Skip to main content
Normal View

Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands debate -
Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Pre-Budget Submissions: Discussion with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Family Carers Ireland

I remind members of the joint committee that in order for this meeting to be duly constituted, they are required to join the meeting remotely from within the defined precincts of the Leinster House campus. Apologies have been received from Senator Róisín Garvey. I ask members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones as they interfere with the recording equipment. As members are participating remotely from their offices, I ask them to click on the raised hand icon, at any point, if they wish to contribute during the proceedings of the meeting and to remain on mute until such time as I call them to speak.

The main item on our agenda is a discussion on the parliamentary budget cycle and this committee's consideration of submitting its own pre-budget submission to the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and the Minister for Social Protection in advance of the autumn budget. The committee has taken the decision that it will specifically submit proposals to Government for consideration as part of the budget 2022 process. Not only will we look at the spending measures but specific recommendations on how to deliver programmes across the Department of Social Protection, which has responsibility for community, rural development and the islands. In this regard the committee recently advertised for public submissions. I thank the stakeholders, groups and individuals who have submitted proposals. These will be hugely beneficial to us in our deliberations. This morning, we will hear from two of the stakeholder groups - the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Family Carers Ireland. Their representatives will give us a further insight into the submissions that we have received.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul throughout the entirety of the pandemic has quietly and professionally provided essential supports, to enhance the supports they traditionally provide, to families right across this country to support the most vulnerable and low-income households in communities. The society received, on average, 440 requests for help every single day during 2020 and, in the first three months of this year, demand increased to 500 requests every day for urgent assistance from individuals and families. Research commissioned by the society has shown that 43% of people reported experiencing at least one form of financial strain due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a quarter of them cut back on food or utilities, and 14% are behind with paying bills.

In terms of Family Carers Ireland, there are over 500,000 family carers in Ireland so that is one in every three households. As I have said before, carers are the hidden leg of the health service yet they are often forgotten about. In the past 14 months the pandemic has been incredibly difficult for family carers. It is not just the worry that the vulnerable person or persons being cared for will get sick but if the carer gets sick as a result of Covid then, for example, the older person being cared for or the person with a disability will be forced into hospital or long-term care thus putting further pressure on the already overstretched health system. With that in mind, and in addition to their written submissions, the findings from Family Carers Ireland's survey, entitled Caring Through Covid that explored the experience of 1,307 family carers during the Covid-19 pandemic, will also be examined. I welcome Dr. Tricia Keilthy, head of social justice and policy, and Ms Issy Petrie, research and policy officer, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; and, Ms Clare Duffy, policy and public affairs manager, and Ms Catherine Cox, head of communications and policy, Family Carers Ireland. They are all very welcome.

Members of the committees and the Houses have absolute privilege in respect of the statements made before either House of the Oireachtas or before the committee. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses present on the precincts of Leinster House are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are required to give to the committee.

If, in the course of committee proceedings, a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and he or she continues to do so, he or she is entitled, thereafter, only to qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. The witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside the House, or, an official, by name or in such a way to make him or her identifiable.

I call on Ms Petrie to make her opening statement.

Ms Issy Petrie

The Society of St. Vincent De Paul welcomes the invitation to share our proposals for budget 2022. I will begin by outlining the impact of the pandemic, which provides the immediate context for our priorities and has amplified the difficulties facing those in poverty.

As the largest charity of social concern in Ireland, SVP has continued throughout the pandemic to support low-income households remotely. In 2020, we received over 160,000 requests for help and in the first three months of this year we received more than 45,000 calls from individuals and families struggling to make ends meet on a reduced or inadequate income.

Households are struggling with food and energy poverty, with social isolation and to meet their costs after their rent or mortgage are paid. We also support households who live in temporary accommodation and direct provision centres, and those who are moving into new homes but without the resources to access bedding or household basics. In our experience the pandemic has been hardest for those who are already struggling. Due to the concentration of job losses in certain sectors the financial impacts, in terms of income loss, have been felt most by those who are already on low incomes who had more debt and fewer savings. We commissioned Red C to conduct research and that shows the pandemic has caused financial pressures, including increased household expenditure on basics, an erosion of savings to meet ordinary living expenses, falling behind on bills and being forced to cut back on essentials such as food, heating and electricity. The research found that over a third of one-parent families had cut back on heating or fallen behind on bills, and a quarter had cut back on food due to the cost. Also, 42% of people who were unable to work due to illness or disability had gone without heating due to the financial pressure of the pandemic. The impacts have not been felt evenly and 85% of those who found it difficult to manage financially before Covid have experienced some form of financial strain as a result of the pandemic compared with 23% of those who live comfortably.

Prior to the public health crisis, more than 600,000 people, including 200,000 children, were living below the poverty line. Almost 100,000 of those children were in consistent poverty, so they were also experiencing deprivation. These numbers, and the very high deprivation rates for groups such as lone parents, those who are unemployed and those who are unable to work due to illness and disability show that there is a significant mismatch between the cost of living in Ireland and the incomes of the least well off.

As well as the moral imperative to address this, we published research in 2020 that showed poverty weighs heavily on the public purse, costing the State €4.5 billion per year. This is spending that could be avoided if we invest now in adequate social protection. In that context, we are calling for the social welfare system to progressively realise income adequacy for those using our shared safety net. We propose that the minimum essential standard of living data, produced by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, be used as a benchmark for adequacy. The pandemic unemployment payment and the work of the Department this year have shown how a strong social security system is a vital safety net and a public service of which we should be proud. However, social welfare that provides an income below a minimum essential standard of living and meets only very basic needs, can instead contribute to locking people in a cycle of poverty without adequate means to access opportunities or participate fully in society. Adequate social welfare helps people reconnect to the world of work and allows people to live in dignity. This is not only what SVP believes is necessary but 96.7% of the members of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality also agreed that we should set social protection payments or supports at a level that lifts people above the poverty line, prevents deprivation and supports an adequate standard of living.

There have not been increases to core social welfare rates in recent budgets. While increases last year in the child payment were very welcome, and are a well-targeted measure, these increases must be accompanied by higher core rates. Without increasing core social welfare rates, many households will be missed and will continue to struggle to make ends meet. Furthermore, child poverty can only be fully addressed when the minimum needs of the entire household are considered.

I will now highlight the situation of lone parent families, who continue to be the group most at risk of poverty in Ireland and the group we help most often at SVP. Research shows that high housing and childcare costs combined with low levels of income mean that it is challenging for many families with children to make ends meet. As well as investing in childcare and housing, we need to ensure that our social protection system is responsive to the needs of lone-parent families. Lone parents face additional challenges because they both the primary earners in and primary carers for their families. We recommend that jobseeker's transition payment be extended until the youngest child turns 18 because this will allow parents to access training and employment opportunities, as well as better in-work income supports.

On energy poverty, our submission outlines the difficulties people have faced over the past year in the context of higher utility bills. However, many were already finding it difficult to keep their homes warm enough. In 2019, of the people living in poverty in Ireland, 15% could not keep their homes warm enough, an increase of almost four percentage points on the previous year. This is why energy poverty must be tackled as part of a just transition. For the Department of Social Protection, we recommend that the fuel allowance be extended to those on the working family payment and those who have been on jobseeker's payments for less than a year, and that the length of the payment be extended to 32 weeks.

The cost of transport is a significant barrier for rural households and the cost of a car, which is vital for so many, is an additional €59 a week. We need to make sure that Local Link and an integrated rural transport system provides an accessible and affordable service throughout Ireland.

Finally, we recommend that poverty-proofing be embedded as an integral part of the policymaking process, rather than an exercise that takes place after a policy has been adopted. All Departments need to produce an assessment of measures that relate to their own areas so we can see the impact of all policy and budgetary decisions. A just recovery from the pandemic must begin with investing in our essential services, including social protection. Everyone should be guaranteed an adequate income in order to participate fully in society, whether they are in work or not. This is an investment in the long-term resilience of families and individuals and is vital to protect more people from poverty.

I thank Ms Petrie. I now call Ms Cox from Family Carers Ireland to make her opening address.

Ms Catherine Cox

On behalf of myself and my colleague, Clare Duffy, I thank the committee for inviting us here today to present our estimates in respect of budget 2022. Our written submission, which members have received, provides an overview of the policy context within which informal care is situated in Ireland and the increasing dependence on family carers to meet the demand for long-term care and support for the reorientation of the healthcare system away from institutional care and towards primary and community-based care. It also provides a summary of our key proposals relevant to the committee’s work that Family Carers Ireland would like to see delivered in budget 2022.

I will give a brief background on Family Carers Ireland. We are the national charity that supports family carers who care for loved ones, be they a child with a disability, an older person, or an adult with intellectual or physical disability. As the Chairman stated, we are aware that there are more than 500,000 family carers in Ireland who provide a huge level of care and save the State €20 billion per year. This is the cost of replacement care.

