Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 30 Sep 2015

Vol. 891 No. 1

Other Questions

State Pensions Payments

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


6. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection her plans to correct the discriminatory and inequitable discrepancy between the treatment of persons in receipt of a non-contributory pension and a contributory pension regarding the entitlement to receive a pension while abroad (details supplied). [33143/15]

Will the Tánaiste examine the discriminatory position whereby people who are on non-contributory pensions cannot travel abroad for longer than two weeks without suffering the loss of their pensions? There are occasions when people are visiting relatives abroad, in Australia or other countries, for extended periods, perhaps when someone is ill, and they lose their payments as a consequence.

The contributory State pension is based on contributions paid and credited over the course of the pensioner’s working life. Receipt is not subject to means testing or residence in Ireland. EU regulations treat such social insurance-based payments across the EU as being exportable. This is the insurance-based payment.

The non-contributory pension is the problem.

In other words, payment is not subject to residence in the country in which the contributions were paid in the first instance.

On the other hand, the non-contributory State pension is a means-tested payment based upon habitual residence in Ireland. It is a scheme to help older people living in Ireland to avoid poverty, particularly those who have no other provision for old age. There is no requirement for this payment to be exportable under EU rules. Indeed, it would be highly unusual to consider that persons living abroad should have entitlement to this pension. Issues that would arise in this regard include who would be eligible for the payment in the first instance, as well as the appropriate rates payable to persons living abroad in view of the varying costs of living in other countries.

The State pension is generally not payable while the claimant is absent from the State. However, if someone is going abroad, as the Deputy mentioned, for illness or family purposes, they should notify the Department before their departure because there is an element of flexibility about this. In the case of people who go abroad on holiday for more than two weeks, the pension payment will normally be reinstated and may be backdated for a period of up to 13 weeks on their return to this country. However, payment is not allowed for repeated long-duration absences.

I am not considering any changes to the legislation governing this scheme so as to enable a person in receipt of the non-contributory State pension to leave the State for indefinite periods and continue to receive the pension. The consequences for the State would be very serious.

I was never considering that it would be for an indefinite period and I welcome the fact that people can contact the Department and ask.

They should do so.

Their children in Australia - they also have grandchildren there - paid for their flights. However, they could not take the decision to travel, given that without a payment, they would have been unable to pay their rent and other standing charges for a period. They were hoping to go for three to four weeks. Given that so many people have emigrated of late, will the Minister extend the period from two weeks to four weeks and continue the payment, if the proper documentation is presented? I accept the Minister's arguments. I know of grandparents who travelled to visit their daughter, who then gave birth and experienced complications, and they want to extend their stay but have no income with which to pay their bills such as rent. Will the Minister extend the two-week period in the case of documents being presented, not the 13 weeks she mentioned?

As I said, if the Deputy will give me the details of the case, we can check it. If the people go to their local office and explain the circumstances, we have the capacity to be flexible. I have to be very honest with the Deputy and clear on this. The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland as part of the social welfare system was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit with effect from 1 May 2004. The effect of the condition is that a person whose habitual residence is elsewhere would not normally be entitled to social welfare assistance or child benefit on arrival in Ireland. In many cases, such a person would not be entitled to export it. While I understand the Deputy has a particular set of circumstances in mind regarding Irish people who have been living and working in Ireland, we live in the EU which has habitual residence conditions. Given that our pension payments, notwithstanding the earlier discussion, are among the highest in the EU, the Deputy would be opening us up to a huge number of people coming from other EU countries to claim non-contributory pensions. It would be very difficult to afford it. The Deputy must be very careful about it.

I was being very careful in my second contribution to say that I am asking for an extension from two weeks to four weeks, which is logical if a person is travelling to Australia, especially an elderly person travelling to meet relatives. I also asked that it be on the production of certain documents. One could set conditions whereby the standard practice of two weeks is acceptable but people who can show the reason for travel and the duration will not be penalised. This is how they see it. Although people can apply for their pensions to be backdated when they return, there is no guarantee, and this is one of the problems. If one travels for four weeks, one might get payment for only two weeks. For pensioners, this can have a major impact regarding their bills.

We have much flexibility and I advise the Deputy to pass the details of the case to my office and to bear in mind that the State is constantly sued or threatened with legal proceedings if we do not strictly enforce habitual residence conditions. There have been recent cases of people who had spent some time in Ireland but were caring for people in another part of the EU claiming the carer's allowance, a means tested benefit. I cannot give an undertaking that we will step down from EU rules that would potentially leave us open, due to the high level of our social welfare payments, to significant claims over a period of time by people seeking to claim in Ireland.

