Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Questions (4, 5)

Mick Barry


4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on increasing social protection payments for 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38891/19]

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Thomas P. Broughan


5. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her preparations for budget 2020, including meetings with stakeholders, reviews of the most recent research on family poverty, and estimates of Brexit impacts on persons and families in receipt of social protection assistance, benefits and pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38942/19]

View answer

Oral answers (17 contributions) (Question to Employment)

What are the Minister's views on increasing social protection payments for 2020?

Are we taking Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together?

That is what is advised. Questions Nos. 4 and 5 are grouped, but Members will get sufficient time.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.

The Government has committed to making the needs of families, and achieving better outcomes for them, a priority, especially those under the aegis of our Department who are most at risk of poverty.

Over the past three budgets, the maximum rates of all weekly payments have increased by €15. Last year, I increased the payments to qualified children under 12 for the first time since 2010, thankfully, and increased payments for children aged 12 years and over to recognise that they cost more money. In addition, we restored the Christmas bonus to 100%, which was long overdue. This was paid to over 1.2 million long-term social welfare recipients in 2018 to assist them with the extra expenses incurred by all around Christmas.

Increasing the standard rates of payments is, however, only one approach the Government has taken to improve the living standards of social welfare recipients. We have also introduced measures that target those most at risk of poverty, such as increasing significantly the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance last year. We extended the fuel allowance season and increased funding for school meals. The latter is coming into its own. We increased income disregards for lone parents and low-income families while strengthening consistently the provision for employment services.

As part of preparations for budget 2020, I hosted my Department's annual pre-budget forum in July. Representatives from some 50 community, voluntary, trade union and business groups had an opportunity to present their budget priorities directly to me and my officials. In addition, my officials and I regularly engage with a wide range of stakeholders both bilaterally and through regular meetings, including with the community and voluntary pillar and the social inclusion forum, at which poverty research and other issues are discussed. I had four meetings on Monday of this week.

In addition, the Department's social inclusion division examines the impact of potential budget measures on poverty rates and a social impact assessment is carried out. This is an evidence-based methodology that estimates the likely distributive effects of changes on household income using the ESRI's SWITCH model.

Regarding Brexit, the convention on social security was signed on 1 February 2019 and the parliamentary ratification processes in Ireland and in the UK, where it took a little longer, were completed by March of this year. This means that, no matter what happens when the UK leaves the EU, recipients will experience no change to the reciprocal social welfare arrangements that have existed for a long time between Ireland and the UK. The rights and entitlements of both EU and British citizens to social welfare payments will remain as they were before Brexit, irrespective of what kind of Brexit materialises.

Discussions are ongoing on this year's budget. The current context will push us in a direction in which will be having a slightly different and more focused budget than we would have had heretofore. As is the norm in my Department, I expect the discussions to be ongoing right up to the day before the final budget is decided upon.

The Minister did not mention the word "pensions" in her reply. I want to zero in on the issue of pensions. Is it true, as we are reading in some newspapers, that the Government and Fianna Fáil, with which it is negotiating or framing the budget, are considering freezing the base pension rate in the budget? I understand there is a threat of a no-deal Brexit, which would present a challenge for any Government, but the Government could go after the rich, including the big landlords. Why is the Minister seemingly choosing to target the pensioners in this budget? Are they to be made the whipping boys for a no-deal Brexit, with the rents and insurance costs increasing? The Minister will ensure that their carbon tax goes up. It seems as though the Minister is preparing to freeze their pensions. I would like her to comment on that and not evade the issue as she did in her introductory comments.

I did not evade the question; I answered the exact question submitted to me, which sought an update on the negotiations. As I suggested to the Deputy, the only thing I put on the record publicly in any newspaper — I do not know where he is reading what he is reading — is that my job is to make sure that, in every budget, the limited funds I get, whether they are small or big, are targeted at those who need them most. That is exactly what I am going to do this year.

