Social Welfare Fraud

Questions (6, 7, 14)

Brendan Howlin


6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the anticipated cost of her compliance and anti-fraud strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38879/19]

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Willie O'Dea


7. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will report on the new anti-fraud strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38835/19]

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Thomas Pringle


14. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the estimated amount it will cost to review over 750,000 social welfare claims in 2019 as part of the new anti-fraud strategy; the estimated savings that will be made from the review; the timeline of the review; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38798/19]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Employment)

The purpose of these questions is to look further into the recently announced compliance and anti-fraud strategy which the Minister announced, particularly to see whether it is value for money and whether it is going to achieve anything, considering the public services card was also designed partly to identify fraud within the Department.

I launched the Department's new compliance and anti-fraud strategy last week, covering the years 2019 to 2023. While it is acknowledged that the vast majority of people on social welfare are claiming the correct entitlement due to them, my Department has a duty to ensure that non-compliance in the social welfare system is minimised so that resources we have just spoken about can be directed to those who need them most.

The strategy sets out how my Department will tackle welfare non-compliance during the period in question and it builds upon the successes of the previous strategy, which ran from 2014 to 2018. The new strategy comprises four pillars: “Prevent”, “Deter”, “Detect” and “Account”. My Department's objectives under each of these pillars are as follows: to prevent error or non-compliance entering the system in the first instance - which does happen, as we recognise - by having in place robust scheme application channels and clearly defined assessment processes to try to reduce some of the errors that are made, either by the humans in the Department or the humans we are interacting with; to discourage attempts to defraud the social welfare system by actively pursuing the recovery of overpayments that have taken place and considering cases for prosecution where there has been a deliberate attempt to defraud the State; to detect instances of fraud and error in the social welfare system as quickly as possible through various control measures and techniques; and to protect moneys entrusted by the taxpayer and authorised by the Oireachtas through appropriate governance procedures, oversight and monitoring. It is underpinned by a comprehensive implementation plan, which outlines how we intend to achieve our objectives. Of course, we must remain alert to new and emerging forms of fraud, so our approach will remain flexible and dynamic in terms of how it is structured.

An important new initiative relates to the need to tackle false self-employment, which is contributing to a drain on the Social Insurance Fund and the denial of employment rights to affected workers. My Department is establishing a new unit of social welfare inspectors which will be focused solely on false self-employment, as opposed to the entire team of inspectors being involved in all inspection cases. As part of the new strategy, the Department plans to conduct over 750,000 reviews of social welfare claims over the course of this year and 2020. This represents an increase on the 742,000 reviews conducted last year. The target for savings resulting from these reviews in 2019 is €530 million.

Control reviews take place across the range of schemes operated by the Department and can take a variety of forms. They include desk-based assessments of customer claims, face-to-face interviews with customers by trained investigators, home visits, audits of employers’ PRSI records, specialist investigations, self-declarations by customers and joint inquiries and operations with other State agencies, including Revenue and CAB. Reviews looking at the medical conditionality underpinning certain schemes are also undertaken to try to help ease processing.

Reviews arise from both targeted and random case selections and where specific information comes to the attention of the Department. In this context, it should be noted that customers are under a legal obligation to report any change in their circumstances, including income or means, to the Department and such notifications may also trigger a review of a person's entitlement. These reviews, and the other activities described in the strategy, form part of the control work which is a core function of all officers of the Department. For this reason, while the Deputy asked for a costing, the cost of the work under the strategy cannot be disaggregated from overall departmental expenditure and functions. It is my genuine hope that this strategy will give strong assurances to Irish society generally that the system of control we operate is robust and effective. I hope this clarifies the three matters raised by the Deputies.

I am disappointed that the Minister has not been able to give us some kind of costing because she was able to give us an estimate of savings, which she said were €530 million. I am not sure how she can estimate savings yet cannot estimate the cost to the Department. The previous strategy only saved an estimated €1 million so is that figure of €530 million an overestimate of what might be saved under the strategy? I certainly welcome the prevention element because, in many cases, it is actually a mistake by the Department that causes overpayments. I strongly welcome the emphasis on bogus self-employment. Can the Minister confirm that the Department will as zealously seek the prosecution of employers who engage in fraud through bogus self-employment as it will seek the prosecution of people who draw social welfare payments? It is important that we get that balance between white-collar crime and blue-collar crime, if we can call it that.

