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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 Oct 2017

Vol. 253 No. 8

Commencement Matters

Nursing Home Accommodation Provision

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise this important issue again and I thank the Minister of State for giving of his time to be present. One of his predecessors, Ms Kathleen Lynch, announced one of the most comprehensive programmes of investment in public nursing home facilities in the history of the State. As part of this €400 million investment programme by the Government, 33 existing nursing home facilities across the country will be replaced while 57 others will be refurbished or extended. Before this breakthrough announcement, many communities feared that some nursing homes would be closed because of a failure to meet the required HIQA standards. This naturally caused a great deal of concern and disquiet among communities throughout the country. However, with this significant funding programme, that will not be the case and, as a result of this investment, the future of these public nursing homes will be secured.

It also provides much reassurance for those living in these homes and their families. The excellence of the care received must be acknowledged but, unfortunately, for many years, the physical environment of these nursing homes required substantial improvement. The greatest beneficiary of this funding in my region last year was St. Patrick's Hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon, which received €60 million for a new 90-bed community hospital and the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon town, which received €9 million for a new 50-bed unit.

Under this programme, it is proposed to deliver a new build community nursing home in Carrick-on-Shannon, which will replace existing beds where the physical environment requires significant improvement. The Sacred Heart Hospital project will comprise an extensive refurbishment of the building to provide residents with accommodation in en suite, single and two-bed rooms, along with suitable communal space and sanitary facilities. This good news announcement followed a long campaign by local stakeholders in both counties and this funding will ensure the facilities will be compliant with the environment aspects of HIQA standards by 2021.

I understand a great deal of preparatory work has been carried out by the HSE in deciding the most appropriate scheduling of projects for the period until 2021. However, I seek specific details regarding the Carrick-on-Shannon and Roscommon town developments. What preparatory work has been undertaken in respect of those two vital projects since the funding announcement early last year? I hope the Minister of State can provide some of that detail.

I thank the Senator. A vital element of these projects is to keep attention focused on them. It is the duty of public representatives to ensure that progress is maintained on such important projects and that the wider public continues to be informed that they have not been forgotten about and they are very much active and on the table.

Although it is the Government’s policy to facilitate older people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, there will always be a cohort of people who need long-term care. Quality residential care must continue to be available for those who need it. Residential care is provided through a mix of public, voluntary and private provision. It is worth highlighting that the net budget for long-term residential care in 2017 is €940 million and the nursing homes support scheme will support about 23,300 clients by the end of the year.

The Health Service Executive, HSE, is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as the Sacred Heart Hospital, Roscommon, and St. Patrick's Hospital, Carrick-on-Shannon. Public residential care units are an essential part of our health care infrastructure. They provide about 5,000 long-stay beds, amounting to approximately 20% of the total stock of nursing home beds nationally. There are also about 2,000 short-stay community public beds.

The standard of care delivered to residents in these units is generally very high. We recognise, however, that many of our public units are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modern context. Without them though, many older people would not have access to the care they need. It is, therefore, essential they are put on a sustainable footing and that the fabric of the buildings from which they operate is modernised and improved. This is the aim of the five-year capital programme for community nursing units announced last year.

The Senator will appreciate all health care infrastructure developments, including these two, require a lead-in time to complete the various stages. These stages include appraisal, project brief, design feasibility, a review of costing estimates, and finalisation of financing. Under this programme, it is proposed to deliver by 2021 new community nursing units at the Sacred Heart nursing home, Roscommon, and by means of public private partnership at St. Patrick's Hospital, Carrick-on-Shannon. These projects will replace existing beds where the physical environment requires significant improvement. Both projects are currently at appraisal stage and are proceeding according to capital planning guidelines.

Based on this early stage of the development, the projected timelines for the Sacred Heart Hospital, Roscommon, are that the project will be submitted to the HSE’s national capital and steering group for consideration and approval by the third quarter in 2018. The design, planning and tendering could be completed by the third quarter in 2019 and construction is projected to begin in 2020. The new community nursing unit is expected to be completed and occupied by the end of 2021.

