Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill 2019: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

Fianna Fáil is acutely aware of the threat of a no-deal Brexit that the Minister has alluded to on a couple of occasions. In 2016 Fianna Fáil met the challenge and has since then provided stability and continuity that has stood the country in good stead during the ongoing Brexit uncertainty and the political instability in Westminster. It was and remains the right approach and the fourth budget under the confidence and supply agreement, which gives effect to this Bill, is a testament to the responsibility and maturity of Fianna Fáil's approach.

The Bill gives effect to the Government decision to defer the increase in the national minimum wage until Brexit uncertainty is resolved. Fianna Fáil was the party that introduced the national minimum wage in 2000. We have also protected and promoted workers' rights. We recognise the threat that a no-deal Brexit poses to Ireland's economic prosperity. In its latest quarterly bulletin, the Central Bank projects that employment will be 73,000 lower in 2021 and unemployment is forecast to rise to 5.8% in 2020 and 6.9% in 2021. This is over two percentage points higher than in a deal scenario. It is therefore imperative that if a no-deal scenario arises jobs are protected inasmuch as possible. However, once the threat of a no-deal Brexit is removed, the Minister should act immediately and implement the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission.

Ultimately, budget 2020 was not our budget and it is far from perfect. Fianna Fáil is disappointed that there is no primary welfare increase for pensioner couples or carers of people with disability. Fianna Fáil makes no apologies for use of influence, inasmuch as is feasible, to fight for modest gains for the most vulnerable in our society. To that end we welcome the increases in targeted payments, including the living-alone allowance, fuel allowance, qualified child increase and the increase in the income thresholds for the working family payment. The one-parent family payment is amended in this Bill too. I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss the Bill with us today.

Our next speaker is Senator Devine. Senator, do you wish to share time with Senator Gavan or do you wish to use your full eight minutes? I do not mind either way.

I might not use the full eight minutes.

If there is any time left over I will allocate it to Senator Gavan.

He still has five minutes, does he not?

He does if he wants it, but he has indicated that he only wishes to speak briefly. It is only if there is time left over.

We will share it. If I find some sort of impetus to go on, I will do so.

Go ahead. You have eight minutes.

I welcome the Bill and I hope to see its speedy passage in order to have enacted by January next year.


I acknowledge that the Minister worked in a collaborative spirit in the Lower House to achieve this timeline and I look forward to working in a similar vein as it passes through the Seanad.

The main purpose of the Bill is to make the necessary legislative changes to allow the provisions contained in budget 2020 to be commenced, including the social welfare payment increases from January 2020.

Social welfare increases are only welcomed by recipients and stakeholders because the payments are inadequate in the first place. They welcome the changes but could do with far more to live on. The increase of certain payments by €2, €3 and €5 is not making social welfare payments adequate. Moreover, the increases are not based on evidence. When we bring forward legislation it should be done through the lens of an evidence base. We should be working towards making all social welfare supports adequate for those who rely on them and we should be moving to an evidence-based approach.

Sinn Féin has put forward a fully costed and workable solution. We envisage a social welfare commission that would use evidence, including the minimum essential standard of living as set out annually by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice to make recommendations to Government on social welfare rates annually ahead of the annual budget. I know the Minister is looking at this type of work. We will be pushing this further in the new year. It could transform the way social welfare is provided in the country.

I wish to raise my concern regarding young jobseekers. The Bill stipulates that those aged between 18 and 24 years will see their payment rate increased to the full rate if they live independently and in receipt of State housing support. We all know the housing crisis affecting our young people. People are waiting over 13 years in some areas for permanent housing while the rest are reliant on the housing assistance payment. We know of the extreme difficulty people on HAP are having in renting private accommodation. Many need a top-up payment. These young adults are living at home with their parents on the decreased rate. I cannot imagine a scenario where a young person will be able to live independently with social housing support while unemployed. I guess this is a chicken-and-egg scenario, further trapping our young people in poverty. How can a young person live independently to get the social welfare rate needed to live independently?