One-Parent Family Payment Payments

Bernard Durkan


7. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection in the context of any review, if she will ensure that lone parents who are working part-time do not find themselves disadvantaged by way of a reduction in their net payment, arising from changes in the structure, payment and eligibility for the one-parent family allowance, with particular reference to those persons who are on local authority housing lists but who are dependent on private rent supported accommodation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33015/15]

The question relates to the situation that emerges whereby a number of one-parent families, particularly where the mother has been in part-time work and is in receipt of rent support from the Department, are disadvantaged as a result of the transition from the one-parent family allowance to the new system. It takes time for such matters to settle down. Has the settling down period shown any discrepancies that need to be addressed?

The one-parent family payment scheme reforms aim to maximise the opportunities for lone parents to enter into, or increase their level of, employment. The Department has contacted those lone parents who have transitioned from one-parent family payment, who are working part-time and who may have experienced a reduction. These customers were invited to attend a one-to-one meeting with a case officer in order to discuss their options. The Department will continue to assist these customers in any way possible.

Of the approximately 25,500 lone parents who transitioned out of the one-parent family payment on 2 July 2015, approximately 5,000 of them are in receipt of the rent supplement. Where these customers are in employment and have transitioned from the one-parent family payment to another income support payment, their contribution towards their rent may have decreased. The Deputy probably knows this. The amount they have to pay may have decreased. A lone parent who was working 19 hours per week on the national minimum wage, while also in receipt of the one-parent family payment, family income supplement and rent supplement, has seen very little difference in his or her weekly income after transition to the family income supplement.

If the Deputy has a case in which a lone parent has experienced a reduction, the rent supplement can be reviewed. We are doing this on a case-by-case basis and so far this year, we have negotiated approximately 4,500 cases. I recommend the Deputy bring such cases to the attention of his local social welfare office with a view to having the rent supplement reviewed. We are continuously reviewing all the elements of the scheme.

I am grateful to the Minister for her comprehensive reply. How many lone parents have been identified as being particularly affected by the transition? The Minister referred to it in her reply. Have adequate plans and provisions been put in place to address their concerns, given that they are on a fixed income and may already have been on a tight income with very little room for manoeuvre?

Of the 25,500 customers who left the lone-parent payment scheme on 2 July 2015, approximately 13,600, half of them, moved to jobseeker's transitional payment, 2,500, 10%, moved to the jobseeker's assistance scheme, and approximately 8,000 moved to family income supplement. When one adds the back to work family dividend, most people experienced an improvement. Approximately 5,000 households of the 25,500 were in receipt of rent supplement. We are dealing with rent supplement issues on a case-by-case basis with the individual and would be happy to do so in any case which the Deputy would like to draw to our attention.

I thank the Minister.

Social Welfare Payments Administration

Thomas P. Broughan


8. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the number of recipients of the one-parent family payment who have transitioned to jobseeker's payment since the beginning of July 2015; the number of these who are in receipt of family income supplement or the back-to-work family dividend; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33016/15]

Following on from Deputy Durkan's question - I think he voted for these changes, while I voted against them - the Tánaiste has mentioned some of the figures. She told colleagues last week that, since July, approximately 96% of the 25,500 affected recipients of the one-parent family payment have transitioned. Of those, however - as she just indicated to Deputy Durkan - only 8,100 transitioned to family income supplement, FIS. The Tánaiste made it a big selling point for these changes that she would be helping people into further economic independence and out of State dependency. However, is it not the reality that there is an urgent need to review the position? Organisations such as the National Women's Council and One Family are calling for a pause, so the Tánaiste will have an opportunity in two weeks' time in the budget to do precisely that and re-examine the matter.

As the Deputy said, approximately 25,500 lone parents transitioned from the one-parent family payment scheme on 2 July 2015. Approximately 13,600 of lone parents moved to the jobseeker’s transitional payment. In fact, as the Deputy knows, they would have had no change in their income from the lone parent's allowance. However, once a parent's youngest child is seven years old, he or she can become involved in education and training opportunities. That is going extremely well in the Department and has been very well received. Some 2,500 lone parents moved to the jobseeker’s allowance scheme because, presumably, their youngest child was over 14 years of age. Some 8,100 lone parents moved to the family income supplement scheme.

A significant number of lone parents would be full-time homemakers and that has always been the case. We are following the example of Scandinavian countries that the Deputy has often said he admires. In those countries, children are settled in school much younger, at one, two or three years of age. In Britain and the North of Ireland, that occurs at five years of age. At that stage, one gives people an opportunity to get involved again in education, training and work. That has the best outcomes for lone parents and their children.

