I welcome the Minister.
Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2010: Second Stage
Ba mhaith liom cur síos a dhéanamh ar chuid de phríomh ghnéithe an Bhille seo. I propose to outline some of the main provisions of the Bill which provides for some dramatic changes that will result in a significant development in services. The Bill provides for the full transfer of the employment services and community services programmes of FÁS from the Minister for Education and Skills to the Minister for Social Protection and for the integration of FÁS staff with the Department of Social Protection.
This process was initiated by the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2010. As Senators will recall, the Act provided for the transfer of policy and funding responsibility for the employment and community services of FÁS from the Minister for Education and Skills to my Department. The practical arrangements to support this transfer of functions are now largely in place and it is intended to commence the relevant provisions of the 2010 Act with effect from 1 January 2011. From that date, FÁS will continue to provide employment and community services as it does now but under my direction and reporting to my Department. FÁS and my Department already work closely together and considerable progress has been made on a number of measures to enhance the delivery of services to people on the live register.
The Bill provides for the transfer of the relevant staff and resources such as buildings from FÁS and their full integration with the staff and structure of my Department. FÁS will also cease to have any role in the provision of employment and community employment programmes and will focus on the provision of training services. As a result, the Bill will enable one of the most radical realignments of social welfare provision in the history of the State. The employment and community services of FÁS will not simply transfer but will be integrated fully with the Department to provide an end to end service to customers. This will allow a transformational overhaul of service provision for people of working age. As well as income support, we will focus our interventions on assisting customers to find employment and prepare themselves for entry into the labour market by accessing training, career advice and work experience and job placement.
My Department is already working closely with the senior management of FÁS and the Department of Education and Skills to develop a new service vision and model for the integrated Department. While still at an early stage of development, the main outline of this vision is clear — it will be customer centric and employment focused. The main objective will be to ensure that everyone of working age is given the support he or she needs to find employment as quickly as possible or develop the skills and aptitudes required to progress towards employment by undertaking appropriate education, training or work experience. This objective will be supported by a case management approach allowing suitably trained staff to interact on a one to one basis with individuals on developing pathways to employment with clearly defined milestones and targets.
The integration of FÁS employment and community services with my Department marks an important step away from a passive model of income support to a proactive model which is clearly focused on progressing people to participation in the workforce. Such an approach not only makes economic sense but also allows our services to be tailored to meet the individual needs of each customer and respect and enhance their dignity as individuals. The restructuring of these areas is part of the Taoiseach's plan to deal with job creation, work activation and income supports in a better and more cohesive manner. This initiative is a tangible example of public sector reform facilitated by the Croke Park agreement.
To qualify for jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance the jobseeker must fulfil a number of conditions, including being available for and genuinely seeking work. To fulfil these conditions jobseekers must at regular intervals make a declaration that they are still unemployed, available for and actively seeking work. This is what is known as the certification process or "signing on" and is currently carried out by the jobseeker visiting his or her local social welfare office.
One of the provisions I am including in the Bill will be to allow certain people who receive jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance to complete the certification process by electronic means. We will change the current signing process in our local branch offices to collect signatures via a digital signature pad. We are also exploring the possibility of using electronic channels for certification, such as on-line through the Internet or by using a mobile telephone. These new channels are being introduced to enable us to carry out the certification process more efficiently while at the same time delivering better customer service and maintaining the necessary levels of control inherent in the current manual process.
The Department is engaged in a project to examine the potential to develop an additional channel for jobseekers' certification via the mobile phone. Before committing to full-scale deployment, the mobile phone certification solution has to be evaluated by the Department from both a business process and technical perspective to test how it will work in practice to ensure necessary levels of security and control. Deployment will not proceed unless the solution offers a sufficient level of control in line with existing processes. The project is scheduled to conduct a live trial at the end of January 2011 in which a number of customers will be invited to participate. The selection of customers to be invited has not yet been finalised.
The mobile telephone facility is intended to be made available on a risk assessment basis and will have high levels of control built in. Customers will be invited to use the channel and it will not be generally available on request. It is anticipated that cost savings will accrue from reducing the effort required to certify jobseekers at the Department's local offices. As a result, staff resources will be freed up which will enable the Department to concentrate on client, claim, payment and control issues. Furthermore, it is expected to reduce pressure on local office facilities and accommodation.
The Bill allows us, as a general facilitation, to have any activity performed by electronic as opposed to manual means. Rather than signing a form in a local office before a member of staff, jobseekers will sign a signature pad which matches their signature. This initiative is covered in the legislation. Unless we can use and experiment with electronics, we will continue to require an inordinate number of staff for signing on purposes. This involves having jobseekers sign a sheet of paper before a member of staff at a fixed time of the month.
I am introducing a provision in the Bill which requires that from 1 January 2011, before rent supplement can be awarded to new claimants, the landlord's tax reference number must be supplied to the Health Service Executive. Landlords of existing claimants will be requested to supply their tax reference number at the time of their next rent supplement review. The Government wants to ensure that where tenants are in receipt of the State's rent supplement, the landlords of the premises in question are fully tax compliant. If landlords are tax compliant, they should not have any difficulty providing a tax reference number.
The new rent supplement provisions also provide that a landlord will be obliged to provide his or her tax reference number or confirmation that he or she does not have a tax reference number in respect of each tenancy for which a rent supplement is payable. As I indicated, where rent supplement is in payment immediately before 1 January 2011 and that supplement continues to be claimed immediately after that date in respect of the same tenancy and where the landlord has not supplied his or her tax reference number before 1 January 2011, rent supplements will continue to be paid until the review date for the supplement. At that stage, the Health Service Executive will request the landlord to supply his or her tax reference number. To avoid unnecessary hardship the Bill also allows for the further continuation of the rent supplement beyond this date to allow a reasonable time for the landlord to respond to the HSE's request to provide his or her tax registration number and avoid tenants being penalised by having to break an existing tenancy agreement. A rent supplement cannot be paid beyond 31 March 2012 in any case where the landlord has failed to provide his or her tax reference number. The Bill also makes it an offence where a landlord fails to provide the information requested. While the Department is already involved indata matching, clearly it is much easier to data match when tax reference numbers areavailable.
The Bill also provides for changes to social welfare legislation arising from the provisions of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 and for the transfer of the community welfare service of the Health Service Executive, which currently administers the supplementary welfare allowance on my behalf, to the Department of Social Protection.
Section 12 provides for the introduction of a partial capacity scheme. The purpose of introducing such a scheme is to begin to address a critical limitation of the current social welfare code which categorises people with long-term illnesses or disabilities as either "fit for work" or "unfit for work". The focus within the welfare system on incapacity rather than capacity carries negative consequences for people with disabilities and their families who may be trapped unnecessarily in welfare dependency. The Bill also provides for the status of persons engaged in work experience pursuant to certain placements under the skills development and internship programme for the unemployed.
The Pensions Act is being amended to provide pension scheme trustees with an option of purchasing sovereign annuities which will have the effect of reducing their pensioner liabilities under the minimum funding standard. The National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, will issue long-term bonds with a period appropriate to cover the funding needs of a typical pension fund. These bonds will be available for purchase by investors and the insurance industry who may issue annuities based on Irish yields, so-called sovereign annuities, which can be bought by pension schemes to match their pension liabilities. The nominated bonds underpinning these annuity policies can also be bought by investors or by pension scheme trustees who wish to pay pensions directly from the pensions fund. This gives an alternative to the existing situation whereby most pension funds invest in German bonds at a very low yield or in high risk equities. This scheme will give a higher yield bond, the Irish sovereign bond, and money invested in such bonds will be retained in the country. This solves the problem we have in regard to underfunding of pension schemes and also provides a potential solution in regard to raising funding for the State. It is a win-win situation. I hope the industry, which suggested this measure, will purchase the bonds when they become available in January.
The skills development and internship programme is an enterprise-led initiative aimed at those who are unemployed for at least three months. Participants on the programme will receive a 12 month placement with host organisations and will undertake a significant education and training component. The Government has made provision for up to 5,000 places to be supported under this programme. We received a great number of queries from people asking why we would not allow those in receipt of social welfare payments to work in private companies or with large community or voluntary bodies and at the same time continue to receive their social welfare payment, with perhaps a top-up payment from the body or company in question to cover the cost of getting to work. It appeared to be very simple but required a change in the law which is introduced in this legislation and deals with three sets of challenges. The first of these is that under social welfare law a person is means tested if he or she received a payment. The second relates to tax law, the third to labour law. The amendments being introduced deal with all these issues and in effect will allow the employer to pay €150 to FÁS, with €100 of that sum to be paid to the intern. In addition, we have defined for the first time who is an intern. These measures mean that interns will be able to work in private companies. We hope that many of those engaged in this way will be young people who will subsequently obtain full-time employment having proved their worth in a work situation. There will be training attached to the measure which will be operated between the Departments of Social Protection and Education and Skills.
