Vote 37 - Employment Affairs and Social Protection (Supplementary)

As we have a quorum, we will commence in public session. I remind visitors and members to turn off their mobile phones. This meeting has been convened to consider the Supplementary Estimate for Vote 37 - Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which was referred by the Dáil to this Select Committee on 21 November 2018. I welcome the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, and her officials and thank them for the briefing material provided, which has been circulated to members.

Before we commence, I must dispense with one housekeeping item.

Two sets of imeachtaí were circulated to members, those relating to Committee Stage of the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017, which we considered on 17 May 2018, and those relating to Committee Stage of the Social Welfare Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018, which we considered on 22 November 2018. Are they agreed? Agreed.

I propose that the following arrangements apply: the Minister will be asked to make a brief statement to the committee and after that members will have an opportunity to raise any issues. I remind members that, in accordance with Standing Orders, discussion should be confined to the items constituting the Supplementary Estimate, which are: subhead A1 - administration - pay; A2 - administration - non-pay; A3 - State pension non-contributory; A4 - jobseeker's allowance; A5 - one-parent family payment; A6 - widows' and widowers' pension non-contributory; A7 - deserted wife's allowance; A8 - basic supplementary welfare allowance; A10 - exceptional and urgent needs; A11 - other working age supports; A12 - community employment programme; A13 - rural social scheme; A14 - TÚS; A15 - job initiative; A16 - back to work enterprise allowance; A17 - youth employment support scheme; A18 - back to education; A19, gateway; A20 back to work family dividend; A21 - JobsPlus; A22 - wage subsidy scheme; A23 - other working age employment supports; A24 - disability allowance; A26 - carer's allowance; A27 - domiciliary care allowance; A28 - carer's support grant; A 30 - child benefit; A31 - working family payment; A32 - back to school clothing and footwear; A33 - school meals; A34 - other child-related payments; A35 - rent supplement; A37 - household benefits package; A38 - free travel; A39 - fuel allowance; A40 - grant to the Citizens Information Board; and A41 - miscellaneous appropriations-in-aid. Members should please indicate the subhead to which they are referring when contributing.

I invite the Minister to make her opening statement.

I thank the committee for the opportunity to present a Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I am seeking a Supplementary Estimate of €139 million for 2018. Primarily, the purpose of the Supplementary Estimate is to fund the Christmas bonus for Vote 37 social assistance recipients. The Christmas bonus will be paid this week. For the first time in many years, it is being paid at 100%, which we all very much welcome. It is being paid over the course of this week to approximately 1.2 million customers. The bonus is a welcome contribution for people in receipt of long-term social welfare payments in the run-up to Christmas - because it finds its way into communities, local businesses and economies - and for families and individuals to allow them to prepare for the festive season, which is its overall aim.

The Christmas bonus is estimated to cost approximately €266 million. This cost is broken down into just over €120 million for Vote 37 recipients and nearly €146 million for Social Insurance Fund recipients. The Social Insurance Fund is providing for the cost of the bonus being paid to people on contributory payments such as the State pension contributory, invalidity pension, and so on. Accordingly, this element of the bonus does not impact in any way on this Supplementary Estimate application. The Social Insurance Fund is in surplus this year. In contrast, the bonus paid to people in receipt of payments from Voted schemes is met entirely by the Exchequer. The bonus is not included in the original Estimates for the Department and, unless savings are made that will meet the entire cost, a Supplementary Estimate is required in order to ensure that the bonus will be paid.

The Chairman suggested at a previous meeting that it is difficult to compare like with like when comparing the original Estimate with the Supplementary Estimate because of the inclusion of the bonus in the outturn position for the relevant schemes. For this reason, I have included an additional table, beginning at page 3 of the committee's brief, which shows the variance before the bonus is paid and the effect of the bonus on the outturn position. I hope the committee finds this approach helpful.

The income from pay-related social insurance, PRSI, receipts during 2018 will result in a Social Insurance Fund income of an estimated €10.6 billion. This will be €252 million or 2.4% ahead of profile for this year and will be €793 million or 8.1% ahead of the position in 2017. This position is a reflection of the continuing improvement in employment levels in the economy and continues the welcome trend that I presented to the committee here last year.

Expenditure on Social Insurance Fund schemes and administration, including payment of the Christmas bonus, is expected to cost approximately €9.5 billion.

This is €187.6 million, or 2% above profile, and €145.5 million of this is due to the payment of that Christmas bonus. Even with the payment of the Christmas bonus to social insurance schemes, the surplus of the fund is still expected to be around €1.1 billion at the end of 2018. The accumulated surplus in the fund at the end of the year is estimated at €2.32 billion. While all of this is good news, and it is welcome to see the social insurance fund in such a healthy state, it is worth noting that the fund was also running a significant surplus of €3.6 billion at the end of 2007, but that surplus was exhausted by 2010 when Exchequer subvention was again required because of the economic climate of the time.

The overall expenditure of the Department's schemes, services and administration in 2018 is expected to be €20.33 billion and this will be €320 million, or 1.6%, more than provided for in the original 2018 Revised Estimates. As I mentioned earlier, €266 million of this is due to payment of the Christmas bonus. The total expenditure for the Department, which includes expenditure from the Vote and the social insurance fund, comprises overspends on some schemes and underspends on others. For example, on the social insurance side there has been higher than anticipated expenditure on treatment benefits, which is very welcome, but lower than expected expenditure on invalidity pension. On that Vote, there has been higher expenditure on administration and on illness and disability payments but lower expenditure on the working age employment supports. When taken together, and excluding the Christmas bonus, the Department's expenditure on such schemes and services is expected to be €54 million ahead of the profile, less than 0.3%.

