I welcome the Minister and invite him to address us.
Social Protection: Statements
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss my Department and priorities for the forthcoming budget and also, in particular, to hear Senators' views on what the budget package should contain.
It is useful, in the first instance, to outline the scale of the Department's expenditure and its importance for very large sections of the population. An allocation of €19.625 billion has been provided for the Department this year. That represents 38% of gross current Government spending.
Each week about 1.37 million people, pensioners, people with disabilities, workers on maternity benefit or sick leave, carers and jobseekers receive a payment from the Department of Social Protection. In addition to this, more than 625,000 families receive child benefit each month for almost 1.2 million children.
There can be a misconception that most welfare payments go to the unemployed. This is not so. The single biggest block of expenditure in 2016 will be expenditure on pensions which will amount to almost €7 billion or 36% of overall expenditure by the Department. Expenditure on working age income supports, including jobseeker's allowance, one-parent family payment, maternity and paternity benefit, accounts for €4 billion or about 20% of the overall budget. Expenditure on employment supports, including community employment, back-to-education and enterprise and various employment programmes, amount to €1.1 billion or 6% of the Department's budget. Expenditure provision for illness, disability and carers will amount to €3.5 billion or 18% of expenditure in 2016. Expenditure on children and families will account for nearly 13% or €2.6 billion, of which €410 million will be spent on the family income supplement paid to low-income, working families. Expenditure on supplementary payments, agencies and miscellaneous services accounts for €867 million or 4% of expenditure. These supplementary payments fall into four main categories: rent supplement; household benefits package; fuel allowance; and free travel. It is worth highlighting that expenditure on pensions and children alone will account for almost €9.6 billion, just under half of the Department's overall expenditure in 2016. The other half goes to adults of working age.
The primary focus of the last Government was on repairing the economy and rescuing Ireland from national bankruptcy. As Senators will recall, unemployment reached a crisis peak of more than 15%; CSO data published last week show that the monthly unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8%, with the rate of long-term unemployment now under 5%. At the end of June, there were approximately 40,600 fewer people on the live register than the same time last year and 82,900 fewer people than this time two years ago. Employment has increased by 47,000 in the past year and it is particularly welcome that the construction sector has experienced one of the largest rates of increase. The ongoing drop in the live register is freeing up resources we need to meet rising demand for pensions, people with disabilities and carers, among other areas. Whereas it is correct to say money will be freed up by the fact that more people are going back to work and, therefore, jobseeker's benefits and jobseeker's allowance are falling, the demographic effect of more pensioners, more children, more people with disabilities and more carers every year cancels out any saving that accrues from the fall in the live register.
Budget 2015 was the first budget since the financial crisis in which there was some scope to make improvements in welfare payments. They included rate increases in pensions and child benefit, restoration of the carer's support grant and the fuel allowance, as well as the introduction of a new paternity benefit scheme. I know that the House will discuss the legislation for paternity leave and paternity benefit next week. In addition, the Christmas bonus was increased to a 75% bonus in December 2015. As happened in 2014 and 2015, when a bonus was paid, there is currently no provision for a bonus in the Department's allocation for 2016. In 2014 and 2015 the Government was ultimately in a position to proceed with a bonus, given the continuing improvement in the State's financial position. However, it is not in the expenditure base for this year. The State's financial position is improving again in 2016 and I will, therefore, be seeking approval from my Government colleagues in the coming months for the payment of a Christmas bonus once again this year. An announcement will be made on budget day in October. I have spoken to many of my colleagues in the Cabinet about it and they are all very supportive so far. If any of my colleagues is opposed to paying the Christmas bonus, he or she ha not yet said so.
I have already acted on our recent commitment to increase rent supplement limits. The new measure, in place since 1 July, means that maximum rent limits have increased in every part of Ireland. The extent of the increase reflects the pressures on rental properties in each particular location. For example, there has been a 25% average increase in counties Laois and Roscommon; a 21% average increase in County Leitrim, Cork city, County Longford and Galway city; a 29% average increase in Dublin; a 30% average increase in Fingal; a 19% average increase in counties Westmeath, Kildare and Louth; and a 15% average increase in counties Cavan and Donegal. This, of course, varies according to household size, as do market rents.
Looking ahead, A Programme for a Partnership Government contains a number of commitments regarding social protection. They include increasing pensions and the living alone allowance, protecting free travel for pensioners and people with disabilities and a rate increase for people with disabilities and carers. The programme also outlines the Government's commitment to the development of a new working family payment to reduce child poverty and make work pay.
I also want to reinforce the contributory principle by strengthening the social insurance system. Essentially, this relates to people paying PRSI and understanding benefits are linked with what they put in. I intend to restore some of the treatments available under the treatment benefit scheme that were cut by the previous Government during the austerity years. They include dental and optical benefits. I will extend the level of social insurance coverage available to the self-employed. That is a personal priority for me. It will form part of the Government's new deal for the self-employed which will encompass tax, as well as welfare, concessions. I know that this will be the subject of a separate debate in the House next week and look forward to speaking on it in more detail then.
I am delighted that Report and Final Stages of the Paternity Leave and Benefit Bill will be taken in the Dáil tomorrow. If concluded, the Bill should be debated in the Seanad on Friday under the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister of State with responsibility for equality, immigration and integration, Deputy David Stanton. I am sure Members from all sides will welcome this innovation and, once enacted, my Department can commence the payment of paternity benefit from September to social insurance contributors, including the self-employed and farmers.
I will be hosting a pre-budget forum on Friday week to which I have invited 41 NGOs and advocacy and representative organisations. I am looking forward to that engagement and hearing their views on what should be prioritised in the budget.
As Members will be aware, there will be about €1 billion of fiscal space available for new initiatives across all Departments in budget 2017. The Government's priority is to build a strong enterprise-based economy that rewards innovation and work, not speculation, and to deliver a fairer society, one in which there is real opportunity but that has a very strong safety net also. This means that choices will have to be made as to how we can best achieve these goals; certainly everything cannot be done in one year or one budget. Social protection must compete with other priorities, including health, disability, demands for tax relief and much-needed investment in infrastructure. Bearing this in mind, rather than a shopping list that cannot be delivered, I would really welcome a steer from Senators as to what they think should be prioritised in budget talks and what they believe should be prioritised for whatever limited additional resources are available to the Department next year.
I welcome the Minister and wish him the best in what is his third Department in a short period. I congratulate him on being appointed to the Cabinet again.
I recognise the role of social welfare transfers in alleviating poverty and welcome the small increases announced in last year's budget, including the €3 increase in the pension, the €5 increase in child benefit, the €5 increase in family income supplement thresholds and the €2.50 per week increase in the fuel allowance. However, it is apparent that considerable resources still need to be deployed to lift people out of poverty and social exclusion.