Sections 15 to 26 of the Bill provide for the changes to social welfare legislation arising from the provisions of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. These changes will mean the social welfare code will recognise same sex couples, both those who have opted to register a civil partnership and those who are cohabiting, in the same way that it currently recognises opposite sex married and cohabiting couples. Recognition of same sex couples for those in receipt of social welfare payments will have positive and negative impacts on the couples concerned depending on their circumstances.
The Bill also provides for the payment of contributions by public office holders. By definition, office holders are not bound by the arrangements of a contract of service as they are not employees. Furthermore, social insurance legislation had provided that the income derived from such office-holding was not liable to a class S social insurance contribution. However, in accordance with the solidarity principle of the social insurance fund it has now been decided by Government that office holders should contribute to the social insurance system at a rate of 4%. When people say Senators and Deputies did not take a cut in salary they ignore the introduction of this 4% deduction which was not deducted heretofore. It is only fair to introduce this provision and the deduction will be taken from the beginning of the individual's salary structure. It will entail a reduction in income and no benefits will accrue from this payment which was decided upon in the interest of solidarity. There is another reason for the introduction of this measure. If we had excluded office holders, leaving them as the only group not paying employee PRSI at 4%, there would have been an anomaly in the system. Self-employed people will now join employees in paying 4%. Civil servants who began work before 1995 will pay 4%. If there had been a little bonus for office holders there would have been considerable public outrage. Even though we will receive no benefit by paying the 4% and civil servants who commenced work before 1995 will not receive any significant benefit, people would have believed that yet again politicians had looked after their own interest. We will now pay but will not receive benefit. There would have been equal outrage if we had established the payment and offered, for example, entitlements to contributory pensions. People would say we already had a good arrangement with our Senator's or Deputy's pension and therefore it was thought this was the right way to proceed. We can debate this matter further on Committee Stage.
The Bill includes provisions to provide for the transfer of community welfare service staff, as civil servants, to my Department and, where relevant, the transfer of buildings to the Commissioners of Public Works. The policy reason for the transfer is to enhance the quality of services provided to the public. My Department is committed to developing and implementing a case management approach with a focus on the individual and the development of a tailored plan for each person. Such an approach produces better outcomes than the traditional transaction focused delivery of scheme services. The Department of Social Protection vision is one in which skilled and knowledgeable case managers will work with individuals in need to ensure they not only receive the appropriate income supports but are also helped to find a way in which they can participate to the fullest extent possible in the community, economy and workforce. The transfer of the community welfare service to the Department of Social Protection will strengthen the Department's capacity in that regard and will facilitate the achievement of that vision. Community welfare officers, CWOs, pay money from my Department in the main and it will be much better to have them within the Department. Directions issued henceforth will be to our own staff which will be a more coherent way of working.
In addition, we will bring in all the employment workers from FÁS and, although it is not mentioned in my script, we will bring redundancy payments within the Department. Fine Gael, in particular, argued there should be a single paymaster and a common means testing for many of these schemes. We are getting there. It is very significant. I have been in the Department for nine months and now three measures are to be introduced. Since 2006 there has been discussion about the deployment of CWOs. They move to my Department on 1 January on secondment, in nine months the final industrial relations issues will be resolved and they will become full civil servants. This is a long time coming but we can now see the end of the road. I thank the CWOs and the staff of my Department because change of this type can be difficult, with the different IR arrangements involved and so on. These are three different examples of the Croke Park agreement working for real at a time when it was said nothing was happening.
I now outline the main provisions of the Bill. Section 3 clarifies the provisions for the calculation of the duration of payment of illness benefit claims. This is tactical and is not a major amendment. Section 4 provides for the use of electronic means of making and capturing the declarations of unemployment that are required for the purposes of claiming jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance. That covers any electronic means such as signature pads although much of the focus has been directed at the mobile telephone provision. Section 5 clarifies the calculation of entitlement to jobseeker's allowance where weekly means comprise earnings from insurable employment.
In determining a week of unemployment — three days of unemployment, consecutive or not, in any six consecutive days — the practice is to include a day only once in any computation where that day is part of a week of unemployment in respect of which jobseeker's allowance is paid. This section, which amends section 141 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, ensures the Act is not ambiguous in applying this practice. It is quite technical and I am assured it is perfect and resolves an anomaly that has arisen.
Section 6 provides that the reduction in the basic rate of supplementary welfare allowance from 4 January 2010 for people under 25 years will not, of itself, lead to any reduction in rent or mortgage interest supplements payable to people getting other social welfare payments. This is also a technical provision.
Section 7 provides for a new condition for the rent supplement payable under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme which requires that, from 1 January 2011, before a claim for rent supplement can be awarded, the landlord's tax reference number must be supplied to the Health Service Executive. As certain landlords will not have such a tax reference number, for example, non-resident landlords, confirmation from the landlord to that effect is required to be supplied in those cases. This section also provides that a landlord will be obliged to provide his or her tax reference number or confirmation that he or she does not have a tax reference number in respect of each tenancy for which a rent supplement is payable.
Section 8 clarifies the position on the information to be provided by or in respect of a customer registering for a personal public service number. It is a technical matter in respect of the requirement of photographs. Public service numbers are required for newborn babies and dead people at times and it is not so easy to get a photograph in such circumstances. Section 262(3) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act currently requires that a photograph and signature be submitted for any customer registering for a personal public service number. However, it is not practical to collect these items in all cases. For example, it is not practical where the customer is non-resident or deceased, and in probate cases. We give public service numbers to newborn babies. It is a challenge. Deputy Ring was very insistent on this matter but I told him there was a challenge and he accepted that.
Section 8 clarifies the position by only requiring that these items be submitted when required. We will require them for every adult. Obvious issues arise, however. The circumstances of a very disabled person would have to be taken into account, for example. This section also provides that providing additional security information will become a compulsory part of the registration process for the purposes of allocating and issuing public service numbers.
Section 9 is a technical amendment to change references in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act and in other enactments from "public service card" to "public services card" to reflect the de facto position. There is a reference to “public service card” in the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001 and this section also provides for a textual amendment to change this reference to “public services card”. Everyone calls the card the “public services card”. Section 9 makes a number of changes to the current provisions relating to the public services card under section 263 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act and the social services payment card under section 264, including clarifying that both the social services card and the public services card can be used for the purpose of paying social welfare benefits.
Section 10 amends the rules relating to the means test for the carer's allowance scheme to exempt any foreign social security payments, up to the appropriate level of the State pension contributory, that are paid to the carer or the spouse of the carer. This section also clarifies that a general income disregard for the purpose of carer's allowance under rule 1(5) for a single carer and rule 4(3) for a couple will not apply to income from a social security payment, whether it is an Irish social welfare payment or an EU or foreign social security payment.
Section 11 provides for technical amendments to the provision in regard to the supplementary welfare allowance. Section 12 provides for the introduction of a new partial capacity benefit. Section 13 clarifies the provisions in regard to restrictions on engaging in work while in receipt of injury benefit or disablement benefit. Section 14 provides for the payment of contributions by public officeholders.
Sections 15 to 26 provide for the changes to social welfare legislation arising from the provisions of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. It also provides a definition of "cohabitant" for the first time in respect of heterosexual and same-sex partnerships.
Section 27 provides for the status of persons engaged in work experience pursuant to certain placements. Sections 28 to 35 of the Bill provide for the full transfer of the employment services and community services programmes of FÁS to the Minister for Social Protection and the integration of FÁS staffing into the Department of Social Protection. These sections also provide for a consequential amendment to the Labour Services Act 1987. Sections 36 to 39 provide for the transfer of the community welfare service of the Health Service Executive to the Department of Social Protection.
Sections 40 to 45 provide for approval of certain policies or contracts of assurance for discharge of benefits and for amendments to the Pensions Act 1990 and the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. I refer to the so-called sovereign annuities.
Molaim an Bille don Teach and tá mé ag súil le tuaraimí na Seanadóirí a chloisteáil maidir leis na míreanna atá ann. The changes being made in the Bill are seismic. One involves the consolidation of payments and services being provided and the transfer of staff. This is a major change. The second major change concerns the sovereign annuities. This solves two problems and it is very significant that this is happening.
The third change, on which we spent a lot of time yesterday, concerns the issue of income and fulfilment in regard to people with disabilities. It is a question of facilitating them. They can choose, rather than be compelled, to work in the longer term rather than be given a one-year derogation or exemption, after which they might be lucky to get another. Under the old system, one either jumped the ditch completely and was on one's own or one fell back totally into dependency on the system. The new provision allows a permanent arrangement whereby one can retain payments and work at the same time. The Department measured the capacity in this regard.