I commend my colleague, Deputy John Brady. He successfully tabled a motion in the Dáil to address this. The Minister alluded to this in her statement. The amendment requires the Minister to present a report on the poverty impact of reduced rates of jobseeker payment for young jobseekers aged between 18 and 24 years to the joint committee within three months of enactment. I look forward to reading the report and I hope the Minister pays attention to the findings. I truly believe the discrimination against our young job seekers is causing them harm. Without pre-empting the results of the report, if I am correct in my beliefs the Minister and her Department will have a serious obligation to right these wrongs.

Sinn Féin also amended section 25 in the Dáil, calling on the Minister to undertake an impact statement on the current and projected future increases in carbon tax on low-income families and to report within six months. As a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Action I have been arguing against the carbon tax consistently. I believe it is regressive. Following decades of failure it will serve only to increase the cost burden on households without offering any feasible alternative, particularly for those on lower incomes who can least afford it. We need to be more dynamic, positive and creative in dealing with climate change. The carbon tax is none of these things. I recommend that once the report is published it should be presented to the Joint Committee on Climate Action for consideration.

I wish to raise a serious omission from the Bill. This is the issue of a lacuna in statute that excludes married same-sex male adopters from accessing 24 weeks of adoptive leave. Since 2016, the Government has consistently stated that it would address this loophole. This group is the only family type that cannot receive this leave. Given its recent omission from the Parent's Leave and Benefits Act 2019, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, stated he would address it in this Bill. Yet, it seems to be on the missing list. In the Dáil on Second Stage, the Minister said it would be inserted via amendments on either Committee Stage or Report Stage, but that has yet to happen. I am aware the amendments are taking more time than expected but the Government committed to Senator Norris in 2016 that it would address this loophole. Had the Government started the work on those amendments, it would have been well enacted by now.

I was discussing this issue with Senator Warfield. He said he has lost count of the times the Government has committed to addressing LGBT parent's rights. This arises usually via a press release, for which the Government gets great praise. However, it then fails consistently as other legislative priorities take precedence or take over. The Government needs to stop making commitments to LGBT parents if it ultimately chooses not to keep those commitments. I urge the Minister to take the steps necessary with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, whether it be hiring an external drafter or having a stand-alone Bill. It is beyond disappointing for same-sex parents to be told yet again that they must wait.

Finally, I wish to raise the issue of our unsung heroes - our carers. We know 200,000 of them are unpaid in this State. Some concerns have been raised by them and their advocacy groups. The Bill allows for an increase in the hours carers can work but not an increase in the amount of income disregarded. Did I miss something? This seems illogical. If we increase work, we increase pay. Carers should not be punished for this. I would appreciate if the Minister could address this. If not, I will consider tabling amendments to address the matter on Committee Stage.

Overall, I have no wish to delay the Bill passing. I know there are many people who need it passed by the end of the year to realise their small social welfare changes. I believe the Bill is a missed opportunity to see real change in our social welfare system. Sinn Féin has worked hard in the Dáil to strengthen this Bill by reaching out to the Minister. We will do the same as the Bill passes through this House.

I will finish with an aside in the Christmas spirit on the Christmas bonus.

I was thinking of Santa's little helper but then one often has to be on the often complicated good list to qualify.

I am sure the Senator would qualify.

I would qualify.

I welcome the Minister to debate this very important legislation that enacts changes made in the budget. One of the things I have always liked about that is the smart way we used our money. Rather than giving people straightforward cash, we used it in different ways so that people get benefits across the board rather than simple payments. We must recognise that over the past number of years, the budget in the Department has increased dramatically. This year, it has gone up by €700 million, which works out at an average of €145 per man, woman and child in this State. That is a sizeable sum of money.

