It is a great pleasure to welcome you, Minister. This is the first time I have had that opportunity. Group spokespersons have eight minutes and all other Senators have five minutes. Minister, you have the floor.
Report on Lone Parents in Ireland: Statements
I wish to thank all the members of the Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection for their work in producing the Report on the Position of Lone Parents in Ireland. I know the process involved discussions with a wide range of stakeholder groups and with officials from my Department. I appreciate the time and effort that has gone into the report. I wish to thank the Seanad for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate.
Since taking up my role as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, I hope I have made it clear that my priorities include children living in consistent poverty, of which there are 130,000, working families, including lone parents, and people on fixed incomes who are dependent on the social contract in Ireland. Therefore, I welcome the report by the committee on lone parents because it touches on particular issues that we all know and recognise in this area. The report and the more recent Indecon review of the changes to the lone-parent family payment have re-enforced my commitment to lone-parent families.
In budget 2018, I followed through on these priorities. A range of measures will be introduced next year that will directly benefit lone-parent families and especially their children. The committee report described the main challenges facing lone parents, which include child poverty, activation and education, child care costs, maintenance payments and the changes to the one-parent family scheme. While I do not have the time today to speak on all the recommendations, I will do my best to cover as much as possible.
The poverty rates currently experienced by lone-parent families are unacceptable. Unfortunately, this is not new; it has been ongoing for some time. There are many views as to what causes this and what might resolve this situation. My view, which is supported by the Indecon report, is that broadly speaking the policy approach of encouraging and supporting women and men into work is correct. This approach has positively impacted on the lives of lone parents where they have found employment. Nonetheless, the risk of poverty is still too high for those with no or low-paid employment.
Budget 2018 will see a €5 per week increase in the rates of payment and an increase in the qualified child payment of €2 per week. These increases represent a significant first step to help reduce the poverty rates for these families. The extension of the fuel allowance season by an additional week will further support these families. However, the supports needed to end poverty do not stop or start with income support. Continuing and improving the policy supports that help lone parents into sustainable employment are critical to ending poverty. The Indecon review shows that the changes to the one-parent family payment have already resulted in increased employment among lone parents and a decrease in welfare dependency. The survey of one-parent families carried out as part of the review showed an increase in full-time employment among the survey respondents from 15% to 22%. We need to continue this progress and in particular to create supports that will help more lone parents to work and, most important, to find work that pays and improves their lives.
From March next year, I am increasing the earnings disregard of the one-parent family payment and jobseeker's transitional payment from €110 per week to €130 per week. This will allow a lone parent on OFP or JST to earn an additional €20 per week of their own money before it will affect their payments. When this is combined with the increase in the national minimum wage to €9.55 per hour this year and the rate increases, it results in an extra €19 per week in the pocket of the OFP and JST recipient with one child who is working 15 hours per week on the national minimum wage.
Lone parents working more than 19 hours per week will also gain through an increase of €10 per week in the working family payment thresholds, formerly known as the family income support, for families with between one and three children. This will result in an additional €6 per week for those families. The legislative sunset clause on the back-to-work family dividend is also being removed. It was due to end this March. This effective support will remain available to lone parents and couples who make the transition from welfare dependency to work, including those who also avail of the working family payment.
I am aware that the committee recommended higher increases to the income disregards for OFP and JST payments and to the child payment rates. As the Senators are aware, to continue the jobs-led recovery that is under way in Ireland, thankfully, the Government needed to balance the books. I am sure that in budget 2018 I have struck a fair balance between improving the welfare of lone-parent families while maintaining the relative positions of all other groups.
I wish to emphasise that an important message from the committee report, which we heard loud and clear, is that access to education is critical to improve the position for lone parents. It also highlights that the activation services provided by the case officers in my Department must tailor the supports to the specific challenges experienced by lone parents. My Department already provides a wide range of financial supports to lone parents to allow them to participate in the variety of educational and employment programmes available through my Department and the Department of Education and Skills. For example, lone parents on OFP or JST payments who wish to participate in education can retain these payments and also avail of the SUSI grant from the Department of Education and Skills. That grant is not assessed as means by my Department. This option is not available to other jobseekers. My Department's employment services also currently provide a case-management approach to assist lone parents to avail of various opportunities within an ever-increasing and improving labour market.
For these supports to be truly effective, access to affordable child care is needed. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, has announced measures under budget 2018 to extend the free preschool scheme for an additional year to make the scheme applicable for a full two years. Senators will be aware that some people were falling between birthday dates. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, is also going to invest further in the child care affordability measures she introduced last month. Both of these measures will be of particular support to lone parents. My Department will continue to support and assist with these initiatives.
