I am very pleased to be in this House today to introduce this Bill. As Senators will know, the Social Welfare Bill 2017 provides the legislative framework for the implementation of the social protection measures contained in budget 2018. The Bill therefore includes the provisions required to enable a €5 increase in the maximum rate of all weekly social welfare payments with effect from March 2018. It also provides for a €2 weekly increase for each qualified dependent child, the first such increase since 2010. There are also important provisions which enable the extension of entitlement to maternity leave and maternity benefit in cases of premature births.
The Bill is reflective of the approach taken by Government in framing our budget for 2018. There is a genuine commitment to supporting individuals and families who, for one reason or another, have recourse to the welfare system. There is a real commitment to making work pay and to supporting people into employment. This is set against a backdrop of the Government’s drive to the continued development of a sustainable and resilient economy in the interests of all of our citizens.
I would like to briefly outline the provisions of the Bill. I should mention at the outset that the Bill includes three specific amendments, providing for the production of reports on specific policy areas, which were passed on Report Stage in the Dáil yesterday evening. Sections 1 and 2 are standard provisions setting out the Short Title of the Bill, its construction and citation, commencement provisions and definitions of terms used in the Bill. Section 3 provides for an amendment to the definition of the term “share based remuneration” to cater for the introduction of a new tax relief being introduced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. This tax relief is the key employee engagement programme, KEEP, for qualifying share options granted to employees of small to medium-sized enterprises.
In practical terms, the effect of the small amendment in section 3 is to provide that any gains realised on the exercise of a share option by workers via the KEEP programme will not be subject to PRSI. Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill provide for an increase of €5 per week in the rates of maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit, respectively, with effect from 26 March 2018. Section 7 provides for the proportionate increases in the rates of jobseeker’s benefit which are payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings are relatively low. Section 8, together with Schedule 1, provide for the redesignation of the family income supplement as the working family payment with effect from the 1 January. This follows on from a review by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of the effectiveness of the range of in-work supports which it provides. The title of working family payment will explicitly reflect the nature of the payment and our aim is to facilitate further take-up of this important payment which is aimed specifically at working families.
Section 9 is the first of the amendments to the Bill which was passed on Report Stage. It provides that my Department will produce a report on the operation of the working family payment and present it to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within six months. The redesignation of family income supplement, FIS, as the working family payment in January will be accompanied by a national promotional and information campaign designed to encourage as many eligible families as possible to apply for the working family payment. While it would have been preferable to allow for the effects of that promotional campaign to become clear, the review will focus on addressing such issues as the impact of the "hours worked" threshold under the scheme. A key issue always is to ensure that the working family payment should not become a vehicle for subsidising unsuitably low earnings or that it would encourage or incentivise employers to offer minimal hours of employment.
In section 10 we provide for an increase of €10 in the weekly earnings thresholds for the working family payment for recipients who have up to three children, with effect from 29 March 2018. Section 11 provides for another positive measure to support the transition from unemployment into employment by enabling the continuation of the back to work family dividend. Under the sunset clause contained in the existing legislation, this scheme would have to be closed to new claimants from the end of March 2018 and the scheme would have been completely shut down by 2021. The Bill provides now for the removal of that sunset clause because we recognise the value of the back to work family dividend payment.
Section 12, together with Schedule 2, is one of the key provisions of the Bill. It provides for new rates for the full range of social insurance benefits. All maximum weekly insurance-based pensions and benefits are being increased by €5, with effect from the week commencing 26 March 2018, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. This section also provides for proportionate increases in respect of qualified adults together with an increase of €2 per week in the qualified child increase payment. Section 13 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payment, from €110 to €130 per week, and that is also effective from 29 March 2018.
Section 14 together with Schedule 3 mirrors the provisions of section 11 on the increase in the rates payable to social assistance claimants which will come into effect in the week commencing 26 March 2018. This section also provides that jobseekers aged under 26 on a reduced rate payment will receive the full €5 increase per week.
Sections 15 and 16 provide an important additional support for the parents of babies who are born prematurely. Under these provisions, extended periods of entitlement to maternity benefit and maternity leave are being introduced in cases of premature births which occur on or after the 1 October 2017 start date. In practical terms, the extended period of entitlement will be equivalent to the duration between the actual date of birth of the premature baby and two weeks before the expected date of birth. That is the point at which the current entitlement to 26 weeks of maternity leave and benefit would normally begin. By way of illustration, where a baby is born in the 30th week of gestation, the child’s mother will have an additional entitlement of approximately seven weeks of maternity leave and benefit. This additional period will be added to the mother’s normal entitlement to 26 weeks of maternity leave and benefit.
Section 15 introduces the necessary changes to the Social Welfare Act to provide for the additional maternity benefit while section 16 introduces the parallel provisions to the Maternity Protection Act 1994 on maternity leave. Section 17 provides for an amendment to the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for a 0.1% increase, from 0.7% to 0.8%, in the national training fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in class A and class H employments from 1 January 2018.
Section 18 is the second of the amendments passed on Report Stage in the Dáil last evening. This amendment merely restates commitments I have already given to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the issue of the impact of the changes introduced in 2012 to the qualifying conditions for the State contributory pension. I have no doubt but that Senators are familiar with the issues involved. My Department is examining in depth various options that would provide some relief to those who would have a higher contributory pension, had the rate bands not been amended in 2012. If there are equitable changes that target such relief to those who were particularly affected by anomalies under the yearly average system, particularly if they had homemaking periods prior to the introduction of the homemakers scheme, I will ask Government to consider if and how these might be financed. Once the report is finished, I will be bringing it to the next Cabinet sub-committee on pensions, which has been set for 18 January. Thereafter, I will bring proposals to Government for consideration. At that stage I will then publish the options paper.
Section 19 is the final section of the Bill and is the third of the amendments passed on Report Stage. It provides that my Department will examine the issues associated with the rent-a-room tax relief and how income from renting out a room is treated in the means testing for the one-parent family payment. In this regard, I should say that the consideration of the issue will necessarily have to take account of wider means testing policies. Briefly, it would be problematic to provide for a disregard for rent-a-room income for the one-parent family payment scheme in isolation from all of the other support schemes that we have. For instance, once the recipient’s child turned seven years of age and the person transferred to the jobseeker’s transitional payment, if there was any rental income then it would become assessable if we were just to do what is hoped to have been provided for with amendment.
The Bill before us will have a positive impact on the living standards of pensioners, lone parents, people with disabilities, carers, jobseekers and others who have recourse to the social protection system. For the second budget in a row, an increase of €5 per week in social welfare rates is being provided for. I hope that is clear evidence of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that all of our citizens should benefit from the continuing economic recovery that the country is now experiencing. I am particularly pleased that this Bill provides for the first increase in the weekly qualified child payment since 2010. I am particularly conscious that we still have far too many children consistently living below the poverty line. I am also happy that the Bill is responding positively to the needs of parents where a child is born prematurely. I look forward to the contributions of this House in relation to this Bill and I commend this Bill to the House.