Thursday, 30 May 2019

Questions (2)

John Brady

Question:

2. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will consider the establishment of a social welfare commission, as outlined in recently published legislation, as a way of tackling poverty; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23104/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Employment)

Unfortunately, the Government has done little, if anything, to address the serious problem of poverty, which continues to be a massive blight on the State. In October last year, I introduced a Bill proposing the establishment of a social welfare commission. I ask the Minister to set out her views on the need for such a commission to tackle the serious problem of poverty. Will she make a statement on the issue?

The legislation sponsored by the Deputy seeks to, among other things, establish a commission to monitor and make recommendations on social welfare rates at least once a year. While I welcome the Deputy's engagement on the issue, I remind him that careful consideration needs to be given to the establishment of a commission and to its composition, parameters and terms of reference. Any change in the current process of setting social welfare payment rates, including the establishment of a commission, would need to be considered in the overall policy and budgetary context. Account would have to be taken of stakeholder views, potential costs, policy alignment, the administration of any proposed system and the alleviation of poverty. As the Deputy will be aware, the road map for pensions reform, which was published last year, commits the Government and all future Governments to examine and develop proposals to set a formal benchmark target of 34% of average earnings for the State contributory pension and provides that a process will be instituted to ensure future changes in pension payment rates are explicitly linked with changes in average wages and prices. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is considering the options open to it as it seeks to make progress with this commitment, including the suggestion made by the Deputy. It has consulted a range of stakeholders, as required under section 19 of the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018, on the examination of the ways in which social welfare rates are determined now and will be determined in the future. The feedback from this consultation is being considered and will help us to inform the development of our approach to benchmarking and indexation. To further the discussion on this issue, I have proposed that it will be considered at the Department's pre-budget forum in July. All the spokespeople in this area will be invited to the forum and I hope they will attend. While I welcome the views of all political parties, without being disrespectful to those parties it is more important that I hear the views, wishes and ambitions of the many stakeholders that come under the Department's umbrella.

As the Minister knows, 760,000 people in the State are living below the poverty line. Children under the age of 16 years comprise almost 24% of that cohort. Over 100,000 people in the State get up early in the morning to go to work, but are in poverty nonetheless. The Government is not serious about addressing this problem. I say that because the action plan for social inclusion is out of date. We have yet to see a new action plan. How can we tackle the problem of poverty without an action plan? When I was bringing forward the Bill I mentioned at the outset, I met the stakeholders whose views the Minister said we need to take into account. They are all broadly in supportive of the need for this commission. I accept that we need to look carefully at the composition of the commission. I outlined that in the Bill I introduced. I think it could be based on the Low Pay Commission. A commission is needed. We need to get serious about tackling the massive problem of poverty. This is a key way of doing it. If the serious issue of poverty is to be tackled for once and for all, we need to take the politics out of the setting of social welfare rates across the board.

I am happy to say the poverty rates in this country are coming down. That is because we made changes in the last few budgets to target the groups of people who are most at risk such as lone parents, people with disabilities and larger families, particularly those with children over 12 years of age. All of those issues have been addressed. Thankfully, the latest data from the survey on income and living conditions, SILC, show that the poverty rate has dropped by a significant 2%. There is still a tremendous number of people who are within the percentages of living close to or on the poverty line, and we will continue to work on ensuring we drive payments towards the people who are most in need. For the Deputy to say that the policies we have employed in the Department for the last number of years, particularly in the last two progressive budgets, and which were supported by every Member of the House without exception, are not working is a little unfair. However, the Deputy is pushing an open door with me. There is no need to fight with me regarding indexation. I say as often as I can that it is something I genuinely wish to do. I hope we are on the same page.

I hope we are on the same page. One person living in poverty is one too many, and 760,000 of citizens are living below the poverty line. The Government has set a target of lifting 95,000 children out of poverty by 2020. We must be serious about that. I can only take the Minister at her word, but there is no plan. Where is the action plan for social inclusion? Where is the road map for lifting citizens out of poverty? I firmly believe in the establishment of a social welfare commission and I welcome the fact that the Minister is seriously considering it. We can call it what we wish but there is a need to take the politics out of setting social welfare rates and to be serious about tackling poverty where we can, which is through setting social welfare rates. I asked the Minister to meet me a number of weeks ago. We agreed dates but, unfortunately, it did not happen. Can we do that? I want to progress this as there are great positive benefits. All the stakeholders agree that we must move this forward. Can we meet and discuss doing that?

As I said in a previous reply, we will be discussing this issue at the pre-budget forum and the Deputy is welcome to attend to give his input, as are all the political parties. We do not necessarily need a commission to take the politics out of indexing. We need an algorithm and something on which we all agree that will set the rates. It may need to be within a commission or it may not, but that has to be explored by us and the stakeholders in the next couple of months.

We have a policy of social inclusion. I am working on one and hope it will be released in the next few weeks before the summer recess. The final chapter in the development of that policy was the forum we held with all the stakeholders in the Aviva Stadium last week. I do not do stuff. The Department, long before I ever took office, has had a determined view on consultation and has the height of respect for our stakeholders, as our stakeholders have for the Department. There is no point in devising and designing a social inclusion strategy for the next five years that does not uphold the policies, wishes and aims of the people who are working on the ground. That is what we will be doing in the next few weeks.