I know the Minister is not directly associated with the training fund but the Department is the one Department that increases it. Over the past three years, it has gone up from 0.8% to 0.9% to 1%. I estimate that this will bring in about €900 million next year based on the fact that in 2019, it brought in about €744 million while in 2018, it brought in €166 million. Working off those figures, it should bring in almost €900 million next year, of which €300 million was not used in 2018 and has been set aside as part of the training fund. While the Department does not have a direct input into where that money is being sent, will the Minister do something to monitor how it is being spent? Some of us remember the debacle that was FÁS and the training fund being used to let people go away on foreign trips to the US. We need proper oversight of how that fund is being used because many small businesses struggle.

Although the Minister does not run Springboard courses, to qualify, an unemployed individual must have been in receipt of a payment for nine months. There are people who will fail that test because of their means. It is important that we do something to help those people who would not qualify in respect of the nine months. Once they can do the nine months, they are off their social welfare payment and get nothing. Therefore, they do not qualify for the courses. Could the Minister look at reducing the period from nine months to six so that people who have been on social welfare for six months can qualify? Does the Minister understand where I am coming from?

The Department runs the free travel scheme, which is very welcome and will be worth €95 million in 2020. It is roughly 10% of the revenue of the CIÉ group. This is a large amount of money and the Minister should have some say over the quality of the service it provides. I see old age pensioners waiting at bus stops with no shelters. I know it is not the Minister's function but perhaps she could say something. Buses do not arrive on time. A train was five minutes late this morning. I do not understand how a train can be five minutes late. There was nothing to block it and there were no signalling problems. People are waiting for a service to arrive. I visited Japan, where everything arrived like clockwork. Why can we not set that as our standard? The Department is paying 10% of the revenue of the CIÉ group so the Minister should have a say.

On 15 May 2012, I launched a report that suggested that we move to an hour-based system for social welfare payments. We are now at full employment. Certain people would like to work part time but if they work three out of five days, even if it is for one, two, three or four hours, or if they work one, two or three hours per day for four out of five days, they will not qualify for a payment. It is a day-based system. If we moved to an hour-based system that allowed people to work for three days and receive three days payment. If we allowed them to spread 24 hours over the week rather than having the three days, it might work better and encourage more people who are full-time unemployed to go back to work and still maintain their social welfare payments. I produced a report in 2012. I might send it on to the Minister.

I get a number of requests from people who are looking for the fuel allowance and have a small pension in addition to the State pension and are marginally over the level. Could we mark out a little grey area so that they might not get the full allowance but could get 50% of it? It would help people who are sometimes struggling. They are on their own and have a small pension that suddenly puts them over the limit, whereas if there were two of them, there would be no problem. Could the Minister look at that to help people who are marginally over the limit?

I welcome this Bill. It is imaginative. I would look at the overall package, which includes some health measures that were brought in, including increases relating to medical cards. We cannot take this in isolation. There is an overall package, which is the way I see things going. Sometimes when people get cash in their hands, they do not spend it on what it is supposed to be for but on something else. I know there are people who will argue that this is a decision for people to make but sometimes we need to help people to make the decision that is right for them.

The Minister is very welcome. I am here today because I want to raise a specific related matter, which is the planned increase in the pension age the year after next to 67. I know that the joint committee asked the Minister on an all-party basis to pause this decision. The report recommended that the Minister review the disparity between the retirement age and pension age and that the proposed increases in pensionable age should be suspended. I do not know if the Minister is aware that at the recent SIPTU biannual conference, which is a conference of the largest union in the country with about 180,000 members, this was the biggest issue. The union has decided that it will campaign vigorously in the run up to the election next year and ask all parties to pause this increase for the very simple reason that it is grossly unfair. This affects people who have worked for a living all of their lives. I am thinking of SIPTU colleagues working in security, contract cleaning and manufacturing, most of whom have no private pension provision. When it comes to the age of 66, they are then told that as their retirement age falls the following year, they must work for a further 12 months.