The new project for St. Patrick’s Hospital, Carrick-on-Shannon, is being delivered by means of a public private partnership mechanism, which is at an early stage of the development. It is not possible at this point to give a detailed timeline for the delivery of each stage of the project. It is, however, expected that the facility will be operational by the fourth quarter in 2021.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am delighted our Government is fully committed to upgrading nursing homes across the country, including Sacred Heart Hospital, Roscommon, and St. Patrick's Hospital, Carrick-on-Shannon. I remember during the last Government, we went through many hoops to get this investment on the table. It certainly reassures residents and their families in these two counties.

When building the endoscopy unit at Roscommon hospital, it took four years from design, planning and tendering. Only that I saw it at first hand myself from sitting in on meetings nearly every week from the start of the project, I would not have realised how much of an undertaking it was for the HSE, staff and management team. I pay tribute to the management team and all staff at the hospital. Now there is a design team in Roscommon hospital working on a rehabilitation service for the west.

I again thank the Minister of State for his reassurance for residents and their families.

I am glad the Senator is happy with this response.

I always welcome the opportunity to update him and his constituents on projects like this and the focus they keep on them. I also commend him on his work in the wider Roscommon area. The endoscopy unit is a great credit to people like the Senator who saw the future in the hospital at all times. He stayed the course to ensure that development, one of which many people can be proud, including the Senator’s constituents.

Hospital Services

My Commencement matter arises out of the difficulty that oncology patients in counties Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo and Donegal have in accessing the designated centre of excellence at University Hospital Galway. I acknowledge the great work and dedication of the health care professionals in this centre of excellence, as well as those who work in the various other hospitals under the oncology speciality, often in difficult circumstances. The problem is not their work but patients being able to access the centre of excellence in Galway when they need to.

Recently, I received a communication from the Saolta hospital group telling me that quite a number of people in different Saolta hospitals are waiting to access the urology speciality at University Hospital Galway. Some of these are oncology patients. This matter arose because I was making a representation on behalf of an elderly man who is in Mayo General Hospital but who needs to access both urology and oncology treatments. He has been in Mayo General Hospital for the past two weeks because there are no available beds in University Hospital Galway, the only hospital where urology services are available. This situation arises again and again. Many people will not speak up or have me speak up on their behalf because they are afraid it will affect their treatment. I know it will not.

What is happening is that sick cancer patients are admitted to hospital, Mayo General Hospital in the case of the elderly man I know, where they hold up a bed when nothing can be done for them but just to keep them comfortable. The only solution they have is to present themselves at the emergency department at University Hospital Galway. I do not need to tell the Minister of State that there were 41 people on hospital trolleys there yesterday. Once they are kept on trolleys, most of these people would not be in a great medical condition. It is not good for a centre of excellence that the only way somebody might get treatment or a diagnosis is by going to the emergency department. This has been going on for years. Nine years ago, a family member of mine was in a similar position. They would not leave their hospital bed because, if they got sick again, they would have to go through the emergency department. Not only is cancer a debilitating illness, when one is getting radiology treatment, but one is in no fit state to be hanging around an emergency department.

This is a serious matter. If we are committed to the provision of a centre of excellence, we have to ensure that there are additional beds if cancer patients require them. We must also ensure that when cancer patients need to come back into the centre because of an infection, they should not be thrown into the emergency department. I know of one case where a woman from Mayo attended University Hospital Galway at 11 a.m. but, when I inquired later, she still had not got a bed in the evening. I do not think this is good enough. If I raise this for a particular patient, then something might become available. I am also told about clinical priority. However, when one is dealing with people who are ill, the notion of clinical priority is a bit of a fudge. There is no capacity. What about people in Donegal and Sligo in the Saolta hospital group? This is an expansive geographical area.

Is this the best way we can use beds? I have a note from the Saolta group stating that there are people in various hospitals waiting to get into Galway. Obviously, they are holding beds in those other hospitals.

What about those cancer patients who are not in hospital, do not have an infection but are waiting to get into Galway hospital?

Those people also exist. The particular gentleman for whom I have been making representations was discharged from Mayo University Hospital this morning. It was his choice to leave. He still needs to get into University Hospital Galway. The man is seriously ill. Will something be done here? Can we deal with seriously ill cancer patients in a different fashion with regard to University Hospital Galway and what is going on at the moment and which has been going on for the past ten years at least?

