Amendment No. 1 in the name of Deputy O'Dea is ruled out of order.
Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2015: Report Stage
Can I ask a question on that? The amendment in my name is ruled out of order because it is deemed to create a charge on the Exchequer. However, yesterday, during Question Time, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection informed me that this was the law already and that people who reach the age of 65 do not have to prove that they are actively seeking work to get their jobseeker's allowance or benefit. If my amendment represents what exists already, how can it constitute a charge on the Exchequer?
I am sorry, Deputy. The Ceann Comhairle has ruled that the amendment is out of order. If he wishes to contact the Ceann Comhairle's office he will-----
The Acting Chairman is his representative.
Thank you, Deputy, except at the end of the month.
The Minister of State might like to venture an explanation.
It is ruled out of order, Deputy O'Dea, so we cannot-----
To be helpful to Deputy O'Dea, on Committee Stage I said I would circulate a written response to that. I will ensure that this is given to the committee, which will be circulated to the Deputy.
Amendment No. 2 is in the name of Deputy Pringle. We have agreement that Deputy Mick Wallace can move that amendment. Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 9, to delete lines 13 to 20.
Does anyone wish to speak to the amendment?
I wish to speak to my amendment No. 4. I am sure the Minister of State is scratching his head wondering what I am at tabling this amendment.
I will explain it to him. My amendment states: "The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of allowing discretion under the carer’s support grant, on a case by case basis, to the 15 hour restriction on engaging in employment, self-employment, training or education courses outside the home." I tabled this amendment because I have a constituent outside Ballinasloe who works 15 hours a week as a home help outside the home. She is the full-time carer of her disabled daughter who had been going to school but has now moved on to training. She goes to training outside the home for 30 hours a week. She is picked up at her front door at 10 o'clock in the morning and dropped home at 4 o'clock in the evening. Outside of those hours her mother is her full-time carer.
The mother is a full-time carer in the home who is also working as a carer on a part-time basis outside the home providing support. The difficulty is that because she works for 15 hours she cannot avail of any training courses, therefore, she cannot avail of something as simple as a manual handling course, which is vitally important for anyone providing full-time care, unless she decides that one or all of the elderly people she is providing care to must lose out on that care while she attends the course. As the Minister knows, the Health Service Executive will not provide replacement staff in that situation. If she attends the training course she will exceed the 15 hour threshold and will be in violation of the carer's allowance and the respite care grant because she will not be complying with the conditions. I understand the logic for the 15 hour threshold, and I have no difficulty with the principle in that regard, but in this particular case extending it beyond the 15 hours to avail of training and education will have no negative impact on the care that woman is providing to her daughter who has a serious disability. Furthermore, by availing of that training and education she can provide better care to her daughter and the other people to whom she is providing the service on a part-time basis.
The type of intellectual disability this woman's daughter has makes her far more prone to develop early onset dementia. It is a difficult challenge for any family to deal with dementia. Many people in this House have had first-hand experience of that but a certain cohort of people with an intellectual disability can start to develop symptoms of early onset dementia in their early 40s. Early onset dementia is much harder to diagnose when the person has an intellectual disability. Also, when people get to a stage with dementia there are options for them. There are excellent long-stay facilities available but, sadly, for a person with an intellectual disability there is only one such facility in the country and it is here in Dublin; they do not exist outside of that. It is important, therefore, that the woman to whom I refer would prepare and plan for that possibility happening in the future. That would involve not only availing of the support that would benefit the quality of care she can provide her daughter but she may be able to identify some of the telltale signs and try to compensate for those with a view to delaying that progression. As we all know, there are many interventions that can delay the progression of dementia. Ireland has one of the leading research facilities in the world dealing with dementia among people with an intellectual disability, and there will be learning and progression in terms of how we can delay the onset of dementia among people with an intellectual disability.
If this woman does not have access to that training or those educational courses, she will not be able to apply that to her daughter. She will not be able to apply it to the people she is caring for on a part-time basis.
The Carers Association website outlines a range of very good courses specifically focused at people who provide care in areas such as: occupational first aid; care support; care skills; safety and health at work; communications; care of the older person; a palliative care approach; nursing theory and practice; exercise and fitness; activities of living patient care; and anatomy and physiology. All of these courses lead to level 5 qualifications. There are other courses in areas such as manual handling which are not level 5.
There are two issues here. The first relates to the quality of care the carer can provide to the particular family member and to the people to whom she provides the service. The other side of it is that in the vast majority of cases, carers at some stage are no longer carers. They must come to terms with that in the first instance and then decide what they will do. Do we shut them out of the possibility of accessing education until they are no longer carers or do we try to facilitate them?
I accept that in the vast majority of cases that are on the Department's books, there is a legitimate reason for not extending the threshold beyond 15 hours and I have no difficulty with that. However, a certain cohort of people avail of services outside the home or other supports. They are not providing care for in excess of 15 hours because of other structured supports that are in place. In those instances where people can present a legitimate case to the effect that it would be of benefit to them, their families or the individuals to whom they are providing care to go beyond that 15-hour threshold, the matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis. That provision already exists within the social welfare code for people with disabilities who want to go out to work. They are dealt with on a case-by-case basis by the Department of Social Protection medical assessors if there is an occupational benefit in that regard. So the precedent already exists. I am asking for the same level of flexibility to be introduced in the case of this grant and the carer's allowance where a person can make a legitimate case to be heard. At present, it is completely ruled out because the law prohibits people from engaging in employment, self-employment, training or education courses outside the home in excess of 15 hours. I ask the Minister of State to give serious consideration to this issue.
