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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 18 Feb 2014

Adjournment Matters.

Home-makers Scheme

I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan.

I also welcome the Minister. I would have preferred it had the Minister for Social Protection been present, but obviously-----


Can we have silence in the Visitors Gallery, please?

I would have liked to have seen the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, attend the debate, but I will proceed in her absence. I tabled this matter because the budget moved the goal posts as regards qualifying for the State pension. Up to last year, a yearly average of 20 contributions would have given a person 95% of a State pension. With the graduation of rates of pay and bands, however, this is no longer the case. Women in particular have been caught in the cross-fire. I am referring to a cohort of women who gave up working voluntarily to raise their families or because of the marriage bar. They only worked for a few years before they had their families and returned to work after their children were raised. Their yearly averages are reduced by the number of years they spent raising their families.

In April 1994, the home-maker's credit was introduced for women who stayed at home to raise their families. While that is to the good, some women now reaching pension age are being caught in terms of their pensions. Not every woman needed to give up work. Some never returned after raising their families, others are in receipt of widow's pensions and others are financially better off as dependent adults on their husbands' State pensions. I am seeking credits for the small number of women in question in respect of the period 1968 to 1994 so as to increase their State pension rates. I will await the response of the Minister for Social Protection, on which the Minister present has been briefed, before contributing further.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As she is aware, the home-maker's scheme was introduced in 1994 to make qualifying for a State contributory pension easier for those who take time out of the workforce for caring duties.

To be eligible for the home-maker's scheme, a person must permanently live in the State, be aged under 66 years, have started insurable employment or self-employment on or after the age of 16 and before the age of 56, not work full time - although a person can work and earn less than €38 gross per week - and care for a child under 12 or an incapacitated person on a full-time basis. The scheme allows up to 20 years spent caring for children under 12 years of age or incapacitated adults to be disregarded when a person's social insurance record is being averaged for pension purposes. However, it is important to note that the scheme will not of itself qualify a person for a pension.

The standard qualifying conditions, which require a person to enter insurance ten years before pension age, pay a minimum of 520 contributions at the correct rate and achieve a yearly average of at least ten contributions on their record from the time they enter insurance until they reach pension age, must also be satisfied. For those who do not satisfy these conditions and have an income need a means-tested State pension may be available. The 2007 Green Paper on pensions indicated that to backdate this scheme to 1953, the year when the unified system of social insurance was introduced, would cost the Exchequer some €160 million. Under current rules, costs in relation to this scheme are expected to increase in the coming years due to the increase in female employment rates since 1994.

The national pensions framework 2010 proposed a system of homemaker's credits to replace the current disregard. Backdating of this credit to 1994 has been considered as part of the broader pensions reform process, including a move to a total contributions approach to pension eligibility. This means that people reaching pension age could have credits rather than disregards applied to their records to cover periods of care since 1994. This would represent an enhancement, particularly for women, and those who take time out of the workforce for caring duties. However, such an approach would impose additional costs and could only be considered in the context of the wider pensions reform debate and in the context of the budgetary process.

I will convey the Senator's anxiety to have this matter dealt with to the Minister for Social Protection. Perhaps in the context of the budgetary process, a start can be made on the provision of some pension respite or cover to some of these recipients.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I would appreciate it if he could raise this matter with the Minister for Social Protection. I also propose to raise it with her. I raised it last week at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and at departmental level.

The Minister cited figures for the cost of this measure. I would like to know how many people are involved. As I stated, I do not believe there are as many involved as people might think. I understand the need for them to have the 520 paid contributions. However, prior to the last budget these people qualified for 95% of the State pension, while having taken the time out for caring duties. I am pleased that today's women will be facilitated by way of the home-maker's credit. However, I would like to push this matter further and ask that it be considered in the context of the budgetary process.

Departmental Agencies Funding

I welcome the Minister. I am pleased that he is here to deal with this issue of direct relevance to his portfolio. As he will be aware, I raised the issue of a scheme to support national organisations in May 2013 in the hope we could have a new scheme in place for January 2014. When I again raised the matter in December 2013 I was told the then scheme was to be extended by six months.

This scheme, in terms of the types of organisations involved and how it has evolved, concerns me. When I was involved with the Children's Rights Alliance the scheme was known as the federations and networks scheme. In terms of funding provided in the past three years, the mix and spectrum of organisations has been different. I have raised with the Minister the fact that for some of those organisations such as the Children's Rights Alliance in which, as I stated, I previously worked, State funding is the main source of funding. Other organisations such as the FAI, were contributing 10% of this funding to the salary of their CEOs, which deserves attention.

The real issue for me is the new scheme and the proposed €90,000 cap on funding, which means that some of the recipient organisations will be hit by further cuts. Cuts of 12% across the board were announced at the beginning of last week, which is a hugely significantly cut. Many of the organisations who contacted my office were anxious to find out how they would be affected. The scheme was extended in December from January to June 2014. The organisations concerned have only found in mid-February that their funding is to be cut by 12%. Some of them have had to make drastic decisions regarding staff, projects, activities and so on and they still do not know exactly what will happen post-June. It is groundhog day. We have had this situation before. I have been raising this issue in the House since last May. The Minister in one of his responses told me about the evaluation of the scheme that had been undertaken and that this is about enhancing the capacity of the community and voluntary sector, good governance and raising the levels of the organisations but the organisations have been instead left reeling because they are not being given adequate funding. Funding for these organisations has since 2008 been cut by more than 50% across the board. These cuts have not been proportionate or related to the performance or activities of the organisations. Regardless of whether these organisations are doing good work and meeting every objective, or none of them, the same cut applies.