I thank Senator Mulherin for raising this very important issue which is clearly one about which she is very passionate and concerned. University Hospital Galway, UHG, is the designated cancer centre in the Saolta university healthcare group and provides specialist oncology services, treatment planning and surgery for patients with cancer. Other hospitals within the Saolta group also provide some cancer services under the direction of UHG. For example, medical oncology services are available in Sligo University Hospital, Letterkenny University Hospital, Mayo University Hospital and Portiuncula University Hospital, Ballinasloe.

The Letterkenny breast cancer service operates as a satellite of the symptomatic breast disease service in UHG. This arrangement was made in recognition of the particular and unique geographical circumstances applying to Donegal. All treatment is carried out to the same high standard as care provided in UHG and is planned in collaboration with clinicians in UHG.

The Saolta group has informed me that as of yesterday there were three patients in Mayo University Hospital awaiting transfer to UHG. On a daily basis, patients for transfer, together with patients awaiting treatment, are clinically prioritised by the treating consultant. There were no patients awaiting transfer from the other Saolta hospitals.

Following the establishment of the national cancer control programme in 2007, symptomatic breast disease clinics and rapid access clinics for lung and prostate cancer were established in each of the designated cancer centres, including UHG. Patients with symptoms suggestive of breast, lung or prostate cancer are referred to these clinics for diagnostic tests.

There are specific targets set for each of these clinics. To date in 2017, the rapid access and symptomatic breast disease clinics in UHG have performed very well. The symptomatic breast disease clinic has exceeded the target, with 97.5% of patients triaged as urgent being seen within ten working days. The rapid access prostate clinic has also exceeded the target, with 98.9% of patients referred to the clinic being seen within 20 working days. Some 91.7% of patients referred to the rapid access lung clinic were seen within ten working days, falling just short of the 95% target.

It must be acknowledged that the symptomatic breast disease clinic in Letterkenny University Hospital has struggled to meet the key performance indicators recently. However, the Saolta university healthcare group has been working closely with the hospital to improve performance. In July this year, a locum breast surgeon was appointed, and this is expected to improve performance in the coming months.

UHG also provides radiation oncology services for the region. To date in 2017, 89% of patients who were referred to the radiation oncology service in Galway were offered an appointment within 15 days. As of November 2016, patients from Donegal can also be referred to the north-west cancer centre at Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Derry for their radiation therapy. This is a hugely important development as it ensures that patients can receive treatment as close to home as possible.

University Hospital Galway provides a range of high-quality oncology services, including diagnostic, surgical, medical and radiation oncology services. UHG also provides specialist cancer services for other hospitals in the Saolta university healthcare group. I assure the Senator that the HSE is committed to the continued provision of high-quality, timely services for patients with cancer under the care of hospitals in the Saolta university healthcare group. Saolta has assured the Department of Health that patients awaiting transfer, together with patients awaiting treatment, are clinically prioritised by the treating consultant.

I thank the Minister of State. I understand full well the range of services and treatments which are supported in the other hospitals which work in conjunction with the centre of excellence. I am speaking about people who need to get into University Hospital Galway. I have given the Minister of State an example of such a case - a man who was waiting two weeks and who was told that he should try going to the emergency department in University Hospital Galway. As I have said, there are 41 people on trolleys in that hospital. No one will convince me that there is not a capacity issue in the centre of excellence in Galway. It needs to be addressed.

There was one point which the Minister of State did not address. Why should oncology patients who are discharged and who develop an infection be left to languish on a trolley in the same way as everybody else? There is no fast track if someone leaves and has to return. People are not leaving beds, and perhaps sometimes they could. They will not leave beds because of the manner in which they will be dealt with if they get sick again. They are, quite frankly, not up to it.

What am I supposed to say to the family of this gentleman? They have been clearly told that nothing can be done for him in Castlebar. He needs to see a urologist and he has now been waiting for 15 days. There is still no news for him. What am I supposed to tell him? It is not acceptable.

With regard to the specific family, I am obviously not familiar with the case and I cannot speak on it. If the Senator wants to send me the details, I have no problem asking the HSE to furnish me with the details and an update on the situation on her behalf. Otherwise, as the Senator will appreciate, I am unable to comment on specifics, both because I do not know the detail and because it is not appropriate for me to comment on individual cases. If the Senator sends the details on to me, I am quite happy to find out how that system is working. The best way for me to figure out how a system is working is to look at an individual example. If there is a problem, I will have it investigated in full and will come back to the Senator on it. I invite the Senator to send me those details.

