Commencement Matters

Child Benefit Eligibility

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Breen, to the House. He is my colleague from the mid-west and I am delighted he is here.

Many people have come to my office recently who still have children in school at the age of 18. Children start school at a later age now and are usually almost five years of age before they start. This means they are also finishing at a later age. In my time people did their leaving certificate exams at 16 or 17 years of age, but now most people are 18, and in some cases 19 years of age. Parents find that all benefits, including children's allowance, are cut off at 18 years of age, yet the period around leaving certificate in secondary school is a very expensive time for them. I am calling on the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to look at extending the age limit for children in full-time education because it is something that parents and families are having difficulty with. Children have exams and exam fees, and are also involved in extra-curricular activities. It it quite an expensive time, yet parents find they cannot access any benefits or payments once they reach the age of 18 because their child is considered an adult, even though he or she is still in secondary school full-time.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue. It is obviously one that is raised regularly in her constituency office in Limerick. Child benefit is a payment to help families with the cost of raising children and plays an important role in helping to tackle child poverty. It does not rely on a means test or social insurance contributions. Child benefit is currently paid to around 628,835 families in respect of over 1.2 million children. Child benefit is paid monthly in respect of qualified children up to the age of 16. The payment continues to be paid in respect of children up to their 18th birthday where they are in full-time education or have a disability. Given the universality of child benefit, significant costs would be incurred in any extension of the scheme. An extension as proposed by the Senator would have very significant costs. No upper age limit is proposed, so it is possible that it could include third level as well as second level students. Even if the proposal were to be restricted to second level education alone the approximate cost could be close to €100 million. Such an extension does not allow for the benefits of adopting a more targeted approach to the use of scarce resources to tackling child poverty. The provisions whereby families on low incomes can avail of a number of provisions to social welfare schemes that support children in full-time education until the age of 22 provide a more targeted approach.

The provisions whereby families on low incomes can avail of a number of social welfare schemes to support children in full-time education until the age of 22 represent a more targeted approach. These include the increase for a qualified child with primary social welfare payments, the working family payment, formerly know as the family income supplement or FIS, for low-paid employees with children, and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance for low-income families. Payments under these schemes, all of which were increased in budget 2019, provide targeted assistance which is directly linked with household income and, thereby, support low-income families with older children participating in full-time education. In addition, parents moving from social welfare into employment can avail of the back to work family dividend, which provides financial support to people moving from welfare into employment or self-employment. Qualifying parents are paid the equivalent of any increases for a qualified child being paid on a jobseeker or one-parent family payment up to a maximum of four children for the first year in employment and half that amount in the second year. Clearly, these payments offer financial assistance targeted at those most in need of assistance from the State.

While I understand where the Senator is coming from on this matter, it must be understood that limited resources are available currently. It would cost up to €100 million just to provide for post-primary school and the question arises of what age limit one sets. Does one go to third level? I understand the positive impact of education and it is important to ensure children receive as much education as possible. That is why the other means are there to assist families through the targeted approach I have outlined in respect of the increase for a qualified child, the working family payment and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance.

While I understand the additional costs involved, which would be significant, it was the case until 2010 that a child in full-time education in secondary school qualified up to the age of 19. In 2010, that was reduced to 18. Allowances have not been made for the fact that children are not starting school now until they are five years of age, which raises the age at which they finish their schooling. People must pay CAO application fees, fees for exams and fees in respect of career guidance. None of that appears to be taken into account. It is a costly experience for parents. I refer to secondary school students and not those at third level. I ask the Minister of State to tell the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection that this is about second-level students and to ask her to extend the qualification age to 19 years. It would be appreciated.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I can see where she is coming from. Education is key for the future of our workers and for the youth of today who will be the people working in the jobs of tomorrow. That is particularly so given the type of jobs we are attracting to Ireland, which are professional jobs in the IT sector and in various other areas. That is where education is required. I will take the Senator's strong message back to the Minister on the proposal for post-primary schools only. Everything will depend in this area on the State's finances, but I assure the Senator that I will bring it to the Minister.