Has the Minister any intention of trying to simplify the multiple and complex categories of welfare assistance, which would probably save the Department a lot of administration money in terms of the overall cost of delivering the system, which was €629 million in 2018?

The new strategy will build on the success of the old strategy, which saw control savings of €2.5 billion over the lifetime of the last strategy, so I am not sure where the Deputy's reference to €1 million came from. Overall, the key outputs from the 2014-18 strategy were as follows: more than 4 million control reviews carried out; €2.5 billion in savings; 94,000 reports from members of the public in regard to potential fraud processed; €400 million worth of overpayments recovered; almost 190 suspected identity fraud cases identified; and almost 1,500 cases referred for prosecution. I have a detailed response as to how the control numbers are calculated and if that is of interest to the Deputy, I will give it to her as I do not have time to read it out.

We look at all schemes every year and we find there are anomalies in different schemes. There are different criteria for different schemes so I am assuming that what the Deputy is alluding to is some sort of universal payment which would make it easier for people.

I am referring to simplification.

It might make it simple but I am not sure the outcomes would be any different for the people we serve. I believe there are anomalies in our system. For argument's sake, the cost of the disability review we undertook in last year's budget, on which I will hopefully have findings later this year or at the beginning of next year, should seek to establish that people who are living on a disability payment have different outgoings than people who are trying to seek work. There are anomalies in our system that can be addressed but it can only be done through statistical data.

The Minister said she was building on the previous anti-fraud strategy. Is she aware that her predecessor, when he introduced the previous so-called anti-fraud strategy in 2016, estimated that fraud amounted to €530 million? Some €530 million was going to be saved as this was the amount of fraud in the system. Subsequent parliamentary questions revealed that in 2016, the Department raised €110 million in overpayments, of which only €41 million amounted to fraud. Has the Department taken steps to recalculate how it measures fraud in view of the Taoiseach's massive overestimation of the amount of fraud in the system?

I was not aware that was what the then Minister said, but I am more concerned about my plans. We have not changed how we calculate our control measures and their results. However, I consider the sum of €41 million in deliberate fraud to be a sizeable amount of money, taking from money we could collectively spend on fuel poverty, children and schools meals, if the Deputy says that is all it was.

Nobody condones that.

On the matter of bogus self-employment, while I welcomed the Minister's announcement I wish to ensure that she will seek prosecutions of employers. Of the 100 prosecutions for welfare fraud last year, only one could be attributed to employers actively engaging in bogus self-employment. This is something we must address. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has campaigned on this issue, as has my colleague, Senator Nash. If there is an opportunity to address it, that is a welcome element of what the Minister is announcing.

To clarify, nobody condones social welfare fraud but it is a question of how much social welfare fraud there is in the system. There is a hell of a difference between €530 million, which appeared on the side of every bus I saw in 2016, and the actual figure of €41 million. The Minister said there will be an emphasis on bogus self-employment. Will there be a separate and increased number of staff allocated by the Department to focus on bogus self-employment as a result of this? Will that be part of the new strategy?

I should have answered Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's question earlier but I ran out of time. The answer is "Yes". We have a new unit. I can only assume that as a regulator in the past the Department, in its inspections or investigations of complaints, sought to right the wrong. If it discovered in the past that an employer had wrongly classified somebody from S to A or to any other classification, it made the employer right the wrong and backdate the payment to rectify it. We are somewhat past that now. As a regulator, we sought to rectify things as opposed to punishing people.

We have to lead by example. To answer Deputy O'Dea's second question, the unit is new. It is a ring-fenced team whose members have had specialised training. They have a specific remit and I hope it will yield results very quickly.

I am sorry that I did not have an answer to Deputy O'Dea's first question earlier. According to my notes, the €530 million the Taoiseach referred to at the time was control savings and only part of that would have been fraud. However, €41 million in fraud is a sizeable amount and, collectively, we must stamp it out.

