Social Welfare Bill 2017: Committee Stage

Sections 1 to 15 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 11, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:

“Amendment of Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005

16. Section 242 of the Principal Act is amended—

(a) in subsection (4)—

(i) by the substitution of following paragraph for paragraph (a):

“(a) his or her public services card,”,

and

(ii) by the substitution of following paragraphs for paragraph (b):

“(b) a card that has been issued to the person by the Minister under section 264 and such other information or documentation as the Minister, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider, as the case may be, may reasonably require for the purposes of authenticating the identity of that person,

(c) an Irish Passport and such other information or documentation as the Minister, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider, as the case may be, may reasonably require for the purposes of authenticating the identity of that person, or

(d) such information or documentation as the Minister, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider, as the case may be, may reasonably require for the purposes of authenticating the identity of that person.”,

(b) in subsection (6)—

(i) by the substitution of following subparagraph for subparagraph (b)(ii):

“(ii) such other information or documentation as the Minster, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider, as the case may be, may reasonably require for the purposes of

authenticating the identity of the appointed person, or”,

and

(ii) by the insertion of the following new paragraph after paragraph (b):

“(c) such information or documentation as the Minster, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider, as the case may be, may reasonably require for the purposes of authenticating the identity of the appointed person.”,

and

(c) in subsection (7), by the substitution of following subsection for subsection (7):

“(7) Where a person fails to comply with subsection (4) or (6), payment of benefit may be withheld until such time as the identity of the person is authenticated. Possession or production of a public service card shall not be a mandatory requirement for the payment of a benefit.”.”.

I welcome the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to the House. The issues I am speaking to in amendments Nos. 1 to 4 do not concern specifically the public services card itself but the manner in which it is being rolled out, the database to which it is attached and the procedures under which specified bodies are accessing the data. I recognise that many of these issues will be examined in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill but the immediate concern is that the card is being rolled out in what I believe to be a heavy handed fashion. We have been told that it is "mandatory" if not "compulsory" and, increasingly, we are hearing story after story emerging of those who are being denied access to essential services or supports which allow them to live a dignified existence if they are not willing to participate in the process by giving their data over to have it fed into the single customer view dataset. This, of course, is where data gathered for the public services card goes.

During the summer we heard the case of the pensioner who was denied her pension and then later granted it despite strong avowals that she would not be able to access it and would have to forfeit it. More recently, we have heard cases of students being denied access to important student grants made under SUSI which allow them to attend college. We have heard of the multiple letters to people telling them they need to attend or may lose child benefit and essential payments.

I do not believe that the Department or the specified bodies, such as the Road Safety Authority in terms of the driver's licence, which are demanding people have a public services card are acting within the set boundaries. We have not yet been satisfied that there is a legislative basis to allow the demand to be made and to allow for the mandatory possession of this card in order to access essential services. We have not seen a satisfactory mandate and very serious concerns have been raised around, for example, the single customer view dataset. Information obtained under the freedom of information regime highlights that the 2009 ministerial agreement which allows data to be shared between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was not signed by a Minister. That is a small concern in the bigger picture but it is an example of a lack of robustness in how this information is gathered, stored and shared.

More importantly, serious concerns have been expressed by the Data Protection Commissioner. In response to questions posed, the Data Protection Commissioner received a number of answers from the Department and, subsequently, initiated a section 10 investigation. This is the first time the Data Protection Commissioner has launched a section 10 investigation, which is an investigation into the storage, collection and sharing of data within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Of course, it also points to that wider question about the single customer view dataset. This is a real concern but this is not the first Data Protection Commissioner to be concerned. The outgoing Data Protection Commissioner also expressed extreme concern about how data was managed in the Department. This is not to point at the Minister or any officials. However, these are the concerns of those who we, as a State, appoint to guard us and ensure that the proper data standards are met.

My amendments seek to further clarify and underscore the situation. I believe the Minister has the discretion to accept forms of identification other than the public services card. I also believe that specified bodies do not have the power to insist on production of a public services card. My amendments seek to clarify, lest there be any doubt, that there is the capacity to accept "such other information or documentation as the Minister, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider, as the case may be, may reasonably require for the purposes of authenticating the identity of that person". It spells out that the reasonable requirement may not necessarily be the public services card.

For example, if the SAFE 2 standards are the Minister's primary concern, in determining eligibility for a payment it is at her discretion to demand that SAFE 2 standards be met on a single occasion. I believe the Minister would probably have better sanction for demanding that the SAFE 2 standards are met in order to consider and determine eligibility for a payment. Where the question mark arises is in the addition of that information into the single customer view dataset and in the subsequent sharing and accessing of that information by more than 40 specified bodies. There are huge questions about whether those who give their data for the purposes of accessing a payment can be said to have agreed to the data being used for what is sometimes called excessive or additional processing by these specified bodies. There is a question mark there.

In terms of the regulations which we, as a European community, are bringing into play from spring onwards, the general data protection regulation sets out clear parameters on the storage and processing of information and, crucially, on consent. The bar that it sets is for full, fairly obtained and informed consent. In terms of "full" and "informed", the question is whether people have been fully informed as to all the uses the data they are given will be put. In terms of fairly obtained, was the information gathered or compelled by threat? If so, it will fall short of the standards of the general data protection regulation. It is hard to see how the potential loss of payment, loss of access to education or loss of the right to drive would not be seen as a threat and an attitude of compulsion.

There may be many who voluntarily, willingly and perhaps enthusiastically sought a public services card.

However, those who have been compelled, and who we hear of being compelled, or who are told this is the only form of identification which will be accepted, are having their rights effectively violated. Subsequent to the general data protection regulation, GDPR, coming in during mid-spring next year, it will apply not only to the gathering but to the use of that data. Therefore, those who are compelled to give their data, if those data are used subsequent to May or June, whenever the GDPR is initiated here in Ireland, will have a case. The GDPR comes with very substantial fines, which go up to 4% of a body's turnover.

It is a very serious issue and this is why, in these amendments, I am effectively seeking to encourage the Minister to exercise her control and discretion to ensure we strive to ensure we are as compliant as possible going into that period and that we do not leave hostages to fortune in the future. Effectively, we have seen the concerns raised by the Data Protection Commissioner and a doubling down of the roll-out. This is an urge and a plea, effectively, for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Government, through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to stop digging on the public services card because they are creating trouble for us down the line as a nation.

In terms of the question of fraud, which was the heavily used justification in regard to the risk of people presenting with the identification of others, we saw in the Committee of Public Accounts recently that the figures on fraud proved to be highly exaggerated, although there were concerns. What had been reported to be fraud levels of 2% turned out to be 1.4% departmental error and just 0.6% fraud. What tiny fraction of that can we assume to be based on the presentation of false identification? Is the only way to recognise this false identification through the application of SAFE 2 and the rolling out of a hugely expensive public services card? I believe the imposter argument at the front line of public services is a straw man. I think the incidence is very small. If a straw man is presented to us as policymakers, we need to challenge it because there is a far more robust and more serious threat on the other side.

Although I have spoken at length, I want to speak also to the amendments as a whole and I want to add specific sentences in regard to each amendment, and why I hope the Minister might accept them. I recognise that, in the current world, data are mined and used as currency. Many of the threats to citizens have been in terms of how their data are used by corporations. As Europeans, we have taken a strong stand and I am very proud of Recital 169, which we have collectively produced. However, even though it may mean changing historical practices, what we have done here with the public services card is a case of layering a new entity over historical practices rather than fundamentally rethinking how we do consent or how we gather data. We need to hold ourselves to the highest standards in order that we can legitimately represent our citizens and protect their data in the wider data sphere, and in order that we can ensure that people feel empowered, even though they are living in the modern world and are accessing information.

I do not think those who oppose this are Luddites. If anything, some of the people who have opposed this and spoken about their concerns are those who are most engaged with technology and who want to ensure we are acting in such a way that citizens are empowered around how their data are used and collected. That is something we should aim for collectively. Of course, there are also those who are very vulnerable and frightened and who have taken this card and expressed the view that they are not sure what they are signing up for, which they are not. Those concerns have also come through to us. For example, with regard to pensioners, we saw the case of a person who had been adopted and had to give excessive and inappropriate information in that context.

I believe it is already the case that the Minister has discretion to accept another form of authentication for identity. Nonetheless, the first amendment seeks to spell that out and does this under a number of criteria in the later subparagraphs. While there has been some ambiguity and we know that, under the European GDPR rules, one cannot make it compulsory for someone to share his or her data, we have been told it is mandatory. In that context, I am seeking to spell out that possession or production of a public services card shall not be a mandatory requirement for the payment of a benefit. Perhaps the Minister can reassure me of that in other ways but that is simply seeking to spell it out, even though I do not believe it should be necessary.

Amendment No. 2 sets out the requirement of a report which will set out and make clear the compatibility of all measures that will be put with the general data protection regulation. I know there are bodies within Government and within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform working to implement GDPR but, given the kind of concerns I have highlighted today, I was targeting and looking for a specific report in respect of the public services card, SAFE 2 and the dataset gathered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. My condition here would be that the information gathered for the purpose of the public services card should not be shared and should be essentially for single use by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the initial function rather than being shared with the single customer dataset until we have those assurances. When we have those assurances and proper procedures in place, so be it. I am urging an approach which involves caution until we get it right, rather than ploughing ahead and then fixing it afterwards.

On amendment No. 3, there has been some ambiguity around the question of biometrics. A photograph which can be biometrically read is biometric. We have had different statements at different times from different parts of the Department around whether the photographs and cards are biometrics and whether we have had a proper debate on the use of biometrics. The simple fact is that if there is a photograph and it can be biometrically read, it is effectively biometric. If we are not ready to have the debate on biometrics, to discuss that properly and to look at the standards put in place, then for now, any photograph gathered for a public services card should not be shared, subjected to biometric reading or cross-checked against the database of biometric information. I realise there may be imperfections in how this amendment is drafted and I am happy to work on it for Report Stage, if necessary.