I hope this measure will be seen in five or ten years as the bridgehead by which we will have reformed the whole approach to disability, thereby maximising it to account for the individual's requirements, potential and wishes rather than having a prescriptive approach whereby one is deemed either fit or unfit to work. Under existing arrangements, if one is deemed unfit, one cannot work even if one can do a bit of work. This is very Victorian. We are in the 21st century and need more sophistication.
I look forward to hearing the views of the Senators. I hope we can have a good and constructive debate on the Bill today and on Friday. There are many ground-breaking measuresin it.
I thank the Minister for a very comprehensive speech. This Bill, when published on 19 November, was said to include a number of important elements. Last night, the Bill passed through the Dáil and it included monumental and seismic changes, as the Minister said. Many of the changes are very important. We have had very little time to consider them and have had no briefing on some of them. On this basis, we will be opposing the Bill while at the same time welcoming some of the changes outlined.
I am focusing on two issues, namely, FÁS and rent allowance. Rent and mortgage aid has increased dramatically since September 2009. The Sunday Independent noted a rise of 50% in just 18 months. In all, 91,000 people now receive State aid to pay their rent and mortgages. There are 150,000 people, a massive number, claiming rent supplement. From 1 January 2011, there will be new conditions for rent supplement. For it to be awarded to the new claimants, the landlord’s tax reference number must be given to the Health Service Executive Landlords with existing claimants will be required to provide their tax reference numbers upon the claimants’ next rent supplement review. Non-resident landlords will need to provide rent confirmation. It will become an offence if a landlord fails to provide this required information. This is to ensure all landlords are tax compliant. If they are, they should have no issues in providing the required information. Rent allowance was intended to provide short-term support for those living in private rented accommodation. However, in the constituency in which I live, it is the only failsafe mechanism people have in providing accommodation for themselves.
The Minister has referred to new plans he is discussing with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Finneran. I am interested in hearing what these plans are.
In 2009 €500 million was paid in rent supplement, from which there are 96,500 tenants benefiting. I welcome and support the requirement that landlords provide their tax reference number in respect of each tenancy for which rent supplement is payable. I also support the continuance of payment from 1 January 2011 until a review date for the supplement is made. That is fair. The HSE will request a landlord to supply the tax reference number for review.
There remain certain ambiguities that need to be addressed in the Bill. The first is that the scheme is said to provide short-term support. My primary concern is with the issue of short-term support and the long-term implications, in particular for those in private rented accommodation who depend on rent supplement to provide basic shelter. These individuals have insufficient means to meet their accommodation costs without the payment of rent supplement. Rent supplement for the needy could be jeopardised in the future if further revisions are made. They will begin to suffer when changes are made and the short-terms benefits have been exhausted. The rent allowance scheme must be reformed.
Furthermore, the Bill states it will allow for the continuation of rent supplement beyond 1 January 2011 to allow a reasonable amount of time for a landlord to provide the HSE with the tax registration number, yet it is not clearly stated how long this time allotment will be. However, in no case will rent supplement be paid beyond 31 March 2012 if the landlord fails to provide a tax reference number. This issue concerns me because it makes vulnerable tenants almost responsible for ensuring their landlord complies with the legislation. How can those moving into privately rented accommodation after 31 March 2012 be sure that what they are told or what they see is valid? Will tax clearance certificates be given to allow those who depend on rent supplement to ensure they are not under the roof of a dubious land lord? The tenant will be the one left without a home and in a vulnerable position. As Deputy Ring has commented in the other House, steps must be taken to ensure those in need will not become collateral damage in this plan to ensure tax compliance by landlords. The issue is with the time allocated for landlords to provide their reference number and there should be no problem if a tax number is supplied. What will happen to those who are living under the roof of a landlord who has not or does not provide the necessary information? The Irish Times recently noted: “A payment of rent supplement would only be made to tenants renting a dwelling properly registered by a landlord”. I have serious concerns about the responsibility being placed on the tenant.
Poverty and exclusion have always been a top priority for Threshold which is concerned about some parts of the Bill. I agree that all landlords should be tax compliant; however, there are concerns about a minority of landlords who rent poor accommodation. Threshold points out that a landlord who is non-compliant in one area such as cleanliness or safety standards is most likely also to be non-compliant in other areas such as the failure to provide a tax registration number. We all know these landlords. Threshold has called on the Department to apply a withholding tax to rent supplement where a landlord has not established he or she is fully tax compliant. I am interested in the Minister's thoughts on this suggestion. This would be a very effective way of ensuring tax compliance by landlords who receive rent supplement.
Threshold also calls for a more rigorous inspection of the accommodations of those who receive rent supplement. I have seen deplorable apartments in which people must live. I agree with Threshold that the Department should be solely responsible and liaise with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure those who are in receipt of rent supplement are provided with good accommodation and obtain value for money. Every individual is entitled to basic shelter that is safe and well maintained. Individuals who depend on rent supplement are the most likely to be living in vulnerable conditions that require improvement by the landlord.
Like Threshold, I am concerned about the impact of the €60 million cut in rent supplement. It is beyond the 10% figure outlined and may have a detrimental effect on vulnerable persons in the private rental sector. Threshold has outlined its concerns about the myth that rents have reduced. That is not true in my experience. They have not reduced in the Athlone area.
That is because we are renting too many units. The State supplies half of the rental market and may be keeping rents up.
I am concerned there will be evictions and homelessness.
That is not the evidence we have.
I assure the Minister it is evident in Athlone.
We undertake detailed analysis of rent payable around the country.
I am interested in discussing the issue with the Minister afterwards. More detail is needed in order to determine whether resource-poor tenants will continue to benefit or if the new rules will simply be enjoyed in the form of increased tax amounts.
The other issue I wish to raise concerns FÁS and the transfer of its employment and community services programmes to the Minster for Social Protection. This also includes the integration of FÁS staff in the Department of Social Protection, in addition to providing for a consequential amendment to the Labour Services Act 1987. The Minister has stated the restructuring of FÁS is the Taoiseach's plan to deal with job creation, work activation measures and income supports in a better and more cohesive way. Why has it taken so long to be cohesive and create work activation measures? The Minister and his colleagues are 12 years in government and I wonder what has taken so long to complete.
If the Senator was in government for 12 years, she would have done nothing more after ten years. As her party was never in government for 12 years, she would not know.
I did not interrupt the Minister. The integration of staff and resources from FÁS with the Department of Social Protection means FÁS will cease to have any role in employment and community employment programmes. Instead, it will be involved in training programmes. The transfer of powers from FÁS to the Department is welcome. The youth are the most vital and important resource the country has to recognise, utilise and invest in to rebuild the nation for the future. It is critical that they know that we have a positive outlook and a plan of action for them. Some 15,000 placements for internships, skills training and community employment programmes does not go far enough in addressing a serious issue. Fine Gael plans to have 37,000 second-chance education, community employment and internship places.
We already have 60.
I did not interrupt the Minister. The definition of an intern is one who works in a temporary position, with the emphasis on training on the job rather than employment. Our NewERA document will certainly provide for internship and confidence for our young people. Our youth are now more inclined to emigrate to Canada, America and Australia. We need to take measures to ensure our residents are not leaving like they did in the 1980s.
As the Department of Social Protection takes over FÁS, those employed will be solely responsible for training. This demonstrates that FÁS has failed miserably to show its ability to train and integrate. Interviews rather than action have been the predominant course of action. If FÁS is to be completely restructured, we need to ensure this pattern does not continue. Radical changes need to be made to battle unemployment. Will this change occur through innovative actions rather than rhetoric? I await to see what Tús will bring. New ideas and thinking are needed to do things that have not happened over the past ten years in FÁS. FÁS is coming under the aegis of the Department of Social Protection and the Minister has a duty and an obligation to ensure that what happened over the past ten years will never happen again. I am speaking about the waste of taxpayers' money. The money has to be spent wisely.
I look forward to speaking about partial capacity on Committee Stage. I regret we have not had enough time since yesterday to go into the amendments in detail. I have doubts about electronic certification. I understand electronic signing but I have serious concerns about fraud with regard to electronic text messaging and voice recognition. I welcome the idea of people being fit or unfit for work and the idea of partial capacity and how we can motivate people who want to work. I have questions on these which I will pose on Committee Stage.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome this reforming legislation. In the three Bills he has put before the House in the past eight months he has proven that he is a man of vision and someone who has an idea of where we need to go to reform the system in the places where it requires reform. This legislation is another example of this.
The Bill deals primarily with the transfer of the functions of FÁS to the Department of Social Protection. This is a tangible example of reform. I accept it is overdue and something that is so obvious it should have been done a very long time ago. Perhaps if FÁS had been in the remit of the Department of Social Protection, some of the waste that happened in FÁS would not have happened to the same extent because it would have been part of a bigger picture and a larger budget, but that budget would have been protected, as would have the people who required and continue to require assistance from FÁS. FÁS has had such a battering and hammering in the media that possibly we need to look at changing its name and changing some of its functions to modernise it. Now that it has been transferred to the Department of Social Protection, the next step will be to see what other reforms can be made to the organisation.
