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

Sections 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.
Amendment No. 1 not moved.
Sections 4 to 12, inclusive, agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 13 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed?

No, it is not agreed.

Amendment No. 2 is in the name of Senator Higgins who is not here so it cannot be moved.

The Acting Chairman is asking if this is agreed and I am saying it is not.

That is fine because, as Senator Higgins is not here, the amendment cannot be moved.

Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Sections 13 to 27, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

Amendments Nos. 3, 4 and 11 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I was getting dizzy for a little while there.

I must be as efficient as possible.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 17, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:

“Report on financial impact of changes to hours Carers can work outside the home

28. The Minister shall prepare and produce a report on the impact of the increase in hours carers in receipt of Carer’s Allowance can work outside the home from 15 hours to 18.5 hours without a corresponding increase in the earnings disregard and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within 4 months of the enactment of this Act.”.

Amendment No. 3 relates to change announced in budget 2020 which increases the number hours that carers may work or study outside the home from 15 to 18.5. This was touched on in the debate on Second Stage last week. The increase is very welcome and was a priority for carers and the organisations that represent them. However, there has been no increase in the earnings disregard. It is not possible to do one without the other. The level of income disregard has remained static. Next year will be its 20th anniversary unless we reverse the decision not to increase it. Towards 2016 included a commitment by Government to expand the income disregard for carer's allowance so that those on the average industrial wage would qualify. By the end of 2018, average industrial earnings were approximately €762 while the income disregard for carer's allowance is €332 for a single person and €665 for a couple. Family Carers Ireland has highlighted the impact that increasing the hours carers can work without increasing the earnings disregard will have. The Minister should not ignore those concerns. I hope she will agree to the amendment.

Amendment No. 4 also relates to carers. The number one priority for carers, as outlined in Family Carers Ireland’s budget 2020 submission, is to “Reform the means test for Carer’s Allowance”. Alarm bells should sound when we see that only one in five of carers in Ireland receive carer’s allowance. The eligibility criteria are far too strict and are actively preventing carers from accessing social welfare supports for the caring they do. I expect many carers are immediately put off from even bothering to apply for carer’s allowance when they see the criteria involved and the evidence required. I am reminded of a case where a son wanted to apply for carer’s allowance in respect of his 87 year old widowed mother with whom he lived. He took on the small family farm after the death of his father and did not work aside from looking after his mother and the farm. In order to prove that he spent less than the then maximum of 15 hours on the family farm per week, the carer’s allowance section wanted to know how much land he farmed and how many cattle he had in order to work out how much time he spent on the farm. I would love to know how they worked it out. Ultimately, he withdrew his application for carer’s allowance. If a person cares for another person keeping them at home, then they are a carer and they should be assisted and supported by your Department. The current means test does not assist or support carers. There are over 200,000 unpaid carers, many of whom will feel they cannot meet the criteria relating to the means test.

Amendment No. 11 in the name of Senator Higgins is similar to the amendment in my name. I would be happy to submit a joint amendment with her on Report Stage if this amendment is not accepted.

I ask the Senator to withdraw both of her amendments for two different reasons. One is because there is already a report so I do not need an amendment to the legislation to provide what we have done already during the deliberations and preparations for budget 2020. I would be very happy to share it with the Senator today or in the next couple of days. It helps explain the reason for the decision to increase the hours from 15 to 18.5 and not follow with what was probably expected, that is an increase in the means test disregard.

On amendment No. 4, we carry out a review, probably of all our schemes, annually. The amendment asks that I "carry out a review of the means test in place for Carer’s Allowance in consultation with key stakeholders". Every year, including this year, I have a pre-budget forum where all stakeholders for the relevant schemes come and give us their submissions. The only difference is that I have not gone out and sought it or, rather, they have gone and volunteered it to me. Again, I have a report that I can give the Senator that will show her exactly what the means test is based on, how it is calculated and why we do not pay for care. What my Department actually does is provide an income support. That really jars with some people because, as the Senator said, there are tens of thousands of people who are providing care who do not get paid, or some get the respite care allowance but do not get financial recompense that they would regard as representing full value for the care they provide. My difficulty is that the Department provides income supports. We look after the people who do not have the means to look after themselves. We need to have a national conversation about care and the value of care. I raised this matter at the EU Council meeting yesterday. It is the elephant in the room when we talk about gender equality and about how to get women back to work. Offering all the advantages, programmes and initiatives that the various EU member states employ to try to encourage women back to work is all very well but there is not much point to these if we do not engage in a conversation about the value of care and the value that we place on women staying at home and rearing their children. There is also the question of all the women - although some men also do so - who take time out of their careers to mind people they love and cherish when those individuals are ill and cannot mind themselves. If we have a national conversation about care and the value we place on it, we may have a different policy than simply paying the income support that comes through my Department.

I will just go over this again. Amendment No. 3 seeks an increase to the income disregard. Such an increase was not announced in budget 2020. The Minister referred to her report. Does she intend to increase the disregard at the next budget?

No, the amendment asks me to produce a report on the impact of the disregard. I already have that report. If the Senator withdraws her amendment, I will give her the report immediately - either later today or tomorrow.

I will withdraw the amendment and reserve it for Report Stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 17, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:

“Review of the means test for Carer’s Allowance

28. The Minister shall carry out a review of the means test in place for Carer’s Allowance in consultation with key stakeholders, including Family Carers Ireland and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection within 6 months of the enactment of this Act.”.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 5 to 12, inclusive, not moved.
Sections 28 and 29 agreed to.
Amendments 13 to 15, inclusive, not moved.
Title agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Report Stage ordered for Tuesday, 17 December 2019.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.