My final amendment in this grouping, amendment No. 4, is the one I feel I need to press because it is urgent, unless there is any other way the Minister can indicate that clear direction can be given. It states: "A person shall produce his or her public service card or other appropriate form of identification at the request of a specified body for the purposes of a transaction." Again, while I may look at amending this slightly and perfecting it, the key part of the amendment is: "No specified body shall make possession of a public service card a mandatory requirement for the purposes of a transaction.” That is a key concern. We have a situation where, at the moment, many of the demands for a public services card to be mandatory for specified bodies is based on a very shaky legislative basis, without proper consent having been given. I am simply urging that the State would exercise appropriate caution until that is addressed.

I thank the Senator. I do not propose to accept any of the amendments which relate to the public services card and also to the general data protection regulation. I would like first to make some points about the public services card. When I get to the end of my contribution, the Senator might remind me about the fourth amendment, which is not included in this response, as I want to make a specific point about it.

The main legal powers providing for and relating to the public services card and the SAFE registration process are set out in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended. They are as follows. Sections 262 and 263B provide for the verification of identity to facilitate the issuing and use of a public services number, the PPS number or PPSN. Sections 263, 263A and 263B provide for the verification of identity to facilitate the issuing, use and-or cancellation of a public services card.

Section 241 provides that a person must satisfy the Minister as to his or her identity when making a new claim and sets out how the person might go about doing that.

Section 247C provides that an existing claimant must satisfy the Minister as to his or her identity, sets out how that can be done and provides for disqualification where an existing claimant fails to so do.

The standard authentication framework environment, SAFE, registration process is used by my Department to establish and verify a person's identity in order that it can be sure that the person using its service is the person he or she claims to be, that nobody else is using that person's identity for the purpose of claiming a payment or service, that the person is not claiming another payment or using another service under a different identity and in addition, and to minimise the requirement for people to provide the same identity information repeatedly when accessing different services.

SAFE is a standard for establishing and verifying an individual's identity for the purpose of accessing public services and was agreed by the then Government in 2005. The SAFE standard has four levels. SAFE 0 is no assurance of identity, SAFE 1 is the balance of probabilities and the minimum authentication level for the allocation of a PPS number, SAFE 2 is a substantial assurance and the minimum authentication level for issuing a public services card, PSC, and SAFE 3 is beyond reasonable doubt, for example, if we were ever in a situation where fingerprinting, which is real biometric data, would be required.

My Department is implementing SAFE 2 registration on a phased basis with its customers and the customers of other public services that require identity verification to a substantial level of assurance. Until recent times, many public services were provided to people who had their identities verified only to the SAFE 1 standard. For example, identity documents such as passports and driver licences were issued following SAFE 1 equivalent registration processes. Since the introduction of SAFE 2 registration in 2011, more services are moving to identity verification at this level to ensure a substantial assurance of someone's identity.

While it is a matter for each public service provider to determine the appropriate level of identity verification required for each of its services, it has been the policy of this Government and the previous two Governments that SAFE 2 registration is required for access to all services that require substantial proof of a person's identity.

My Department makes it clear to customers in receipt of welfare payments or entitlements that they need to register for the SAFE 2 verification process, in accordance with the relevant legislative provisions, to access or continue to access those payments and-or entitlements. Once customers complete the SAFE 2 registration process, they may be issued with a PSC. They may not be issued with one either, though, as customers do not have to have PSCs. The PSC is replacing older documents used to show entitlement to a benefit, including the social welfare services card and, in some cases, the paper travel pass for free bus and rail travel. Accordingly, it will in future be necessary to produce a PSC as proof of identity for certain types of transaction, including collecting welfare payments in cash at post offices and availing of free travel by old age pensioners and others who currently have the free travel pass.

The recently published Comprehensive Guide to SAFE Registration and the Public Services Card document is available on my Department's website. Compiled as part of my Department's ongoing engagement with the Data Protection Commissioner, it contains 54 detailed questions and answers that address a wide range of questions about SAFE registration and the PSC, including an explanation that, while the PSC stores a person's photograph, it does not store the arithmetic template of that photograph. It also explains that the arithmetic template is not stored in the public service identity, PSI, dataset that we hold offsite, nor is it shared with other public bodies. We can split hairs, but the Department does not hold biometric data. They are only taken in the registration process.

Appendix 1 of the guide lists the legislative provisions associated with the PSC. Appendix 2 contains the full list of specified bodies that may use PSI data under sections 260 to 265, inclusive, of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. Primary legislation can be used to add new bodies to this Schedule should we ever feel the need to.

The general data protection regulation, GDPR, which will come into force on 25 May 2018, will replace the existing data protection framework under the EU data protection directive and impose a general necessity to have specific legislative provisions underpinning the methods that organisations such as mine use to process data. The GDPR has significant implications for the way in which the public service does its business. By using a regulation rather than a directive, the EU legislature aims to have a more uniform application of EU data protection law across member states than was the case under the previous EU data protection regulation.

The GDPR is complex legislation. For example, it contains 173 recitals. These are the preliminary paragraphs setting out the objectives and intentions of the EU legislation and guide interpretation, but they are not directly binding. In addition, there are 99 articles, which are the operative provisions that are binding on EU member states. Due to this high level of complexity and even though the EU legislature has opted for a regulation, there remains a need for national implementing legislation to give full effect to the regulation at national level.

The House is aware that my Department collects and holds large volumes of personal data on customers. We are aware of the need to have adequate data protection policies, procedures and structures in place in line with the GDPR. Preparations for the GDPR are being overseen by my Department's data management programme board, which comprises many of the Department's most senior personnel. The Department has a dedicated GDPR implementation team in place and has commissioned external expertise to assist it with achieving GDPR compliance. My colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, has published the general scheme of the data protection Bill, and the Minister for Finance is working on a data sharing and governance Bill to simplify data sharing between public bodies. Officials from my Department are examining both legislative measures in light of the GDPR and the relevant rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

There are strong frameworks and safeguards in place within the legislation governing the use of the PSC and the necessary steps are being taken to ensure compliance with the GDPR. The Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017, which is progressing through the Dáil, includes a number of specific provisions relating to the PSC. That Bill would offer a more appropriate vehicle for discussing the issues raised by the Senator, given that, when we return in the new year, our GDPR scheduling team will have advanced its preparations and we will be closer to the 18 May deadline.

Regarding the final amendment to which the Senator referred, there is no legal requirement to produce a PSC. The card is a by-product of the SAFE 2 authentication process. Therefore, the number obtained upon completing the registration process is what is vital for accessing other services, for example, SUSI. It is not specifically the card that is the magic piece of information.

I hate to interrupt-----

I will speak later.

Has the Minister finished?

I will wrap up. I would prefer it if the Senator withdrew the amendments in order that we might discuss this matter further on the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill, since I do not intend to accept these amendments.

Is the amendment being pressed?

I do not necessarily need the Senator to.

I need to. I will be brief.

With respect, the Minister and the Senator have both spoken fully. The Minister has stated that she will not accept the amendments, so I am entitled to ask-----

With respect, I will exercise my right to respond.

No. I want the Senator to say whether she will press the amendment. Both Members have spoken fully on this matter.

We have wasted over half an hour.

I do not regard it as a waste of time. It is an important discussion.

I have a number of key concerns. I appreciate the Minister's full response. I look forward to debating the issue with her, albeit not just when the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill is before the House. I hope that we will have the opportunity to engage on it in advance of that Bill. A number of provisions in that Bill, and one of its sections in particular, are even more concerning. I may engage with the Minister further on that. The Minister is aware that the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which my colleague, Senator Ardagh, is also on, will be considering this issue in the spring.

I could have waited for that Bill.

The concern is that we have seen an acceleration of the push out, the promotion and the demand for the public services card. When the Data Protection Commissioner has expressed such serious concern, and given that we are still waiting for, as the Minister said, the proper full response of how we implement GDPR, I would have hoped that we may have entered a period of slow down or caution where we seek not to drive something forward when we do not know if we are on the right path or are proceeding in the right manner.

I will not push all of my amendments but I will press one or two. They are an attempt to apply the brakes. They are not a radical restructuring but are an attempt to apply the brakes while we wait and ensure that we get our house in order.

The Minister mentioned, and it has been mentioned widely, the need for identity verification in order to access services. We should be very clear that under current legislation, the public services card cannot be used as a method to verify identification. It is used specifically for the purposes of a transaction. So there is a question, and there have been questions, as to whether or not some of the usages to which it has been put in terms of identity verification fit the constraints of the definition of a transaction. It is not sufficient to have a PPS number. I have sought to access a service and have been denied it, even though I have a PPS number but because I did not physically have a public services card. That is an experience that many people will have had, even in terms of, for example, seeking a driver's licence. One cannot get a driver's licence with another form of identification and one's PPS number. One is required to have a public services card. That should not be the case but it is what is happening.

I am sorry to interrupt but one is not required to have it. I feel as if we are splitting hairs as both-----

I just wanted clarification. If that is not the case then it would be great to know it.

One is not required to have the card. It is illegal at present for anyone to ask one for the card. However, one is required to have gone through the SAFE 2 authentication process. The only way one can prove one has gone through it is to get the registration number from SAFE 2.

So not the PPS number but the new number entered in this new database.

Yes. I know we are always focussing on the card but the card is irrelevant.

I understand the Minister's response but my concern stands. I thank the Minister. I will engage further with her and we look forward to looking into this issue again. I wish we had as a State adopted a more cautious approach.

The Leas-Chathaoirleach will be delighted to hear I am moving to whether I will press the amendments. I would like to press amendment No. 1.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 11, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:

“Amendment of Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005

16. Section 242 of the Principal Act is amended by the insertion of the following new subsections after subsection (9):

“(10) No information or documentation furnished by a person under subsection (4) or (6) may be shared by the Minister, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider with a specified body prior to Ireland’s implementation of General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679.