It is vital we look at the training programmes. I fully agree that not everyone can seek or wants to seek university or college training. At the same time, they can get value from the training provided by FÁS. This was shown in the last boom when the training of construction workers was hugely beneficial to our economy and played a very important role. We need to move to the next level and see where training is required and where people who do not want to pursue or are not suitable to university education can have a role to play in the island of Ireland, in our lives and in the economy. With all the quite necessary economic resolutions, Bills and debates, we tend to forget there are humans at the end and beginning of this who need to be taken into consideration.
I regret that Senator McFadden believes Fine Gael does not have enough time to make amendments and therefore she must oppose the Bill, because she has spoken very highly about many of the measures contained in it and has indicated support for them. I suppose it is fair to say that the Minister is a man in a hurry. He has much reform to make and the fact that this is the third Bill in eight months proves the Minister is someone who needs to get his ideas down on paper very quickly and get them into legislation. This strikes me as what is going on in his life and in his public service as a Minister. On the one hand, the Opposition states the pace of change is too slow and complains about the fact it took so long to make these changes in FÁS and in the rent supplement, but on the other hand it states not enough time has been given for amendments. One cannot have it both ways.
The wilful waste is quite extraordinary.
Senator McDonald to continue, without interruption.
We need to acknowledge that change is now happening and is a good thing. We must go forward from here. Most of us have spent much time in the past year indulging in going over the past and wondering what went wrong and when it went wrong. The one thing we have to do from now on is move forward, make the changes that need to be made and make a better life for the citizens of the country. The Bill goes a long way towards sorting out some of the problems in the system.
Tightening up on tax compliance with regard to rent allowance is very good. I cannot believe it was not in place until now and that rent supplement was being paid out to landlords not registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. I have heard of landlords collecting from the State but not collecting from their tenants. This is all part of the problem of trying to diagnose whether rents have reduced. As the Minister has stated, it is very difficult. The State is providing half the rent payments so 50% of the market is the State. It is very difficult, therefore, to see whether we are complicit in keeping rent levels high.
It is very important to have contact between the Department of Social Protection and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which has responsibility for housing. The standard of accommodation for many people in receipt of rent supplement in private rented dwellings is higher than in social housing. Even if one has to get windows done, make small changes or fix leaks, it is easier to do so in private rented dwellings where one deals with a landlord rather than in social housing where one deals with a local authority. We need to look at this.
I came across a recent example in my constituency, whereby a pregnant mother living in social accommodation with her toddler had a yard full of vermin and a back door that was falling down. In the end, I had to write to the local authority and state the accommodation was so unsuitable that the local authority was effectively evicting the girl because it was giving her no choice but to move out. I had to do this to try to protect her from going back on the social housing list and put her into a private rented dwelling and get her on the rent supplement scheme. It took a long time to sort it out and it is these types of little things that will be the quirks in the system.
I suggest that as landlords, local authorities need to meet the standards of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. I know there is a difference between private accommodation and the State but we need to find some way of ensuring the standard of accommodation is correct and the same across the board. This is in line with Fianna Fáil policy and we need to ensure it is done.
The transfer of the staff to the Department is a good move, as is the provision in the Bill for means testing. These are welcome moves. I agree it is important to involve people in training and work experience, although I have concerns that we are, unfortunately, training people for emigration. We need to try to ensure we get these people back and provide jobs for them. I was very interested to hear what Senator Feargal Quinn had to say about a young architect or solicitor who offered to work for free and who within three months had become indispensable to her employer because she rolled up her sleeves and worked very hard. That is the kind of ethos that has built this country and which we must ensure survives. It is important to make a difference and encourage people to work rather than allow them get into a rut. I am very impressed by the number of young people looking for work and willing to work for free to keep their skills up. Please God they will get into the system. One of the problems regarding employment is not so much that the work is not available, rather that employers cannot pay their staff. I have heard many stories of employers working till 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. on a Friday because they cannot afford a secretary. When people are available to do that kind of work, progress is quicker. The proposals in this Bill make up an important part of our rejuvenation of the economy and will go some way towards providing it with a boost.
I agree with Senator McFadden who lauded the provision regarding partial capacity, which will help people on invalidity pension to work if they wish to. Dealing with the differentiation between fit and unfit is a worthy and welcome amendment to the current situation. However, I should warn against a situation that may follow on this. Some of those on disability are people who may have injured their backs at work. Many of these people have not much formal education as they are people who have been labouring all their lives. They need to be retrained and will need to start again at the beginning. It is important staff are compassionate in their dealings with these people because many of them may suffer from dyslexia or some other problem which was not caught when they were in school 20 or 30 years ago. If they were in school now, these issues would come to the surface and they would be helped and given the assistance they require, but back when they were at school such assistance was not provided, which illustrates the significant change that has come about in the education system.
I have in mind a very humble person who is constantly being called in by social welfare officials to see whether he is better and able for work. He has a contribution to make, but it is very difficult to find out what that contribution is and to find a suitable position for him. We need to be aware of the compassion required within what we are trying to achieve. At the same time, some people will be thrilled to discover they have the capacity to work. It is a positive language issue and is, as the Minister said, about capacity rather than incapacity. This makes a significant difference. People will not just be thrown on the trash heap any more, but we will examine how we can build something for them as individuals. That is a wonderful amendment.
The measure in respect of the sovereign annuities is welcome and will help keep money in the country and improve the solvency of pension funds. I hope it works and assists matters. I also welcome the amendments in the Bill that will assist the commencement of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act next year.
On the question of electronic certification, I understand this is a general facility in respect of the public services card. I would echo some of the concerns of Senator McFadden, especially with regard to voice control. I think of people like Oliver Callan, who can mimic voices, and wonder how the voice recognition will work. The Minister said that if people use the system by mobile phone, the system will recognise whether the phone is being used within the country. These provisions need to be fleshed out and we should not leave anything wide open. The measures in this respect are an important element in the fight against fraud, however, and must be welcomed. Another example of how the system might be defrauded is the example cited last year of Ballyconnell which had 747 residents according to the last census but approximately 1,000 social welfare claimants. I am not sure of the details on that, but I hope the new measures assist the Border counties in respect of social welfare claimants and the fact that our social welfare payments are higher than those in the UK.
I welcome the amendments and reforms being made through this Bill. It is a well thought out Bill and I look forward to seeing how it will work in practice. I commend the Bill to the House.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá go leor sa Bhille seo a d'fhéadfainn fáilte a chur roimhe. Molaim an méid oibre atá ar siúl ag an Aire agus an cur chuige atá aige agus é ag dul i mbun oibre. There is much that is welcome in this Bill. The transfer of certain functions from FÁS to the care of the Minister and his office is welcome. I note and welcome the skills development and internship programme, which is an enterprise led initiative. It is appropriate that we focus on people who are at least three months unemployed and enable them to participate in placements with host organisations and to undergo significant education and training. The Government is making 5,000 places available for that programme.
While speaking of FÁS, I would also like to refer to Tús. It seems that going from "growth" to "beginning" says something about our economic position and suggests we are starting again. Tús, the community work placement, is welcome and it is worth noting some of its key features. These should be supported, especially the provision of short-term, quality and suitable working opportunities for people who are unemployed which will allow them do good work in their communities. I noted what the Minister said about the complexities in allowing people to receive social welfare while being involved in voluntary and community work. This sort of work is a social commitment which was lacking during the boom. People wondered whether people had lost sight of community realities. Now, sadly, owing to force majeure, many people will have or will require such opportunities to re-engage with community life and this work will be a means of facilitating their journey back to the world of work.
It is important this community work will have both an urban and rural focus agus tá sé tábhachtach agus ciallmhar go mbeidh Údarás na Gaeltachta i bhfeighil Tús sna Gaeltachtaí. It is also important that the role of the local development companies is underlined as it is they that will take the lead role in identifying community organisations that will be involved. When we think of this kind of local work, two things spring to mind. First, we think how important this work is, and we are all aware of the benefits within our communities of the good work that has been done by those on FÁS programmes and courses over the years. This work is very visible, especially in my part of the country. When people think of FÁS, they think of that positive aspect of what has been done. However, people are also very aware of the potential for waste and duplication. The Minister stated that one of the criteria for the selection of projects would be that existing commercial activity would not be displaced or duplicated. People should also keep an eye on quality, ensure the contribution to communities is meaningful and that the voluntary concept is supported.
I noted what the Minister had to say about the relationship with social welfare payments and the appeals mechanism to the social welfare appeals office where payments were reduced or terminated unreasonably. We should pay tribute to the local development companies for the support they provide for rural development, social inclusion and enterprise and employment measures. The Minister is allocating a sum of €30 million in 2011. There is little doubt that the money will be taken up, but the question arises of providing minor sums for local development companies for the provision of materials. I understand the emphasis is on ensuring payments to the maximum number of people, but cad é stair na ceiste seo? An mbíonn dóthain acmhainní ag na heagraíochtaíáitiúla chun an bun ábhar a chur ar fáil le haghaidh an obair?