The live register is expected to average at around 221,300 in 2018, a reduction of over 39,000 on the average for 2017. Most of the estimated costs of paying the Christmas bonus of €25 million to jobseekers is being offset by an underspend of over €22 million in the jobseeker's allowance allocation. The ongoing strong performance of the live register is evidence that growth is continuing and that more people are continuing to make the move into employment. The live register is now well under 200,000, the first time it has been at that level in ten years and the CSO figures that came out this morning are welcome indeed. We will continue to work with jobseekers to ensure they are adequately prepared to enter the workforce and can benefit from the recovering economy.

In 2018, the Supplementary Estimate referred to the committee and the briefings provided to committee members list the schemes for which additional sums are being sought, as well as some of our underspends. We can go through the positions of individual schemes as required by members. The amount of the Supplementary Estimate is derived by estimating the outturn across all voted schemes, which includes underspends on some schemes and overspends on others and adds in the cost of the Christmas bonus. Nearly all the Department's expenditure is demand led and, as people apply for income supports when they meet particular circumstances such as ill health or unemployment or when they reach pension age, demographic trends, economic and societal changes and developments in the labour market all play a role in expenditure incurred by our Department.

Any estimate of expenditure for any scheme for the following year is published in December as part of our annualised Revised Estimates volume. The individual Estimates are constructed on a scheme by scheme basis using data on trends in recipient numbers, average payment values and other relevant information that is available at the time the Estimate is calculated. It is appropriate to note that the outturn position of the Department in the absence of the payments of the Christmas bonus would be €20.7 billion, or just 0.3% above our original Estimates. In this regard, I am satisfied that the Estimates process is working well. It takes account of all key trends and expenditure patterns and provides an accurate picture of the following year's expenditure. Trends can and do, however, change over the course of a year, resulting in expenditure being higher or lower than originally provided for. The actual expenditure on most of our schemes can probably never be precisely predicted and the extent of an overspend or underspend only becomes fully apparent at the end of a year when the outturn of the year has been confirmed.

I hope my opening statement, along with the briefing material which I sent over yesterday, provides the necessary information to the committee and supports the reasons given for the Supplementary Estimate. I am happy to take questions from members.

I thank the Minister for her opening statement. I will make two comments before opening up the discussion to members of the committee. The changes the Minister made to the presentation on pages 3 and 4, showing the figures with the Christmas bonus stripped back, are very useful because they mean we can see exactly what is happening.

I thank the Minister for that. It is also worth acknowledging the work of the staff in the Department who are tasked with preparing the Estimates. As the Minister rightly said, the variance in terms of the output in comparison to the Estimates across most subheads is very small which means that somebody is doing a good job of work. That being said, I am sure that colleagues will have issues and questions. In general terms, in the global figures presented there is close correlation between the Estimates and the outturns. Those working on the figure and the projections have been doing a good job.

Deputy O'Dea is first.

I reiterate what the Chairman has just said. I also welcome the 100% return of the Christmas bonus, which is made possible by the lower payouts under the jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit schemes thanks to the increase in the number of people working. However, that is offset to some extent by increases in payments of illness benefit and so on. There seems to have been a marked increase in payments under the different disability and illness headings and while I know that all of these things are demand led, I would like the Minister to comment on that.

On page six of the briefing note there is a payment of €21.3 million for agency services. I ask the Minister to outline what exactly is involved there. I note that under the exceptional and urgent needs payments category, the number of such payments is 16,000 over profile, which is a significant number. While that has been provided for, it indicates that the Department seriously underestimated the demands on that particular fund. On the other hand, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance is around 5,000 below profile. I appreciate and accept that there have been some changes to that scheme around rates and so on but does the Minister have any plans to change or relax the rules? I have been contacted by a significant number of people who are just on the margin and who do not qualify for the allowance. There are 3,000 fewer people availing of the school meals scheme and I ask the Minister to explain that. Spending on community employment is slightly below profile. I made the point to the Minister in the Dáil last week during Question Time that the rules relating to community employment, CE, schemes should be relaxed. I do not say that because I want people to spend 12 years on a CE scheme but because some people in their mid to late 50s find it hard to get work and it would be better for them to be doing something. Furthermore, sometimes it is easier to get a job when one is actually doing something. On Tús, I note that the decline in numbers has been reversed and the reason for that is that in most of those community type schemes, increasingly Tús members are replacing CE participants.

Spending on rent supplement is down by €9.5 million. Does the Minister have any figures for the corresponding increase in spending on the housing assistance payment, HAP? I know that the latter payment comes from a different Department but it would be useful to have that data to get the total picture in this area. The back to education allowance payments are 579 over profile. A report was prepared in recent years on the back to education allowance scheme which indicated that it was not working particularly well and that the results were not very impressive. On carers, I note that the Minister can make more than €13 million in savings due to the fact that there are 1,300 fewer people qualifying for the carer's allowance. The figure for the carer's support grant is approximately €2,500, which is surprisingly high. All of the statistics show that the number of carers in Ireland is gradually increasing. What I detect from these figures is that because of the rules, a bigger percentage of people who are actually caring are not entitled to the carer's allowance or carer's benefit. Certain changes have been recommended by the various organisations representing carers that would make quite a significant impact and introduce much needed flexibility into those schemes.

The back to work family dividend payments are 541 below profile. The working family payment, previously known as family income supplement, FIS, is just short of 3,000 below profile. There were suggestions that a lot of people were not aware of their entitlement to FIS.

Has any action been taken by the Department to increase awareness of this scheme?

On illness benefit, I refer to the figures for disability allowance in particular. Disability allowance is nearly €2.4 million above what was anticipated. Is there a proposal to employ additional medical assessors in the Department? If so, how many and at what level and salary scale will they be employed?

I take it that the increase in treatment benefits is due to the extension of the benefit to those who are self employed.

On pensions, I noticed that the figure for non-contributory pensions is only up 3%, even taking the actual increase into account and it is something similar for contributory pensions. Does the Minister have any actual figures on the extra number of pensioners we had to pay over and above last year and over and above the previous year?