(11) Within 8 months of the passing of the Social Welfare Act 2017, the Minister shall publish and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the compatibility of all measures and procedures relating to the recording, retention or further usage of information furnished by a person under subsection (4) or (6) with standards set out in the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679. Prior to the publication of such a report and being agreed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, no information furnished by a person under subsection (4) or (6) may be shared by the Minister, an officer of the Minister or a payment service provider with a specified body.”.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 11, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:

“Amendment of Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005

16. Section 263 of the Principal Act is amended by the insertion of the following new subsection after subsection (1C):

“(1D) Within 8 months of the passing of the Social Welfare Act 2017, the Minister shall publish and lay before both houses of the Oireachtas a report on the proposed and prescribed use of any photograph taken for the purposes of a public service card. This report shall include evidence as to the compliance of any such usage with standards set out in the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679. Prior the publication of such a report and being agreed by both houses of the Oireachtas, no photograph on a public service card may be subjected to biometric reading or cross checked against any database of biometric information.”.”.

I will withdraw this amendment but reserve the right to reintroduce it on Report Stage. I also reserve the right to produce amended amendments on some of the other issues.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 11, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:

“Amendment of Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005

16. Section 263 of the Principal Act is amended by the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (3):

“(3) A person shall produce his or her public service card or other appropriate form of identification at the request of a specified body for the purposes of a transaction. No specified body shall make possession of a public service card a mandatory requirement for the purposes of a transaction.”.”.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 14; Níl, 25.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Freeman, Joan.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Ruane, Lynn.

Níl

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ó Céidigh, Pádraig.
  • Reilly, James.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Frances Black and Alice-Mary Higgins; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.
Amendment declared lost.
Sections 16 to 19, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report on fuel poverty in Ireland

20. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the impact of cuts to the fuel allowance given, the increase in fuel costs and examine the impact that partial restoration of the fuel allowance would have on fuel poverty and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within 6 months of this Bill being enacted.”.

Research on fuel poverty has shown that people aged over 65 are seven times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of freezing temperatures compared to those aged 18 to 44. Hospitalisation in poorer communities due to cold weather are two and a half times more common than in the wealthiest neighbourhoods. We can underestimate the effect fuel poverty has on the health and well-being of our population. The justification for this amendment is to ensure adequate scrutiny is given to fuel allowance policy, given the extreme impact it has on the health and well-being of many people in our society. The proposed report will allow both Houses of the Oireachtas to have the necessary information to adjust allowances in light of its findings.

During this Bill's progression in the Dáil, the Minister agreed to this amendment in principle. She agreed to support a revised amendment on Report Stage, but she subsequently failed to do so. This amendment gives her an opportunity to keep her word. We hope the Minister, along with the Members of this House, will support this updated amendment in the Seanad.

As I have suggested previously at the joint committee, the Department might consider a slight increase in the income threshold for the fuel allowance. I want to repeat this proposal, especially given that people who receive the fuel allowance also get ancillary benefits.

Senator Devine has highlighted an important issue. During the current cold snap, concerns have been expressed about variations in fuel costs, which can change frequently. I support the Senator's proposal. She has highlighted this issue in the House previously. I hope the Minister is able to give satisfaction to the Senator in respect of this issue.

I do not propose to accept this amendment because fuel allowance is just one element of the Government’s strategy to tackle energy poverty, which is a complex and multidimensional matter. Energy poverty exists when people are unable to adequately heat their homes or meet other necessary household energy services at an affordable cost. I said on Committee Stage in the Dáil that this amendment could not be accepted because it is not within my remit to look at the entire effects of energy policy, or lack thereof. It would fall under the remit of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to do so. My remit in this regard does not extend beyond income support. With the support of Fianna Fáil, we have extended the fuel allowance calendar by one week this year. I hope, expect and anticipate that with continued support, we will be able to continue to increase that calendar as the years go by.

In 2016, the Government launched a comprehensive strategy to combat energy poverty following extensive public consultation. This strategy, which was developed in the then Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, builds on the progress and experience developed over the four years since the publication of the first Government strategy on affordable energy. It expands the reach of existing energy-efficiency schemes and commits the Government to developing and piloting new measures to find more effective ways to focus energy efficiency efforts on those who are most at risk of energy poverty, as described by Senator Devine. The strategy puts in place the structures and the accountability needed to ensure this challenge is effectively addressed at every level of the Government that has responsibility for addressing this issue. The only responsibility that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has in this regard is to ensure the income support payments it makes so generously are provided to the people who need them.

The fuel allowance scheme helps pensioners and other householders that depend on welfare to meet the cost of their heating needs during the winter season. It contributes towards a person's normal heating expenses. It has never been anticipated that it should meet these costs in full. Fuel allowance payments are made to more than 376,000 of the most disadvantaged householders in the country, including pensioners. I agree with Senator Devine that pensioners are most at risk of energy poverty. The amounts and duration of fuel allowance payments have been increased in recent years. In 2016, the fuel allowance rate was increased from €20 to €22.50 per week. In budget 2018, we increased the duration of this payment from 26 weeks to 27 weeks. This was done with the support of Fianna Fáil. On foot of genuine requests from the advocacy agencies that look after people in this category, in the past year we have agreed to change the way this payment is made so that it can be received in two lump sums. This option has been taken up and welcomed by tens of thousands of families.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection pays the household benefits package at an estimated annual cost of €232 million. That is on top of the €229 million annual cost of fuel allowance supports. Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, a weekly or monthly supplement can be paid to help people who are unable to meet their weekly payments because of certain circumstances. In many cases, this includes fuel supplement payments. Average household energy costs vary from €1,400 to €2,200, with significant variation between urban and rural households. The disparity between urban and rural households is largely based on the nature of the housing stock, because many houses in rural areas are much older and do not have the same energy ratings, and is one of the reasons for focusing on improving energy ratings through our local authorities. The disparity between single and couple households is one of the main reasons for the payment of the living alone allowance of €468 per year.

I do not propose to accept this amendment. As I have mentioned, a progressive and comprehensive cross-Government strategy on energy poverty is readily available and is currently being rolled out across various Departments. I plan to increase the duration of the fuel allowance calendar in future budgets.

I do not think it is rocket science to appreciate that research and reports tend to improve outcomes. I do not think it is a big ask to propose that these things should be done in a proper manner. I am disappointed that this amendment is not being accepted.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 15; Níl, 17.

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ruane, Lynn.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Reilly, James.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Máire Devine and Niall Ó Donnghaile; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report on jobseeker’s allowance

20. Within 6 months of the passing of this Act, the Minister will lay a report before the House on the impacts on young people under 26 years of age of the reduced levels of jobseeker's allowance applicable to them and report further on reversing these reduced allowances.”

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 12; Níl, 15.

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Reilly, James.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Máire Devine and Niall Ó Donnghaile; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.
Amendment declared lost.

Quiet please. Those who want to chat can leave the Chamber.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Review of Bereavement Grant

20. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall review the abolition of the Bereavement Grant setting out options on restoring the payment and shall bring forward a report on the same within 6 months of this Bill being enacted.”.

The bereavement grant was a once-off payment to help with funeral expenses and costs. Eligibility for this grant was not related to ability to pay for the funeral. It was based on PRSI contributions. Our amendment seeks to provide for a review of the grant with the hope of restoring it.

We will be supporting this amendment. It is a pity Fianna Fáil Members did not think it worth voting in favour of the review of under-26 jobseeker's allowance and fuel poverty allowance.

To facilitate a speedy vote the previous amendment on jobseeker's allowance was not debated. It is very important and it would be useful if the Minster, Deputy Doherty, could comment later. There are very serious concerns in terms of the treatment of those under the age of 26. We have lost young people in the high levels of emigration that we have had in recent years.

I support the proposal from Senator Ardagh. It is important to look at it in the context of the wider set of supports given to those living alone subsequent to bereavement. There is also a concern in terms of the living alone allowance, which is still not adequate for purpose. Women, in particular, are often left living alone on severely reduced pensions after the death of a spouse. Perhaps that could be touched on in addressing the question.

I am not proposing to accept this amendment.

The bereavement grant was an insurance based payment. It was entirely based on the amount of credits that somebody had. It was valued at €850 and was usually paid to the person responsible for payment of funeral expenses. The scheme was abolished in January 2014. In 2013, the value of the scheme amounted to just over €20 million. It was given to people in the main who were not the most vulnerable people in society. The social welfare assistance payment and the supplementary welfare allowance scheme were always available, even when the €850 was being given to people who did not or could not necessarily afford to bury their loved ones. These exception payments are made to the most vulnerable people in society. The Government provided just over €31.5 million in total expenditure for both of those payments last year. There was an average payment of €2,700 per family for bereavement and burial expenses. The total expenditure was €4.4 million.

That is for those people who genuinely could not afford the expenses of burying a loved one. In the intervening years, expenditure under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme has remained broadly the same. In 2014 it was €4.6 million, and expenditure in 2015 and 2016 amounted to just over €5 million. The figure for 2017 will be €5.2 million. The average payment, as I said, is just under €3,000. I know it is something Fianna Fáil wanted to look at in the budget but during our negotiations, the value of the contribution that would have to be given to every social insurance contributor was deemed to be more effectively spent with people who are genuinely vulnerable. This led to an increase in the qualified child allowance, the extension of fuel allowance by a week and giving an increase of €5 on pro rata pension payments to all old-age pensioners, blind pensioners, people with disabilities or an inability to work and people on partial capacity payments. All of those people are genuinely vulnerable. There is also the idea of maintaining the current practice within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of looking after people with regard to burial and funeral costs when they are vulnerable and cannot afford to pay the expense themselves.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I said we would call a votáil.

I cannot reverse the procedure.

I said we would press it.