Industrial Disputes

I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. I raise this issue on the day 500 ambulance personnel refuse to work additional shifts. Hopefully, we can address the current industrial relations issues between the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, and the HSE. The situation is escalating with an increasing number of ambulance personnel taking industrial action. They are protesting the continuing refusal of the HSE to engage in negotiations with them when representing their interests or to make payroll deductions for union subscriptions. I was a member and branch secretary of the PNA in 2010 when this commenced. At that time, the union representing ambulance personnel members was SIPTU. In the years of austerity, the idea was to protect core pay with 24-7 workers accepting that shift work, Christmas work, night duty, Easter work and so on would be foregone. They would agree not to fight for that. We marched in 2010 down Parnell Street in what was termed the "24/7 alliance", which included gardaí, soldiers, nurses, ambulance personnel and firefighters. From that came a request by 500 ambulance and paramedic personnel to join the PNA. While it seemed a bit strange at the time, it has worked well. The ambulance personnel believed the PNA would stand up for them and protect their shifts and allowance instead of only core pay.

The current dispute commenced on 10 October and there was a protest last week outside Dr. Steevens' Hospital, which is the location of the headquarters of the HSE. The HSE is refusing to recognise this branch, give it powers to negotiate terms and conditions and take union subscriptions directly from members' pay. Mr. Peter Hughes is the general secretary of NASRA and Ms Sinead McGrath is the national chair. The refusal of the HSE to engage with ambulance personnel or facilitate payroll deduction of union subscriptions amounts to nothing short of an effort to dictate to which union ambulance personnel should belong and to frustrate the continued development of the NASRA branch. There is no law to stop people joining the union of their choice. However, the HSE has put down the blocks and refused to allow the PNA to represent the members of NASRA. I plead with the Minister of State to get involved and to get the HSE to the table to recognise the rights of union members, including the right to negotiate on terms and conditions of employment.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this matter. I confirm that the HSE received formal notification, dated 18 September 2018, from the general secretary of the PNA that its ambulance personnel members had voted in favour of taking industrial action. This action began on 10 October 2018. It is important to make it clear to the House that NASRA, which has affiliated with the PNA, is not recognised by the HSE. This means it does not have negotiating rights for ambulance personnel. The PNA, which is a non-ICTU affiliated union, has negotiating rights for nurses working in the psychiatry and intellectual disability sectors. The union recognised by the HSE for ambulance grades is SIPTU.

The industrial action referred to relates to two issues. The first is a dispute over the automated deduction of union subscriptions from members' pay. The HSE is refusing to facilitate payroll deductions at source of union subscriptions to NASRA as it does not recognise this group. The second issue is a refusal by the HSE to engage in negotiations with the PNA or to recognise it as a union representing ambulance personnel members. The HSE deducts subscriptions at source for those ambulance staff who are members of SIPTU. It should be noted that the facilitation of deductions at source is not a legal right, but is rather a concession granted to recognised unions. While individuals have a right to be members of any trade union, they do not have the right to have such membership facilitated or recognised by their employers.

Phase 1 of the action saw the unions involved use alleged health and safety concerns to advance their industrial action.

Phase 1 of the action involved the unions using alleged health and safety concerns to advance their industrial action. This included a range of measures, including the standing down of vehicles which fail daily inspections and vehicles not in compliance with health and safety legislation. Under normal circumstances, rather than simply standing these vehicles down, ambulance personnel would be expected to take such action as necessary to ensure that they enter service as soon as possible.

The HSE has received further notification from NASRA members of their intention to escalate this industrial action from today, 7 November. NASRA members have advised that they will not make themselves available for additional shifts outside their rostered hours. This is in addition to the industrial action that is already under way.

I can confirm that the National Ambulance Service is monitoring the situation closely and has put contingency plans in place to mitigate the risk of any potential disruption to service. It is a key priority for me to ensure that there is no disruption to this fundamental front-line service as a result of this dispute.

I thank the Minister of State. If it is not a legal right, is it illegal to join a union of one's choice? It seems this is a dogfight, with SIPTU and the HSE cosily together on one side and, on the other, up to 500 members who have decided that they do not want to belong to that representative body and they have asked other people to represent them. They have represented them hundreds of times in industrial relations processes and grievances. The winter is approaching and we cannot afford 500 members of the paramedic and the ambulance crews to be out of service. We cannot afford it for the people. It is the last thing they want to do.

The real question is where is the freedom of an individual to decide that if a particular section or staff representative is not representing the person adequately and if so they can move to where they feel they will be represented. The figure of 500 is en masse. That is a large number of ambulance personnel to move.

I am not sure the Minister of State can solve that one.

