Deputy Kathleen Lynch is in possession.
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)
How much time remains to me?
There are 14 minutes left in the slot. I understand the Deputy is sharing ten of those with Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh so she has four minutes.
I shall resume where I left off. The Minister——
Let the House come to order.
I assume the Minister does not agree with my point about creating a discrimination in regard to children but I make it all the same and hope that on Committee Stage we can take a serious look at this issue. We should not go backwards regarding children. If we take the adult claimant out of the picture and look at the two children of two separate groupings, discriminating between the child of a married relationship and the child of a non-marital relationship——
I ask Deputies to clear the lobbies so that Members can be heard.
To reintroduce this discrimination into our legislation at this stage would be a retrograde step, especially in view of the fact that we are about to put before the people an amendment in regard to the rights of the child. It will be challenged and I believe that challenge will succeed.
A number of months ago I could not understand why, having been disallowed jobseeker's benefit or allowance, a person who went to the community welfare officer was disallowed again, on the basis that the decision made by the Department of Social and Family Affairs applied equally to the community welfare officer. That used never be the case because community welfare officers are always the people through whose net one never falls. They always give the baseline payment. They are the people who protect us from having no income at all.
Clearly, however, a circular was issued by the Department in June 2009 which stated that social welfare payments were not now to be considered as temporary or interim payments if a claim had been disallowed by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I understand perfectly that the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, may not know about this because he is not very long in the job. A second circular was issued stating that the first circular was not to be taken as a guideline in not allowing a person payment in terms of the habitual residence clause. Unfortunately, this is still being applied to people who are not affected by the habitual residence clause. An additional circular needs to be sent, to clarify that. At one stage in a case of a person with whom I was dealing, we were dealing with two appeals on the same decision. We were dealing with the appeal to the then Department of Social and Family Affairs and a second appeal to the superintendent community welfare officer on the same decision. That is crazy, because the person involved was left with absolutely no money. If the Minister needs to change that, then he needs to be very clear.
The Minister should also examine the cut-off point for children. I dealt already with an area where I think there is a discrimination being reintroduced in the Bill and I hope we can tease it out on Committee Stage and put it to rights. The parents of a child with a disability that does not require domiciliary care allowance will not receive a payment when the child reaches 13 years of age. The Minister has inherited much of this and he could not have possibly have meant this to be the case. I hope that when we are on Committee Stage, he will take on board much of what has been said. It has been said with a view to improving the system and not to frustrate what he wants to do.
This Bill puts the cart before the horse. It threatens welfare cuts at a time when sufficient education, training, child care and job opportunities simply do not exist, either for the 361,000 claimants affected by this Bill, or for the almost half a million on the dole as a whole. This Bill is mean spirited, nasty and counterproductive. Nobody can have a problem in principle with activation policies moving people from social welfare to paid employment. The vast majority of those dependent on social welfare would prefer to be in paid employment, paying their way in society and having an income that could contribute to enhancing their lives and their children's lives. Regrettably, the Minister's approach in this Bill is not activation, but compulsion. It is penal. It is all stick and no carrot, because there are no jobs, there are too few educational courses and fewer still training opportunities. Of course, there is always an Bád Bán, the Government's safety valve for decades, namely, emigration. The Minister is confirming the message of the Minister for Finance in last year's budget when he cut young adults' jobseeker's allowance. He basically said to them, "Young people of Ireland, you know where the boat is. Get lost."
The intention of this Bill is to punish the unemployed, those on jobseeker's allowance and the supplementary welfare allowance. The Minister intends to punish them, mainly young people, many of them with families, for his Government's failure to create jobs. They will be punished for refusing to take up non-existent jobs or courses. Is the Minister telling us that all these courses, training opportunities and jobs will be in place by the time this Bill is passed? There is not a hope in hell that half a million job opportunities, courses or training places will be created by July when he intends to have this Bill rammed through the Dáil.
We will have a repeat of the AnCO glory days when courses were set up by the Government to massage the unemployment figures. These courses required the long-term unemployed, including many graduates, to sit in classrooms pretending to learn telephone skills with bananas because they did not have enough telephones. They had to sit there for hours on end twiddling their thumbs because there was no purpose to the course. The reward for such suffering was to languish on the dole, because the jobs were not there in the 1980s, just like today. Not only is this Bill ill conceived and puts the cart before the horse; it is also a fraud. It is about cutting costs and not about getting people back to work. The jobs are not there.
I do not know whether the Minister has noticed that the Government has fucked up the economy; he should look around him. The Government has gambled away the jobs and used the money needed to create new jobs to bail out the banks, its developer cronies and Greek shipping magnates. From the Government's point of view, somebody had to foot the Bill, and it was not going to be its friends. That is what this Social Welfare Bill is really about. It is about picking the pockets of the poor to give to the rich in order to repay their gambling debts.
What is the definition of a ‘suitable' job offer? It is not defined in this Bill and it is another discretionary power for social welfare inspectors. What constitutes an education and training offer? These are important questions, as they could be the difference between life and death, the difference between being on the bread line and under it. Living in poverty is a daunting prospect and a daunting reality already for many in Irish society today, yet the Minister is looking to condemn more to that reality with this Bill.
What about the minimum wage? Can the Minister guarantee that there will be no reduction in the national minimum wage? I doubt it, because the indication to date is that this is the next target for cuts.
With this Bill, the Government is putting on its shoes before it puts on its socks. Getting people back to work will not happen as a result of unfair cuts to the jobseeker's allowance. It will happen when there is meaningful and appropriate training, education or work placements for everyone within three months of becoming unemployed. It will happen with the creation of jobs. There is a gaping hole where appropriate education and training opportunities should be. We are now over two years into an unprecedented economic crisis and this Government cannot even come up with a proper jobs creation strategy. Such ineptness deserves to be punished, and hopefully it will be. Roll on the election.
What about the Government's much hyped work placement programme? It is not delivering with less than half of its minuscule 2,000 places filled. Of the 2,500 college places supposedly created for jobseekers in the budget of April 2009, 35% remain unfilled because the supports are not there. These are the activation measures that are required. I urge him to talk to the Minister for Education and Skills about those places and the need to increase that number.
The Government's logic of penny pinching has been exposed by its decision on the sly to cut the job retention fund , known as the enterprise stabilisation fund, by €22 million last month. That fund was established to support viable but vulnerable export companies and to keep people in employment.
What about those half way through their apprenticeship? The 3,000 apprentices who were within six to 12 months of completing their apprenticeships and who now have no work placement, and the 5,000 former apprentices who were made redundant must be facilitated and supported to complete their courses. The public and private sector must be incentivised to take them on. ESB Networks has shown the way by agreeing to take on 400. Much more needs to be done to help apprentices who have suffered because of the downturn.