While the economic crisis is over, thousands of people are still not feeling the effects of the economic recovery. A total of 8% of the population are living in consistent poverty. The target set for 2016 was a consistent poverty rate of 4%. The reality is that there is a two-tier society and a two-tier recovery and the previous Government targeted those who had the least to give through punitive and regressive budgets. At the launch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's 2017 pre-budget submission, it was highlighted that it was receiving on average 2,300 calls a week in an era of apparent growth and recovery. The society highlighted that many households were struggling to pay for basic essentials such as food, heating and education.
Any small gain in the budget must also be looked at in the context of previous Fine Gael-Labour Party budgets and the harsh and punitive measures over which they presided. Low-income and vulnerable groups are still exposed to poverty and social exclusion and the measures contained in the last budget, while very welcome, are simply not enough. Furthermore, the cost of certain essential goods and services has risen in the past year. The small increases given in the last budget are being swallowed up by increases in the cost of living and people dependent on social welfare see very little gain in their pockets. For example, car insurance costs rose by 35.5% from May 2015 to May 2016, house insurance costs rose by 9.9% in the same period, while education costs rose by 3.8% in the same period.
While it must be acknowledged that the increases in child benefit and pensions announced in last year's budget have resulted in improvements from 2015, many low-income households are still struggling to make ends meet and are yet to feel the benefits of any economic recovery. This underscores the fact that the Minister for Social Protection has very serious work to do in tackling poverty and social exclusion. We know that the Government has missed its anti-poverty targets. The national social target for poverty reduction was to reduce the consistent poverty rate to 4% by 2016, but the consistent poverty rate is 8%, leaving a gap of four percentage points. The Government child poverty target as set out in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People was to lift 70,000 children out of living in consistent poverty by 2020, but no progress has been made in meeting the child poverty target. There is now a new figure: 97,000 children must be lifted out of living in consistent poverty to meet the target by 2020.
Despite claims by the previous Government that older people were protected from cuts and tax increases, the reality is that they were particularly hard hit by reductions in income and increases in taxes and charges. The number of weeks for which the fuel allowance was paid was cut, free electricity and gas units were reduced, the telephone allowance and the bereavement grant were scrapped and households were hit with the property tax, water charges and increases in prescription charges. All of these combined had a grave effect on older people, making it very difficult for many of them to get by from week to week. The national pensions framework sets a target of maintaining social welfare pension rates at 35% of average earnings. In view of this, the €3 increase in the weekly pension, while welcome, was insufficient. In its manifesto, Fianna Fáil has called for a €30 increase in the State pension and an increase in the living alone allowance to €15, to be phased in over five years in recognition of the fact that older people suffered immensely in the past few years. While increasing the State pension, we also need to ensure secondary benefits such as the fuel allowance and household benefits package are protected. These are vital payments to older people and can and do make life far more bearable, particularly for those solely reliant on the State pension.
We are also asking the Minister to consider amending the homemaker scheme. It is imperative to provide an income for women who spent years out of the workforce caring for children in their homes. We need to recognise and acknowledge the value of this work. The system already disregards time spent working in the home since April 1994 for the purposes of calculating yearly average contributions. We are asking the Minister to consider backdating this further.
Another issue concerns waiting times for assessment of essential social welfare payments. The waiting times are appalling and cause a great deal of stress and hardship. According to information I received through a parliamentary question, in 2016, a summary decision took 17.3 weeks, while an appeal or oral hearing took 24.3 weeks. This is a total of 41.6 weeks, or almost ten months. When one considers that these are vital payments, one can see that the time spent waiting for a decision is hugely important. The waiting time can have significant financial repercussions for applicants, putting many at risk of poverty while awaiting the outcome of a decision. The Minister needs to address this as a matter of urgency, as many of those applying for the payments are already in a distressing situation and this is only compounded by the length of time it takes for a decision to be made on a person's entitlement to a payment.
It is vital that the most vulnerable in society are not forgotten and that the State provides an adequate safety net for such persons. Fianna Fáil will not support policies that continue the harsh, regressive and punitive agenda pursued by the previous Government.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and outlining his plans. We will support him in looking after the most vulnerable.
I welcome the Minister to the Upper House. I am delighted and honoured to have been appointed as Fine Gael spokesperson on social protection by the Taoiseach. I look forward to working alongside the Minister in this challenging and complex area in order to take the necessary strides in closing the gap to achieve a more socially just Ireland for all. As spokesperson, I wish to emphasise how social protection is interlinked with so many other Departments. I believe this must be taken into consideration across these Departments to ensure a positive outcome for each citizen.
We are all too aware of the effects of the economic downturn on services and people, both collectively and individually. Harsh decisions had to be made taking into consideration Ireland's circumstances at the time. On the rare occasion when an incorrect decision was made, it was acknowledged and swiftly rectified. Incomes and living conditions were greatly affected by the economic crisis.
Now we have the opportunity to take appropriate measures to address these anomalies. We must provide employment for all, financial relief for citizens, a higher quality of public services and stability into the future.
I welcome the good news on the latest figures released last week by the Central Statistics Office which show that unemployment has fallen again for the 13th consecutive month, this time by 500. When Fine Gael first came to office, unemployment was at an all-time high of 15%; today it is 7.8%. It is very encouraging to know that we are moving in the right direction, with the figures to support this. The Pathways to Work Strategy 2012 to 2015 has played a key role in that regard. Job losses are the first casualty of any recession and the changes in lifestyle that brings to both individuals and family life have far-reaching consequences. Job creation must be a top priority across all parties. Underpinning this, the Government must ensure work must pay and be more valuable than being on welfare.
An Action Plan for Jobs 2016 under the current Pathways to Work strategy addresses the issues and challenges for the long-term unemployed. Since last year, JobPath which mainly assists the long-term unemployed to secure full-time paid employment or self-employment - long term being over 12 months - has been rolled out on a phased basis in large towns and cities and further locations will be added this year. JobsPlus is designed specifically for the employer to encourage and reward those who employ jobseekers, in particular, those who are on the live register long term.
It is refreshing to see that the JobBridge scheme, originally set up to assist the labour market and the labour force at that particular time, is being replaced with a new scheme fit for today’s circumstances and market. I congratulate the Minister on taking that initiative and look forward to the outcome following its review, together with the implementation of the replacement of it with a new scheme in September.
The recalibration of the social welfare system to ensure jobseekers are given every opportunity to work while at the same time protecting the most vulnerable in society with fair income supports is vital. The Minister's positivity in looking at certain areas that need restoration is refreshing such as introducing the K class and S class stamps, the restoration of dental treatment benefit, looking to increase disability benefit and allowance, carer’s benefit and allowance and the blind person’s pension, while increasing the State pension and the living alone allowance above the rate of inflation, and affirms his and the Government’s commitment to creating a socially just, inclusive society for all.
The next area I wish to address will come as no surprise to the Minister, or anyone else, as I have campaigned vigorously throughout my political career for equal social protection entitlements for the self-employed. I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet the Minister to discuss the issue. I am encouraged to see that reform measures to offer protection and security for the self-employed at vulnerable times are a priority for him and the Government, as the self-employed and small business are the engine of the jobs sector. I look forward to seeing the Minister back in the House next Tuesday to debate the motion I have brought forward on social protection for the self-employed. That has been one of the greyest areas in social protection for the past 50 years and we saw it come to a head during the Celtic tiger crash when there was no help for the people concerned when they needed it.