The committee report included further recommendations that I have been unable to address, but I can confirm that all of the recommendations are under consideration by my Department. My Department has reviewed all aspects of the maintenance arrangements relating to lone parents. Since April, the work for the statutory review, that is, the Indecon report, has taken priority. However, the work will now recommence and I intend that it will be completed soon. When it is completed, I will be happy to come back to have a full conversation about it.
I am confident that the budget will improve the financial situation of lone parents. I intend to continue to prioritise supports for lone parents, particularly those which incentivise work over welfare. I will also provide for the further review of the scheme. As there is a time lag before the benefits of labour market reforms appear, I anticipate that this review will take place next year and that we will have a further report at the end of 2018. I hope that will be more reflective of the working environment changes that have happened since 2016-2017. We might get a more reflective report next year.
I wish to thank the Indecon representatives publicly for the work they have done. They did an incredible block of work in an incredibly short amount of time in producing the qualitative data. I am grateful to them for that. I thank the Senators for devoting their time to discuss this important issue. I look forward to hearing what they have to say and to taking on board the views they wish to express to me.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the publication of the report on lone parents and commends the work of the committee. As the report points out, lone parents are not a homogeneous group. However, being a lone parent carries its own particular difficulties. Lone parents represent one of the household types most at risk of poverty and almost 58% of lone-parent households experience deprivation. Moreover, as the housing crisis continued unabated and rents continued to soar, 770 lone-parent families were living in emergency accommodation as of August 2017. This report highlights the particular issues faced by lone parents and how the systems and policies that are currently in place can often hinder rather than help lone parents and their children.
The reforms to the one-parent family payment introduced by Fine Gael and the Labour Party under the previous Government have had a detrimental impact on a significant number of lone-parent households and have caused a great deal of financial and emotional distress.
Such measures must be cognisant that not only do lone parents parent alone but they also face difficulties in the type and quality of work available to them due to the absence of affordable child care and access to adequate public transport. It is imperative that lessons are learned from mistakes of the past and that we take on board recommendations made in this and other reports, and develop progressive systems and policies that recognise and take account of the particular circumstances of lone-parent families.
Of the 218,817 one-parent families recorded in census 2016, the vast majority were female and over half had just one child while fathers tended to be much older, with 68% being aged 50 years or over compared to just 38.3% of mothers. Fewer than half of parents in one-parent families were at work compared to 70.2% of two-parent families. Lone-parent households continue to be extremely exposed to poverty and deprivation. The most recent SILC data available from January 2017 shows that there was an increase in the percentage of lone-parent households in consistent poverty. Some 26.2% of lone-parent households are in consistent poverty in 2015 compared to 25% in 2014, 36.2% of lone-parent households are at risk of poverty in 2015 compared to 36.5% in 2014 and 57.9% of lone-parent households are experiencing deprivation in 2015 compared to 58.7% in 2014.
The Minister referred to the measures introduced in the recent budget which are very welcome. While Fianna Fáil is not in government, we used our influence as best we could to ensure that budget 2018 would be fair and would assist those on low and fixed incomes. As a party we are committed to ensuring that this is a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. While the budget is far from perfect it contained a number of positive measures which will directly impact on lone parents and which are also in line with some of the recommendations contained in the joint committee's report on lone parents, including a €5 increase for all other social welfare payments, a €2 increase in all qualified child payments, the income disregard for working lone parents increased by €20 from €110 to €130 per week, and an additional week of the fuel allowance, bringing it from 26 to 27 weeks. These measures are all very welcome.
However, the homelessness crisis has affected lone parents disproportionately. Ireland is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Unfortunately, the Government’s inadequate response to such a serious issue and its failure to build social housing has left thousands of people without a home and living in emergency accommodation. Lone parents make up a significant proportion of those who are homeless. In August 2017 there were 770 lone-parent households living in emergency accommodation. Growing up in a hotel room robs far too many children of their childhood and causes considerable distress for all subjected to such inappropriate living conditions.
The committee’s report notes that private rental costs rose in Ireland by an average of 13.5% in 2016, and the lack of social and affordable housing has contributed to this crisis. Other issues such as domestic violence can also contribute to homelessness for lone-parent households. Fianna Fáil believes the policy whereby if an individual receives HAP he or she must give up his or her place on the social housing list must change. The committee’s report rightly states that "this requirement, along with the ongoing insecurity of tenure in the private rental market, can lead to a hard choice between the desire to leave emergency accommodation and the long term security which social housing might provide for their children e.g. in terms of school enrolment". Moreover, the Government’s over-reliance on the private rental sector is a flawed approach and will do little to solve the crisis. They need to get back to basics and start building social housing.
While we welcome the measures introduced in budget 2018, some of which are in line with the recommendations of the committee’s report, much more needs to be done if the poverty and deprivation experienced by lone parents and their children is to be comprehensively addressed. The social welfare system must be more flexible and responsive to the needs of lone parents and their children. It must be recognised that they are caring alone and the welfare system needs to reflect the needs of both one and two parent families. The social welfare system should help, not hinder parents trying to balance and combine their caring role with paid employment.
