Social Welfare and Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013: Committee Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."

I agree with Senator Cullinane on this point, on which I have spoken before in committee and in the House. For people who work all their lives and are obliged to retire at 65, because that is what their contracts state, and who perhaps get a lump sum having paid into a pension scheme, it is very unfair they are means tested for three months before they go onto the State pension. Does the Minister know whether the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation can change this? Does the finish date come under employment law? Perhaps we should find out whether the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation can change this and allow people the option, if they want it, to retire at 65 or to work on until pension age.

It is very unfair that people are getting caught in this trap of having to be means tested for three months. As with the transitional jobseeker's payment for lone parents and retained fire fighters, it might be possible to make a change in this regard. Why would a person have to be available for work at 65 years of age when it is very unlikely that person is going to be employed by anyone? The Minister might consider extending this facility to such people also.

The Minister is welcome. These are two very useful amendments-----

The amendments are out of order. We are speaking on the section.

I understand that. I am speaking to the section and the substantive element of the amendments, although I understand they are out of order. The thrust of what Senator Cullinane is trying to achieve is very useful but we will have to find the right place to bring in the amendments. I agree that any employer who has had a finding made against it of unfair dismissal should reimburse the State with the unfairly dismissed former employee's social welfare payments for the period that applies. I would support Senator Moloney on the point that once a person comes to the age of 65, he or she should not be forced to actively seek employment, and that perhaps it would be optional at that point.

With regard to the first amendment, this is really a matter for the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation because the legislation in regard to employment terms and conditions is a matter for that Department. I assume this is the primary reason the amendment was ruled out of order.

The Department of Social Protection took over the administration of the redundancy and insolvency payments over two years ago. The Senators will know the very hardworking staff in the Department of Social Protection have cleared what had become an enormous backlog. I know Senators Mooney, Moloney and others had dealt with quite a few difficult cases where getting redundancy proved to be a very long structure. My Department, which, as I said, now administers the scheme, has cleared the backlog and has developed IT to allow people to be paid redundancy and insolvency payments within a much faster timeframe, provided the various notifications have been given. As I said, however, the legislation is a matter for the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and we do not have charge of it.

With regard to jobseeker's allowance and the requirement to be actively seeking work, it is important to note that persons who qualified for jobseeker's benefit and who are aged between 65 and 66 years are generally entitled to receive payments until the date on which they reach pensionable age.

It is for 12 months.

I will be coming back to this in any event as we are examining the legislation surrounding it.

In the context of the budget, it is important to understand that in terms of the sustainability of Irish debt, one of the agreements made with the troika in 2010 was to review pension conditionality and pension ages. That review, which was agreed by the former Government in 2010 and formed part of the conditionality of the deal Ireland struck with the troika, has resulted in a much greater sustainability of the Irish social welfare system overall.

It is important to recognise that while people would not receive the full State pension, transition, which is disappointing for many people, they will be entitled to jobseeker's benefit. I agree with Senator Healy Eames that it may be possible to consider changing employment legislation in regard to allowing people to develop contractual rights to work for the longer period. Again, unfortunately, like the last point, that is not within the remit of my Department. However, it is certainly something I would be very happy to see consideration given to by the appropriate Minister.

I thank the Minister for her helpful response. On the first issue she raised, we will take it up with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. There might be an appropriate way to raise it in legislation he will bring before the House on other issues.

On the issue of pensions and jobseeker's benefit, my difficulty is in regard to low paid workers, who tend to be blue collar workers and people who do more physical work. While I accept the Minister's point in regard to looking at contracts, I do not want to again get into the whole debate about increasing the pension age. However, there is an issue in that very physical manual work takes a toll on a person's body, and to force such workers to work longer to 66 and perhaps even up to 68, if that is where we eventually go, is not really where we should be going. I see it as a matter of choice, not something we force people to do. Whatever we need to do in regard to changing the law on contracts, there are people whose current contracts will finish at 65. It is unreasonable to expect those people to go onto jobseeker's benefit at that point in their lives. It is my view that they should get the pension, although that is another issue. I thank the Minister for her clarification on both of the issues.