Míneoidh mé sin nuair a thabharfaidh mé mo fhreagra.
The Bill introduces changes to facilitate the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. We did not have an opportunity to address these changes in detail during the debate on the Act. That the debate was guillotined was regrettable and a low point in the life of this House. The Government had recourse to dishonesty in alleging there had been a filibuster, despite Senators' tradition of making long speeches when attempting to tease out issues. One of the most dishonest approaches I have seen in my three years as a Senator was the Government's attempt to claim a logical rationale for guillotining the debate on such important social legislation. That was simply dishonest, just as it was dishonest of the Leader to claim that the use of the guillotine was justified by the Opposition's rejection of many dimensions of the legislation debated last night. The use of the guillotine is the last refuge of Governments which do not want to hear argument or debate. Sadly, that was what happened during the passage through this House of the 2010 Act.
The social welfare changes being made in the Bill were flagged during the debate on the 2010 Act. To that extent, the Government has, at least, done us a service by announcing its plans in advance. There is no doubt, however, that Fianna Fáil will be leaving government and, irrespective of the esteem in which the Minister is held for the way he does his job, he will lose votes at the next general election for a number of reasons. One group, in particular, will not vote for his party because it is seen as having abandoned its traditional commitment to the promotion of the institution of marriage in society. The Government went missing on the issue from the moment tax individualisation was introduced a decade ago. A balance must be struck in social welfare legislation between the way we would like society to be and the reality of people's lives. That is why, for example, it is difficult to build social welfare and protection legislation in the context of cohabitation. On the one hand, a cursory study of social data will demonstrate that it is in the interests of the State and children to promote lifelong and stable marriages, while, on the other, many heroic and selfless individuals are bringing up children outside that structure. We must find a balance to protect and cherish all of the children of the nation equally, while also promoting what works best for children in the longer term. The Government has failed that test. It has given money to marriage counselling and preparation organisations, but, in general, it has given in to political correctness. Even the British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, recognises the problems his society faces and is, therefore, much quicker to promote marriage as an institution that works well for children. In Ireland cowardice and political correctness prevail among those in power, whether in the media or government, as reflected in the 2010 Act.
Not all Irish people vote according to their pockets. However, those who want to see a socially protective environment in Ireland and a degree of social vision were let down. The Minister is not particularly to blame for this because he is not long in his current role. However, he is not the Minister for social approval. He does not have responsibility for deciding the relationships that will be socially approved. He is the Minister for Social Protection; therefore, he should not discriminate against those who are not sexually or romantically involved when he considers social welfare measures. Marriage is being targeted from two directions. In one direction it does not receive enough support under the tax code and in the other, other relationships are being made equal to it in the eyes of the legal and social welfare code.
In many cases, it is being levelled downwards. Traditionally, two individuals of the same sex received individualised payments, whereas a married couple only received one and two thirds.
I have no desire to level upwards or downwards any relationship. My concern is that the institution of marriage is entitled to particular social protection and should have been kept as a separate case. It was hurt by tax individualisation and by making other relationships equivalent to it.
No, it is not.
This is the budget in which carers have been forgotten. I have previously outlined an example of a carer who lives in the same house as the person for whom he or she cares. The fact that they are not romantically involved does not make them any less caring or mutually dependent. The Minister should ensure they are not disadvantaged compared to a couple who come within the State's recognition system.
They are better off.
Please allow Senator Mullen to continue.
The Senator should check his facts. The carer would receive his or her individual payment, as well as a half-rate carer's allowance.
The Minister should not interrupt.
I am trying to help.
I am aware of what carers receive.
I am trying to help the Senator because his time is nearly up.
I have raised the issue because it would be wrong to let the opportunity pass as if it was of no importance. The philosophical vacuity of the Government is on display in this regard.
I welcome the changes being made in respect of the use of electronic certification. The Minister is a strong proponent of human dignity. In this regard, I welcome the reference to the need to respect and enhance people's dignity as individuals. Electronic certification is presented as something which promotes efficiency, but the issue of human dignity must also be considered. While we must find a way to avoid fraud, we should uphold human dignity by not subjecting people to unnecessarily humiliating procedures at a time when they are in need of social protection.
The Bill contains many valuable and necessary changes in regard to the organisation of social protection. The main provision in the Bill, the transfer from FÁS of employment and community services, is probably long overdue. The extent to which FÁS outgrew itself as an organisation and the loss of direction which resulted from that has meant that many of these changes are necessary. The better housing of these functions in the Department of Social Protection will benefit all those who need to access these services.
There are many innovations in the Bill. The budget of the Department of Social Protection is, of necessity, being reduced and, therefore, the need to innovate is essential. The use of electronic certification will help people access social welfare payments and will account for that in a better way than heretofore.
The changes to rent supplement are necessary. I have long argued in this House, and when I was a Member of the other one, that the concept of rent supplement has rarely achieved what it was meant to achieve. It is less about an assist to housing aid and is more about a subsidy to those who own property and make it available for social housing. In further reducing reliance on rent supplement, there is a need to introduce alternative methods. My preferred option has always been housing benefit rather than rent supplement whereby a payment is made directly to a social welfare recipient. The stigma of applying for housing through a rent supplement method is removed and the market performs more rationally in that people can negotiate without having to identify themselves as asocial welfare recipient. That is a better method used in other jurisdictions. As we wean ourselves off a system which has not been as effective as it should have been, we can movetowards a better and different way of doing things, and I believe the Minister is moving in this direction.
It shocked me to learn that the State is, in effect, the largest tenant by virtue of paying 40% of all rents.
It is 50%.
The fact we allowed such a situation to develop was far from sustainable. I welcome the further reduction and the moves to rationalise this area.
Senator Mullen pointed to the necessary changes in this Bill which were promised by the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. Whatever about the concerns people have about the debate on the Social Welfare Bill 2010 yesterday — I said on the Order of Business today that we have a further opportunity to talk about those issues here — my recollection of that Act is that no legislation in the past three and a half years was the subject of as much debate in this House. There was extensive debate, in particular on Committee Stage. There was a whole week of debate and I regret the use of the record of the House to portray something which, in reality, was not true. No legislation was the subject of as much debate as that Act. In fact, it was the subject of more debate in this House than in the other one. When it came to decisions, we were well and truly informed of the various issues. These are necessary reforms and it is a fulfilment of a promise. I hope these provisions and those which will follow in the finance Bill, which I hope will become an Act, will allow people to register their partnership at the earliest possible opportunity.
There are a number of other technical measures in regard to sovereign annuities and associated bonds which will help pension funds to protect the liabilities of their members. The Minister has been very much responsible for moving towards and enhancing the skills development and internship programme. It is a good innovation and is one of the tools we need to help us to train people and provide employment opportunities. We would all like to see how those measures could be further developed to achieve their desired aims.
The Bill refers to PRSI arrangements for holders of public office which will affect income levels by between 4% and 5%. That is a necessary measure. At one stage there was a special tax provision for Members of the Oireachtas which was abolished in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Some 50% of tax liability was not paid because of the low level of wages. We must move to a situation, in terms of taxation and social insurance payments, where Members of the Oireachtas and those in the public sector are not treated differently from other employees in this State.
I understand this change will also affect many local government representatives. The principle of contribution will be extended in that area. That is an important contribution which also needs to be made because large payments are made in local government. When I was elected in 1991, the system of payment was that one was given £10 for every meeting one attended. The culture at the time was that one tried to invent as many meetings as possible to try to justify the money paid. I am glad that system has changed and that the payments made to local government representatives will come under this particular category.
The other major aspect of the Bill is the transfer of the community welfare service, which has been very contentious over the past number of years. The Minister has dealt with it well in that the main concern about the transfer of community welfare officers from the HSE to the Department of Social Protection was that their flexibility to operate would be affected but the discussions over the past two and a half years have alleviated many of the concerns. In the current situation where people can find themselves in changed economic circumstances very quickly, it is important that flexibility remains with community welfare officers.
Unlike the Social Welfare Bill 2010 reducing the rates of social welfare payments, which we had to introduce with great reluctance as a result of the circumstances in which the country finds itself, there is much to welcome in this Bill. It will bring about necessary changes and I look forward to its adoption.
I welcome the Minister. There are some excellent initiatives in this Bill. We are largely supportive of these measures, although I hope the transfer of functions from FÁS to the Department of Social Protection will not delay the improvement of jobs and training initiatives. We have made the point many times that there has been a slowness in this regard but we look forward as best we can. A very large number of people are unemployed and our economy is not in a good place. Therefore, greater priority should have been given to progressing this type of initiative.