I am glad the Minister hosted the budget forum and has been meeting all the advocacy groups. We have also met them. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Barry, on pensions. There is a gender gap concerning pensions, in particular, that the Minister said she might address. Among the advocacy groups that impressed us were the Children's Rights Alliance and the No Child 2020 campaign. Many commentators and distinguished journalists, such as Mr. Fintan O'Toole, said we should have a children's budget this year, irrespective of anything else, because we know that over 100,000 children live in consistent poverty while 250,000 live in poverty. We clearly need dramatic action in this regard. So many families — nearly a quarter, according to the census — are headed by lone parents. There were disgraceful changes to the one-parent family payment under the previous austerity Government. There are considerable challenges. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has found money in every single budget, as did his predecessor at times. He has found additional money behind the sofa. There is at least €600 million. Is the Minister fighting to get most, if not all, of the €600 million for the most vulnerable families, particularly our children?

The answer is "Yes". I am well able to do it. I hope that the last two budgets show the Deputy that we get relatively decent outcomes from the discussions.

I love the idea of a children's budget except that children are not the only people in the country who are very vulnerable. Included are their parents, who in many cases are lone parents. Some of the most affected are those with disabilities. I am loath to say that while there are many pensioners living in poverty in this country, there are many who are not. I am not going to chase votes like some others might do; my job is to make sure I get the biggest slice of the pie to look after the people who are currently living in the most vulnerable circumstances and who are at risk of poverty, as well as those who will be most vulnerable in the case of a hard Brexit. While I am mindful of all the knowledge I have, I am also very mindful that there are those in Ireland today who will potentially lose their jobs in the next six to 12 months. I have to be mindful of having a budget for them also.

Will the Minister have extra money for that?

At the moment, we are being told there is no extra money. Given that I do not have the ability to raise revenue in my Department, I am at the mercy of others. I am, however, very aware of what I need to do. I am certainly not shy about asking for what I want and I value the Deputy's support.

On the issue of freezing the pension, the Minister said she does not know which paper I read. I do not know which paper she does not read because it seems to me that every newspaper in the State is being briefed by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and by Deputy Michael McGrath in respect of expecting a freeze of the basic pension rate. Fianna Fáil's fingerprints are all over this one, too. I can safely say that a large majority of Fianna Fáil supporters will not support the idea of freezing basic pension rates in this budget. Ten years ago, the Fianna Fáil-led Government tried to take the medical card away from the over 70s. We all know what happened in that case. If I could question Deputy O'Dea, I would, but I am speaking to the Minister.

The Deputy knows the rules of the House.

I will address my question to the Minister. Is she concerned about a similar reaction from the grey panthers on foot of an attempt to freeze the basic pension rates in the upcoming budget?

Did the Deputy just say "grey panthers"?

I call Deputy Broughan. We will take the two together. Deputy O'Dea will have no right to respond although he may wish to.

To continue on the subject of children, one of the worst statistics we are presented with at pre-budget meetings, bearing in mind I am on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, is that almost 6,000 young people under 26 have been on jobseeker's allowance for more than a year. The National Youth Council of Ireland, in its pre-budgetary submission, A Fair Share for Young People and Youth Work, wants the Minister to start moving this year to reverse the low levels of support for the young people in question, who may be desperately seeking a job.

We are coming very close to the fuel allowance period, which I believe will start at the end of this week.

Has the Minister been consulted? The Taoiseach makes announcements in New York in regard to carbon taxation and it looks as if we will have a massive green tax increase in this budget in a couple of weeks. Has the Minister been consulted about whether there is going to be a universal payment, whether it is going to be tax and dividend, or whether we are going to take the hypothecated tax and the green tax and target it at the most vulnerable people, in particular those who are in fuel poverty? We know a very significant proportion of our people, perhaps 15%, are in fuel poverty. What input has the Minister had into that, given it is such a huge problem?

I have never heard of pensioners being called "grey panthers" before so that is a new one on me. What I want to put on record is that both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael manifestoes before the last general election committed to increasing the State pension by €5 each year for the lifetime of the next Government. It made it into the programme for Government and we have done that. With respect, I would love to see the Deputy's manifesto where he made the promise, given his sudden newfound interest in looking after pensioners.

The issue of those under 26 comes up at every single budget forum and it is under consideration every single time we sit down to our negotiations, so that is the best I can tell the Deputy at the moment.

A number of us have an input into how we are going to address any carbon tax gains to make sure the people who are most vulnerable and will be most hit will be able to absorb this and make sure they can be eased into new practices, as opposed to being hit with financial implications that will hurt them in their pockets. We are going to do our level best. My mindset is that the people I look after have single incomes and are some of the most vulnerable from a fuel poverty perspective. I will make sure I look after them.