Social Welfare Bill 2016: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Social Welfare Bill provides the legislative framework for the implementation of the measures announced in budget 2017. It also contains a number of largely technical changes which aim to resolve minor deficiencies identified within the welfare code. Overall, the Bill represents a prudent approach with modest increases to all weekly payments, alongside more targeted measures, an inclusive approach to ensure the recovery benefits everyone and that no one is left behind, a progressive approach to making work pay, including positive reforms to the social insurance system and the extension of access to benefits to the self-employed, and a targeted approach with measures to assist lone parents, low-income farm families and school children.

The Bill provides that the maximum rate of all weekly benefits will increase by €5 so that all people of working age, as well as retired people aged 66 or older, will see an improvement in their weekly incomes. Overall, almost 1.5 million people will benefit from these increases while local communities and businesses will benefit, in turn, from increased spending. Increases for recipients aged 66 years and over will come into effect during the week ending 10 March 2017. This includes, for instance, all those in receipt of the contributory State pension and the non-contributory State pension.

The effect of this increase is to bring aggregate payments to pensioners back up to the level they had reached before the financial crisis in 2009 even taking into account the reductions in the telephone allowance and fuel allowance. I want to build on this progress in future budgets by continuing to increase the State pension at a rate greater than the rate of inflation.

The increases for other recipients will come into effect during the week following 10 March. Approximately 840,000 working age people will gain from this increase, regardless of whether they are jobseekers, widows and widowers, ill or disabled, lone parents, farmers, carers or participants in schemes such as community employment, Tús and the rural social scheme. Until budget 2017 was announced, none of these people had seen an increase in their weekly income since the cutbacks of 2010 and 2011. Even after the €5 increase next March, they will still be some €11.50 per week worse off than 2011 so I also plan to continue to increase these rates above the rate of inflation in future budgets. It was very important to me, and to all of my colleagues in Government, that no one was left out as we sought to extend the benefits of the economic recovery to all sectors of society. A social impact assessment of the social welfare budget package using the ESRI SWITCH model on a non-indexed basis found that people who are in lowest income quintile, the bottom 20%, gain the most from budget 2017.

This Bill is notable for its reformist approach in extending access to social insurance benefits to self-employed people. I am a strong supporter of the contributory principle, which is the idea that people who pay into the system should benefit from it. The social insurance system is an excellent example of how this principle can be realised. I am particularly pleased that this Bill includes a number of measures which will have a very positive impact for the self-employed, a sector which is critical to sustaining the Irish economy. As Senators are aware, the self-employed sector encompasses a huge range of people, including farmers, professionals, taxi drivers, hairdressers, small business owners, freelancers, tradesmen and tradeswomen and many more besides. They are people who face the same risks and contingencies in the course of their working lives as employees. To date, their PRSI contributions have allowed them to qualify for a State pension contributory on reaching pension age, maternity and paternity benefits but provide no safety net in other scenarios such as illness or unemployment.

Section 9 of the Bill provides that from March 2017, the self-employed will be entitled to access the optical, dental and hearing benefits currently available to employees under the treatment benefit scheme. This section of the Bill also provides that when the range of optical and dental treatments is expanded from October of next year, both employees and the self-employed will benefit equally. Section 4 of the Bill provides that the self-employed will be entitled to apply for invalidity pension with effect from December 2017. Where a self-employed person is no longer able to continue to work because of long-term ill-health or injury, they will have access to the safety net of State income support without a means test. They will no longer be asked about their assets or savings or their partner's income as that will no longer be relevant.

Well done, Minister.

Section 10 also relates to self-employment, in this case by providing that city and county councillors will in future be brought into social insurance cover as self-employed people. They will be treated in the same manner as other self-employed people insofar as entitlement to the wider range of benefits is concerned. Councillors currently pay class K contributions, which were introduced at a time when we were experiencing an unprecedented financial crisis. Payment of the class K contributions was one of the measures which ensured that public office holders made their contribution to the resolution of that crisis. No benefits accrue from these contributions. Along with many Members of the Oireachtas on all sides, I have been concerned about the social insurance position of councillors. Unlike Members of the Oireachtas and the Judiciary, they do not have any occupational pension rights. It is now appropriate that they be brought into social insurance cover, particularly for pensions.

It is important to say that councillors will continue to pay 4% of their income in 2017 until they reach the age of 66. There will be no improvement in net pay for the vast majority of councillors. The benefit will be long-term when they reach pension age or if they are unfortunate enough to experience a long-term disability or illness rendering them incapable of work. They will have to satisfy the same contribution conditions as anyone else to get these benefits but they will get them.

The various measures to expand social insurance coverage to the self-employed fit well with the Government's policy of making work pay and encouraging self-employment and entrepreneurship and encouraging people to take calculated risks.

I intend to continue to extend the benefits available to self-employed persons through the social protection system and will look at further options in the coming year, particularly with regard to jobseeker's benefit.

In the course of the passage of the Bill through the Dáil it was evident that everyone who had contributed to the debate was keen to ensure the impact of the reforms to the one-parent family payment since 2012 would be thoroughly evaluated. Section 12 is a new section of the Bill, as amended by the Dáil, and provides for an independent evaluation to be completed within nine months of its enactment. We anticipate having it done prior to the summer in order that it can feed into the budgetary process.

Section 24 increases the income disregards for the one-parent family payment which, from the start of next year, will rise by €20, from €90 to €110 per week. This measure reverses in part previous reductions and is designed to encourage one-parent families to stay in or return to work or work more hours. It will also apply to persons in receipt of the jobseeker's transitional payment. It is intended that it will kick in on 5 January, subject to the Bill being passed by the Seanad.

As part of the Government's commitment to rural Ireland, the Bill, in section 23, reverses completely the cuts made to the farm assist scheme in 2012 and 2013. This will provide enhanced support for approximately 8,000 farm families throughout the country.

Young jobseekers under the age of 26 years generally receive age-related reduced rates of jobseeker's payments of either €100 or €144 per week. These will increase proportionally with the general rate increases. A similar approach will be taken to others such as qualified dependent adults. The focus of the Government is on helping and encouraging young jobseekers into employment and education. We do this by actively engaging with them one to one and helping them to attain additional training and educational qualifications that will assist them to find a job. I strongly believe welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life; therefore, from next September, when a young jobseeker participates in the Department's back to education scheme, he or she will be entitled to receive the full maximum rate of jobseeker's payment which will then be €193 per week, as opposed to the €160 he or she currently receives. This 21% increase represents an extra €33 a week and demonstrates the State’s support for young jobseekers who try to help themselves by enhancing their education and skills. It is the biggest single increase in the social welfare package and specifically targeted at young jobseekers.

I do not want to take up the time available in the House for the Second Stage debate by going through the Bill section by section. I am keen to use the time we have available to hear the views of Senators. I will instead give a very brief summary of the key aspects of the Bill and we can, of course, return to the individual sections on Committee Stage.

Section 2 relates to the definition of a qualified adult for the purposes of the half-rate carer's allowance, while section 3 relates to paternity benefit. Section 5 relates to illness benefit, while section 11 relates to the one-parent family payment and blind pension. Section 13 relates to the supplementary welfare allowance, while section 19 relates to gardaí seconded to the Department. The amendments are all largely of a technical nature and involve no change in policy, rather they are included to resolve some minor deficiencies which have been identified in the social welfare code.

The provisions in section 18 are designed to update the social welfare legislation in the area of habitual residence to reflect legislative changes introduced by the Department of Justice and Equality. Section 22 similarly updates the legislation to reflect the introduction of the GLAS scheme by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Sections 4, 9 and 10 all relate to the changes I outlined to treatment benefit and invalidity pension schemes for the self-employed, including city and county councillors. Section 9(b) provides for the extension of the benefits currently available under the treatment benefit scheme. When the necessary discussions with the bodies representing dentists and opticians have concluded, I will introduce regulations to make an expanded treatment benefit scheme available to the employed and self-employed with effect from October 2017.

Sections 6 to 8, inclusive, 21 and 25, with Schedules 1 and 2, provide for new rates of social insurance benefits and social assistance payments to be paid from March next year. Proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments and qualified adult dependants are also provided for.

I spoke about section 12 which provides for the preparation of an independent evaluation of the reforms to the one-parent family payment since 2012. Section 14 is an amendment to require employers, where they are requested to do so, to provide information for the Department on child benefit claims.

This mirrors the requirements that already exist for a number of other schemes, such as FIS and the back to work family dividend. These powers are particularly relevant to child benefit payments made on the basis of employment in the State under EU regulations.

Section 15 deals with situations where someone has an entitlement to maternity, paternity, health and safety or adoptive benefit as well as the back to work family dividend. Senators will be aware that the back to work family dividend, introduced in January 2015, offers financial support to families moving from social welfare into employment where the claimant, having taken up employment or self-employment, stops claiming a jobseeker’s payment or a one-parent family payment. Under current legislation, someone in receipt of the family dividend cannot concurrently receive payment for maternity, paternity, health and safety or adoptive benefit. In such cases, my Department has to suspend payment of the dividend until entitlement to, for example, maternity benefit is exhausted. At that point, payment of the dividend is resumed. This practice is disruptive for the customer and administratively cumbersome. Section 15 deals with this issue by providing that maternity, paternity, health and safety or adoptive benefit can be paid concurrently with the back to work family dividend.

Section 16 provides powers to allow regulations to be introduced to prescribe a specified time for making a paternity benefit claim. This is a standard provision that applies to the full range of other welfare schemes. Section 17 provides powers to enable regulations to be introduced to set out the conditions to apply where a person nominates another person to act as a "temporary" agent to receive or collect a social welfare payment on the person's behalf.