I welcome the report and the Minister's statement to the House. I know she is passionate about putting some of the wrongs to rights. The lone parents of Ireland make up a diverse group. It includes parents who have achieved the full range of educational qualifications. It is diverse in terms of the ages of parents and children and it includes families with one child and those with up to seven children or more. Lone-parent families include those who cohabit with partners or with partners and their families, so-called blended families. They may be single, separated, widowed or divorced. Many co-parent with ex-partners from whom they receive varying levels of co-operation. In short, there is no stereotypical lone parent or lone-parent family.
One-parent families have the highest consistent poverty rate at 26.2% of any group in Irish society. They suffer higher rates of deprivation at 57.9% compared to 25.5% in the general population. Children in one-parent families are three times as likely to live in constant poverty than families with two adults with one, two or three children. The consistent poverty threshold for a lone parent with one child is €278 per week, or €14,456 annually. Since 2012 constant poverty among lone-parent families has risen from 17.4% to 26.2% in 2015. Some lone-parent families have lower levels of education compared to the general population according to census 2011. Research has shown that better educated parents have better educated children and that those children have better economic outcomes as well as better mental and physical health. Among one-parent families headed by a mother, research shows that education is more important than family structure in determining the well-being of the children. Education for lone parents may represent a huge opportunity to improve outcomes for all members of lone-parent families. Children lone parents are more likely to suffer from long-term illnesses and disability than children in two adult households. These outcomes are strongly linked to poverty.
The challenges faced by lone parents have been increased by the cost of housing, especially the problem in the private rental market, as Senator Ardagh noted. Rents increased by an average of 13.5% in 2016. Lone parents do not have the same financial capacity or resilience as other family types while a lack of education and prohibitive costs of child care restrict their ability to increase their incomes. As a result of these and other factors, lone parents may be vulnerable to increases in the cost of housing. Some 65% of homeless families are lone-parent families where lone families comprise 26% of all families. Further research could examine this disparity in order to facilitate more effective intervention.
The Social Welfare Act 2016, enacted on 16 December 2016, included a commitment that a review to the changes to one-parent family payment schemes since 2012 would be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas within nine months of the Act's enactment. The review was to assess the financial and social effects of the one-parent family payment changes, taking into account the effects of welfare dependence and the poverty rate of those affected. The scope for the review included the long-term age related policy to the schemes that were implemented since January 2012 in addition to shorter term change required to achieve savings across all social welfare expenditure over the same period following the economic downturn. As part of the review which Indecon carried out, there was a quantitative and economic analysis of a number of relevant databases to access the impact of the changes on lone parents. The review also included one of the largest surveys targeting one-parent families in Ireland.
Responses were received and analysed from almost 3,700 lone parents directly affected by the changes.
The Indecon report which was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas on Monday, 9 October contains several positive findings. It concludes that the policy changes introduced have been successful in increasing employment and reducing welfare dependency. It has found that the reforms increase the probability of lone parents securing both employment and higher employment income. The responses to the survey are in line with this finding, showing that the percentage of lone parents in full employment has increased from 15% to 22%. The report notes that welfare dependency rates among lone parents fell in the year after the one-parent family payment was lost and continued to fall in subsequent years. The review also highlights several areas of concern. It notes that many of those who lost their one-parent family payment remained unemployed or in low paid or part-time employment. The balance of evidence indicates there is an increased probability of being at risk of poverty as a result of the changes. All of this serves to emphasise the need for further supports aimed at assisting lone parents to obtain full-time employment or increased hours of work.
The findings made in the Indecon report support the rationale and continued reliance of the policy changes since 2012. However, the report also highlights the risk of poverty for lone parents without employment and those in low paid employment and the associated policy changes required to integrate those lone parents into the labour market. The report recommends a move to more tailored progression plans for lone parents, together with improved access to the child care, education and training and other supports required to allow them to access the labour market. These changes should help to improve the living standards of those concerned and reduce their risk of poverty. I understand a further review of the scheme to include data to the end of 2018 is planned.
I welcome the Minister. The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that 26.2% of children in one-parent families are living in consistent poverty. Lone parents have a tough job, one I certainly would not want to have to do. Walking the floorboards at night with a crying baby, with nobody to share the load, is difficult and very rarely a lifestyle choice. The 26.2% of children who are in one-parent families are three times more likely to be living in consistent poverty than children in two-parent homes. In the context of these frightening figures, the findings made in the Indecon report are to be welcomed. I commend all of those involved in working to produce the report. In this House we often note that reports are only as useful as recommendations. Although I would prefer if this time slot was being used to debate legislation to enact the recommendations made in the report, I must concentrate instead on addressing some of the key issues arising from the work done.