A myth has grown up around demographics in this country. I will set the record straight with regard to that. Ireland's current pension age of 66 stands in contrast to an EU average of 64 yet we have far fewer older people, nearly 30% less than other EU countries. The Government intends to increase the pension age to 68 by 2028. The OECD projects that based on current policies, the average EU pension age will only rise to 66 by mid-century. The Government intends to increase the pension faster than almost any other European country even though in 50 years' time, Ireland will still have the lowest number of older people, nearly 20% less than other EU countries. We have far fewer older people but we have and will continue to have one of the highest pension ages in the EU. There is no logic in this unless it is seen by Government as a crude revenue-saving measure introduced at the expense of retired workers.

I will quote from a number of those workers from the SIPTU conference. One, who is a co-operative store worker, said he would be retiring in 2026 but would not get the State pension until 2028. While he would get jobseeker's benefit for the first year, he then would have to rely on a meagre workplace pension, which was reduced by 25% during the downturn. He will be obliged to spend whatever lump sum he gets to survive. A second worker, who is a processor in the dairy industry, noted that although he had paid his taxes and PRSI all his working life, he will either be in poverty or be forced to continue working in a physically demanding job after he becomes 65. The facts as outlined tell us that we do not need to raise the pension age the year after next. The Minister's own Oireachtas joint committee has asked the Minister to pause this. There is something fundamentally unfair about a Minister who will receive a gold-plated pension deciding to deprive tens of thousands of workers of their pensions across the State who have worked all of their lives.

I ask the Minister, on behalf of all of the members of SIPTU and all of those who are due to retire, to listen to the Oireachtas joint committee, listen to the facts and pause that decision. Otherwise, she will face this issue on a very big scale next year in the run-up to the election.

I thank Senator Gavan and call the Minister to respond to the debate.

I thank the four Senators for their contributions. I thank Senator Davitt for his supportive words regarding the negotiation of the budget. Some of the input I got, particularly from Deputy Cowen, was very helpful.

I give an absolute guarantee that when I and the Government collectively have knowledge of how Brexit is going to turn out - I hope we will have a clear picture by next Friday evening or Saturday - I will give instructions to pay the minimum wage and obviously, the amendments in this Bill will allow me to do so. I thank him for that.

I appreciate that.

In response to Senator Devine, we propose to make some changes in respect of those who are under 25, that is, in respect of the 18 to 24 year olds in this particular Bill. It is something that Senator Warfield in particular has been seeking, as well as others in the Dáil, for the last number of years. Just because I am making the changes does not necessarily mean that I have changed the view I have expressed previously a number of times. The live register is no place for anybody aged 18, 19, 20, 21 or 22. We should not lose sight of the ambition that we should want our young people not to be on the live register. If, God forbid, they do not have work, which can be the case for a variety of reasons and not just the fact that there is no work, there are other social barriers they are experiencing now that must be addressed in a specific, targeted way. There are so many other things they could be doing with the employment opportunities that are there, the enhanced training opportunities, the back to education allowances and the community supports that are available. In other words, there are many other options that at least are on the ambitious pathway back to work. That is what we should want and that I want for younger people. While this may be seen to be acquiescing to the requests, it is also acknowledging the fact that some of our younger people are living independently and one cannot do that on €100. The age of 25 is probably not as young as it used to be previously. I have ambition to ensure that our rate of unemployed people under 25 years of age, which is far too high at 12%, will come down to be in line with our unemployment rate of 4.8% and dropping among the over-25s. I thank the Senator for acknowledging that it has been done.