We all condemn the shenanigans at FÁS, in particular as the real victims of the self-interested management of the agency are the unemployed. Good work is being done on the ground by FÁS and the transfer of functions from the agency to the Department of Social Protection is welcome. What steps are being taken to ensure training courses are properly targeted to meet the labour market need? The demand for construction skills will be down for many years but there is likely to be increased demand for skills in the fitting and maintenance of green energy machinery and devices, such as solar panels, wind turbines etc.
An electronic monitoring system for social welfare recipients is to be welcomed. I have heard stories in my clinics and much of what one hears must be taken with a grain of salt, depending on who is telling the story. It is not appropriate to comment on these stories. I have heard blanket statements about people not normally resident in the country who are working in many places. I do not comment on those reports which are spurious chatter but it would be important to have a means of properly identifying people to avoid fraudulent social welfare claims, such as claims being made in more than one place.
The home care scandal highlighted this week should focus all relevant minds on the need for providing the unemployed with the skills to enter into these and other community-based services. It is not acceptable that people with no skills are working in home care. There must be a recognition of the limitation of the skills of such individuals for providing services to people in need of a carer or a home help. In many cases it can be sufficient to measure out medication into separate containers per daily dosage but often it is necessary to take medication either before, during or after meals as this determines the way in which the body absorbs the medication. Carers would need to be trained in the administration of medication. I suggest that care assistants in hospitals are sufficiently trained to allow them to provide a reasonable level of good nursing care short of being a qualified nurse. I ask the Minister to comment in his concluding remarks.
I ask the Minister to outline the steps being taken to ensure that people are assisted back to work now that FÁS is being brought under the remit of the Department of Social Protection. My colleague, Deputy Róisín Shortall, referred to tokenism with just 67 job facilitators to deal with 400,000 unemployed people. The Croke Park agreement could have a role in addressing this in any number of ways but the Minister has been vague in the general details of the overhaul and reform. I ask him for some specific details in that regard.
I recognise and welcome the long lead-in period with regard to rent supplement. The Bill puts an obligation on landlords which could have negative consequences for tenants. I have in mind a particular cohort of tenants. Senator Boyle said he would prefer the tenants to be given the money rather than direct payment to landlords and I hold the opposite view but not in all situations.
It is the case that the tenant owns the money. The tenant has the choice and can chose to have the Department pay the landlord directly. We always leave the tenant in control because he or she is the person who identifies and procures the accommodation. The tenant may pay the supplement to the landlord or else the Department can pay it to the landlord. The tenant chooses the method and the Department follows those wishes.
I acknowledge this is a person-centred policy but I also know that some people would not chose to have the landlord paid directly but would prefer to go somewhere else with the money. I have in mind a particular cohort of tenants, older men in their late 60s living in flats in the city centre who are very content with their arrangements and would not wish to go into accommodation supplied by the council. They are content with their independent accommodation. In such cases where there may not be a tax compliance certificate available, will such tenants living happily in perfectly adequate accommodation be required to move?
The Labour Party was looking for tax certificates. We are only looking for PPS numbers.
Perfect. I thank the Minister as this was not quite clear. Like Senator McFadden, on many occasions I have been called to visit people who are living in very unsuitable accommodation. I called to see a young mother with a two-year old child. She accessed her flat by means of an iron stairwell at the back of a premises. The lower ground level window was broken and rats were running around the yard. There should be a system in place to prevent the council giving a rent supplement for use in that kind of accommodation.
Section 10 of the Bill amends the rules relating to the means test for the carer's allowance so as to exempt any foreign social security payments from the income disregard. This will disappoint some people whose allowance will be reduced but it brings equity to the scheme in so far as those with no foreign income are allowed less under the means test.
The Minister will have the opportunity to address the habitual residency rule that is leading some Irish people returning from abroad to care for elderly or infirm loved ones being refused a carer's allowance. I ask him to comment on whether he has done anything about this problem. The welfare tourism argument is largely spurious but some form of system for assessment of the merits of a claim from a non-habitual resident should have been provided for in this Bill. This section is about saving money in the social protection budget but these carers save money for the health budget by reducing the need for home or residential care.
I refer to a specific case where a person returned home over a year ago——
Where is the person from?
The person is Irish.
Did the person return for good?
Then there is no problem.
No, there is a problem. That person came back because her father became infirm. She has not received a carer's allowance. An appeal is pending which was to be heard in October. I spoke to the gentleman in the Department who is very nice. He told me they would treat the matter with urgency but it is now nearly Christmas.
I have asked the Department to conduct an urgent habitual residency claim appeal because there is no supplementary welfare payable. The problem is quite simple. Refusal for habitual residence happens in most cases because the person states he or she is returning temporarily. If the person returns permanently there should be no problem. I will examine the case.
I will speak about this case outside the House.
We cannot interfere with the appeals office. There is a lot of misinformation. I cannot discriminate between anybody of EU nationality coming here temporarily to care. However, when I invariably look at the Irish cases which are refused it is because they have stated they are returning temporarily to look after a relative. That is the problem with regard to the habitual residence claim as they do not qualify in such cases. A person must state the return is permanent and then there is no problem.
This person is returning permanently.
Then the full record must be checked.
I am quite sure I have checked it. I have done it properly.
The Bill has quite a number of positive provisions. I have raised some points of concern and I await the Minister's response. I am aware of the personal situations of people who have contacted me for help and I see a system that is not exactly dealing with cases in the best way. Perhaps there is an opportunity in the Bill to deal with my concerns.
I welcome the necessary changes provided for in this Bill. I refer to a point raised by Senator Prendergast relating to landlords and tenants. She is quite correct that there is a stigma attached to being a recipient of social welfare. Some landlords regard social welfare recipients as being different and troublesome. It is stated there are 150,000 claims for rent supplement and only 31,000 landlords registered. While I could be wrong in this, I understood a landlord was required to supply the necessary information on his or her annual tax return. I have come across cases where auctioneers were involved and a prospective tenant would ask the auctioneer how much rent was being sought. The auctioneer would say the amount sought was €650, but would tell the landlord he or she could only get €550. I have come across a number of cases where tenants were in arrears. At present the tenant gets the cheque directly, cashes it and squanders it. In one case it was on drink, resulting in the tenant being in arrears. I made a call to a welfare officer on behalf of a landlord and the welfare officer advised that the tenant was getting €650 but the landlord was only getting €550 from him. At the time the HSE advised me that it does not want to get involved because it does not want to become a landlord. I believe it is still the case that the tenant can make an arrangement with the landlord for direct payment to the landlord but many of them do not want to, which is a problem.
As Senator Prendergast said, I have also encountered people who are housed in inadequate accommodation because they are doing dickey-up jobs with landlords and both are getting a few quid out of it so everyone is happy. They are living in hovels that are completely unsuitable and in addition they are not keeping the place right. Neighbours are complaining about the poor state of the rented accommodation. Is the example I have given legal? Is there a way around it? Does the Bill deal with that issue adequately from the landlord's point of view? The landlords tell me that everything is weighted against the landlord and in favour of the tenant.
I welcome the transfer of responsibility for FÁS to the Department of Social Protection. It is popular to bash FÁS. While many things happened that should not, in general FÁS did considerable good work. I know instructors in FÁS and I also know people who came through courses in FÁS and were very satisfied.
There are myths about non-Irish nationals in receipt of social welfare. For example, I was told about a non-Irish national who used a social welfare cheque to buy a second-hand car for €3,000. I asked my informant if he could back it up but he did not want to give more information. When I checked it out, it transpired that the cheque related to arrears. Other myths were that they were getting mobile phones and other things for free. I would like the Minister to clarify whether that is the case because it is a pain when I have to explain this to people morning, noon and night.
They were baptised in the same church on the same day. We do not work on baptism certificates, rather on birth registration, so it is irrelevant if they were baptised 15 times in 15 different churches on the one day. It does not make a blind bit of difference, but we hear this story again and again. And everyone knows the priest who did it and found out who happened to be at the two churches in the one day and all the rest of it.
And they left the buggy in the train afterwards.
I think we could write a book on all these.
There are babysitters as well. Overall, the Bill is very welcome and considerable work went into it. It is well thought out and I look forward to its adoption.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. We had a very good debate last night when he made a comment about being a reforming Minister for Social Protection. I would love if we could have a debate, devoid of partisan politics, on social protection and on the role of the Department that was once the Department of Social Welfare.
Senator Mullen was partly correct in saying the individualisation introduced by the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, did considerable damage. The biggest attack on marriage and family has not been the passage of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill or the inclusion in today's Bill of the provisions relating to that legislation. The biggest attack on family life has been the economic policy pursued by the Government. There are families today in which children are hungry, parents are idle, and there is fear and concern. In some cases, when they walk up the stairs they are afraid to go to bed. That is the biggest attack on family life. It is not civil partnership, gay marriage or divorce, but the Government's economic policies.