Os rud é go bhfuil an Bille seo á bhrú tríd ag an Aire sa tslí atá molta aige ag an am seo, is léir nach bhfeiceann sé ní hamháin gur cur amú ama agus fuinnimh dóibh siúd atá dífhostaithe cursaí atá mí-oiriúnach dóibh, ach is cur amú airgid cáiníocóirí na tíre seo é chomh maith, nach cuideoidh in aon chor leis an ghéilleagar. Is éard atá de dhíth ná cúrsaí traenála agus oideachasúla oiriúnacha atá dírithe ar phoist, nó a chuideoidh leo poist a fháil. Tá gá le réamhsmaoineamh chun é sin a dhéanamh — áfach, tá fíorbheagán de sin le fheiceáil go dtí seo ón Rialtas. Where is the jobs strategy? What are the future job opportunities which will be available? What are the companies which will be attracted to Ireland in the future? What indigenous goods and services will characterise the future Irish economy? What are the skills that economy will require? A recent FÁS report found that many of its courses have lost focus and are of little use to young people in terms of getting work. I urge the Minister to read our document, Getting Ireland Back to Work -Time for Action, Jobs Creation and Retention. It is time for this issue to be dealt with.
I have run out of time. There is much that I would like to say on changes with regard to lone parents and I will address them on Committee Stage. That is another absolutely disgraceful stance to take at this time. The preparatory work has not been done to ensure these activation measures, as they are called, will not have a detrimental effect on those surviving on either the lone-parent scheme or social welfare allowances.
I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill because such Bills are crucial in the situation in which the country finds itself. The Bill is about providing people with opportunities and choices. For many years I have heard people regularly saying that they had no alternative but to sign on, and that there was nothing else they could do. There will always be a certain cohort of people who for a myriad of reasons, cannot find employment or simply cannot work. They are the disadvantaged and vulnerable people we have to look after. There are also those who take advantage of the system and by fraud or other means, prevent resources from being used to help those most disadvantaged and those who need the most assistance.
Fianna Fáil has always sought to look after the most vulnerable in society. Over successive Governments we have substantially increased social welfare across the board. Although we are in very tough and challenging economic times, we must ensure that the most vulnerable in our society continue to be protected, particularly the elderly. As we know, everything we have is built on the effort and commitment of our senior citizens. Over the past 12 years, we have increased pension rates by approximately 120%, unemployment benefits by almost 130% and child benefit payments by more than 330%. Difficult decisions have been made and remain to be made. However, this side of the House should not make any apology for increasing those payments.
The Bill affects various parts of the social welfare system in particular ways. Sections 17 and 18 make changes for those on long-term allowances, such as the supplementary welfare and jobseeker's allowances. The key word in this legislation is "appropriate". An appropriate course in training or a programme of work under the employment action plan must take into account a number of factors. The client must be suitable for the course as well as the course being suitable for the client and this is crucial for the future.
Issues such as accessibility, child care matters and other family circumstances must all be taken into account before an offer of a course or placement is made. This is where the staff in the Department of Social Protection play a crucial role. There have been a number of approaches to this. The National Youth Council of Ireland raised the issue of a fair and transparent appeals mechanism. This has to be put in place and from discussions with the Minister I know that every effort will be made to ensure that when people go through an appeals mechanism they are given every opportunity to put their case fairly and to be heard and that a fair and equitable decision will be made at the end of the process. This is crucial.
The staff in the Department have a crucial role to play and as a former staff member of the Department of Social Welfare, I remember the Jobsearch programme introduced in the 1980s. At the time there was massive unemployment. The claims of people on the live register were assessed and they was interviewed by a senior member of staff. Their educational and training requirements were assessed and they were offered a position with FÁS, then called AnCO.
I agree that incentives have to be given to people, particularly to young people, to make the effort to seek employment. It is very easy for an individual, particularly a young person, to fall into the rut of having nothing to do and having no reason to get up in the morning. In parts of the country, including parts of my constituency, there have been generations of unemployment and there are no incentives for people to get up in the morning and that is passed down from generation to generation. In some areas, there is an expectation that the State will support as is needed. That is not in the interest of the client, never mind in the interest of the State.
We live in changing times and one can look at the make up of family units compared with what they were 20 or 30 years ago. Section 24 of the Bill deals with the phased changes to the Department's one-parent family payment. From April 2011, the one-parent family payment will be made until the youngest child reaches 13 years of age instead of the current arrangements whereby it is paid until the child reaches the age of 18, or 22 in the case of somebody in education or college. We have to encourage those parents, and ensure they are in a position to take up opportunities of employment or further education. This is not about putting a barrier in somebody's way; it is about trying to eliminate welfare dependency and encourage independence.
I understand that many of these parents find themselves in very difficult financial circumstances at present and we have to be fair and equitable about whatever changes we make to this payment. Under the Bill, there will be a six year phasing out period for existing customers with the age 13 cut-off point coming into effect for them in 2016. If the child is in full-time education, there is also a special provision for existing one-parent family payment recipients and this is only right. Many of us are blessed to know how expensive raising a child is and what resources it takes. There must be fair and equitable implementation of this part of the Bill.
I have listened to the debate over the course of the day. There has been much talk about activation and we must look at what it is and what it means. Naturally enough, the measures proposed in the Bill will no doubt be seen as harsh by some groups. It is crucial that those who find themselves in the very vulnerable position of having to claim a welfare payment are treated with courtesy and have their dignity recognised and supported. Many people are now signing on who had never before experienced the trauma of redundancy, a reduction in working hours or a change in working conditions. The sooner those people get back into the workforce, the better for them and their families and every effort has to be made to minimise the time they are on welfare payments.
Joblessness, and the enforced inactivity that goes with it, is one of the biggest challenges facing many households at present. I look forward to the Minister bringing a joined-up approach to all the issues faced by unemployed people and doing so in conjunction with suitable and adequate income supports.
The proposals in the Bill on reducing jobseeker's payments where people refuse training, or disqualifying them from jobseeker's payments where they refuse a reasonable offer of suitable employment are not about punishing the vulnerable. They are about ensuring that social welfare resources get to the many people who are in very difficult circumstances because of joblessness.
I welcome the Minister's plans to place more emphasis on the area of job activation and work schemes. There are many unemployed people who would appreciate meaningful work activity. A requirement for work activity would act as a deterrent to the minority of people who might claim a jobseekers payment and earn and undeclared income at the same time. Significant savings have been made in fraud prevention. Those who take advantage of the system are in the minority. This Bill is balanced in the sense that it gives people an opportunity to further themselves if they find themselves in a position where they cannot find employment. There are opportunities and it give people choices, something which is to be welcomed. When one considers that this year the State will spend just under €21 billion those resources have to be managed.