Section 20 deals with the position of Romanian and Bulgarian nationals and their families who were working in Ireland during the transitional period from 2007 to 2011. It provides that contracts of service in which they engaged here during that period fall within the categories of employment where a person is regarded as an employed contributor. As a result of this change, any PRSI contribution paid by a Romanian or Bulgarian employed contributor during the transitional period will be recognised as valid.

Section 23 provides for the reintroduction of the income disregards and tapering arrangements that applied to the farm assist scheme before 2012, thus reversing all of the cuts made to that programme. Section 24 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent families.

The actions contained in the Bill will be supplemented by other budget measures that do not require amendments to the primary legislation. One of these is the Christmas bonus. Last week, my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and I signed the order allowing for the payment of the bonus. It will benefit more than 1.2 million people at a cost of some €221 million and is being paid across this week.

The Bill reflects the responsible and prudent approach of the Government to ensuring that our economic recovery is not put at risk. There are increases in all core social welfare payments, which will benefit individuals, families and their communities. There are also specific targeted measures that will provide additional supports to vulnerable sectors of our society, including one-parent families and low-income farm families. The Bill is reforming and progressive in recognising the needs of the self-employed.

This is the first Social Welfare Bill to be introduced under the partnership Government. We intend that future budgets will continue to improve the living standards of all of our people, assist people to move from welfare into work, support self-employment and self-reliance and develop a strong social insurance system based on the contributory principle. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for addressing the House and am happy to be able to contribute on the provisions and changes contained in the Social Welfare Bill.

This year's budget goes some way towards introducing elements of fairness to the social welfare system that have not been seen in this country after five years of harsh, punitive and regressive budgets under the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government. Without the backdrop of the confidence and supply agreement, any element of fairness would be missing completely. The ESRI has commented on the budget, stating that its greatest gains are in the lowest income quintile. Though minimal, this would not have happened but for the influence of Fianna Fáil. The €5 increase in the State pension and other social welfare payments, the 85% restoration of the Christmas bonus and the extension of optical and dental supports were central to Fianna Fáil's election manifesto.

While these are not huge gains, they go some way towards addressing the inequality in our society. Fianna Fáil also welcomes the cross-party amendment to provide for a review of the one-parent family payment. The Fianna Fáil Party has fought long and hard to reverse the punitive changes introduced in 2012 and we welcome that the Government has agreed to review those changes on foot of amendments tabled by Deputy O'Dea on Committee Stage in the Dáil.

Our social welfare system is evolving. It is by no means perfect. One of the major discrepancies in the system is the gender disparity when it comes to the contributory State pension. As we know, entitlement to the State pension varies depending on an individual's circumstances. A person may have an insufficient yearly average number of contributions or an insufficient number of overall contributions to qualify for a pension or full pension. In 1994 a home maker's scheme was introduced to address some concerns, specifically in regard to the impact of time out of the workforce spent caring. This allows for up to 20 years spent caring to be disregarded when an individual's yearly average is being calculated. It does not, however, apply to women who gave up work before 1994 and therein lies the problem. It has been suggested by many sources that the home maker's scheme should be retrospective and that the current disregard system should be replaced with a system of credits. Issues around making the home maker's scheme retrospective were examined against the qualifying conditions for the old age contributory pension and retirement pension schemes 2000, which found no fundamental reason in principle the scheme should only apply from 1994. I am calling on the Minister to prioritise the regularisation of the gender disparity in this country and I ask that he make this issue a priority.

I welcome the Minister to the House to debate the Social Welfare Bill 2016. For me, the main issue that jumps off the page is that of restoration of cuts. In fairness, it was honest of the Minister to admit that it was the previous Administration, of which he was a member, that brought about the cuts, including in respect of the telephone allowance. The majority of the e-mails I have received since I became a Member of this House are related to the cuts. The impact of the cut of the telephone allowance is an issue in respect of which I am sure all politicians have received representations. We often talk about rural isolation and the importance of ensuring people can remain connected with families and friends. Many people have had their home telephones disconnected and are now using mobile phones. The cut of the telephone allowance was a cruel and mean one. I know there was a cost factor involved. Perhaps the Minister will share with us the savings accruing from the cuts in respect of the telephone and fuel allowances, the impact in that regard and when these cuts might be restored. Senator Reilly, chairman of Fine Gael, said in this House prior to the announcement of the budget on budget day that restoration of this cut was an issue that he was pursuing within the party. In that regard he said he would be extremely disappointed if the Minister for Finance did not deliver in relation to the telephone allowance. I met him later that day and he put his hands up and admitted it was one of those issues that had not made it over the line. I would like the Minister to share his views on the issue and on his plans in this area.

The next issue I would like to touch on is the class K and S contributions in respect of county councillors. It needs to be stated time and again that county councillors are paid €16,500 gross per annum, which is not a huge amount. These are people who work seven days a week. This is a huge issue outside this House but it is not one that surfaces in this House very often. One might well ask why I am raising it today. I do so because I represent these people. They are my constituents and I do not apologise for representing them. As I said, this is an issue that is continually being raised. We know that these people do not have any occupational pension rights. I acknowledge that the Minister has taken a positive step forward. However, I would like to know when the new provision will come into effect because that is not stated in the Bill. What is the timeframe within which it will come into effect? I know that the Minister is committed to this issue. I am not disputing that. As I understand it, county councillors will continue to pay 4% on €16,500 per annum. The Minister might share with us when this provision will come into effect.

In regard to the county councillors who have paid this contribution since 2000, in respect of which they received no benefit, will they receive a refund? Will those who paid €600 per annum from 2000 be given a refund? Will they receive any benefits for those payments? How are we going to make amends for this?

It was grossly unfair for people to pay the class K rate but receive no benefits. County councillors want to hear how the matter will be addressed. I accept that people over 66 years will no longer pay the class K rate as it will no longer exist. Can the Minister confirm that all councillors can opt to move from class K to class S? Is it an opt-in or opt-out clause? Can he confirm that a person aged less than 66 will automatically go into the class S? Can he deal with the issue of retrospection? Can he make a case for or consider positively a reimbursement or benefit for the people who have paid up to now but did not receive a benefit?

I welcome the restoration of the farm assist scheme that was cut by the previous Government of which the Minister was part. I acknowledge that he has proposed the restoration of this important measure. The scheme is prudent and reasonable.

I am reasonably supportive of the Bill as I think it is fair. The bonus scheme is now at 85% but we should make that 100%. The Minister has clearly set out the cost involved, which must be a consideration for everyone. I know that he wants to give a little something to everyone. The Government originally had the objective of restoring the bonus 100% for people in receipt of welfare benefit. This year the bonus has been 85% restored. Surely we can make a strong case and clearly indicate that the Government will work towards restoring the bonus to 100% for 2017. I thank the Minister for his time.

Budget 2017 is fair and prudent and it contains modest increases for everybody. Recovery benefits all, there is a new deal for the self-employed and it makes work pay. The pensioners have received a modest increase of €5 in their pensions but the Minister did not forget them. There has been a €5 increase in benefits for all people under 66 years. Some 840,000 people will gain from the increase in invalidity pensions, disability allowance, blind pensions and many more allowances.

The self-employed will now receive dental benefits, hearing benefits, optical benefits and at least 205,000 workers will now be eligible for an invalidity pension. The self-employed will receive a tax credit increase but no PRSI increase. This is the first time in the history of the State that self-employed people have been recognised through social protection. It is a huge issue. Like education, health and so many areas we have not gone far enough but we did what we could with the little we had.

I was delighted to hear the Minister's following comment here today and shall read it into the record. He said: "I intend to continue to extend the benefits available to self-employed persons through the social protection system and will look at further options in the coming year." I thank our partners in government who have put this aim in the programme for Government. In fairness to the Labour Party and Deputy Joan Burton, they campaigned for this issue during the five years we were in government together. I am delighted that 400,000 people will get some cover. We are moving forward and we want young entrepreneurs to take a chance. God forbid that anything happens to them, either they suffer invalidity or get sick and are out of work, we will back them to get back up on their feet and to move forward.

I was delighted to hear of the changes in the class K stamp which is welcome. It is a huge issue for local councillors and the change cannot happen quick enough.

In terms of treatment benefit, a range of dental and optical benefits have been restored that will benefit 2.5 million people. Lone parents will receive a €5 weekly increase. In addition, the disregard has been increased from €90 to €110 and will benefit 17,500 people. A new €500 cost of education allowance and a single child care scheme have been introduced.

Budget 2017 has focused on children with a child care package, medical cards and education. In terms of school meals, as many as 52,800 additional places have been created and 35,000 breakfast places for non-DEIS schools have been created.

We have all seen how they worked in all areas where they have been a considerable success. It is great to see extra money in that regard. There was a €15 weekly increase in guardian's payment.

In rural areas the cuts to farm assist were reversed. There are 17,800 beneficiaries of the scheme. I also welcome the 500 additional places on the rural social scheme. In addition, I welcome the PRSI reforms farmers have long sought.

Young jobseekers have had the full rate of the back to education allowance restored. I also welcome the reduced rent contribution for those on jobseeker's benefit, community employment, CE, schemes, and those on Tús schemes. Other measures include the provision of an extra €1 million for the community service programme bringing it to a total of €46 million. That is to be welcomed. We have all seen how successful community services have been in terms of improving the lives of those in the community in all rural towns and villages.

I welcome the extension of the carer's allowance and the access to the back to work enterprise allowance in nine months rather than 12 months, as well as the €15 per week increase for guardian's payment. We will all welcome the full restoration of the Christmas bonus when that happens but the restoration of 85% of it is welcome. The bonus will be paid to 1.2 million people from 28 November.