I welcome the change being made in FÁS. I have immense time for the people on the front line in FÁS, the community and enterprise supervisors, training instructors and those working in the front and back offices in the agency. They provide a very sound service and I know from my dealings with FÁS people in Cork that they are fantastic people with whom to deal and work. Part of the problem we have is the malaise with the top tier where leadership is lacking. The issues regarding certification for some of the courses need to be addressed. While I may appear to be piggybacking, although I do not mean to, perhaps it is time we changed the name of FÁS and rebranded it to give it a new start. The Minister used the phrase, "Tús maith, leath na hoibre". In this case that is what needs to happen. When the people hear of FÁS they think of expensive excursions abroad and the bad courses that have not been certified.
I am concerned about the integration process. The Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Education and Skills, and Social Protection are all involved, which indicates that joined-up thinking is needed and I hope that happens. I believe the Minister said it needs to be customer centred and employment focused, and I hope that is what we will see.
We face an enormous housing challenge with thousands on housing waiting lists. Senator McFadden made some very good points in her excellent address on which the Minister should focus and I suggest he work with her. If I took her up right, she made those points in a non-partisan manner. We have a job of work to do regarding landlords. I will walk with the Minister every step of the way in this regard. I have appeared before the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, with residents who were taking on landlords. If the figures indicating there are 150,000 tenants but PPS numbers for only 31,000 are correct, it is an indictment of how badly we are doing our business. We have landlords in every university town and elsewhere who are appalling. They have no regard for the communities in which they live or for the people to whom they let their houses, and they need to be brought to task. I am in favour of a radical review of the rent supplement scheme but are the houses of the landlords participating in the scheme fit for habitation, are the landlords registered, are they tax compliant and are they looking after their tenants' needs? I fear they are not. I could bring the Minister to houses not too far from my constituency office and my house in Cork where landlords are not doing so. They do not give a damn.
I wish to deal with the partial capacity benefit provision in section 12. I am concerned about the manner in which there is a differentiation in this respect. The Minister is bringing out a model based upon on a medical evaluation rather than a social model. I am concerned about that. I spoke about this during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill last night. This will have a detrimental effect on people with disabilities.
It will not.
I believe it will. I have listened to what people working in this area have said about this. I am prepared to listen to what the Minister has to say and he can argue with me on it. We must have a multifaceted approach rather than being reductionist in our approach. I am concerned we are basing entitlement to benefit on a medical evaluation or orientation rather than a social model. In doing that, we are moving from the objectives of the national disability strategy, although I hope we are not doing so.
We are not.
The Minister can come back to me on that point. The objective of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term income support to assist people to meet reasonable accommodation costs. Senators Brady and McFadden referred to this. I despair at times in this respect. Last Saturday I canvassed people in a Cork housing estate of more than 100 houses. The houses in the front row of the estate, which are four bedroom detached houses, are all owner-occupied, but 80% of the terraced townhouses further into the estate are rented the majority by non-nationals, a term I do not like to use but I am not sure about the correct one. Senator Brady made an interesting comment in this respect. I ask the Minister to nail a perception that pertains and tell the people what the Department provides in social welfare benefits for the citizens of Ireland, citizens from other EU member states and for non-EU citizens. Those of us who canvass hear the perception that prevails that we are looking after the foreigners but are not looking after our own.
That is not the case.
That perception must be nailed on the head. The Minister has an obligation to end the growing apartheid that exists in communities in Ireland. Not a day goes by that I do not hear this, whether while canvassing, at my clinic or when I meet people. We are building a new Ireland where all people are equal and where all people are included, be they black, white, Jew, Asian, Irish, Polish, Lithuanian or African and be they from the four corners of the world. I want to prevent a growing divide between people of different orientations. That should not be the way. We all live in Irish communities. I hope the Minister will address that concern because we need to guard against such a divide. There is an undercurrent of tension that is becoming volatile and vocal and I am genuinely concerned such an undercurrent will explode.
I very much welcome the provision in sections 15 and 16 of measures to commence sections of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act. The legislation providing for that was the best legislation enacted in the Oireachtas in this calendar year. It recognises same sex couples who have opted, as the Minister said, to register their civil partnership. It is important we recognise that. I listened to what Senator Mullen said about this and I heard his drum beat. That legislation was progressive and it is to be welcomed.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí ar fad a labhair ar an mBille. Dúradh go leor rudaí spéisiúla.
I thank all the Senators who contributed. I am sure they do not want me to go back over all the points they raised but there are a few issues on which I wish to touch. There is much talk about emigration. I checked outward migration figures, which I do not have with me but which I can provide to the Senator. The reality is that the net outward migration figure was 27,000 Irish people last year. There is quite an outward migration of non-Irish nationals, which is to be expected. However, there is no huge haemorrhage of citizens. For many years the number of Irish people returning exceeded the number of Irish leaving the country. In 2009 the figures were even and in 2010 there was a net outward migration of people. However, the figures are not as alleged. It is simple to take the total outward migration figures and say that there are a great number of people leaving the country. People are leaving the country but many of them never intended to stay in the first instance because they are not Irish, their roots are not here, their families are in their home country and they came on a temporary basis to work here, and regardless of whether the tiger economy had continued, they would have returned home.
There is a phobia at times among a certain section of our population regarding non-Irish people. No matter what I do or how often I disabuse people of some of the greater myths in our society, I hear the same myths again the next day, such as buggies being handed out like Smarties, that we buy cars for people, and that we feed dogs. I was also told the myth by a person that every Nigerian here is claiming for ten people, to which I replied that was fantastic news because that means there are only 264 Nigerians claiming jobseeker's allowance in the country. The actual figure is 2,600. That is the position if one were to check the facts.
There was also the famous ash cloud. We provided all the information on the number of applicants who did not claim benefits at that time. The information indicates that more than 80% of the people who did not claim on that day were the same in terms of those who do not claim every week of the year and they happen to be Irish. When one does an analysis and includes British nationals and other nationalities living here in receipt of social welfare benefit, who could not be flying here on cheap flights from Pakistan, Australia or whatever, one finds that the number of eastern Europeans was minuscule and was no different from the number any other week.
I asked a social welfare officer why they tolerate such applicants not turning up, and he said these are people in receipt of unemployment payments who are not the greatest for turning up on time. He said they knew these people were not working and were in the country but were the type of person who would always forget their appointment and one had to have a benign view and believe nothing untoward was happening. The officers call in these applicants and sort them out. The myth continues to be kept alive, however, and all I can say in this debate is that we do not pay money for buggies, we do not buy cars for people and everyone in the system is treated equally.
This goes to the heart of the issue concerning the habitual residency clause, HRC. Under EU law it is not possible to treat a citizen of Ireland any differently from a citizen of any other member state of the EU. If an Irish person comes home permanently and gives the correct information, there should not be a difference in terms of the HRC. Invariably I find in such cases that a person has come home to care for a relative and the person says that he or she has come home for a year or two, will return to where they came from or that his or her family is there. There is a problem in this respect in regard to the HRC, but in trying to address that problem, which I recognise and for which I have empathy, I must do so on an EU-wide citizenship basis, and that is the dilemma. We are rewriting the rules and I must do that consistently and within EU standards. I am willing to debate this issue to ascertain whether there is a way of resolving and improving it.
We have made a significant improvement in the process, without in any way compromising the HRC, in terms of the safe home programme. We helped those concerned to get us all the information we needed and we got an extra certification from them that they were satisfied that these people did not have any resources in any other country and that they were coming home permanently. The people who come home on the safe home programme are vulnerable emigrants who hit hard times and came home to stay. They were very happy because we had told them exactly what was the required in terms of paperwork and showed them how to get the information needed to help us make a decision. Sometimes first time around people provide insufficient information.
With regard to rent allowance, it is true that traditionally we received relatively few personal public service, PPS, numbers, although the position has improved recently. That is not to say those in receipt of rent allowance were not tax compliant; we give all of the names and addresses of those receiving rent allowance from the Department to the Revenue Commissioners. Surveys are conducted and 70% to 80%, or even higher, are tax compliant. We are doing something basic as a first step in asking for PPS numbers. It will be very easy to send such numbers to the Revenue Commissioners and carry out data matching which should get us to a positon where there will virtually be 100% tax compliance.
There was an issue raised in the Dáil concerning tax clearance certificates, which, for a number of reasons, should possibly be included in the next phase. There are a number of issues to be dealt with. If a person produces a tax clearance certificate for a property that is to be rented, all it will state is that taxes have been properly paid up to that date. It will not prove that the person concerned will pay tax on the rent received for that property. There are certain issues to be dealt with in that respect. If the Revenue Commissioners know a person is renting a certain property, on which we provide information such as PPS numbers, it will be very simple for them to ensure the property in question is accounted for in a tax return. I cannot see how that is not foolproof in regard to personal income.
I have spoken to the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, about reforming the sector. There are cases in which people refuse two or three offers of accommodation from the local authority, either under the rental accommodation scheme——
That does not happen in County Westmeath.