The past 12 months have been particularly difficult for everybody in society but it has been a very difficult time for family carers. They have witnessed their services and supports for their loved ones depleted and, in many cases, completely eradicated. The blanket withdrawal of supports such as home care, respite, personal assistance hours and residential care during lockdown forced many family carers to care alone, around the clock and without the support of extended family and friends. Parents of children with a disability lost the routine and relief of school, day services and essential therapies. This left them in a situation where they were obliged to watch their children regress before their eyes. Older carers with underlying health conditions were expected to cocoon. As a result they became both isolated and reliant on others. Even carers who were doing quite well prior to the pandemic became mentally and physically drained. Many of them are now struggling in their caring roles. In April of last year, Family Carers Ireland’s conducted a survey, Caring Through Covid, which explored the experiences of more than 1,300 family carers and the nature of their caring situations during the pandemic. The research found that the pandemic is having a profound impact on the majority of carers’ lives. Not only are they caring without practical supports, they are also struggling financially and are seriously worried about what the future holds for them and the people they care for. Despite this, family carers have continued to care for their loved ones, around the clock, to ensure that they stay safe and out of hospital.

Family carers have played a significant role in suppressing the virus in our communities but rather than being acknowledged and applauded, they have felt largely ignored and overlooked throughout the pandemic. This is particularly the case when they were not provided with personal protective equipment or with priority testing, nor were they considered a priority for vaccinations. The vaccination issue is probably the biggest upset for so many carers across the past year. Family carers continue to feel this abandonment despite the statement in the programme for Government that "Family carers are the backbone of care provision in Ireland. They deserve support and recognition from Government." They have not had this over the past year. On a more positive note, however, as we emerge from this pandemic, we believe there is a real opportunity for Government to show family carers that it does care and to recognise their work.

This can be done in a number of ways by implementing three of the key commitments set out in the programme for Government, which are outlined in our submission. The first is to deliver the carers' guarantee proposal. This will guarantee the delivery of a core basket of services to family carers right across the country regardless of where they live. These services include emergency respite, intensive one-to-one support for carers in crisis, training for family carers, targeted support groups and networks and access to the information and advocacy clinics in their local community. While this will be led by the Department of Health, the carer guarantee is very relevant to the work of this committee given its aim of ensuring that all family carers have access to services regardless of where they live, whether in the heart of Dublin or in rural Connemara. As such, this has the potential to end the postcode lottery of services and supports that we currently see across Ireland.

Our second request is the funding of a refreshed national carers' strategy for family carers. Given the period of significant health reform we are now in, including the implementation of Sláintecare and the creation of a statutory home care scheme, both of which are predicated on the provision of care in the home, it is critical that the national carers' strategy is developed as a matter of urgency. We need ring-fenced funding to ensure its delivery. Again, the national carers' strategy straddles most Departments addressing crucial issues such as housing, transport, education and access to equipment and vital therapies and supports, many of which, again, have been eradicated over the past year.

Our last key point is to call for the introduction of a dedicated lifetime carer’s pension for carers who have provided care for more than 20 years. Rather than penalise this group of carers we need to recognise them. We are pleased that we have seen progress on this issue in the last number of months and we hope to see that continue.

Last, but most important from a social protection perspective, we have to see reform of the means test, income disregards and allowable deductions for carer's allowance payments in the short term. Taking a longer-term view, we would like to see this payment reclassified to one which is neither means tested nor taxable, similar to the foster care payment we have at the moment.

To end, it is apt to quote from President Higgins's May Day speech just this week, where he stated "Our definition of work must change, ... evolve and widen, to incorporate the ... role of ... carers as essential workers; workers far too long undervalued by society". Once again, I thank the committee for the invitation to be here today and we look forward to questions.

I thank Ms Cox. I ask her to have a word with our technical people because there seems to be a problem with the audio on her headset. We have two sets of witnesses and a number of members who wish to contribute. We will have to keep to the five-minute time limit. I have no difficulty in letting people back in again later on in the meeting but I would appreciate it if members could keep to five minutes, allowing time within that for witnesses to respond.

In the first instance, I thank the witnesses for their presentations and detailed submissions. There is a huge amount in them for us to digest and work on and, hopefully, much of that will make its way into our final pre-budget submission. It is only right to say that, surely, of all the people affected in the pandemic, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Family Carers Ireland are voices for some of those who have been most affected. This is particularly the case with lone parents when they were trying to cope with home schooling and the effect it must have had on their work, mental health and the pressure they are under. Parenting within our household was challenging, but for a lone parent, particularly somebody struggling with poverty, it must have been close to unbearable. Similarly, it must have been so difficult for carers, without the ability to access services or respite, to see light at the end of the tunnel. I absolutely accept that sense of hurt put across by Ms Cox in possibly feeling abandoned during the pandemic.

I will direct my first questions to Ms Petrie. We have identified those groups most at risk, which tend to be children living in poverty, lone parents and people living with disability. These tend to be the people at most risk of persistent poverty. Last year's budget went down the road of targeted supports about which I see much discussion. Ms Petrie cited the Citizens' Assembly recommendation on social welfare payments. I have a two-pronged question on this. In terms of tackling poverty in the groups to which the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is providing services, in Ms Petrie's opinion is it better to do this through targeted measures, as was attempted in the last budget, or is raising social welfare payments across the board a more effective way of tackling the problem? That is a thorny issue.

If we are looking at an increase in the base rates, they should be index-linked and should not be a political football year on year, where we discuss the fiver in the pension or the fiver in the base rate. If we are to look at setting a new baseline for our social welfare payments, where would the Society of St. Vincent de Paul pitch that? Would it be pitched at a percentage of the average industrial wage or does the society have a set figure in mind in terms of, for example, the €203 for jobseeker's allowance? I will leave it at that. There is enough in that question to allow Ms Petrie time to reply.

Ms Issy Petrie

In terms of targeting versus universal increases, both contribute to the total adequacy of the household income. There is a different balance in building up towards adequacy, depending on the household. Targeted increases are obviously very important in recognising specific costs, such as the specific costs of a child; we were pleased to see high rates introduced for older children a couple of years ago. However, increasing core social welfare rates is vital to recognising that it is the total household adequacy that is responsible for lifting families out of poverty.

As regards setting those rates, we very much advocate benchmarking them to the minimum essential standard of living as calculated by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, because that empirically reflects the actual cost of living. Anything short of that builds in an ongoing inadequacy week after week. That gap between adequacy and income is coming in as a cost and that cost builds up week after week. Looking back at last year's figures, the Vincentian partnership recommended an increase to the core rate of around €10. That was to begin a pathway to reaching full adequacy by 2025. Since we did not get that, we would obviously have to go further this year in order to continue on that pathway of reaching adequacy by 2025. Does Ms Kielthy want to add anything to that?

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

To add to what Ms Petrie said in terms of appropriate benchmarks, average wages would be one option to look at. As Ms Petrie pointed out, we need to ensure that people are able to meet their living costs and that there is no gap between income and the cost of a minimum essential standard of living because that is what causes people to cut back and go without. That would be our experience in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In terms of addressing the entire adequacy of the household, we cannot address child poverty unless we address adult rates and they are well below what is required to meet a minimum standard of living. They have remained at €203 for a number of years, which causes people on the lowest incomes to fall even further behind. In this budget, we need to build on the need to address adequacy by increasing core social welfare rates as well as the targeted supports for children and people living alone and to recognise the cost of disability.

I have umpteen other questions but I will wait my turn at the end if possible.

Do Ms Cox or Ms Duffy wish to add anything?

Ms Clare Duffy

It is a whole different discussion when it comes to carers and adequacy because carers are the only group within the social welfare system who if they are "lucky" enough to get a social welfare payment or carer's allowance, must provide full-time care to get it, which is at least 35 hours per week. Many carers provide multiples of that. It is almost a different question when it comes to adequacy. What we said in our submission is that we need to begin the discussion around the adequacy of the carer's allowance. Carer's allowance is €219 per week at a maximum rate. Almost half of the 89,000 carers who receive carer's allowance do not get the full amount. They get a reduced amount because they or their partner have other means. In very many cases, carers providing full-time care are on less than the basic social welfare rate and yet for that, they must provide full-time care so we need to begin a whole other conversation around adequacy rather than just measuring it in poverty.

I thank the witnesses for the submissions from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Family Carers Association. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an organisation I would have worked closely with when I worked for Tusla in family support and I know the amazing work the society does. Can the witnesses talk about the impact of Covid on people who would have been in work previously but are now on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and are facing a reduction in that payment in the coming weeks and months? Many people with whom I would have spoken have lost a lot of their savings. They have used a lot of their savings up and are really struggling to make ends meet and meet the costs of rent, mortgages and all of those payments people face.