On Friday approximately 150,000 families will receive the back to school allowance providing for 250,000 children. Children between four and 11 years will receive €100, while children aged 12 to 22 years, providing they are still in full-time secondary education, will receive €200. The allowance goes a long way in helping families who struggle at this time of year with the cost of uniforms, books, etc. I encourage any parent who is unsure if he or she is entitled to this assistance to make an application and find out.
With regard to the rural economy and the agrifood sector, I understand a review with insights, experiences and input from the various farming representatives concerning the farm and fish assist schemes is being considered. Farm families and their incomes must be supported and improved and I am certain that the Minister will take into consideration the necessary changes required in the taxation system to support this ever-expanding sector.
We must examine the retirement age, coupled with the improved life expectancy figures published today. These factors lend themselves to a huge variety of vastly experienced individuals who can and wish to remain involved in their communities. Such a wealth of resources would make an incredible contribution to services locally such as providing support and helping the ageing population who are not in a position to continue contributing themselves. The surge in the ageing population which will only continue requires taking proactive measures now in policy making, planning and the delivery of services if we want to ensure older people will remain active and independent within their communities as long as possible. I urge the Minister to examine pensions for single elderly people living on their own. They are finding it extremely hard to survive with all the additional charges heaped on them in recent years.
Criticism is regularly hurled at politicians for their supposed short-sightedness. I congratulate this and the previous Government on their long-term planning, ambitions, goals and achievements to date. While I accept we have a long way to go, this steady positive progress is moving us closer to bridging the gap. I am very happy that the Government is putting €1 billion a year into a rainy day fund as the economy allows and grows because the short-sightedness of the Celtic tiger Government in not putting any money away for those rainy days left vital services and everybody in the country in a very vulnerable state.
I welcome the Minister to the House again and congratulate him on his appointment to this ministry which deals with one of the most crucial areas in shaping our national life. Social protection plays a crucial role in investing in Ireland's people and the security, equality and inclusion which are essential to both sustainable economic growth and social cohesion. In that sense, I welcome the recognition by the Minster that €9.6 billion, almost half of the social protection budget, is directed not necessarily to working age and other payments but to that wider part of the remit. Rather than simply being a safety net, the Department of Social Protection is effectively the foundations of the State. According to the Central Statistics Office, almost half of all households would be at risk of poverty were it not for some form of social transfer they are receiving. I welcome the acknowledgement of that wider remit and foundational role in the Minister's contribution. Given the importance of these transfers in maintaining our society, we saw a circumstance arise this year and during the period of austerity - I will not elaborate because many other speakers did so - where those on the very lowest incomes, many of whom were on social protection payments, paid an additional price. While rates may have remained the same, charges were increased. In many cases, there was an erosion from below in what was received.
There is a concern in that we see a focus on working age payments but perhaps neglect in the area of pensions and child poverty, given the very high child poverty rates. However, without the social protection system having remained strong, having been hard fought for, we would have seen far wider effects in terms of social cohesion during the period of the recession. As we look towards another period of growth but also potential uncertainty it is crucial that the Department of Social Protection be adequately resourced and prepared for any economic or social shock it may endure. I have no doubt that the Minister will fight hard for those resources and I will support him in that regard.
A Programme for a Partnership Government recognises that economic repair must be complemented by social repair. The Department of Social Protection will be key in implementing this on behalf of the Government. A Programme for a Partnership Government also commits to gender and equality proofing of the budget, in which, again, the Department of Social Protection will need to play a key role. It has previously shown leadership in areas such as social impact assessment and poverty proofing. I know from my role over many years in civil society, Older and Bolder, older people's organisations and the National Women's Council of Ireland and having attended many of the forums in this area, including the one referenced in the Minister's contribution, that the Department has a strong record of evidenced-based work and consultation. I strongly encourage a continuation of that practice of consultation and evidenced-based work. In that sense, the Department should champion robust evidenced-based gender and equality proofing, with civil society participation in that process, as is the case in Scotland. I also ask that the Department take a leadership role by designating in its budget for 2017 a specific budget line in implementation of the new public duty on equality and human rights.
I would like to focus on four key aspects in terms of payments I believe need to be restored, reviewed, reformed and in respect of which we need to reach out. In terms of restoration, the under 26 jobseeker's payment hit hard, the full impact of which we still do not know. A majority of those who have emigrated in the younger age group are women. We need to restore these payments, beginning with restoration of full payment for those on courses and in training. Reduced rate pensions is another crucial area. While the top contributory pension rate may not have been changed, 84% of those who receive that payment are men. This means that only 16% of those who receive it are women. The majority of women are on reduced rate payments and, as a result of shifts in the contributory thresholds, have seen a practical, tangible weekly loss in income. Changes to the voluntary contributions have also impacted on women, in particular, and have made it hard for them to bridge the gap in their contributory record. They have also affected those moving in and out of the PAYE system or self-employed work.
Another area at which we need to look in terms of restoration is the auxiliary benefits in the household benefits package, including the telephone allowance. These are areas in which the impact of cuts has been harsh in many practical senses. We also need to look at how the cuts intersect with new charges which create extra costs that were not in place at the time the original rates were set. In that sense, there is scope for an overall review of social protection rates. People have talked about whether the payments should be benchmarked or reflect minimum essential standards of living. This is an area that needs to be examined. We also need to look at rates which have been unchanged for over a decade, specifically, direct provision. The payments for those in direct provision have been, shamefully, just over €19 for well over a decade. The McMahon report sends the clear message that these rates need to be changed. I urge the Minister to take this on board.
In terms of other areas that need review, there are policy areas that might need review. The Department of Social Protection has shown in the past that it is flexible when it comes to reviewing policies, looking at the evidence and being willing to change direction, as in the case of the cuts to the income disregards which were having a tangible impact in people taking up employment and in terms of the Minister's actions in the case of rent supplement. I urge consideration and review of the habitual residency condition, specifically in looking at its impact on Travellers, Roma people and those who are leaving situations involving domestic violence and its impact as a criterion in the case of child benefit, in particular, given the very concerning rates of child poverty as discussed.
I also urge the Government and the Minister, in particular, to review policy in recent years on one-parent families. There has been a huge outcry across civil society about policy direction in recent years for one-parent families. We know that one in four families in Ireland is a one-parent family, that 58% of them are experiencing deprivation and that more than 22% are living in consistent poverty. This is a source of concern. The Minister previously referred in the Dáil to Dr. Michelle Millar's pending report on lone parents. I would welcome it if the Minister could provide us with a timeline for how we might engage with a review of that policy. I am aware of his statement that that report is not a financial impact assessment. I would like to know if he would resource a separate financial impact assessment which could also be used. I have practical suggestions on interim measures in the case of the jobseeker's allowance, jobseeker's transitional payment and one-parent families which, rather than detail them here, I will forward to the Minister's Department.