The first point to address is the impact of the change in policy some years back which reduced the cap for eligibility for the lone-parent family payment to a measly seven years of age for the youngest child, thereby cutting short the childhood of those affected. This change, introduced under the watchful eye of Fine Gael and the Labour Party in government, left many single parents in no-man's land where they could not afford child care and consequently could not work. It was one of the cruelest decisions made by that Government. In the course of our work we examine a lot of research, statistics and reports, but the one finding that has really stayed with me, more than a year since I read it, is the observation made in the report of the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, on deprivation indices that many children living in poverty and deprivation had given up on their dreams and aspirations by the age of 13 years. That is a very sad finding which calls to my mind a young girl whose role model was Wonder Woman. Most of us do not get to be Wonder Woman on more than a few occasions in our lives, but that aspiration should not be dead by the time a girl is 13 years of age. That is what poverty does, in contrast to the ability of children in well off families to pursue and achieve their dreams. It is heart-rending to think of the large percentage of children living in deprived areas, as discovered in the TASC research, who conclude at 13 years of age that they will never go anywhere.
This change in policy was unequivocally Thatcherite in its ideology, although some Members might consider that a compliment. Who in their right mind takes the view that childhood costs decrease at seven years of age? What about all of the costly requirements associated with raising children aged seven to 14 years, including expenses associated with sports activities, clothing, illnesses, school trips, voluntary school contributions, school books, after-school care and sports clubs? What if children require mental health support? More and more families who find themselves in that situation are being forced to access treatment privately owing to the lengthy waiting lists. For a lone-parent family, however, dependent on income from the State, that cost is not manageable. The commitment that this policy change would only be implemented when we had a Scandinavian-type child care model was farcical from the beginning. Thousands of families continue to struggle daily with rising child care costs. Being stressed about money does not incentivise work. Worrying about finding affordable child care does not incentivise work. Lying awake at night trying to work out how one might pinch the pennies in order to take one's child out of poverty does not incentivise work. What we are doing to lone parents and their children is not right.
The independent Indecon report was commissioned following an amendment brought forward by Sinn Féin to the Social Welfare Bill. The report outlines the changes made to the one-parent family payment and their impact on lone parents. The evidence set out in the report indicates that there is an increased probability of lone parents being at risk of poverty as a result of the changes. Many lone parents who lost the one-parent family payment remain unemployed. For those who did secure employment, financial well-being has nevertheless deteriorated considerably. There has been an increase in the number of families unable to afford a warm waterproof coat, keep their house warm and eat meat regularly. This is not about being able to afford a €30 bottle of wine but about dire poverty and deprivation. What will living in that type of poverty do to the next generation? Does the Government expect that by allowing children to struggle, living in cramped accommodation in hotel rooms, we will produce a generation of healthy, happy and contributing adults? In its fully costed budget Sinn Féin proposed to restore the one-parent family payment to lone parents of children aged up to 14 years. That is the right policy level, morally and economically, given the extreme poverty experienced by many lone parents.
I welcome the recommendation made in the report that no lone parent should ever have his or her social protection payment threatened or reduced through non-receipt of maintenance from a former spouse. Many relationships end because of abuse and we should never put people in a situation where they lose out on supported payments because they cannot chase an abuser for maintenance. I look forward to seeing this and the other positive recommendations made in the report being implemented by the Government.
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge her indication that this is a priority issue for her, as supported by her frequent references to it. I hope we will now see intensified action to address the issues involved. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Social Protection which produced an important report on the situation of lone parents in Ireland. That document is as close as we have got so far to a comprehensive analysis of the supports, solutions and actions needed to improve the position and life experiences of lone parents and their children. The report acknowledges that the policy we devise must be cognisant of the fact that Ireland has a very poor historical record in the treatment of lone parents and their children and that existing disadvantages have been exacerbated by the changes introduced in 2012. The evidence is clear in our report, the Indecon report and the statistics from the CSO and elsewhere.
Others have spoken about the deprivation and consistent poverty figures and the fact that children in lone-parent families are more than three and a half times more likely to be living in consistent poverty than children in two-parent families. However, there is a range of other figures that can be discussed. Some 65% of homeless families with children in Ireland are headed by lone parents. The alarm bells regarding the 59% deprivation rate have been ringing for some time. The situation was exacerbated in 2012.
I will speak first to the Indecon report before discussing the recommendations of our report. The Indecon report points to the fact that while there is a small decrease of 3% to 4% in welfare dependency and some increase in employment, that employment does not necessarily improve the financial situation of lone parents. A majority of the lone parents surveyed, 53%, said that their financial situation is now worse while a quarter of them, 26%, described their financial situation as much worse. That is a serious concern and it must be examined and addressed. Some 5% saw themselves as considerably better off but, as we have heard, there is a range of experiences. The majority are still signalling that they are much worse off. Another figure of concern in the report is the fact that 63%, almost two thirds of those surveyed, who were in full-time employment were still in deprivation and doing without three or more of the essentials for life.
