Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Questions (1222)

Micheál Martin

Question:

1222. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the implementation of the programme for partnership Government as it applies to her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24609/18]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Employment)

The Programme for a Partnership Government includes a wide range of commitments which fall directly within the remit of my Department.

The updated status of these commitments is set out in the following table.

Commitment

Status

“ [to] increase Rent Supplement … by up to 15% taking account of geographic variations in market rents…. “

Increased rent limits were introduced on 1 July 2016. The limits were increased across the country, (by up to 30% in Dublin), in line with geographic variations of the rental market.

“ To protect low-income families in private rented accommodation and avoid further market rental inflation.. [to] expand access to the Tenancy Sustainment Protocol throughout the country. “

DEASP continues to provide provide flexibility in its administration of rent supplement to ensure that people can remain in their homes. DEASP also operates a protocol arrangement with Threshold in Dublin, Cork, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow and Galway City. These supports have assisted over 12,000 households with increased rental payments. DEASP is working with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to support the transfer of long term rent supplement recipients to the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).

“to introduce a PRSI scheme for the self-employed”

Entitlement to the Treatment Benefit scheme was extended to self-employed workers who pay PRSI at Class S from March 2017; while access to the Invalidity Pension scheme was extended to these workers with effect from 1 December 2017

“ to introduce a new ‘Working Family Payment’, targeted at low-income families.”

In the context of Budget 2018 it was decided to re-designate the Family Income Supplement (FIS) scheme as the Working Family Payment (WFP), which will bring it more visibility as a payment aimed specifically at working families. Budget 2018 also provided for a €10 weekly increase in the threshold for receipt of the Working Family Payment for families with up to three children, with effect from 29 March 2018. This will particularly benefit low-income working families. The effectiveness of the Working Family Payment is currently being reviewed, along with the effectiveness of other employment and income supports.

Other measures which were targeted at low-income families include a €20 weekly increase in the earnings disregard for the One Parent Family Payment and the Jobseekers’ Transitional Payment, from €110 to €130 per week. This is in addition to the €5 increase in the personal weekly rate of payment and the €2 per week increase in the qualified child payment. The Back to Work Family Dividend which was due to close to new applications in March 2018 has been retained. The payment value has increased to €31.80 per child in line with the increase in the payment for qualified children announced in Budget 2018.

“Reducing poverty levels by supporting an increase in the minimum wage to €10.50 per hour over the next 5 years. We will rely on the annual recommendations of the Low Pay Commission on the level of adjustment each year.”

In line with the recommendation from the Low Pay Commission, the national minimum wage was increased by 30 cent to €9.55 per hour from 1 January 2018.

The Government has also accepted a recommendation from the Low Pay Commission regarding the allowance provided for board and lodging, resulting in a change from a weekly/daily rate to an hourly figure. This measure is of benefit to those on the minimum wage who are working part-time hours and where board is provided by the employer.

“We will tackle the problems caused by the increased casualisation of work that prevents workers from being able to save or have any job security.”

“We will strengthen regulation on precarious work.”

On 2 May 2017 the Government approved the priority drafting of a Bill to address zero hour contracts, low hour contracts, banded hours and related matters.

The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was published on 7 December 2017. Second Stage of the Bill was completed in the Dáil on 15th February 2018. Committee Stage was completed on the 17th May 2018. Report Stage is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

“…Develop[ing] a new Integrated Framework for Social Inclusion, to tackle inequality and poverty.”

A public consultation process in relation to a new National Action Plan/Integrated framework for Social Inclusion commenced in February 2018. Consultation with other Ministers has also been undertaken. Publication of the new Plan is now envisaged in Q3 2018.

“… [to] publish a dedicated ‘Pathways to Work for Jobless Households’ to support jobless households into employment.”

The Action Plan on Jobless Households was published in August 2017 and aims, by 2020, to reduce the proportion of households that are jobless to 13% or less, and reduce the share of the 18-59 population resident in such households to less than 8%.

Progress has been made on implementing the plan. In particular, Budget 2018 increased financial supports for working families through increasing earnings disregards and thresholds on the Working Family Payment and the Jobseekers Transition Payment; extending the life of the Back to Work Family Dividend, which was due to close to new entrants in March 2018; and increasing the national minimum wage. A wide-ranging consultation process has been undertaken with people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, and sectoral representatives.