Since the budget there has been no backlash on the social protection budget, which is to be commended and welcomed. It is a far cry from 2011 when I came into this House and the cuts we had to make following the collapse of the country on foot of what the previous Government did. We must not forget that. We had to make decisions, some of which were good and others which were bad, in order to get this country back on its feet. Now we are reversing any of the cuts that we felt were wrong. I agree with the point that was made by a previous speaker that we should reconsider the cut to the telephone allowance. The saving in that regard was a paltry €3 million to €4 million. It was ridiculous. It was the one big issue that was raised in my constituency office. We should examine the issue and reverse the cut. We all know there are areas on which we can improve and as the economy grows and according as people go back to work we can help the most vulnerable in society.

I welcome the Social Welfare Bill.

I thank the Minister for presenting the Social Welfare Bill. First, I echo the sentiments of Senator Boyhan on pensions for councillors, and the paucity of the reform of their terms and conditions. I also echo his call for the Minister to respond to him and say how he will speed up the changes and make them a bit more meaningful.

I remind the Seanad and the Minister of the call in the budget for the centre to hold - that Irish people were centrist and demanded centrist politics. First and foremost, I do not think the centrist politics he espouses and to which he alluded are the politics of anything like the centre which we have witnessed in this country in recent years. In the post-budget discussion and especially in the main post-budget debate, we had an amazing situation. The Minister for Finance refused to appear on "Prime Time" to debate with the Opposition. I refer to Sinn Féin's finance spokesperson, Deputy Pearse Doherty. One could ask what was the reason for that. Amazingly, despite the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, outlining that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share common policy objectives, come from the same background and are supported by many of the same people across the country, he would not debate with Deputy Pearse Doherty because he said Fianna Fáil was and is the main Opposition party. That is comical.

The Social Welfare Bill contains many provisions. The group that was most affected in the recession and the post-recession period are young people. They are our future. They were forced to emigrate in their thousands post 2008. Those left behind faced unprecedented unemployment levels. With no jobs to obtain, the Government made the unbelievable decision to cut their social welfare rates to €100. That was a distinct policy decision of discrimination.

The Minister has done little to address this discrimination in this budget, given that those aged 18 years to 24 years were given an extra €2.70 a week and those aged 25 years were given €3.80 a week. I measure this against the €5,000 that Deputies greedily decided to accept earlier. This is a yes for inequality, and a no for leadership. This is quite simply a disgraceful decision.

The Fianna Fáil Party played its part in putting together this budget. They are every bit as culpable for this discrimination as the members of the Fine Gael Party.

It is not all bad news as I believe there are good measures in the Social Welfare Bill. These include the increase in allowance back to €193; the ending of the demeaning and insulting JobsBridge, the reintroduction of the €500 cost of education allowance; the increase in school meals provision and the provision of paternity leave and benefit.

The problem is that there are far too many bad measures that were not addressed and not seen as a priority. These are distinct policy choices that do not serve the people that need support most. Reducing the tax rate for capital acquisition tax, increasing the band for inheritance tax and reducing USC rates for those who can afford the payment the most are not centrist measures, but measures that broaden the inequality that remains rife in this country.

I will outline the bad measures that Fine Gael and their Fianna Fáil partners introduced that will make life near to impossible for lone parents next year. The reduction in the cut off age for one-parent families have left more of these vulnerable units at risk of extreme poverty. The one-parent family measures have been noted as encouraging welfare dependency, reducing household income and creating one big welfare trap that these families cannot get out of. It punishes children and in the main in one-parent families it punishes women. The centrist parties pledge to increase living alone allowance in their respective manifestos should have been a no-brainer. Why did this not happen?

Fianna Fáil in government introduced prescription charges. Fine Gael keeps them going. While both parties acknowledge fuel poverty is evident, neither fought for nor provided for any increase. Some 28% of households across the State experience fuel poverty. I want everybody to listen to the next point because I was gobsmacked when I learned that Ireland has the highest level of winter mortality in Europe with 2,800 dying of the cold each year. We need to balance this against the unequal decisions that have been made.

The €5 increase in the State pension and disability payment will be of benefit to citizens who are in poverty, however, this needs to be seen for what it is, a delayed appetiser to appease our older citizens and those with disabilities in the event of an early election, given the parlous state of the friendly Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael coalition. This increase along with the other significant inconsistencies in our pension system and disability funding fail to be addressed in this Bill.

Last Saturday at a public stall after the closure of yet another post office in my local area, an elderly lady came up and asked why the Government is giving pensioners a fiver: "What good is a fiver to us, why do they not put all the fivers into giving the people on the street a bed for the winter?" She would much prefer that. This proves to me the disconnect between the centrist parties and the ordinary people of Ireland. The ordinary people are fair, compassionate and caring and they possess a very strong social conscience.

We will not oppose the Bill and will not delay it. We would prefer if things were done differently and while we do not believe the changes introduced in the budget went far enough, we must accept that crumbs are better than no crumbs.

The Minister accepted an amendment tabled by my party colleague in the Dáil on preparing a report on the financial and social effects of the changes to the one-parent family payment since 2015. Our wish is that the report will be presented within six months. The Minister has given a commitment that it would take nine months to do but we request him to push for doing it within six months. We also asked for an annual child poverty report to be published and issued to the joint committee of which I belong. I really would want to see such a report annually. This was rejected. Why?

We asked that employees whose dismissal was found to be a case of unfair dismissal would the State support received by them refunded to the State by the employer and that upon a successful finding of unfair dismissal a statement would issue that the employer did unfairly dismiss the employee. This was rejected and I would like to know why.

I would ask the Minister again to consider both of these amendments.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I will not be going through this section by section. I know we will have that opportunity on Committee Stage. There are some very positive steps in this Bill and it is important to acknowledge them. The movement with regard to jobseeker's allowance for the under 25s, while it does not go far enough in fully restoring their payments, is important. Steps have also been taken with the carer's allowance and I recognise also the increase in income disregard for lone-parents as a very, very small step towards what needs to be an urgent review of our work in this area.

The Joint Committee on Social Protection has heard testimony of the impacts of these cuts and I know these have already been discussed extensively on Committee Stage, and no doubt they will emerge here again. The figures basically still speak for themselves in that only 3,000 lone-parents - by the Department's own figures - are estimated to have moved on to the family income supplement and thereby potentially escaping poverty, though even that is debated.

We know that almost 40,000 people, predominantly women, were moved from the one-parent family payment. There has been a massive shift in policy and a massive wholesale movement of people from one payment to another payment and we have been hearing the impacts of that. I am glad to see, and I very much welcome, that the amendment which requires a report in this area has been accepted in the Dáil.

I echo the call by my colleague across the floor in asking the Minister to endeavour to bring in the report in six months rather than nine months because it is absolutely essential that we have the findings of this review. From those who have been monitoring the situation on the ground, we already have seen the impact. We must, however, have the report in time to ensure that it informs our next budget so it can bring about a rethink of our actions and policies with regard to lone-parents and place them at the centre of the next social welfare Bill, if we debate it next year.

We know there are poverty rates of 59% among this cohort. We know there are huge consequences for these people. This is the cohort who not only have a lower income but also have a lower wealth reserve and who are least equipped to bear the period of experimentation that has been thrust upon them. I encourage the Minister to ensure that the report reflects the voices of lone-parents and their advocate groups and that the report from Millar and Crosse - with the UNESCO project at National University of Ireland, Galway, and believed by many people to be an excellent report - is not lost. The Millar and Crosse report did not receive the debate it should have.

I note that the Minister was going to have a review of the jobseeker's transition scheme that is to commence in 2017. That would be interesting. Within that jobseeker's transition I urge the Minister to also consider what might be learned with regard to qualified adults. For example, if we were to look to voluntary, supported access to employment and activation opportunities not based on sanction or the criteria of full-time availability but that looks to opening up new opportunities in a supportive way to the many thousands of people, especially women, who are qualified adults.

One group which did not receive an increase are those people in direct provision. The Government's own report has recommended increases in this area. The €5 increase would have been a very small step. The Minister has said this increase is dependent upon the Department of Justice and Equality but I would appreciate it if the Minister would inform the House of how he might have engaged with that Department so we can add to the pressure on that Department to support the Minister in being able to redress, even as this Bill passes through the House, the fact that those people in direct provision in Ireland are still living on the same amount of money as was issued in 2004. That is a shame on our nation. It is something on which we could move forward. I ask the Minister to tell us how we can support him in working with other Departments to make that happen.

I will now turn to my key concern in this budget and in the Bill.

We have been told there will be a €5 increase in payments and that this will help to take aggregate payments to pensioners back to 2009 levels. However, we must be honest because most women in Ireland in receipt of the contributory pension will not receive a €5 increase. I would like the Minister to clarify whether those on the reduced rate of contributory pension - the majority of women in receipt of that pension are on the reduced rate - will receive a €5 increase or, as I understand it, a pro rata increase.

What is being done in terms of pensions and older people? Nothing is being done to address the pensions gender gap. We need to not only match the reduced-rate increases by the amounts that are being put forward but to address the fact that the band changes and losses suffered by those on the lower rate of contributory pension are far in excess of those in receipt of the full rate of contributory pension. An opportunity has been missed. We are discussing pensions but are doing nothing about the pensions gender gap. We are not even redressing the widening of the gap that has arisen due to changes in the contributory threshold during the years of recession.