I have sent them to the Minister for Health and to the chief executive of Saolta.

I am sorry, I cannot allow further discussion. I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.

Post Office Network

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to the House. I thank him for coming in to discuss this very important and worrying issue. Senator Conway raised this same issue during yesterday's Order of Business, which shows that there is cross-party support for immediate action in this regard.

As the Minister will know, there are 1,100 post offices throughout the State and reports have claimed that An Post intends to close 400 of these, in particular in rural areas. This is a frightening reality for many people in rural Ireland who are already witnessing a decline in the services offered to them. In Mayo, just before the summer, there was great anger over the closure of an Ulster Bank branch in Ballyhaunis which came just a couple of years after the closure of the AIB branch in the same town. It was commonly remarked at that time that older people in particular were disproportionately impacted by the decisions, as many preferred to go into their branch and deal with people rather than use online banking. That is, of course, understandable, especially in the older cohort of people. They now have to travel further afield to do their day-to-day banking. The exact same thing is going to happen with the post office network and there is going to be very real distress imposed upon people if the reported closures go ahead.

The Post Office Network Business Development Group, under the chairmanship of businessman, Bobby Kerr, looked at a range of additional services that could be delivered by the Government through the existing post office network, if the Government and indeed An Post were willing. Ample measures could be taken from the report. One of the recommendations related to the introduction of the option of paying for motor taxation in post offices. I know that this matter is under deliberation and I would like to know where the Minister's Department stands on this issue. The An Post network itself acknowledges that it provides many services for Departments and agencies but it believes that many more Government services can be provided through the post office network. Just the other day, the Irish Postmasters Union general secretary, Ned O'Hara, said:

The post office network is under huge pressure as postmasters' incomes are falling dramatically. The IPU's aim is to keep as many offices as possible open, to introduce new services and to develop the network's social function within communities.

The appetite to offer new services is there, the network is well established and the infrastructure in place. I commend my Fianna Fáil Party colleague on Kerry County Council, Councillor John Lucid, who has proposed that the National Driver Licence Service be asked if driving licence renewals could be made available through the post office network. In his own county, Tralee is the only location where one can renew one's licence. For some people that is a three-hour round journey. As I have said, certain cohorts of people are being disenfranchised, especially the elderly community.

From my neck of the woods, Belmullet, it is at least an hour's journey to Castlebar. From Blacksod it is a three-hour round trip. It is something that needs to happen. I urge the Minister to consider the idea of the National Driver Licence Service being located in post offices.

It is Government policy that An Post remains a strong, viable company in a position to provide a high-quality, nationwide postal service and that it maintains a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community. However, the An Post group lost €13.7 million in 2016, with the core mails business losing more than €30 million. The An Post network has just over 1,100 outlets, extends nationwide and reaches almost 1.7 million customers. It is the Government's front-of-office provider of choice for many of citizens and is seen as a trusted, local, reliable and friendly service. The four big strengths of An Post are its strong brand, the fact that the organisation is trusted by the public, particularly older people, its nationwide network and guaranteed delivery and collection five days a week, 52 weeks a year. These strengths have been built upon over the years by the postmasters and postmistresses in conjunction with An Post.

Given its nationwide reach, the company brings vans and postal workers to every single premises in Ireland five days a week, 52 weeks of the year. This is a valuable service, particularly in rural areas and for rural-based businesses. To protect this service, I repealed the cap on the price of a stamp because, despite advice to the contrary, I believe that a five days a week service is an asset to be developed, not undermined. The Government is fully committed to a sustainable post office network and sees it as a key piece of financial and social infrastructure for both urban and rural areas. Part of the strengths of the An Post brand and one of its selling points is that it reaches all parts of the country and can be accessed by anyone. I expect this to be a cornerstone of any future strategy for the company and indeed the post office network.

An Post has entered a period of structural change and decline in activity mainly due to the impact of e-substitution on mail volumes and post office transactions. The environment in which the post office operates is changing and the network needs to change to thrive, particularly with the move to digital transactions. This involves harnessing existing strengths, such as its trusted brand and the relationship of postmasters with individual communities, to build the network of the future. There will be opportunities to develop new or enhanced product lines for the network and I am keen that this would include the concept of "digital assist", whereby the post office would become a default option for the provision of Government services for those who are not comfortable in the digital space.