Has the Minister studied the recent Supreme Court decision on pension entitlements for somebody who is incarcerated and what are the implications of that decision for the system?

I welcome the Christmas bonus payout of €266 million to 1.2 million needy people. It has to be warmly welcomed. It also has to be welcomed from the point of view of the injection of money it brings to local economies because I said it at a previous committee meeting - probably last year's Estimates - how important the Christmas bonus is for individuals and for the local economy because very few, if any of those people will be heading abroad to spend that money. Every penny of that money will go directly into the local economy. It is an invaluable injection into businesses and retailers at this time of year.

On the figures and community employment, CE, under heading A12, there is a massive underspend of €7.2 million in 2018. I went online today and I saw that there are 1,678 vacancies for CE places across the State. I have said before that this is a serious problem and I will say it again. I ask the Minister what her views are on why there are so many vacancies on CE schemes across the board.

On heading A31, which is the working family payment, again there is a really large fall in the spending for this. Could the Minister give additional information on why exactly that is the case? Has there been a fall in applications or has there been a serious change in people's circumstances which means that they are no longer entitled to the working family payment? It would be useful if we could get that information. I appreciate that the Minister might not have all of the information to hand today but it would be useful.

I refer to heading A32, which is on the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Again, there is a fall in the number of recipients and the money being paid out for this allowance. Given the increasing cost of sending a child back to school which is only going up, does the Minister have the actual number of applications that were refused to hand? I know we have the numbers that were granted and I know that many people do apply and there are many criteria that have to be met. Does the Minister have the exact figures for how many people have been refused?

I raised it with the Minister that there were a lot of delays in people getting payouts and I know she said that it was because people applied late but that is not the full reason there were late payments.

People were getting payouts in September and October when kids were long back at school. There are problems there.

The underspend on school meals is a little strange. The Minister said it is due to a lower uptake from schools. Is there an explanation for that? Has she considered that? Is there a reason schools are not drawing this money down? It is badly needed and if there is a reason, that needs to be examined. Will the Minister elaborate on that a bit?

Under subhead A2, administration non-pay, there is a sum of €4.2 million for "Office Equipment and External IT Services". Over the past few months, there have been major difficulties with the payout of illness benefit for many thousands of people and it transpired that there were problems with the IT system being rolled out by consultants. Was some of that money for the roll-out of that system supposed to be for illness benefit or where are those figures to be found? There are issues in this regard and the Minister said they related to the IT system. Has that money been paid to consultants for the roll-out of that system, which caused massive difficulties for many people?

There is a reduction in the amount for rent supplement, which is understandable because people are being moved onto HAP. That falls under a different Department but the intention is to ultimately move everyone off rent supplement onto HAP. Is there a timeframe for that? How many people have transferred from rent supplement to HAP? There are difficulties with some landlords who refuse to sign the HAP lease. That is putting people in serious difficulty because their rent supplement payment is being cut. Claimants are being told their landlord has no choice, he has to sign HAP or the rent supplement will be cut. Could the Minister give an overview of that? There are concerns that there are higher standards for HAP, which is brilliant because a minority of landlords have been getting away with blue murder in respect of the conditions they have been providing through rent supplement. Much of that goes back to local authorities that failed to carry out inspections. Landlords do not want to go to the additional cost of having to carry out refurbishment and upgrade works to meet the HAP criteria. I would appreciate it if the Minister could outline the figures in this area.

The Christmas bonus is welcome. People have been struggling in recent years and it is a significant boost to their income at this time of the year. It will be welcomed by millions of people in the State. It is great that it has been reinstated in full. We know that many thousands of people are caring for parents or siblings in the home and the Minister referred to the "lower number of recipients than estimated - 1,294 lower than profiled". The carer's allowance by its nature is difficult to get.

There is no information on how to go about making an application for the allowance. Many people are refused and they appeal but that takes time. I have a case where a claimant was awarded carer's allowance in September but, two months later, they have still not been paid. It will be backdated but the system is slow. I would have expected many more people to have applied for the allowance. Is there any reason it has not happened? Perhaps the application process should be examined.

It is disappointing that more schools do not have access to school meals. The Minister stated that the lower take-up by schools in the 2018 budget is due to applications on hand that may not be processed by year end and to applications yet to be received. Is the Department expecting many more applications? Have the Estimates taken into account the possibility of more people applying?

I welcome the reintroduction of the 100% Christmas bonus, which is a measure every member of this committee called for over many years. It is significant that this is the first time in ten years that a 100% Christmas bonus payment will be made. It will be made this week and that is welcome for the people who receive it.

There was higher than anticipated expenditure on treatment benefit, which is probably good news because it means a big take-up of the scheme. Has the Department examined the numbers involved? Deputy O'Dea asked if it was down to the self-employed taking up their entitlement. Does the Minister foresee a greater take-up in the coming years?

It is welcome that the live register continues to fall, with 39,000 fewer people on it this year. What figures are anticipated for the coming year? Is the figure expected to reduce further as more people return to work?

I welcome the 100% Christmas bonus. Last week, the papers reported that retail spending would increase this Christmas. People are dependent on social welfare payments. It is not that they get wealthy from them but they help keep people out of debt and away from moneylenders. It also gives them the opportunity to have a decent Christmas.

Deputy O'Dea's contribution was comprehensive and he went through most of the subheads so I will not add to that. However, there are two figures in subhead A2, administration non-pay, which I would like the Minister to explain. One is payments for agency services at an additional €21.3 million. That is a lot of money. What was the original Estimate and what additionality did the Department get for the €21.3 million? Under the same subhead, there are allocations for training and development and incidental expenses. There were savings of €6 million under training and development What had the Department intended to do and what training programmes were forgone to make that saving? It is also a substantial figure.