Others have proposed amendments to the homemakers provision and credit. As the Minister knows, I have clear proposals on a care credit with which we need to push forward. The Minister has spoken about the importance of recognising the contributions that are being made. There is a fundamental point, namely, we need to recognise that care is a contribution. We need the system to recognise that and to move past the language of disregard towards something which will give clear recognition to the contribution of carers.

There have been changes to how the self-employed are treated and Members heard passionate debate across the House about the contribution they make in driving the economy. That economy and society would not be possible without carers. I would like the Minister to consider that issue.

I will propose practical amendments around voluntary contributions and how people might be facilitated in making more voluntary contributions, something which has also been a great obstacle to women.

I have one last point on pensions. The Minister has spoken about PRSI contributions. More ambitious changes to our pension system than are proposed in the Bill can be paid for by the significant subsidies that have been given to private pension tax relief. In the House this week I will raise with the Minister for Finance the large subsidies and waivers available in terms of capital gains tax that have been given to the private pension industry.

We are paying significant amounts into the private pension industry in this country. If that approach is moving ahead at the same time we are being told we cannot afford to take action and need a long-term review, we are flaunting and defying the basic principles of equal treatment under EU law and the commitments of the Government to equality and gender-proofing of our budget.

The Minister has moved on farm assist, but I ask him to comment on the European directive encouraging PRSI contributions for the spouses and partners of those on family farms. Does the Minister think that will make a difference in terms of increasing our PRSI contribution take?

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on this Bill today. I welcome the Bill. It proposes a host of measures, including paternity leave, the restoration of farm assist, protection for the self-employed, which is most important and has never happened before, increases in the back-to-education allowance and the provision of over 50,000 school meals. These are all very important measures.

One could ask why the Bill is significant. It sends out the message that the Minister and Government were listening to people when they were on the doorsteps last February. The Bill deals with issues we all came across.

Statistics show that month by month, the economy has grown and the unemployment rate has fallen.

Yet, the recovery has not been felt by everybody in the same way and the consequences of Brexit undermine the viability of some small businesses, while others are yet to face the true cost. Some businesses are struggling with rising insurance costs, minimum wage increases and a host of other factors that have put many self-employed people in a precarious position. This is the reality for more than 325,000 people.

The position before the introduction of this Bill was that small business owners were means tested to calculate their eligibility for social welfare assistance. Their assets often worked against small business owners when it came to the question of whether they could avail of many of the protections their employees could enjoy. The answer was most frequently "no". They could not be protected when hard times came. Proposed changes such as extending the invalidity pension, granting access to dental and optical benefits and the medical appliance scheme are examples of the ways the Bill seeks to thank those drivers of economic growth, the self-employed. These people are the human face behind the statistics and the reason Ireland is recovering. However, not all self-employed people succeed and, for reasons entirely beyond their control, what was once a strong and profitable enterprise may be in trouble. Unlike larger businesses and companies, which could absorb the cost, many small businesses quickly closed their shutters for the final time.

An ESRI report published this month revealed some worrying findings. Those particularly at risk of poverty are lone parents who are self-employed. According to the Mangan report of 2009, the median income of self-employed people was only €20,000. The self-employed were at a 16.4% risk of poverty compared with 14.1% for the whole population. Too often, these facts are not discussed in the general political discourse. More must be done to encourage people to pursue their ambitions, take risks and start their own businesses. Ireland has long outperformed the global community in developing business leaders. It is time that we extended the protections available to those who have fallen on hard times and who, despite the difficulties they face, hold immense potential that can be realised in the towns of Ireland.

I particularly welcome the increase in the back-to-education allowance and the announcement that 35,000 more children will have school breakfasts. These simple measures have enormous effects for those who avail of them, given that they allow children to participate in school with the best possible start to their day. The ESRI has shown that the 2017 budget has had the most positive effect on those less fortunate and such measures serve as examples of what can be done to tackle inequality and poverty.

I refer to the transfer of councillors to class S for their PRSI payments, which is most welcome. Many Members, having been councillors in the past, served and paid class K but received no benefit from it. I pay tribute to the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, for the work they did with the Minister on the proposals in this regard. I welcome the fact that the Minister has listened and will go ahead with it. I commend the Bill to the House. It will be of great benefit to our country.

I welcome the Minister. It is a better time to be the Minister for Social Protection than has been the case for the past five years. We must remember and listen to the contributions earlier from those who crashed and burned the country through light-touch regulation but who are so critical now. They have forgotten the damage they did to the country when they call for reinstatement in this regard. It has been a long, difficult struggle by the citizens of the country to achieve the recovery we have. We must ensure it is spent in the proper manner with vision.

Many people who were in their late 30s and early 40s between 2008 and 2011 lost their jobs and still have not had an opportunity to return to employment. We must show vision regarding them. While the Minister has not dealt with them directly in the social welfare budget, Tús, Gateway and the CE schemes all played an important role during the economic emergency.

It is time to re-examine them, however, and determine how we can provide training and supports so people can re-engage with the workforce. People who are now in their late 40s and 50s are anxious to participate in society and the economy. To continue running the likes of Tús and Gateway, with little or no training, is questionable.

We also need to examine community employment schemes. During the crisis, the materials and training budgets had to be reduced. We now need to look at these again and determine how we can support so many training areas so people can re-engage in employment.

The Minister increased the number of places on the rural social scheme by 500, which was widely welcomed in rural areas. He stipulated a maximum of three years of participation. I would like to see a much more visionary scheme developed to try to ensure people on the rural social scheme are not trapped in poverty. Many people who participate on the scheme do so very early in their lives, in their 20s and 30s. I refer to the original 2,600. They would have participated on rural social schemes all the way through their working lives. This is a actually a poverty trap. The participants on rural social schemes are playing a very important role in their communities, including in the GAA, TidyTowns and several other areas. They are kept on a minimal wage, however, and it is very difficult for them to move on. I ask the Minister to develop a vision in respect of people trapped on welfare and availing of various welfare supports.

It is important to recognise communities are supported but it is also important to recognise some of the jobs are actually real jobs. We should actually be paying a real wage for those jobs that support communities so as not to leave the employees trapped on various social welfare schemes. On many occasions when travelling around the country, I have seen people trapped in various schemes and finding it very difficult to move on.

We need a little bit of vision. Now that the economy is in a better place, we should invest in people who have been trapped on social welfare and allow them to grow and participate in the economic growth happening right across the country. I ask the Minister to examine this.

I commend the Minister on the increase of €5.7 million for the school meals programme. Could he target this as much as possible at those who need it most? The Minister might already have thought a little about where the money will be spent. There was a lot of criticism of the last budget in regard to the €366 in respect of older people and those on pensions. In fact, Fianna Fáil attacked this strongly, saying it was an insult, miserable and miserly. In the 2010 budget, the figure was €240.60. The leader of the Fianna Fáil group was complimentary about that and referred to the programme for Government in this regard. Certainly, the difference between the €336 in the most recent budget and the €240.60 is such that I question it.

We need to have some vision in regard to child poverty in order to tackle it. I was disappointed that the six payments paid directly to families and young children have seen no increase. In future budgets, we must target children in poverty and ensure we can make a substantial impact. With regard to budgets, I do not believe the funding should be spread like margarine, thinly across a large area. We now have money coming on stream and we must targeted it at the most disadvantaged.

I would like to see the six payments that have seen no increase be strategically targeted in the next social welfare budget so that we can quickly move as many children out of poverty as possible.

There has been an increase of 500 in the number of places on the rural social scheme. Many artists have struggled during the recession. This year, we have spoken eloquently about our artists, paraded them on trade missions, etc. However, many are disadvantaged in terms of social welfare. Will the Minister examine whether there is a mechanism whereby artists can be assisted to grow, especially those at the beginning of their careers?

The Minister might revert to me on my next point. The increase in the Christmas bonus is welcome, but from where do the funds for that increase come? Are we using the national training scheme budget? We must be targeted and consider where the money is being found within the current social welfare budget.

I welcome the Minister to the House. The €5 increase would get lost in a hole in a tooth. It is damn all use to anyone. Many people would be happy to see it applied to services, for example, the telephone grant, which was so eloquently mentioned by my friend, Senator Boyhan. This is a political move, but it would be much better for the welfare of the country were the telephone grant restored.

I am glad to see for the first time some movement on the question of the self-employed. I have raised this matter for years. It was a gross injustice. However, I am unsure as to whether this entirely meets the situation. The Bill extends optical, dental and hearing benefits and gives access to State income support in the event of continuing ill health, but I do not believe that it gives full pension rights. The Minister might indicate whether it does. It should. Self-employed people should be placed on the same footing as everyone else. It is ridiculous that people, through their gifts, capacity and energy, provide employment for others only to find that, if their businesses go bust and they go bankrupt, their employees are covered and they are not. That is revolting to reason.

I raised a matter during the passage of the marriage equality Act and I had hoped that the Government would resolve it. I have a particular reason for raising it now. I am referring to gay people in same sex relationships who got married or entered into civil partnerships once it was possible for them to do so. Under the Civil Service pension scheme, one has to have been married by the age of 60 years. A small number of people are caught in this trap. Since marriage or civil partnership was not available to them before they reached that age, they were prevented by the law of the land from availing of these arrangements.

I raise this matter because a former colleague of mine and a distinguished lecturer in French, Dr. David Parris, brought a case to the European Court of Justice. The court instanced the case - that the survivor's pension was payable only if the member married or entered into a civil partnership before reaching the age of 60 years - before rehearsing the fact that engaging in such a relationship had not been possible for Dr. Parris. It decided that, by the first question, the referring court had essentially asked whether Article 2 of Directive 2000/78/EC must be interpreted as meaning that a national rule in connection with an occupational benefit scheme made the right of surviving civil partners of members to receive a survivor's benefit subject to the condition that the civil partnership had been entered into before the member reached the age of 60 years where national law had not allowed the member to enter into one before reaching that age limit constituted discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Of course it does. It could not be clearer. There is no question whatever. However, the court found that, because a margin of appreciation for countries was allowed, the EU did not dictate where marital status was concerned. It has no competence to decide.