Public Services Card

Questions (8)

John Brady


8. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason her Department holds onto personal data collected through the public services card application process indefinitely; the way in which data are stored; the person or body that has access to the data; if the data are shared across Departments or other State bodies; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38803/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Employment)

We will have a broader discussion later this evening on the public services card but my question is about the Department's insistence on retaining indefinitely personal data collected through the SAFE 2 registration process, how the data are stored, who has access to them and if the data are shared across Departments of other State bodies. With due respect, I do not want a response that refers to the Department surveying 1,000 customers who say they are happy with the process. I want facts and direct answers to the questions I have posed.

The reply is the same as the reply to the first question asked by Deputy O'Dea. Given that I read the first half of it into the record, I will read the second half and that might answer the Deputy's questions directly.

The Department will continue to use the SAFE 2 registration process and issue PSCs. It will also retain the supporting documentation collected as part of the SAFE process.

The reason for this is that it is not sufficient, in the case of a dispute over a decision, to simply record that the decision was taken. It is also necessary to be able to produce the documentation on which the decision was grounded. Other bodies, for example, credit unions, public utilities and banks, similarly retain documentation submitted in support of applications for their services for as long as the person concerned is a customer of the organisation. We intend to do the same.

My Department is committed to ensuring that data relating to individuals are securely held and only ever used for the relevant business purposes. The Department’s commitment to safeguarding data is reflected in its use of advanced data processing and storage technology hosted in secure, State-owned and operated data centres and is reinforced by a range of legislative and administrative provisions that are designed to protect the rights and interests of individuals.

Neither the PSC nor the underlying public service identity data set contains any information relating to the holder’s use of public services.

The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, restricts the sharing and use of the public service identity, PSI, data to a number of specified bodies set out in Schedule 5 to that Act and only in respect of a transaction a person has with that specified body. It is important to note, contrary to statements by some commentators, that the sharing of the PSI data set does not involve sharing information regarding use of public services.

A person is only required to undertake a SAFE 2 registration process once. When the PSC card reaches its expiry date a new photograph is taken to update the new card and the PSI data set. A person who is SAFE 2 registered can update other elements of their identity data set as these change, for example, if the person moves house.

The Minister would admit that the data that are retained are sensitive in nature. There are legitimate concerns in that regard and that is supported by the Data Protection Commissioner in her findings. It certainly does not comply with the data retention principle that data controllers have no basis for collecting or keeping personal data that they do not need just in case a use is found for them at a future date. The Department's response to the Data Protection Commissioner on the blanket retention of data says that the process of satisfying the Minister as to identity is not necessarily complete once the card issues, yet the legislation clearly states that a public services card will not be issued unless the Minister is satisfied as to the identity of the person. It is a nonsensical argument. Numerous bodies, including the Comptroller and Auditor General, have serious concerns about the retention of individuals' personal data. The Minister's response was unsatisfactory so perhaps she will deal with those points.

It is clear that the Deputy and I have a difference of opinion with regard to its use, and I am not going to change his mind here. However, I refer to the four magnificent words he used: "they do not need". The reason we retain the data on the identification of a person's address is that we need them. As I will probably say later this evening, we believe we have a strong legal basis to do what was anticipated back in 1998 and established in the 2005 law, which has been amended a number of times since then by successive Governments. We have a strong legal basis to deliver our mission, which is to give effective public services to people and that they do not have to prove to State services who they are on multiple occasions, as it is done on a once-and-done basis. Regardless of whether the Deputy likes it, people tell us they are very satisfied with the process.

People telling the Minister they are happy with it does not make it lawful. This concerns not just the Data Protection Commissioner.

The Comptroller and Auditor General described the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE, process as a mass registration of the population to a specific standard in a 2015 report. It is not only me, the Data Protection Commissioner or the organisations that have serious concerns about the unlawful retention of people's personal data and how that can be used.

The Minister's response is unsatisfactory. We will follow it up later in the broader discussion. She keeps citing facts and laws but we have not seen them. I will put a question to her and follow it up later. To follow on from the issue Deputy O'Dea raised, which I raised last week in terms of the advice from the Attorney General, the Taoiseach said last week he had received third party legal advice. The Minister has said there is a precedent and reasons the Attorney General's advice cannot be given but there is no reason the third party legal advice cannot be given. The Minister might answer that question as it is critical.

