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Social Welfare Code

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 22 November 2016

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Questions (54)

Willie Penrose


54. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Social Protection his plans to carry out a study on the way the social protection system can better protect widows and widowers. [36034/16]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Social)

There has been a major deficit in the social protection system with respect to widows and widowers under the age of 66 and the vulnerable circumstances they find themselves in. We need to show maximum compassion to those people, especially widows or widowers with children. Perhaps it is time to review the role of system, particularly with a view to extending the household benefits package to those people at that time.

Widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory pension is a weekly payment to the husband, wife or civil partner of a deceased person. Unlike other social insurance schemes, entitlement is based on either the claimant’s or the deceased partner’s social insurance contributions. Virtually all social insurance contributions count towards this pension, including contributions paid by the self-employed and by pre-1995 public servants. The payment lasts as long as the claimant does not remarry or is not cohabiting. If someone is divorced but would have become entitled to such a pension had they remarried, they still keep their entitlement to the pension.

A claimant may also qualify for an increase for a qualified child and the pension is payable regardless of other income.

Where a person does not qualify for widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory pension and is under 66 years of age, they may apply for the non-contributory pension. This is a payment for widows, widowers or surviving civil partners who do not have dependent children.

Surviving spouses and civil partners who have qualified children are also eligible for a widowed parent grant of €6,000. Recipients of widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory and non-contributory pensions who are full-time carers can also qualify for payment of the half-rate carer’s allowance. I want particularly to acknowledge the role of Deputy Penrose in progressing that initiative in years gone by and, particularly, when he was the chairperson of the then social welfare committee.

I consider overall that the protections for widows and widowers under the current social protection system are very good. My Department will keep the position under review and is open to any proposals the Deputy might make. Recipients of these pensions will benefit next week from the 85% Christmas bonus and next year from the €5 per week increase in the maximum personal rates of payment. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Those increases are acknowledged and they are a help to people, and I acknowledge the Minister's role in that regard. He will appreciate the vulnerable circumstances of a family when the main breadwinner has been lost, especially in the period to when children are of school-going age. Perhaps he might review the household benefits package with a view to extending it to that cohort of people. It is not a tremendously large group and we hope it remains small and that people enjoy good health but sudden deaths and accidents can occur.

Regarding non-contributory pensions, is it not the position that widows who have children do not get the child benefit portion in that regard? Is that not an anomaly that needs to be addressed? A person in receipt of a non-contributory widow's pension does not get the child benefit portion. That forces her into the jobseeker's allowance payment or, alternatively, into the one-parent family payment, in respect of which there may be restrictions and that also has to be reviewed. That is an anomaly that we could iron out. The Minister might examine those two areas. I appreciate addressing this will take time and that it has to be done within the budget.

I will have to check whether a person in receipt of the non-contributory widow's pension does not receive the increase for a qualified child. It seems incorrect so I will check it.

I believe I am correct.

I think the Deputy is correct.

Deputy Penrose might be right.

I was shocked that I was correct about that. I, like the Minister, thought it was the other way around.

That would seem anomalous. I will definitely have that checked out.

Another entitlement that a widow, widower or surviving partner can receive is the fuel allowance, which is a payment of €22.50 for six months of the year. In terms of the household benefits package, it is probably a little more complicated. It would depend on age, means testing and so on. If we were to do something simple, it might be the increase in the grant for children immediately after bereavement. I noted an article in the Daily Mail recently, written by somebody in receipt of the widow's pension who was disputing the fact that she should be entitled to it, because, as the Deputy knows, one can have it in addition to one's income. That is one of the reasons people pay pay-related social insurance, PRSI. They pay it in the knowledge that should something happen to them and they die their widow, widower or civil partner will have the security of an income and be able to earn income in addition to that.

I thank the Minister for his response and he has pointed out some aspects. I am not clear on this but Deputy O'Dea seems to be very clear on it. I was shocked about this and it only came to my attention recently. That would be an anomalous position and it would compel people into other forms of social welfare which may not suit their circumstances. If a person is compelled into jobseeker's allowance, they would have to be available for employment but the person might have two or three children and be rearing them alone at that time. That aspect could be examined. I appreciate the Minister cannot over-extend with respect to the household benefits package and that means testing would be required but perhaps it might be extended to this group for a limited period of two or three years to get people over the hump after losing a partner.

Not everyone can go out to work and maintain an income, but the Minister could curtail that in terms of someone who had an income along with the widow's or widower's pension as he or she would not be entitled to the household benefit. Those with no other source of income could be dealt with under the means-tested situation, even if just for a two or three year period.

Clearly I am not in a position to make those changes now with the Estimates being done. However, I will take the suggestions the Deputy makes under consideration for inclusion in the next budget package.