The practice in social welfare offices throughout the country in regard to older people is what I would call highly pragmatic. I have not heard of many cases of, as the Senator suggests, people being forced. In fact, I would say the one thing notable for its absence in the Irish social welfare system is anybody being forced. What we have is a highly organised support structure to enable people to go back to education, training and employment.

It is also important to recognise that, alongside the people to whom the Senator referred, who may find difficulty working as they become older because they have been doing hard manual work or outdoor work, there are many older people who want to work for a longer period of time. There are two sides to this. Because of advances in nutrition, medicine, lifestyles and so on, there are many people in this position. I heard someone on a radio programme the other day suggesting 50 was the new 30, so I suppose we can all live in hope. Because of this, there is a significant number of people who would like to be able to work longer, perhaps with diminished hours and so on.

That is why I am a strong supporter of extending contractual rights for people working to later ages. That legislation is not the responsibility of my Department. Longevity in Ireland is climbing very rapidly thanks to nutrition, standards of living and lifestyle patterns. It is anticipated in all developed countries that there is a significant number of people who would like to be engaged in the workforce for a longer period. Equally, there are other people for whom that may be more difficult. We should remember that if people have serious physical difficulties, our disability provisions within social welfare legislation are generous in comparison with any European country.

I wish to clarify something. I do not expect the Minister to reply. The point I was making was about people being forced to work. I agree with her about choice and if people want to work longer, I fully support their right to do so. I was talking about a situation where the pension age has been changed to 66 and could increase, thereby forcing people to work longer. When people have jobs that are physical in nature, it does take a toll on their bodies and they should not be forced to work until they are 66, 67 or 68. We have not properly thought that through. I was not talking about the social welfare services being inflexible or forcing people to do anything. I am talking about people being forced to work longer or go on to jobseeker's benefit because the pension age was increased. These are people who might have worked in industry or construction and because of the nature of the job, it is unreasonable to expect them to work longer.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 4 and 5 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 7, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following:

"Social Welfare Appeals

6. The Social Welfare Appeals Office shall ensure that all appeals are processed and responded to within 21 days of receipt of the application to appeal a decision.".

I am sure the Minister will agree that the staff in the social welfare appeals offices do a very good job. I would certainly admit that. We all deal with people who come to our offices with a range of social welfare problems whose applications are at appeal stage and who come to us to get some information about what stage their application is at. There seems to be a problem with how long people wait for their appeal decision to be made. If we accept that, we must look at where the problem lies and how we solve it. There is a problem that needs to be addressed and resolved.

I looked back over the debate on Committee Stage in the Dáil. The Minister will be reluctant to be prescriptive in putting a timeframe into legislation. I can see a logic in that. I accept that there needs to be flexibility and that there are occasions where having a longer time period might suit the person who has made the claim because he or she might need to provide documentation. At the same time, it is reasonable for us to look at what is an appropriate level of time during which an appeal should be heard. We would say it is 21 days.

If the Minister is not in a position to accept the amendment, I would ask her to look at a number of issues that add to the problem. The most obvious one is that there has been a reduction in numbers in the public service and an increase in the number of people seeking payments. This obviously has consequences. I accept that more people looking for payments means more applications for all social welfare payments and a greater burden and workload for the Department. This comes back to the public service embargo and whether we are properly resourcing Departments that need to be resourced. If we have an increase in the workload, we should make sure there are sufficient staff there to make sure the applications can be processed as quickly as possible and that people are not waiting unduly for their payments.