Members referred to savings in the carer's allowance. More and more people are presenting at our clinics seeking supports for caring for somebody, though I do not suggest everybody is eligible for the allowance. However, while many of the target Estimates have been good, there has been a saving in this area and the figure is lower than the profile figure.

Could any of that be attributed to the time it takes to process those applications rather than the number of applicants? Carer's allowance can take quite a period to be processed. Rather than saying there are fewer people on it, are the savings more attributable to other factors? The Minister knows what I am getting at and I ask her to comment on that.

As an example, the working family payment was lower than expected with 2,800 fewer people on it. There was also a smaller number in receipt of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. This is a bugbear of mine. Does the Minister future-proof existing schemes when she is doing her Estimates and budgets? Are people falling out of some of the schemes from an eligibility point of view based on increases they might have received from the Minister or tax increases or whatever else? Does the Department use future-proofing? In our clinics we do not notice a significant reduction in people who are looking to join such schemes. When the Minister increases social welfare payments, are people falling through the cracks?

It is called the step-up effect.

Yes. I have one further question. This is a small point but it is interesting. I refer to subhead A40, the grant to the Citizens Information Board, CIB, which made a small saving. Despite the rationalisation, the budget year-on-year for 2018 versus 2017 is still up a couple of million euro. Are there any efficiencies to be generated given that the Minister is no longer servicing 90 or so boards? However, the savings are in areas where we might have expected to see pressure for increased spending. There was an underspend of €400,000 on the mortgage arrears services being provided by the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS. Another €100,000 was saved on Abhaile staff. The figures are not significant, but at a time people are having difficulties in this area, I am concerned whether those organisations have evolved quickly enough to meet the existing demand.

Would the Chairman if I go backwards?

The Minister may do it any way she wishes. We will listen to all the responses.

I will start with the Chairman. The first point relates to the step-up effect. There is a bit of work to be done with regard to some other Departments in terms of changes that are made in the budget and the impacts of those changes. In the main, there were increases. If payments under any scheme increase by €5 or €3.20 or whatever it happens to be, then the qualifying conditions have to be cognisant of that. One cannot suddenly no longer get access to a back to school allowance just because an increase has been provided. That is called the step-up effect and that is reflected in the legislation. Everything gets stepped up in line with the increases provided by the Department. However, that is not true of some other Departments. The Chairman and I have had conversations about medical cards and Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, and a body of work needs to be done in that regard, in particular in terms of positive changes that can be made to welfare payments.

One of the reasons the CIB's budget has increased is it has been asked to provide additional services. One of the Chairman's party colleagues was responsible for increasing the services provided to the deaf community. I put in a few million euro more to ensure the CIB could through its funding streams give money to the organisations that provide additional signing services and additional access to information, and to increase the availability of the service on a daily basis to people in the deaf community. That is very welcome. I accept that there are some reductions in the anticipated spend on the CIB and it is because there is genuinely not the same requirement for them that we anticipated. One can reflect on that and conclude that, thankfully, the number of people in long-term arrears on their mortgages are reducing. That means we must now change and reflect the services to suit the needs of the people. One of the changes that has been made in the past year is that to provide mentors to attend court sittings with people. That is positive and has been well received and we might further roll out that service. Some of the Abhaile services and the work with PIPs in the community have not entirely fulfilled some people's expectations of getting a deal and providing them with a long-term route to deal with their longer-term debt.

It might be time to consider putting in place some internal performance improvement plans, PIPs, in that service to ensure they do not have to use vouchers, but the Chairman is right. Some of the underspend is due to the fact that the number of people accessing the services is reducing. It is time to examine those services and make small changes and tweaks so that we can help the people equally as well as we have done in recent years.

I will come back to the training shortly.

On the administration, the original Estimate for 2018 was €119,820,000. The actual Estimate is €141,141,000, so it is an increase of €21,321,000. That is to pay our agents who carry out the work on behalf of the Department. To give some examples of that, An Post is paid for making scheme payments to customers and, thankfully, that is up this year. I believe we are the largest customer and user of An Post, and long may that last, and its services with us have increased this year, which is very welcome. Doctors are paid for certifying illness in respect of illness benefits and that figure is up this year, notwithstanding the difficulties we experienced. They did not come from the certificates but there is an actual increase in the number of people making applications for illness benefit this year and therefore the doctors have to be paid. I have the figures now if they are any good to the Chairman.

Yes, please, for An Post.

I have told the Chairman a dirty lie; the figure for An Post is actually down.

Now, Minister.

I am sorry. The figure for An Post agency fees was €32,000,000, and it came in at just over €31,000,000.

It got less from the Minister than anticipated.

It got less than anticipated. Our spend with An Post went up this year, so I hope that will be reflected in next year's figures.

The figure for the medical certificates is €22,250,000. The figure for JobPath was estimated at €48,800,000, and the Revised Supplementary Estimate is €71,698,000, which is the increase of €22,895,000. Therein lies the increase in that one. We probably did not anticipate JobPath being as successful as it has been in the past year. If the Chairman looks at our job figures, which were only released by the CSO this morning, he will see they are down significantly year on year than we would have anticipated. That is reflected in the number of people who are getting work using our JobPath programme.

Effectively, the bulk of that €21,000,000 is the JobPath figure.

It is actually more than that. It is €22,898,000, and then there is the underspend.

Yes. Some savings were made on An Post and whatever.

Yes. It reflects the success of that particular programme.

The training programme was estimated at €17.5 million and it came in at €11.4 million, which is an underspend of €6 million. Approximately 40% of the savings under this subhead relate to the Department's contingency fund. This fund is reserved for unforeseen circumstances. We did not have any unforeseen circumstances to be able to draw down that money this year.

The Department did.