I thank Deputy Brady for sharing time. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is a very tough and imaginative Bill and there is nothing wrong with that when one is being fair, and the Minister is fair in every aspect of this. I welcome it and hope we see more of it over the coming months and years under his stewardship.
Fianna Fáil in Government has had the best interests of the most vulnerable at the core of our budgets over many years and despite the recent economic downturn, we have continued to ensure that people most at risk are provided for. This is borne out by the fact that €500 million more has been spent on welfare this year than in 2009. The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010, introduced into the house by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, contains a number of amendments to existing social welfare legislation. One of the main provisions set out in sections 17 and 18, is the change to unemployment benefit payments if a person refuses to accept a job or training deemed suitable. That is not unrealistic or unfair. If somebody is offered a job and is unwilling to interact and be proactive in terms of seeking training and education, why should they not be penalised to a degree? In some ways I would go further but that may be for another day. I welcome what the Minister has initiated.
This Government is committed to getting as many people back into employment and training as possible. For example, this year the total number of training and work experience activation places funded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation will be approximately 147,000. A question was asked on whether the places would be there when people were offered suitable training courses, and the answer is clearly "Yes". Some €20 million has also been allocated to a labour market activation fund, which will seek to support innovative proposals over and above mainstream provision for the unemployed and it is expected that it will provide at least 3,500 training places this year alone.
In the area of youth unemployment the work placement programme is available which comprises 2,000 places, of which 1,000 are for graduates in addition to community centre and VEC schemes. This is just a small fraction of the various schemes being driven by Government. We are providing training and work placement opportunities and where there are appropriate work and training opportunities, people who choose not to participate should be sanctioned. Most people would agree that one cannot have a system without a sanction mechanism in place.
One of the current conditions to obtain jobseekers allowance is that the person must be available for and actively seeking work, and this new provision will ensure that people who are in a position to work or participate in training will be far more incentivised to do so. Another provision is the change to the one parent family payment. Now the one parent family payment is payable until the youngest child reaches 18 years of age or 22 years of age if in full-time education where means and other conditions are met. From April 2011 payments for new customers will only be made until the youngest child in a lone parent family reaches the age of 13. In comparison to other countries which have similar schemes, the Irish system of support until the child is 22 years of age while in education or 18 years if not in education is extremely generous and well above the norm. We are making changes but we will still be above the European average and are very competitive in terms of these aspects.
There is a special provision for married and cohabiting couples who are recently bereaved and who have children aged 13 years or older. They will continue to receive the payment for up to two years or until their child is 18 years old to enable them to come to terms with their changed circumstances. That is a particularly welcome provision because it shows that it is not a one size fits all approach. Exceptions are made and there is compassion within the system. There will also be special provisions for families with children for whom domiciliary care allowance is paid.
The reason for these changes is that the Government believes the current system encourages long-term welfare dependency and does not encourage movement away from income support. The changes in this Bill will bring Ireland's support for lone parents more in line with international provisions. The EU countries that are achieving the best outcomes in terms of tackling child poverty are those that are combining strategies aimed at facilitating access to employment and enabling services such as child care with income support and this is the type of system that the Government wants to move towards. Whether we have economic difficulties, this is the system towards which we should move. The Bill also provides for the Minister to appoint persons other than serving staff to be appeals officers. This will allow for the employment, on a temporary basis, of retired appeals officers as appeals officers to clear the huge backlogs of appeals office, which is another welcome aspect in the Bill.
The Opposition attempts to give the impression that it is the guardian of the vulnerable, but as the recent decision by Dublin City Council to abolish the bin waiver scheme proves, this simply is not the case. This unnecessary and disappointing decision was taken in late 2009, when the majority Fine Gael and Labour Council voted in favour of it, and its full impact is now starting to be felt. The six Fianna Fáil councillors voted against the budget but were unfortunately outnumbered. Under the new system, those people who were previously entitled to a waiver do not have to pay a standing charge, but have to pay for their bin lifts. If people keep up to date with their payments they will receive four free lifts a year. Individuals who use the bag system and were receiving free bag tags will now get 36 tags a year and will have to pay for any tags over that amount. This move, which was passed by the majority Labour vote on Dublin City Council, has unfortunately exposed the old and the vulnerable to more expense, and could have been avoided if the Labour Party and Fine Gael had worked to re-organise rather than abolish the scheme and the waste management section in Dublin City Council.
The Government is committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society. The provisions in this Bill, as well as continuing this protection, will encourage people who are in a position to do so to enter training, education and work and move away from State reliance. It is important to put it into context, in terms of the increases in pensions and welfare payments over the years. In the past decade, pension rates and unemployment benefits have increased by 130% and child benefit increased by more than 330%. During the same period, the cost of living increased by 40%. This is a tough, fair and imaginative Bill and I welcome it.
I propose to share my time with Deputy Catherine Byrne.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Deputy Chris Andrews raised the issue of the bin waiver scheme in Dublin. The effects of this issue will be felt throughout the country, as I know from being involved in budget processes in Cork. The Minister is probably wondering why we are discussing this issue but it will come across his desk.
There are no bin waivers out in the country where I live. There never was.
They burn it all.
Cork City Council has provided them for a number of years. Private operators are taking business from local authorities with the result that customers have to bear the cost of the waivers. Waste collection is dominated by a private operator in Limerick and similar issues will arise elsewhere sooner rather than later because the local authority system is not sustainable. Those who are now in receipt of waivers will be turning to their community welfare officers for support in this area.
The two main elements of the Bill are changes to the jobseeker's allowance and the supplementary allowance for those between the age brackets of 18 to 21 and 22 to 24. I have spoken to a large number of people since these proposals were first made. One woman I met was delighted because it would get her 19 year old son off the couch. She felt he was getting too much money while living at home. However, questions arise in regard to appropriate training and suitable employment.
Many of the young men I come across were lured from education by high wages in the construction sector. Now they have lost the opportunity to finish their apprenticeships and have nowhere to turn. The thought of retraining within the construction sector seems pointless to them.
Education and training have to be the next step for these young men but they will need adequate services and facilities if they are to be successful. I served as a member of the Cork VEC and on the boards of two further training colleges. Cork has three excellent further training colleges, Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, St. John's Central College and Cork College of Commerce. It was refreshing to see how the staff and principals of these colleges responded to the market demands by developing new courses. They are extremely flexible in reacting to the market and the service they provide is second to none in terms of training young people and those who are on a career path that no longer exists. I am disappointed that they have not been allowed to expand sufficiently in response to the strong demand for training.
Sections 17 and 18 refers to what is termed "appropriate training". Does this relate to the qualifications an individual possesses or ones which may help him or her to find employment? We will have an opportunity to answer this question on Committee Stage.
What exactly does the term "suitable employment" involve? If somebody is qualified and has worked for a decade in a certain profession which now offers limited employment opportunities, will he or she be required to take up alternative employment? The definition needs to be clarified because it will be the basis for decisions that will be made in social welfare offices across the country.