The Deputy seems to think I am hiding something and that there is secret legislation hidden away in a drawer somewhere. All legislation is on the Statute Book for the Deputy or anyone else who wants to go through it. All statements made by successive Ministers when introducing these Bills and the contributions of the Opposition Deputies who were here at the time are available in the Blacks. I invite the Deputy to read them before presenting material that is not factually correct.

The third party advice came from the Attorney General, therefore, it was his office that employed the third party advice. It was to ensure we were not operating in our own little bubble. It is as protected, therefore, as if it was the Attorney General who gave it. The Attorney General secured the advice and he gave us the advice.

Jobseeker's Allowance

Questions (9, 20)

Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if a commitment will be made to restoring the single rate of jobseeker's allowance in order that persons no longer get a reduced rate; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38848/19]

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John Brady


20. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the stage the report into the reduced rates of payment for jobseekers aged between 18 and 25 years of age is at; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38801/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Employment)

The decision of the then Fine Gael-Labour Party Government to slash the rates of jobseeker's allowance for young people under the age of 26 was one of the most obnoxious and discriminatory austerity cuts of the many obnoxious and discriminatory cuts in that period. There is no justification for continuing to have a discriminatory reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance for young people now. Will the Minister restore that rate and restore equality for young people in terms of social welfare payments in the coming budget?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 20 together.

Reduced rates for young jobseekers in receipt of jobseeker's allowance were introduced on a phased basis from 2009, in line with other EU and OECD jurisdictions, as an attempt to tackle high youth unemployment and prevent long-term welfare dependency. Receiving the maximum weekly rate without a strong incentive to engage in either education or training can lead to welfare dependency from a young age, and nobody wants that. If young persons participate in incentivised training or any of the education opportunities that are available to them, they can receive the maximum weekly rate of €203. The youth employment support scheme, YESS, which I launched last year, is targeted exclusively at young jobseekers and participants receive €229.20 per week. My Department offers young people a number of work placement and training supports closely aligned to the labour market.

The policies in place for the past number of years have been effective in reducing both youth and long-term youth unemployment. In 2009, youth unemployment had reached its highest rate with almost 28% of young people under the age of 25 unemployed. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, seasonally adjusted youth unemployment rate at the end of August 2019 saw that rate almost halved in the past tens and it is currently 14.7%, but that is still far too high.

The Department is finalising a review, arising from an amendment brought forward during the debate on last year's Social Welfare Bill, on the impacts of the reduced rates on young jobseekers and I will review it shortly. My view is well known in this House. The objective of the Department is to ensure any young person under the age of 25 is as encouraged as much as they can be and supported in every way, shape or form into training, work experience or education.

There is a rotten logic to that. The reason many young people were unemployed in 2009 and the years afterwards was due to the calamitous economic collapse precipitated by the Fianna Fáil Party when in government and perpetuated by the austerity cuts Fine Gael and the Labour Party Government continued. The evidence for that is that prior to the economic collapse, we had near full employment. Even though there were no discriminatory social welfare rates, young people worked. The idea that if young people's social welfare payments are not slashed, they will all sit around doing nothing is discriminatory and prejudicial against young people. Does the Minister imagine that if one is under the age of 25 one can survive of less money - the social welfare rates are already poverty rates - on half or a little more than half of the payment rate? In the era of equality, that is just wrong.

The Deputy and I have a different view, and that is fine. I will cite research that was not commissioned by us but undertaken by the National University of Ireland Maynooth, which is independent of all of us. Its researchers found that those 18 years old in receipt of jobseeker's allowance on the age-related reduced rates prior to 29 April 2009 had an average unemployment spell lasting 111 weeks. However, those whose claims commenced after 29 April 2009 and who were in receipt of the reduced rate - at a time the Deputy is blaming Fianna Fáil which is probably not fair - had a reduced unemployment spell lasting only 50 weeks. Unless the Deputy had a different explanation as to why that happened when we had massive unemployment rates, I am not sure, but a large number of people in the past number of years, through the supports on offer both from the Department of Education and Skills and ourselves, have gone back into training and are educating themselves so that they can get better jobs and careers. That is the support that should be available as opposed to the Deputy wanting to give them an extra €100 a week. That is far more valuable for our young people.