There are currently 8,800 customers in receipt of the back-to-work family dividend, of which over 6,500 are former one-parent family payment recipients. The back-to-work family dividend allows parents to retain the child portion of their former core social welfare weekly payment, which equals €29.80 per week per child, for two years, with full entitlement in the first year and 50% entitlement in the second year. This equates to €1,550 per child in the first year and €775 per child in the second year.

I think that is the first time the Tánaiste has mentioned in the House those figures concerning the back-to-work family dividend. Effectively, however, is there not a time limit on that? Obviously, that is useful information but-----

The Deputy voted against it.

-----we still meet a lot of lone parents who find that the system effectively leaves them worse off. Like most of us in the Chamber, the Tánaiste stood on the picket lines with the Dunnes Stores workers. Despite that fact, however, people on 15-hour contracts still find themselves that much worse off. The overall selling point of these major changes was that women would be encouraged into the workforce, yet the figures for August show that women's unemployment is rising in important categories. Is the Department of Social Protection closely tracking and monitoring the impact that this is having on many families? As regards the new changes, we are hearing about people losing money and being caught being between a rock and a hard place concerning their work and family duties. Is this the case? Will the Tánaiste undertake a review of the system and change it significantly in two weeks' time in the budget and in the new social welfare Bill?

As I have said on a number of occasions, we want to ensure in the forthcoming budget that out of the additional moneys we will be able to spend between €1.2 billion and €1.5 billion. We want to focus in particular on families with children, retired people and those on long-term social welfare payments. The amount of money we have to spend is significant, although it is not as much as I would like. Obviously, we have not yet finalised decisions but that will be the focus of what we will do in the budget.

With the back-to-work family dividend, we are providing an additional support in that transition period when people are returning to work. That is to help them because when people first go back to work they may be in entry-level employment.

As regards the number of hours, what the Deputy said is very interesting. We have been working with IBEC and other employers' organisations to encourage the development and availability of employment at 19 hours, or above, per week. As the Deputy is probably aware, we have brought in the Low Pay Commission to recommend an increase in the minimum wage from the beginning of next year.

I am sorry but we are way over time with this question.

In fact, therefore, we anticipate that people working on low incomes will receive a considerable boost both through a wage increase and the back-to-work family dividend. That will then set them up to be much better off than they would be by simply living entirely on social welfare.

Hear, hear. Deputy Broughan should wait for the budget.

Pension Provisions

Clare Daly


9. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection her plans to address the inequality experienced by persons who are in receipt of reduced pensions because of the marriage bar, the effect of which is that they have incomes below the supplementary welfare rate. [33019/15]

I am delighted to hear that the Tánaiste will be focusing on retired people in the budget. I am hoping she might give special attention to a category of women who are experiencing a discriminatory pension as a result of the marriage bar and an overhang from that situation. One of my constituents said recently that a colleague of hers had applied to pay the property tax to have it deducted from her pension. However, she was told she could not do that because her income could not be brought below €188, yet this woman is expected to live on a pension of €150 because she cannot access a full State pension as a result of the marriage bar.

The marriage bar is a term used to describe a rule that existed in most of the public service and some private sector employments, whereby women were expected to leave their employment upon marriage. The bar was removed when Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973.

Where such employees were in the public service, they paid a modified rate of PRSI. These contributions provided no cover for the State pension and, accordingly, the marriage bar would not have impacted on State pension entitlement. It may, however, have impacted upon their eventual entitlement to a public service pension, which is a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The State pension, contributory, is based on the PRSI contributions paid or credited by the person over their working life, and the level of entitlement depends on their yearly average number of contributions. I was the Minister of State who brought this in together with the then Minister, Michael Woods. From 1994, a homemaker's scheme was introduced where time out of the workforce to care for children, or people with a disability, can be disregarded for the purposes of calculating that yearly average.

Where someone over 66 does not qualify for a full rate contributory pension, they may apply for a non-contributory pension which is based on need and is means-tested. The maximum rate of this pension is €219 weekly. Where it is more beneficial for the person making the claim, they may instead seek an increase for qualified adult payment based on their spouse's State pension contributory, the maximum rate of which is €206.30. This increase is, by default, paid directly to the qualified adult.

Supplementary welfare allowance is a means-tested payment. Any person aged 66 or over is entitled to make a claim for the means-tested State pension non-contributory. The pension is in the first instance paid at a higher weekly rate than the supplementary welfare allowance - €219 rather than €186 - and the means test for the pension is considerably less onerous than that which applies for the supplementary welfare allowance. This means that regardless of circumstances, someone eligible to apply for the State pension non-contributory should receive significantly more than he or she would if he or she claimed the supplementary welfare allowance.