“…actively encourage payments at Post Offices. “

All DSP staff were advised of the PfG commitment and reminded that customer wishes should be facilitated where appropriate when they wish to receive their payment at the Post Office.

“the rollout and extension of the Personal Microcredit Scheme, which is providing simple microloans to members and helping to combat the use of moneylenders”

Over 6,000 people are currently making Personal Micro Credit loan repayments via An Post with an unknown additional number (estimated at approximately 10%) making repayments by direct debit or standing order.

To date, 107 Credit Unions at 254 locations are signed up to participate in the scheme.

Engagement is continuing with the Credit Union representative bodies and individual credit unions to encourage wider national coverage.

“… invest in new services and caseworkers to support jobseekers through the network of local Intreo offices..… support a regional approach to Intreo offices … review work activation and social welfare schemes to ensure that schemes do not contain anomalies that may impact unfairly on people in rural areas, including farmers.”

The Department’s 62 Intreo offices are located throughout the country and are managed on a regional basis. The Intreo network is managed by 10 regional managers at Principal Officer level who deliver services and supports in line with the needs of their particular region. (Positive changes relating to the Rural Social Scheme and the Farm Assist scheme are set out below.)

“… extend the Dental Treatment Benefit under the Social Insurance Fund to reimburse the cost of some routine dental treatments.”

The range of benefits available under the Treatment benefit scheme (dental and optical) was extended as announced in Budget 2017. The existing benefits were extended to self-employed contributors from 27 March 2017 and the optical scheme was restored in full from 28 October 2017; with a scale and polish or protracted periodontal treatment also reintroduced on the dental benefit scheme from 28 October 2017. The Department introduced a new system in October 2017 to support the administration of the scheme and also put in place a web portal (WelfarePartners) to support dentists, opticians and audiologists in transacting business (e.g. checking eligibility and submitting) online.

…” the Departments of Health and Social Protection [to] work together to pursue a “Fit for Work Programme” to support more people to get back to work if they have an illness or disability.”

DEASP and D/Health have identified “Healthy You: Early Intervention” as the working title of the programme to reflect widespread evidence that early intervention in a person’s illness or health condition through a range of services and supports can lead to positive health, employment and income results.

A working group has been established to promote a pilot project of early engagement with people with low back pain who are on sick leave from work, and develop a programme for health education and/or intervention with the aim of managing their condition/facilitating early recovery and return to work. The finer details of the pilot in terms of sample size, location, support services, resources and levels of intervention are currently being finalised.

“ …to introduce flexibility and support in the social welfare system for people with severe and enduring mental health difficulties to transition into employment by ensuring a seamless return of their entitlements should a particular employment opportunity prove unsuitable. …. [and] …address concerns surrounding the loss of secondary benefits, so that people are always better off in work.”

The Make Work Pay (MWP) report for People with Disabilities, published in April 2017, identified the need for flexibility in both the income support and the health (medical card) systems. This is particularly the case where a person with a disability takes up a job but that job does not work out. Anxiety in such circumstances can be particularly pronounced amongst those with mental health issues, given the episodic nature of such conditions. In line with a recommendation of the MWP report, a fast-track return to disability allowance protocol has been put in place. In addition to this initiative, people who are participating on the partial capacity benefit scheme may return to illness benefit or invalidity pension if they find that they cannot continue to work.

Most recently, the Department participated as a partner organisation in the Integrating Employment and Mental Health Service project, which ran between 2015 and 2017. The aim of this project was to demonstrate how existing employment services (specifically the EmployAbility service) could practice the Individual Placement and Support (IPS) model of supported employment for clients with severe and enduring mental health issues. An evaluation report, Steps into Work, was launched by on the 8th February 2018 and found that through improved integration between mental health services and employment support services, improvements can be achieved in the employment outcomes of people with mental health difficulties.

DEASP is now collaborating with the Department of Health and the HSE to extend the availability of IPS to all Mental Health Services in each Community Healthcare Organisation. This will see funding from the HSE Service Reform Fund (SRF) and funding from the HSE’s Clinical Programmes for 27.5 IPS employment specialists for a three year period.

“… consolidate all means testing under a single national body ensuring a single application process for services or entitlements across all government agencies.”

It is recognised that this would be a major project across a range of Government departments and agencies, including DEASP, that operate schemes and services on a means/income tested basis. Significant operational, legislative and technical challenges would be involved.