Medical assessments are another issue. I recently discussed this with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. We simply do not have enough medical assessors. This is the case even with people applying for social housing and transfers on medical grounds. I can give an example in Waterford City Council where the medical officer comes in two or three times a year. This person must get through a huge workload involving a considerable volume of applications. The assessor is really only skimming over the applications, which do not get the attention they deserve. The tendency is often to refuse the application, let it go to appeal and then have a look at it. As a result of that and possibly the shortage of medical assessors, social welfare officers simply refuse applications and say the person can appeal and provide any supporting documentation that might be needed.

My colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, made the point to the Minister in the Dáil that we could look at improvements in technology, making it easier for people to know the status of the claims and the possibility of an appeal or application number. If one had such a number, one could go online and track it to see where the payment is. I sit on the Constitutional Convention where we had a very good discussion about our electoral and political system. One issue that arose is the notion of localism and clientelism in Irish politics, its impact on the national Legislature and the fact that national politicians carry out a significant amount of work serving constituents. If we are honest, very often much of that work involves trying to get information for people that they should be able to get themselves. Someone could come into my office or that of any Senator or Deputy having applied for a payment three months ago and having not heard anything about it. They simply want to find out what stage their application is at. They try to contact the offices or the appeal numbers but it can be almost an impossible task. They leave their phone number and message but do not receive a return call. We are disempowering those citizens.

We should be empowering citizens and making sure people can get the information themselves without having to go to politicians. The system lends itself to people being forced to politicians to get information. We have direct line numbers as Members of the Oireachtas and can make contact directly with different Departments and get the information for them. Is that really our job? Should there be better public interfaces? This is very relevant in the context of the amendment to section 6 because there is much reform in this area that is being progressed by the Minister and there is much in this Bill that I support. There are some measures I do not support but there are many I do support. However, we need to look at other models. For example, there are one-stop-shops in the UK where a person can give his or her national insurance number, see what application is there and properly track it and get the information themselves. They do not have to go to politicians. I am not saying people should not go to politicians. I am simply saying that in most cases, they only go because they cannot get the information themselves. A holistic approach is necessary to reduce the waiting times for a decision on an application and an appeal.

Our amendment is very specific in respect of time periods. I am second-guessing the Minister by assuming she is not going to accept the amendment. If she will not accept it, she might address the reasons people wait so long for a decision on an appeal to be made. Where are the pressure points, how do we address them and how do we make the process quicker and more efficient so that people get their payments as quickly as possible?

I agree with the sentiment behind Senator Cullinane's amendment. We need to reduce time in the appeals office but stipulating that it must be turned around in 21 days is a bit unrealistic. I have found that instead of going straight to the appeals office, a significant percentage of appeals are medically based. Much of that was due to the fact that one could only claim disability benefit for two years.

One has nowhere to go, one applies for either disability allowance or invalidity pension and the conditions are much tighter. Now people are being refused and are going to the appeals system. I have found, however, that if one asks for a review before the appeal it is much quicker. I have worked extensively with medical assessors for several people. They should not have to come to me. Senator Cullinane's one-stop-shop is a very good idea. The public can go in and deal with a person, just as we get information when we ring the Oireachtas line and pass it on. Why not let the customers get the information themselves in the new Intreo offices? They should be set up to give the public the information it needs. We need to change the mindset of people so that they stop going to politicians and go to the one-stop-shops or Intreo offices to get the information they require. I agree that we need to reduce the times. The medical assessors work hard. The Minister might in due course ensure that a one-stop-shop is set up in the Intreo offices to deal specifically with public inquiries across the range of social welfare benefits.

I thank Senator Cullinane for this amendment. I see merit in having a time limit on appeals because we get many queries on this issue and some of the waiting times last months. I know of one case where it was 18 months. To limit it to 21 days would be dangerous if it cannot be met. The Minister might say something about this issue and what she might consider reasonable. The waiting times at the moment are too long. I have had to bring some urgent cases to the Minister for her assistance and then the payment was forthcoming but that is not the way we should be doing our business. Will the Minister say what stage the one-stop-shop is at?

