I am delighted to be in the House on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, to introduce this important legislation. The Minister regrets she cannot be here as she is obliged to be at a ministerial meeting of the EU Employment Council today. However, she is looking forward to working with the Seanad to ensure the passage of the Bill before the end of the year.
As Senators will know, the main purpose of the Bill is to ensure a legislative basis for the increases in social welfare rates, including the €5 increase in the maximum rate of all weekly social welfare payments, announced as part of budget 2019. The Bill also contains a number of key reforms to the social protection system. In particular, the Bill provides, for the first time, for the introduction of a higher rate of payment for qualified children aged 12 years and over. This responds directly to research which has consistently identified that older children have additional and different needs from children in younger age groups. Another very important measure is included in section 9 which provides the legislative basis for the review of the State pension (contributory) entitlements of pensioners who were awarded less than the maximum rate of the State pension (contributory) following changes to the rate bands introduced in 2012.
A very substantial body of work has already been undertaken in the past number of months. The Department has been issuing letters to more than 70,000 Irish resident contributory pensioners, while a further 8,000 letters to non-resident pensioners will issue this month. These letters explain the review process and informs pensioners that the Department will contact them with the outcome of their individual pension review.
There are other measures contained in the Bill which will have a positive impact on the situation of lone parents. They will benefit from an increase in the earnings disregard as well as from the increases in the weekly rates of payment and the increases in the qualified child payment. The Minister was very pleased to be able to respond to an issue which was raised with her at the pre-budget forum last summer by providing in the Bill that the domiciliary care allowance will continue to be paid for three months in those cases where the child being cared for passes away. I welcome that measure particularly.
An amendment to the Pensions Act 1990 is being provided for in this Bill which I know will be welcomed by Seanad Members. We are providing for a right of entitlement to spousal pension benefits, in certain circumstances, to same-sex couples where the scheme member could not have entered into a legally recognised relationship such as marriage or civil partnership, with his or her partner because the relevant legislation, namely, the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act of 2010 and the Marriage Act of 2015, had not been enacted in Ireland. It is appropriate that I extend my thanks to Dr. David Parris, as well as to Members of this Chamber, in particular, Senator Bacik, for their instrumental role in enabling this issue to be addressed.
Before I go through the various sections, I should mention that some other significant budget measures are not covered in this Bill. Some, like the Christmas bonus being paid this week, the increase of €25 in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and the introduction of a disregard for maintenance payments for the working family payment, are matters which are dealt with by way of regulations rather than by primary legislation. Two other key measures in the budget, namely, the extension of jobseeker’s benefit to the self-employed and the introduction of the paid parental benefit scheme, will be legislated for next year prior to their formal introduction before the end of 2019.
I will now briefly outline each of the provisions contained in this Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title of the Bill, its construction and citations and commencement provisions. Section 2 provides for definitions of terms used in Part 2 of the Bill, which concerns amendments to the Social Welfare Acts.
Section 3 provides for an increase of €10, from €376 to €386, in the reckonable earnings threshold for employees where employer PRSI contributions are paid at the lower rate of 7.8%. This change reflects the increase in the minimum wage from €9.50 to €9.80 per hour from 1 January 2019 and will ensure that the same proportion of employer contributions is paid at the lower rate.
Section 4 provides for changes to reflect, in respect of PRSI collection, the introduction in January 2019 by the Revenue Commissioners of a real-time system in place of the current monthly or annual return system. Under the new system, a return to Revenue will be required on each occasion a worker is paid. The amendment will take effect from 1 January 2019.
Sections 5 to 7, inclusive, provide for the increased weekly rate of maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit with effect from 25 March 2019.
Section 8 sets out the proportionate increases in the rates of jobseeker’s benefit which are payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings are less than a prescribed amount. The new rates take effect from 21 March 2019.
Section 9, as I mentioned, sets out the legislative basis to allow us to proceed to apply an alternative method, namely, the aggregated contributions method, for determining entitlement to the State pension (contributory) for persons who attained pensionable age on or after 1 September 2012 and who, under the existing yearly average method, are not entitled to a State pension (contributory) at the full rate.
Sections 10 and 11 address a gap in the current legislation to ensure a person who was in the care of the State on attaining the age of 18 years is fully exempted from the age-related reduced-rate payments of jobseeker’s allowance or supplementary welfare allowance. Currently, that exemption expires when the claimant concerned attains the age of 25 years, while the age-related reduced rates continue to apply until age 26. Pending enactment of this legislation, the Minister has applied these provisions on an administrative basis to ensure that no claimant is negatively impacted in the interim.