This morning, I said that it was miserable of Trinity to take this case. On reflection, though, I am not sure that it really was Trinity, given that its pension scheme was taken over by the Government during the financial crisis. It looks as if the case is as much against the Government and Government agencies as it is against Trinity College.

There is an anomaly. It is one of the small number of issues remaining to be resolved after the passage of the marriage equality Act. In this case, the European Court of Justice found against the claim because of a lack of jurisdiction over marital legislation, but the situation is grossly wrong. When I raised the matter this morning, my colleagues in the House all said "Hear, hear" and applauded, so there is a strong feeling that we have a case to answer and that the injustice of such anomalies should be ironed out.

I welcome the Minister to the House. On the Order of Business, I asked that he attend to discuss a matter and, hey presto, he is here. He was scheduled to attended anyway, but I wish to raise the pressing issue of defined benefit pension schemes. People are trapped because they paid into private pension funds, now underfunded, that were organised through their workplaces. People are getting paltry sums if they are getting anything at all from pensions into which they paid for all of their lives. This issue is topical, given that Independent News and Media trustees have taken issue with ending its defined benefit scheme.

This is a serious problem. I know of it from my town and from businesses. Workers joined schemes at a young age believing that they had no choice. They were not advised that it was an investment that might fail. Employers have a duty of care. Their employees relied on and have confidence and trust in them. After saving for all of their lives, however, some of those employees now have nothing. It is appalling. If people get into hardship, it comes back on the State, yet employers who have been instrumental in setting up these funds are still solvent and trading and can go their merry way. That is not fair. I raised this issue in the Dáil with the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Burton. Legislation was introduced, but as many as 600,000 people may be in this dilemma. That is immense.

Although the Minister might not be in a position to do so today, I call on him to take action. Instead of everything falling on the taxpayer, we must consider the employer's duty of care towards employees when making such financial investments.

I compliment the Minister on his endeavours, which are set out in the Bill. Many areas have been covered. I join Senator Butler and others who have highlighted the issue of the self-employed.

The Minister hit the ground running and we have a further increase from €400 to €950 in the earned income tax credit. The Government commitment is to bring that to €1,650 by 2018, a most welcome measure for the self-employed. It is recognition for those taking the risks. Most of them are small shopkeepers who do not have the protection of the corporate veil if things go wrong. Many times, they lose much. If their businesses went, they had to pay redundancy. That law was changed several years ago where the State would assist. There is an awful weight of responsibility on them and they take many risks. In small towns and communities, like in my own, they are the ones sponsoring the kids' football and local GAA team. I am delighted the Minister has this ongoing dialogue.

I welcome the additional support he has provided for lone parents. Senator Humphreys pointed out there were previous difficult budgets. It is all very well to argue we want to get lone parents working. Where I am based, however, there is one of the highest unemployment rates and work is simply not there. All we are doing is putting people into poverty. I welcome the increase in the income disregard which will apply to one-parent family and jobseeker's transition payments from January. I welcome the new €500 cost of education allowance. The Minister tried to find some fairness with the €5 increase across the board. One would need the wisdom of Solomon to deal with this.

The Minister should look at the case of those paying PRSI on rental income, especially when they have other income. They do not get anything for this and, in effect, it is just a tax. If it is a tax, then it should be called one. If not, then can those paying it get something for it, in the same vein as we are talking about the self-employed? I welcome the measures the Minister took which will help rural areas. The measure to allow income disregards in the farm assist scheme will allow farmers to stay on marginal holdings. The increase in the rural social scheme will help those schemes which are carrying out work that is the lifeblood of communities. I appreciate all the good work the Minister has done and look forward to continuing to work with him on the issues which matter to the people who need assistance from our social welfare system.

I welcome the Minister for Social Protection to the House. My main concern is the telephone allowance, an issue raised by other Members. It is urgent because it affects every elderly person. I know many elderly people who had to have their telephone taken out because they could not afford it. These are the most vulnerable in our society and the Minister needs to examine this.

Up to 59% of lone parents experience deprivation and 134,000 children are in constant poverty. Soup kitchens have been set up across the country, including in Carlow town. I constantly go begging to every Minister looking for funding but am told there is none. Again, this affects the most vulnerable people in our society. There was no increase in the back to school allowance or the children's allowance benefit. The fuel allowance needs to be addressed urgently because most people who need it do not qualify for it, affecting the most vulnerable again. The families in question cannot get the warmer home schemes, which leads to a knock-on effect with people losing out on the benefit of both measures. It needs to be addressed.

I welcome the payment of 85% of the Christmas bonus and the self-employed payment is good. I have, however, issues with the €5 increase for social welfare payments and the State pension. I have significant issues with the carer's, disability and the medical card allowances. I have spent up to 16 weeks looking for a carer's allowance. If the application is unsuccessful, it then goes back into appeal which will take another three months. It ends up with an eight-month wait for a carer's allowance for someone who urgently needs it. This is across the board. I am not blaming the departmental staff for this. It is not their fault. The Minister, however, must look at putting extra staff to deal with this. Someone needs to step in and sort it out. It is the same for medical cards and disability benefits. These are people who have nothing and are waiting for payments to come through. This is the reality with which I deal every day. If I am not ringing up about a carer's allowance, it is about disability allowance or a medical card, all because of backlogs and understaffing. If the Minister is giving all these increases, he will need to look at providing more staff. It is unfair to the departmental staff and to those who have been waiting three to six months. The best one is that every time one puts in the application or other documentation, it gets lost. Something needs to be done about this. I know the Minister will do his best and it is not the fault of the staff.

Most Members have been local authority councillors and know how hard they work. While the Minister is looking at the PRSI stamps issue for them, he needs to look at an increase for them. How much will a councillor get with this extra measure? It is a full-time job. Those involved love it. It is a calling and they work long hours. That is not the problem. How much of an increase will they get with this Bill's measure?

As Senator Mulherin said, those paying PRSI on rental income are paying tax on everything. The Minister needs to look at some form of rent relief or other measure.

These are the issues which need to be addressed and affect the most vulnerable in our society. While there have been welcome changes, the Minister needs to look at the elderly, children and people just barely making ends meet.

I welcome the Minister for Social Protection to the House. Two years ago when I brought up the issue of class K PRSI, I was told at the time I was being rather brave. I am delighted everyone has now come on side and seen the inequality that such a drastic measure involved. It was in fact a tax on public service. The Minister has gone some of the way in resolving this issue for our city and county councillors. However, he has not gone all the way. To think we are charging PRSI to members of the Judiciary and Oireachtas Members at 4% with nothing for it. Last Sunday week, I heard the Minister say on radio that he did not believe in anyone making a payment for social insurance when they could never draw down on it. Will the Minister move Oireachtas Members and members of the Judiciary to a public service tax at 4%? I would be happy to pay it as a tax. I am not at all happy to pay it as a PRSI payment. The Minister then penalised Oireachtas Members and members of the Judiciary who want to maintain their class A record by making them pay a voluntary contribution. For me this year, it will be €660. It is a penal payment because I have paid my full 4% like everyone else. That is another day's work, however.

On the issue of moving city and county councillors to class K to class A, my colleague, Senator Boyhan, brought up the issue of retrospective payments. There are a number of councillors who are over 66 years of age who have been paying the class K all along. Some of them are in their early 70s and others up to their 80s. For the small number involved, surely we can make the entitlements retrospective and give them a contributory old age pension pro rata to whatever contributions they had paid. I am also conscious of county councillors in particular who lose their seats after a period and are below retirement age. We need to ensure they have full entitlement to jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, etc.

I compliment the Minister for taking steps with regard to the back to education allowance. It does not go far enough, however. This is not the Minister's problem but the Government's. I used to teach a course at the Dún Laoghaire senior college, which had excellent employment prospects at the end of it. The cost of entering the course was €1,000. How is someone on €193 a week going to come up with that?

The VTOS programme was excellent when it was running but we now have a back-to-education initiative and allowance and VTOS. There is a mix of all. However, there is a need where somebody is taking on a new course of action. Perhaps the person worked in manual labour and decides to move into technology. If that person wants to take a course in the area of technology, he or she is looking at approximately €1,000. I was a second-chance learner myself way back in 1994 and it was much easier at that stage to get in because the costs were not so high. Today, I have seen students who sign up for a course, are there for a month or two before finding it is unaffordable and are then gone. That is a waste of time for the student and the college and it is a drain on resources. We could do without that. I say "Well done" to the Minister on taking some steps but he might look at extending the programme fully to invalidity and disability allowances and benefits. Someone who was working in manual work and had a serious injury might be able to go on to do something of a more administrative nature. It would be useful if such persons could avail of whatever training is available.

The Minister is to be congratulated on the school breakfast scheme, but let us be aware of something here. I have a relation who works in a very well-heeled school on the west side of Dublin. The teachers in the school voluntarily buy breakfast for the kids because it is not a DEIS designated area. It needs a little bit more than sort of a social-class approach. My colleague spoke about training supports and I agree with him completely. It is no use simply putting people into CE schemes; one has to give them something that gives them employment prospects at the other end and allows them to move from the career trajectory they were on to a new trajectory which gives them enhanced possibilities.