The Senator asked a very direct question on whether, if it is not a legal right, it is illegal to join a union of one's choice. No it is not illegal. There is no corollary between the two. There are many things that do not involve a legal right but that are not illegal. It does not go hand in hand in any sphere and is not specific to what the Senator detailed.

I can only repeat what is the HSE's position, which is already on the record of the House. Anybody is entitled to join any union he or she wants. The area of subscription deduction is a concessionary aspect and is done on the basis of goodwill by the HSE with unions that are recognised. Other than repeating the HSE position, I am afraid I cannot bring any more clarity to the matter.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Devine. We shall move on to the Commencement matter from Senator Lombard, one of the key people in the Minister of State's constituency.

Respite Care Services Provision

I welcome the Minister of State. I wish to raise the issue of respite care services, especially those located in my part of the world. I am sure the Minister of State is very much aware of the matter to which I am about to refer. The lack of respite services is an issue that has dogged our communities and society for a long time. At the beginning of the recession and under another Administration, there was a major cut to respite services. Unfortunately, we have never really restored the services that were lost. In many ways, this is a major issue to which consideration must be given.

I am concerned about the respite care services located in Garrettstown, near Garrylucas. The building in which these services are located is fantastic. It is a massive structure with a great deal of potential. There are more than 20 rooms in the building, which is located at Garrylucas Beach and which looks out on the most scenic part of the world one could ever come across. Currently, it is only open to the general public for four months each year. People come to my constituency office daily and weekly who are seeking respite care services. There is great annoyance that we have such a wonderful building and that it is only open for four months of the year. Families in the area might get access for four nights respite care. The building to which I refer is not open at weekends; it only opens on weeknights. People only have access to the service from Monday through to Thursday. This is a real point of concern. Our community is trying to get this matter onto the agenda. We have a structure with such capacity at Garrettstown Beach which is located in an area in which there is great need. How we can ensure that the service on offer there will be improved? In the longer term, can we move towards the level of service that existed previously? Before the recession and the cuts, the service was open for eight months of the year. As already stated, this has been cut back to four. Even in the winter, it is a lovely location.

This is about a vision for the building. I am sure that the Minister of State is very much aware of the structure to which I refer. It is one of the most wonderful buildings one could ever come across. For it to be closed for two thirds of the year does not make sense. If we could have a coherent plan to tie in the structure, the services, the service provider and the HSE in order to ensure that we can develop what is on offer, then the local community would be a lot better served in the long term. This is a conversation that we need to commence. How can we ensure that structures such as that to which I refer can be developed? In many ways, it is about trying to rejig and work on respite services. The Minister of State might agree that experiencing the dilemma of trying to access services is very stressful for families. The families in question do so much for our community and all they are seeking is a little more help. Four nights of respite care given to a family for one year is really not sufficient when one takes into consideration the great work they do on behalf of the State and the Government.

I put it to the Minister of State that perhaps we might look at developing a long-term plan and that we might work to ensure that the building and the project are included in that plan in order to ensure the extension of respite services and, more importantly, that the building will be utilised during the entire year.

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this important issue.

The Government is committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities that will empower them to live independent lives, provide greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives. We are particularly committed to providing a range of accessible respite care supports to people with disabilities and their families. We have always been acutely aware of the pressure on carers to which looking after people with disabilities gives rise. Such carers are often under tremendous strain to keep going. That is why my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, Deputy Finian McGrath, sought and secured an additional €10 million earlier this year for a dedicated national respite programme to specifically enhance respite services for people with disabilities and their families. This additional funding has provided for the equivalent of 12 new houses to be opened in order to enable carers to get a well-deserved break and to maintain their own health and well-being. One of these new respite houses was opened in Kerry on the 30 March. In addition, the HSE, in conjunction with CoAction, will be progressing the development of a respite house in west Cork between now and December. Discussions are ongoing in respect of this development. This respite house will be open to referrals for respite across County Cork.

Garrettstown is a regional respite service run by the Brothers of Charity in Cork in a rural coastal location close to the seafront. The respite service is currently seasonal whereby service users from Cork Kerry Community Healthcare can apply for short breaks during the summer months. The complex at Garrettstown is large and has capacity for large groups to attend simultaneously. As a result, it provides a true holiday experience. Families or service users can be supported in the peripheral facilities. In order to consider an extension of the service outside of the summer months, the service structure would require significant investment of both capital and revenue. Re-registration would be required with HIQA and the current model of service would require review and restructuring to extend services. Heating and insulation would also require significant upgrading. The structure is utilised by the Brothers of Charity to accommodate a small group of service users for respite in the off-season. One wing of the facility is utilised to provide this weekend respite service every six weeks.