IT developments in the DEASP in recent years have allowed for the capture and storage of means data and the reuse of that data. Amongst the many potential benefits of this reuse are a reduced administrative burden on staff and customers through greater accuracy of information, a reduced need to repeatedly ask for the same information and the ability to make better-informed decisions regarding reviews.

“… an increase in the Disability Benefit and Allowance, Carer’s Benefit and Allowance, and Blind Person's Pension“ …. “increase the State Pension and the Living Alone Allowance above the rate of inflation.”

As announced in Budget 2018, the maximum rate of weekly social welfare payments - including State pensions, disability allowance and carer’s allowance - increased by €5 per week from end-March 2018. This builds on a similar increase in Budget 2017. There was also a €2 increase for each qualified dependent child, effective from end-March 2018, the first such increase since 2010.

“… support and expand supported employment opportunities and work with stakeholders to make supported employment more attractive to both prospective employers and employees.”

DEASP delivers assistance with the identification and take-up of supported employment opportunities for people with disabilities through its EmployAbility service. An evaluation of this service has been completed and a number of proposals to improve the operation of the service are currently being considered.

“… highlight incentives for employers to employ a person with a disability, roll out a national awareness campaign”

Information on supports available for the employment of persons with a disability are available on an ongoing basis at events taking place all over the country, including employer briefings. For instance, a Disability Awareness and Support event was recently held in Tralee, at which stakeholders engaged in the disability arena, including the National Learning Network (NLN) and Employability, provided information on services available including training, grants, equipment etc. The Education and Training Board was also in attendance. There were 400 visitors to the event which included clients with a disability, parents and carers.

The DEASP has recently completed a major consultation exercise with disability stakeholders following the recommendations of the Make Work Pay report and the issue of how best to engage with employers in order to improve employment opportunities for persons with disabilities will be further considered in light of that exercise. .

The mission outlined in the DEASP Employer Relations Strategy has broadened from 'to build effective relationships with employers with the aim of increasing recruitment activity and, in particular, “increasing placements into employment from the Live Register " to "increasing placement into employment of the Department’s clients" to reflect the inclusion of people with a disability. The Strategy also commits to fully integrate the provision of employer services within Intreo Centres.

“… fully protect the Free Travel pass for all pensioners.”

The Free Travel scheme is fully protected. An additional €10m is being invested in the scheme to encourage new operators into the scheme and to encourage a broadening of coverage in more remote parts of rural Ireland.

“…in recognition of the vital role of schemes such as the Rural Social Scheme, Community Employment Schemes, BTEA and Farm Assist in rural communities and in activating the unemployed, …to make suitable recommendations to strengthen provision in this area…”

Budget 2018 provides for 250 additional places on the Rural Social Scheme, increasing the number to 3,350 in 2018. The distribution of the additional 250 RSS places was announced on Friday 23 March 2018. The Implementing Bodies (Local Development Companies) have started recruitment for the places allocated.

“ Review … the Farm Assist Scheme, recognising the challenges facing farmers on low income.”

Budget 2017 introduced important changes to the Farm Assist scheme, which included assessing 70% of farm income (down from 100%) and re-introducing income disregards for children. Budget 2018 provided for a €5 increase in the rate of farm assist payable from 26th March, bringing the maximum personal rate of farm assist payable from €193 per week to €198 per week.

“… review the Fish Assist scheme in recognition of the irregular earning patterns of fishermen, in an effort to respond to difficult financial circumstances.”

The Budget 2017 improvements to the Farm Assist scheme were also applied to the Fish Assist scheme. Claimants of Fish Assist have also benefited from the increase of €5 per week since 26th March 2018.

“…. develop a system that fosters independence through retraining and employment …provide the resources to invest in services that protect the weakest and most vulnerable in our society from poverty and exclusion.”

The Action Plan for Jobless Households was published in September 2017. Budget 2018 implemented a number of the measures envisaged in relation to work incentives; a major consultation – with people with disabilities, their parents, and representative bodies -- on reforms to disability payments was launched in February 2018; pilot delivery of employment services to adult dependants of jobseekers’ claimants will commence in Q2 2018.

“…carry out an immediate review of the financial supports available to the unemployed or those returning to the education system to ensure the greatest possible uptake of continuing education by eliminating current barriers.”

DEASP has commissioned a study to explore the drivers of negative employment outcomes of participants on the Back to Education Allowance Scheme with a view to informing the scheme direction.