This is discrimination, to call it what it simply is. In June this year, more than 21,000 young people were being actively discriminated against by this State. In a recent debate, Deputy O'Dea, said his party introduced it but it has not worked. If the Fianna Fáil Party believes it has not worked and the Minister, in an earlier contribution, said this discrimination towards are younger people is up for consideration at every budget, what will Fine Gael do about to end it? Will it insist it should be a red line issue for budget 2020 or is it happy to discriminate against the 21,000 citizens involved? In the pathways to work strategy introduced in 2016, there was a commitment that there would be a review and a report on the impact of the reduced jobseeker’s payment. That was three years ago and we have not seen such a report. The Minister has cited other reports that might back up this discrimination but the report to which she committed has not been published some three years later. Where is it?

The Deputy's numbers are wrong. The number of people in this age category who were on the live register at the end of August this year is thankfully much lower than 21,000. They number 16,223 but they are 16,223 people too many. The reason this is not discriminatory is other options are available to them. The weekly payment is €203 for those on our training schemes; €229 for those on any of our community employment or TÚS employment schemes; and €229.20 and for those on YESS. The purpose of the supports of this State, albeit that income support is a large of it, is to ensure we help support people through education, training and work experience to enable them to get back into a position to participate in the labour market. That is what we have been doing for the past ten years and it is working. I am not sure why we would stop doing something that is working over and above trying to tweak it, make it better and deliver a better service, and that is what we intend to do.

This is blatant discrimination against young people.

By definition, the payment is a poverty income for young people. That is what the Minister is imposing on young people.

If other arguments do not sway her, she should consider the fact that we need to get our young people back to the country. Having a discriminatory reduced rate is not exactly an incentive or encouragement for the many young people who are leaving this country to come back. It, alongside the housing crisis, is also contributing significantly to overcrowding in many family homes because young people simply cannot afford to leave home. There is unacceptable overcrowding in many households.

The Minister should end this blatant discrimination based on age. There is no other way to define it. It was never justified. Even its architects are now acknowledging that, but in the era of so-called economic recovery, it is completely obnoxious and unacceptable.

The Minister's predecessor, the Taoiseach, gave an insight into the thinking behind this payment at a social protection committee meeting. He said that young foreign people came to these shores, got off aeroplanes and were able to find themselves a job, and asked what our young people were doing. There is a train of thought within Government circles that our young people are lazy, are sitting at home on PlayStations and are not willing to get out and work, which is a disgusting view. That is the root of this ideological position. It is not about what is working. Unemployment levels are down across the board.

I have welcomed the YESS initiative, but this discrimination has to end. I asked about the report that was committed to under the pathways to work strategy. It was supposed to have been produced three years ago. The Minister has said this policy is working, but is not backing that up with her commitment to produce and publish that report. Saying the report will be published in the near future is not satisfactory because I have been told that every time I ask the question.

The Deputy cannot abuse the time of other speakers who are waiting.

We have a different view on this. Deputy Brady shares Deputy Boyd Barrett's view, but I do not. I am not sure others in the Chamber share my view, but that is widely known. It is also a view shared by the OECD and the European Union. The EU youth charter has worked. Ours is a policy which is working. I am not sure what part of the numbers do not work for Deputy Brady.

The policy was introduced in 2009 when 450,000 people were on the live register, many of whom were aged under 25 years. We have halved that number due to the policies we have deployed in recent years. I wish things were working faster, and that the 10% of people aged under 25 years who are still on the live register would engage and avail of training, work experience, employment or a return to full-time education, but we will continue to provide supports for them. I do not believe they are lazy. It is cheeky, to put it mildly, to try to interpret somebody else's words or view.

My view is based on reality. If Deputies do not know this, they need to be in their constituencies more often. Our young people are far from lazy. They have difficulties based on the environment and the communities in which we live today and need support services to be wrapped around them to enable them to overcome those difficulties. That is what we do in my Department and will continue to do with the community and voluntary sectors.

Social Welfare Benefits Eligibility

Questions (10)

John Brady


10. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason for letters being issued from her Department to contributory State pension recipients in which they claim for a qualified adult in addition to a declaration form to be signed by the recipient; if her attention has been drawn to the contents of the letter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38800/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Employment)

I ask the Minister to advise on the rationale for letters being issued from her Department to State contributory pension recipients claiming for a qualified adult and whether she is aware of the content of these letters, and if she will make a statement on the matter.