Another area for review is activation policy. We have some legacy assumptions that have underpinned activation policy which I believe have been detrimental. The all or nothing approach which demands full-time availability and which loses all of the potential for the building of labour market attachment and quality part-time engagement makes it harder for persons with a disability and persons with care responsibilities to begin their engagement with the system. In this regard, we need to look at the payments, hours, days and so forth.
I focus on the key area of social protection reform. The Minister has given a commitment to review the PRSI system and consider reform of the contributory system. Will he also, please, look at placing care credits and the gender pension gap at the centre of pension reform?
I welcome the Minister and thank him sincerely for taking the time to engage with the House in this important debate. Many of the plans he laid out are welcome. However, there are some issues that I would like to briefly raise with him that might feed into the overall thinking of his Department.
In regard social welfare appeals, I was concerned to learn through my research that 50.2% of original decisions on disability allowance applications were being overturned on appeal; that 49.3% of original decisions on domiciliary care allowance applications were being overturned on appeal; that 38.7% of original decisions on carer's allowance applications were being overturned on appeal and that there was a 23.3% win rate in appeals on jobseeker's benefits applications, despite it being a PRSI based payment and all information being available on the Business Object Model implementation, BOMi, system. The appeals office cites the high rates of success on appeal as proof of its autonomy from the Department. An alternate view is that this indicates problems at the heart of the welfare system. Poor decision-making and bad administrative practice, coupled with the increased pressure on the Department of Social Protection, have helped push up the appeals rate. While I acknowledge that much has been done by the Department to tidy up this area, it is clear to me that much more could still be done. I ask the Minister to prioritise this work.
The JobBridge scheme was a good one that worked well in response to the needs of the times in which it operated. Some 15,000 interns went directly into paid employment immediately following a JobBridge internship. However, I commend the Minister for his decision to wind down the programme now that the overall climate has changed, with the number of those signing on to the live register reducing every month. I echo the call of IBEC for the introduction of a new more targeted scheme. I also encourage the Minister to discuss ways employers could contribute financially to a new scheme.
On the proposed paternity leave scheme, I regret that I will be unable to contribute to the debate on this issue later in the week. However, I would like to identify some of the European comparisons in this area in the hope we may be able to learn from previous mistakes. I would also like to indicate that, as of yet, I have no immediate interests to declare in this regard. In the Czech Republic men are able to take as much parental leave as women. Despite this, men represent only 1.8% of parental leave takers. Men are also eligible for up to 22 weeks leave after the birth of a child. The take-up rate among fathers in Estonia has been steadily increasing since 2008, when a new compensation scheme was introduced. While previously parental leave among men was 2%, the latest data from 2013 show an increase in the rate to 6.5%. In the Netherlands less than 10% of fathers took paternity leave in 2001, although the figure has since increased to 24%. In Sweden a similar trend could be found, although most recent statistics indicate an increase to 24.8% compared to 10% when the scheme was first introduced. In Germany only 20% of men take up the offer of paternity leave. Spain permits 300 weeks of parental leave to be shared by parents until the child is three years old. Slovenia mandates 15 days of paid paternity leave and 75 days of unpaid paternity leave, with the option to split the 260-day parental leave allocation. Very often women have to put their careers on hold or work part time to take care of their children, while men continue to work full time.
Even when men have shown a genuine interest in taking parental leave, the lack of flexible and practical policies has made it next to impossible for some to combine it with their work-life balance. For many years, Ireland has lagged behind most other European countries in the area of paternity leave and while I welcome the Bill to be brought before the House this week, it will only be a success if new fathers actually make full use of it. Introducing the leave in itself is not good enough and I encourage the Minister to complement it with a public interest campaign informing fathers about the scheme and, most importantly, encouraging them to take part. I also encourage him to engage with his European counterparts to see what worked in the Netherlands and Germany to make this leave a real success.
It is timely that I have the opportunity to make a statement in the Seanad today on social protection. I make the statement on the back of the release of a damning report on poverty, deprivation and inequality published two weeks ago by Social Justice Ireland. It provides some truly harrowing statistics and figures which fly in the face of the old narrative from the Government that the recovery is well and truly under way. Since the onset of the recession, there are 110,000 more people living in poverty, bringing the total number of people living in poverty in the country to 750,000. This is a shocking figure for a country that prides itself on the welfare of its citizens. The most worrying aspect of this report is the level of people who are actually in employment, yet earning significantly below the poverty line. These are known now as the working poor. That we could come to see a day where we have hard working women and men all over the country going out to do a long day of hard work to provide for themselves and their families but still not earning enough to sustain a decent standard of living is a damning indictment of this and previous Governments.
Much is made of the level of unemployment created by the Government and the fantastic story that is job creation. It seems that it is a "jobs at any cost" policy; precarious, unstable indefinite employment now seems to be the order of the day, with no stability, permanency or structure provided for many new employees. Contracts, where they are provided, do not seem to be worth the paper on which they are written. Sinn Féin presented an opportunity in the Dáil last week to go some way towards rectifying the situation by introducing the Banded Hours Contract Bill. We know what happened to it - it was rejected by the Government and kicked down the road by its partners, Fianna Fáil. The last few years have seen a concentration on getting the economy right and allowing everything else to wait and then fall into place. What was neglected was the primary principle that we live in a society, not an economy. Society needs a sound and performing economy to flourish and provide opportunities, yet the bedrock of the country and what the people stand for is a caring, fair society where there are opportunities for all, regardless of background. What we have after years of austerity and structural inequality is a somewhat failed society. I see the deprivation now copperfastened as a result of years of austerity in many areas of Dublin. I am informed of the despair families and communities face on a daily basis, irrespective of this recovery.
What are the major problems and their solutions? While we all realise the importance of job creation and activation, given that 57.6% of those citizens living in poverty are not connected to the labour market, social welfare is the crucial tool in addressing poverty rates. Worryingly, despite the poverty line falling in recent years, poverty rates are rising. The unemployment rate is just below 8%. We welcome the fact that this is nearly half of the crisis figure of over 15%. The Government's target figure is 6%. I spoke to the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed this week and it sees this figure as far too unambitious and believe it will leave a lot of people unable to participate in Ireland's economic development. According to it, the long-term unemployed figure in Ireland still stands at over 130,000. This figure is completely unacceptable and we need to give the people concerned hope. The seasonally adjusted live register figure still stands at 305,600. This figure represents a level 90% higher than pre-crisis levels.
To address some of the major measures that we in Sinn Féin see as necessary to address these problems, having consulted Social Justice Ireland and the INOU, we are calling for a number of initiatives. Similar to pay restoration in the economy, we need to begin to see rate increases in social welfare payments. We need to reintroduce equity in social welfare rates again. The situation where young jobseekers are being discriminated against by payment rates based on age is simply wrong and needs to cease. It puts extra burden on them and their families. We note the Minister's commitment to abolish the insulting JobBridge scheme. I differ with Senator Neale Richmond in this regard. For prosperity, security of tenure and self-worth, we need schemes that will act as true stepping stones to employment. We look forward to putting forward our proposals in this regard.