No, as nothing wrong ever happens in County Westmeath, but it happens in the rest of the country. The issue must be dealt with. There is no point in having local authority houses empty and the State paying on the double. We must tackle the problem.
The payment of rent supplement interferes with people's ability to take up jobs because of the way the scheme is structured. It should only be a temporary measure. I favour the social integration for which rent supplement sometimes provides, rather than having everybody segregated in housing estates. We have seen the problems which have been caused as a result in certain cities. Rent supplement facilitates social integration, which is one of the good points of the rental accommodation scheme. We are not putting less well-off persons in a single place which has created problems in the past.
There is a peculiar arrangement in place with regard to the Private Residential Tenancies Board which the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, and I want to address. Currently, a tenancy begins before the Department informs the PRTB with which the landlord is then obliged to register. It is a little like getting guests to stay in a hotel before obliging it to register with Fáilte Ireland. It seems a very bad way to ensure the process is correct. Rather than registering the tenancy with the PRTB, the first obligation should be to register the property with the board which should, in turn, inform the local authority which should then inspect the property to ensure compliance with standards, including the building energy rating standards. Despite popular myth, the level of fuel poverty is higher in rented accommodation than one-off housing.
There is a lot of potential for reform and the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, and I are dealing with the issue. We hope to produce a headline agenda. I hope the House will consider the small changes to be made with regard to PPS numbers as one small step in introducing a comprehensive set of reforms. I have always believed in the jigsaw approach, with many small pieces forming a coherent big picture. If one opts for a big bang approach — producing the picture in one step — one will often get nowhere because a single piece might hold back the effort made. I am committed to completing the process.
Senator Mullen referred to Tús. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Connick, has provided materials for small coastal works. That will not be of much use in County Westmeath, but it will prove beneficial in other counties. We will provide the labour. There is a lot of State money available that could be used to much better effect in availing of schemes and using materials from relevant front-line Departments, including those responsible for the Gaeltacht and arts, sport and tourism. We will consider such issues.
I keep hearing the myth that there is double claiming, in respect of which certain sectors are always accused. Some are indigenous such as the Traveller community which is always accused of this by the public at large. Certain residents from other countries who have come to live here are also accused of it, with certain nationalities attracting the accusation like a lightning rod. The evidence I have is that such claims are untrue. There are only 35,000 Travellers. As such, some of the myths are out of kilter with reality. The production of the card will help to sort out the issue and if there is such a practice, it will be stopped as a result. It will also put the debate to bed, while protecting people's good name. In fraud control we must separate myth from fact. With better control systems, sections of society can be protected from allegations.
If we have a system that makes such practices nearly impossible, we can be almost sure they will not be followed. Assisting people to get back to work and return to education in order that they will not sit on jobseeker's payments is very important to me. All of the medical and sociological evidence indicates that unemployment is very bad for people, for whom it is not a natural state. In the budget we announced the creation of 15,000 places; the constraint is not money but rather that it takes time for such processes to be put in place. This morning I met people who were interested in getting the unemployed onto schemes in a hurry. They made an interesting point which confirmed my experience. They said it could not be done in a hurry because as a result of the requirement to seek Garda clearance and to engage in selection processes, etc. we would be talking about a period of three or four months to get people into position. I fully recognise this, but if we start today rather than in a month's time, we will get there one month earlier. However, it will still take time. When we came up with the figure of 15,000, it was not considered small; we wanted to be realistic about what would be achievable in a period of one year. Community groups will identify jobs and there are other processes required to be followed to get people into jobs. This takes time. I stress that it is wrong to have people engaged in mindless work. It should be meaningful for the participant, host and community to ensure we get something practical out of it.
There are 22,000 participants in community employment schemes, with 5,000 participating in the rural social scheme and the community services programme. There are 23,000 in receipt of the back to education allowance, which brings the total close to 50,000 people. There are approximately 10,000 participating in work activation schemes, bringing the total to 60,000 and there are the 15,000 places announced to be added. There are also training schemes.
Deputy Mattie McGrath secured the extra 15,000 places.
If he did, he did not speak to me about it. I thought I mentioned in September the approximately 10,000 places which many believed had disappeared. People said I had forgotton about them, had not succeeded or was in trouble. I love to say when people have given up that I have got something. We should now fill these places.
I was a little surprised by the comments made on the disability issue. There must be a system in place with clear criteria if money is being paid. One of the challenges is to ensure the provision of a flexible system that is fair, open and understandable with regard to the terms and conditions to be applied. We can consider the current position on the issue of invalidity. At present, a person on invalidity or long-term illness benefit can apply for an exemption to do rehabilitative work for one year for a maximum of 30 hours per week. If, as is often the case, not everything worked out perfectly over the year, a further exemption of one year is possible. At the end of this period, the person must choose either to work full time without the invalidity benefit or cease employment and continue to avail of invalidity benefit. The former option presumes the unlikely scenario that a person whose capacity to work was so limited that he or she was approved for invalidity benefit will, by virtue of work, be able to overcome his or her underlying incapacity and suddenly be able to compete, on a stand-alone basis, in the commercial economy. The theory behind this option is that the person will be cured by work. While I do not have any doubt that employment makes a major contribution to well-being, irrespective of whether one has an incapacity, it requires a stretch of the imagination to believe work cures underlying physical or mental incapacities. Without being facetious, let me take an extreme case of a person who has lost an arm. Working will not give such a person his or her arm back. The theory behind the current scheme is that this is precisely what work would do. One would be recapacitated, as it were, to the extent that one could participate in full employment.
I have been contacted by individuals who had been granted a one year exemption. After the year elapses, they point out to me that they secured employment and retained their payment but must keep the payment as their job does not provide sufficient payment. For this reason, they want to continue to work and retain their payment. They wake up in the morning with a smile on their faces because they have a job to go to. The current scheme forces people who are in this position either to continue to work and lose their invalidity payment or leave their job and retain it. Is that not how the system works?
These are the circumstances experienced by real people, those who visit our clinics, and they do not conform to some sociological theory.
Under the proposal, a person will be able to avail of an exemption for one year for training and so forth. If, at some point during this year, he or she wishes to work, a medical assessment as opposed to a social or other form of assessment will be done. We must bear in mind that the person will have been awarded an invalidity payment for medical reasons. If the person has an 80% capacity to work, he or she will then work.
Who will conduct the medical assessment?
It will be done by the Department. I have asked the Joint Committee on Social Protection to invite the chief medical officer of the Department, who is an expert on occupational medicine, to come before it to explain in detail how the medical assessment is carried out. Senator McFadden should note, however, that the Department already makes a fine call when deciding whether an applicant is entitled to invalidity pension on medical grounds. Its decision is based not on the applicant's condition but on his or her ability to work.
Senators will have encountered cases of people being refused invalidity pension and disability allowance on the basis that while their disability or invalidity is recognised, questions arise as to whether it is such that they are deemed unfit for work. Members have made submissions on decisions to refuse invalidity and illness benefit claims. Given that doctors who certify an applicant focus on the medical condition, applicants are often outraged when a payment is declined. This is based, however, on a misreading of the law. The legislation does not provide that the condition is the overriding factor. Instead, the issue is whether the condition prevents a person from working. To give a notable example, a Member of the Houses who has a severe disability is fully able to function. However, he would not be able to work as a road worker or plasterer.
The proposal refines the current position by allowing people to continue to receive a full invalidity payment, if they so wish. Those who wish to work will be allowed to work, depending on their capacity to work, and receive the full dependent adult allowance, full child dependant allowance and a proportion of the personal payment. Persons in such circumstances will be allowed to work not for one or two years but for as long as they wish, subject to periodic medical assessment to ensure they have not been miraculously cured. This novel and improved approach needs to be tried.
When I explain the proposal to people who have had exemptions they tell me the new mechanism is brilliant and will solve their problem as they will no longer be constrained by the 30 hour requirement or the level of income they earn. Even if the payment amounts to only half of the personal rate, they will be free to work without questions being asked. We should give the new system a chance.
As far as I can ascertain, this approach is being adopted by other European countries. From my dealings with the chief medical officer, I believe the Department has carefully examined how the proposal will work in practice. It will work well and improve the circumstances of a significant number of individuals. The legislation must be passed to allow me to pursue this option.
Senators should note that the proposal will not prevent a person from receiving a one year exemption under the rehabilitative model — that provision remains — nor does it force anyone to avail of the new mechanism. It provides an additional choice and does not involve any compulsion. When I spoke about this matter previously someone alleged compulsion would be involved. This is an extra weapon in our armoury and it is one that does not involve any compulsion.
As I stated, having been somewhat sceptical about the proposal when I was appointed Minister, I have become an enthusiastic proponent of this model and have driven it as quickly as possible. It is the beginning of a much better way of doing our business for those with disabilities under social welfare legislation.