The witnesses spoke about just transition. It is a really important issue because many people on the margins and people who are really struggling are now faced with higher bills when winter arrives. We have strange weather. Somebody coming in this morning would have known that it was absolutely freezing. People will be putting the heating on as children are going to school, which is impacting severely on people. I would be very concerned that as carbon taxes on individuals increase, people must cope with these taxes but there is a section of society composed of working families who simply will not be able to pay them, particularly those who use cars.

Regarding funding for policy, community development is one of my briefs. I was interested in policy development. I read that there is a review in terms of funding for developing social policy. Why would the witnesses be concerned that this funding would be cut because I know they mentioned it? Is this a significant concern for the witnesses or are they just flagging that?

I worked as a family support worker for Tusla and would have come across very many children and teenagers who are caring for adults. I note that there are no statistics I have seen so far relating to this so how big do the witnesses think this problem is? I know we are talking about funding but there is no funding for young people to help them to care for their parents who are in need.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I might take the Deputy's question on the PUP and some of the difficulties people are facing in our experience and then hand over to Ms Petrie to answer the question about just transition. We cannot underestimate the important role the PUP has played in keeping households afloat, particularly in the initial stages of lockdown. In our experience, we are finding families whose savings are gone and are now faced with long-term unemployment. Our concern is that if the payment is unwound too quickly, people will be left in a very difficult situation. This also raises the point we made earlier about ensuring that existing social welfare payments are adequate enough to meet the cost of a minimum need for households across the board. We are quite concerned about levels of personal debt and problem debt arising from the pandemic. We have had a lot of calls from people who are struggling with their utility bills and rent arrears. There are protections for people who have been impacted by Covid in respect of rent arrears but there is no financial mechanism to help people to bridge the gap between what they are owed and what the landlord requires in terms of the property. We would like to see the Departments of Social Protection and Housing, Local Government and Heritage work together to identify families and households with significant rent arrears and put additional supports in place because we do not want the public health crisis to be followed by a deeper housing crisis when we are already battling a housing crisis. The issue of utility arrears came through quite strongly in the Red C research we commissioned but it is also coming up in data from the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. The commission is seeing an increase in customers in arrears in respect of gas bills. We need to see suppliers and the Government working together to address levels of debt. This highlights the need to ensure that the fuel allowance is adequate and available to all households experiencing energy poverty. At the moment, it is quite means-tested and families in receipt of the working family payment and the newly unemployed cannot access it but it is a very important form of support for households.

Ms Issy Petrie

In respect of just transition, we believe it is really important that from the outset, the principle that the poorest do not end up paying the most for the transition and are protected from the costs of transition as far as possible is recognised. In terms of the carbon tax, it is important that the fuel allowance, which is used to balance out that additional cost, reaches all those who need it - those on the working family payment and jobseeker's payments for less than a year. We also think there is a strong argument for exploring the feasibility of a social energy tariff and how that would work in the Irish market. There are many different forms that could take and that would need to be looked into. It involves the different implications of the different options but removing the costs of environmental taxes and levies from those in energy poverty and those on the lowest incomes would be an option for lifting the weight of the carbon tax. The PSO levy offers a way for those who simply do not have room in their budgets for their energy costs to keep incrementally going up and up as we transition to green energy, which is so important and brings a lot of opportunities. The principle that the poorest do not pay the most for it needs to be embedded in that transition.

Ms Catherine Cox

I will answer the Deputy's question about young carers. We have very recent figures on this subject and we know there are 69,000 young carers under the age of 18 in this country, which is a huge figure.

Many of them are not providing primary care for loved ones but are supporting their families, perhaps caring for a sibling, but there are also young carers out there who are primary carers under the age of 18. The Deputy is right: there are very inadequate supports for young carers across the country. Scotland has 22 young carer officers in Glasgow alone. Here we have one and he works with Family Carers Ireland so he is trying to cover the whole country. Early intervention, such as support for these people in schools to allow them to move on to third level education, is so important. Those supports are not there. The survey carried out last year showed that, for example, young carers are more likely to be bullied than other young people their age. They may also miss out on schooling because they have to care at home. It may be difficult for them to study at home if there is caring going on in the family. They can be vulnerable as a result, which is why it is so important the adequate supports are put in place for them.

The next member is Deputy Ó Cuív.

I asked a question about the funding for policy development.

Ms Clare Duffy

In our submission to the committee, we refer to funding that is provided for under the Department of Rural and Community Development. It is funding that has gone to the community and voluntary pillar of social partnership and it funds people such as me and other people around this table to try to help with policy development. That scheme of funding is not a huge pot of money but it was due to be reviewed over recent years. Thanks be to God it was not reviewed, but this year the Department said it definitely would be. However, we have learned probably within the past week or two that the Department will delay that review or that evaluation, so perhaps we need not worry about that as much as we were worrying about it when we were drafting our submission.

That is brilliant. I thank the witnesses. I appreciate that.

I call Deputy Ó Cuív. Can Deputy Ó Cuív hear me? We will move on to Deputy Kerrane and come back to Deputy Ó Cuív.

If I have any further questions, may I come back in?

Yes. There is no problem at all.

I cannot hear the Chairman.

Deputy Kerrane, can you hear me? You have the floor.

The Chairman must be muted.

I wonder when we will get back to having meetings in the committee rooms.

You can say that again. Can either Deputy Kerrane or Deputy Ó Cuív hear me? They cannot hear me at all.

We are all on the vaccines.

Can Deputy Ó Cuív hear me?

We can hear you now.

We do not have Deputy Ó Cuív, so Deputy Kerrane followed by-----

I can hear the Chairman.

Deputy Ó Cuív followed by Deputy Kerrane then. I apologise.

If Deputy Kerrane wants to go first, I am easy. I have a few very specific questions. I will get down to nuts and bolts because we know what happens on budget day: the Government announces figures. I wish to ask two questions about the carer's allowance. First, have the witnesses any calculation as to how many people would get the full-rate carer's allowance if the disregard were increased to €500 for a single person and €1,000 for a couple from the present €332 and €665, respectively? It would be very useful to get a figure in that regard. Second, I want that disregard in the capital assessment because, as all my colleagues on the committee know, I have an obsession with the way in which the capital assessment is done. It is totally bizarre right across the schemes. My view - and I will be straight with the carers and everybody else - is that if the capital assessment system is to be changed, it has to be changed across the board, for all schemes. Otherwise, we will get people trying to get from one scheme to another. It will not work. A thing like this has to be done evenly.

Only one thing puzzled me earlier. I liked Family Carers Ireland's proposal. I thought, "Very nice, the €50,000 is grand and is exempt." There is the €10,000 at €1 and the next €10,000 at €2, but I could not understand why Family Carers Ireland left the €4 rate in there. That is 20% interest. Are the witnesses from Family Carers Ireland telling me that at the bank you can get 20% interest? They would be surprised who gets caught on this one, for example, rural communities in which a young couple have built their own house. The parents have died and left the old farmhouse. It might not be in great nick but it would be worth €100,000 or €120,000 because any house in a country area is worth a lot of money now. There are people who have just saved money and people who have got awards. There are all sorts of ways people can have €100,000 or €120,000. It is not an awful lot of money in a lifetime. As was rightly pointed out, when a person are caring, that is not a profession. We should forget about calling it a profession. It is a vocation into which people enter, in most cases, voluntarily. In most cases the family circumstances determine that. Has there been any thought about this or was Family Carers Ireland afraid it would be a step too far? It mounts up incredibly fast. Once you go over whatever ceiling is set, whack, you hit this massive wall. It works very badly against those being cared for as well - for example, people on disability allowance - if parents die and leave the house between two or three kids and they get their share out of it. Suddenly, they are whacked completely in respect of it. I know this is kind of nitty-gritty but this is what really makes the difference for the people who come into our constituency clinics.

May I ask the St. Vincent de Paul about lone parents? All the surveys the Department has carried out highlight the fact that lone parents are the most disadvantaged group in society. That is well known in the Department and has been well known for a long time. For many people on HAP, the contributions they make as individuals amount to more than the local authority contributions. In other words, they have to make extra contributions or they cannot get the properties. Is the SVP finding that this is causing huge poverty among people? Do the witnesses understand what I am saying? If a person goes on the HAP scheme, in many cases, as well as paying the statutory contribution - in other words, the equivalent of the local authority rent - he or she will have to and is allowed to make an extra payment to the landlord in order to get the property. In most cases, certainly in Galway city, an individual will wind up paying that extra payment or he or she will not get a property and will be on the street. That seems to me to be causing an awful lot of poverty among people in general, but particularly people such as those in one-parent families. Is the SVP coming across that?