We would like refundable tax credits introduced for low earners which would help them to move above the poverty line. We would also like to see full restoration of the Christmas bonus for welfare recipients this year which would provide some relief at a time of high stress for families and individuals. This period of the year is recognised for families around the country as being extremely difficult from a financial perspective. The cost of sending children back to school each year is enormous and places a huge strain on parents. I welcome the Minister's commitment in reply to my colleague, Deputy John Brady, to look at payment rates as part of the budgetary process. It is obviously too late for this year as payments are due this week or the beginning of next week. Payment levels need to be looked at, with those in the most marginalised areas prioritised. Social welfare support is our moral obligation and duty.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for coming and sharing his ideas and listening to our ideas and concerns. The aim of social protection must be to provide those citizens who find themselves unemployed or unable to work with a helping hand and a decent standard of living. In 2016 some €19.6 billion or 36% of the overall national budget has been allocated to the Department of Social Protection to enable it to assist people who need State support. The corresponding figure in 2000 was €6.7 billion which rose to €15.5 billion by 2007 as a result of the dramatic upturn in the economy which preceded the recession. At the time the unemployment level stood at 4.4%, which is generally regarded as full employment. In the next few years the system had to adapt very rapidly and cater for the dramatic rise in unemployment to 15% in 2012.
The Department is responsible for a very wide range of services which benefit people at every stage of their lives - from child benefit to old age pensions. In 2013 it was estimated that 2.2 million people benefited from some form of social protection, but with the fall in unemployment since, it would be fair to conclude that this number has fallen by a sizeable amount. Recipients of benefits from the Department of Social Protection fall into two broad categories, long term and short term. Child benefit and retirement pensions, together with long-term disability payments, are in the first category, while unemployment and illness are regarded as of shorter duration, although there is a very significant problem with long-term unemployment. It is vital that the most vulnerable in society are looked after properly. The young and elderly make up a large part of this category and it is fair to say successive Governments have tried to improve their position and ensure they have a decent standard of living. Those with a long-term disability and their carers must also be looked after and I am glad that all of these categories received some increase in State support in the 2016 budget. The Minister said he hoped to pay a Christmas bonus in 2016.
It would be great if the Minister could give 100%, perhaps not in 2016, but he might look at it in 2017.
Unemployment is a huge challenge. The financial cost is high but the social cost is even higher. The aim must be to ensure those losing jobs or entering the market are in meaningful and gainful employment as quickly as possible. Many traditional industries have greatly declined or ceased to exist; an example from my own area is the clothing industry. Workers find that the skills they have used and perfected over many years are no longer relevant. New companies starting up are seeking different skills and we have to make every effort to retrain and upskill as many as possible. Much good work is being done through adult education and training courses. The over 50s are very vulnerable to these changes in the labour market. We must also look at the issues of poverty and unemployment traps, where many people find they are better off not working at all. It is imperative that we, as a Government and society, address this issue.
Community employment schemes are beneficial on two fronts. They provide useful experience for participants, keep them in the workforce and encourage them to retrain and upskill. They are of great benefit to the many voluntary community groups and sports clubs that organise them. They supplement the enormous amount of time and effort that thousands of citizens give to their club or charity on a voluntary basis. With the very welcome fall in unemployment, I urge the Minister review the community employment scheme rules with a view to giving younger participants a longer period of employment if they require it. Twelve months can be a short time in which to find a job, especially in areas with few employment opportunities. Many self-employed persons have endured severe hardship in recent years and I am aware the Minister is looking at this issue. They play a vital role in the economy; they invest their talent and with their money provide a lot of employment. When they fall on hard times, they need to be looked after and helped to recover. In recent years we have all heard of the severe hardship which the self-employed and their families have had to endure without the umbrella of the social protection system. I ask the Minister to please review this area and look forward to hearing his views in due course.
I welcome the Minister. I do not have a script. It is not my style to read scripts but to come into this House and try to push and promote issues that are dear to my heart and that of my constituents.
The Minister has responsibility for class K contributions. I wish to speak briefly about a group of elected public representatives, city and county councillors, across the country who pay PRSI at a rate of 4% for a class K premium policy contribution and have absolutely no cover. Frankly, that is unfair and something needs to be done about it. I acknowledge and thank the Minister for a letter I received from him this morning on the matters I raised and thank him for going into such detail.
In simple terms, many councillors are barely surviving on an income of €15,000 to €16,000 in the entire household. This is a fact which has been proved by research carried out by both local authority representative bodies which work with them. One can see the difficulty. They receive absolutely no benefit. This issue has been discussed by various people but nothing has happened. There are 42 new Members in the House, many of whom were councillors. All parties and none know what it is like and they have given commitments to do something. It is important that we do something on the basis of fairness. Some might say it is not politically correct or that there is a range of other issues to be dealt with. I pay tribute to what the Minister has done in his report. I am not here to take issue with it as he is doing a good job. However, it is important that we do not shy away and do not hide under the bed in promoting our own profession and the difficulties members have. People are dipping into their housekeeping money to subsidise their community work, the work they do up and down the country for communities. I am not talking about remuneration; I am speaking about the class K initiative. Will something happen? This has gone on for too long. The Minister is in a key position to do something. I have no doubt from his correspondence that he is committed to doing something.
I wish to raise two issues from the Minister's letter. It states:
City and County Councillors are regarded to be public office holders for PRSI purposes and as such, are liable to pay the Class K contribution regardless of age. Public office holders pay PRSI at the Class K rate of 4% on their income as an office holder, provided that income exceeds €5,200 a year (€100 a week). Public office holders with weekly income of €100 or less should be returned at class M.
At the end of his letter, the Minister mentions various options - there are options, but it is not as simple as that. Some may wish to opt into another class as some people are self-employed, while others may have other sources of income. However, there are groups of councillors who are struggling to survive and provide for their households and I want something to be done about it. That is a bigger issue for the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney. In terms of class K contributions, will the Minister for Social Protection take this issue on board? I appreciate that he is engaged in ongoing discussions with the representative bodies, for which I thank him, but will he indicate where this issue is going and when he expects a conclusion in the ongoing debate.
I join in the welcome to the Minister and congratulate him on his portfolio which is crucial in building a fair, equal and harmonious society. That he has been proactive from the beginning in a number of spheres is welcome. In his opening remarks he Minister it would be helpful if we tried to address specific issues that might impact on his pre-budget work. I will attempt to do so.
I am happy to endorse the concept of restoring the full Christmas bonus and appreciate that the Minister is working at Cabinet level to do this. That is important for myriad reasons that do not bear repetition, other than that it would give older people the dignity to be able to buy presents for their grandchildren at Christmas. It would straight back into the economy. It is just one of the nice things we have and it should be restored.
I agree with our official spokesperson, Senator Ray Butler, in his call for the self-employed to achieve proper PRSI benefits. I am aware it will involve quite an amount of work, but I support the concept. We all know from our clinic work, as practising public representatives, that many self-employed persons were left in a very bad place during the recession. I am happy that dental benefit is to be restored.
