There are 92,000 lone parent families in Ireland, which is a larger number than in other European Union countries. There are about 154,000 children in lone-parent families.
The purpose of this particular section is to end the current transitional payment to lone parents who take up employment where they have an income of more than €425 per week. This transitional payment to lone parents was only introduced in 2001 and was a new development in the social welfare system at that stage. It was introduced for a period of one year. It was abolished completely in 2004 because it was felt it did not have much effect. In 2005, it was brought back on a six month basis. At any one time, up to about 200 lone parents may claim it. However, it does affect people who have an income. I am at pains to stress that the change does not affect anybody who is currently in receipt of it. They will continue to receive it for the full six months.
I said before that any and all of the cuts in this budget are difficult. We need to have a debate about the outcomes for lone parents in Ireland. I have heard what everybody has said about the higher risk of poverty among lone parents, and the study referred to by Senator White shows that for lone parents, pensioners, jobseekers and others on social welfare income, the biggest factor in reducing poverty is actually our social welfare system. Our social welfare system is a very profound economic stimulus. The chart in the CSO report shows that our very generous social welfare system massively reduces the incidence of poverty, and that is very important. That is why, having looked at the data, I made a strategic decision to seek to maintain the basic core payment to lone parents, pensioners and so on, and to maintain the core rate of child benefit at the €140 threshold. I felt that this was the best way of maintaining the core income of people on social welfare across a wide range.
It was suggested that we cut the basic rates of social welfare, but as I said, lone parents have taken a cut of €16 in the basic rate over the last two budgets, while couples on social welfare have taken a cut of €27 per week in the basic rate. If child benefit was to be cut by €10 per month, then somebody who has six children would suffer a loss of €60 per month. However, there is no change at all to the rate of payment for the first two children. While many commentators wanted flat rate cuts across the board, the changes have been managed in a way that conserves core family income to the greatest extent possible consistent with the requirement to make these large savings in social welfare.
When I became a member of the Cabinet, the cuts on the table in the Department of Finance were for more than €600 million. That had come down from €800 million. It came down because, unfortunately, we have an extra 40,000 people unemployed. That is one of the core problems with the economy.
I would like to return to the issue of lone parents. As Senator White said, I have spoken about this before and I am very interested in it. The lone parent's allowance — the unmarried mother's allowance as it was called then — was introduced by the late Frank Cluskey. It was introduced in a situation where the only choice for women parenting on their own, if they could not get family support, was to move abroad. In many cases, children were institutionalised. The introduction of this allowance in the 1970s was one of the contributing factors to institutions closing down in the following decade. That was one of the great positive things in Irish social history. However, 40 years later we have to ask ourselves as a society why the outcomes for lone parent families are still worse than any of us here would like, particularly in respect of children. People who have worked in the area would say that those among the 92,000 lone parents who have the worst indication of poverty are those who have left school early and not completed their education. Having not completed their education or gone back to education, their prospects of becoming economically independent and moving away from total reliance on social welfare are stymied in the system that we have developed.
Everybody who is concerned about good outcomes for lone parents and their children really has to think about all this. As Minister for Social Protection, I have an objective to see the outcome for lone parents improved. I will be saying a couple of things to my colleagues in the Cabinet, bearing in mind that I and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs are the only two women Ministers. We know that lack of access to quality education is a limiting factor. We also know that lack of access to child care, especially good quality child care, is another limiting factor. I want to say to my colleagues in the Government — as I have said to them in private — that changes in the lone parent's allowance over five to seven years to move closer to the Nordic model are dependent on improving child care and access to child care at the same time.
I welcome what Senator White said about the small number of women in the Cabinet. There is an issue here. If there were a greater number of women, as happens in the Nordic countries, we would reach a tipping point where the argument about the quality and availability of educational opportunity and child care would become the common currency of political discussion. That is something about which we need to have a conversation.
I am not sure that the Department of Social Protection, hopefully in five or ten years' time, should be primarily interested in the relationship status of somebody as the determining factor in their description of a wider Irish society. I hope we move to a day when there are "parents" and "children". It may be useful for social income purposes but, for example, I have never been happy about a school being described as having many children with lone parents. Some people who may otherwise be very caring seem to have a sense that lone parents have less ability. I share Senator Norris's concerns with regard to the other parent. We are coming up to Christmas, but apart from such special circumstances people have two parents. We need to have a deeper debate.
The study published recently by the ESRI is very interesting. Senator Mooney referred to this and drew my attention to it and I have had a look at it. It shows that although there has been divorce in Ireland for 15 years the incidence of second marriage in Ireland is exceptionally low and the incidence of second or third cohabiting relationships is very low. The authors of the study wondered whether this is influenced by the structure of lone parenting we have built up in the social welfare system. They did not go into it any further but they wondered why in other countries people remarry. People might have a child early in a relationship in their late teens or 20s. Perhaps this relationship does not last and they then parent on their own. In many cases they will meet somebody else and may have another child or children. The study asked whether people are inhibited by the structure we have developed from being involved in a second publicly-acknowledged relationship or a second marriage. Irish society does not seem to do this.
We have changed in the sense that when the payment was introduced there was an element of stereotyping of people. Are people interested in other people's relationship status?