I cannot let today go without saying "A fiver". I know the Minister did not have a great deal to give out, but a fiver represents a half a packet of fags a week. Really and truly, we would have been better off to give lots of fivers to one group and a lot fewer to some other groups. From that point of view-----

Would the Senator care to nominate which ones?

I would be delighted to do that.

He has passed his time limit so he can tell the Minister afterwards.

He can send it to me in writing.

I thank Senator Craughwell. Senator Kieran O'Donnell has five minutes.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Following on from Senator Craughwell, I note that one is always trying to strike a fair balance within the available resources. It is not an easy thing to do. Given the circumstances in terms of increases from limited resources, it was as fair as the Minister could possibly provide.

I very much welcome the fact that the self-employed now have access to the invalidity pension. It was always a deficiency of the system that the invalidity pension did not apply the self-employed. It is probably something we should look at further, including even the name of it. Many of those who qualify for invalidity pension are young and, as such, it is a different type of payment, the name of which does not always reflect its true nature. I welcome also the fact that the self-employed now qualify for the optical, dental and hearing benefits that are currently available to employees under the treatment benefit scheme. However, I have raised many times the issue of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed. I was self-employed myself for 12 years. I know what it is about and the risks and challenges involved. We need to find a safety net for people who are self-employed and run into difficult times.

If a self-employed person's business fails, he or she is entitled to claim jobseeker's allowance and in some case, people get it. However, if one has any sort of assets at all, one may not qualify. It is not necessarily that it is all or nothing. One could come up with a jobseeker's benefit scheme that was perhaps introduced incrementally over time. Perhaps someone could qualify for that for three months. Currently, it is six months or nine months for a person who is on PAYE. Where someone with a young family is self-employed and his or her business goes to the wall, it would be useful if he or she could attend the local labour exchange and claim jobseeker's benefit for one, two or three months rather than having to go in and be means assessed, which could take a considerable period of time, and then having to go to the local community welfare officer to get supplementary welfare allowance. It is the sheer heartache involved and it is something that needs to be looked at.

I welcome the measures for lone parents. The independent evaluation under section 12 which is to be completed within nine months is a critical review. As a group, lone parents have experienced very difficult and challenging times. We all deal with them in our constituency offices. They are trying to do the best they can for their children and a lot of them get caught in the poverty trap. We must look at ways and means to ensure they can get back into employment as quickly as possible with whatever supports we can provide. They are a group I have huge time for. We need careful consideration and a major debate around that whole area.

Another group I want to touch on raises an issue that comes up quite often and which I have flagged before. I refer to married women in their mid-60s who are looking to qualify for the old-age pension in their own right. Many of them are not qualifying. The contributions requirement went from 260 to 520 in the last number of years. Many of these women had to give up work because they were working in the public service or elsewhere. It is a group we need to look at. The homemaker's scheme was introduced a number of years ago, but there may be further refinement needed so that this group qualifies for a pension in their own right.

I welcome the change from class K to class S for councillors. It makes eminent sense and should probably have been done years ago. For the 4% they were paying, they were getting no benefit whatsoever. They are now being moved to class S and will get a benefit in terms of an old-age pension. There are now many full-time councillors, which is something that must be acknowledged. I commend the Bill to the House and ask the Minister to consider some of those matters for the future.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. I intend to make a couple of supplementary points to those of my colleague, Senator Devine, who covered most of our issues to date. It is appropriate to begin by acknowledging the kind words of Senator Butler towards his colleagues in Fianna Fáil, referring to them as partners in government. To be fair, Fianna Fáil have been very loyal and dependable partners in government to date. We see it here week in and week out as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will always vote together. We had it on the housing issue this evening. I assure the Minister that Fianna Fáil will be dependable as ever in rejecting issues like rent certainty and aligning themselves with their Fine Gael colleagues. We could describe it as a civil partnership at the moment, but I have no doubt that in due course there will be a big day out for the two parties. I wish them well. They are ideological bedfellows and it kind of makes sense.

There is a reference, I think, to equality proofing in the programme for Government. Where is that at? In our own budget proposal, we costed an equality and budgetary advisory body for just €1.1 million, according to the Department of Finance. As the Minister may know, more than 60 countries have either implemented or are working towards equality proofing budgets and legislation. It is very disappointing that the Government appears to have chosen not to budget for such a body. The purpose of such bodies is to ensure that equality impact assessments are carried out on proposed Government policy. The fact that so many countries are engaged in such a process outlines the need for such a body here. I guess it is not in line with the Minister's own ideological thinking, in which case he might tell us that.

Equality proofing would involve working with NGOs as well as carrying out internal research to evaluate to some degree what impact legislation will have on areas like poverty, deprivation and gender inequality. It is often the case that legislation can be rushed and things can be overlooked. Too often, budgetary decisions can have a narrow deficit-management focus rather than looking at the wider implications for marginalised and minority groups. Our colleague from Labour mentioned already the issue of child poverty. We know from TASC that child poverty doubled between 2008 and 2014. That is based on the Government's own figures and, as such, is beyond doubt.

Let me translate that. Some 11.2% is 138,000 children living in consistent child poverty. We have all acknowledged that there is not enough in the Minister's proposals this year to really deal with that in any way whatsoever. It is very disappointing.

I also want to raise an issue that my union, SIPTU, has raised on several occasions, and I cannot understand why the Minister has not addressed it. Perhaps the Minister can give me an answer this evening and address it, even at this late stage. It is the failure to act on the issue of older workers who are approaching the mandatory retirement age and who have been left high and dry by the abolition of the transitional pension. SIPTU has repeatedly called for an increase in jobseeker's benefit at the age of 65, as a temporary measure, to deal with this issue. It would cost just €5 million per year, which is absolutely nothing. For just €25 million, all 65 year olds who are dependent on social welfare could be covered. For the life of me, I cannot understand why this has not been done by the Minister. If it is an oversight, I ask that he please acknowledge it and tell us that at this stage he will include it in the Bill. If it is not an oversight, then can he please tell us why he will not do it? Surely it is not the cost if it is €5 million. Does the Minister have an ideological problem with people getting decent payments as they approach the later retirement age? If there is no good reason not to do it, then I ask the Minister to please take the time to do it now.

I thank the Minister. I will refer to child benefit amendment shortly. I have listened to the debate today. It is always the case when we talk about the budget, the economy and those who are most vulnerable that we, in these Houses, talk about the situation in a very abstract sense, which is what upsets me most. We talk about meals for children going to school but we never actually talk about why that situation exists or why the meals are needed. We keep going around sticking plasters on things while never acknowledging the gross inequality that exists or asking why it exists. No matter who has been in government, whether it was the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, the poor have remained poor. On the outside, it might look like it has improved slightly every now and again but I can tell the Minister that people from low socioeconomic backgrounds were poor during the boom and they are poor now. It really upsets me when I hear politicians talk about the crumbs being thrown in a budget as if that was to be congratulated, without acknowledging that people are dying because of their social class. For years and years, deprivation and policies have been the weapons which have kept that happening.

I had wanted to talk about other things today but it is upsetting when I hear this. I gave a lecture recently when on a panel at Alexandra College. A young girl from Dublin 6 gave an amazing speech about where she had gone to school and on where her ten best friends are. Her ten best friends are travelling the world and doing all these amazing things in amazing employment. I did a quick audit in my head of my ten best friends. Eight of them are dead and the ninth had died by the Thursday after that speech. That is down to policies in budgets, on where we spend our money and on how we keep the poor poor. We need to move away from talking about the issue as if people are not living this and as if poverty is some sort of identity that is assumed and that we should accept it. I call on everybody - this is not aimed at the Minister but at everyone in the House - to realise there are lives behind that talk. Fire-fighting at the top and saying people are going into education or employment is forgetting that social capital, cultural capital and information capital are in deficit. For people to progress, it is not all about relying on finance.

Now that rant is out of the way, I want to talk briefly about the amendment regarding child benefit.

It was an important rant.

It is very important to hear it said in this House.

The child benefit amendment stood out for me most. I went back over the Dáil debate and the reason given by the Minister for the amendment, specifically in regard to the Department of Social Protection being able to extract information from employers regarding a person working in the State or not. This affects employees who are not ordinarily from Ireland but who are working here and are entitled to child benefit. It concerns me that the amendment is too broad and is not specific to that cohort. It could be used as a data grab in regard to a person who takes up employment in the future, to actually access information that ordinarily should not be available. Irish citizens are entitled to that universal payment and it is not attached in any shape or form to a person's employment. The current situation provides that an Irish citizen availing of children's allowance must get proof from the school, when the child turns 16, that the child is still attending the school. As a parent, that gives me agency to get the information required by the Department of Social Protection. We should give non-Irish people who are working here that same agency to allow them to go to their employer, instead of the Department having direct access to their employment information.

I was indicating that the Senator actually had one minute remaining, but she is okay.

I never go over time. I am just collecting for all my other times.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I compliment Senator Ruane's contribution. There is enough material in her opening remarks for a debate for another day. I commend her on her heartfelt sentiments on the issues she raised. I want to bring two points to the Minister's attention. On the class S stamp for county councillors, when it comes to the issue of councillors' terms and conditions I am reminded of the old Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step. I commend the Minister for acknowledging the role of the councillor and for taking this single step. I compliment the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, regarding the contributions they have made on this. There is much extra work to be done on that and I look forward to the contribution of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, and what he is going to bring forward, hopefully in the not too distant future. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, will indicate if there is an opt out facility on the class S stamp for councillors who wish to opt out? If the answer is "no", was any consideration given to that? Other Senators have made reference to rebates and credits given to councillors who have already made payments and perhaps the Minister will comment on this also. Could the Minister confirm exactly when the new regime will be put in place?