The post office plays an important role in serving the needs of business and domestic customers alike and this is at the forefront of An Post's mandate. I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices and am concerned to ensure that the needs of those communities continue to be met. The Government remains fully committed to a sustainable post office network, which it sees as a key piece of economic and social infrastructure for both rural and urban areas.

In response to the challenges it is facing, a strategic review of An Post including the post office network, which will identify the changes and restructuring necessary to maintain the company on a sound financial footing, was initiated and is nearing completion. All opportunities are being assessed by An Post in the context of the strategic review. Until such time as the review is finalised and assessed it is not possible to comment further. The Government will be briefed once a definitive strategy has been agreed.

On the issue of the driver licence, there were issues at the time of the tendering process in respect of the criteria that were used and the bid that was made by An Post. It is hugely frustrating, not just in counties like Mayo and Kerry but in my own county of Roscommon, where people have to travel to Roscommon town to avail of this service. It is a service that can and should be provided in the post offices. This contract will be coming up for renewal. There are many more services. The example we have given in the past is motor tax, which is only one of a myriad of services that could be provided. I am one of only five Members of the Oireachtas who made a submission to the Kerr report. Very few Deputies and Senators did so. I specifically focused on that point in my submission. I am determined to see it delivered upon.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. As he said, An Post lost €13.7 million. The more services we provide in the post office, the more profitable it will be. At the end of the day, we are about serving communities and people who may not have a voice. It saddens me to think that elderly people are being disenfranchised because of the long distances. I acknowledge the efforts and the fact that there is a review process in place.

Senator Swanick has hit the nail on the head. The perception is that An Post should be a service for older people, particularly in isolated, rural areas. I disagree with that, however. I think An Post can be a service for the whole community in both urban and rural Ireland. We need to turn the post offices into places people visit regularly, particularly younger people, not just at Christmas and when they are going on holidays. Our own generation, that of Senator Higgins, Senator Swanick and myself - when do we go into the post office? We go in at Christmas to buy stamps to send Christmas cards, which many of us still send, or we go into the post office when we are renewing our passports or availing of foreign exchange. What do we need to do to make sure our generation is using the post office? That is the challenge. It is not just about the older generation.

We need to provide new and enhanced services and we can do so. We also need to expand the financial services, however. The banking network and banks across the country have abandoned provincial towns and rural Ireland. An Post can fill that void and provide not only the existing range of services but other, new, innovative financial services that have not been available heretofore. One in seven people in Ireland, young and old, has never used the Internet. Using websites like or - as Minister with responsibility for energy I have to be conscious of this - people can save up to €300 a year, yet many of those who are in fuel poverty are not availing of this because they are not able or prepared to go online. That is a service that the post office could provide, which would be of value in urban and rural communities and which would benefit the public, the postmaster in respect of footfall, and the economy as a whole.

When does the Minister think the review will be complete?

The review is ongoing. I expect to receive proposals from the board of An Post quite soon. Once I have them to hand, I will brief the Cabinet and we will engage directly with the company. I have already asked NewERA to engage with the company. It has done a complete financial assessment, which is of huge benefit to me in making the final decisions.

Social Welfare Schemes

This is a question for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. It concerns the situation of lone parents in Ireland. We know from the CSO's survey on income and living, SILC, statistics that the figures on deprivation and poverty experienced by lone parents are hugely out of step with those for the rest of the population. According to the 2014 statistics, 59% of lone parents were experiencing enforced deprivation, meaning they had to go without some of the basics of life. In terms of consistent poverty, the figures for lone-parent families stand at a shocking 26%, almost five times the figure for two-parent households. That also means the children in lone-parent families are far more likely to be living in consistent poverty compared with two-parent households.

The Government has a number of commitments going beyond the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, for example, the better outcomes, brighter futures national strategy for children and young people and the commitment to lift 100,000 people out of poverty. These concerns are not simply about children. They are also about the women - it is largely women who are in lone-parent families - and the life chances they are afforded. The Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, of which I am a member, produced a very comprehensive report. The Minister has previously indicated she has read that report and is very interested in its recommendations. What I want to know today is which of the committee's recommendations the Minister is planning to bring forward in the next six and 12 months. What is the timeline? How will they be implemented? Will they be adequately resourced? Will the Department be adequately resourced to be able to address these? It is particularly pertinent this week that the recommendations are not simply budgetary ones. Some of them relate very clearly to the budget and others are on qualifications, the criteria and conditionality attached and the obstacles that often come into play for lone parents.