I am gutted about the same-sex amendments not being ready. They are not even my amendments. They come from the Department of Justice and Equality. I had hoped that this Bill, which was the next legislation in the queue, would have been able to facilitate them. We all believe that we are speedier at doing things than others are. I would have loved it had they been in this Bill but they are not ready and I cannot make that Department give me something it tells me is not ready. The only other thing I can do is that in early January, there will be a civil registration Bill and we will ensure that the provisions are included in that. We have been arguing for it for too long and the Senator is dead right, in that this has been going on since 2015. The sad thing about this is that the civil registration part of the package that needed to be done is all done. The Senator was here with me last year when it was passed. We cannot commence something that is reliant on something else to be commenced, because I would be commencing something that is not there in Parts 2 or 3 of the Children and Family Relationships Act from the Department of Health, or in these two particular amendments on adoption rights from the Department of Justice and Equality. That is not saying that it is their fault. We are all in this together but it is an terrible pity that it could not be done in this particular Bill.

Can we get this done on a stand-alone basis or not?

We have engaged two external drafters for a number of Bills. I have a gender recognition Bill in that category. That is not the issue. It might take a week or two longer to get the permission through for this process but that is not the issue. I probably did not believe them in the beginning when they told how complicated it is but we need to get it right. This is something that people have been waiting for a long time for and the last thing one wants to do is to bring something forward that then has some other unintended consequence. We are very nearly there.

It is disappointing.

It is a pity but I wish to acknowledge what the Senator has raised on the floor of the House.

Senator Lawlor is right in that we do have an extra €700 million. I wish I had that money to spend on new initiatives this year but we did not. It goes to show the increasing demographic profile that we have, which belies what Senator Gavan has just said. To be respectful, we have a huge, rapidly ageing population. It is ageing in a healthier way and people are living much longer lives. That is what is putting an extra need on the fact that the social welfare budget and bill is now at a staggering €21.2 billion. People often talk about the social welfare Department as not being an economic one. I have never had the responsibility of €21.2 billion in my life before, as I have had in the last few years. It is the largest economic portfolio that this State has. We have a responsibility to all of those people to ensure that we can provide for them as they grow older and live to a greater and healthier age. That is why the Social Insurance Fund has to be shored up by the next number of years, to ensure that the ratio between pensioners and the workers who support those pension payments changes dramatically. We will probably go to 2.9 workers for five pensioners by 2030. We have to look to the Social Insurance Fund, how we shore it up and make changes, and how we calculate our State pension going forward. This is what the total contributions model is going to do, when I bring the memo to Cabinet after Christmas.

The Senator is right in that I do not have any responsibility for the Higher Education Authority, HEA, training fund. We just do the collecting and pass it over to the Department of Education and Skills, which has the responsibility of determining where it goes. In addition, the senior Accounting Officer in the Department of Education and Skills is the Accounting Officer for the governance of and fiduciary responsibility for how we spend that money. A report should issue from Comptroller and Auditor General each year. I am surprised there was so much money left in it last year because I would not have €300 million left in my budget at the end of a year. I would have it well spent. If one looks at the Comptroller and Auditor General's report at the end of the year, one will see exactly where the money is being spent.

I considered the Springboard scheme earlier on this year because one or two particularly heart-rending cases came to my attention. I was able to find a way around with one of those cases. The problem is that if one moves the nine months requirement to six months, one is still creating a cliff edge. What one cannot have is an attractiveness for a person to come onto the social welfare system just to come off it again to go into full-time education that is provided by the State. I am trying to find a balance. A review is currently going on as to where that balance actually lies. What I will not do is just move the goalposts from where it is at the moment, which is 234 days, to 200 days. All that does literally is to move the cliff from one point to the other. I will come back to the Senator on that review.

The Senator is absolutely right that apart from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, we are the biggest funder of public transport in this country. Yet, in the two and a half to three years that I have been in this role, the organisation that I would have met the most, if anyone was to check my diary over the last number of years, is Bus Éireann. This is simply because of the amount of complaints that come to me about scheduling, rescheduling, and the behaviour of people on buses. There are a number of issues. I believe there is a genuine desire and willingness on the part of the people running Bus Éireann and in particular, CI Dublin Bus, to provide state-of-the-art public services. When one is comparing Ireland with Japan, one is not comparing apples with apples but we have an ambition to get there. The investment of €1 billion in our rail network that was announced last week shows the kind of direction that this Government wants to take with public services.