I also want to talk about statutory redundancy. Currently the full payment of statutory redundancy falls totally on the shoulders of the employer. This is a very backward step and I would ask the Minister to look at it. It is an impediment to employers in taking on staff because the full payment falls on the employer's shoulders. One would even go as far to say that it acts as a disincentive to employers. In some cases, it could encourage some employers to go in to receivership as an easy way of opting out of redundancy payments. The old regime in place up to recent years, where the State paid a contribution to the statutory payment, was very worthwhile. I ask the Minister to look at reintroducing that scheme in some shape or form, even over a phased basis as resources allow. It is important that some form of scheme is put in place as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for being here. I want to raise one issue around the farm assist scheme. I welcome the income disregards that have been reintroduced regarding farm assist but the fact that farm assist applicants cannot, or could not, pay PRSI contributions has left many farmers with gaps in their contributory pension. In Mayo, some 50 farmers are affected by this. They had not realised until they went for their pensions that there was a gap and there were no contributions or credits made. I ask the Minister to consider looking at the situation of pensioners who are in this situation and who are now getting much reduced pensions when they thought they would be able to avail of a contributory pension. The alternative would be in making the assessment to disregard the years they have been on farm assist. I ask that the Minister consider this in the future.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank him for extending the new provisions to the self-employed. Many of those who are self-employed have suffered severe hardship over the past number of years, in particular those who downsized or went out of business.

I have to agree with Senator Gavan on the redundancy clawback of two weeks per year. Many of those who are self-employed, in particular sole traders, have endured very severe hardship, especially those who may have paid for their houses but have lost their businesses. They had no option but to pay two weeks per annum for all of the employees they had engaged when they closed their businesses over whatever number of years were involved. However, if one owned a company, it could be liquidated. The Government got rid of the 70% clawback that was in place for the two weeks per year rule. A large company that went out of business in Waterford, TalkTalk, resulted in 500 people losing their jobs and the redundancy payments had to be paid by the State. They would have to be paid by the State anyway, because the company went out of business. However, sole traders who downsized or lost their businesses had no option but to pay the two weeks per year required. In some cases, where employees were with an employer for many years, this resulted in considerable hardship. I know of a number of cases where people had to remortgage their houses in order to pay redundancy payments for their employees even though they were going out of business themselves and were not entitled to any payment from the Exchequer in terms of social welfare.

I would also like to thank the Minister for the class K PRSI contributions for councillors. One of the first Topical Issue matters the Minister took in the House was put forward by me shortly after the Government was formed. At the time, the Minister said he would examine class K PRSI contributions in regard to councillors and would consider allowing it to be changed to allow them to avail of a contributory pension. I thank the Minister for taking the initiative in this regard and for his swift action. It was only six or eight months ago that the issue was first brought to his attention.

As no more Senators have indicated that they wish to speak, I ask the Minister to conclude.

You have until 6.15 p.m., if you wish to use all of that time.

I did not think I would have as much time, but I will probably not have to use it all.

I welcome the broad support for the Bill from the House. Senators have welcomed most, if not all, of the measures. They have asked why other things were not included. The nature of budgets, as everyone understands, is that they are always limited. Every line Minister always seeks more things than he or she gets and has to make choices in terms of his or her priorities.

A number of Senators raised issues relating to tax, public sector pension rules, broader fiscal policy issues, budgetary matters, private pension schemes, medical cards and councillors' pay. These are all very important issues but in the time I have available, I propose to reply to the matters that are directly relevant to the Bill.

Senator Ardagh and a number of other Senators mentioned the ongoing issues in regard to how we calculate the contributory State pension which, of course, is very complicated and far from perfect. Some Senators, including Senator Kieran O'Donnell, referred to the fact that we now require people to have made 250 contributions during the course of their working life in order to qualify for a State contributory pension. That means that to qualify for a State contributory pension, a person has to work for roughly ten years out of a typical working life of 40 to 50 years. I do not think that is terribly unreasonable, quite frankly. That could, of course, be changed.

If one is a public servant, one can qualify for a public service pension after two years but one receives two fortieths; if one is in a job for ten years one will receive ten fortieths. We could do something like that and allow people who have contributed for nine years to receive nine fortieths of a State contributory pension. That is how private sector pensions work. The amount involved would not be an awful lot - it would be in the region of €20 or €30 a week. All of these things are possible, but one has to bear the consequences in mind.

Some mentioned the issues around averaging and banding. It does happen that people pay PRSI contributions for a number of years, are absent from the workforce for a long period of time for many reasons, mainly, but not always, home caring, return to work for a period of time and have their contributions averaged out over the entire period. They end up being worse off than somebody who did not work at all until the past ten years of his or her life. We hope to change that through a move towards what is called a total contributions approach. We will assess pensions based not on when one made one's contributions, but rather the total number of contributions one has made throughout the course of one's working life.

I would counsel that, as is always the case with any significant change in the way rules work when one calculates pensions, there will be winners and losers. As politicians, we find it is always the losers rather than the winners who come in to our offices, and Members should bear that in mind. Anything that results in a net increase in overall costs every year in terms of State pensions has a cost. My Department has calculated, for example, that if we backdated the homemakers scheme to pre-1994, something many people would like to do, it would cost €290 million a year. The way the State pension and PRSI fund works is that PRSI is paid into the fund and out of that comes the State contributory pension, maternity benefit, sick pay and all of the rest. If one plans to spend another €290 million a year, who will pay for it? It will be the ordinary workers and employers that pay PRSI. The net effect of the change would mean that today's working mothers and fathers would pay higher PRSI in order to pay for people who will retire in the next couple of years.

One also has to bear in mind that anything that may apply retrospectively to people who have already retired can have consequences. At the moment, people are coming to our clinics who are not in receipt of the State contributory pension to which they thought they might be entitled. If one changes the rules retrospectively and starts recalculating the pensions of people who have already retired, one will also have winners and losers. People in their 70s and 80s will come to us wanting to know why their pensions have been reduced. Let us tread carefully when it comes to any changes in this space and understand what the impact will be, who the winners and losers will be, what their profile would be, what the potential costs would be and how that might increase the contributions of existing workers who are already struggling to pay bills and do not need any new charges.

I hope that before the end of the first quarter next year, my Department will put before the joint committee a very detailed report on the options for reform of the way we calculate the State contributory pension, the options for change, the winners and losers, the numbers of winners and losers in each case, the costs and all of the consequences. We can then have a reasoned and well-informed debate on the changes. Senators should not think for a second that any significant change will not result in increased PRSI contributions for existing workers and employers or involve winners and losers. Things just do not work that way and the figures do not add up. Any reform in this area needs to be carefully considered.

In terms of how we calculate social insurance benefits, there are lots of gender gaps. An actuarial analysis carried out independently in 2012 indicated that, on balance, women benefit more than men from the social insurance system, based on the fact that women tend to live longer and, therefore, gain more from the pension system.

It is great that women live longer. For many different reasons, they also tend to pay less into the Social Insurance Fund while they are working. Historically, maternity arrangements have also been much better than paternity arrangements. It is important to place these facts on record in the spirit of equality. They are not opinions but the findings of an actuarial analysis published in 2012, which Senators are welcome to read. I have no doubt some will dispute the findings because many facts are also opinions and that works both ways too.

To respond to the points raised by Senator Boyhan, the Bill proposes to reverse some of the cuts made by a Government of which I was a member. While the Senator was correct and made a fair point in this regard, it is also true that I was a member of a Government, with the Labour Party, which saved the country from national bankruptcy, put the public finances in order again and halved unemployment. The Senator's comments would have been fairer if he had also acknowledged those facts.

A couple of speakers referred to the restoration of the telephone allowance. The cost of fully restoring the telephone allowance would be €110 million per annum, while the cost of restoring it to its 2012 level would be €40 million. People who ask me to restore the telephone allowance often believe it is a minor payment but that it is not the case. The reason people found it so important was that it was valuable and, as a result, expensive for taxpayers. We considered this option in the budget but we would not have been able to introduce a €5 increase in the pension and restore the telephone allowance at the same time. We will need to have a significant amount of fiscal space next year if we are to be able to do both next year. We will have to make a decision to either increase weekly rates or deal with other matters. This year, I concentrated on the weekly rates rather than other matters. However, there is no reason we could not address these other matters in a future budget, provided we leave weekly rates. It is difficult to do both with the resources at our disposal. Every additional week for which fuel allowance is paid costs €9 million. I note that the maximum rate of the weekly State pension has increased by €8 in recent years. When the financial crisis started the telephone allowance was worth approximately €20 per month.

The change to class K PRSI contributions for councillors will be introduced by ministerial order. I intend to sign the order in the first week of January, unless something goes wrong. I was asked whether councillors would be refunded class K contributions paid in the past. They will not be refunded. No one else will have pay cuts or universal social charge payments refunded and, as such, we could not make a special exception for councillors by having cuts they experienced refunded.

As to whether the measure will be retrospective to 2011, I will take advice on the matter. Many other people would like to have things done retrospectively and I do not want to set a precedent that may expose the taxpayer to further charges. I have not provided for councillors to opt in or out of paying PRSI contributions because nobody else has such an option.

Councillors are a special case in this House.

I took the correct approach to local authority members by providing that they will receive fair and equal treatment as compared with other people who are self-employed or in employment. They will not receive special treatment or privileges. For this reason, they will not receive a refund as no one else is being given refunds, nor will they be allowed to opt in or out of paying PRSI because no one can else can do so.