The increase for a qualified adult is a means-tested payment, payable to a State pension contributory claimant whose spouse, civil partner or cohabitant is being wholly or mainly maintained by him or her and where that qualified adult's personal means from any other source does not exceed a means test income limit. There are currently 60,635 beneficiaries of this payment. As part of my Department’s commitment to ensuring that claimants are receiving their full and correct entitlements, ongoing reviews of means-tested payments are carried out annually.

In the case of increases for qualified adults, IQAs, for those in receipt of the State contributory pension, the primary claimant is contacted by my Department to notify him or her that his or her continuing entitlement to the means-tested IQA payment is currently being examined. In addition, details of the means of the qualified adult are requested. Just over 10% of the 60,635 IQA cases are reviewed every year. These review letters have been approved by the National Adult Literacy Association, NALA, and were sent out recently.

Where a qualified adult has weekly means of less than €100, the maximum rate of IQA is paid. Where his or her weekly means is between €100 and €310, a reduced rate of IQA is payable. If the qualified adult has means of more than €310 per week, this exceeds the means limit and, therefore, no IQA payment is made. Only the means of the qualified adult are taken into account for claimants of contributory pensions. In the case of joint bank accounts or joint ownership of land or property, apart from the family home, only half of the value or amount is, therefore, assessed as means for that qualified adult. It is open to claimants to contact my Department regarding the return of any of the information requested. Flexibility can be and often is provided if there is difficulty in replying within the requested 21 days suggested in the letter.

I raised this matter yesterday during questions on promised legislation because there is significant fear among the public. I have been contacted by a number of people who have received this letter, who fear they will lose the payment, and the wording of the letter has created that fear. The Minister needs to clarify the position.

My office spoke to officials in her Department about the number of letters being issued, and was told that 60,635 people are in the system and letters will be issued on a phased basis. So far, 10% of the letters, or 6,000, have been sent and they have generated concern. The remaining letters will be sent out in phases in the near future. The first to receive letters are those who have not been reviewed for a long time. There is major concern. Perhaps the Minister could answer that question first.

I am not sure what the Deputy is asking me to confirm. Just over 60,000 people are in receipt of this particular allowance. We apply control measures every year, and 10% of those in receipt of the payment are randomly selected and receive the letter, and that is what has happened. I do not know what the Deputy means by "phased basis" and "the rest of them will get it shortly."

We carry out control measures across all of our schemes every single year. A percentage of claimants are randomly selected every year across every scheme for inspection. The number of people in this scheme who have been selected for inspection is just over 6,000 recipients, which is 10%.

The words "phased basis" are not my words; rather, they are the words of staff in the Department. The first round of letters have gone out to the 10% concerned and I took the response of the Department to mean that the rest will go out in the near future. What has caused the most concern is the wording of the letters. People have been given 21 days to respond. There is a fear that if they do not respond or provide all of the necessary documentation, the payment will be stopped.

I again ask about flexibility. When I raised the matter with the Minister yesterday, she told me that there is no flexibility whatsoever. I received a letter from the Department, which states that there could be flexibility in different scenarios. She is now saying that there is a little flexibility, but that is not stated in the letter. There is no indication that the Department will work with recipients to ensure all the necessary documentation is in place. They need to be reassured that their payments will not be stopped. That needs to be communicated not just to me, but to all 60,000 recipients.

I assume the Deputy is splitting hairs over the fact that he thinks we sent out 6,000 letters in one go. I assume what my officials meant to tell him is that we do not send out 6,000 letters in one go because we do not have the staff to receive 6,000 responses in one go.

The 6,000 letters are sent out on a phased basis and we respond to people as they send the stuff back to us. There is no documentation to be returned. I do not know if the Deputy has read the letter. There is a form to be filled out and people do not have to give us copies of anything. Either people's circumstances have changed or they have not. If they have not changed, people have nothing to fear whatsoever. If they have changed, they have an interview with somebody to ascertain what the new payment is or if the payment will stay exactly the same. This is a control measure to ensure that people are getting the correct payment. If the Deputy has met people who are fearful that their payments are going to be changed, he should explain that all we are trying to do is to make sure that people have the right payment and that they stay on it, which is the remit of the Department.