I have another question for the SVP. As well as the rates, one issue that comes across to me is that the old discretionary emergency payment is gone and that everything now is systemised into something and a means assessment is done. However, people could be very short of money for reasons other than the money coming into the house. They could have a partner who has a gambling addiction, a drink addiction or any other addiction. There could be all sorts of reasons a person runs out of cash. In the old days the community welfare officer knew this on a personal basis and could bail the person out. That seems all to be gone and we do not seem to have any safety net for the crisis situations. Is the SVP coming across more and more people who are literally without money? It is not as simple a thing as money not coming in. In some cases the person who needs the money is not getting it.

I have just one final point. I am very interested in the cost-of-living basis for assessing the adequacy of the average wage. I am very much against index-linking because that keeps people at the same level of poverty they are at all the time. There has to be a way of indexing it against other parameters that make sure that if we are way behind with our social welfare rates, we have our target to catch up with, even if it is not done in one year.

We might start with Family Carers Ireland on this occasion.

Ms Clare Duffy

I thank Deputy Ó Cuív. I know from previous discussions with him that he knows carer's allowance inside out, and I respect that fully. In response to his first question - if the income disregard changed for carer's allowance, how many more people would be caught in the net - it is funny because Ms Keilthy and I were just talking before this meeting started about the difficulty capturing that type of information. To be honest, we do not know. What we do know, however, is that we have a scheme that is not means-tested and for which only full-time carers are eligible to apply, and that is the annual carer's support grant. We know that the total number of people who received that last year was 116,000 so we know it probably would not exceed that. At the minute we have 89,000 people in receipt of carer's allowance. Half of those, as I have already mentioned, are on a reduced rate because they have some other form of means.

That tells me at least half of those 89,000 people would benefit from an increase in the income disregard. We can take that cap as being the 116,000 people who get the annual carer's support grant but it is one for the Parliamentary Budget Office to figure out because we do not have the data. The Deputy's next question-----

There are two issues here. It is like the farmer in the fair; it is not just what one would like to get for the beast when one is selling it but it is what one thinks is a reasonable pitch. We will have to try to make the reasonable pitch as a committee if Ms Duffy understands me.

Ms Clare Duffy


Would Ms Duffy consider that going, for example, to €500 and €1,000 and changing the cap would be significant?

Ms Clare Duffy

I know Deputy Kerrane was involved in this or had brought it about. In the review the Department did on carer's allowance, it estimated that any increase in the income disregard for carer's allowance up to the level of average industrial earnings, which it committed to doing towards 2016, would cost €55 million. Those were the Department's figures. That is probably an overestimation but those were the figures the Department put out.

I want to go back to the Deputy's second question, which was interesting. When he was asking the question I was wondering if I would tell the truth or tell a lie and say that I thought about changing the €4 down to €3. It did not dawn on me to do so. The Deputy is right that it is €1 in the first €10,000, €2 in the second €10,000 and then it goes up to €4. The Deputy is right and it is a valid point. The reason we asked for the capital disregard to be increased from €20,000 to €50,000 is that it is in line with the disability allowance, which allows that so we felt the precedent had been set. The Deputy is right about the capital disregard at €20,000 for families, particularly parents who are caring for an adult child. They scrimp, save and do without in order to make provision for that child or adult child when they are no longer there and a capital disregard of €20,000 is nothing for them. We have had that discussion with the Commission on Pensions as well. The Deputy made a very valid point on why €4 may not be the best option and €3 might have been the more obvious choice. I will take that on board.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

We fully agree with Deputy Ó Cuív's assessment on HAP. We routinely come across such situations where households are put under significant financial pressure to pay the top-up. I can think of one example where a lone parent was in minimum wage employment and was paying a direct top-up of €100 per week to her landlord. This causes awful difficulties for families. It puts them at risk of becoming homeless and it causes them to cut back on basics, such as food and utilities. That is the main reason people approach St. Vincent de Paul for help. We will again be emphasising the need for more social housing that is built or acquired by the local authorities or approved housing bodies in our submission to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We also need to look at the HAP limits and on whether they are reflective of market rents. If not, we need to look at increasing those. At the same time we must be mindful of the need for rent certainty measures so that HAP is not inflating rents. We also need to consider expanding homeless HAP provision to all counties outside Dublin and Cork because we are seeing more families in smaller towns and other areas being impacted by the HAP top-up. It is causing difficulties across the country.

We have seen the impact of the closure of some local offices and how that has impacted the access that households have to exceptional needs payments or urgent needs payments when they need them at times of crisis. We particularly see the impact it has on people who had extra health and hospital charges prior to Covid, including travel. It is quite difficult to get access to that payment on short notice if one needs to ring up or if one cannot visit the local office. That causes difficulty for people. It is a form of support and we have a close relationship with community welfare officers on the ground in terms of links there but we come across gaps in what the maximum a community welfare officer will pay is and what the cost of white goods is, for example. Another big factor is the cost of funerals and bereavement. That can cause significant difficulties for households and a lot of the support provided by the community welfare offices, which is helpful, is not adequate in meeting the real cost of bereavement and funerals. Another issue we see routinely is that when someone moves into new housing, which is great, a lot of the local authority housing is not kitted out with flooring or white goods and this also causes great difficulties for low-income households. The community welfare office grant that is provided does not cover the full cost of that either so that is where St. Vincent de Paul often has to stand in and provide support.

The final point was on the cost of living and the minimum essential standard of living data. The gap between income from social welfare and the cost of a minimum essential standard of living for adults is €47 per week and for a lone parent the gap can be up to €80 per week. When we talk about our social welfare rates, therefore, we need to ensure they are evidence-based and we need to progressively realise that we need to be more ambitious in where we see our social welfare and social protection system providing support. As was mentioned, the Citizens' Assembly strongly supports a social protection system that provides a decent and adequate standard of living for people and prevents poverty. We outlined in our submission that we need an €8 increase in core social welfare rates but we also need proportionate increases for children over and under 12. We will provide costings in our full pre-budget submission later this year. We need to give a reminder of the cost of not investing in people's incomes. Research that we published shows that the State spends €4.5 billion every year through our public services dealing with the consequences of poverty on people's lives.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and for the work they do every day for those they represent. I have a number of questions for all the witnesses. Benchmarking all social welfare rates across the board to the minimum essential standard of living is critical. On top of that, the cost of disability and carers have to be considered. That is what makes both of those groups unique, particularly carers because there is a cost of care that is not being recognised.

I want to ask St. Vincent de Paul about poverty. This is something that needs to be tackled in a big way and there needs to be a major focus on it, particularly as we come out of Covid as unfortunately it will no doubt have increased. What steps can be taken, aside from the minimum essential standard of living, the poverty proofing and the other steps that are detailed in its opening statement? Is there anything else the Oireachtas can do on poverty? Is there anything that has been done internationally that has been proven to work?

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has put a lot of emphasis on the urgent and exceptional needs payments, particularly when we spoke about fuel costs, utility bills and debt. St. Vincent de Paul is getting an awful lot of calls but is it getting any feedback from people who might have been in touch with their community welfare officer, who have applied and who have not been able to get the payment? The difficulty we have is that we only get the figures for the number of people who have got an exceptional needs payment or an urgent needs payment. We do not get the total number who applied and therefore, the number who have been refused. It is a messy situation whereby one community welfare officer will give something and another would not. The way it is made up is problematic.

On lone parents, child maintenance is crucial and it has been proven that where it is paid it does and can lift children out of poverty. I hope that when the maintenance review group reports - towards the end of the year apparently - it will seek a statutory child maintenance service. That is really important for lone parent families.

Of the calls that the St. Vincent de Paul has received last year and this year, does it have any further information on a breakdown on those who are at work or not at work and on the supports they are looking for?

I have a number of quick questions for Family Carers Ireland. Has it had any engagement on the national carers strategy? The last strategy was in 2012, which is a long time ago. There was an understanding at that stage that money was tight and carers said they would step back and wait. They did so and unfortunately they are still waiting. On the total contributions approach that has been introduced for the State pension, has Family Carers Ireland seen any improvement or has it received any feedback on improvement to that system for carers? Is the option of paying the carer's support grant in two instalments something that Family Carers Ireland will look for?

I spoke to a carer the other day who raised with me something that has not been raised in quite a while, which is the bin waiver for those with medical incontinence. Is this an issue that is raised with the witnesses?

The last comment is something close to my own heart, as Ms Duffy is aware, and I am sure she will address it in her response.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I thank Deputy Kerrane. On her first question on poverty reduction measures, obviously social protection is a core component of this and we need to ensure people have enough income. A lack of income is the main driver of poverty among households. We also need to ensure people have access to good quality services. This is why a whole-of-government approach is so important. This is what is laid out in the roadmap for social inclusion, into which we are feeding as part of our work.