You did but we cannot go back to the amendment. I cannot have one rule for one Senator and another for others.

I said we would press it.

When the question was asked, the Senator should have called for a vote but that was not done.

I suggested I was pressing it, which is the same thing.

I have to adjudicate this and I have given the result. I will not change it. This has happened before so I cannot reopen it. I am sorry.

I was very firm in saying I was calling a vote.

The Senator pressed it and I put the question. The House produced a result. When the Government side said "Níl" and the Opposition said "Tá", I said the question was lost.

The Cathaoirleach went very quickly. It was not a fair timeframe.

I cannot do this. If we procrastinate on every matter-----

The Cathaoirleach gave less than five seconds before moving on. From an administrative perspective, the Cathaoirleach has been unfair in moving on without allowing me to call a vote. It was dealt with in less than ten seconds.

I put the question and announced the result that the amendment was lost. I had to move to the next item as otherwise we could allow a minute between votes.

With due respect, if we look at the record it would show the Cathaoirleach moved on in less than 30 seconds.

That is normal. With the previous amendment it was moved and pressed without me even being here, which is highly unorthodox. We move on at a pace.

I have made a ruling but we must move to amendment No. 8. I am sure Senator Ardagh will have the opportunity to revisit this. I have a system of trying to move things along. I regret that the Senator was caught offside and I did not intend to do that. It is not my style.

To clarify, a similar if not identical amendment can be proposed on Report Stage. It would arise from the same matter.

We are not doing Report Stage until tomorrow. Unfortunately, I cannot go back on the amendment.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Review of carer related payments

20. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall review all carer related payments under the remit of her Department and in particular the Carers Support Grant with a view to determining its adequacy and suitability for current needs and shall bring forward a report on the same within 6 months of this Bill being enacted.”.

I welcome the decision today to grant those in receipt of carer's allowance a GP card and I welcome the increase in funding for respite grants. However, there is an issue with how carers are being treated and payments to carers are being dealt with. This amendment calls on the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to review all care-related payments under the remit of her Department, and particularly the carer support grant, with a view to determining its adequacy and suitability for current needs. The Minister would also have to bring forward a report on the same within six months of the Bill being enacted.

We saw in a recent RTÉ programme that over 200,000 people are caring for loved ones throughout Ireland, with a 35% increase in those over 85 caring for their loved ones. The State is getting a massive amount of free care, so we should show a little more respect for carers and ensure payments in particular are protected and reviewed so we can acknowledge the hard work they do across the country. I will be pressing this amendment.

To clarify, the Senator is entitled resubmit amendment No. 7 on Report Stage and can call a vote then. I cannot make a ruling and go back on it.

I am strongly in favour of this amendment and the review of care-related payments. Care is the lifeblood of society and without it the economy and society would not function. All too often it becomes somewhat invisible and it is not given the full acknowledgement that it should. I have long pressed not only for the homemaker scheme to be addressed, as we have discussed before and will again today I am sure, but for a care credit and how we can move towards a modern social protection system recognising the contribution of care. Mr. Peter Moss, who spoke on this matter before, said very eloquently that care always costs but the question is to whom the cost is levied. Does it cost the time, energy and life of somebody contributing to care or does it cost the State? Care is always a requirement.

The question is how to better ensure the cost of care is managed. We have had some progress with that in areas such as child care, for example. I very much hope we will see progress in areas like home care and respite care, which give relief, so we can share the challenges and tasks involved with care, as they currently fall heavily on families. This is all part of the picture of recognising the importance of care and seeing how we can better support and contribute to it. There is also the question of payments and financial recognition of the needs and contribution of carers. We could look to the carer support grant area.

It is yet another gap in the pension system, unfortunately, as many of those who are carers fall out of the system. If they have not been contributing or making PRSI contributions for a period before becoming carers, people will not necessarily have contributions made automatically on their behalf. There is a gap, for example, with those who travel abroad and come home to become carers. They fall through the system in different ways. There are a number of scenarios in which people who give their time and life to care can sometimes fall through the system. They can find themselves suffering great hardship when they are caring and penalised when they come to a point of retirement.

There are a few matters to be looked at and this is a really good opportunity for that. I hope the Minister will be able to accept or in some way accommodate us in looking more deeply at the question of care, as sought by Senator Ardagh.

The Government and probably everybody in the country recognises and acknowledges the crucial role that family carers play in our society. We are fully committed to supporting carers in that role. The commitment is recognised in the national carers strategy.

As the House may be aware, yesterday the Government agreed a new health service measure that will have a positive impact on the lives of people with disabilities, particularly their carers. Additional funding is being provided to enable all carers in receipt of carer’s allowance or a half carer's allowance to qualify for a GP visit card. There will also be an additional €10 million in funding to provide respite care for persons with disabilities. That will provide an extra 1,900 bed nights over and above what was agreed in the budget for 2018. The GP visit card measure will be implemented once the primary legislation is passed at the beginning of the new year.

The crucial role that carers play is explicitly recognised within the social welfare system. The income disregard and means test for carers is probably the most generous within the social welfare system and, at the full payment rate, the amount of weekly earnings disregarded is €332.50 for a single person and €665 for a people who are married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting.

The maximum personal weekly rate of carer's benefit is €210, while the maximum personal weekly rate of carer's allowance stands at €209 for those aged 66 years and under and €247 for those aged over 66. In the budget, with the support of my Fianna Fáil colleagues, we provided for an increase of €5 per week from the week commencing 26 March 2018 in the maximum personal weekly rate of carer's benefit and carer's allowance. We also maintained the non-means-tested respite carer's support grant of €1,700 per annum. Half of the carer's allowance is paid in addition to certain primary social welfare payments where the carer meets the criteria for both schemes. Where a person is being claimed for as a qualified adult on his or her spouse, civil partner or co-habitant's social welfare payment and providing full-time care for another person, half-rate carer's allowance is paid, in addition to the qualified adult allowance. Carers who provide care for more than one person may qualify for an additional 50% of the maximum rate each week. Approximately 2,700 carers receive carer's benefit, while almost 75,000 receive carer's allowance. Approximately half of the latter receive the reduced rate of carer's allowance, with another full social welfare payment. In recognition of the value we place on the care provided, we will, as a nation, spend some €728 million this year on carer's allowance and carer's benefit and €180 million on the carer's respite grant and that is before we start to add the services provided by the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality and Education and Skills.

The adequacy of payments to carers, like every payment we make in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, is kept under constant review. It is not the case that we need a special report or review to reflect the adequacy of the payments because it is done every year as part of the budgetary process and will be informed by developments in refreshing the national carers' strategy, for which my colleague, the Minister for Health, has overall responsibility. Increases are entirely dependent on the recovering economy, of which we are all so proud. I do not propose to accept the amendment and conduct a special once-off review because we carry out an annual review in the Department of all payments made.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 14; Níl, 15.

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Reilly, James.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Catherine Ardagh and Paul Daly; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.
Amendment declared lost.

There was an equality of votes. Therefore, pursuant to Article 15.11.2° of the Constitution, I exercised my casting vote. In this case I voted against the question.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report on Voluntary Labour Activation

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within eight months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas examining potential improvements to voluntary access to INTREO and LES employment, training and educational opportunities and supports for those not on the Live Register.”.

This has relevance for amendment No. 12 which deals with qualified adults. There is a concern that, particularly in recent years, there has been a strong focus on the live register, with a political demand to ensure the numbers on it change. There has been neglect of those not on the live register but who want to access employment, training or education.

In my previous life with the National Women's Council of Ireland, I appeared before the social protection committee, where I got the sense that those who were facing sanction on the live register in terms of accessing employment would always take priority and that people needed to wait. In recent discussions at that committee, the sense has been that we might now be able to give a little bit of support to those seeking voluntary activation measures, be those in education, employment or training. I regret the approach that was taken previously. We have resources now, but many people who could have spent three-year, four-year or five-year periods of their lives engaged in training, education or employment were not supported. We are discussing people's lives and opportunities.

The emphasis on those who face sanction and are being compelled to seek activation measures has sometimes caused us to neglect those who may be interested in voluntarily accessing supports but have concerns about the system. For example, the system still requires full-time availability, which can act as a disincentive for those who may want to start building labour market attachment by working part-time because they have caring commitments or diminished capacity.

Rather than just having access "in principle", given that I have often been told that, in principle, there is access to Intreo and local employment services, I am calling on the Minister to ensure that there is effective access and support for those who are not on the live register but who wish to seek employment and activation measures, for example, people who are in receipt of the one-parent family payment. They may wish to access employment and training opportunities prior to going on the jobseeker's transitional payment. Lone parents have been mentioned. There are many who would like to access supports and would not need to be pushed, but who would need to be supported.

Qualified adults are invisible in the social protection system. In fact, not only are they distant from the jobs market, they are also distant from the social protection system and employment and activation supports. In many cases, we do not chart who they are and what they might be interested in fully. They can disappear from the register and the system.

The issue of people in receipt of the disability allowance requires a longer discussion. Senator Dolan has engaged actively on this matter and may raise it on Report Stage. Many high-quality schemes, for example, JobsPlus, are not available to people who are not on the live register. One of the most striking and heart-breaking examples is the European Youth Guarantee. When it was rolled out in Ballymun, a large number of lone parents were under the age threshold for the guarantee, but they were not allowed to access employment, training and education opportunities through the pilot scheme because the Youth Guarantee was targeted towards the live register.

These people have fallen by the wayside. The Minister has an interest in this issue. I will not speak so extensively on amendment No. 12 because it touches on similar issues, but amendment No. 9 suggests how to make access and support a reality for everyone who seeks them on a voluntary basis.

The focus of the employment services provided through Intreo is on supporting and assisting people who are returning to work in whatever shape happens to be appropriate for them. Intreo services are already open to jobseekers - since our conversation last night, I have checked this - regardless of their status. Many of the people we help are not on the live register.