An issue I commend for priority attention is carer's allowance. Carer's allowance has huge potential, more than is realised in keeping people out of hospital and leaving them where they want to be, in their own home. It reduces hospital waiting lists, which is hugely necessary as the Minister is aware from his previous brief. It reduces unemployment in that people become full-time carers. It has all those social progressive benefits. I suggest an increase in the carer's allowance payment. I commend it as one of the payments that needs a dramatic hike. I am not saying the payment is bad, but everything should be done to make it an attractive option. I believe it is more than cost-neutral, given the benefit of not institutionalising people. I commend an increase in carer's allowance per week and urge that carers receive more fringe benefits, much of which could be cost neutral. I suggest all possible fringe benefits be given to them to make it an attractive option. It should be recognised as an attractive career option.
It is disturbing to discover from our clinic work a 20-week wait in the processing of carer's allowance applications. Whatever is needed in the way of human resources should be provided to address the issue because it does not send a good signal to carers. We need to let them know we value them. They are on the front line.
They are today's patriots. I would like to see something done about this and I am hopeful the Minister will address it.
Intreo offices were a great development. I suggest the Minister maintain an interest in that area because we need a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot obviously involves training, retraining and education, but, unfortunately, when people do not co-operate, there has to be a punitive dimension, although that is not the objective. Getting people into jobs can bring them out of the cycle of poverty and we have achieved great records in that regard, as the Minister enunciated.
JobBridge was good. I know that the Minister is reviewing the scheme, but the fact is that 15,000 people got jobs from it and my personal experience of those involved in it was that it was good. One hears of horrible scare stories and the system has to be policed, but I commend the Minister and ask him to keep the scheme more or less intact.
I represent people across the country. There is a Common Agricultural Policy dimension to social protection which I know is not part of the Minister's brief but on which he might elucidate. The rural social scheme is a community employment scheme for those in receipt of farm assist payments. It has done enormous good in communities and, more particularly, for the individuals involved in the scheme, of which I have personal experience. I have attended party meetings in isolated areas in County Cavan at night where people have told me they have to be up for work in the morning. They are proud and delighted that they have to go to work. It is great from every perspective. Perhaps people could visit elderly people who are lonely and redecorate their houses. I ask the Minister to take a personal interest in the scheme and consider what can be done to maintain and increase its availability. It is a great piece of social engineering.
I appreciate the opportunity to make a few suggestions.
I thank the Minister. He will find the Department of Social Protection very interesting. In his opening contribution he said he was interested in people's suggestions. His budget is about €20 billion and about €35 billion has been spent so far based on the suggestions made here. Social welfare payment rates have been quite static owing to the recession. It was always the intention to reinstate the Christmas bonus in 2016 and I hope the finances will allow that to happen.
One interesting area is that of community employment schemes. They suffered badly during the recession as there was not enough money to make the necessary contributions. If there is an opportunity to do so within the finances available, the materials and training budgets need to be examined to determine whether there is some flexibility because community employment schemes provide significant benefits in getting people back into work.
I ask the Minister to examine the community employment pilot scheme for those aged over 60 years. Very often, people involved in community employment schemes have not had an opportunity to get back into employment. Those aged over 60 years are contributing fully to their communities and want to go out to work and participate. The scheme has major benefits in terms of mental health and the local community.
Some Members mentioned JobsPlus. It has worked really well, but it needs to be kept under constant review to make sure it is not being exploited by employers that may try to roll over the scheme. Up to now, the data I received indicated that that was not happening, but the situation needs to be monitored constantly.
Those aged over 50 and 60 years are finding it very difficult to get back to work. A person aged over 50 or 55 years was probably 42 years of age coming into the recession and is finding it very difficult to get back into employment. Will the Minister ask his officials to consider the feasibility of a JobsPlus scheme for people in their latter years who want to get back into employment? Very often, employers are not prepared to consider people aged in their 50s and give them an opportunity to get back into employment. Can employers be encouraged to consider that possibility? Manual labourers, electricians and construction workers are not the only ones affected. Many people in managerial roles find it very difficult to get back into employment after a period of unemployment, especially when one is aged 50 years or older. There is a lot of bias in employment such as young managers in their 30s not bringing in people aged 50 years or older who have much more experience. We need to work on breaking down these barriers and make sure people can participate in what we call the recovery and the reduction in unemployment.
I want to make a couple of suggestions that would not be costly because everybody will have a long list of requests that will cost a fortune. I am conscious of the role of the Minister, on whom there are always demands. He mentioned that the personal micro-credit scheme would go nationwide. It is an anti-poverty strategy at a cost of about €100 million. The 360,000 customers of moneylenders are paying interest rates of approximately 190%. A comparatively small pilot scheme was in operation and its results have been very beneficial. The Central Bank has fears about the expansion of the micro-credit scheme which operates through credit unions and has the support of the Social Finance Foundation, but we can alleviate those concerns. The statistics on the success of the pilot scheme are that 94% of all loans are repaid and there have been other positive effects. There is a major fear that the scheme will only be open to those in receipt of social welfare payments. Many people on low incomes are pushed into borrowing from legal moneylenders that charge exorbitant interest rates. The Minister would do very well if part of his crusade was to put licensed moneylenders out of business. It would make a substantial contribution to relieving poverty for low-income families and those in receipt of social welfare. The micro-credit model offers such a possibility.
Another area that I ask the Minister to examine is standard bank accounts. Many Senators say they want to save the rural post office system. Standard bank accounts offer great opportunities in terms of operating with An Post to bring additional business to post office services. The real gain for a lot of people who are not financially literate and have no bank account is that they would be able to access lower-cost utility services. Those without bank accounts are mainly low-paid workers and those in receipt of social welfare payments. They can save approximately €240 on their utility bills if they have standard bank accounts and can set up standing orders through the service. When one is on a low income, €5 or €10 a week is a substantial amount of money.
Quite an amount of work needs to be done on standard bank accounts. There was a commitment in the troika bailout programme regarding banks and their financing of standard bank accounts. They financed a pilot scheme, but quickly stated it did not work and withdrew it. There is a moral obligation, as well as an agreement with the Government, for standard bank accounts to be funded from the banking sector. A comparatively small amount of money is involved. I understand the Minister currently contributes €56 million to An Post for the payment of social welfare payments, rightly so. That puts money into every post office, as well as into many communities across the country.
I will finish by referring to the bogus self-employed who cause a loss of PRSI income for the Department of Social Protection. An interdepartmental working group, comprising representatives of the Departments of Finance and Social Protection, examined this issue.
I am speaking about people who want employment but who are forced down the self-employment route. They lose holidays and as they do not pay PRSI, they do not have an opportunity to claim benefits when they lose their jobs. They are forced into what I call bogus self-employment. This does not just happen on building sites; it is now happening in the IT sector, the media and across a band of areas. The Department of Social Protection is losing a considerable amount of money because of it. Submissions to the0 group closed in March. Will the Minister have a look at where the submissions and the report are? The area of bogus self-employment needs to be closed off.