It is very important when we think about families, and particularly child poverty, that we ensure access to good quality affordable childcare. We also need to ensure people have access to affordable housing, which means increasing the output of social and affordable housing. We also need to ensure children can access education on an equal footing. We want to see genuinely free primary and secondary education. We need significant investment in schemes such as those for book rentals and hot school meals, and we need an end to voluntary contributions through providing adequate funding to schools. This is what we will outline in our submission to the Department of Education later this year.

In other countries, and in the climate action Bill, we have seen the need to legislate for targets. We have poverty targets but, for example, New Zealand and Scotland have legislated to reduce and end child poverty. This is a very important mechanism to ensure we all work towards the same goal of ultimately eliminating child poverty.

Other suggestions we have made on what the Oireachtas can do include that we would love and welcome an Oireachtas committee looking at poverty and inequality. We have seen the disproportionate impact of Covid on people living in poverty and we expect to see an increase in poverty. It will be more important than ever to ensure those who experience it and are impacted by it are given a voice and their needs and experiences are highlighted in the work of our Oireachtas and elected representatives.

In terms of the fuel allowance, we wrote to the Minister for Social Protection in January when we saw that people on prepaid meters in particular were really struggling to keep their homes warm. They did not have enough money to top up the meters. We asked for an increase in the fuel allowance or an extension of the period. Unfortunately, this did not happen. We directed people to community welfare officers who were able to provide support for energy payments. The community welfare officers have discretion, which in one way is an advantage but it can be a disadvantage if the support is not given on a regular basis to people who are struggling. The restrictions, which meant people could not go into the office, also hindered access to the payment. It is still there and is still an important form of support for people.

Child maintenance is very important. We have made a submission to the review group on child maintenance. In other countries where there is a statutory child maintenance system that is guaranteed, and where it is not means tested and fully passed through to the child, there is a significant decrease in child poverty and this is also very important.

With regard to the profile of people requesting our help, 70% of our calls come from households with children and the majority of these are headed by one parent. We know this is because of the very high rates of poverty among one-parent families. This year we have seen an increase in calls from people who had not requested our support previously. These are people who have been on the pandemic unemployment payment for a long time and are facing issues with debt. Their savings are gone and there is concern about long-term unemployment. As we emerge from this crisis we must ensure that issues relating to poverty and inequality are top of the agenda from our point of view.

Ms Catherine Cox

Deputy Kerrane is correct with regard to the national carers strategy. We got the first strategy in 2012 and at the time it was cost neutral. As the Deputy said, carers held out and anything that could be done in that strategy was done. There is a commitment in the programme for Government for a refreshed strategy. We have engaged on this with Department of Health officials and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. We sent a proposal for a new strategy in September or October to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and the Department. We have not really seen much progress on this, to be honest. We would like any support the committee could give us to progress it. The strategy straddles all Departments. It looks at housing, access to equipment and therapies for children and adults. It is crucial that we get it and it is promised in the programme for Government.

The other issue raised is the carers' support grant being paid in two instalments. There are different schools of thought on this and Ms Duffy and I differ slightly on it. We put this out to carers very recently through an open forum and the unanimous feedback was that carers do not want it paid in two instalments. Having said this, there are arguments as to why it would be beneficial to do it. At present, it is not one of our asks. We took it out of our most recent pre-budget submission. We will review it again because there is a situation whereby unless people are caring in the second week in June they will not get the grant for the previous year whereas if it were done in two instalments they might get half the grant. There are arguments for and against it. It is not a priority for us at present but we will review it again. I will hand over to Ms Duffy to respond on the bin waiver.

Ms Clare Duffy

I get all the nice questions and the difficult ones to answer. Deputy Kerrane is absolutely right that three or four years ago there was a huge issue whereby people were going to be charged depending on the weight of their bins and there was uproar. Joe Duffy fuelled a lot of that uproar. People who care for someone who is incontinent will have much heavier bins. When the Chair was Minister with responsibility for the environment he managed to secure €7 million to put aside for an annual allowance of €75 credit on the waste collection bin for households where incontinence care was provided. Despite not months but years of trying we could not make it work. The issue was identifying households where incontinence care was provided. We could identify those households in the public system through public health nurses who provided incontinence pads but that left out all of the people who bought pads privately. The public health nurses and the HSE rightly did not want to share data on who was receiving incontinence pads from them. In the midst of all of this we had GDPR. I do not know where the €7 million is now but every effort was made to address the issue. The other significant thing that happened was a rowback on pay by weight and households now have much more choice as to how they pay for their bins.

The Deputy's question on the total contributions approach and whether we have seen an improvement appears to be a simple question but it is complicated. The Deputy is absolutely right that the main beneficiaries of the total contributions approach are meant to be family carers. It has improved many of the legacy pension issues that existed for carers who take shorter periods of time out of the workforce to provide care. If I take two or three years out of the workforce to care from my mother, the total contributions approach will very neatly plug that hole in my record. If I take eight or nine years, it will still plug that hole. Where the difficulty arises is for lifetime carers who have cared for more than 20 years. It puts them beyond the protection of the homemaker's scheme or the home caring periods allowed under the total contributions approach and they are not protected. This is why in our written submission and oral presentation to the Commission on Pensions we called for a dedicated pension for lifetime family carers who care for long periods.

As part of that submission we are saying, for people who take shorter periods out of the workforce a total contributions approach or TCA is quite a good solution.

I thank Ms Duffy for providing clarity on the incontinence issue, which is hugely frustrating. My understanding is that the €7 million remains within the environment fund for this specific purpose, with a credit per home of €75. The difficulty in issuing the payment to people relates to the GDPR and other data issues. The committee may revisit this issue as part of its pre-budget submission because it is frustrating. Ms Duffy is correct to say that the decision I, as Minister, took to move from pay-by-weight to pay-by-use provides a certain amount of flexibility that does ease the financial strain on that cohort of families. The Department and its officials are anxious to resolve this matter, if they can, and the committee may return to it.

I thank both organisations for their presentations and submissions. I also thank them very much for all the work they do every day of the week.

In the context of the carers' guarantee in the programme for Government, which would allow all family carers access to a complete range of services regardless of where they live, will our guests explain what this would mean to family carers? How would it improve their quality of life? What engagement has Family Carers Ireland had with the Government? Has it made submissions or met officials? Has it received any feedback? The first anniversary of the programme for Government is approaching. In that context, it would be encouraging if our guests could report some progress on that. I had other questions but they have already been covered.

Ms Catherine Cox

The services and supports carers would see as important include access to emergency respite in their communities when an emergency happens. Another support would be access to training. When someone first becomes a carer, he or she very often has never had to care for somebody else, provide intensive care or lift or move someone. A person would get access to that basic training when he or she needs it but also - again, in the community - to more intensive training if he or she is caring for somebody in the end-of-life stage. Other things carers would get access to are advocacy, information and support. The guarantee would provide carers with a core basket of services when they need them in their communities. As an organisation, we would be able to provide that and support them with it. That, in a nutshell, is really what the carers guarantee is about. Importantly, there would also be one-to-one support. For carers who are really in crisis and struggling, we provide one-to-one support. We carry out a well-being assessment and, based on that, we provide an intensive, eight-week support programme that might include counselling for the carer and wider supports for the family.

There has been engagement. We have met with Ministers and with senior officials. The Deputy is right that the programme for Government calls for the carers guarantee to be implemented. A sum of €2 million was allocated in the budget last year but we are still trying to figure out whether it was for the national carers' strategy or the guarantee. It is in the HSE service plan. There is €2 million sitting there that we are trying to get put into the carers guarantee. Hopefully, that will happen in the next few months. Again, any support that the committee could give us in terms of progressing that would be hugely helpful. This funding would end the postcode lottery of services and supports for carers, which would be a huge improvement in services.

A sum of €2 million was provided in the budget. How much will it cost to implement the scheme on a yearly basis?

Ms Catherine Cox

We have costed the scheme. The figure is €5.6 million per annum. The €2 million is there so we need another €3.6 million per year.

Ms Clare Duffy

We have a commitment from the Department of Health that the €2 million that was given last year, albeit it is still missing, is a recurring amount. The Department has also confirmed that it knows that €2 million is not nearly enough to deliver the carers guarantee.

I welcome our guests from the SVP and Family Carers Ireland and thank them for their contributions. I have two questions. How is the poverty line defined and measured? Is it measured on the basis of a combination of housing, income or what? Who defines the poverty line? Is it defined in the same way right across the State or is it the SVP and similar organisation which define it? It has been stated that there are 600,000 households who are below the poverty line.

My second question relates to direct provision. I had presumed that all of those in direct provision are on the same level. It has been mentioned that people in direct provision contact our guests' organisations. Is that because they are treated differently in some places? Why would some people in direct provision contact the SVP while others would not?