I am aware of a 19 year old who had the option of working for three months but chose not to do so because he would be put on the lower rate when he reapplied for benefits. Young people under the age of 20 who qualify under existing schemes face this hurdle if they take up short-term employment.
It is a fair point but it is not intended.
Perhaps I will put down a parliamentary question on the matter.
I will clarify it on Committee Stage.
I am glad the Minister can clarify it.
A new employer PRSI incentive scheme was announced in December and was supposed to be in place earlier this year but there is still no sign of it. With 439,000 people on the live register and a further 70,000 expected to join them this year, the scheme is worth implementing. Fine Gael made a similar proposal in our pre-budget submission because it is expensive for employers to hire staff and an incentive scheme may support them in doing so.
The changes to the lone parent's allowance gives rise to difficult issues. Lone parents are at serious risk of poverty because it is not easy to raise children alone. The State has recognised that single parenthood is challenging and it is willing to support lone parents. In this Bill, however, the Government is making a statement that such support will no longer be provided once a child reaches 13 years of age. Anyone with knowledge of the education system will be aware that the transition from primary to secondary school is a difficult time for the children involved, many of whom are aged 13 years. The State is now demanding that single parents with a child of this age, primarily mothers, should be available for work. I question that approach.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which will result in significant changes in social welfare payments this year as the Government tries to tackle social welfare costs, which currently stand at €20 billion per annum.
In the past, social welfare was associated with the poor and disadvantaged. Now, in more difficult times, social welfare recipients come from all walks of life, including people who find themselves unexpectedly out of work or struggling to pay bills. For this reason, with Government revenue dwindling by the day, we need to allocate social welfare payments to genuine cases involving the greatest need.
Budget 2010 introduced a raft of cuts to social welfare payments, including an excessive reduction in the dole payment and cuts to child benefit, disability benefit, illness benefit and treatment benefit. These cuts had a knock-on effect on thousands of people who were already struggling to survive and now face further changes to the jobseeker's payment, supplementary welfare payments and the one parent family payment.
Essentially, the Bill restricts access to three payments and makes qualification for payments more difficult. While I understand the need to reduce Government expenditure following the reckless waste of billions of euro in recent years, some of the changes proposed in the Bill do not make sense.
On the proposal to cut social welfare support for young people, I do not agree that reducing jobseeker's payments for people under 25 years who do not take up an offer of training or suitable employment will result in real savings. On the contrary, it will make life more difficult for young people. Where is suitable employment to be found? As we all know, there are 437,000 people on the live register, 85,000 of whom are under the age of 25 years. Many of these young people are highly skilled and have third level qualifications or trades. The vast majority of them want to work and earn a living and do not want to rely on the State. If they are lucky , they receive €100, or a little more depending on their age, from social welfare and struggle to pay their bills and make ends meet.
I agree that we must support and encourage young people who wish to return to education to upskill and hopefully find employment. However, forcing young people into training which is not entirely suitable merely to tick a box is not the answer. We need jobs to back up the many new training places available but such opportunities are in short supply.
The proposal to reduce unemployment benefit by between €25 and €35 for young jobseekers who do not take up a reasonable offer of education or training is not a quick fix. Has the Minister considered whether sufficient suitable education and training places are available for young people? Penalising a person by reducing his or her dole payment because he or she does not return to training is not the way to solve the problem of unemployment.
I also have concerns about changes to the one parent family payment. The proposals in this regard are simply cost-cutting measures which do not address the complex issues surrounding one parent families. While reducing the qualifying age from 22 years to 13 years has its merits in certain cases, we must consider the bigger picture. The one parent family payment is designed to help single parents cope with all of the demands of a young child. It is of great assistance to a single parent who is genuinely raising a family alone.
Bringing up a child or children can be difficult, both emotionally and financially. I fully support the provisions made by social welfare to help families who need financial assistance to feed and clothe their children. However, the elephant in the room is the considerable number of young women, many of whom are still teenagers, who consider single parenthood a choice which can be financially rewarding. We need to tackle the mentality that having a baby outside a committed relationship is a ticket to social welfare support and leads in many cases to the allocation of a local authority house or generous rent supplement payments. I do not seek to make life more difficult for one parent families but we need to eliminate the culture of dependence and promote education, training and a work ethic which would help people to find employment and escape from the poverty trap. The entire system must be reformed to ensure those most in need can benefit from adequate State support in the form of the one parent family payment. I do not propose to repeat the story I related to the Minister earlier.
I continue to be surprised by the large amount of money spent each year on rent supplement. The figure has increased in recent years. In 2010, the Government will pay landlords €509 million in the form of rent supplement. This money could be spent in a more sensible and productive way. For example, thousands of empty apartments and houses around the country could be taken over by local authorities and given to people on rent supplement. The beneficiaries could pay the council a set amount each week and would then have a place to call home. I am baffled that such a step has not been taken and wonder what we must do to realise this proposal. The Government must think outside the box on this issue, rather than continuing to line the pockets of landlords, many of whom do not give a damn about the maintenance of their properties or how they appear in the community. We need long-awaited statutory standards imposed on landlords.
Following budget 2010, a number of welfare payments were reduced, including the blind pension. It is incredible that blind people are means-tested before receiving the blind pension. Blind people suffer from what is probably the greatest disability, yet we put even more obstacles in their way. How can the Government, in good conscience, continue with this practice? We need to support the most vulnerable and weak in our society, including the blind.
Another area in which reductions have been made is the supplementary welfare allowance. The home heating supplement, which falls under the supplementary welfare allowance, is granted in cases of exceptional heating needs. What does the Minister consider to be exceptional heating needs? I have raised this issue on many occasions in the House and in committee. I know many elderly people who live in senior citizens' complexes in this city in which the heating is switched off at 10 p.m. and is not switched on again until 7 a.m. The residents are not allowed to adjust the heating controls and are forced to rely on alternative sources of heat, such as electric fires, at night. This is a dangerous practice. I know many people who, if they wake up at night, must sit at home draped in blankets or return to bed because they are unable to switch on their heating. Many elderly people are afraid to switch on electric heaters because they cannot afford to pay higher electricity bills. The Government has not taken a sensible approach to this issue.
I refer to people who have been made redundant after many years in the workplace. A large number of people aged in their 40s and 50s who have worked since they left school now find themselves without a job, with few prospects of finding more work. They have paid their taxes through the years and while they are entitled to jobseeker's benefit for 15 months, what happens when the 15 month period elapses? They are means-tested and in many cases they are not entitled to any benefit because their spouse works. This is very demoralising for men and women who find themselves with no income after decades of paying their dues and taxes. Naturally they want to continue to provide for their families but the door is closed to them and they are turned away once again.