Section 12 is an amendment to the Bill as initiated which the Minister was happy to accept in the Dáil. It simply confirms the existing legislative position and practice of the Department insofar as exceptional needs payments under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme are concerned. I mentioned earlier that the Bill is providing that domiciliary care allowance, DCA, will continue to be paid for three months in those cases where the child in respect of whose care the allowance is being paid dies. There are similar provisions in the case of the carer’s allowance and the extension of that approach to recipients of DCA is provided for in section 13.
Section 14 provides for a review of the carer’s allowance. This measure reflects the shared views of the Minister and all sides of the Dáil and, I am sure, of the Seanad, that it is timely to reflect on the position of carers given the crucial role they play in society. I commend carers for their great work, particularly in the area of my own portfolio, disability issues.
Section 15 provides that decisions to award a social welfare benefit or payment which is to the benefit of a claimant, a positive decision in other words, can be made by an automated information system. Just as importantly, it also provides that decisions which deny entitlement to a benefit or payment can only be made by a deciding officer.
Section 16 provides for the formal repeal of the prescribed relative allowance, a legacy scheme which has been closed to new applicants since the introduction in 1990 of the carer’s allowance scheme. The last claim for this payment closed in 2017.
Section 17 and Schedule 1 provide for the necessary amendments throughout the Act to cater for the important reform I mentioned earlier whereby separate rates of the qualified child increase for children aged under 12 years and those aged 12 and older are being introduced.
Section 18, together with Schedule 2, provide for new rates in respect of social insurance benefits. All maximum weekly insurance-based pensions and benefits will be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for, along with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 years and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 21 and 29 March 2019.
Section 19 relates to the issue of benchmarking of social welfare rates. The Minister indicated on budget day that with the core rates now having been largely restored, the business of setting headline welfare rates should be examined. There are different approaches to benchmarking which seem to be effective in other countries, typically using a system whereby core rates are fixed each year by reference to market earnings price levels. It is timely that we look towards developing a framework for an informed, rational and evidence-based approach to setting welfare rates. This section of the Bill commits the Minister to consulting stakeholders on these issues. Consultation will be extremely beneficial in that regard.
Section 20 responds to a recommendation contained in the Make Pay Work report published last year under the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. In practical terms, the section dispenses with the practice of distinguishing between employment of a rehabilitative nature and work more generally for recipients of disability allowance, blind pension and some recipients of the supplementary welfare allowance. In addition to making it easier for recipients of those payments to take up employment opportunities, this measure will also reduce the administrative workload for GPs and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This is very important in respect of employment for people with disabilities.
Section 21 provides that a review will be undertaken of how maintenance payments are addressed in the various means-testing arrangements operated by the Department.
Section 22 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for the one-parent family payment from €130 to €150 per week, with effect from 28 March 2019. The effect of this measure will be to increase the amount of money that a lone parent will receive from employment without it reducing their social welfare benefit.
Section 23, together with Schedule 3, provide for new rates in social assistance payments.
All maximum weekly allowances are to be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for, with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 years and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 20 and 29 March 2019.
Section 24 simply formalises the Minister’s commitment that the analysis of the impact of Brexit on the range of reciprocal arrangements between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the social protection arena, will be made public on its completion.
Sections 25 and 26 provide for reviews of aspects of the eligibility conditions of the community employment and Tús schemes. While the Minister accepted these amendments in the Dáil, she made it abundantly clear that she did not share the view that it would be appropriate to contemplate enabling people aged 55 years to spend more than 12 years on community employment schemes.
Section 27, as I mentioned, provides for the necessary changes to the Pensions Act 1990 to enable a right of entitlement to spousal pension benefits to be extended in certain circumstances, to same-sex couples.
Sections 28 to 30, inclusive, relate to the Civil Registration Acts and provide that the terms of office of An tArd-Chláraitheoir, the Chief Registrar, and his or her deputy will be three years, renewable. These sections also provide that An tArd-Chláraitheoir and his or her deputy may resign his or her office any time.
Section 31 provides for an amendment to the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for a 0.1% increase, from 0.8% to 0.9%, in the National Training Fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in Class A and Class H employments from 1 January 2019.
I am pleased to commend the Bill to the House.