We are rolling out the new Intreo offices, which are integrated, around the country. We have a constraint. The OPW is our agent in getting new or refurbished premises. Understandably this takes some time. I had the pleasure, however, of being in the Killarney office recently with Senator Moloney, which is a new Intreo office and it really has transformed and improved the quality of service. Similarly, in the north west the Taoiseach and I opened the Sligo office which has made a significant difference to the experience of people going in for a range of social welfare measures. We hope to have all the offices rolled out and completed by the end of next year, along with the roll-out of the public services card, the facility to take people's photographs and to take electronic signatures. In some offices which are not fully physically converted we are able to do the personal services card and electronic signing. There are more than 250,000 such cards operational and it is the subject of a section in this Bill that we will roll this out to other social welfare recipients. At the moment it is for jobseekers and people who are new to the system and we will extend it to existing customers. That is a very positive move.

When I came into the Department in 2009 the previous Government had changed the duration of illness benefit from indefinite to two years. I said at the time it was an appropriate reform because at any one time, 16% of our working age population is on some kind of illness-related social welfare payment. Given the level of health and nutrition in the country that is quite an extraordinary figure. Once that two-year limit was brought in from 2011 there was a significant number of people coming out of illness benefit entitlement resulting in a very big spike in appeals for other entitlements such as disability and invalidity. We have done a complete reform of carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance, family income supplement and I have advised Members in the past of the changes that are ongoing where we have totally renewed the IT platforms. The consequence has been - and much of this has happened in the north midlands and north-west region - that in the Longford office, where many of these claims were processed, there has been a huge reduction in the backlogs and we no longer have any backlog in family income supplements. We have additional improvements to the structures. I wish to assure Senators that part of the spike was due to more people being unemployed and the other part due to the changes in conditions that were being brought in.

There are very significant improvements, for example, the time taken has come down from 52.5 weeks, almost a year, to 36.5 weeks which is just over half a year. Senator Cullinane needs to be cautious about what he wishes for in asking for a time limit of 21 days on appeals because that would mean a very strong tightening up of our whole system for application, appeals and review. In many other countries an applicant for an appeal has one shot. If one prepares one's appeal inadequately, rather like buying an airline ticket, the application fails if one misses a box. We certainly can require and develop both the forms and the quality of the information that people must provide before an appeal is accepted as complete. In the Irish system we allow scope for reviews. As Senator Moloney has said people could perhaps stay their hand on the appeal and opt instead for a review, particularly in the many cases where people have not submitted adequate medical evidence.

I understand the Senators' point about these cases. One of the problems is that our medical assessors make the judgment on medical grounds and we appointed two additional assessors in March, another one currently and we are hoping to take on another medical assessor by September and to organise another recruitment panel. We have also taken on 15 extra appeals officers who have had to be trained up. If people do not present a full statement, backed by medical evidence of their claim, they have a very reduced chance of success. Some people who put in an appeal might be better off discussing the additional evidence they need to support that appeal and getting that medical evidence. We have completely revised the timelines, the information and the application for instance, in respect of the domiciliary care allowance to assist parents who are applying. Now if the case were coming up for review they would get three months' notification.

People have two further months to gather together the appropriate medical evidence regarding their children. The measure has worked well for many people. We have also had extensive consultation with parents' representatives on the quality of application forms. There is no limit on improving many of the forms. They are public administrative forms for the spending of public money and, therefore, must contain a lot of administrative detail. I am a strong supporter of the campaign for plain English or Irish. I want to ensure that one does not need letters after one's name in order to fill in these forms. Work on the forms is ongoing.

The new Intreo service is being rolled out. I hope that we will develop more specific services for areas such as rent supplement and appeals because many of the latter relate to disability.