I know the Minister is a compassionate man; I have heard him speaking at many meetings. I urge him to consider the many issues that have been raised in this House, not only by me but also by other people and to deal with those that have real merit. We all want a fairer and more transparent welfare system, but we do not want to penalise people who need our help most.
I wish to share time with Deputy Conlon.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I want to be associated with the comments the previous speaker made about our new Minister for Social Protection as I know he is a very compassionate, understanding and decisive man. He is a man of great courage and responsibility. I compliment him on two issues in which he has made a real difference since getting his new portfolio. For a long time the farmers' spouses were in a very precarious position. While I know his predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, had done some work on it, he swiftly showed his compassion and understanding, and dealt with that. The second issue is one in which the Leas-Cheann Comhairle may be interested. This evening the Minister informed an all-party group of how he is dealing with the miners who have suffered long since their mines closed and ceased to work. It is a delicate situation for many of them. I pay tribute to him for dealing with this issue so swiftly — under present legislation rather than trying to shape something new. I thank him for that.
Job creation needs to be a priority for us all now and our social welfare system under the Bill will reflect this focus. As a society we need to protect the neediest and try to ensure all our citizens have a reasonable standard of living. At the same time we want to avoid long-term welfare dependency so we need to make choices in how we direct our supports. The provisions of the Bill relating to the one-parent family payment are fair. There are almost 90,000 lone parents in receipt of the one-parent family payment at an estimated cost of €1.1 billion. As a parent of a large family, I recognise how difficult it is for single parents. Even with two parents it can be difficult and challenging. This payment developed at a time when single parents faced severe disadvantages and discrimination. Our society has changed so much in recent decades that this is no longer the case and the changes to the system will remove long-term welfare dependency and bring Ireland into line with other EU countries.
From April 2011, payments for new applicants will only be made until the youngest child in a lone-parent family reaches the age of 13. For existing claimants there will be a tapered six-year phasing out period. The EU countries that are most successful in tackling child poverty are those that combine income support with strategies aimed at facilitating access to employment such as child care. I welcome the special provision for married and cohabiting persons who have recently been bereaved and who have children aged 13 years or older. They will continue to receive the payment for up to two years or until the child is 18 years old to allow them to come to terms with their changed and difficult circumstances.
If a person refuses an offer of suitable employment, he or she will no longer receive jobseeker's allowance. This provision just reinforces the existing arrangements. At the moment one of the conditions to obtain jobseeker's allowance is that a person must be available and actively seeking work. Likewise if someone refuses to participate in an appropriate course or training, or to participate in a programme under the national employment action plan, he or she will have his or her jobseeker's allowance or supplementary welfare allowance reduced. At the moment a person who refuses a training place is disqualified from payment for nine weeks. This new provision instead reduces the rate.
While I support the Bill, I highlight the lack of access to any social welfare supports for previously self-employed people. These people are now being punished for their entrepreneurship, a quality we are trying to promote and stimulate through various policies. The message we are sending out is anti-business, anti-innovation and detrimental to many families who are struggling to make ends meet. I know the Minister is looking at this matter. It is very unfair on people who had a good businesses idea, had the courage and vision, went to the bank manager and may have gone into debt, found work for themselves, paid for themselves and supported their families, may have extended and expanded their businesses, and gave valuable employment. Those are mainly the SME and small business people. We need these people now more than ever. Given that they have paid all their taxes, are C2 compliant and have paid PRSI for their employees, it is very unfair and demoralising for them to be left on the back foot.
I am a board member of Muintir na Tíre. Muintir na Tíre, in its role of community development, has identified four key areas of concern to communities in the past three months. Through its vision for the future development it proposes to embark on a phased programme of community action over the next two years consisting of the following elements. The first element is a community education programme addressing carbon dioxide emissions. If supported and driven from within the community, it will create awareness resulting in persons, households and communities taking responsibility for reducing their carbon footprint, which in turn will reduce fuel bills and State carbon liabilities. This programme will be delivered by Muintir na Tíre staff and a trained panel of volunteers.
The second element covers an expansion of the SEAI low-income housing warmer homes scheme. This programme will meet the needs of households not being met by the current low-income housing programme. If supported, the benefits of the programme will be enormous, the most obvious being the generation of much needed employment predominantly for males from the construction sector, a group with a strong work ethic, skills and experience, many of whom were self-employed and employers and are now unemployed. They are ready willing and able to take up the challenge.
The third strand is the employment programme for jobseekers. All persons in receipt of any form of State benefit — jobseeker's allowance or benefit, farm assist and so on — who have been out of work for a minimum of six months would be allowed to work 19.5 hours a week and retain their social welfare payments. This is vital because as we all know there are countless jobs to be done in transforming communities.
The fourth element is a community experience-qualifications-skills exchange programme. This programme will allow communities to provide a community-based programme utilising the existing community skill base of people who are currently unemployed. It will cover: adult literacy; basic computer skills; homework clubs; European languages; stone work; carpentry; plumbing; painting and decorating; gardening skills "grow your own" allotment management; community development skills; and preparation for second chance education. The scope is wide and the field is large.
The people with the ideas and work ethic are there. It must be possible for Government to allow these people who now find themselves unemployed to do the work and transform our country. They will be engaged in any works of benefit to the local community especially utilising the participants' core skills. Payment of the benefit would be channelled through the local community organisations. These are the people on the ground who are capable and have understanding of the needs of the community and the unemployed.
Muintir na Tíre is a national voluntary organisation dedicated to promoting the process of community development. Canon John M. Hayes founded the organisation in 1937. It aims to enhance the capacities of people in communities — rural and urban — to become involved in local social, economic, cultural and environmental development. It aims to enhance the capacities of people through its core principles of neighbourliness, muintreas, self-help and self-reliance, and its whole-community approach — rural and urban — to become involved in local social, economic, cultural and environmental development and to represent the interests of local communities in different levels of policy making. The late Canon Hayes always felt it was better to light a candle than to curse the dark. We now need to light many candles and need to keep many flames burning.
Are people in the dark then?
The Fine Gael Members have been trying to find their way for a few days and I wish them well with that.
We should keep our focus on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
The Deputy is trying to distract me. He came in for peace from the canvass but he has started to turn on me.
The organisation's vision for the development of Muintir na Tíre is that while retaining its position in the heart of community development throughout Ireland it will develop its services to become even more relevant to the needs of communities. Muintir na Tíre will support communities to unite their efforts with local regional and national structures, thereby creating integration of community development at community, local and national levels. It operates two services. These include the promotion of community development through a process of empowerment and participation, supporting and representing more than 200 community councils and other voluntary groups, and it is vital that there are so many constituent organisations on the ground. There is also community safety, with 1,351 community programmes doing tremendous work. There is a national organiser in Mr. Liam Kelly and four regional co-ordinators but it is mainly a voluntary team looking after themselves, their families and their communities. That is the way forward and we cannot do without them. Ní neart go chur le chéile and we must work together.