Moving people into low paid, insecure jobs that leave them and their children in poverty while they struggle to balance the gaps is not an adequate solution. While the Minister speaks about the importance of tailored supports, case work and investment in child care, the change of moving lone parents onto these payments happened without the adequate supports being put in place. I have spoken on these issues previously in the House. We have had the Babies and Bosses reports and other reports with which I am very familiar.
When those reports referred to the lack of engagement they were speaking about the lack of State engagement to support lone parents. Somewhere along the way that translated into the idea that it was necessary to push lone parents themselves to step up. Many lone parents are willing to work and excited and interested about work and going back to education, but the State must improve its supports. The unfortunate issue was that the transition to the new payments took place without adequate supports being in place and we are playing catch up now. There is inadequate case work support. The activation programmes in education and employment in many cases do not reflect facts such as part-time availability, a reality for many lone parents and those on jobseeker transition payments. Perhaps the Minister would elaborate further on that tailoring of supports and case work and how she envisages it might be done to significant scale. I welcome her points about access to education.
I will now refer to the recommendations of the reports. Will the Minister address the anomalies around rent allowance? Can we move to a situation where lone parents can access back-to-education allowance and student grants together, for example? That is one proposal. There are also gaps in accessing rent allowance. I could read through the detailed proposals but that probably would not be useful. However, there is a specific proposal relating to the anomaly where lone parents in receipt of rent supplement and one-parent family payment are not eligible for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, maintenance. How can we address that? We do not want to increase the risk of homelessness or to have people choosing between the security of a home for their children and the chance to have a better life for themselves. These concerns must be addressed.
The Minister mentioned the issue of maintenance. The policy in this area has directly disimproved the situation of lone parents. We see that in the change that occurred. Some 50% of recipients of one-parent family allowance are receiving maintenance but that drops to 36% when the child turns seven because the State no longer engages with the liable relative. In fact, we hear constantly that the pressure is put on lone parents to pursue maintenance and to show that they are doing so. In some cases where there is a court ruling that they should receive maintenance there are reductions in their payment even though they are not receiving that cash. This is a huge anomaly. There are proposals with regard to a State maintenance agency. Perhaps the Minister would outline her thoughts on how that might proceed.
The invisible lone parents are a serious concern, that is, lone parents who were made invisible by the 2012 changes. They are those with children over 14 years of age. A child is still a child at 14 years of age, as we have seen this week. Most parents give care and are concerned about their child when they turn 14. People know that different teenagers will need different care and different responsibilities. I ask the Minister to address a key recommendation in the report on the jobseeker transitional payment. That payment is a recognition that somebody might be engaging with employment or educational opportunities but is also balancing his or her work of care and other considerations. Can we not extend the jobseeker transitional payment until the child is aged 18 years rather than 14 years? At that point lone parents are put on jobseeker's allowance, the special supports they need disappear and the particular challenges they sometimes face are no longer being addressed by the system. For example, they are mandatorily required to be available full time. There might well be people who have children of two years of age who can become available full time, but the jobseeker transitional payment is a better system than moving people to jobseeker's allowance when their child turns 14 years of age. Perhaps the Minister would address that specific concern. It would allow the State to engage in support.
The Senator must conclude.
I will conclude. The Indecon report shows €45 million in State savings. That is almost an indictment. The changes were introduced at a time of austerity in 2012, but that €45 million is coming from one of the most vulnerable groups in society. Will the savings of €45 million be redirected back directly to lone parents as a particularly vulnerable group?
I am seriously concerned about the Minister's reference to a new review in 2018. Lone parents cannot afford to wait for the changes.
The Senator is eating into the time of other speakers.
Perhaps the Minister could address the fact that change cannot wait for the report in 2018.
Senator Craughwell has eight minutes.
The Minister will be delighted to hear that I will not take eight minutes. She has been bamboozled this afternoon with statistics. While they are all extremely relevant I do not intend to take that route.
Any increase the Minister could achieve for lone parents was welcome. However, one aspect of our lone parent policy that bothers me is the talk about work incentive schemes. Being a lone parent has to be the toughest job in the country. Instead of trying to incentivise lone parents to go out and work we should be ensuring that they have some type of livelihood that makes it worthwhile to stay at home and rear their children. God knows, we hear enough about latchkey children. I am aware of one town in this country that is regarded as a latchkey town because so many of the parents are working. These are two-parent families. The children come home in the evening to nothing and nobody. That is no way to run a country. I have a difficulty, therefore, with the idea that we should be incentivising lone parents to go out to work. We should be incentivising them to rear their children, while those who wish to work should be incentivised to do so. Indeed, I know lone parents who are in very senior positions and who have managed to find the work-life balance whereby they are able to rear their children and work. They are to be congratulated. They are not all women. Some of them are men.