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

According to the Central Statistics Office, those who are at risk of poverty or living below the poverty line are defined as people who have incomes that is less than 60% of the median. We also have a consistent poverty measures which capture families and individuals who are also experiencing deprivation. I refer here to those who are on low incomes and who are going without basics like suitable clothing, adequate nutrition and adequate heat. We would also think that the minimum essential standard of living can also be a complementary measure because it captures the cost of living. In other countries, housing costs are subtracted prior to any income being calculated and then that would form part of the definition. In Ireland, we do not include the cost of housing. As I mentioned previously, HAP and HAP top-ups tend to drive poverty among households on low incomes at the moment but that is not captured in our national statistics. So, the measures are primarily income-based and are really important. They allow us to track trends over time and allow comparisons with other European countries but they do not always adequately capture the cost of living in Ireland, which is very high and which causes people to go without.

On direct provision, the supports provided in centres are food and accommodation. What we find is that many households and families with children have the same costs in respect of education. A lot of calls relate to access to education for people who live in direct provision, books, contributions and any other costs that fall on parents at back-to-school time. We found during the lockdown that the digital divide became very prevalent across all households but low-income households in particular. We also found that children and those in third level education living in direct provision who did not have access to digital devices were struggling to keep up with their learning and online studies. Those are the types of requests that we get from people living in direct provision. We made a submission to the expert group on the future model of international protection, chaired by Dr. Catherine Day. We also made a submission to the process relating to the Government White Paper on direct provision in the context of how we can improve living standards and the protection process relating to applications and the processing thereof.

Finally, has St. Vincent de Paul assisted people above the poverty line or is it a case of strictly implementing assistance for families below the poverty line?

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

The only criterion for help from St. Vincent de Paul is need. We carry out an assessment of need, so we look at the income and outgoings of the household. We provide our support on a case-by-case basis, so assistance is not necessarily just provided to those who come within that definition. Some 30% to 35% of our calls come from people experiencing food poverty or who do not have enough income to meet the cost of food. That would be the primary form of support we provide to people. I reiterate, however, that we provide support to people in work and to people in receipt of social welfare payments. Equally, as the Senator mentioned, the majority of the households we assist are those with children, because of the extra costs such families face.

The poverty line does not really come into effect at all then.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

Most of the households we support would be below the poverty line. However, as I said, that can change and it depends on the cost of living, which can vary from one household to the next, depending on whether a household is in local authority housing, in receipt of housing assistance payment, HAP, or is one with a mortgage and owns a home.

I thank Dr. Keilthy.

I call Senator Wall.

I thank the representatives from St. Vincent de Paul and Family Carers Ireland for joining us. I also thank the 500,000 carers in Ireland. It is important that we always thank those people providing care 24-7.

Staying with carers, I have been following up on refusals for carer's allowance recently. The latest figures I have show the rate of refusal at 50%, or even above it. There were some 18,700 applications in 2020, and more than 10,000 of those applications were refused. Mention was made earlier of the means test not having been changed since 2008. Obviously, the committee supports the need for change in that regard, and urgent change. Regarding those refusals of applications for carer's allowance, and in the experience of Family Carers Ireland, do the majority stem from issues with the means test or are some of them connected with the care being given and the length of time involved? I see a combination of those factors in respect of the applications for carer's allowance I deal with through my office. Recently, I had one case concerning a lady who was €9 above the means test limit. She had to adapt her house, improve her heating and change her food supply purchases to enable her to take in and look after her mother. That lady did not qualify for one cent from the State in supports. This is a major issue. I also raise the issue of those carers, the 51%, who get the maximum rate of €219. Perhaps the witnesses might comment regarding the average rate for those who do not get that maximum amounts, and what supports are available to them. I believe the rate can be as low as €10 per week, which is minuscule. It is important that we highlight that people are providing 24-7 care for €10 a week, which is unbelievable in this day and age.

Moving on to the representatives from St. Vincent de Paul, I thank them for everything they do. I will raise some points, including some aspects mentioned earlier. I ask the witnesses to comment on the growth of food banks and soup kitchens. We seem to be seeing food banks and soup kitchens opening in every small town and village. Unfortunately, that is where we are. What is St. Vincent de Paul coming across regarding the situation and the opening of these food banks and soup kitchens? Reference was also made to different social welfare payments. I will highlight one, namely, the clothing allowance. It is exceptional in being set at €100, when someone qualifies for it. However, general practitioners, GPs, are charging anything up to €25 or €30 to sign the form. That is totally wrong, and the situation should be looked at urgently. Equally, the whole area of exceptional needs payments must be examined. I had several cases at the weekend where people were struggling and did not know that they could qualify for an exceptional needs payment, especially older people. That is very important.

I turn now to the worrying figures brought to us this morning by the witnesses regarding the number of children in consistent poverty having grown to almost 100,000. The witnesses already referred to the importance of school meals, and particularly hot meals. The Government has put some funding into this area, but as we get out of this pandemic such school meals are going to be important. This is an aspect that must be targeted. Finally, from a rural point of view I am very interested in the €59 that St. Vincent de Paul referred to in respect of the cost of the car. I ask the witnesses to explain where that figure comes from. I live in rural Ireland and note the problem with rural transport. It is a major issue for all of us.

We might start with the representatives from Family Carers Ireland and then move on to the witnesses from St. Vincent de Paul.

Ms Clare Duffy

I thank the Senator for his questions. I will start with the refusal rate. There has always been a problem with social welfare refusal rates in general. Regarding carer's allowance, however, I will speak honestly and say that in the cases I have dealt with, and I have been dealing with these cases for the last 13 years, what is most needed is good information at the beginning. I refer to carers coming to us before they send in their applications. We can advise and help them with those applications. Applicants are often misinformed and in many of the cases I have dealt with, one of the most common reasons for refusal concerns applicants not providing enough information. I say that quite honestly.

Regarding the reasons for refusals, I most often come across two things, namely, medical need, where the person is not considered sufficiently incapacitated to need full-time care, and the second aspect is the provision of full-time care. To qualify for carer's allowance, it is necessary for the applicant to be providing at least 35 hours of care each week. Those are the two major things we encounter. Again, however, I reiterate that people will greatly increase their chances if they get the right advice at the beginning and fill out the application forms well. I think sometimes there is a misunderstanding about the carer's allowance, and we must remember that it is not awarded because people are caring, but because they are caring full-time. That is a significant body of work. When we are supporting carers in receipt of the carer's allowance, we are not talking about light caring responsibilities. We are, instead, talking about very high-level care.

Turning to the means test, I could not agree with the Senator more. It is incredibly frustrating that the income disregard for carer's allowance has not budged for 13 years. There also does not seem to be any appetite to increase it. In our pre-budget submissions, we have included a proposal to increase the rate from €665 to €900 for a couple, but we actually just want to see the Department begin to increase it and to show an appetite and recognition in that regard. There was a commitment in the Towards 2016 social partnership agreement that the rate of the carer's allowance would keep pace with average industrial earnings. It has not, and it has not even come close to it. The other really interesting thing about carer's allowance, which people might not realise, is that the maximum rate of carer's allowance in 2021 is less than it was in 2009. It is €150 less. We have never recovered from austerity. Therefore, so much is connected with the means test.

The other figure that is interesting for people to know is that in order to qualify as a household for full-rate carer's allowance it is necessary to have a total gross household income of less than €37,500. That is for a two-person household. From €37,500 to €62,000, then, the rate of carer's allowance is tapered. The Senator is absolutely right on this point. When a household income of €62,000 is reached, the carer's allowance is €5 per week. That is all. People will also be getting the carer's support grant and the things that come with it, but that is all. However, to me, those are not wealthy households. They are also often households where either the mother or father has had to give up work in order to provide care. Those households have much higher expenditure because they have additional costs. I had one lady who did not get the carer's allowance because her husband earned €64,000. She had three children with profound disabilities. They had just paid €4,500 to get in a stairlift for their 18-year-old son. That family got nothing because the father was on the extortionate rate of pay of €64,000 gross. Something must be done. If I could leave one thing for this committee to consider in its future work, it would be that point. This issue cannot fall on deaf ears any longer. Something must be done with the income disregard. In addition, as Deputy Ó Cuív said, something must also be done with the capital disregard, because it has not budged in the 13 years I have been knocking around this sector. It has not moved nor is there any appetite to move it.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I will answer Senator Wall's questions on food poverty and exceptional needs payments. I will then pass over to Ms Petrie, who will comment on the cost of a car and how that figure is calculated.

At the start of the pandemic, the issue of food poverty really came to the fore for many organisations and not just St. Vincent de Paul. That was especially the case when households were faced with the extra costs of having children home all day and the resulting extra demands on food budgets. Any increase in household expenditure on basics such as utilities and food has much greater impact on those on lower incomes because a much larger proportion of such incomes goes on those basics.