Nothing that cost us money. The primary savings related to bank charges, which was €2.8 million. I am not sure why bank charges are under the training subhead. I am informed it is the training and incidental figure.

The Department also incurred savings in other areas including training in customer communications and advertising, PeoplePoint charges and the higher of rooms charges. It is difficult to extend those subheads with 100% or even 99% accuracy.

Training savings of €665,000 were incurred in this particular area. That was primarily as a result of lower costs than were initially anticipated. We got our training courses last year for less than what we thought we would have to pay.

With regard to additional information on learning and development, savings were incurred. The Department has provided extensive training for all our staff in 2018. To date, there have been 13,416 staff attendances at instructor-led classroom training, and 2,678 staff received this training in 2018. There have been 2,447 e-learning modules and front-line serving training areas were completed in 2018. Other internally delivered staff training outside the scope of these programmes was provided to 2,796 staff and another 1,799 staff received an externally delivered training programme. The Department arranges approximately 100 one day learning courses across a range of subjects, and those are available to all our staff. Those are the training and administration figures.

Deputy Joan Collins raised the issue of school meals, as did the other two Deputies. Most, if not all, of our schemes are demand led. We can put out an offer, as we did in this year's budget, to extend a hot school meals pilot scheme, which we hope to take on board at the beginning of next year, but we cannot make schools take up that offer.

A significant amount of additional money was provided, at a sitting of this committee at which I was present in October or November 2017, for the year 2018 but there was not the level of uptake that we expected for which there is a variety of reasons. I would not have viewed the matter in the same way as the Deputy concerned who sounded frustrated and wondered why schools would not avail of such a good scheme.

We had an issue with one particular area. I refer to instances where school meals were distributed by staff or volunteers who were over and above the staff in the school. In the past year something happened to the provision of those staff members so schools could no longer deliver the school meals programme. Thankfully, we have resolved the issue but it would have meant the non-delivery of school meals for a number of months in a small cluster of schools. There are other schools where the staff are not available in the schools to take in meals and distribute them on a daily basis over and above the normal day-to-day running of the schools. Again, we are trying to work with individual schools to break down whatever barriers exist that prevent schools from availing of the programme. When we added the extra money last year, it was probably before we addressed the matter and we added people to the list thinking nobody would say "No". Some schools have different issues. We have to break down those barriers school by school because the barriers are not the same in each school. Again, we are working with people.

Let me give the example of a school that has difficulties with the items listed on the school meals programme as suggested by Healthy Ireland in its health eating guidelines. The school is a special needs school. Some of the children will not eat what is listed on the school meals programme and, therefore, pulled out of the school. We worked with the school and decided that we needed to be more flexible about recommendations. We brought in a nutritionist and considered what should be provided to the children to ensure that we can continue to deliver. Reasons vary in schools. We have an incredible division located in Sligo that looks after the scheme and they are very proactive. If there are issues, we visit the schools and work with them to make sure that we break down the issues, where we can, and bridge any gaps. We are intent on ensuring that the school meals programme is fully up to spend. We will also add the hot school meals pilot programme next year. Please God it will go well and we can add another string to our bow in terms of school meals.

In terms of the carers' allowance, there has not been a decrease in the number of people applying for the allowance. I know it probably looks like there was a decrease. Last year, we anticipated that more people would apply than applied because there had been an increase year-on-year. For example, at the end of last October as many as 17,406 applications had been received and we received 20,852 last year.

There is a new carers' form planned. Deputy Joan Collins suggested that it is a very difficult scheme to apply for and the Chairman suggested that one of the reasons for a reduction in the number of applicants is due to the process taking so long to complete. My answer is no as the process took equally as long the year before and the year before that, unfortunately. As a result we have worked very closely with the Carers' Association of Ireland in the past year and come up with a new application form. As Deputy O'Dea will be aware, particularly with our work with the domiciliary care allowance and DCA Warriors in the past number of years, we have similar issues because it is a very similar scheme. Obviously, one scheme is for adults while the other scheme is for children. It was a difficult application to navigate and we did great work with the DCA Warriors. The organisation and the parents helped us enormously to make the application a much simpler process. We have done exactly the same work with the Carers' Association of Ireland and we will release a new form at the beginning of next year. I hope that the new form will mean that far more people will be successful with their first application.

To answer the question posed by Deputy O'Dea, we have a new recruitment campaign for medical assessors planned for January. It is not just to extend the service. A number of medical assessors left over the course of the year and we got new replacements this year. The new recruitment campaign will help us to continue and extend that employment recruitment drive. We want to make sure that the application is as easy as possible and people give us all of the information. The reason it takes a while to process applications is not that the qualifying, from a condition perspective, is onerous. One must meet the conditions outlined in the means test, which are relatively simple. Out of all of the schemes, they would have the highest conditions to reach. One's income threshold and all of that kind of stuff on the carers' allowance would be much higher than some of our other schemes. Due to the fact that people need to be medically assessed and the bar for a full and half carer's allowance - the threshold of the care that has been given has to be fully detailed and examined by medical assessors, which takes a little bit of time.

We all accept that it has taken too long, but I hope the new application form and the employment of additional medical assessors next year will bring a drastic reduction in the numbers. I believe, and management share my view, that there is a need for more staff in that area, and we are awaiting staff arising from efficiencies in other areas to move into this area. It will then benefit from a double whammy of getting the attention and new initiatives it deserves. The annualised figures for the number of carers at the end of October 2018 were 78,681 an increase from 74,881 in the same period the year before. The rate of increase has slowed down.

Deputy Carey raised the issue of treatment benefits. We increased the allocation for treatment benefits this year and allowed both the self-employed and employees to claim under this scheme. We expected the uptake to increase, but never to the level received. This is good, as it means that people perceive this scheme as a genuine benefit. When people think about their social insurance contribution, all they think about is the pension that comes when they reach 66 years, which in their case is donkey's years away. We wish to instill the value of the social insurance contribution and treatment benefits are one clear way that resonates with the people and there has been a significant increase in the number of applications this year.

