I am pleased to be in the Seanad to outline the contents of our new Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill. As Senators will know, the key purpose of this Bill is to enable the implementation of the social protection measures contained in budget 2020, while also serving a number of other purposes. It includes important measures to ensure I will be in a position to implement the Low Pay Commission's recommendations to provide for an increase in the minimum wage rate. It also includes measures which address the consequences of a Supreme Court ruling which found that the provisions of the Act which automatically disqualifies prisoners from entitlement to social welfare benefits are unconstitutional. Furthermore, the Bill includes provisions to provide reports on a number of important policy issues, as agreed in the Dáil. It also provides for a number of technical amendments to the social welfare code to clarify issues which have arisen or been identified over the past few years.
I will outline the Bill's various provisions shortly but I will first comment on the budget 2020 aspects of this Bill. Senators will recall that the budget was developed against the very real threat of Brexit. While it may seem to be in the distant past right now, it may loom again from next Friday. Brexit poses a threat to our economy and, consequently, a prudent approach to the public finances was absolutely necessary and the scope for increasing welfare rates was very limited. Against that background I was pleased that we succeeded in introducing measures which should provide real support to those who are most reliant on the State. In 2020, we will spend €21.2 billion on social protection. That figure includes more than €170 million in additional social welfare expenditure specifically targeting those most in need. In particular, an increase of €5 per week in the living alone allowance will benefit more than 216,000 older people and people with a disability who are living alone. We are also building on the increases introduced in last year's budget, such as the increase for a qualified child payment and the provision of higher rates of support for older children. From next January, families with children aged 12 and over will receive a weekly increase of €3 for each child and those with children under 12 will get a weekly increase of €2 for each child. I am glad to confirm that the increases in payment rates included in the Bill will take effect from various dates at the start of January rather than at the end of March, as has been the case in the past number of years. Those include an increase in the earnings disregard for claimants of the one-parent family payment, an increase in the income thresholds for claimants of the working family payment, and changes to the age-related rates of jobseeker's payments and supplementary welfare allowance.
Some of the measures contained in the budget do not require primary legislation and so are not reflected in this Bill. These include an increase of €2 per week in the fuel allowance to €24.50 from January, and extending the household benefits package for free gas and electricity to people under 70 who have another adult living with them. Funding of €2.5 million is being provided and ring-fenced to target specific job activation and training supports for those who are most distant from the labour market or who are prevented from accessing existing schemes by specific challenges. We have also extended the hot school meals programme introduced last year. The number of hours carers can work will be increased from 15 to 18.5 per week. We have also provided funding for important research into an issue which has been exercising Senators from all sides of the House, namely, how best to address difficult issues around maintenance payments. We will increase the earnings disregard for those in receipt of jobseeker's transition payment as well. I am also pleased to have received Government approval for the payment of the social welfare Christmas bonus, for which I wish we could find another name, at a rate of 100% again this year. That will be paid to some 1.2 million recipients this week. It benefits all recipients of long-term payments, including carers, people with disabilities, pensioners and lone parents.
I will now briefly outline the contents of the 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 relate to amendments to the Social Welfare Acts.
Section 3 arises out of the provisions of section 28 and both relate to the national minimum wage. Section 28 amends the National Minimum Wage Act to provide me with the power to introduce an order providing for the implementation, in full, of the latest recommendation of the Low Pay Commission, which was to increase the minimum wage from €9.80 to €10.10 per hour in the event of an orderly Brexit. This amendment is needed because, as it stands, I have no powers to cater for the Brexit situation. This section also specifically recognises that this is a once-off situation by including a sunset clause, which means the section will cease to have effect once the next report of the commission comes to the Minister of the day. Section 3 is related to section 28 as it provides that when I introduce the order for the increase in the minimum wage, I will also be able to introduce a parallel order to increase the earnings threshold at which the higher rate of PRSI is paid to ensure that, as in previous years, employers are not doubly hit.
Section 4 provides for amendments to the qualifying conditions for a number of working age payments to address the consequences of a Supreme Court judgment which found that provisions of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 relating to the entitlements of prisoners were unconstitutional. I am sure that some Senators will recall that the court found that the automatic disallowance of entitlement to benefits when a claimant is imprisoned is unconstitutional since this represents an extrajudicial punishment.
I should say that it will be necessary in a future Bill to introduce further measures arising from this judgment but my Department was not able to finalise these in time for this Bill. The measures contained in section 4 relate solely to working age payments and are concerned with the qualifying conditions for various illness and disability related payments. The effect of the amendments is to reinforce a core principle of eligibility for these working age payments, which is that the unavailability for work is as a direct result of a physical or mental illness. In other words, the customer is not in receipt of a payment for the illness or disability itself and the sole or principal reason why the person concerned is not available for work is because of the illness or disability and no other reason.
The amendments respond directly to the findings of the Supreme Court and will have no impact whatsoever on the overwhelming majority of claimants. In practical terms, they provide that where a person is in receipt of one of these working age benefits but becomes unavailable for work for a secondary reason, such as incarceration, that person will no longer fulfil the eligibility conditions for the payment. This type of conditionality is already in place for other working age schemes and that is why we do not need to introduce changes to those schemes. For jobseeker's payments, for instance, it is a requirement that a claimant must be available for full-time work in order to qualify.