Cork Kerry Community Healthcare disability service continues to work with the service providers to advocate for the further enhancement of respite services in the Cork and Kerry area.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, but I am quite disappointed. I am looking for a vision for the building. Previously, it was open for six to eight months of the year. Now it is being limited to opening during the summer months. We need to work with the structures and buildings that are in place. The Minister of State referred to an issue regarding heating or insulation.

Addressing that would involve only a small capital cost rather than necessitating the construction of a new state-of-the-art building. I had hoped that the HSE would have a vision for it. The Minister of State is involved in this area, he knows the issue and the constituency well. We need to have such vision but from the response to this matter the HSE does not appear to have a vision for it. The Minister of State might talk to the HSE to see if it could have a long-term vision for this premises. The Minister of State has probably been to the premises. It is a large complex with considerable potential. There is great frustration locally that we cannot ensure it stays open more than four months of the year.

I thank the Senator for his comments. I am familiar with the building. As I outlined in my initial response, it presents a number of challenges. Reregistration with HIQA would be an issue if we were to extend the services there. In addition, some structural works would be required to make the building suitable for delivery of that service all year around.

The HSE is committed to advancing and progressing respite services across Cork county. I have been involved in trying to progress that issue in the constituency. I am glad a respite house will be opened in my home town of Clonakilty. It will probably open initially in Skibbereen and the facility will move to Clonakilty probably towards the end of 2019. We will have a respite facility for the county of Cork as part of the overall €10 million allocation that was made nationally. I was very glad that some of that allocation was made for respite facilities in west Cork. The HSE currently provides 182,000 respite nights a year. I am glad, as I am sure the Senator will be, that capacity is increasing in the constituency of Cork South-West. We can argue the toss all day every day but at least there is a capacity increase in west Cork. That will be welcomed by the families of all those people who require respite services. That will happen in December 2018 and the facility will move to Clonakilty later in 2019.

The house in Garrettstown will continue to play an integral part in the provision of a respite service run by the Brothers of Charity for four months of the year. There are significant challenges to enhancing it to the provision of a year-round service but it is one we can certainly continue to keep under review.

Nursing Homes Support Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank him for taking time out of his schedule to come to take this matter. It is very much appreciated. This matter relates to the fair deal scheme on which the Minister of State is doing some work. I refer to the way this issue affects farm families and small businesses in particular. As the Minister of State will be aware, there is a three-year cap on payments based on the assets of residential dwelling houses but unfortunately this cap does not extend to the farm holdings and small businesses. As he comes from a rural part of the country, I am sure the Minister of State can appreciate the hardship this can impose on a farm family in particular and any small business owner where payments based on their assets extend beyond the three-year cap on payments that applies to the owners of residential dwellings.

I have met many families who have found their farms will not be viable in the future because of payments that apply. Livelihoods and lands that may have been in families for generations have been lost in some cases because lands have had to be disposed of to meet the full cost of the nursing home bill.

Many people have contacted the Minister of State on this issue. He has taken this matter on board and he is doing work on it. He might be able to advise where this debate is currently at and when his proposals are likely to see the light of day. It is important this proposed legislation is introduced and that the scheme is adapted to ensure a burden is not placed on small farms and small businesses. It is also important that we look to the future. I have heard the Minister of State say many times that perhaps a fair deal scheme could also be introduced to enable people to stay in their homes and have the backup they would require as not every older person needs to go to a nursing home. If proper supports funded by the State were provided many people would be able to stay at home. I am sure everyone would wish to stay in their own home and live within their communities and family set-up. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's comments on that matter. I apologise for not being here until the last minute and I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I assure him that if I had to wait another 20 minutes for him I would have been quite happy to wait because I always appreciate any time somebody draws attention to this particular issue and gives me an opportunity to provide an update on it. I am in competition with many other Ministers who are trying to get their legislation through the House and their priorities addressed, and we are all fighting for limited resources.

I genuinely very much appreciate the Senator raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to give it some more focus, provide an update and keep it as a priority for both Houses, as the legislation will have to go through both Houses. I will appreciate the Senator's support at that stage when we bring the legislation through the Houses to ensure that we get it through in a timely manner.