What we see is that food and the food budget is the one area of discretion people have over their weekly budget, and when times are tough that is what people cut back on. The rent and the utility bills are prioritised and families cut back on food. It is often the parents going without food so their kids can eat. The continuation of the school meals programme during the school closures was a vital form of support for many families. It was really important that that continued, including through the holidays because holiday hunger is a real issue as well. Moving forward, we need to start thinking of school meals as a core form of support for all children, provided in a universal way that is non-stigmatising. It is really important that the European Commission has recommended that all member states adopt an EU child guarantee which would guarantee all children from disadvantaged circumstances access to a hot school meal every day, free education, free childcare and free healthcare as well as access to adequate housing. That is a really important framework going forward and it relates back to Deputy Kerrane's question about what we can do about child poverty.

The exceptional needs payment and the level of support provided according to different needs need to be reviewed to ensure it is reflective of the actual costs and that people are not left with a gap between what the payment is and what the actual cost of their urgent or exceptional payment is. We would like to see that piece of work done. We need to ensure that the system still has discretion but that the levels of payment provided are reflective of the costs faced by households at the moment as well.

I will hand over to Ms Petrie, who will explain more about cars and the cost of rural transport.

Ms Issy Petrie

The €59 in our submission comes from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice's minimum essential standard of living. Within the partnership's research there was a consensus that when people live in a rural area there is the need for a car. Then the partnership goes through and costs the items associated with a car - insurance, periodic maintenance, etc. - and that is then distributed over the year to come up with a minimum essential standard of living. Our recommendation or our priority in that regard is the real investment that is needed in an adequate, accessible and affordable rural transport system to get towards tipping that balance in order that households perhaps will not need a car at some point in the future. Currently, cars are vital for rural dwellers to get to work and to essential appointments. Those data are from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice.

Like other members, I pay a huge tribute to our guest speakers this morning and the incredible work they do. In my part of the country the St. Vincent de Paul and the carers do huge work. I am sure Ms Cox knows Bernie Dowling down there, who does a lot work and week by week is always on to us and the Chairman about things. Particularly in rural areas, where there may be older people living on their own and in not great conditions, the St. Vincent de Paul does great work. These people may not have any close family or a lot of income. The St. Vincent de Paul people never want to be identified - and that is all part of the organisation - but they are very much alert and alerting us to situations if needs be.

I was very interested in the debate this morning about the definition of poverty. May I throw one thing out there? I am not asking the witnesses for a direct answer to this, but maybe they could look at the definition of poverty. In my view, they should add "exceptional circumstances" because the finest of people who can have the finest of incomes and the finest of comforts can for whatever reason fall into a trap. Whether or not they are at fault is not the issue. This brings huge poverty to families. I find it particularly sad when kids suffer in such a situation. Probably because of where they stood in society at one stage, there might not be much sympathy out there for them, but we always have to remember there are innocent parties here and those innocent parties have to be looked after. Again, I acknowledge the St. Vincent de Paul and the carers in this regard. They are very much to the fore. However, we need to look at exceptional circumstances. I am dealing with two cases at the moment. Do not worry, Chairman, I will not mention names or say where they are. One is in the south of the country and one is in the west of the country. People have been suspended from work for minor issues, including from semi-State companies. An investigation has been ongoing for a number of months. They were getting a payment, an allowance, from the company, which has been cut off and now they have been asked to sign up for a jobseeker's payment. The issue, however, is that if they do so, it will threaten their getting their job back in that company. I know one case where people have gone almost four months without income and not knowing where to go. Only in recent weeks that person, through a connection, came to me. The person knows me and knows this person very well. This poor individual has massive bills and is not able to pay anything at the moment. The person has no income. I have got on to the community welfare officer and I think something is going to happen. In all this we must acknowledge in general that community welfare officers and the Department are exceptionally good in extremely sad cases. I want to put that on the public record. We need to put "exceptional circumstances" in the definition of poverty because there are people falling through the net and going through very hard times. It is nobody's fault; it is just the way things fall. Many of those people will never want to look for help.

I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív on HAP payments. I will not rehash the whole thing. It definitely needs to be addressed and dealt with. There is a lot of stress, particularly among lone parents. Deputy Ó Cuív is right about that.

I also support Deputy Kerrane and others on the bin allowance. Ms Duffy referred to this, and I pay tribute to her because I know she put in a lot of effort to get that situation sorted out, particularly for people with children or elderly people who need to use these pads. I can tell the committee that the bills for these people's bins are still huge. They have improved, but it is incredible that in 2021, in Ireland - and I know Ms Duffy sympathises with me on this - we cannot solve this issue. It is incredible that the GDPR and other issues can cause this distress to people. Here we have the political system and a decision made to give the money and we cannot give out the money. These are not the people, by the way, who go down the laneways and byways and dump their material in the countryside. Any of them I deal with pay their bills and they are getting it very hard. We have to make an all-out effort to ensure what Deputy Naughten brought in when he was Minister is distributed to give these people a little relief. If we do not, it is the system failing the most vulnerable, and surely none of us wants to be part of a system like that.

I acknowledge the great work all the witnesses are doing. So many people are looked after. Discussing issues every year and €5 for this and €10 for that and a big Budget Statement is not the way to go forward in tackling poverty. We need a new approach and new ideas. If there is anything else the witnesses think I or my colleagues can lobby for on this, on these issues, I would be more than willing to do it.

We will bring in the St. Vincent de Paul followed by Family Carers Ireland.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I thank Senator Murphy. I fully agree we need to have a broad definition of what poverty means in Ireland. As for the work in the community that SVP does, many of the people who request our help can often point to a single event that led to their current situation which has pushed them into poverty, whether it is the death of a family member, the birth of a child with additional needs, becoming unemployed unexpectedly or a family separation.

There are exceptional circumstances. Every person is unique and has his or her own experience. We really need to reflect that and the lived experience of people and how we talk and define poverty in national policy, as well as in the budgetary process. That is really important.

I agree that we should be proud of the social protection system. It does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to poverty. It does, unfortunately, leave people below the poverty line in many circumstances, and that is why we also need to ensure that we are investing in quality services that reduce the expenditure needs of households so that people have the supports and tools they need to get back into good circumstances and out of poverty and that we move people out of poverty for good.

It is vitally important that we talk more about the HAP payment because the fact that the top-ups are causing so much financial distress for households is often hidden. We must acknowledge that the vast majority of homeless families are headed by someone parenting alone, usually a mother. We must also acknowledge that the impact of family homelessness and the housing crisis is very gendered.

I fully agree that we need to start doing things differently when it comes to addressing poverty. If we look to other countries like New Zealand, for example, it has amended its budgetary legislation to ensure that all decisions that are part of the budgetary process are assessed against their impact on poverty and inequality, ensuring that they are actively reducing it. That is something that we would like to see incorporated into the budgetary process here. There is a lot of scope within the ongoing work in terms of well-being measures that are being undertaken by the Government in that regard.

Ms Catherine Cox

The year has been difficult for everybody but the association has seen many come to it who are suffering financially, which would not have been so much the case prior to last year. That was so much so that we set up what we called a hardship fund. It was funded through the corporate sector, the likes of Irish Life and Tesco because, unfortunately, the funding was not available from the Government. Just last week we paid for a parent to have her child assessed for autism because she would have been waiting two years, were she to go through the health system. Her child wants to get a place in school and cannot get it until an assessment is done. To me, that is shocking. That tells another story of the inadequate services and supports that are there for families, parents and carers. We have seen so many exceptional circumstances in the past year.

I apologise, as I was late coming in so I do not know if the issue I am going to raise has been covered already. I heard reference to the HAP payment and top-ups. I came in halfway through Deputy Ó Cuív's contribution.

I thank the organisations for coming in this morning and giving their expert advice on what needs to be done to prevent poverty as much as possible or to help people to get out of the poverty trap. The pandemic has very clearly exposed the underbelly of society and as a committee we have a big role to play in trying to deal with the issue. I wish to raise two issues.

Recently, a young woman contacted me who is in receipt of a homeless HAP payment. She came from homelessness. She is on the €990 homeless HAP limit. The landlord recently wrote to her to say there will be a 4% increase on her rent. That legislation was brought in by the Government to allow landlords to increase rent in rent pressure zones. She says she cannot afford it and that she can see herself being homeless again. She was told she can negotiate the top-up with her landlord or else go back to the normal HAP because the difficulty is that on the homeless HAP, one cannot transfer. Have the witnesses come across similar situations? When I spoke to people in the homeless HAP section, they said they are seeing it coming through, in particular people on the PUP are having difficulty paying the rent increases. I was trying to figure out how we could deal with that. I do not like to put money into landlords' pockets, but should we argue that if there is a 4% increase in rent, there should be a 4% increase on the HAP to counteract it? I know that would impact on the 15% differential rent contribution the tenant has to pay but it would be less than the 4%. I am trying to figure out in my own head how we should approach that because I think it might become more of an issue. Obviously rent caps would be much better.