The manner in which this matter has been handled has been extremely unfair to organisations. The organisations about which I am speaking are organisations for which this State funding is their primary funding and not a top-up fund. They are leveraging funding from philanthropic organisations based on the State funding but are finding this increasingly difficult because the funding from the State continually diminishes. We know that this is all happening against the backdrop of foundations such as Atlantic Philanthropies and the One Foundation winding down their operations here. It is a perfect storm for organisations and this is severely damaging them. I look forward to hearing more about the cap that has been announced.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to address the Seanad on the funding scheme to support national organisations. The current funding scheme was due to finish at the end of last year. In view of the importance which the Government and I attach to volunteering and the role of voluntarism in promoting societal well-being, I am pleased that even in the context of the difficulties in the public finances l have been able to bring forward a new programme.

As rightly pointed out by the Senator, the funding scheme to support national organisations in the community and voluntary sector commenced in 2008 under the auspices of the then Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. This scheme replaced and amalgamated schemes previously operating under the White Paper on supporting voluntary activity. It aims to provide multi-annual funding to national organisations towards core costs associated with the provision of services. I have extended the current scheme by six months to end June 2014. Some 64 organisations are funded under this scheme, with funding of some €3.5 million provided during 2013.

As a consequence of the reductions in my Department's Vote for 2014, it was necessary to reduce the funding of the various schemes operated by the Department. In doing so, l have aimed, in so far as is possible, to protect front line services. A new scheme to support national organisations in the period 2014 to 2016 will come into force in July and the total funding for 2014 for current and new schemes will be €3.1 million. During the summer and autumn of 2013, my Department carried out a review of the scheme. The terms of reference for the review included an examination of the extent to which the objectives, rationale and approach of the scheme remain valid and the making of recommendations regarding the future role and scope of the scheme. The review found that the scheme has fulfilled its main objective of providing multi-annual funding to national organisations towards core costs associated with the provision of services.

Funding of a range of national networks and organisations was seen to enhance the capacity of the community and voluntary sector in organising itself at a national level and in raising standards across the sector. The review also found that the scheme is in line with international best practice, including a partnership approach and providing core funding on a multi-annual basis. Therefore, the new scheme will continue in a broadly similar manner to the current one.

I am conscious of what the Senator had to say. I can assure her that in the context of the review of this scheme I will be taking account of some of the issues raised by her. I am not satisfied that some of the existing organisations are best served by the type of support they are receiving or whether some of the organisations in receipt of support should be receiving that support from Departments other than the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

The review recommended that organisations be required to clearly demonstrate the need for the funding requested, how this need was identified, the added value of the work proposed, how the proposed activities will demonstrate value for money and how the organisation will collaborate, co-ordinate and engage in partnership work with other relevant agencies and organisations.

This information will improve the targeting of available resources.

The effective use of core funding in recipient organisations requires that robust governance and cost-control procedures are in place within those organisations, particularly at board level, and this will also form a key element of the assessment process. The new scheme was recently advertised for applications and the closing date is Wednesday, 19 February. The assessment of applications and notification of successful applicants will be completed in the second quarter of this year.

I really appreciate the Minister coming to the House. My concern is the cost for the State to replicate what it is paying these organisations that work with the State. In my experience with the Children's Rights Alliance, I can point to many Government documents and policies where the Children's Rights Alliance provided the form for the State to do it. I am only naming the organisation of which I have direct experience and could give other examples. I am happy to work with the Minister to identify how it can be done fairly. However, I am concerned that the cap to be introduced could be detrimental. I have heard the Minister's words that he is open to talk and I will certainly come back and talk to him on it.

The Senator knows I applied a cap in 2013 whereby nobody got more than €90,000. I am anxious that the organisations that benefit from this scheme are treated fairly and meet the criteria. The schemes and organisations that should be funded by other Departments or agencies should be looked at and I am prepared to do this.

Data Protection

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I am concerned over the personal data from individuals who are using leaky smartphone apps, which can be gathered and used for surveillance or sold on for commercial reasons. It is becoming serious. I believe there has to be surveillance of some sort from a security point of view in the fight against terrorism. However, do we need to go as far as apps such as Angry Birds requesting the user's location and unique device code? This app has been downloaded more than 1 billion times. Candy Crush Saga, which is the most popular game on Facebook, Google Plus and Google Maps all ask for locations and individuals' private information which has nothing to do with the mobile phone app.

This came to light recently through documents acquired by Edward Snowden who has hit the headlines in the past 12 months. It suggests information from these apps is being gathered. The US Government targeting of leaky apps was disclosed in documents published by The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica. There have been discussions at EU level and I have raised the issue previously. It is important that people should be aware of the potential risk from using these apps. I agree that individuals must put the correct structures in place to prevent their personal information from getting into the public domain.