On the education and activation programmes, education is the key to everything. If one can educate oneself one can move forward. I will always be grateful to Limerick City Vocational Education Committee which gave me my second chance in education and brought me through to degree and postgraduate qualification. Otherwise, I would be living on a social welfare payment somewhere in east Limerick.
Education is the way forward. Anything that can be done to help lone parents into the education system is to be commended. A number of excellent pilot programmes were run in Dublin some years ago which involved running the same module of a course three times a day. Lone parents were able to share the load of looking after children and taking up the opportunity to participate in education. I am delighted that one can apply to SUSI and hold on to the lone parent payment. That is excellent. I say, "Fair play," to the Minister in that regard.
Let us get away from talking about statistics. I am thinking of poor Mary Murphy or Julia Molloy or Tom O'Connor who is walking into the house this evening with his two or three children and nobody else. As my colleague said, when the door closes and one is walking the floors at 3 a.m. with a sick child, all the payments and statistics in the world mean absolutely nothing.
Two issues concern me. I am familiar with a widow whose husband died when the children were young. She worked hard all her life, paid PRSI and managed to keep a job going to educate her children who have now left. Unfortunately, she was a victim of the financial crisis and lost her job, but she is not allowed to draw any of the PRSI contributions that she herself made. There are two payments she is entitled to draw down, namely, her own social welfare payment, as well as her widow's pension. Her husband paid for the widow's pension, while she made her own PRSI payments. They should not be regarded as the one payment.
The other issue probably does not fall exactly within the Minister's remit, but she might bring it to the attention of the Cabinet. I have documentary evidence of one case and since I became aware of it I have become aware anecdotally of other cases. I refer to husbands who mortgage properties to the hilt and then walk out. In the particular case that was originally brought to my attention the man put the money in his pocket. He did not get it to pay off a debt; he walked away with €280,000 in his back pocket and left his wife and two children destitute. The banks about which we were talking this morning and in recent days went after her, not him, even though he had walked away with the money and is living a wonderful life. I know him. On the other hand, she is living on cornflakes once the children go to school in the morning. We have to do something about that situation where the fathers of this country walk away and leave their wives and children destitute. I know that it does not come directly under the care of the Minister, but it is something she might bring to the attention of the Cabinet as we must look at such issues.
I will not take any more time. I appreciate the Minister's attendance for this debate.
I welcome the Minister. I agree with much of what has been said and will not go over it. I wish to refer to one or two experiences I have had.
Sometimes maintenance is promised by a partner and there is an agreement in place that maintenance is to be paid. However, in many cases it is not or else it comes every six or eight weeks rather than every week or in whatever timeframe was agreed. The single parent is being penalised because as far as the Department is concerned, there is an agreement in place and it is of the view that the person concerned is in receipt of the maintenance payment that has been agreed to. That is one issue that must be examined. I have come across many cases where people are affected in that regard.
I agree with what Senator Craughwell said about education. I welcome the €500 back-to-education allowance, which is most important. Many single parents want to go back to work or education and the way to get such persons back to work is through education. Some individuals might not have worked for a number of years. They might have given up their jobs when they go married or entered a relationship and they need to be incentivised. I welcome anything that can be put in place to incentivise and help people to get back into education as it will help them to get back to work.
I, too, have come across the situation where someone has walked out and left a partner with a mortgage. It is a major issue and I have heard of many such cases where the single parent has been left with the children. I know of one case where a single mother has three children still in school. Unfortunately, her sibling passed away and she must now look after her mother who has dementia. She is going through the process of having her house repossessed. There are some very sad cases and perhaps they might need to be considered in a slightly different way from the norm. It is not always the case that everything fits into the one scenario. There is not always leniency when people present. There has been an uptake in the number of people receiving supplementary welfare allowances in these cases, but one size does not fit all. Each case should be examined individually because the rules do not always fit particular situations. They are the few issues I wanted to highlight.
The Minister is very welcome to the Chamber. Before I commence my remarks, I acknowledge that in her public utterances she has demonstrated a commitment to bringing about a reduction in the incidence of child poverty, including the children of lone parents and lone parents. That is a laudable objective. She has demonstrated in the budget that she is committed to doing this. As Senator Gerard P. Craughwell said, no amount of money will satisfy everybody, but if significant progress can be made to reduce the level of consistent poverty among children in the coming years, it will be welcomed and supported by all parties. We might differ on how the Minister should arrive at that objective and the quantum of resources she is in a position to apply to achieving it.