Section 5 is a technical amendment which brings the definition of "confinement" for maternity benefit purposes into line with the definition used in the Civil Registration Acts. By bringing the definitions into line with each other, we are ensuring that where a child is unfortunately stillborn and has a birth weight of 500 grammes, the child's mother will qualify for maternity benefit irrespective of the child's gestational age. While this is a small change, it is an important one for the few mothers who were affected in the past and I am very happy that it has been brought to my attention and to be in a position for us collectively to be able to fix this.
Section 6 provides that the reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance for claimants aged 18 to 24 will no longer apply where the claimant lives independently and is in receipt of housing supports. The full rate of jobseeker's allowance will be paid to these persons with effect from 1 January 2020. Section 7 is an amendment which I was happy to accept in the Dáil and provides that a report on the effects of reduced jobseeker rates must be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within three months. Section 8 provides that, from 1 January 2020, the age-related reduced rate of jobseeker’s allowance will no longer apply to younger claimants once they have attained the age of 25.
Section 9 is a technical amendment and updates the legislative provisions governing entitlement to carer's allowance. The amendment confirms that the definition of a relevant person, that is, a person who requires full-time care and attention, means, in the case of a person aged under 16, a person in respect of whom a domiciliary care allowance is in payment. Sections 10 and 11 provide that the age-related rates of supplementary welfare allowance will no longer apply where the claimant lives independently and is in receipt of housing supports and that age-related rates generally will no longer apply to those who attain the age of 25. These are mirror images of the amendments to jobseeker's payments contained in sections 6 and 8.
Section 12 is an important budget measure that provides for an increase of €10 in the weekly income thresholds which determine the level of working family payment for families with up to three children. This change will take effect from 9 January 2020. Section 13 is a technical amendment to make it absolutely clear in the legislation that the payment of guardian's payments to a guardian in respect of an orphan does not affect the right of the guardian to claim welfare payments in his or her own right. Section 14 is a technical amendment which updates section 247 of the Act to set out the payments which may not be paid concurrently with the working family payment. Section 15 is another technical amendment which brings the legislative provisions relating to social welfare payments after the death of a claimant fully into line with long-standing policy and practice. In particular, it makes it clear that such payments are made to the surviving spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the deceased.
Section 16 provides for the repeal of section 282 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, which currently provides for reduced cost life event - birth, marriage or death - certificates. This is a matter which is more appropriately dealt with under civil registration law and the equivalent provisions in the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014 will be commenced in parallel with this repeal. Those provisions will allow regulations to be made by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the purpose of setting the fees, if any, for the provision of life event certificates.
Section 17 provides for amendments to the existing provisions relating to the recovery of certain benefits where a compensator, typically an insurance company, is also paying compensation in respect of the same injury, accident or disease that gave rise to the claim for a social welfare payment. First, it adds supplementary welfare allowance to the list of specified benefits which may be recovered and second, it adjusts the period within which a request for a statement of recoverable benefits must be issued to a compensator from four weeks to 25 working days.
Sections 18 and 22 are key sections of the Bill since they provide for a €2 increase in the rate of the qualified child payment for children aged under 12 from €34 to €36 per week, as well an increase of €3, from €37 to €40 per week for children aged 12 and over. These sections also provide for an increase of €5 per week in the rate of the living alone allowance. Depending on the scheme involved, these measures come into effect on dates between 1 January and 10 January 2020. Section 19 provides that the blind welfare allowance, a payment made by the HSE, will be disregarded in the means test for certain social assistance payments and in particular for disability allowance. This measure comes into effect from 10 January 2020. Section 20 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payment from €150 to €165 per week, with effect from 9 January 2020.
Section 21 is another technical amendment which updates references set out in the means-testing provisions contained in table 2 of Schedule 3 to reflect changes in structures, for instance with the establishment of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and changes in practices, by recognising that certain payments may be made by agencies contracted by the HSE, as well as being made directly by the HSE itself. Sections 23 to 27, inclusive, are all amendments that were added to the Bill in the Dáil and require that reports be prepared on a number of issues, including the qualifying conditions for treatment benefit; the adequacy of treatment benefit supports towards the cost of hearing aids; the impact on low-income families of increases in carbon taxes; the qualifying conditions for the fuel allowance scheme, and the most appropriate State pension age. Part 3 of the Bill provides for amendments to the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 and the National Training Fund Act 2000. I explained earlier the purpose of section 28 and why this is needed in the context of the uncertainties caused by Brexit. Section 29 is the final section of the Bill and it provides for a 0.1% increase, from 0.9% to 1%, in the National Training Fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in class A and class H employments with effect from 1 January 2020.
This Bill clearly demonstrates our continued commitment to providing a better deal for families and older people as reflected particularly in the increased rates of payment for qualified children and the increase in the living alone allowance. While the 2020 budget had to be especially cautious in light of the risks associated with Brexit, we have nevertheless succeeded in further building on the significant increases of recent years and we have been careful to maintain the focus on the most vulnerable groups in our society. I commend the Bill to the House.