The Minister will face major challenges in the pensions area because of the changes in the age profile in the State. Will he have a look-----
I ask the Senator to finish. There are others waiting.
I am finishing on this point. Instead of letting the problem continue to grow, will the Minister consider, at an early stage, automatic enrolment in pension funds to try to alleviate the problem? During the recession, while unemployment rates were high, there were many challenges facing the Department of Social Protection. Now that the storm clouds have eased slightly for some, there is an opportunity to look at the area of pensions and possibly to move quickly on the issue of automatic self-enrolment in pension schemes.
Senator Robbie Gallagher has five minutes. Other Senators have indicated that they wish to speak. As there are just over 12 minutes left, if the Senator were to cut short his contribution to allow other Senators to speak, I would appreciate it.
I will make my contribution short, for the benefit of other Members.
I, too, welcome the Minister and wish him all the best in his new portfolio. I will confine my contribution to questions.
I raised the issue of single parents earlier in respect of the one-parent family payment. As the Minister knows, its reduction last year caused much annoyance and hardship to lone parent families. Perhaps that is an area he might explore with a view to restoring the payment to what it was.
My colleague Senator Joe O'Reilly mentioned the virtues of Intreo offices and the great job they were doing. I understand only two counties in the country do not have one, namely, Roscommon and Monaghan. Is there a particular reason for this, or are there plans to address the matter?
Community service programmes play a vital role in disadvantaged areas, as the Minister knows, and many people benefit from them. The minimum wage was increased some time ago and the community service programmes were not reimbursed for the additional funding required. Perhaps that is something that might be looked into also.
The issue of PRSI contributions for councillors was mentioned. I, too, would like to champion that issue, with other Members, and compliment the Minister on taking the initiative. I heard him speak on the issue in the media recently, on which I compliment him. I look forward to hearing the proposals he has to introduce and would be delighted if he would share with us any he has in that regard.
Senator Lynn Ruane has five minutes. If she were to cut her contribution a little tighter, it would be appreciated.
I will. There is not loads in it. I thank the Minister for his time.
I want to focus briefly on the one-parent family payment. I come from the perspective that the reform in the last few years for one-parent families should be reversed. Such families have traditionally suffered higher deprivation and poverty rates than the general population, despite increased social welfare spending. The policy was apparently introduced to encourage more active inclusion of one-parent families through greater uptake of employment and educational opportunities. However, while it was promised that child care supports would be provided to facilitate this, that has not happened. We are now entering summer. As a parent, I can now afford child care, but this week's cost is €200 for one child for me to be able to work during the day. If I were still in receipt of a one-parent family payment, that would be 85% of the payment. If I were in receipt of half the one-parent family payment and working part-time, most likely in a low-paid job, it would probably be up to 70% of my weekly income. Introducing measures to bring parents back to work does not work if child care costs are not low enough to support women who continue to work through the summer. The scheduling of statements on social protection is timely, as the back to work family dividend has been reduced in the last few weeks for lone parents who lost their one-parent family payment this time last year - a loss of €14.90 per week per child. That has had a significant impact on weekly child care costs, especially now that child care costs have gone up owing to the time of year.
In other jurisdictions the payment of maintenance has been shown to be a way of reducing the rate of child poverty. In Ireland we means-test maintenance payments. There is a big problem in trying to make money out of the other parent and his or her ability to contribute to the child's upbringing. If a parent wants to go to court to seek maintenance from the other parent, he or she may be fearful of doing so because it could mean a huge loss in rent allowance, family income supplement, and jobseeker's transition payments. This could be rectified through a small change to the legislation about means-testing maintenance payments. What often happens for lone parents is that they go through the court process and then there is no way of enforcing the outcome. The other parent could be told to pay €80 a week for that child, but may refuse to pay. Because the Department of Social Protection uses the court order as proof, the lone parent still loses 50% of some payments, even if the other parent is refusing to pay. These are small things that should be examined in order that one-parent families will not be further screwed, even after the cuts. I believe that comes under the liability to maintain family provisions that took effect on 29 November 1990 and were amended in Part 12 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. The maintenance recovery unit issues determination orders to a liable relative and it can be paid directly to the custodial parent or to the Department of Social Protection and offset against the cost of the one-parent family payment.
The liability to maintain a qualifying child is only contained in the legislation for the one-parent family payment and excludes jobseeker's transitional payment, jobseeker's allowance and family income supplement. This means that when a one-parent family payment ceases for parents with a child aged seven years or older, the Department of Social Protection has determined that the non-custodial parent is no longer responsible for his or her child unless there is a court order in place. After the changes to the one-parent family payment in July 2015, the Department of Social Protection wrote to non-custodial parents advising them that they were no longer obliged to pay maintenance, unless there was a court order in place. Not only have one-parent families been shafted by the State, but the Department of Social Protection has also given the go-ahead for non-custodial parents to stop contributing to their children.
People may think the primary parent should seek a court order, but there are many reasons this is not a step single parents want to take. Once the court order is issued, the Department of Social Protection assesses court-ordered maintenance as means, regardless of whether it is paid. This means that 100% of the maintenance payment is deducted from rent allowance, 50% is deducted from jobseeker's allowance and 60% is deducted from family income supplement. There is a major risk that if a non-custodial parent obtains a court order and it is not complied with, the custodial parent will be significantly worse off. The risk versus return, considering how child maintenance payments are assessed, means that many lone parents will not go through the courts to receive a risky payment and will instead accept no maintenance payment rather than risk losing a guaranteed and secure payment.
I wish the Minister all the best in his new Department. It is a pivotal Department for those who have little room to manoeuvre and some who have no room to do so. A Programme for a Partnership Government states we support an increase in disability benefit and allowance, carer's benefit and allowance and blind person's pension. A strong start needs to be made in the year ahead. People with disabilities must have an adequate income to live with dignity. Protection of basic payments does not equate to protection of basic income. The reality of living in Ireland with a disability at this time is masked very often by data-gathering that does not take into account the extra but ordinary day-to-day costs people with disabilities face.
The Minister is asking all of us to prioritise. Clearly, I prioritise disability payments. Of course, I will do so. There is a logic to it. Disability hits where it likes, when it likes, who it likes and how it likes. We cannot divine when it happens to any family. It affects children, parents and older people. It is a major risk and contingency, I dare say, that everybody faces and which will come to everybody's door. Therefore, there is a good business case to be made for the spread of supports to develop a foundation in dealing with the issue of disability. Encapsulated in this, as mentioned by many Senators, is the issue of carers. The great majority of carers are women who stand in the line, do what has to be done and pick up the pieces. In the year ahead I ask the Minister to increase the disability allowance of €20 per week and then to start working on concrete measures to deal with the cost of disability. That is agreed by all of the parties and think tanks dating back 14 or 15 years as a real cost. It is not being underpinned and is a loss people and families incur. These things put money in people's pockets. It leads to a very fast circulation. It gives people with disabilities more autonomy and choice and can help in their participation in their local communities. I ask the Minister to consider strongly these points in the context of the upcoming budget.