To answer specifically the Senator's question as to where this is currently at, I said when I took up the job of Minister of State that this was a priority and that I wanted to deal with it. We had to go through a great deal of engagement with various bodies. I acknowledge the representative farm bodies in particular. They kept this on the agenda for many years and highlighted the challenges faced by real farm families in respect of this particular issue.

The Senator has already outlined to the House the terms. As he is aware, there is a 7.5% deduction of assets year on year, capped at three years where it applies to a family home. If it is a farm or business, however, there is no such three-year cap. The deduction further applies to 80% of one's income. In effect, when somebody decides to go to a nursing home, 7.5% of his or her farm or business can be deducted indefinitely. If someone ended up staying in a nursing home for ten years, potentially 75% of the assets would go back to the State. We all know about farm succession and the fact that other family members rely on these assets. As such, we are trying to stop that. One of the key issues and challenges is the fact that many people have lots of other changes they would like to see made to the fair deal scheme. However, I am adamant that if we stick to this one change and support making it happen in a timely and efficient manner, it will be a significant matter for these families. It would avoid too much tinkering with what is a comprehensive Act. The Nursing Homes Support Scheme Act 2009 is an extensive enactment and we have to be very careful when we start to tinker with it.

In July 2018, I sought and received the approval of Cabinet to proceed to draft legislation to apply the three-year cap to farms and businesses. As such, it is official Government policy. The heads of the Bill are being drafted by my officials. A number of legal issues and anomalies have arisen and a number of "what if" scenarios have been brought to our attention. We have to get the legislation right as we do not want it challenged in the courts. We do not want the legislation to be inequitable; we want it to be as fair as it can be. We are working on those challenges behind the scenes but I am hopeful the draft heads will be approved by the Government by the end of the year. As soon as the draft heads are approved and published, we can proceed to legislate in 2019. That is where I will be looking for as much help as I can get to prioritise the Bill on the legislative programme. Of course, many Ministers are trying to get their legislation onto the agenda.

The Senator asked about the home care scheme and I support him in that regard. I have always been a strong proponent of the provision of more options than just home and the nursing home. People need those options but traditionally that is all that has been available to older people. It has been a case of either staying at home or going to a nursing home whereas I have always believed we should have had many more options, including supported housing models. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, and I will host a conference in Dublin next week to look at initiatives and models of providing supported housing for elderly people which will allow them to continue to live behind their own front doors in a supported way and which may not necessitate them going to nursing homes at all.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. I am heartened by it and I hope the Bill will be drafted before the of the year and enacted speedily. There will be people who have loved ones entering nursing homes today. What will the position be if the legislation is introduced in mid-2019? How will it affect someone who has applied for the fair deal scheme today? I welcome the Minister of State's comments on any model which encourages people, in the phrase he used, to live behind their own front doors. I look forward to the conference and the publication of whatever report emerges from it. It is the way forward. It is a much cheaper and more cost-effective for the Exchequer to keep people in their own homes. I appreciate that sometimes people have no choice but to go to a nursing home and that we are very fortunate to have them. However, where possible, the priority should be to keep people behind their own front doors, in the Minister of State's words.

The Deputy asks a pertinent and important question as to what a family should do today where a decision is being made in respect of an elderly relative or what a person should decide as to whether he or she should enter a nursing home himself or herself. Are they going to delay a decision because there has been commentary in the news about changes to the scheme such that it will not be as severe or punitive financially? There is no gain for anyone in delaying entering nursing home care as there will be a retrospective aspect to the legislation. At whatever stage in 2019 the legislation is enacted by the Houses and signed by the President, we will apply it retrospectively to anyone who is already in a nursing home. People will have to pay for three years anyway. As such, a person debating about going into a nursing home or waiting for a change, should of course go in. I hope that any older person will make that decision as soon as care is necessitated because he or she will, in any event, have to meet the 7.5% contribution for three years. We can presume with reasonable confidence that this legislation will be well wrapped up within that three years. It will apply then to anyone who has been within the system for three years. While there will be no recoupment for those who have been in there for seven years and we will not be giving any money back, anyone who comes into the system or who is one, two or three years into their phase will see the recoupment stop after three years. As such, there is no financial benefit to anyone in delaying the decision to go into a nursing home.

Sitting suspended at 11.17 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.