Local employment services provided by one of the contracted service providers have a similar focus on people who are not in receipt of a jobseeker's payment, including qualified adult dependants, who avail of these services on a voluntary basis. However, it is acknowledged that many people have educational or training requirements that need to be met before they can successfully compete in the labour market. In such cases, the staff of Intreo or local employment services will work with the individuals to identify and address those needs as part of the process of agreeing each individual personal progression plan and nominate the person for training within the education and training boards, ETBs, or other training providers, whichever is the person's wish.

A range of activation programmes, particularly in the area of education and training, are available to any jobseeker irrespective of his or her live register status. In line with long-established policy, participants on these programmes receive allowances in line with their previous welfare payments. This means that persons who are not in receipt of welfare payments do not receive allowances, but we will engage reactively with them when they approach us for assistance.

The funding model for wages on temporary employment programmes such as community employment and Tús is based specifically on the generation of savings as a result of participants moving off prior schemes and onto these schemes. It is not feasible to alter this funding model for people who are not in receipt of social welfare payments.

I will point the Senator towards two proactive measures. To date, our Intreo services, local employment services and jobs clubs have worked reactively when people who are not on the live register approach them looking for assistance. However, we are undertaking two projects this year. We launched the Action Plan for Jobless Households and the Ability programme for people with disabilities. Under these, our people will proactively seek out people who are in jobless households and not in receipt of social welfare payments within their own right. Most of these are the qualified adults in question who receive payments through their spouses. They will be targeted in an attempt to get them to engage with our training, education and work experience programmes.

The Ability programme is designed to address these issues for people who have intellectual or physical disabilities. We are working with NGOs and service providers to roll out a programme of specific actions and plans to make people who have disabilities job ready so that they can move to other social welfare payments, for example, the partial capacity payment, or part-time work, which is what we want them to do. The purpose of our activation programmes is to get people unemployed or underemployed into full-time employment.

I am not going to accept the amendment because there is no reason to do so, given that what the Senator is looking for is already the practice in our local offices.

While there may be access in principle, we are often not seeing effective access in practice. I have heard of many instances of people being unable to access full supports or being told that they will have to join the live register and indicate full-time availability, which some of them are unable to do. Alternatively, they have been told that they are not a priority at this time or they have been given basic information in the form of leaflets and a website. They have not been afforded case workers. This is particularly so in terms of back to education measures and other programmes.

I acknowledge the Minister's statement that she is now seeking to pursue active measures in terms of, for example, the pilot on jobless households. A person's right to be supported through activation and employment measures is intrinsic and should not depend on the status of his or her partner or household. However, I recognise this as a step forward and I hope that the lessons from the pilot scheme will lead to a further extension of supports.

I wish to clarify something about the pilot scheme on jobless households. When will we take lessons from that and determine how it might be strengthened or rolled out further? Is participation on a voluntary basis? There is a difference between encouragement and compulsion. We want to be able to give people encouragement and support so that they feel like they can walk into Intreo or local employment service offices or whatever the case may be, but bringing them in with a fear of sanction or loss of payment is the way to go. Will the Minister confirm that this is not the approach?

The action plan for jobless households in all of our local employment schemes, Intreo offices and departmental offices is based on voluntary participation. The pilot in the Action Plan for Jobs is being done in five regions. We will probably do it for approximately six months before we see real, quantitative data. In my experience, and it may be the Senator's also, when offered assistance, people grab it with both hands. They do not put up resistance and say they do not want to do a course leading to an educational qualification, etc. I genuinely think that we will get a positive response from those who are not currently listed in any scheme other than dependent spouses of people who are already receiving a social welfare payment. I will not really know until six months or so have passed. We are kicking it off in January in five specific regions throughout the country. When I get the results back, the Oireachtas joint committee might examine the results. I anticipate it will be a success. When it is a success, we will then roll it out to the rest of the country. We can talk about tweaking it based on the evidence that will be available after a couple of months.

On that basis, I am happy to work with the Minister through the joint committee.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 10:

“Guidelines on development of Personal Progression Plans

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay guidelines before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the principles and parameters which must underpin the development and agreement of “personal progression plans” by any third party contracted by the Department in respect of labour activation. These guidelines are to include:

(a) a requirement that any individual in respect of whom a personal progression plan is being developed is presented with options in terms of education, training and employment;

(b) a requirement that any individual in respect of whom a personal progression plan is being developed be entitled to possession of a hard copy of any proposed personal progression plan prior to signing and be free to seek external advice on that proposed personal progression plan prior to signing;

(c) prohibition on any text requiring an individual to share data in respect of family members or cohabitees;

(d) prohibition of any text requiring an individual to share contact information, or permit contact, in respect of any employer who has offered that individual employment independently of the third party;

(e) recommendations to ensure compliance with General Data Protection Regulation.”.

This amendment seeks to provide for guidelines in respect of personal progression plans and, in particular, how they are used by third parties contracted by the Department for the purposes of labour activation and not by the Department itself. I am thinking of agencies such as Turas Nua and Seetec which have been contracted in respect of the JobPath programme. There may be another way to ensure that the issues are addressed but the guidelines that I am proposing would touch on a number of issues of concern around how JobPath is operating on the ground and the requirements made of people in terms of personal progression plans.

It is positive if people are given the opportunity to look forward and to develop a plan for their future. However, it has been indicated that inappropriate language is contained in the personal progression plans which people are being required to sign in order to indicate that they are co-operating. Like the Minister, I too believe that most people want to and will seize opportunities. However, where people will not sign a particular piece of paper because they have legitimate concerns about the language in it and how it binds them, they are being regarded as not co-operating and, in effect, the activation and employment process does not proceed.

I want to highlight a number of key points. It is important that a person is offered options. This may be practice rather than policy or principle, but we have heard that people often feel they are not given full options in terms of education, training and employment. In many cases, those who have engaged with JobPath have felt like they were strongly pushed towards a particular option and have not felt like they were able to consider it fully. That is one concern.

We have heard of people being given a personal progression plan and asked to sign it before they are allowed to take a copy to seek advice, to discuss it or to compare it with others. It is extremely poor practice that anyone would be asked to sign a contract before being given a copy of it to take away. That is another key concern and I am seeking to address these issues because they are arising in practice. There may be other ways to address them. Perhaps they are not there in principle, but we need to give credence to what we hear from a number of sources.

Paragraphs (c), (d) and (e) are linked. This comes back to the general data protection regulation, which we discussed extensively in terms of the public services card, and people being inappropriately compelled to give information that is not necessary to the task at hand. I have seen in at least one personal progression plan, and have heard that it may be standard, text that requires an individual to share data in respect of family members or co-habitees and to report any change in theirs or their spouse's circumstances. While these issues may be discussed in terms of case work, these companies, if contracted simply to provide an activation and employment support for an individual, are not payment agencies. We have often been reminded that they are not payment agencies, nor are they sanctioning agencies. It would not seem appropriate that people would be required to give information about another individual with whom they may be living, for example, a spouse. That person may have his or her own relationship with Intreo or may not be in the JobPath system. Therefore, there is a real concern about the requirement for that information to be given as a sign of co-operation.

Another concern is around text which requires people to agree to share contact information and permit contact with an employer they may have sourced outside and entirely separate to the third party. If those in JobPath were to find a job on their own, perhaps a dream job or one with a small business, of course it is relevant that they would inform the Department that they are now in employment and no longer need jobseeker's allowance or benefit. However, I cannot see how it is appropriate or necessary for them to inform Seetec or Turas Nua not only of the contact details of their new employer but to permit contact with that new employer. They no longer require the services of these companies.

Deputy Murphy has highlighted in the Dáil situations where Seetec and Turas Nua have contacted a new employer, which the person sourced himself or herself, and asked it to sign paperwork to indicate that the job was sourced through it when it was not. We can only imagine how difficult and, in some cases, embarrassing it is for individuals to have their first week or two in new employment overshadowed by contact from a delegated third party company. It is not the right way for anyone who had the initiative to find a job to begin his or her new employment.

Will the Minister address those concerns? I have proposed one way to address them; the Minister may have other ways.

A personal progression plan is an organic document that is personal to the individual jobseeker. I cannot state in more strenuous terms that it is not a contract or a legally binding document. It is a progression plan for someone who is out of work to get him or her into work. It is as simple as that. The Senator, as have others, has referred to them but these plans are not unique to Turas Nua or Seetec. These companies happen to be two agents operating for us around the country, but the same personal progression plans are developed for those availing of our Intreo services. If there is a criticism, it cannot be confined to Seetec or Turas Nua. There are as many personal progression plans availed of through our Intreo offices as there are elsewhere.

The plan is developed in consultation between the jobseeker and the adviser, whether that is an Intreo adviser or an agency adviser. It is a supporting and enabling document which is meant to map out the person's journey towards upskilling, getting rid of barriers to employment a person might face and finding pathways to a job. The jobseeker is getting one-on-one treatment weekly from an adviser, which is what the provision of activation support is all about. It is about working closely with people to ensure that we get the best results for the individual given his or her current circumstances.

The laying down of such prescriptive and restrictive guidelines as the Senator suggests in her amendment would be contrary to the engagement between the personal adviser and the jobseeker, which is policy. Further, it might get in the way of what is supposed to be a genuine and mutually developing relationship between the two people over a period of time, which can be up to 12 months if the person is engaging with the adviser.

It is important to note that at the time of their making the claim to be a jobseeker, whether it is in an Intreo office, a local DSP office or having been sent onwards to Seetec and Turas Nua, through an agreed record of mutual commitments, we are already aware of all of the information the Senator is concerned people might be being compelled to give. In order to make a jobseeker's claim, we already know who one is living with, how many dependents one has at home and what one's circumstances are. That information has already been shared. The only reason - because there is no requirement at a personal progression plan stage to share that one has three children and one's granny is living in the house with him or her - that those conversations should take place is because a person's circumstances at home may form a barrier to employment or to progressing a pathway to work. It is only from general concern and in conversation with each other that we might inquire how old one's children are, does one have a dependent spouse at home or whether one's elderly relative is living there. It is a general conversation of sharing of data that we already have in what I will call, for argument's sake, HQ.