Pensions Reform

Questions (11, 39)

Willie O'Dea


11. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her plans to introduce an auto-enrolment pension system; her views on whether quarter 3 of 2020 is a realistic timeframe for the implementation of the system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38834/19]

View answer

Willie Penrose


39. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her plans to introduce an auto-enrolment pension system; the status of the consultation process and research undertaken; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38875/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Employment)

First, I apologise as there is an error in Question No. 11. The reference to 2020 should be to 2022. Nevertheless, this is a critically important matter. As the Minister is aware, there is significant pressure on the State pension system due to demographic changes and longevity, among other issues. Only 35% of people in the private sector have their own private pensions. Auto enrolment is a partial solution to this problem. Naturally, we are very anxious that the Government would be in a position to proceed with auto enrolment as quickly as possible. I am concerned about some slippage in the Government's timetable that it set out in the pension document some years ago and I seek clarification on that.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 39 together.

I had assumed the Deputy had mixed up total contributions with automatic enrolment because the changes to total contributions is due in quarter 3 of 2020 and automatic enrolment is due in quarter 1 of 2022.

The Deputies will know from the CSO's latest figures for the third quarter of 2018 that the rate of supplementary pension coverage in Ireland is far too low at only 47% of the working population and that reduces to 35% when one takes out the public sector, which does not have any choice apparently. Therefore, if measures are not taken to address this issue, many future retirees will experience a massive cliff and a reduction in their living standards, which none of us want.

It is accepted that by international standards, a 2022 delivery for automatic enrolment is very ambitious given the level of design work to be done, the complexity of legislation that this House will have to pass and the organisational and procurement arrangements to be implemented. Nevertheless, given the low level of occupational pension coverage, the view of the Government, which I hope the Deputies share, is that an ambitious timeframe is appropriate and we will continue to work towards the 2022 commencement target.

Automatic enrolment will see a transition from the current and purely voluntary system to one which will, subject to certain parameters, automatically enrol employees into a quality-assured retirement savings system. The saver will maintain the freedom of choice to opt out.

An extensive national public consultation process on automatic enrolment finished earlier this year.  A Strawman Public Consultation Process for an Automatic Enrolment Retirement Savings System in Ireland was launched in August 2018 as the basis for the consultation. It set out a plausible approach to the design of an automatic enrolment system for Ireland, with the intention of generating discussion and, hopefully, improving the original ideas we had. I chaired a series of consultation seminars around the country, in Dublin, Galway and Cork. In March, my Department and the Pensions Authority held a series of focus groups with the target population intended for automatic enrolment. My officials continue to regularly meet various stakeholders and representative groupings, of which there are many, as the Deputies well know.

The Department has completed the analysis of the substantial material collated from the consultation process, in order to determine how the feedback received may assist with the design process. The ESRI has completed research we commissioned on the economic impacts of introducing automatic enrolment. My Department is continuing its research and consultation with experts from around the world to further build the evidence base in a number of specific areas over the coming months.  I recently updated the Cabinet committee on the economy on progress with the design of the automatic enrolment system, including an overview of findings from the consultation process and the ESRI's macroeconomic impact assessment. A report on all the progress to date on the matter will be brought to Government for consideration in the coming weeks to facilitate the next steps for implementation of the scheme in 2022, as planned.

The Minister stated earlier this year that during the consultation process, the proposals put forward by the Government in its roadmap document were "ripped to bits". The basic design was supposed to have been ready by quarter 1 of 2019. As the Minister is aware, that deadline has already passed. In view of that, is the Minister still confident that she will be able to bring in her legislation on target in 2022. As I have said, it is a matter of the greatest urgency.

I wish to tease out the issue a bit further. The Minister referred to complex legislation. Could she give some indication of the nature of that and the preparation that has been done for it? Could she also indicate if IT systems need to be developed?

Deputy O'Dea referred to the responses to the national consultation which the Minister carried out. Will there be widespread public information campaigns as well? While a certain number of people engaged in consultation, the public probably does not know very much at all about the issue.