I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute this evening and I welcome the presence of Deputy Ulick Burke. Having looked around me I thought for one awful minute I would speak without a member of the Opposition being here to benefit from my pearls of wisdom.
I commend the Minister on bringing forward a Bill that is fair. There is no doubt that we live in changed times, going from a period during the Celtic tiger when there was full employment, with people earning high wages and plentiful incomes to a position where more than 400,000 people are unemployed. The difficulty is that people's expectations changed during the Celtic tiger years and they did not foresee a day when this would happen.
The other difference to the period during the 1980s when we experienced a severe recession is that we have almost 2 million people still in work, an important fact people tend to overlook. It is very important that we say this to people at every available opportunity.
I know many people in the country who want to work; they want a reason to get up in the morning and to make a positive contribution to the economy. It is very important for their dignity and self-worth. We all love a holiday and it is lovely to have a few days off, especially if income is earned along with it. By the end of the holiday there is an itch to get back to work and make a positive contribution. We can imagine the opposite, which is to have nothing to do all day, every day, and having no income. Not alone is there no stimulation, dignity or self-worth from working but there is no income either.
The corollary is that no matter how many people work in this country, there will always be a level of unemployment. Even when the maximum number of people are working, there will be a level of unemployment. There are some people in this country who, through no fault of their own — they may have an illness, disability or other circumstances — are not in a position to work. That is regrettable but it is important to recognise such people deserve and need to be supported. This Government is committed to providing that support.
The other side of that, which I will say without fear or favour, is that some people, who we all know, have made a full-time occupation from claiming welfare. They have perfected the art and know every scheme of getting money; they are masters at it. What is more, they have never had and never will have any intention of working. Somebody said to me a number of years ago that such people would not work on batteries and I would be inclined to agree with that comment.
We cannot continue to support those people. Taxpayers in this country are providing money for those people and their actions must stop. I am not afraid or ashamed to say that or put it on record. There must be benefit reforms to ensure that work is always a much more attractive option. As a Government, we must do everything possible to provide support and incentives to those entering the labour force, or in some cases, who wish to avail of further education.
The people I meet in my constituency clinics are no different from the people Deputy Burke or other Opposition Members meet in theirs. The mantra we hear is jobs, jobs and more jobs. It must be our sole purpose to find meaningful work for people, and that is why the Taoiseach created this Department and gave the remit to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív.
I have always held the contention that if one believes something is right, it can be defended. I do not say something to be popular. I agree with the idea that if a person is on jobseeker's allowance or any other benefit and is offered an appropriate job or training but refuses it, the benefits should be reduced. Why should we pay a benefit from taxpayers' money if people refuse a job or turn down an educational opportunity? We must be clear on this because the Government must make every effort to encourage people to take up these opportunities; if people do not take them up they should suffer the consequences.
Unfortunately, we have all heard about FÁS in rather unflattering terms over the past number of months and years. I commend the many good people who work in FÁS, as their morale, self-worth and dignity has been severely damaged because of the actions of a few people. They are doing tremendous work and providing a tremendous service. I have met with these people, heard from them and dealt with them on a regular basis. They feel that the actions of a few people in this country have severely damaged the reputation of FÁS, which is regrettable.
These good people work at the coal face and their sole determination and motivation is to get people back to work or education and training. I make no apology for the person in FÁS who calls somebody in and asks him or her what he or she has done to get a job after a period receiving jobseeker's allowance. If a person has not made an effort and cannot demonstrate how he or she has sought work, the FÁS representative is entitled to take certain actions. In this country there has been a cycle and culture of dependency which must be broken. In breaking it, those people who need support and are most in need will be looked after.
Deputy Mattie McGrath spoke about the self-employed and many such people took significant risks during the Celtic tiger. They now find themselves with no income, no social welfare and no prospect of a job. From speaking to those people I know that if any of them got a telephone call from the FÁS office offering a job, they would be very happy to take it.
I welcome the Minister's decision to transfer the rural social scheme and the community services programme to his Department. These programmes have been invaluable in supporting communities the length and breadth of this country. They have addressed disadvantage and provided local opportunities in employment for people. This Department is their natural home. Without such schemes, much good work in our communities would not be done. Like others, I would advocate increasing the numbers on these schemes.
I commend the Minister and his predecessor, Deputy Mary Hanafin, on their commitment to anti-fraud measures. Any person who defrauds the social welfare system is ensuring that somebody in genuine need of assistance is not getting it. Such people put their hands into the pockets of taxpayers and take money from them. They must face the consequences and I am delighted to see that we have stepped up our efforts in that regard. We cannot tolerate the process as it stands and we must redouble our efforts to ensure such abuse is wiped out. It angers the honest and hard-working taxpayers, as well as others on welfare benefits who appreciate such contributions. That is correct.
I have much more to say but I must cut my contribution short. I welcome the Minister's decision to appoint people other than serving staff to appeal officer positions. There are significant backlogs causing major hardship for people. The methodology that appears to apply is that if one is not sure about a claim coming through the system, one should disallow it without first subjecting it to closer examination. Such claims end up in the appeals system and in the majority of cases, the appeal is granted. This gives rise to a logjam.
I am also of the opinion that there should be greater interaction among social welfare offices, community welfare officers and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In many towns, these entities operate independently of and do not communicate with each other. They possess valuable information which should be shared.
I have been approached by many people on disability who have been called to appear before the chief medical officer. Again, this gives rise to major levels of distress because people are of the view that they are not being given enough time to have their documentation reviewed. As a result, their claims are disallowed and they are then obliged to engage with what is a lengthy appeals process.
I make no apologies for raising the concerns that my constituents bring to my attention. I am a public representative. It is my duty to represent the people who elected me. The media can refer to this as parish pump politics but I will continue to engage in it. Not only am I a legislator, I am also a public representative and I must strike a balance between the two roles. I will continue with my work in both areas.
The Minister adopts a common-sense approach and listens to the views not only of Government backbenchers but also to those put forward by the Opposition. From my dealings with him when he was Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, I am aware that this is the way he operates. I am confident that he will continue to operate in this way in his new Department.
I am delighted Deputy Conlon has conditioned the Minister to listen to people on the Opposition benches. I am pleasantly surprised that he has been present for the entire debate on the Bill. I welcome the fact that this Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has been introduced. However, I disagree with many of the provisions it contains.
I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of the Department of Social Protection. When we contact these individuals, they are always courteous, helpful and fair. There are a few exceptions in this regard and I intend to highlight one in a moment. The conditions that obtain in the offices in which those to whom I refer work are Dickensian, to say the least. I saw the queues outside the Department's offices in Gort, Loughrea and Tuam in the past couple of years. The personnel in these offices were obliged to deal with huge numbers of people and administer various schemes while operating in extremely poor conditions.
