Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Questions (2)

John Brady


2. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if a working group with officials from her Department and the Department of Justice and Equality will be set up to examine procedures in place for child maintenance and explore the possibility of establishing a statutory maintenance agency to guarantee fairness and efficiency; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38978/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Employment)

Will a working group with officials from the Minister's Department and the Department of Justice and Equality be set up to examine procedures in place for child maintenance and explore the possibility of establishing a statutory maintenance agency?

The Family Law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply. Relevant maintenance payments can be arranged either directly between the parties themselves, or with the assistance of support from the Department of Justice and Equality such as the Family Mediation Service and the Legal Aid Board, or, most times unfortunately, ultimately through the courts. When any one of the parents applies for a one-parent family payment from the Department, a contribution towards the cost is sought from the other parent of any children of the relationship. The liability to maintain the family scheme is managed and administered by the Department. Its role is to determine on the basis of income information supplied whether the liable relative is in a position to contribute to the Department; to determine the amount of contribution due by the liable relative; to monitor and enforce payment of the contributions due; and to engage with both parties to ensure the requirements of the legislation are met.

As the Deputy is aware, the system is not really working the way intended in the best interests of both the State’s finances and the families we serve. I have had several discussions with stakeholders, experts and the ordinary people affected by the current regime. Having listened to the points raised, it seems clear that the current system is not working. There is much we could learn from what has been achieved in other jurisdictions. While many of the concerns relate to wider issues of family law, several points have also been raised with me specifically about the set of people I represent and look after within my Department. We have engaged with the Department of Justice and Equality. I do not believe, however, that we have the luxury of waiting for a year or two. We kind of know what needs to be done. I will carry out some research in the short to medium term. When it is completed, I will come back to the Deputy with some proposals.

I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgment that the system in place is not working. My party has stated this consistently for several years. Last year I published proposals for the establishment of a State family maintenance agency based on similar models abroad. Across the water in England and in the North, there are systems in place which work well. The proposals I have brought forward are based on these models. They have worked in addressing the core problems. More importantly, they have helped to reduce child poverty through the collection of child maintenance payments. The Minister has rightly alluded to problems in the system with payments not being received such that people have to go to court to chase payments and have payments assessed. This is causing significant problems. I will touch on the review of the effects later.

The Deputy will have another opportunity to ask a supplementary question.

The review expands on the concerns I have expressed. Will the Minister zone in on the review?

The proposal Deputy Brady made last year was fairly well received by everybody affected by this. It forms the basis of a good start. When I look at international best practice, the UK comes in fifth place. I am surprised by that given that its legal set-up is so similar to our own. We are looking at Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Finland, all of whose agencies achieve very good outcomes. Not all of these agencies, however, are statutory maintenance agencies. I want to enact change in the fastest way possible. That might not mean a statutory agency; it might be something else. I am conducting the research. I tasked my officials to start looking at the issue quite recently. I will come back to the Deputy as soon as I have anything to work on.

I thank the Minister. I would certainly be interested in being kept up to date on that. We need to look at this with a view to the long term as well as the short term. Whenever I have raised this issue with the Minister she has said that her hands are tied because the issue crosses into the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. It is critical that the Departments come together to look at this for the long term. The review that was carried out was the result of an amendment I secured to the Social Welfare Act. That is why we are here. More importantly, that report shows that the liable relatives unit is clearly not working. The Minister has to acknowledge that, and I believe she has. One of the interesting statistics in the report is that, of the 18,078 cases examined by the liable relatives unit in 2018, in just 2,174 cases did liable relatives begin making a contribution. Only €269,949 was collected by the liable relatives unit in 2018. That shows that the system is not working. I costed the proposal I brought forward. For a small amount of money, we would have a statutory child maintenance service. I welcome the Minister's comments but we need to move on this issue because it is causing serious problems.

I believe we are on the same page so I will not split hairs. What the Deputy has just put on the record of the House, however, is not a true reflection of our decision on liable relatives. In the vast majority of those 18,000 cases the people pay maintenance directly. They do not come through us, so it is not a fair reflection of the work of the people in that unit that only 2,400 or thereabouts make payments through it. The unit tries to have family members engage with each other rather than sticking its nose in the middle and acting as an enforcer. Where an arrangement is made between two parents, that arrangement is monitored by the unit. It only steps in and issues an enforcement notice where there is no such arrangement. That is why the number is so low. In the first instance, we try to keep those in the family unit as amicable as they can be despite their separation.