Deputies Brady and O'Dea raised the issue of the CE scheme. There are 1,600 and odd vacancies on this programme. The scheme is entirely different from Tús, the community work placement initiative. Under Tús, the employment official in consultation with the unemployed person and with his or her co-operation send him or her on a Tús scheme whereas under the CE scheme, one has to apply for a place on the scheme. People on the live register visit the Intreo office on a weekly basis and they choose to apply for the CE opportunities.

The number of people applying for places on a CE scheme is reducing for two reasons. First, there are fewer people on the live register than there used to be so fewer people are available to apply for the scheme in the first instance. Based on the contributions of the members who were of the view that JobPath was hampering people in applying for CE places, we allowed anybody who was on JobPath this summer to do both. That has not resulted in a significant increase in the number of people applying for the CE programme from this summer. The only factor I can put my finger on is that because there are jobs in the community, people are looking for full-time employment as opposed to work experience. We work with all of our CE sponsor schemes which do tremendous work on a monthly basis and we try to improve their access to people and help them to advertise their positions

. As unemployment numbers reduce, the number of positions on CE schemes should reduce by a percentage in line with the reduction in the live register because the CE programme is purely an activation model. I do not subscribe to the fact that it is an activation model because a raft of people on community programmes are not there just to be trained to move on to the next job as they see what they do as a fulfilling and worthwhile activity. Members share my view that this work is of significant value to our communities. We need to reflect on that and change how it is viewed. Sometimes it is more than just a work experience or training opportunity for people but the reasons the numbers are falling is that the unemployment figures are reducing and it is reflected in that. The falling numbers is not due to anything we are doing differently in the Department, as the scheme is entirely demand-led. The places are available because of the reflected numbers that we expected to be on the live register this year. That number will reduce next year as the number on the live register comes down again. Nobody is preventing anybody from applying for a place on a CE scheme anymore. Anybody who is on the live register can apply to be on a scheme. They are choosing not to and we will reflect on that.

The working family and the back to school allowance payments are demand-led schemes. People are benefitting from the fact that the economy is recovering.

This relates to the back to school allowance as well. Nothing has changed. I view the changes in the back to school allowance and the working family payment as positive for those who receive these payments. We introduced a disregard into the working family payment. People who rely entirely on the working family payment to top up their incomes now have a weekly disregard for their rent payments. Back to school payments for next year were increased significantly in the budget. I know we have not finalised that yet. Deputy O'Dea is right when he says that this increase reflects the fact that the cost of going to school is increasing.

The number of people who are accessing both of these schemes is a reflection of the fact that the economy is recovering. Many people are moving into full-time employment at a level where they do not reach the means test, do not need the working family payment or do not qualify for the back to school allowance anymore. The number of new applications for the working family payment received so far this year - the figure was 23,803 at the end of October - is relatively similar to last year's number. I have mentioned the introduction of the disregard. It is a good thing that the numbers are slowly decreasing. It is not something to be worried about. As I have said, this will always be a demand-led scheme. I want to be able to allow people who are currently on the scheme to earn more and to take home more of the money they are actually earning. I hope this will incentivise and encourage them to earn more and keep more of their own money. The scheme will always be led by demand. If there is an increase in the need for the scheme next year, we will respond to that.

I have spoken about school meals. I will come back to illness benefit in a second. Deputy Brady mentioned the overspend of €4.2 million under the heading of Office Equipment and External IT Services. Our list of ongoing schemes is continuing to grow. Every time I introduce a new scheme, I have to get into the queue to get an entirely new platform developed. Thankfully, we are introducing new schemes. We introduced the paid parental leave and the self-employed jobseeker's schemes this year. These brand new schemes need brand new IT platforms. We are investing in our online digital services. We are about to go live with mywelfare.ie, which is a new and hugely positive method of interacting with the Department. It is so user-friendly that even I am totally impressed by it. This new system is incredibly easy to use. We have 6,000 staff and 70 schemes. This means that our IT platforms are constantly being upgraded and new systems are constantly coming on board. The only difficulty we have as a society, a country or an economy at the moment is that there are so few software developers on the Government procurement list. They are all busy. They are already doing stuff for all the other Departments. This will probably slow down our ability to deliver on some of the new schemes we would like to deliver on. It is possibly something that needs to be looked at. That accounts for the €4.2 million overspend.

I think Deputy Brady is under the impression that there is a programme to move people off rent supplement and onto HAP. I say that because I am making an assumption. I hope I am wrong. No one in the Department is working off a list with a target of getting 100 people off rent supplement. Rent supplement is a short-term measure to bridge a gap in the housing need of a family or couple. The State has to make sure it provides long-term sustainable solutions for people. Ideally, we would like to see people not being on rent supplement for any more than about a year. That has not been the reality in recent years because we have given people rent supplement for more than 12 months. It was always intended to be a short-term stop for people as they come in and out of need. Over recent years, HAP has been introduced, there has been a move away from RAS and a long-term requirement for HAP leases to be five or ten years has been introduced. As a result, people have moved gradually from rent supplement to HAP. There is no agenda of getting officials to hurry through a list of 10,000 people. It will happen as people come. Therefore, I am disappointed to hear from the Deputy that people are being told they will lose their RAS if they do not take up HAP. It is definitely not coming from the Department. People will get RAS for as long as they need it. Rent supplement is provided because there is a need for it. When somebody moves onto HAP or into a social house, or wins the lotto and buys his or her own house, he or she will come off rent supplement because it is no longer required. Nobody is actively pushing people off rent supplement. All of our schemes are led by demand. If someone has a need and the conditions apply to him or her, he or she will get what comes from the Department. There is nobody telling that person that he or she should or should not be here.