Over a period it is fair to say, objectively, that some positive developments and changes have been implemented to support one-parent families. The back-to-work family dividend is a policy change I very much supported in 2015 to ensure those who had been out of the workforce for a considerable period would be financially supported to get back to work. Much discussion has taken place in this Chamber and the Lower House about the impact of the one-family payment measures when they were introduced in 2013 and the structure was changed.
As the Indecon report has demonstrated, some one-parent families have become financially better off and accessed opportunities in the workplace over a period for a range of reasons. I had a detailed look at the Indecon report earlier and while there are some positives in it, there are also some negatives. In accepting that there are some positives and that the experience of a good number of individuals has been extremely positive, the universal experience has not been positive. A significant number of lone parents have benefited from the measures and there is evidence to support that claim, but I think the Minister would acknowledge that much more work needs to be undertaken by the Department and the system in general to ensure there will be tailored supports in place for lone parents because they are not a homogenous, monolithic group; they are human beings with their own difficulties and challenges. I welcome the remarks made by the Minister about tailoring and customising supports for lone parents because the system does not capture every single experience in the way we might like.
I was particularly drawn to a remark made by the authors of the Indecon report which stated many of the individuals surveyed said a job had helped them to make more money, develop new skills and improve confidence and, importantly, the well-being of lone parents and their children.
It is a critical point and very vocal critics of the measures introduced in 2013 need to be conscious of that, while accepting that the positive experience has not been universal.
The report pointed to a number of problems. An area of concern referenced by my colleague, Senator Butler, was the fact that there are still stubbornly high numbers of lone parents who are unemployed or underemployed, as well as lone parents who, for a variety of reasons - possibly predominantly because of their caring and child rearing duties - are in low-paid, part-time and precarious employment.
The Minister knows from the work undertaken by the Low Pay Commission that there is a preponderance of women in receipt of the national minimum wage, a very high number of whom are lone parents. We also know there is a prevalence of women in precarious working situations for a variety of reasons. Given the Minister's stated determination to address child poverty and poverty among lone parent families, I implore her to work very closely with the Low Pay Commission to ensure the Government follows through on its commitment of a national minimum wage of €10.50 per hour, inadequate though it may be, during its lifetime.
The Minister can also ensure that the area of precarious work is better addressed. She will be aware of my commitment in that area and the University of Limerick study two years ago which made significant recommendations to Government on addressing the scourge of if-and-when contracts and precarious work in general. There are still far too many people in this country going to bed on a Sunday night not knowing how many hours they will work the following week and, therefore, how much they will earn. As a society, the least we can do is to make sure we make the necessary changes to support people who are working and those who want to work, and allow them to have the dignity which comes with that in order to reach their full potential as active citizens in terms of employment.
The best Christmas present the Minister could provide for low-paid workers in this country is to meet the commitments of this Government and the previous Administration, and legislate to ensure precarious work is addressed in a comprehensive way in order to support people who get up early in the morning and make their contribution to our society and their families. I want as many citizens as possible in this country to work, as does the Minister and everybody in the House. Those who are able to work and those in a position to work should be able to do so.
I have seen too many lives and communities destroyed by a lack of available work and because a system has written them off in terms of working activity at far too early a time in their lives. That has a destructive impact on the dignity of the person, communities and family life. The Minister knows work is much more than a weekly or monthly pay cheque. It also includes engaging fully in society as an active citizen. It is about real inclusion and equality. It is about self-respect and the dignity of work.
Having said that, we need to make sure we continue to learn from the lessons of the recent past and try to make sure we have a properly resourced, strong and robust system in place in order to be able to support lone parents who are doing a remarkable job under extremely difficult circumstances. The system needs to be much more responsive to the individual needs of people because, as I said, we are all human beings with different needs.
Lone parents, no more than any other cohort in society, are not a homogenous, monolithic group. They need tailored, customised support and I ask the Minister to reflect very deeply on the report developed by the Joint Committee on Social Protection, take what is best from it and apply it to her work.
I will be brief, but I want to try to address some of the issues which have been brought to my attention. I thank Senators for their comments. It is very interesting to hear different people's perspectives on a policy which, in the main, was very good.
The Indecon report clearly stated it was a very good policy and the outcomes of the policy objectives were, in the main, achieved. We all have to acknowledge that while the policy reforms were very well intended, they happened to be coupled with the then Government's decision to take €4 billion out of the social welfare system because the country did not have a bean at the time. That the decision coincided with the changes resulted in the outcome the Indecon report clearly stated.