We rely on the co-operation and support of the Office of Public Works for the physical regeneration of a building. I wish to inform Senator Moloney that we opened an office in Dundalk over four months ago. Recently I visited the office and vouch that there has been a tremendous improvement. It offers more privacy, dignity and a nicer atmosphere for the staff of the Department and clients or customers. The common reception desks are a feature of the new Intreo offices; Senator Zappone has visited the Tallaght office. A person can approach these desks, state what he or she needs, receive the required form and then a dedicated interview slot, within a relatively short period. The adoption of the Intreo system has almost done away with the need for people to go on supplementary welfare allowances. The number of people availing of the allowance has fallen very dramatically. The new scheme allows for very early decision-making, particularly in the case of jobseekers.

I do not propose to accept the amendment. As I said, the current system allows people to apply, receive extra information and conduct reviews rather than just one chance and one is out. There is a lot to be said for the current system. I am cautious about what the 21-day deadline might mean in practice.

I accept the logic behind much of what the Minister has said. I welcome the roll-out of the Intreo offices but I hope that the south east and Waterford will get one soon.

I shall be delighted to do that and I shall attend in person. I hope that the Senator will be inside the office rather than outside.

Well said, Minister.

Senator Cullinane will attend if he is invited.

I am always invited.

I shall be delighted to provide the Senator with an invitation.

I am sure, in line with the traditions of the Labour Party, that the Minister would like people to be inside or outside of the office making their feelings known.

The rolling out of Intreo offices has been a very good idea and I welcome the improved service. At present when people attend their social welfare office they will encounter long queues, a lack of privacy, an inability to get information and a rushed service. The Minister will be aware that the same applies to community welfare offices which mostly provide clinics. I know that the Waterford community welfare office opens for three days a week for just two hours and people wishing to avail of its services must collect a ticket and wait in line. Unfortunately, people are not always seen on the day so must seek assistance from their politicians.

I welcome the extra posts for medical assessors. It is an important measure but we must wait to see if it will improve the situation.

The ability for people to get proper medical documentation to support their claim is an issue. In some cases they must go to a consultant for the documentation. One of the problems that I have discovered is that medical assessors are increasingly placing less value on letters from GPs. Sometimes there might be a good reason for doing so because GPs write letters-----

-----that are very general in nature and do not properly support the application. The CWOs, social welfare officers, appeals officers and medical assessors seem to prefer consultant reports and place more value on them. That makes sense but it is more difficult for people to get a letter from a consultant. The problem also relates to the recruitment embargo and staffing issues.

A valid point was made about referrals. I always advise a person who has had his or her application turned town to seek a referral. The Minister mentioned her support for the campaign for forms in plain English and to provide people with information in plain English. The option of a referral is not always clearly outlined in the letter of refusal for an application. I have read these letters of refusals several times and there was no mention of a referral just the option to lodge an appeal. It must be clearly conveyed to people that they do not have to opt for an appeal straight away and they can opt for an internal referral first. The referral option has not been properly communicated to people and I ask the Minister to pursue the matter.

Earlier I sought an improvement in the online service and suggested the provision of tracking numbers. An improved online presence would complement the work of Intreo offices. Such measures would improve the experience for people and ensure that they can access information quicker.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Question proposed: "That section 6 stand part of the Bill."

I would appreciate the Minister's guidance on the following. Does the section extend PRSI contributions to people with an income from a trade or profession?

There is a view that the provision may prove contentious given the lack of extra entitlements that will accrue to those individuals despite the extension. My party believes that the provision does not address the long-term deficit of the Social Insurance Fund and the range of benefits that it should support. The bottom line is that the self-employed will continue to be excluded from a range of benefits. Perhaps the Minister can explain why she has introduced this limited benefit extension.

The purpose of the section is to extend PRSI to the private income of public servants who have a public service income. For example, hospital consultants may have a significant private income. The last report by the VHI stated that 300 hospital consultants earned in excess of €100,000 from their private income via the VHI. For historical reasons the private income was not subject to PRSI. Section 6 proposes to extend the PRSI provisions to their private income and I anticipate that it will yield a modest but important additional €12 million to the collection of PRSI here. The provision will help to bridge the gap between the commitments given to people who have contributed to the Social Insurance Fund and the fund's deficit.