I have just been given the figures. At the end of October, we had 25,654 people on rent supplement, 19,196 people on RAS through the local authorities and 41,693 people on HAP. I might be wrong, but I think the Deputy is asking how many people came off rent supplement and went onto HAP. Is that what he is asking?

I do not have that figure with me, but I will come back to the Deputy with it. It will take me a couple of days or weeks to get the figure because it is not something we would have. I will give it to the Deputy as soon as I get it. The Department will need to correspond with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I will get back to the Deputy. Again, nobody is pushing anybody out the door.

We are recruiting medical assessors to work across a number of schemes, including the illness benefit scheme.

Deputy O'Dea asked about the FIS or working family payment awareness scheme. We have a new interactive platform for engaging with our clients, customers or citizens. There is a conversation that I would love to have around this table one day. I am going off script slightly at the moment, not that I have a script. I am going off on a tangent. Every time we announce something, we get a barrage of responses from people asking why we have a "customer" charter. We decided to draw up the charter a number of years ago because we wanted to provide the most excellent level of customer service. That irks people because they are not really customers. Then we called them "clients", but they are not really clients. We cannot call them "citizens" because we look after many people who are not citizens. I am not sure what the correct language is. Someone told me one day that I should just call them "people", but sometimes that does not quite fit into what I am talking about. I would love some advice on this. The last thing we want to do is to upset somebody by saying "citizens" when we look after people who are not citizens or by saying "customers" when they are not really customers. If I could get some advice on this issue, that would be deadly. Similarly, it was noted this week that some people do not like the idea of us calling the Christmas bonus a "Christmas" bonus. It was suggested that we should think about calling it something else. We are all gone very politically correct lately.

We are making people aware of the new mygovid.ie and mywelfare.ie platforms, which are very interactive. All of our people in the Intreo offices and all of our front-line staff are well aware of the conditions around FIS. The idea behind FIS when it was introduced a number of years ago was to try to encourage people who depend entirely on welfare to go out, take a chance and try to do work. We were trying to give them comfort that they would not lose the supports they previously enjoyed. We are trying to make sure the transition period is well supported by the Departments of Health and Employment Affairs and Social Protection. That is what is there. We are consistently trying to help people to get into employment. We are certainly not shy about telling people that FIS is there. The new €95 disregard for rent payments will certainly be well advertised in all of our offices next year. It is not something that we are keeping secret. I genuinely believe that it is because people's fortunes are improving that these schemes are not required anymore.

I have covered the issues of community employment, school meals, back to school payments and agencies.

I have not yet responded to Deputy O'Dea's question about the court ruling during the week which deemed that our withholding of contributory pension payments to a particular gentleman under section 249 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 was unconstitutional. The report from the court is very lengthy. We are probably still assimilating it without jumping to any conclusions. I know what my gut is telling me to do, but obviously I have to get some advice before I can do that. The Attorney General has the report. I expect to have a meeting before the end of this week, or early next week, at which a final decision can be made. The Deputy is well aware that this is not something that can be put on the long finger. We need to decide soon whether we are going to appeal or make alternative arrangements. I will be looking for the co-operation of all parties in the House when the time comes to rectify the position we currently find ourselves in. Even if it is not of our making - I hope it is not - it is not very satisfactory.

The final point I would like to make in response to Deputy O'Dea relates to pensions. He was looking for the actual numbers for the year-on-year increases. This year, an additional 17,300 people are receiving the contributory State pension, an additional 500 people are receiving the contributory widow's pension and an additional 130 people are receiving the non-contributory State pension.

The total pensions additional this year are 17,930.

Which brings the total to what?

I do not have that figure. I will have it in a minute.

I have one or two brief comments. On the agency services, the JobPath figure which the Minister gave was-----

It went up €22 million.

What did it go up to?

It went up to €71.698 million.

What was the original estimate then?

It was €48.8 million.

In comparison to everything else that the Minister has presented here today, this is a very significant increase, about 40% more. That went among those JobPath companies to administer the scheme. Is it because they dealt with more people or did they retain people in employment for longer? It is a phased payment but it strikes me, from the point of view of doing an Estimate, that if €48 million is estimated and the outcome is nearly €72 million, that is a substantial difference. Something happened that was not predicted, which may not have been bad, but that is what I am trying to get to because it is a significant figure.

It is both. Not only are more people staying in work longer, but they have the capacity to take more people as well. The schemes with both of these organisations are entirely demand led so they only get paid when there are successful outcomes. They do not get paid just for showing up to work, they have to take people, work with them and then they get approximately €300 for working with people for the year.

They get €311.

Good man. That is what they get for working with somebody but then the bonus payments obviously kick in when somebody gets a full-time job for 13 weeks, 26 weeks and 52 weeks. That increase is purely down to the success of the project so maybe we should have been more ambitious when we made our Estimates last year that they would be more successful. Also, that is reflected in the fact that the live register numbers are lower than we would have expected and there are 13,000 to 14,000 more people working than I would have expected at this time last year. It is all based on positive outcomes because people are getting jobs and the two agencies that we have employed to help us get people jobs are doing a great job.

They hit the jackpot in terms of where they thought they might be and where they have ended up. It is significantly different.

Some 60,000 people were referred to JobPath last year. How many of those were going in for the second time?

This year, 15,000 people have been sent a second time. There were significantly more referred in the first instance than the first number the Deputy mentioned.

Can the Minister give us her idea of what, if any, future there is for JobPath? I understand that the contract runs out next year or the year after.

The end of next year.

Could the Minister give us an indication as to whether there are any proposals to renew the contract? Did the Minister also commission a report on the future of the local employment service network, LESN?

Has that been published yet?

When can we expect to see that?