That is a bit of a minefield for someone to untangle. This person put the case that the pension she was expected to survive on was €150 per week. The Minister is clearly saying-----

What age is she?

The Deputy should see whether she could apply for the non-contributory.

That is something we will explore. The point that was being made was that potentially there were certain anomalies in the system. While welcoming the homemaker's scheme, which the Minister introduced in 1994, she made the point that it excluded people like herself who had to give up their jobs prior to 1973 and that there was an anomaly in the scheme relating to the way PRSI contributions were worked out. I believe that the requirements to get a full contributory pension are that one must have accumulated 500 full PRSI contributions and have worked ten years before reaching the age of 55. This person claims that she meets both of those criteria but that the Department averaged the contributions over a 47-year period which meant that had she never worked prior to her marriage and only worked post-1998, which she did, she would get the full whack but because she worked prior to her marriage, she is being discriminated against. This is certainly an anomaly about which I have not heard an answer but I hear the Minister's point about accessing other revenue somewhere else.

The marriage bar was done away with when Ireland joined the EEC when a range of measures around equality came into law in Ireland. Ireland has the homemaker's credit, which is quite generous and which I was involved in introducing in 1994. This particular lady is entitled to apply for a non-contributory pension. If one looks for an assessment of what would be her best way of maximising what she is receiving, that could be a non-contributory pension which at €219 per week is a significant payment. If the lady has a spouse, she could look to get a qualified adult payment. Again, this is not as high as a full non-contributory weekly pension in her own right. It is a slightly lower rate if her spouse or partner is already claiming a full pension. Perhaps she should talk to somebody in the local social welfare office, look at the history and see whether she would be in a better position if she claimed under a different heading.

That can be done but none the less, the point remains that if this discrimination is there and if she had never worked prior to the marriage bar and had commenced work in 1998, which she did, she would be entitled to a full pension. That anomaly needs to be addressed in any case.

The issue here, as people are aware from other questions, is that the cost would be a very significant annual cost and we do not as yet have the resources as a country to be in a position to fund what it would cost.

I can get Deputy Joan Collins the reply to Question No. 10, if she bears with me. We have one minute.

Poverty Data

Joan Collins


10. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection her views on the survey on income and living conditions, SILC, 2013, which was published earlier this year and clearly shows that those persons living in households with one adult and one or more children had the highest deprivation rate at 63.2% and the highest consistent poverty rate at 23%, and the measures she will take to remove these families from this crisis. [33026/15]

Research shows that being at work reduces the poverty rate for lone parents by three quarters, or 75%, compared to people who do not work. A recent study for the Department shows that lone parent families are particularly vulnerable to living in jobless households. A key way to tackle poverty then is to get parents back to work. The ongoing one-parent family payment reforms and the new back to work family dividend - which I introduced in last year's budget - will support parents to take up and remain in employment, especially people who are the furthest from the labour market.

I have long been concerned about the high levels of poverty experienced by lone parent families, including the children in those families. In 2013, lone parent families had consistent poverty rates over two and a half times those of the general population. This is a consistent trend over time. Indeed, in 2004, when the country was pretty much in the middle of the boom, the consistent poverty rate for lone parents was more than four and a half times that of the general population.

Social transfers play a very important role in reducing income poverty for lone parent families. In 2013, social transfers excluding pensions lifted almost a quarter of the population out of income poverty. This is equivalent to a poverty reduction effect of 60% and is the best outcome in that regard in the EU.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The Government is committed to tackling poverty and continues to improve access to the labour market for lone parents. I am confident that these measures will continue to improve income and living standards, and will be reflected in future poverty statistics.

Rather than hailing the change to lone parent benefits, working lone parents are actually not benefiting from the change to the lone parent payment, which is an indictment of the policy of this Government and is part of the austerity package that has been persistently implemented in this country. Those who need the most are bearing the brunt of austerity.

We have got through nine and a half questions in an hour and a quarter. Nobody on this side of the House really extended his or her time.

This is a regular occurrence because people will not adhere to the rules.

People expend a lot of time and energy try to put these questions.

The Deputy was lucky to get in at all.

Poverty is something we must fight against and work to eliminate, which is what the Government and I are doing. The critical way to help people out of poverty is to get them into employment and to get good jobs. This is why we will be raising the minimum wage. I know it does not affect a huge number of people but it affects about 75,000 people in work. I hope that we will also look in the budget at ways of making things better for families with children, regardless of whether they are two or one-parent families - whatever kind of families they are. In particular, we are looking at ways of helping people who have retired.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.