There are over 30 recommendations but I will only mention five very briefly on which I want the Minister to comment specifically. The first is that the qualified child increase of €29.80 is not adequate, certainly not for teenage children. Can we expect an increase in it? One of the lone parents who wrote to me pointed out that €4 is not enough to feed and clothe any child let alone a teenager and when one is parenting alone that is all the more true. The research from the Department on minimum essential standards of living highlights that point. Can we expect movement on the qualified child increase? The second recommendation concerns complications that block education because the qualifications for rent allowance, the SUSI grant and FIS overlap with each other and create headaches where people have to choose between adequate part-time work and a chance to return to education or between rent allowance, security of their family's dwelling and returning to education. They are blocks for lone parents. There is a lack of part-time quality training and educational opportunities. Under jobseeker's transitional payment there is a recognition that people may not be able to work full-time. They may not be available to work full-time. We need to ensure there are quality options available on a voluntary basis not just to those on jobseeker's transitional payment, but to those who are receiving the one-parent family payment. They should be given voluntary access to quality, part-time training and education schemes. Another issue is the restoration of income disregard for lone parents to ensure they are encouraged to work and that the blocks to that are addressed. A crucial recommendation and one which will make a difference is ensuring that lone parents are allowed to stay on jobseeker's transitional payment until their child is 18 rather than as currently happens being moved onto jobseeker's allowance when their child is 14. The purpose of that recommendation is to recognise the reality that they are parenting alone and to acknowledge they are also trying to balance care for a child who is in their teenage years. The recommendations are enumerated in the report and I know the Minister has seen them. What are the plans? Can we expect the social welfare Bill to address many of these issues?

The research the Department committed to publishing before the budget has not been published. It is likely that the Department's Indecon research, which was a survey of 34,000 one-parent families, is likely to reinforce the message that not only have lone parents in Ireland been historically mistreated, but the 2012 changes have caused very serious further impacts on the lived experience of lone parents. I would like a very clear commitment. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, is representing the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is an all-of-Government issue. The Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have committed to gender and equality proofing of the budget. It is not simply about how we move the deck chairs in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, rather it is a whole-of-budget question. Will the Minister address how it will stand up to gender and equality budgeting if the issue of lone parents is not addressed in this budget?

I thank Senator Higgins for raising this important issue. Deputies meet this issue on a day-to-day basis and are aware of the very stark choices that people have to make. In the vast majority of cases, it is women who are involved. I apologise that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, cannot be here and I will relay the content of the Senator's contribution to her. The Senator is right about the issue of gender inequality. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, has been pushing this at Government level and I have been very supportive of her in that regard. The Senator is correct that the issue goes right across Government. It is not an isolated issue for the Minister, Deputy Doherty, rather it is an issue that goes across Government. I am trying to deal with the far broader challenges that are there with regard to climate change. It is the same issue. It is difficult because one is dealing with Government in silos. The leadership has to come from the top, from Cabinet and Ministers, down. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Protection has my support on that.

The Minister, Deputy Doherty, is very grateful to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the Report on the Position of Lone Parents in Ireland. I acknowledge the work undertaken by the committee to produce the report and thank it for its efforts. The Minister is aware that the report was based on the views of a range of stakeholders, including officials from the Department, who met with the committee and provided submissions. This has ensured the report represents a wide range of views and perspectives on the position of lone parents in Ireland.

In order to formulate policy that will improve the position of lone parents, it is important to look at the history of the one-parent family payment. In the past, income support for lone parents was passive in nature and involved limited engagement by the State with one-parent family payment recipients. The non-conditionality nature of the one-parent family payment, coupled with its long duration, over time engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among many lone parents and their children. The need to tackle long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among lone-parent families in Ireland through an active labour market approach was addressed in detail in the OECD report, Babies and Bosses: Reconciling Work and Family Life, which was published in 2003. The report argued that passive income support policy towards lone parents until their youngest child was aged 18 years, or 22 years if in full-time education, was a significant contributory factor to lone parents' low levels of employment and high levels of poverty. The Department reached the same conclusion in its own report, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, published in 2006, which highlighted Ireland's outlier status in terms of the maximum age threshold for the youngest child as well as the need to bring the one-parent family payment scheme more in line with international standards where a general movement away from long-term and non-conditional income support and towards a more active engagement approach was gaining momentum. These recommendations formed the basis for the decision to gradually lower the maximum age threshold for the youngest child on the one-parent family payment scheme to seven years from 2011 until 2015 and also to enhance educational, training, and employment supports to lone parents through the Department’s Intreo services.