To be clear and straight with the Senator, if a person does not want to share that information with his or her personal adviser, then the person need not do so. There is no part of the personal progression plan that says a person cannot move to part B if he or she does not share certain information. It does not exist. From an adviser's perspective, this is generally only part of developing the relationship to learn what are the barriers to jobseekers achieving full employment.

A key element of the modern activation service, obviously, from our perspective, is to secure full employment or fuller employment for those who are in part-time work. The personal advisers' sole job is to be the jobseekers' conduit from not having work to getting work. I stressed this to the Senator last night. There are now two reasons. If a person has initiative enough to get jobs outside of that personal progression plan that he or she might have with the adviser, first, we want to know who the employer is, but not with a view to contact with the employer. There is a mistaken view out there that unless we know who the employer is, Turas Nua and Seetec do not get paid for the placement. They get paid anyway. They get paid if we do not know who the employer is. They get paid once somebody who is on JobPath gets a job. If that job happens to be in Outer Mongolia or up in Superquinn in Finglas, they get paid anyway. The reason that there is the continuation of the co-operation is that the advisers provide ongoing in-work support because sometimes - this is borne out by practice - people have developed strong personal relationships. In many cases, when somebody gets a new job, it is after having been out of work for a long time. His or her confidence might not be as high as one would like it to be. He or she is probably vulnerable and nervous. We provide those in-work supports to ensure that the person knows that his or her adviser is there at the end of a phone, but also once a month the adviser will touch base with the person to ask how is it going, whether there is any difficulty and whether has the person settled in and made new friends. It is what one would expect for two people who have developed a relationship over a period up to 12 months.

I emphasise to the House that my Department's public employment services, including Turas Nua, Seetec and our own Intreo offices, operate in full compliance with the data protection legislation. All of our contractors are aware of their current obligations under the GDPR. Obviously, as we change, as we suggested earlier on, when the new regulations come into play on 18 May next year, all of our contractors will have been given strict new guidelines that they will have to adhere to on the basis of the new directive coming into play then. I hope the Senator is reassured. Because of that, it would be unfair of me to put such prescriptive restrictions that definitely should not apply to the policy or the practice that is carried on on our behalf by any of our agents, but also because our Intreo offices do the same thing. It would be too prohibitive to put them in as amendments to the legislation.

I listened carefully to what Senator Higgins said about anecdotal evidence on Second Stage. Much anecdotal evidence that is brought; some of it may be grounded in truth and some of it is not. If the Senator genuinely has somebody who has the experience which she stated on Second Stage, I ask her to bring the information either to me or to somebody in the Department and I promise we will follow up on it. If the policy is different from the practice, I want to know about it and ensure that all of our practices adhere to the policy commitments that we have.

I thank the Minister. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a shortfall between policy and practice. There is a slight difference. Of course, nobody is against personal progression plans as a concept and they exist in practice in a number of different areas. What is specific here is that it is third parties. It is a little different because they are only contracted for part of the process whereas the question of payment and sanction still sits with what the Minister described as "HQ". That is why the question of what information is appropriate to be shared with a third party who is not contracted in terms of payment or sanction arises and why I was calling for additional scrutiny in that regard. Of course, personal progression plans have been used in practice for a long time but it is a matter of ensuring good practice.

I accept the Minister's bona fides. I would encourage her to look at this across a number of cases rather than on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps the Department could confirm and re-check what the Minister stated today, for example, with those contracted third parties.

Can the Minister confirm that no person should be subject to a sanction from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection because he or she refused to sign a personal progression plan which contains the kinds of information in paragraphs (c) and (d) without the person's agreement?

Yes. It should not happen.

The Minister has confirmed that should not happen.

First of all, there is no need.

That makes it clearer for others.

I beg the Acting Chairman's pardon.

It makes it clear. Individuals may contact me but it is important and useful to send a signal to all individuals who may be undergoing this process.

Let me confirm that the personal progression plan is not a contract. It is not a legally binding document. It is not something that can be forced. It is supposed to be an aid, a pathway for somebody who is unemployed to being in employment.

There is already a legal obligation on a jobseeker to inform the Department of a change in circumstances. It is not like we are trying to find out that a person is actually living with his or her rich Auntie Mary. If a person is living with rich Auntie Mary, the person is obliged, through the jobseeker's payment that he or she gets, to come and tell the Department anyway. The only reason there might be a curiosity, because it is not a requirement of the progression plan, on the part of one's adviser to know the person's circumstances is so that he or she can learn what barriers exist in the jobseeker's life.

Hopefully, I can reassure the Senator. I am not the type of person who gets told something by somebody and thinks it is gospel. For the past number of weeks, one day a week every week, I have visited an Intreo, Seetec or Turas Nua office to see for myself. I have to talk to the staff and they are all lovely, they really are. Actually, I am more concerned about speaking to those who are sitting on the other side of the desks. This week I was in Kildare. Last week I was in Longford. The week before, I think, it was Athlone. I go and meet these people so that I can be categorically satisfied when I stand in front of the Seanad and state that I see good stuff happening. With tens of thousands of people, one will always have somebody who does not have a pleasant experience. It might be a personality. We have to deal with those on a case by case basis. However, in the main, we are providing real opportunity and progression for those who are going through JobPath. I witnessed a young fella giving his adviser a Christmas present wrapped up - a poinsettia and a box of chocolates - the other day. Not to be smart or dismissive, one knows when somebody is living on €198 a week that is a lot of money to take out of his own pocket to show an appreciation of somebody who is genuinely helping him.

The purpose of us doing this is to help. It is not to poke or prod people.

To be absolutely categorically clear, it is not a legally-binding document. If somebody wishes, he or she may take it home and talk to their mother, friend or partner about what is in the progression plan.

And suggest amendments, if necessary.

Yes, absolutely. It is all about helping the person. It is not about being prescriptive because no two people and their pathways or barriers to work will be exactly the same.

Just to let the Senator know, I will keep visiting the offices. If there are specific cases and they come in numbers, of course, I will look at them because I do not want anecdotal talk maligning something that is genuinely helping people.

I thank the Minister for her hands-on engagement on the issue. I will not press the amendment for now. I hope we will be able to look at the issue in the future.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

For the information of Members, there are six amendments left all of which are in the name of Senator Higgins, and we must conclude at the very latest by 5 p.m.

I move amendment No. 11:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report on jobseeker’s allowance calculation

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within eight months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the possible introduction of an hours versus days approach to calculation of entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance payment including an examination of the potential to support the building of labour market attachment for those balancing employment with caring responsibilities.”.

On Second Stage I highlighted my concern about the way availability for work is calculated to the Minister. People may well be seeking full-time employment. However, if they are offered a two hour job, for example, between 10 a.m. and 12 noon for five days a week, they face the danger that by simply taking the job they will be marked as being fully employed. Again, my query concerns the notion of full-time availability. The provision does not exclusively affect women but persons who have caring responsibilities. If such people get a full-time job they may be able to afford child care. If they accept a part-time job that involves a small number of hours worked across a few days then carers can find themselves falling into a trap and in a bind. Part-time work can close off opportunities to build labour market attachments, working relationships, etc. My amendment seeks to address the question of hours versus days and seeks to ensure we support people in a more effective manner in availing of part-time on their way to full-time work.

We recognise that the labour market is changing. We have moved away from the historical and traditional working patterns to the gig economy. There is a whole new way of working that we never had before and the job activation schemes must reflect same.

There are two reasons I do not want to apply this provision, specifically on its own. I ask the Senator to withdraw her amendment because there is an amendment that calls on me to review the working family payment system. I would like, in totality, to consider how we can best merge the hours-based system and the working family payment system. If I consider the hours system on its own, then we will end up right back at zero. The introduction of changes to the current criteria for calculating entitlement to the jobseekers allowance, as in moving to an hours-based system, will result in a significant number of individuals becoming eligible for jobseekers payment thus costing tens of millions of euro. Conversely, it is important to note that if an hours-based system was introduced existing casual jobseekers will lose out on payments that they currently receive from my Department, which might save us tens of millions of euro. While we might help people in one area we will hinder people in another area. We never want to do something good that will cause an anomaly and, therefore, I ask the Senator to allow me, in the review of the working family payment scheme, to consider how best to move forward. I know that the Senator does not want to hinder anyone. I know she wants to help people who can only work for a small number of hours but cannot live on fresh air for the rest of the hours that they are unavailable for work. In the review, I will consider ways to address the issue the Senator has specifically sought to address. Maybe one of the solutions will be to widen some of the working family payments. Let us consider the current stipulation for 15 or 19 hours in the review. I will bring the findings back to the joint committee where we can discuss the results and consider how best to prepare. If we are going to do something about this matter, it can only be done during the budgetary process next year that we will start after the summer, or maybe before the summer depending on our workload. I ask the Senator to consider my request.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I recognise the amendment on the working family payment was tabled by Deputy O'Dea has been accepted. I also note the fact that the Minister has indicated here, and previously, that she will consider the question of 19 hours. On Second Stage, I highlighted my concern about the anomalies between the 15-hour child care and 19-hour child care provision. I did not table an amendment on the matter because she has recognised the issue. Does the matter fall within the remit of the examination?

I accept the Minister's proposal to examine the issue that I referred to in my amendment within the context of a wider review. There is no point in us duplicating work. I imagine it would be more expedient if she considered the matter in the context of the review of the working family payment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 12:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report in respect of Qualified Adults Scheme

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within eight months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the potential to introduce voluntary access to a scheme for qualified adults based on principles similar to those underpinning the jobseeker’s transitional payment, including targeted casework and the waiver of any requirement for full time availability.”.