When the bin charge came in initially I was talking to a man who has a child with severe autism and he made the point that there should be a link between public health and the family because most people who are advised to get incontinence pads have a link with a GP or hospital and in that way we could get them signed up to have their bins collected. A lot of these pads should be going for incineration rather than being mixed in with general waste. He suggested that there should be a special collection of such waste. That would probably stigmatise people because they would have to have a separate coloured bin, for example, but we have to find some way that we can get money to people with an extra burden such as incontinence pads. I again thank the witnesses for coming. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I thank Deputy Joan Collins for raising the important issue regarding HAP. This is something we see regularly. The top-ups are causing great difficulty for households and the rent increases that are permitted are causing even more difficulty for them. It is important to recognise that we must ensure adequate homeless prevention measures are in place because at the moment, we do not spend nearly enough on homeless prevention but the cost of providing emergency accommodation for a family can be upwards of €35,000 every year. If that could be prevented by adjusting the HAP payment or the limits, as a homeless prevention measure it would save the State a significant amount in the longer term. There is a challenge between balancing the HAP limits with the potential impact on the private rented market in terms of inflating rents. In our view, there is a need to review how HAP interacts with the private rented market. We made a submission to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage regarding that. We compiled a detailed report with Threshold looking at HAP and how the limit on HAP impacts on low-income households. A number of proposals were put forward in terms of how we can address those. Rent certainty measures and rent caps need to be considered. We have seen what has been possible in the past year in terms of rent protections for tenants.

Another issue that we are very concerned about is that we are getting calls from people who are in receipt of HAP and are in arrears on the top-up. There is very little support for dealing with that, because if one falls behind on one's differential rent one could perhaps discuss it with the HAP section and renegotiate that but if one falls behind on the top-up, one is at risk of homelessness.

The protections that are in place for people impacted by Covid may not necessarily help these people. We have seen households whose income has not changed, who are on social welfare, but their household expenditure on basics such as food and utilities has increased. They are struggling even more to make those payments and they have fallen behind on their HAP top-up and now they could potentially be at risk of homelessness. We are very concerned about this issue and that is why we ask that the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage would work closely and set up a budget line to ensure that we can prevent those households becoming homeless by providing additional supports.

Ms Clare Duffy

I acknowledge the point Deputy Joan Collins made about the bins. There is a bigger issue at play, which is a term I keep using. It is that carers should be recognised not penalised. There are so many little bombs across the system that penalise carers. We have a person who sacrifices their life to care, often full time for someone in need of that care, and yet the system penalises them. It is like saying to them that, by the way, their bin is going to cost more and if the disability services resume after Covid, they cannot provide the same transport service that was previously provided and the carer will have to provide it. There are so many examples of that. The pension was always the legacy issue and, thankfully, please God we are going to fix that.

I wish to say two things: one is positive and the other is not so positive.

The Chairman had hands-on involvement in a development that was wonderful. There was a scheme for which carers were ineligible, namely, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland's better energy warmer homes scheme. Someone on a jobseeker's payment could apply and get a grant of 100% to do the installation in his or her house but a carer providing full-time care was not eligible. Thankfully, the Chairman fixed that. It is a great scheme. The waiting list might be incredible but it was a great development. Again, it was an example of how we recognise that carers should not be penalised for the contribution they make.

There is a similar anomaly in the system that I have been flagging for the past three years. It does not relate directly to this committee but I am going to make my point anyway. Under the tenant incremental purchase scheme whereby local authority tenants can purchase their homes if they can display that they can afford to do so, one of the only groups of social welfare recipients deemed ineligible comprises carers, or people in receipt of the carer's allowance. A person on a one-parent family payment is eligible. The only people said to be ineligible are those on carer's allowance. I know of genuine carers who have cared for years, scrimped and saved, worked the 18.5 hours and want to buy their own home but they are told they are not eligible. As a general rule, we have got to recognise the fact that we should not penalise carers.

I have a couple of questions, one of which is for Family Carers Ireland. We have mentioned the lifetime family carer's pension. Do the witnesses have figures on how many people would be affected?

I have a question for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on fuel poverty. Does the society have any research or evidence on the energy ratings of the houses of the people we are talking about? There is really no heat in a house with an energy rating of G despite the money being put into the fireplace. To make a genuine difference for affected families, do we have figures on the energy ratings of the houses that most of those reliant on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul live in?

The representatives of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul might revert to the committee on the example from New Zealand on the embedding of poverty-proofing in the budgetary process. We will have the Minister before the committee in the next fortnight dealing with the Estimates and this will give us an opportunity to flag the issue. Ms Petrie highlighted the issue regarding the social energy tariff and the possibility of considering an example here. Any system that would ensure those in fuel poverty are not subsidising the cost of electricity for data centres and other big consumers of electricity in this country has to be examined. It is immoral that people who are living in poverty are subsidising the cost of that electricity. That cannot be allowed to continue.

Without giving us specific details, could Ms Duffy revert to us with the example of the carer with three profoundly disabled children who is ineligible for the carer's allowance? We could reflect on that in our pre-budget submission and flag the anomaly regarding the tenant purchase scheme.

The one comment made today that really stood out for me was made by the delegation from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It was stated that 30% to 35% of all the calls received by the society are about food costs. We are living in a country where we dump two tons of food every single minute, yet one third of all the calls to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are about food poverty.

The representatives might address the final questions asked by Deputy Ó Cathasaigh because we need to wrap up within the next five minutes. The representatives from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul may go first, followed by those from Family Carers Ireland.

Ms Issy Petrie

I will speak about energy efficiency. When we think about energy poverty, we must think about the balance of contributing factors, including the earning of an inadequate income, the cost of energy for customers and the energy efficiency or quality of the housing. I am not sure whether Dr. Keilthy can contribute on our building energy rating data and how they correlate with energy poverty figures. Since so many householders are living in substandard accommodation and very energy-inefficient housing, they are already paying more. There may be an inefficient heating system or uninsulated housing. People in poverty and low incomes are paying higher bills with less income so they will be impacted by the energy inefficiency of their housing. This is why we welcome the schemes in place for doing such important work in tackling that aspect of energy poverty, although, as has been mentioned, there are waiting lists and challenges with the capacity of the sector to meet the need that exists.

We would also like to highlight the challenges faced by people in the private rental sector who are living in energy-inefficient homes. They suffer on foot of a split incentive and do not have the same agency to improve the quality of their housing. Those in energy poverty in particular are paying more for their heating bills without having the ability to invest in their homes. They have to rely on their landlord to make the decision. We believe there is a gap in policy here that needs to be addressed so people in energy poverty in the private rental sector will not be left behind, resulting in a growing gap between those in energy-efficient homes and those in homes whose fabric or heating system has not been invested in.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I thank all the members of the committee for inviting us to speak today. We will be happy to send on the additional information on New Zealand and social tariffs. We will do so through the clerk.

Ms Clare Duffy

I will be very quick in answering the question on pensions and the size of the group affected. I hate answering a question by saying that we do not know but, unfortunately, we do not. We have had this discussion with members of the Pensions Commission. We do not know how many carers have fallen through the net. Essentially, there are two groups of carers. There is what we believe to be a very small number of carers, mainly women, who qualify for neither the contributory State pension, because they have not made enough contributions, nor the non-contributory State pension, because of the assets of their partner. They get nothing and have fallen through the gap. In addition, there are many more carers, again mostly female, who have been on a reduced pension by virtue of the fact that they have spent so long caring. Therefore, there are two cohorts, one very small and the other much bigger.

The best way for us to secure a person's eventual pension entitlement is through work. Most carers stay in work if they can. We need to support them to do that. This committee could examine the EU directive on work-life balance for parents and carers, which is due to be transposed into Irish law by August of next year. It should consider some of the provisions of that directive. It states that, at a minimum, carers should be entitled to five days' carer's leave per year. That should be paid for; it should not be out of the carer's pocket. Factors like these should be considered. Let us support the carers to stay in work where they can and, where they cannot, support them through adequate social welfare provision, which I do not believe we are doing at the minute.

That is a good point to wrap up on. I thank the witnesses from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Family Carers Ireland for their comprehensive contributions and insight into the submissions they have made, which will be very useful to the committee in developing its pre-budget submission and examining the delivery of some of the schemes across the various Departments. I thank them very much for their assistance to the committee today.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.30 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 12 May 2021.