We have discussed the fund's deficit before. Last year I published an actuarial review that showed how much the deficit had grown. Obviously the current deficit has grown due to the large number of people who are unemployed and are claiming benefits such as jobseeker's benefit. As we have discussed on a number of occasions, the population of older people is growing. It is great that people can retire.

However, the annual cost to the social welfare system of providing for the extra retirement payments is approximately €200 million per year. It was an anomaly that people paid PRSI on all their income, except this group. The amendment is to extend it to this group. Because it comprises public servants who have entitlements to public service pensions, it is important that they contribute in the same way as those whose entire income is in the public service or the private sector and pay PRSI on it.

May I clarify that this applies to hospital consultants only, not the wider self-employed sector?

It applies essentially to public servants. Probably the better known examples of public servants who potentially have significant private income would be some of the people working in the medical and allied fields. They have one income stream from employment in the public service and might have another significant income stream, for example, from rents, other employments or offices they might hold.

Consultancy fees, for example, in the case of a public servant.

Yes, but the provision does not extend to the self-employed in the commercial sector, those who run their own businesses or who, owing to the economic downturn, have perhaps lost businesses.

It is not intended to so apply. As I previously advised the House, the advisory group on tax and social welfare is completing work on the provision of PRSI entitlements and contributions for self-employed persons. There has been quite a demand from self-employed persons to be able to apply for social insurance coverage. For a contribution of 4% for the required number of years they receive an entitlement to a retirement pension, a widow's or widower's survivor's pension which, as the actuarial review pointed out, is tremendous value for money. If there was to be an extension to other benefits, one would have to contribute. In the case of somebody in employment, the individual employee contributes 4% and the employer contributes, over 10%; therefore, there would have to be a bridging of the gap. Last year's actuarial report went into very extensive detail of what would be required to bridge it.

I have said publicly that I am very sympathetic to this argument. It is referenced specifically in the programme for Government. I am particularly conscious of the fact that young people in the employment market nowadays are likely not to have one job for life. They are much more likely to be employees at some stages and at others, contractors on short-term contracts, self-employed or developing their own companies. We are encouraging all of this; therefore, this is one of the reforms to which we have to move in the social welfare system. It has significant financial consequences and we must develop proposals in that context. The advisory group which comprises people with great expertise in the area is examining it and I expect to receive a report by the end of the year, perhaps by early autumn.

I presume there is no indication that those in the self-employed sector would be against the notion of making a contribution. The argument is about the fact that they are denied that option.

Yes. As I said, these issues are all being examined in detail by the advisory group. We have the self-employed; we also have people in atypical employment with a very low number of contract hours. We have a series of issues regarding a properly funded and properly based social insurance system. As a country, we also have to adapt to changing work patterns. Many people who are retiring had a job for life, particularly if they were in the public service. Many young people no longer particularly want that certainty. They see themselves moving around, undertaking different options and, in some cases, working abroad for a while. We have to change the social welfare system to take account of all of this.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendment No. 4 in the names of Senators David Cullinane, Kathryn Reilly and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer.

Amendment No. 4 not moved.
Section 7 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 8 stand part of the Bill."

Section 8 refers to a new appeals system for the partial capacity payment. While I welcome this and agree with it, I have reservations about this going through the appeals system. We have just had a long debate on the issue of appeals and how long they take. If this goes into the regular system of appeals, it can potentially take six to 12 months to have a decision made. No employer will hold a job for six to 12 months for anybody; therefore, a person would probably lose his or her job. In some cases, a person already had an exemption and has to reapply under the new partial capacity scheme. That person is caught in a catch-22. While I will not advise against bringing in the appeals system because it is very important to people, I ask that if these appeals go through the appeals office, they be marked, with a red sticker or whatever else, to be given priority and dealt with within 21 days or one month. No way will an employer hold a job for anyone longer than this.