I spoke extensively about amendment No. 12 when we discussed amendment No. 9. There was some overlap so I will not reiterate my key points. Amendment No. 12 refers to the question of qualified adults. My amendment seeks the issue to be re-examined and in a wider context than jobless families. There is another little group involved. For example, a person may be retired and he or she may have a qualified adult spouse who may be younger in age. There are a few cohorts involved. I appreciate that the Minister plans to examine these aspects as part of the pilot programme and I hope these issues will be teased out. I specifically wonder whether lessons can be learned from the jobseekers' transitional payment, which is in the process of improvement, in terms of targeted casework. I urge that consideration be given to child care supports and other supports that a qualified adult might need in order to access job activation opportunities. I also have questions about job readiness and upskilling, including in cases where a person wants to return to education so that the person is education ready as well as employment ready. I suggest that such matters be considered.

I know I sound like a broken record but I want something positive done about the jobseekers transitional payment. Consideration must be given to the requirement to be available for full-time employment. The waiving of that requirement for the jobseekers transitional payment was a positive move because it gave people the freedom to talk about options, and to do so honestly. I hope that such jobseekers will get the opportunity to talk about it with caseworkers but that is not what I sought with my previous amendment. I want such people to talk honestly about ways to balance care and opportunity. I suggest we apply the lessons learned to the review mentioned by Minister. I will not press my amendment.

I totally agree with the Senator. I hope that her suggestion will form part of the report that we bring back to the joint committee and then we can talk about the best way forward.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 13:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report in respect of National Maintenance Body

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on options to establish a State body to appropriately seek and pursue maintenance payments.”.

I propose to withdraw my amendment because my colleague, Senator Ruane, is very keen to discuss the issue with the Minister. She has already been in discussions with the Minister. My amendment refers to a national maintenance body. As the Minister will be aware, the joint committee put forward a very strong recommendation in its report on the Position of Lone Parents in Ireland published earlier this year. We very strongly suggested that we need to consider the option of a national maintenance body and highlighted the flaws. I know the Minister and others, on separate occasions, talked about the flaws whereby we have practices that are inappropriate for women, although it is not always women who must pursue their spouses for maintenance payments to support their children. Such people also fear that they may lose payments or get reduced ones if they are not seen to be actively seeking a maintenance payment.

A few years ago there was an unfortunate moment in the history of the Department of Employment Affairs Social Protection when it issued a letter informing a number of spouses that they would no longer be watching to see if maintenance payments were made. I refer to the time the jobseekers transitional payment was introduced and there was a move away from the one-parent family payment. The letter was framed in an unfortunate manner because it sent a negative signal about maintenance. Historical mistakes have been made and the current practices do not work. I will not enumerate them in great detail because I know it is an issue of great interest for my colleague, Senator Ruane, who is attending a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, I will withdraw my amendment and will resubmit it on Report Stage when Senator Ruane will speak on it. The Minister can comment briefly if she wishes.

I presume the Minister will have to address all these matters again on Report Stage.

If the Senator withdraws her amendment and resubmits, it we will have a proper conversation on the matter tomorrow.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is Senator Higgins happy to discuss them together?

I move amendment No. 14:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report on one parent families with children over 14 years of age

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within eight months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the specific obstacles faced and supports needed by one parent families with children over the age of fourteen years of age, including an assessment of the adequacy of the Qualified Child payment and the potential to extend the jobseeker’s transitional payment to include those with a child up to the age of eighteen years of age.”.

I would query whether my amendments are related. Nonetheless, I am happy to discuss them together because they both relate to lone parents.

Does Senator Higgins agree to discuss amendments Nos. 14 and 15 together?

Yes. I will first speak about amendment No. 15, which is on jobseekers transitional payment. One of my key concerns is that those who have a child over 14 years of age cannot access the jobseekers transitional payment and, therefore, are not part of the jobseekers transitional payment supports.

I will speak first to amendment No. 15 and then to amendment No. 14, as it will work better.

I spoke previously about the jobseeker's transitional payments supports. There are still concerns. I know that there has been a partial income disregard restored in terms of the financial loss that people experienced in moving to the jobseeker's transitional payment. I want to focus on the supports attached to jobseeker's transitional payments. There is a concern, which comes back to the issue of casework, about whether a full and rich gamut of employment, training and educational opportunities are being offered to those who are on the jobseeker's transitional payment.

As a result of the waiver on the requirement for full-time availability, we still do not have an adequate or wide enough range of part-time courses, part-time training supports or part-time education. People may want to go back to education but they would only be able to go part time. How can we ensure that when people are on this new payment they will also have an appropriately tailored set of supports, for example, those which recognise the constrained time availability but also access to the full range of the wider supports that are there? The Minister addressed this very eloquently on Second Stage that there is no reason that a lone parent who is on the jobseeker's transitional payment may not want to start a five-year course to become a physicist and why that should not be one of the options on the table, rather than being bound into a constrained set of options. It is around improving that work.

The problem of lone parents with a child more than 14 years of age, is that they do not have access to any of the tailored supports, the idea of case workers who would be working with them, recognising in particular their care balances and in some cases a person is available full-time but in other cases, parents of a 14 or 15 year old who are facing challenges may not feel they are able to work full-time because they are parenting alone. They do not have a safety net or back-up person who is sharing holiday time and whatever else families do to try to manage.

We all know that every family in Ireland, not just lone parent families, are juggling and figuring out how to make it work. The challenges faced by a lone parent with teenagers are very high. There are two concerns. First, the qualified child payment. I recognise there was a small increase in that payment. I am sure the Minister would acknowledge that the small increase in the qualified child payment was inadequate. There is a specific need for an increase in qualified child payments for those with children over the age of 14 years. We know that in great detail from the Vincentian Partnership indepth research on minimum essential standards of living. We know there are huge costs. The other issue is the additional child care supports and tailored options that people might need. I hope, I will revisit it in the year ahead, that we should be able to look to a point where anybody with a child under 18 years who is parenting alone is able to access jobseeker's transitional support.

People who are parenting alone feel they become invisible parents once their child hits 14 years of age. The lone parent feels he or she is viewed as just a person claiming the jobseeker's allowance, and is no longer recognised as somebody who is parenting alone and facing those particular challenges.

Amendment No. 14 addresses the qualified child increases, QCI. I totally recognise not just what Senator Higgins said, but what NGOs have said, that it costs more money to raise teenagers. I have a few of them at home. We know that they go round with their hands out all of the time and that they grow out of clothes more quickly. I do not need to be told that.

I would have loved to have been able to reflect and recognise that this year, but because of the way the budget negotiations were structured and the numbers we had to consider, there was not a significant sum left over to implement specific policy measures. The qualified child increase of €2 this year was the first increase in eight years. That is not enough, but had I reflected the over 12 years, and under 12 years, I would have ended up giving €3 to one and €1 to other. I thought the money was so miserable in the first place. That is not to say that I do not recognise the point that the Senator has made. I do recognise it and in next year's budget and budgets thereafter, we will reflect the reality that having teenagers does cost more money. I can only give my word on amendment No. 14, as opposed to tabling an amendment.

A number of services are available to people on the jobseeker's transition payments. We need to reflect on when we brought it in, that some of the people we did not get to might have children over 14 years of age and they would have gone on to jobseeker's allowance or benefit before they got to avail of the full range of services that were specifically designed for lone parents with children aged between seven and 14 years to upskill and educate themselves. I will ensure we carry out an analysis to make sure that if people have gone to the next level and did not avail of the services, that we proactively go after them.

We will proactively ensure that we reach all of the 32,000 lone parents who are under the jobseeker's transitional umbrella. We have only reached 60% of them to date and we will ensure that we get to the remainder before they transition to the next jobseeker's allowance. Just because somebody goes on to jobseeker's allowance, does not mean that we should treat him or her differently. We still should recognise the limitations that they have and the concerns of care.

There are many more children that present with difficulties over and above the number who would have presented ten to 30 years ago. We need to recognise the barriers to work. That comes back to the personal progression plan that people have with the staff in our Intreo offices or our agents. If we are not fully aware of the barriers that exist in people's lives then we cannot plan around how to help them to become job ready and to become employed. I am absolutely adamant that there should be no limits to women or men who are parenting alone who want to upskill or educate themselves. The idea of only having 20 courses that one can go on and the rest of the world is closed off is not acceptable to me. I will come back to this Chamber in the next couple of weeks with a complete list of what is available both through e-learning or through our education courses. If we do not like the look of it, then we will change it. I give Members my personal commitment that will be changed by me.

I thank the Minister. There were many who received the shock of moving from the one-parent family payment to a jobseeker's allowance without any of the supports. It is important that this be addressed. I recognise the importance of the casework on tailoring and recognising needs. I have the concern that the full-time availability tool can make it hard for people who are on jobseeker's allowance to talk honestly about the issues in terms of casework. We can put that concern to the side. I very much welcome the Minister's agreement to provide me with a list of the schemes that are available and it would be very useful if the Minister were agreeable to be able to share that information with the joint committee because we are currently preparing a report on activation and it would be useful to incorporate and reflect on it.

We will get that information to the Senator before the end of January. It will feed into what we will do next year.

I thank the Minister. In light of that, I will withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report on jobseeker’s transitional payment supports

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within eight months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the employment, training and educational opportunities and supports currently available to those on jobseeker’s transitional payment to include recommendations as to how those opportunities and supports might be improved and how the training of caseworkers supporting those on jobseeker’s transitional payment might be improved.”.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 16:

In page 14, after line 18, to insert the following:

“Report on State Contributory Pension

20. The Minister for Employment and Social Protection shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the following matters:

(a) the potential extension of the Homemakers Scheme to include claimants from 1973 to 1994;

(b) the impact of the 2012 changes to contributory pension bands and rates and measures to address any issues arising from those changes;

(c) a consideration of how any proposed recommendation in respect of paragraphs (a) and (b) may impact on the gender pension gap;

(d) proposals around the financing of any recommendations in respect of paragraphs (a) and (b);

(e) a consideration of how any such financing might intersect with other relevant aspects of national pension policy including the current expenditure on private pension tax relief.”.