Senator Devine raised the issues of youth employment and lone parents. I welcome her recognition that the Bill constitutes progress in some areas and that Sinn Féin will not oppose it.

It is worth noting that youth employment has more than halved from approximately 30% to roughly 15% since my party came to office. It is falling faster than unemployment for other adults. Ireland is not unique in having reduced rates of jobseeker's payments for young unemployed persons. Britain and Northern Ireland also have lower rates. As the Senator will be aware, social welfare is not the sole competence of Westminster as it is shared with the DUP-Sinn Féin coalition in Northern Ireland. In addition, the cut-off age for lone parents is not seven or 12 years in Northern Ireland but five years.

Are we to plan on the basis of the position in the North? Was emigration not a factor in the decrease in the youth unemployment rate?

If I was a lone parent or young unemployed person in Northern Ireland, I would choose the centrist parties in this State any day before I would choose the Sinn Féin-DUP coalition.

Leaving is the other option.

The Christmas bonus has increased from 70% to 85% of a person's social welfare payment. A couple of Senators expressed a desire to increase the rate to 100%. While I share that desire, it is important again to point out that these increases must be paid for from other people's taxes and PRSI contributions. I do not know many people who are not pensioners or on other social welfare payments who will receive an 85% bonus or even a 10% or 20% bonus this Christmas. It is important to bear in mind that while it is great that we can provide an 85% bonus to welfare recipients, it is not-----

Is the increase in the Christmas bonus being provided to the Department from direct taxes?

I will come to that issue in a moment. I am happy to answer as many questions as I manage to note. To finish the point I was making, we need to bear in mind that all these things cost money and all are paid for by other people who do not receive a bonus or may receive a much smaller bonus. The cost of the Christmas bonus is €220 million per annum and will be funded through a supplementary allocation to my Department. This relevant Supplementary Estimate will come before the select committee this week. Half of the additional funding will come from the Social Insurance Fund, in other words, PRSI contributions. This is not unusual as the cost of payments has always been paid for in this way. The other half will be paid for by additional voted expenditure for my Department, which will come from direct taxation.

We already have two annual reports on child poverty. The Central Statistics Office produces an annual survey of income and living conditions, as does my Department's social inclusion monitor. For this reason, we do not propose to accept a legislative obligation to have another report done.

If it is worth doing an independent report on one-parent family reforms, I would like to receive it well before the summer recess in order that it can feed into decisions that may be made in the next budget. The report will be independent and must be tendered because it will not be done by my Department. We must ensure it is not solely based on interviews with individuals and advocacy groups, as has been the case with other reports, but includes objective econometric analysis. It is for this reason that the report must be tendered and I intend to have it by June. The timeframe of nine months has been set not as a target but because of the way the tendering process works. We intend to have the report in six months if possible.

On qualified adults, once the necessary resources become available, we very much want to extend activation to qualified adults. With the fall in unemployment, we are approaching the point at which resources will be available. I am not sure if it would be sensible not to have any sanctions available given that every other working age payment has some form of conditionality attached to it. I do not see why there should not be conditionality applied to payments made to qualified adults. Legislation would be required to do this, however, as it is not provided for in the Bill.

Senator Humphreys asked that we re-examine community employment, Tús and the Gateway scheme to reflect the changing economic times and the significant change in the profile of people who have been unemployed in the past three or four years. This is already being done. I have not provided in the Estimates for changes to the materials and training grant but I will definitely try to do so in the next budget. Senator Humphreys also made the case for mainstreaming some community employment jobs into regular jobs, particularly in the area of the provision of social care services, for example, meals on wheels and home help services. Although I agree with him, responsibility for this matter extends beyond my Department. Nevertheless, his suggestion would make sense in the medium term.

Child poverty is tackled in three ways. It is not only a matter of transfers and payments but also employment and services. The focus in the budget in respect of children has been very much on services, rather than payments. For example, a new child care subsidy will be introduced in 2017. We have also provided for medical cards to be issued to children with disabilities, the recruitment of additional special needs assistants and the provision of school meals.

While some Senators are saying that we should not have had the €5 at all and that it should have gone into services, others are saying we should have an increase for children. I suppose what we decided to do is give the cash increase to adults and the services to children on this occasion but all these things are judgment calls. Where I hope to go next year in budget 2018 is the working family payment - bringing together the family income supplement and the qualified child payments into something new. We are working on that at the moment.

Senator Norris asked about pension rights for the self-employed. It is already the case that self-employed people who pay PRSI are entitled to the State contributory pension on the same basis as employees. This has been the case for some time but it does speak to a very valid point. I come across it all the time, namely, that self-employed people do not know what they are and are not entitled to. In the new year, I intend to launch a campaign aimed at the self-employed to let them know what their existing and new entitlements are because there is huge confusion about that. I meet people who are self-employed who say they pay PRSI and get nothing for it where the most valuable thing they get is the State contributory pension. If someone was to build up a pension pot to the value of the State contributory pension, they would need build up savings of about €300,000 to €400,000 so that 4% is good value if one looks at it that way.

The Trinity College pension is a public sector pension matter and a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I heard the interview on the radio and am very sympathetic to the case that has been made but I have not heard the other side of the story so it is probably best that I do not comment on something that is the responsibility of another Minister.

There is no other side.

Similarly, policy decisions around direct provision are a matter for the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality under her legislation. I admire Senator Craughwell for his very brave advocacy on behalf of Oireachtas Members and judges who, of course, are among the most vulnerable groups in our society.

I am glad the Minister recognises that.

There are no proposals in this Bill to change the PRSI treatment of Oireachtas Members and judges but Senator Craughwell's point is well made. If the contributory principle applies, it should apply to everyone - even judges and Oireachtas Members. I would point out, and I know people in the House would be aware of this, that Oireachtas Members and judges already have very generous pension arrangements.

Not Oireachtas Members.

There are different arrangements for different people depending on when they enter these Houses and there are severance arrangements as well. The point is taken. One gap is around long-term illness and invalidity. If somebody has to leave either of these Houses due to illness or loses his or her seat and subsequently becomes ill, which is a bit more common, he or she is quite badly exposed so I am not ruling out any changes in the future. I just thought putting them into this Bill alongside councillors would confuse things. The case for councillors is barn door fairness. Concessions to Oireachtas Members and judges would be more complicated and require a bit more convincing so I thought it best not to put the two in the one Bill.

There is an additional €5.7 million for school breakfasts, of which €1.5 million is being earmarked for non-DEIS schools for the first time in a long time precisely for the reasons Senator Humphreys mentioned, namely, that there are lots of disadvantaged children who do not attend DEIS schools. In fact, most disadvantaged children do not attend DEIS schools. They are in the school one town or one parish over. My intention over a period of possibly five or six years is to extend school breakfasts to all schools so that it is possible. I do not think all schools will necessarily want to do it but I want all schools to be able to do it and make it something that is universal. This would cost us about an extra €1.5 million every year for five years. I think it is one of the doable ones. We could give every school the option to participate in school breakfasts should they wish to do so.

Senator Ruane spoke very well about the impact of social class on people's outcomes and how outcomes for people are very much set by things that are not under their control. They are set by the social class into which they are born, their parents and their expectations, genetics and environment - all of those things. At the same time, we should recognise as people and politicians that there are other things that count as well. There is room for free will, people making their decisions and personal responsibility. All of us know many cases when two brothers who grew up in the same house or two people who grew up on the same street turned out very differently so I do not think we should take the view that people are entirely victims of their circumstances. People also have choices, free will and personal responsibility and we should not allow people to ever evade them.

Senator Gavan suggested that restoring the State transition pension would only cost about €5 million. That is not the case. I do not have the exact figure but it would cost much more than that to restore it. Senators will be aware that as recently as the 1970s, the State pension age was 70 and in the 1970s, people lived to 72 or 73 so a person got their pension at 70 and might live an extra two or three years. The State pension age is now 66 and people tend to live into their eighties. You would not need to be doing senior mathematics to understand why we have a problem with the sustainability of our pensions into the future. This is why the pension age is being increased. It has been increased to 66 and will go up to 67 in 2021 and 68 in 2028. On the question of whether it is ideological or not, it would seem to me to be just common sense because we need to make sure pensions remain sustainable and affordable.

There is a particular problem that I am very aware of and come across all the time. It involves people who because of their contracts of employment - it is not the law - are required to retire at 65 but cannot avail of the State pension until they are 66. They are then stuck in this limbo for a year when they are potentially on a very reduced pension or jobseeker's benefit. This is just not working. It is not working for them and it is definitely not working for my Department either so I am in discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in particular as to what we can do around that. I met with Unite yesterday which, to give Members a positive story from Northern Ireland, told me that in Northern Ireland, the onus is on the employer to prove why a person should have to retire before the State retirement age. I am going to examine that and see if that is a move we should take in this jurisdiction as well so that if an employer is going to require someone to retire earlier than the State pension age, the onus should be on the employer to prove why that is necessary, not just the employee.

I think I have probably covered most things. One issue I did not cover was mentioned by Senator Higgins and concerned an EU directive on the PRSI status of those employed on family farms. My officials are not fully aware of that either but we would be happy to get the Senator an answer and come back to her. I thank Senators for their contributions and the broad welcome for the Bill and I look forward to engaging in more detail on Committee Stage.

What about the redundancy payments?

The redundancy payment was 60% at one stage. It used to be 20%. Employers pay a lot of PRSI. I totally see the case for restoring that but, again, I had to prioritise within the allocation I had. If I had an extra €10 million, there would have been a 25% increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. There would not have been redundancy payments but I would not rule out restoring it in the future if we can afford to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 6 December 2016.