There is a data protection issue if information is being leaked and sold on for commercial gain. Some 25% of social networking apps request an e-mail address, 92% ask for the user's address book and 84% inquire about physical locations. The Minister for Justice and Equality has responded to me in the past 12 months on the issue and it is a matter that needs to be kept to the fore. I know the European Parliament is expected to adopt proposals in April. However, I wish to hear the Government's approach to this and how we are moving to protect personal data.

Before I call the Minister of State, I welcome members of the Irish Girl Guides who are in the Visitors Gallery. I also welcome my niece from Leitrim, Sarah, and two cousins all the way from England, Ben and Cameron.

That is the entire group. They are more than welcome. I am very fond of any organisation that organises women.

I am standing in for my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality who is unavailable. The reply is fairly lengthy, as one would expect from the Department of Justice and Equality.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. It is important to all of us that our personal data, including personal data on our smartphones, are safe and secure and that we do not feel that the use of apps will lead to misuse of our data, including misuse for purposes we might never have envisaged when we decided to use a particular app.

Communication networks and information systems have become an essential component of both our economic systems and social life. All of us here today have witnessed an information technology revolution in our lifetimes and the pace of change shows no sign of slackening. The development of smartphone technology and the widespread use of such phones is a good illustration of this phenomenon.

Specific safeguards for the protection of personal data are in place at European Union level. I take the opportunity to briefly set out the background. The centrepiece of existing EU legislation on personal data protection is Directive 95/46/EC which seeks to reconcile the protection of personal data with the free flow of such data within the Internal Market and to countries outside the European Union. It has been transposed into Irish law in the Data Protection (Amendment) Act 2003 which supplements the Data Protection Act 1988.

This legislation requires all those handling personal data to take appropriate security measures against unauthorised access to, or unauthorised alteration or disclosure of, the data, in particular where processing operations involve the transmission of such data over a network. In determining what is appropriate in any particular case, account must be taken of the risk of harm that might result from security breaches and the state of technological development and costs of implementation. These security measures also apply where data are transferred to a destination outside the European Union.

The Data Protection Commissioner who is independent in the performance of his duties deals with complaints about companies and organisations established in this jurisdiction where there are allegations that they may not be meeting these security requirements. The commissioner has extensive investigative and enforcement powers, including the power to take summary proceedings for offences under the Act. The commissioner also carries out audits of organisations, which include an assessment of data security systems.

The 1995 directive has been supplemented by other more specific legislative measures, such as the e-privacy directive which applies to providers of publicly available electronic communications services, namely, telecom providers and ISPs. This directive requires such companies to take appropriate measures to safeguard security of their services and to protect the confidentiality of communications and related traffic data.

It is generally recognised that the 1995 data protection directive's standards need to be updated to take account of more recent developments such as increased usage of mobile phones, cloud computing, social networking and increasing globalisation of data transfers. In January 2012, the European Commission tabled proposals for a reform of the current data protection framework and these proposals are currently being discussed at EU level, as the Senator mentioned. The proposed regulation's enhanced data protection standards will, when agreed, apply directly in all member states without the need for transposing national legislation.

In addition to the responsibilities of those who develop and supply apps to incorporate appropriate security measures to secure data transmitted between the app and end-user, many basic steps are available to those who choose to download and use apps, including limiting the amount of data stored on the smartphone to which apps are given automatic access. Users should be also vigilant in terms of the security of the Wi-Fi networks to which they connect.

We cannot ignore the important fact that there is a recognised need to protect citizens from terrorist threats and dealing with this requires access to certain data. However, in doing so it is necessary to ensure the information is lawfully obtained and subject to appropriate safeguards. Any security surveillance undertaken must be balanced and appropriate. Moreover, it must take account of individual rights to privacy and ensure the respect for human rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. For these reasons we have in place statutory provisions with judicial oversight governing police surveillance and access to these data.

I fully agree with the Minister of State on the last point she made. Had she not, I would have made the point that it is important for security reasons to protect against terrorism threats. We have surveillance but it must be controlled. I also agree with the Minister of State that there is a sense of personal responsibility in all of this in terms of using free Wi-Fi and so on.

The Minister of State said there are regulations to be put in place. The obvious question is the timeframe. When will we see it? The legislation referred to by the Minister of State originally was the Data Protection (Amendment) Act 2003. Apps have only been around for the past ten years and therefore things are moving at a faster pace and they always will be. Legislators and regulators must be seen to be chasing fast on the heels.

I suppose it is unfortunate that we are considering this legislation now given the run-in to the European elections. I imagine we will see it a good deal sooner than expected as soon as that is out of the way. We should bear in mind the revolution that has taken place. I remember one election where I had a mobile phone and I almost had to hire someone to carry it around. Nowadays, we have apps which look after our health and banking and which control the heating and surveillance of homes and so on.

It is great what they can do.

The Senator is right. I do not suppose we will ever be fully ahead of the developments, but we can only try and I imagine that will be the intention in this case.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 February 2014.