The language used in the Bill could in large part be classified as jargon. Essentially, it dresses up social welfare cuts in ambiguity. In that context, the Minister referred earlier to incentivising participation in training and education programmes and the programmes provided under the national employment action plan. There has been much discussion to the effect that various Departments should co-ordinate both their business and schemes in order that they will not be pulling against each other. In that context, I wish to read one sentence from a letter one of my constituents received from the community welfare services section, primary care, of the HSE and the Minister's Department. The constituent to whom I refer is a single parent who has three children and who lives in rented accommodation. The letter states, "As you commenced full-time education on 1 October 2009, and as your circumstances do not fall within those specified, I regret to inform you that you are not eligible for the allowance you applied for".
That is the type of message the Department of Social Protection is sending to people while the Minister refers to incentivising them to participate in various programmes. How can he describe the letter sent to my constituent as providing an incentive? The woman to whom I refer was previously employed in Galway city in the Minister's constituency but she lost her job. She tried her best to upskill and pursue further education. Academically, she is in the top rank but she is being denied the opportunity to remain in further education. Another 15 of my constituents outlined similar circumstances to me. These people embarked on courses while anticipating that the financial support they were receiving would be continued. However, that support has been withdrawn. The individuals to whom I refer are due to enter their third year in further education next September but they are being denied the opportunity to do so. Instead of being included, they are being excluded.
Reference was made to social inclusion. This piece of jargon has been uttered by those on the Government benches on numerous occasions in the past 12 months. However, what is being done is anti-social in nature. The Minister is denying those to whom I refer the opportunity to be included on schemes that are designed to allow them to upskill.
I accept that the Minister has only been in the Department for a short time and that the legislation may have been prepared prior to his arrival. I ask that he introduce drastic amendments to it in order that its provisions might be seen as being fair. I know the Minister wants all of the legislation relating to social welfare to be reasonable and fair.
I agree with Deputy Conlon's comments in respect of fraud. However, she also stated that people want to be in permanent employment. There are those among the 450,000 who are currently out of work who will never be employed again. God knows that they and the staff of the Department are aware of this fact. We are being informed that opportunities to upskill and enter further education exist. However, there are many barriers in place in this regard and the higher one goes, the worse it gets in this regard. The Minister can shake his head but that is the reality.
I am sure the people to whom I refer visit the Minister's clinic on a regular basis. He made an appearance at a meeting at which I was in attendance and when I challenged him about people on further education and back to education courses, he stated that I should tell them to come to his clinic and that he would sort matters out for them. The Minister is on the record as having said that.
I never said that.
I know the Minister's intentions were good but one must consider how what he had to say sounded. Is there a national scheme in respect of which they can apply or is it the case that if they make personal representations to him, he will see to it that they are catered for?
On a point of order——
The Minister on a point of order.
——I never said that.
Did the Acting Chairman prompt the Minister to raise a point of order?
I did not say what the Deputy indicates I said.
I do not suffer from deafness.
However, the Deputy alleged that I said it. Let us get the record straight. I was informed about what the Deputy said at the committee meeting. What happened was that a group of students on the Access scheme approached me and I informed them that I was interested in sample cases. They told me that there was a problem——
I wish to raise a counter point of order. The Minister is using jargon again. I now realise that he did have an input into the drafting of the Bill.
Those to whom I refer were representing students in general. I subsequently met representatives from the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, here in Leinster House——
The students to whom I refer are not members of the USI.
They were representing students from the Access scheme in Galway and from all over the country.
They made the case that the withdrawal of the higher education grant would give rise to hardship. I clearly explained that, in regard to single people living near a college, I did not believe that was true but that I could understand there were cases where this might cause hardship and if they, because they had come to me, gave me examples of cases I could generally examine the whole——
The Minister is eating into my time.
I could generally——
On a point of order, the Minister is making a speech.
The Deputy made a speech.
I ask, Chairman, that you allow me extra time.
I could generally examine the issue to make a national change. I made it clear from the outset that any change would have to affect everybody. I subsequently met with the USI and the Tánaiste. We are examining this issue. As I explained to the Deputy in the House on the previous occasion he made this allegation, any change will be announced publicly and will apply to everybody in similar circumstances. I am long enough a Member of this House to know it is unacceptable practise not to treat everybody equally under any scheme operated by a Department. I have never done otherwise. This is similar to an allegation the Deputy made a number of years ago in regard to selecting roads when it was Galway County Council who were doing so.
I call Deputy Burke to continue.
The Minister should not bring me back that far or he will be opening another can of worms.
The Deputy was wrong then too.
If the Minister has committed himself to the introduction of an equitable scheme that will treat all people the same why then——
I would not do otherwise.
——is he incentivising training and education programmes? There are 15 other cases I could bring to his attention.
Does the Deputy want an explanation for that?
No. It is inconsistent. I do not want an explanation. All I am asking is that the inconsistencies in this proposed legislation be amended and that fairness be applied.
If the Deputy comes back tomorrow when I am replying to the Second Stage debate I will explain it.
I will. I am open to that suggestion.
I look forward to seeing the Deputy here.
The Deputy might be otherwise engaged.
I will be here if doing so does not interrupt other activities. I might have other priorities.
The Minister stated that the Bill deals with "the small but significant cohort who refuse opportunities", an aspect of the provision which I welcome. Many young people and people recently made redundant, and not as a result of a lack of desire to work, want to train and to have access to training. They want access to further education and opportunities to return to education. I ask that the Minister and the Tánaiste, whom I know is fair, investigate these matters and eliminate the anomalies and barriers that exist in this regard. The Minister may not believe they exist.
I know what the Deputy is speaking about.
All we are asking is that in the current climate these people are given an incentive to work in terms of access to training so that when the upturn comes and work is available they can return to work. The Minister says that he is going to penalise under this Bill people who are offered work and refuse it. Who will offer them this work? There are people leaving this country who would work at any level despite that they may previously have been in receipt of high salaries, good working conditions and so on. They cannot get work and would sweep the roads if given the opportunity. Is the Minister incentivising them to do so?
I agree with Deputy Conlon's remarks in regard to FÁS. Perhaps it is in this area the Minister could have serious input. The Minister could try to eliminate, even on a temporary basis, the criteria that denies people an opportunity and the dignity of work. People are being denied work because they have been three or five years on a scheme. The working age limit has been extended to 70 years and beyond in some cases yet people who have been displaced and who want to work are being denied an opportunity to do so. These people have done outstanding work.
The Minister will be aware of the FÁS schemes in County Galway which have brought about much improvement, environmentally For the past three years, the village where I live has been, as a result of work done under a FÁS scheme, declared the tidiest village in County Galway. This will continue as a result of the work being done by FÁS.