I will try to cover as much as I can in the time I have available.
Senator Gerry Horkan started by mentioning poverty and social exclusion. The way the Government and I see it is that poverty and social exclusion need to be tackled on three fronts, the first of which is job provision. No welfare payment can compete with a well paid job. That is why we need more well paid jobs to get people from welfare into work as much as possible. The second is services. If people did not have to pay so much for health and child care, they would not need as much in benefits or their salary. We need to bear this in mind. The third front is benefits and transfers. When we talk about poverty and social exclusion, we need to see the solution in job provision, services and transfers, not just in any one of them.
Senator Gerry Horkan encouraged placing a strong focus on pensioners. I will certainly do my best in that regard in the forthcoming budget. Others also mentioned carers and people with disabilities. Interestingly enough, when we look at the statistics - I am starting to become a bit of a statistics nerd in this Department - if one takes the poorest 10% in Irish society, the lowest decile, virtually none is a pensioner. They are almost all people with disabilities, carers and those on lower incomes rather than pensioners. That is not to say we should do nothing for pensioners, but it is something that needs to be borne in mind.
Senator Ray Butler mentioned the self-employed. We will be debating that issue next week. He also mentioned pharmacists. We are undertaking a review in that regard. I hope to be able to make a decision in the next couple of months with a view to reversing some of the changes made for pharmacists under the previous Government, of which I was a member. I am not going to run away from those decisions, but an opportunity now arises to reverse some of those changes.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins mentioned a number of things, including the role of social transfers in protecting social cohesion during the crisis. I totally agree with that point and my forebear, the former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, made the point many times that had it not been for our strong welfare system, we might have seen the kind of upheaval and civic unrest that occurred in other countries. It did not occur here for a number of reasons, but a strong social protection system was part of it. I can assure the Senator that we intend the Department of Social Protection to take a central role having in gender and equality-proofing budgets.
Direct provision is a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality. The habitual residence rules are largely European-based. However, I take the point the Senator made about child benefit, particularly for those who are in Ireland for a long period and still in direct provision accommodation.
On the issue of under-25s, most countries do pay a lower rate of jobseeker's benefit to those under 25 years for many good reasons. I do not think it is a good idea to give an 18-year old or a 19-year old €188 a week. However, a valid point was made about those taking part in schemes or training. That is something at which I intend to take a look also.
Senator Neale Richmond asked a question that I have asked also. How come so many people are successful in their appeals? If so many appeals are upheld, there must be a problem with the underlying system. That is something I intend to study in more detail. However, I point out that there are only about 25,000 appeals for 2 million customers. Therefore, the appeals rate is low and perhaps that is linked with the success rate. I am also trying to figure out how many appeals are successful because of new information. I have been told anecdotally that people are sometimes told to withhold information from the Department for their appeal. I encourage people not to do this. The Department should be given all the information up front, if possible.
The Senator raised the issue of paternity leave. It is absolutely our intention to conduct a campaign to increase awareness of paternity leave.
Senator Máire Devine mentioned the Social Justice Ireland report. I ask her to study it further. It is important to point out that it is based on 2014 statistics, not those for 2015 or 2016, for which the statistics are not yet available. When it states there are 750,000 people living below the poverty line, that is not correct. That includes people who are at risk of poverty. By definition, if one is at risk of poverty, one is not living in poverty. It is just like if one is at risk of losing one's job, it means that one still has a job, even if one is at risk of losing it. It is not the case that poverty rates are rising. They fell in 2014. We do not yet have the figures for 2015, but we expect them to have fallen again.
With regard to Senator Maria Byrne's points on community employment, we are certainly looking at reforming the scheme, as well as Tús and Gateway. During the recession the numbers of schemes increased dramatically. Obviously the economy is now recovering and the numbers are likely to fall. There might be scope to relax the rules for younger people and older people, in particular. We are at the point at which there are many people who, for various reasons, might not be suited to the normal world of work, if one likes, and I believe the community employment scheme will probably focus more on this issue.
On class K contributions, it is proposed to legislate for them in the social welfare Bill at the end of the year. It will be brought forward before November or December. The Local Authority Members' Association, LAMA, and the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, are conducting a survey and, essentially, councillors are being presented with two options: either to move to class S, similar to the self-employed, in which they would continue to pay at the rate of 4%, receive some but not all benefits and receive any benefits extende to the self-employed, or not to pay it at all. What I cannot allow councillors to do is pick or choose their class. We would all love to be able to pick or choose what taxes or rate of PRSI we should pay. I cannot allow that, but what I will give councillors is fair treatment. I cannot give special treatment and do not think anybody in the House would want me to do so.
On the carer's allowance issue mentioned by Senator James Reilly, I know that there is a big delay. It is a big problem. There is a delay of about 19 weeks in processing applications. More staff have been hired. They need to be trained and there is a particular skill set they need to understand the carer's allowance scheme. It is something I am aware of and working on. Over the summer I will visit the section that deals with that area. I point out, though, that if somebody is judged to be entitled to carer's allowance, he or she will have his or her payment backdated in full to the point at which he or she applied.
I should probably sit down with Senator Kevin Humphreys at some stage. I sat down with Deputy Joan Burton for an hour or two. Senator Kevin Humphreys and I might do the same. The Senator seems to have some good ideas. We might up on them in a proper one-to-one meeting. The bogus self-employed report has not yet been received, but I am looking forward to seeing it. I acknowledge the Senator's interest in the personal micro-credit scheme and his role in making it happen. It has been a success. I do not think the Central Bank is as concerned as it was. If it is concerned about people not paying back their loans, it is not people in receipt of social welfare payments who do not pay them back but others. It is intended to extend the scheme to credit unions across the State and, if possible, to working people on low incomes, for the reasons the Senator stated.
I will have a chat with the Senator again about the over-60s pilot scheme. I am not aware of it, but I will become aware of it now that he has mentioned it. I think it is for people over 62 years.
We might have a chat about it again.
Senator Robbie Gallagher asked about the Intreo offices and the fact that there was none in counties Roscommon and Monaghan. I will look into that matter. I am not sure if there is any deliberate reason for it. Perhaps there should be offices located there. I will see if we can do something about it.
The Senator's points on the one-parent family payment and particularly on disability issues were well made. Any programme for Government commitment is for the entire length of the Government's term. It will not be possible to do everything in the first year, but I hear the point he is making. One thing we need to bear in mind is that if we are to increase working age payments, we should probably increase them all together.
I would be uncomfortable in saying we will see an increase for those in receipt of disability and carer's allowance but not for lone parents or jobseekers. That is something we will have to work out at a different stage. As Senators Alice-Mary Higgins and Lynn Ruane have particular expertise in the one-parent family payment area that I do not yet have, perhaps we might have engagement on it. I would be interested in hearing their views on what could be done to improve the position. The common aim is to reduce the level of child poverty and encourage people into the workforce. There are many factors at play and I understand the dynamics. If we adhere to these common principles, we can make some modifications in the forthcoming budget to make things easier.
That concludes statements on social protection. I thank the Minister.