Let us not ignore the objectives of the policy changes and the result, namely, that it did exactly what we set out to do. There were unintended consequences arising from the cutbacks which had to be made. Let me be very clear. It is to be hoped that our bona fides can be seen for what they are. For example, we increased the disregard by €20 in the budget. For the first time in eight years we increased the qualifying child allowance and extended one or two of the other measures, including the back to work dividend and the fuel allowance, all of which goes towards making life a little bit easier than it was before the changes were made. Until we fully unwind the cuts which were made to lone parents, the policy that the then Labour Party Minister introduced will not be able to flourish in the same way as it would have if we had not had to introduce the cuts at the same time.
I cannot guarantee Senator Higgins that the €45 million taken from lone parents will be given back. Everybody acknowledges and recognises that fact, and I thank the Senator for saying so. I did not arrive into the Department of Social Protection and pick the most populist group of people who we would hear from very loudly if we were going to make changes. This particular group of people probably do not have the same levels of respect others in this country enjoy. I do not want to pick on Senator Higgins, but that reflects what she touched upon.
It goes back to societal opinions of women, in particular unmarried mothers, in years gone by. If I do nothing else in whatever short period of time I am in this Department, we are going to break that stereotypical image. The vast majority of women I know who are parenting alone work bloody damn hard and deserve to take home more of the money which they go out and earn in work. There is a misconception that they are all sitting at home drinking lattes, but that is far from the truth. As long as I am here not only will I champion the hard work which is carried out by women in this country, I will also recognise that it is more than twice as hard for women and men who are parenting alone as it is for those who are cohabiting and jointly taking on board the work involved.
I wish to address one or two issues. A Senator mentioned she had an issue with the fact that the changes we made forced women whose children were as young as seven years of age to go out to work. That is factually incorrect. The JST payment which was introduced gives exactly the same means disregards and protections as the one parent family payment does for those parents with children aged between seven and 14 years. The only thing they need to do is engage with the Department of Social Production in order to discuss training and possibly going back to college.
I do not think anybody in this House or the Lower House would challenge me on this point. As a Government we have greater ambition for the women of Ireland who find themselves parenting alone than to take them off welfare and put them into low paid jobs. That is not the ambition I have for my sisters in this country. I have an ambition that they will be able to earn decent wages doing jobs they love or, at the very least, enjoy on a weekly basis and get paid pretty well so that they can improve their and their children's lives in a better way than heretofore.
What was implied was not factually correct. The supports within the JST scheme are exactly the same for children and their parents until they reach the age of 14.
I acknowledge the compliments by various Members with regard to the change the Minister for Education and Skills introduced a number of months ago regarding the bursary for lone parents. Again, this feeds into the fact that we all have an ambition to achieve better outcomes and brighter futures.
This leads me very nicely to my concluding remarks. It is not just the responsibility of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure better outcomes for children living in consistent poverty and people parenting alone. It is not just a matter of saying we want to ensure lone parents will get work so they will not be depending on welfare. What we want for people are the services that wrap around working families, be they single-parent families or dual-parent families. It is a question of ensuring child care is supported financially by the State, that education will become more affordable or less of a cost to families, and that we extend the already introduced free GP care for children from birth to six to children up to 12 or 18 years of age. It is a matter of addressing the housing crisis by building more social housing and not quoting statistics, as Senator Craughwell said. We are all aware of the numbers of houses to be built in the next 12 months, 24 months and 36 months. Admittedly, the rate of construction is not half as fast as we would all like, but the houses are coming. In the round, that will alleviate the problems for the section of society in question, which is probably more affected by the housing crisis than some others.
I recognise I am not touching on maintenance. Suffice it to say that if anybody is under the impression that we deduct money in respect of those who have been promised maintenance and have not received it, he or she should realise we categorically do not do so. If Senators have examples of where they believe this is happening, however, they should please bring them to my attention and we will address them. Under no circumstances are people's means taken into account when we assess their overall means if they are not actually getting the money. That would be totally counterproductive. If the Senators have specific cases, however, they should please come to me.
With regard to the overall recommendation in the joint committee's report on means, I will revert to the House. The work we started was interrupted by Indecon and the budget. I will revert to the House on another date, if Senators do not mind. Our ambition is to ensure we meet our target regarding the 113,000 children living in consistent poverty, many of whom come from lone-parent families. We may not meet it by 2020. I do not know whether Senators saw the report we released last week. It was a joint report issued by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, and me. We may not meet the target by 2020 simply because the goalposts keep moving in respect of the median of 60% since the economy is recovering. That is great but it is not so great when my target is specifically based on 60% of the average income.
Senator Nash should note that we will be helped by the fact that we will achieve a national minimum wage of €10.50. Along with very many of the companies that already pay the living wage, we hope we will actually get there sooner than some of the sceptics who challenge us believe. I hope we get there a hell of a lot sooner. There is no doubt in my mind that the target of €10.50 will be met within the lifetime of this Government, depending on how long that is.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to coming back to talk about the means and maintenance at a later date.