Does the Minister wish to respond?

No; I will take into account what the Senator has said. I brought in the partial capacity benefit in February 2012. It had been talked about for a long time and is a very positive change in the social welfare system. It is the norm in social welfare legislation to provide for an appeals mechanism at a point where a decision is being made; therefore, that is the purpose of the provision. We have awarded just over 1,000 partial capacity benefit claims, of which 866 are at the moderate incapacity level, 147 are at the severe level and 13 at the profound level. When people at work develop a serious condition, for example, multiple sclerosis or cancer, once their condition has been stabilised, they may have periods of remission and the treatment may work well, they may wish to return to work. The partial capacity benefit system provides that opportunity because the fact that they have an incapacity arising from their illness is formally recognised such that if there is a recurrence, they are able to take time out and look to the Department of Social Protection to take account of their condition. That is a very positive development. I accept what the Senator said and will bear it in mind. It is very much in the developmental stage. As the numbers are small, we may be able to take into account her proposal.


Question put and agreed to.

Amendment No. 5 in the names of Senators David Cullinane, Kathryn Reilly and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh has been ruled out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer.

Amendment No. 5 not moved.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 15, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:

"(4) Retained firefighters who have previously applied for a jobseeker's payment before the enactment of this Bill and have not had their claim approved shall be assessed

on their current application."

I understand that the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance amendment has been ruled out of order as has the cost-of-education amendment. I will not, therefore, discuss them. However, I ask that in the context of the budget this year the Minister looks at those payments again. This is the time to raise the issues as, undoubtedly, they will feature over the next weeks and months. We will all raise them on the Order of Business and the Leader will say that the Minister was here on Committee Stage of this Bill, which was the opportunity to raise them. I am taking this opportunity. It is important that the payments are reconsidered, in particular the back-to-education clothing and footwear allowance, which is a very important payment. It was cut last year, which I disagreed with. It was unfortunate but that is what the Government went with. In the context of the budget this year, I ask the Minister to look at those.

I will hear what the Minister has to say on amendment No. 6 and reserve the right to comment further.

We discussed the situation in relation to retained firefighters on Second Stage in the House. Nationally, there are approximately 2,000 retained firefighters outside our larger cities in which there are typically full-time fire services. Retained firefighters are vitally important to their communities. Typically, these workers provide services in rural and less densely populated areas, but some larger urban centres also have retained firefighter cohorts.

It is estimated that approximately 800 part-time firefighters are also in receipt of a jobseeker's payment. Retained firefighters are entitled to a jobseeker's payment in respect of days on which they are engaged in fire fighting or training. However, they are required to satisfy the statutory conditions for the receipt of a jobseeker's payment of being available for and actively seeking work. If they do not satisfy the conditions, they are not entitled to the jobseeker's payment. Taking into account the important community service retained firefighters provide to so many of our communities, I established a departmental group. Various Members, including Senator Moran, have raised the matter with me on foot of problems arising in the Louth area in relation to decision-making. There is a requirement that a firefighter live within one and a half miles of a fire station. If one was offered work much further away, one could do one or the other but not both. Therefore, people were not satisfying the requirement that they genuinely seek work.

This is a problem I am told goes back to the early 1970s. Given that it has been knocking around for 40 years, I am delighted to be able to introduce an amendment, which I know has the support of all parties in the House. The amendment seeks to exempt retained firefighters from having to satisfy the substantial loss of employment, or subloss, rule under jobseeker's benefit. In addition, they will be exempt from suffering the loss of one day of jobseeker's payment, whether jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance, for every day of employment in fire fighting. This means that any day of employment as a firefighter will not reduce an individual's weekly jobseeker's entitlement. The on-call arrangements are also being taken into account.

I do not propose to accept the amendment. We are introducing the legislation and it will apply from the date of its implementation. There is a cost to the Department but it is in relation to a service which is vital. I thank everybody on all sides who have supported the introduction of the legislation.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.