulent activity. One of the new initiatives undertaken is the secondment of 20 gardaí to the Department's special investigation unit since December 2014. Garda officers are now an integral part of the unit and are carrying out a full range of social welfare fraud investigations. The Department has carried out an analysis to measure the effectiveness of the pilot over the secondment period. When we looked at the figures up to the end of July 2015, we found that savings of over €4 million have been generated. This clearly illustrates that the return on investment is a productive one.
Public services cards continue to be rolled out. As of last week, almost 1.6 million cards have been issued, with 513,000 having the free travel, or FT, indication. This has been introduced to enable people gain access to public services more efficiently and with a minimum of duplication of effort, while at the same time preserving their privacy to the maximum extent possible. One of the key benefits relates to the robustness of the identity registration process in order to minimise abuse. It is already proving successful. Using facial recognition software, a number of cases have been detected where individuals were using various identities to make multiple claims in different offices. We now have a facial recognition database of 1.6 million people, which makes it a very significant database. Where a match arises, these cases are immediately sent to the Department's special investigation unit for priority investigation. As identity fraud is as matter which generally falls under criminal justice legislation, all such cases are referred to the Garda for investigation and, thereafter, for consideration of prosecution by the DPP.
With regard to mid-year expenditure, the Department's spend is spread across seven programme areas. Overall, €19.378 billion was allocated to the Department in 2015, which is equivalent to 39% of gross current Government expenditure. Out of this, expenditure to the end of June 2015 was 0.8% above the estimate. Data on expenditure by scheme, service and administration sub-head, as at the end of June, is shown in chapters 2 to 9, inclusive, of our briefing, as appropriate. PRSI income at the end of June was €207 million above profile, which is obviously a reflection of my earlier comments on getting more people back to work. Overall, net Vote expenditure was €136 million under profile at that time. Given the demand-led nature of nearly all of the Department's schemes, it remains too early at this stage to be definitive as to whether a Supplementary Estimate will be required later this year or not.
Looking forward to 2016, the current expenditure ceiling for the Department is €19.276 million, which is €70 million less than the ceiling for this year. The 2016 ceiling allows for an increase in expenditure on pensions of €200 million, reflecting ongoing trends in our demographics, in that, thankfully, there are more older people as they are living longer. It also allows for a reduction of €270 million on jobseeker payments as we get more people back to work.
The Government's Spring Economic Statement, published last April, stated that budget 2016 will include a package within the range of €1.2 billion to €1.5 billion to invest in services, support employment and boost growth potential, while still maintaining our fiscal prudence. The Government has decided that this fiscal space will be split evenly between taxes and expenditure for this budget. The expenditure component, of some €600 million to €750 million, will have to address public sector pay demands, as well as capital and current expenditure. The scale and composition of the 2016 Department of Social Protection budget package is currently under consideration.
I held my annual and extremely useful pre-budget forum on 3 July, during which I and departmental officials listened to the views of almost 40 community and voluntary groups across a range of workshops. It should be noted, however, that at this time no decisions have been made in this regard. I welcome the input of this committee as to which areas of expenditure should be prioritised. I have also recently indicated that I will bring forward proposals to Government to pay a Christmas bonus in 2015.
These are just some of the key issues relating to the Department this year and next year. I thank the Chair for the invitation to this meeting and I look forward to our discussion.