Sometimes, I have an unfortunate turn of phrase that does not come out quite in the way I had expected. I am getting a reputation for it. I meant that in a good way. I referred to the number of people who came to us and said it was great but suggested we do this and tweak that. We got good feedback in response to the consultation, not just from the big insurance companies. A 16 year old boy came to Galway who was interested in his pension. I was blown away by the people who came to the open days and who gave their input. That is what I meant by ripping it to bits. They gave us some great ideas. I have said consistently in this House that no one party or Department has a monopoly on wisdom. What we want to do is deliver a service for the people that gives them exactly what they need, which is a few extra bob when they get to 66 to be able to do stuff they want to do in their retirement.

In response to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, I hope the design will be finished in the main at the beginning of next year. The complexities around the central processing authority, CPA, will probably take us a little bit longer. There will be a requirement for a brand-new IT system. We do not know who is going to manage the system. There are still several things that remain to be designed. The roadmap for pension reform gives a clear indication of when we are going to do what we are going to do. There will be a public information campaign long before we ever press a button on day one, so as to socialise it and to make sure that people are happy. We have done a public consultation with employees and people within the industry in the past year and it has really yielded some positive changes to the system. I hope to be able to bring those changes to Cabinet in the coming weeks.

In terms of consultation, was there much discussion on who would administer the scheme? The Government's roadmap proposals suggest the private sector. A number of companies in the private sector are interested. I received strong representations to the effect that this should be done by a State body such as the NTMA.

The roadmap document promised the establishment of a full-time automatic enrolment programme management office that was to be established immediately. Has that been done?

The Minister referred to international experts. Are specific countries role models for what she plans to do?

One of the things we have not finalised yet is the management of the CPA. That has still to be determined. We are considering some of the suggestions that were made on how we look after that. I want whoever manages it to have the full confidence of both this House and the people who will give it their money. That is probably the most important thing for me to do.

The full-time management team is in my Department. It is not until it becomes a separate body and we determine who will be the ultimate manager of the CPA that a separate agency will be established. It may not end up being a separate agency; it may be a body that is already in existence. Those decisions will be made as per the timetable in the roadmap.

The international experts that we have are from the countries the Deputy can imagine they are from, who are world leaders in this area. It is just to try to help us. We could just copy and paste from somewhere else but it simply would not work. We want to learn from the experiences other countries have had. We have three international experts working with us to make sure that we get something that is suitable for us. There were some difficulties initially when the system was introduced in the UK and I want to make sure that we recognise them before they hit us in order that we plan for them and we can, hopefully, head them off at the pass.

Social Welfare Benefits Eligibility

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

Questions (12)

Willie Penrose


12. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the eligibility conditions of persons currently on work permits and attached to a singular employer or sector for social assistance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38877/19]

View answer

Oral answers (3 contributions) (Question to Employment)

I invite Deputy Jan O'Sullivan to introduce Question No. 12.

This question was highlighted during the recent beef protests when a number of low-wage workers in beef processing plants, some of whom were from non-EU countries, found themselves losing their employment. The question is designed to get clarity on exactly what the rights of those workers are.

Establishing an entitlement to a social welfare payment is contingent on a person satisfying the qualifying conditions of the relevant scheme.

In the case of most means-tested payments that arise from the Department, it includes a requirement to be habitually resident in the country. The term "habitually resident" means that a person has to have his or her "centre of interest" in Ireland. The term also conveys permanence; that is that a person has been here for some time and intends to stay here. It is a definition used in some of the schemes sought in recent weeks.

As the Deputy will be aware, eligibility for employment permits is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, who has just sat beside me. However, people on non-EU work permits who lose their job may be eligible for jobseeker’s benefit, subject to satisfying all of the qualifying conditions, including the PRSI contribution requirements. We ensure they get those entitlements. Those who do not have enough PRSI contributions to qualify for jobseeker’s benefit can apply for jobseeker’s allowance where other conditions apply, including a means test and the requirement to be habitually resident. Any claim for jobseeker’s allowance in the case of involuntary short-term lay offs represents a transient need for support. We look after that slightly differently and there are different conditions. The main aim with the specific cases raised by the Deputy was to get our teams to ensure that if a person qualified for an existing scheme, the payment was made. If that was not the case, we tried our level best to look after the person in the interim.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.