There are a number of basic principles which underpin the Irish social insurance system. Firstly there is the contributory principle. Under this principle there is a direct link between the PRSI contributions that a person has paid and entitlement to a varying range of benefits and pensions. Where a person has sufficient PRSI contributions, then benefits and pensions may be paid, where a particular contingency arises and without a means test.
Secondly there is the solidarity principle. Under this principle the benefits and pensions that are paid are not directly related to the amount of PRSI contributions paid by insured persons. PRSI contribution income is instead redistributed to support contributors who are more vulnerable.
In addition, there is a general principle of one person, one payment, which applies across the social welfare system. Given the contingency-based nature of this system, it can happen that a person may experience more than one contingency at the same time, but generally, as these payments are to help them meet their income needs, he or she can receive only one of those payments. This principle is common to social security systems across the world.
There were a limited number of exceptions in the social insurance system to the general principle of one person, one payment. These exceptions usually applied in the context of short-term benefits at reduced rates. For instance, recipients of One-Parent Family Payment, Widows and Widowers Pensioners could, until recent years, also receive short-term social insurance benefits, such as Illness Benefit and Jobseeker’s Benefit at half-rate at the same time. These overlapping payment arrangements were introduced in the early 1950s when the social insurance system was first established, at a time when there were only 10 individual social welfare payments and when rates were significantly lower in real terms than they are now. However, the social welfare system has been significantly developed over the intervening period, with the result that the number of possible combinations of concurrent contingencies has increased greatly.
The concurrent payment of half-rate Illness Benefit and Jobseeker’s Benefit in addition to One-Parent Family Payment, and Widows and Widowers Pensions was discontinued from January 2012, in the context of the Government’s commitments to maintain existing core rates of primary payments for social welfare recipients. There are exceptions to this as in a case where a reduced Widows Pension is in payment and paid at a rate lower than the Illness Benefit Rate. In such circumstances Illness Benefit may be paid to ensure that the aggregate payment will equate with the maximum rate of Illness Benefit appropriate to the person’s circumstances. However, it is not possible for someone to be paid both a full rate Widows Contributory Pension (€208.50 for someone under 66, plus allowances) and Illness Benefit (€203.00 plus allowances). Such combined rates of payments, neither of which are subject to a means test, would be significantly higher than those paid to other people supported by my Department, many of whom are at significantly greater risk of poverty.
To change the underlying principle of entitlement, and allow people claim multiple payments in the manner suggested, would involve significant additional expenditure which could prove unsustainable in the long-term, and would have to be considered in the overall policy and budgetary contexts.
I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.