Finally, in response to Senator Gavan, I understand his campaign. I do not necessarily agree with the premise behind it and the information that he has. I am not the person and this is not the Bill that is responsible for pausing legislation that had its inception in 2007, when the then Minister, Martin Cullen, had a memo agreed at Cabinet to introduce the changes that were brought in by law in 2011. This was after a very large public consultation had been conducted by the then Minister, Mary Hanafin.

SIPTU seemed to be of the belief that there was no public consultation and it played an enormous role in feeding into that public consultation. That legislation gave rise to the changes in 2014, 2021 and 2028. The reason for that want and recognition as far back as 2008 was because the Social Insurance Fund will run out of money unless we do something drastic. One of those changes is my responsibility insofar as the new calculation of the State pension is concerned, and we are moving to the new total contributions model next year. If we do not, the Social Insurance Fund will run into deficit in a short number of years. If we were to do what is suggested by SIPTU and pause the button next year, I would have to find in my Department a net €215 million for each year in which one wants to stand still, just to plug that hole. Not to be disrespectful to anybody who is of the opinion that this is relatively easy to do, given that the Department's budget, as I said to Senator Lawlor a moment ago, is increasing at a rate of €700 million a year - it will be more next year - simply because of the increase of demographics on the people who we serve, I do not know where we are supposed to get the extra €215 million. If it is to come out of the pot we already have, what cuts would one make and from whom would one take the €215 million? It is not a simple conversation but it is perhaps a conversation that needs to be had. Sinn Féin will have it. That party will make it a big issue during the election, and that is fine. However, the conversation must be had in the context of that.

The revisionism that belongs to some parties around this House is quite funny and that is why some people think I am being sarcastic when I hark back to 2007. This measure was first mooted by the then Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mr. Martin Cullen, in 2007. It was followed on by the then Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Ms Hanafin, in 2010. It was enacted by a Labour Party Minister in 2011. Those are all the people who now want to pause the button, stop the changes and go back to where we were in 2008 just because we have an election coming. It is not that simple.

No, with respect, it is a matter of fairness.

The Minister without interruption.

I do not necessarily agree with the Senator, and that is fine. We probably do not agree on many matters, and that is okay too.

There will be a robust defence of the decisions that were made. On the basis of that, when we took over in 2011, the Social Insurance Fund, SIF, had a small surplus. That surplus was devastated within two years and we were massively in deficit. The SIF has now a surplus of €3.9 billion but that will be gone in a short number of years, and will be gone a hell of a lot faster if those who are now popularising the proposal that we should go back to 65 years - just because there is an election coming - get their way. The Senator must figure out where he will get the money from.

It is not a fair characterisation.

The Senator will have to explain where the gaps will be filled for that populist want.

We can do that.

I genuinely look forward to it. If the Senator can come up with the magic concoction with which I can agree, I have no problem considering it.

It is not magic.

At present, the figures before us are stark and they are not only mine. We had econometric reviews done of the Social Insurance Fund. The ESRI has done reviews of it. They are not magic numbers. They are not made up just to suit our purposes. The ageing demographics of our population are well mapped out. The taxing on the Social Insurance Fund is also something that is well mapped out.

I wish the Senator well. If the he can come up with a formula that suits, we will definitely listen to him.

On a point of order-----

It is probably not a point of order but I will have to listen to it before I rule it out of order.

The Minister's own Department projects that the percentage of the national income spent on pensions-----

That is not a point of order.

-----will rise to 10.8% from 8%.

Will Senator Gavan resume his seat?

It is eminently doable.

Senator Gavan can talk to the Minister at some other point. Has the Minister concluded?

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 10 December 2019.
Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 4.40 p.m.