There are two issues. The econometric analysis is being finalised and I hope to have it in January but the preliminary findings are looking good and that is the report, alongside the position on our projected targets, that will determine what we will need going forward. I do not know right now what the needs of those 127,000 people who are full-time unemployed, as announced this morning by the CSO, are going to be in a number of years but we will have to devise schemes to make sure that they are as successful as JobPath has been for us in recent years, but that might change.

Any changes in that route will come from the econometric review that we have done on JobPath but the Deputy is aware that I have also commissioned an Indecon report on the review into LESN's and our jobs clubs. I am currently assessing that and I only started reading it last week. All of that will feed into the State's service and provision of activation for some 86,000 people who are unfortunately long-term unemployed and the entire 127,000 people who are full-time unemployed.

If the figures on the unemployed and underemployed are looked at, there are 197,000 people, so there is still a big body of work to be done. I know that we constantly say that when we get to the magic number of 4% we will have reached full employment, as if we should nearly give up, say that is grand and the job is oxo, but there are 197,000 people in this country who are unemployed or underemployed and we will not stop trying to help them get full-time employment until they do. We have a lot of work to do and there are big decisions to be made next year, but it is to be hoped members will play a role in those decisions next year.

In playing that role, will members have access to that Indecon report that the Minister referred to?

They will of course. I apologise because I have so many reports at the moment and I like to finish one before I start another one. I have finished reading the report and I have a meeting with the team on the local employment support networks, LESNs, and jobs clubs this week. I need to fill them in on my good news from the report on what we should do and they will temper me and tell me to do something else.

Then the Minister will come and tell us.

As soon as that meeting has happened, we will issue the report and it would be valuable to have the committee's input into the recommendations before we make final decisions.

I refer to reports and I hear what the Minister is saying about finishing one before commencing another. Two years ago she promised a report on young unemployed people. She indicated on Report Stage of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill that it was imminent, so when exactly is it expected? Is it next month or in two months?

I refer to the housing assistance payment, HAP. I am surprised that the Minister is saying that there is no drive to get people off rent supplement onto HAP because that is not the case in Wicklow. The county council is actively writing out to people in receipt of rent supplement telling them that they have to talk to their landlord and that their landlord has to sign up to the HAP payment or otherwise it will impact on their rent supplement payment-----

Get me a copy of the letter.

-----and staff are saying they are processing 20 to 30 of those applications a week. That is happening as we speak and I am sure that is being replicated in every local authority in the State.

The local authority's job is to provide long-term, stable housing for people, and HAP is far more stable on a five or ten-year contract than rent supplement where people are normally only on an annual contract. They are obviously writing out to them offering to put them on a long-term footing, but there is no implicit threat that if they do not, it will affect their rent supplement. If the Deputy says there is an implicit threat, then I need a copy of that letter because the Department is demand led and if somebody has a need, we fill that need.

People are being told that the landlord has to sign up to it or else the payment will be stopped.

The local authority has absolutely no truck with anybody in our Department. They do not have a magic button that they can press.

I will get the Minister a copy of the letter because it is concerning for many reasons.

Yes, give me the letter.

That would be helpful.

On the additional spend of €22.8 million for Turas Nua and Seetec, the figures that were finally produced at the Committee of Public Accounts last week after several years of asking, with the cover of commercial sensitivity being given, are startling. I do not know how the Minister can come here and say that JobPath is the most successful labour activation scheme-----

-----and stand over that. We know that 190,000 people have been referred over and it has cost €149 million. Only 17% of those people who engaged in employment lasted as far as the first sustainment payment of 13 weeks. If we take the last sustainment payment, only 9% of people-----

-----have been sustained in a job for 52 weeks.

That is so far. The Deputy is giving the impression that people get a job for 13 weeks and then lose the job. The numbers are reflective of the position we are in today.

Allow Deputy Brady to make the point and I will afford the Minister an opportunity to reply.

The Minister initially said that this is demand driven, but it is not. We know people are referred over from Intreo.

Some of the massive increase from €48.8 million to €71.69 million might be those sustainment payments. Something else happened during that period in 2018. Was there renegotiation around the contract with Turas Nua and Seetec to see an increase in numbers being referred over?

It would be very useful at this point, and I do not expect to hear it, if there was a full breakdown of all of those figures because they were only produced last week at the Committee of Public Accounts. The figures are alarming, to say the least. This scheme has been in place for three years. I do not buy what the Minister is saying so it would be useful to get an up-to-date picture on all of those figures.

Could the Deputy afford the Minister time to respond to him?

When I responded to the Chairman, I said it was demand led but I corrected myself so I would rather not see the Deputy misquote me again because I did correct myself. Turas Nua and Seetec get paid on outputs. When they have a successful outcome, they get paid the extra bonus money for that successful outcome. The numbers we shared last week were never hidden beforehand. Commercial sensitivity relating to the State being able to ensure it gets good value for money does not necessarily mean that we bare all. Everybody knowing exactly what everyone else is getting paid does not do the State any service. What we can clearly see-----

It is a taxpayer-----

The Deputy will see that if we go to tender next year for the new JobPath. What it does show clearly is that, for the hundreds of thousands of people who have had the experience of going through it, a very large percentage - an enormously successful percentage - with the exception of JobBridge, which people in Deputy Brady's party did not appreciate for a number of years, it has been the most successful activation programme we have ever run in the State. I know the Deputy does not like it and that is fine but it affects tens of thousands of people who have got jobs because of the interaction, assistance and help from the great staff in Turas Nua and Seetec, who are all Irish people by the way in case there is an ideological difficulty there. They are Irish people helping Irish people to get work and they are succeeding, which is great. It is wonderful to see the extra money that is being paid to those companies because it means they are actually being effective, which is what we want to see. If the Deputy does not want to take my word for it, the live register and CSO figures were issued this morning and they are going down. The reason they are going down is because our activation methods are working.

The Minister is in denial.

I thank the Minister and her officials for attending today.