I had tabled a similar amendment, which other Members have spoken about, in respect of the Department of Finance. I am not simply putting this issue to the Minister or targeting the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I know the Minister has agreed to a report on the State contributory pension in terms of reviewing the question of the 2012 changes and their impact. A report is mentioned in terms of an amendment from the Dáil.

Through the Chair, there is an amendment from the Dáil. I will issue the report that is being prepared by my Department with its recommendations to fix the anomaly the day I bring it to Cabinet.

That is what is agreed. I am going to do that anyway.

We can expect a report in respect of the 2012 changes then.

There is also an underlying anomaly in how we calculate our pensions which needs to be addressed, and I hope there is scope to do so. I have some concerns. Yesterday in this House we heard about the move to the new supplementary pension system, about which the Minister has spoken previously. I refer to the new auto-enrolment pension system. The concern is that we have also been hearing that the total contribution approach is going to be brought in by 2020. We have heard that the total contribution approach had the potential to address some of the concerns about our unfair averaging system. That said, I recognise that there are still concerns, namely, recognition of care and how best to operate a care credit, which the total contribution approach would need to factor in. In other words, how do we include and reflect care in the total contribution approach? I would also note that in the auto-enrolment system, how we recognise and support care is also going to be an issue, if we are to ensure that we do not have yet another gender pension gap in that system further down the line.

My concern is this. As we move towards the new auto-enrolment system, what is happening around the move to the total contribution approach? If we are not going to deliver that by 2020, or even if we are, we still must do something to address the basic inequality in our averaging system. It is an inequality on an inequality. The first of these is the inequality caused by women being pushed out by the marriage bar. As I said yesterday, I believe that in 1973, when we were told that the marriage bar was not acceptable, we should have put pensions systems in place to address the impact it had had since it had been noted as being inequitable. We did not do this.

On top of the first insult arising from issues like the marriage bar, there is the ongoing tendency to deeply penalise anybody who takes a period out for caring. That occurs even if they have made the same amount of contributions as somebody else over their lifetime. It is an unacceptable inequality and it is not something we can stand over, especially as a Government that has committed to gender and equality proofing our budget.

This is why it sits with the Minister, but it also sits with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and I have highlighted this. That Department is responsible for the implementation of the legislation for public duty around equality and human rights proofing. It is also fundamentally responsible for the gender and equality proofing of our budget every year. I cannot see how this stands up. I do not know how it slipped through another year. It is like a glaring black mark on any future report we produce on equality.

In that regard, I suggest that the solution to this anomaly should not simply be sought using the resources allocated to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, because the solution will need a wider scope. I have discussed this before with the Minister. We spend €2.6 billion on private pension tax relief in this country. In many cases I am sure it is important and it has many merits. When we debated this during the Finance Bill 2017, many people spoke about the various merits and the encouragement it provides. Nonetheless, there are a lot of problems with how it is done.

There is another inequality, and it seems inequalities are piling up, namely, we award private pension tax relief at a marginal rate. As such, many in the country who are on a low income have the not very incentivising tax relief of 20%, whereas those who are looking to be on higher incomes have a much more incentivising 40%. When this was discussed before, what I sought from the Department was something that was in fact recommended in the memorandum of understanding with the troika, namely, that we should move to a standard rate of perhaps 30%, which every citizen seeking a pension and a private pension could access. This would deliver adequate savings, I hope, to at least partially address the gaps that we have seen here. I ask that we consider addressing an inequality so that we can address an inequality. That is what I am putting forward as a proposal. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I might be able to tick all of those boxes. The reason I think these measures got through the gender proofing test is that it does not just affect women. I know it affects more women than men, but only marginally. Those affected are 60% women and 40% men, so we are nearly equally discriminatory to both sexes. That still does not make it all right.

Let us talk about the three different things Senator Higgins brought up. The first of these was the pensions anomaly whereby the averaging system penalised people because they started work very early, stopped to care for their families and then came back to work again. I have a report with some recommendations that will go to the Cabinet economic committee on 18 January 2018. Assuming that we agree at that table, it will then go to the full Cabinet committee the following week. As soon as it goes to Cabinet I will issue the report, because hopefully I will have agreement from my Cabinet colleagues on how to fix the anomaly and a roadmap of how to get there, starting in the following couple of months. That sets out when I am going to deal with the anomaly if not yet how. When I release the report the Senator will know how I am going to deal with it. Senator Higgins is right to say that the money cannot come from the current budget, because I do not have it. It is not small change. There are 42,000 people currently affected by it today, and rectifying this will cost the taxpayer money.

Moving to other topics, I will answer Senator Higgins's first amendment by saying that the Government is not going to extend the homemaker's scheme. I do not wish to be so brutal as to say "No" to the Senator. However, we propose to calculate pensions in the future by abolishing the averaging system. When we move to the total contribution approach on 1 January 2020, the averaging system will be gone and the length of time a claimant has worked will be irrelevant. The number of contributions needed to get into each band will be agreed through the public consultations that I will launch after Christmas, and there will be a sizeable carer's credit. That credit will be irrespective of whether claimants are minding their children or their older parents. It is not prescriptive. It will be as a result of the public consultation, but we will put out examples of what we think might work, and depending on the responses that we get from both industry and individuals, that will determine what the final model looks like. I hope to have an agreement between the middle and the end of next year on what the total contribution model will look like. Then we can begin creating an IT platform to be able to manage it, to collect and to pay, with a view to going live on 1 January 2020.

The second point is separate and distinct, but it reflects on subsection (e) of the proposed amendment. Senator Higgins is well aware that at the moment we give €2.6 billion worth of tax relief to people on both the 20% and the 40% bracket. That is unfair. The people who were earning more money get more tax relief than the people who were earning less money. The new model that we are introducing, which will also undergo public consultation after Christmas, is the auto-enrolment model. I would like to put it on the record that yesterday's front-page story in the Irish Independent, along with what was written by the young journalist on pages 13 and 14, is entirely inaccurate. She got her information from a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, which does not reflect the ambitions of the Department. I repeat, what will be subject to public consultation in January will not be a finished product. The finished product will be informed by the responses of members of the public on what they want to see. I have said it on the record before, and I will say it again here in this House. Whatever system we conform to at the end of that couple of months of public consultation will be entirely fair to everybody. People will not get more tax relief on the new auto-enrolment scheme because they happened to earn more money than others getting less tax relief.

Within a proposed salary bracket of between €20,000 and €60,000 - those figures are purely for the purposes of this discussion - if a claimant puts in €5, his or her employer will put in €5 and the State might put in €2.50. I emphasise that those figures are plucked from the sky. The actual figures will be determined by industry collaborating with us and individuals making suggestions of what they think they can afford. The misleading and entirely inaccurate story on the front of the newspaper yesterday, which said that people would have to put €200 of their wages into pension schemes every week or month, is wrong. It sets a very misleading tone for what should be a very exciting reform of pensions and tax relief, and a way for young people to save extra money over and above what they would normally get from either the non-contributing pension or the contributing pension when they reach 66 or 67.

All of what the Senator has asked for, except the homemaker's credit, is going to be provided for in the anomaly provision on 18 January, the total contributions public consultation and the auto-enrolment public consultation. I will only guarantee the Senator that there will be a sizeable caring credit that will form part of the new total contributions model. The averaging system that affected people in that, while I will not call it unfair, made people not get as much money as they should have expected to get, will be entirely gone out of the new total contributions system. The exact parameters of that will be determined and arrived at from the public consultation.

I thank the Minister. I very much welcome her comment on the care credit, which is something I have pushed for years since my time with Older and Bolder and the National Women's Council of Ireland. I am very happy this is on the agenda in terms of the total contributions approach, which is good to hear. I am also glad to hear in regard to the auto-enrolment model that the Minister is looking at a three-part contribution from employees, employers and, of course, the State. That three-part element, whatever way it may finally be constructed, is an important principle.

In recognition of the fact the Minister is moving forward and that we will be looking extensively at this area of pensions, I will not be pressing this amendment at this point. However, I would note that, nonetheless, despite these wonderful visions for the future, we have a cohort in Ireland who are deeply disadvantaged and we cannot simply wait for them to move on up to 2020. There is a cohort of people who are suffering inequality every single time they go to get their pension and, on a weekly basis, they are feeling the impact of that inequity. In some cases, it is those who have this as a very small independent income and who may not be able to apply for the non-contributory pension, for example, because of their partner's means or other forms of means but for whom, individually, their pension represents the message the State sends to them about how their contribution over their lifetime has been valued.

I will be continuing to press in respect of the homemaker's credit. This applies to older women and men across Ireland. The Minister is right that there are men, particularly those who worked and travelled, for example, in England, for years and then returned, and who are disadvantaged by this averaging system. I know they will continue to campaign. One of the strongest signals the State can send in order to build confidence in the new auto-enrolment and total contributions systems - while it would be costly financially, it would be important symbolically - would be to send the signal that we have addressed a past inequity. That would set a very positive tone for our better strategies as we move forward. I know that is not within the Minister's gift at this point but I would like to mention it.

The anomaly is going to be dealt with in January, so that is separate. For those people the Senator is talking about, when we introduced total contributions, it was not just for new entrants so there will be a period where people who are currently being adjudicated under the averaging system can move to total contributions. I do not know if the period will be one year or three years as that will be determined during the public consultation. Whatever period it happens to be, whether it is ten years, 20 years or whatever we determine during the public consultation, they can attribute that period to their future payments.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedules 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Report Stage ordered for Thursday, 14 December 2017.