Should a person who refuses work or a position on a FÁS, RSS or CSP scheme continue to be paid?
The clause "Should they be entitled to continue" is what eliminates them and prevents them doing valuable work in so many areas. I ask that the Minister with his colleague, the Tánaiste, co-ordinate these schemes. This has not been done to date. We are sick and tired of what is happening owing to a lack of co-ordination between the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Skills. People are falling between the stools of those two Departments. This will be replicated here unless the Minister gets a handle on it. I hope he does.
They are all transferring to one Department.
Minister please allow Deputy Burke to continue.
I am trying to be helpful.
I will move on to the one parent allowance. There is not a Member of this House who has not met a single parent. How can the Minister seriously expect a single parent, who for whatever reason is single and has one or two children, to go out to work? If such person refuses, will the Minister curtail or reduce his or her allowance? From my understanding of the provisions in this regard, that is what the Minister is going to do. How can the Minister do that?
I welcome the child care provisions in the Bill, with which I will deal later. How can the Minister expect single parents to go out to work? How can he justify reducing such person's allowance? Is that what the Minister is going to do?
They will get the same allowance if unemployed.
I refer the Minister to my earlier argument in regard to the jargon used in this Bill and one's interpretation of it.
As regards interpretation, where a person applies to the Minister's Department for a disability allowance and his or her application is rejected he or she on appeal must appear before a medical officer. Perhaps the Minister will say if such medical officer will be a medically qualified person. I was approached by a person who had appealed a decision and was afraid to attend an appeal because of the experience of her husband, an applicant in Ballinasloe town, who has been confined to bed and has been for the past eight years refused an allowance. The woman concerned applied for the carer's allowance because her husband is confined to bed but the Department of Social Protection disallowed the claim. I attended the appeal with her and likewise felt intimidated. I was asked why I was there even though the Department allows a person to be accompanied. The treatment meted out to that woman was intimidatory and was not good. There must be a serious assessment of some of their activities. Their object is to deny people the allowance rather than help and support them. That attitude prevails in certain centres throughout the country. I hope the Minister will send out a message that people should be fair.
Would this family have to cut off a leg or an arm to qualify as disabled in that person's eyes? That is the reality as I witnessed it that day. The claim continues to be disallowed, simply because of the applicants' background and their inability to produce accounts. This woman has gone to country markets all her life. These markets are prevalent now but they were unusual some time ago. Her claim was denied because she could not produce verifiable accounts. She would get no more than €10 or €20 for her produce, because of the items she sells. It is unrealistic to expect her to produce furnished accounts. It is not as though the assessor was not aware of her background and her activities. No fraud was involved.
The Minister must deliver equality of access to training and education. He should encourage and incentivise it. The criteria used by appeals officers and assessors must be examined by the Minister, in co-operation with his colleague, the Tánaiste.
Some of the conditions in which people have to work are appalling. When the opportunity arises, I hope he will upgrade those conditions. There are towns in County Galway where people must collect a form in one place and take it to two or more other places before the claim is finally assessed. That is not a good scheme. It is not the fault of the personnel on the ground but it must be addressed in the near future.
I have enjoyed listening to Deputy Burke for the last ten minutes. I wish him well and I hope when he returns to Galway tomorrow night that he is still in good form.
I am pleased to speak on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010. I make so secret of my admiration for the work of the Minister and I wish him well. One of the Minister's first acts as Minister for Social Protection was to visit Tallaght, where I live. I was delighted to welcome him the Fettercairn Community Centre to meet a group of people who did not spare him and told him exactly how they felt and what he should do. I suspect the Minister enjoyed the occasion. It was great to have him come to Tallaght. People were pleased to have the opportunity to tell him how they felt about social welfare. I will return to this in my remarks tomorrow.
The core business of the Department, which is the provision of a range of income supports, impacts on the lives of almost every person in the State, including many in my Dublin constituency. Almost 1.4 million people, each week, claim a social welfare payment. When qualified adults and children are included, a total of almost 2.1 million people benefit from a weekly payment. More than 600,000 families receive child benefit payment in respect of more than 1.2 million children each month.
As the Minister stated earlier today — and I compliment him on his speech — the Bill contains many technical amendments to existing social welfare legislation. It also provides for changes to the one-parent family payment, and this is what I would like to speak about for the next few minutes.
I know many lone parents, in my own constituency and in the wider community. The new proposals in the Bill, which will be phased in over time, are of particular interest to me for that reason. These new proposals will, I hope, help one-parent families get out of the poverty cycle, which many of them are in. The cycle of poverty is detrimental and cannot continue. I hope the Minister will give careful consideration to that fact.
The number of claimants receiving the payment from the Department rose from 59,000 in 1997 to 91,300 at the end of April this year, a 55% increase. I understand that 98% of these claimants are women. Despite significant State spending on one-parent families, as well as improvements to the one-parent family payment by successive Fianna Fáil Ministers, the results have been poor in tackling poverty and social inclusion and encouraging economic independence. The cost of the one-parent family payment scheme in 2009 was €1.2 billion.
A large proportion of lone parents and their children continue to experience poverty. The latest figures available show that in 2008, almost 18% of lone parents were experiencing consistent poverty, compared to 3% of two-parent households and a little over 4% of the population as a whole.
The best route out of poverty is through paid employment. Work, and especially full-time work, may not be an option for parents of young children. However, supporting parents to participate in the labour market, once their children have reached an appropriate age, will improve their own economic situation and the social well-being of themselves and their families.
This is the one issue about which people are contacting me. Lone parents are asking what will be done about their concerns, who will look after their children and what will happen in this regard. The Minister must engage with these people and given them clear assurances as to how they will be assisted.
The Government believes the current arrangement whereby a lone parent can receive the one-parent family payment until their child is 18, or 22 if in full-time education, without any requirement for the parent to engage in employment, education or training, is not in the best interest of the recipient, their children or society. Despite State spending in this area, the results have been poor in tackling poverty, with the child of a lone parent being four times more likely to be in consistent poverty than the population overall. This is something we should be deeply concerned about on all sides of the House.
For new customers, from 2011 it is proposed that the one-parent family payment will be made until the youngest child reaches 13. I am told there will be a six year tapered phasing out period for existing customers. Like other colleagues, I welcome this. The vast majority of new customers for the one-parent family payment are parents of new-born babies. Therefore, the change in the payment from April 2011 will not affect them until 2024, when their child reaches their 13th birthday. A cut-off point of seven years was recommended in the 2006 Government discussion paper proposals for supporting lone parents.
I am told the new proposals will bring Ireland's support for lone parents more in line with international provisions, where there is a general movement away from long-term and passive income support. A number of countries do precisely that.
I look forward to continuing the debate tomorrow.