It is also important when developing policy for lone parents to look at the supports that are currently available, in particular the jobseeker's transitional payment. This payment was introduced in 2013 as a specific measure for lone parents with younger children. It is available to lone parents who have a youngest child aged between seven and 13, inclusive. These customers are exempt from the jobseeker's allowance conditions that require them to be available for and genuinely seeking full-time work. As such, no lone parent with a youngest child aged under 14 years is required to take up employment in order to receive income support from the Department.

There is a requirement for all recipients of the jobseeker's transitional payment to engage with the Department's Intreo service. They receive a one-to-one meeting with a case officer from the Department who assists them in producing a personal development plan. The plan seeks to support the individual towards appropriate education and training opportunities with a view to ensuring they are employment-ready when their youngest child is 14. Should a lone parent on this payment wish to commence employment, he or she will be fully supported by the Department in making this transition. The jobseeker’s transitional payment is therefore a crucial support for lone parents that allows these customers to balance their work and caring responsibilities and, significantly, reduces their requirement for child care while their children are in primary school.

As a lone parent's youngest child reaches the age of 14, the need for child care is reduced. If such a parent moves to jobseeker's allowance, there is a progressive increase in the conditionality. This means the parent must be available for and genuinely seeking full-time work. However, a lone parent also has the option of working a minimum level of 19 hours per week and applying for the family income supplement, FIS, and also the back-to-work family dividend, BTWFD. These in-work supports provide the most advantageous option for working lone parents.

In addition to the committee's report, an independent review of changes to the one-parent family payment was agreed during the passage of the Social Welfare Act 2016. This review has been completed by Indecon Economic Consultants and is under consideration by officials in the Minister's Department. The review included one of the largest ever surveys targeting one-parent families in Ireland with 33,000 lone parents surveyed. Responses were received and analysed from almost 3,700 lone parents who were directly affected by the changes. This provided an excellent opportunity to gather the views and experiences of lone parents affected by the changes. The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, expects to lay the report before the Houses and to publish it in the coming days. I understand from officials that the report shows that there has been a positive impact on reducing welfare dependency and an increase in employment for lone parents affected by the changes as well as a negative impact on poverty among those lone parents who are still on welfare.

While there will always be differing views on the best way to support lone parents, both reports will greatly assist us to find the best way forward. While the Minister cannot pre-empt the outcome of budget 2018 discussions, I confirm that she remains committed to improving the position of lone parents as one of her priorities. It is a priority of the Government as a whole.

As we gave a lot of latitude on the initial contribution and as the Minister's reply was seven minutes, we have spent over 13 minutes on this matter. I will allow 30 seconds for one question, nothing more.

I am a little concerned that some of the analysis is similar to what we have seen before. It is about the language of passivity being equated with conditionality. The passivity in the past in all of those reports, which I have read, was with reference to passivity on the part of the State in offering supports to lone parents. It has switched into a narrative which suggests that lone parents are somehow passive and need to be pushed out the door. The conditionalities have been placed on lone parents, for example, in the area of maintenance.

Could I have a question, please?

I note for example the area of maintenance where women are being docked payments because of that. Is it instead going to become an issue and will the Minister be taking up our recommendation on maintenance?

The other recommendation the Minister mentioned on 19 hours-----

I might follow up in terms of specific recommendations with the Minister. Can the 19 hours per week be addressed as well?

Please, Senator. I call the Minister. He has 30 seconds.

As constituency Deputies, we all meet the practical issues and challenges in this regard on an ongoing basis. Across both Houses, there is a determination to see if we can take lone parents out of the poverty trap and assist them, where feasible and practical, to get back to part-time or, preferably, full-time employment as their circumstances determine.

Sitting suspended at 11.25 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.