Deputy Naughten's proposal is reasonable and is in line with the objectives of the social welfare code. Where anomalies arise, as in the example he gave, a degree of discretion should apply. I have come up with examples in respect of different schemes where a bit of flexibility would provide the relief or help that someone needs to get over a hump. One of the reasons we may have such a complicated social welfare system is that over time we have provided add-ons other than the core social welfare rates in circumstances where difficulties have been identified. At the very least there is no harm in examining the issue. Either the Department or the committee should investigate whether this is workable. While we do not want to open the scheme up to widespread discretion - I do not think that is the intention - there are specific cases where it might benefit others for a few months. I am inclined to support that.
I am opposed to amendment No. 2, which did not arise out of Committee proceedings. As far as I know, the committee was in favour of the name change to reflect precisely the purpose for which the respite care grant is used, namely, that it is a support rather than something people can use in order to disappear off on holidays once a year. It did not seem to have any impact. Nobody from the Carers Association complained to me about it. I thought it was reasonable.
As we are dealing with procedures etc., I take this opportunity to urge the Minister of State, if he has any sway, to ensure that the report of the Convention on the Constitution dealing with the prohibition on Members other than Ministers from making proposals that result in a charge being imposed on the people is debated. That prohibition has led to all my amendments being ruled out of order on this occasion. Even if they are positive and in the best interests of the public from my point of view, while I can table them, they are ruled out of order. A report compiled by the Convention on the Constitution recommended amending the Constitution in this regard. We have not debated that report even though the convention presented it to the House over a year ago. We are supposed to debate them within three months. That is something I believe can be changed. I do not suggest that every single idea that comes into my head or anybody else's should be thrown into the mix. However, once suggestions are not mischievous and hugely overburdening, we should at the very least be able to debate them at some stage in this Chamber rather than it being a case of their being shot down before the debate even starts.
Amendment No. 4 is positive and I support it.
I also support Deputy Naughten's amendment, which is a very reasonable proposal. The Deputy is not asking the Government to introduce discretion on the 15 hours, he is only asking it to produce a report to examine the implications. I strongly suspect that the report would find that there is a very small coterie of cases involving real hardship on the margins.
The Deputy's amendment puts me in mind of a lady who called to one of my constituency clinics last week. Medically, she would certainly qualify for the carer's allowance. The woman in question looks after a son with an extreme medical condition requiring extensive medical treatment every second week and he also attends a special school. She works every second week for 20 hours, which is all her employer is prepared to agree to, and she does not qualify for the carer's allowance because she is not working fewer than 15 hours outside the home every week. The application was rejected on those grounds and we have submitted it for appeal. It might be no harm if we pre-empted the outcome of the appeal. In this case, the period for which the lady is working is the period for which her son is receiving treatment and also while he is in school because she spends every waking moment when he is at home looking after him. He requires full-time care and attention. It is a very difficult case and is typical of one of those on the margins in respect of which discretion could be used.
The Government should proceed to compile a report because, as a result of doing so, it will discover that the number of cases involved is tiny and that the increase in expenditure necessary to cover these would be minimal. If it does as I suggest, then a great injustice would be redressed. The Minister of State should accept the amendment. It certainly will not do any damage to the Bill. In fact, it will improve the final version we pass today.
I agree with Deputy Naughten's amendment.
It seems a bit odd that training or education courses would be restricted in any way given that we all realise the all around benefits in that area. I was struck by the Minister of State's reference to manual handling. I had to do manual handling courses in construction and one learned to lift things in a certain way, depending on the length, weight and bulk of what one was lifting, but about two weeks ago, I had to lift my 91 year old mother in her bed. I had to try to move her back closer to the pillows and I nearly did myself harm because I did not know how to do it properly. The idea that people who work in this area could have too much training is not possible.
On Deputy Ó Snodaigh's point about the clause where we are not allowed to introduce amendments that would result in a cost to the Exchequer, I remind the House that it made a laughing stock of the climate change Bill because we could not make recommendations which could possibly cost the State a penny.
I do not propose to accept Deputy Pringle's amendment. Deputy Ó Snodaigh made the point very clearly, so I do not need to repeat it. It is a question of a name change that reflects more clearly what carers do and it has been very positively received.
Deputy Naughten made a very convincing case. I advise him to do as I suggested to Deputy Ó Snodaigh and raise the matter at the committee but I accept the Dáil's term is limited. I will not take on the individual case but I would be interested in the Deputy forwarding details of the case for it to be examined by the policy unit. What is required is a change of policy and to assess the implications in terms of change. If there is time, the matter could, by all means, go to the committee for discussion. While I will not accept Deputy Naughten's amendment, I am prepared to have the policy unit examine the matter in a speedy manner to determine the logic of the argument. As the Deputy said, it would be exceptional but it would be necessary to put a structure around it. There is a logic to the 15 hours but Deputy Naughten has made a good and strong argument and I would like the policy unit to examine it to see whether there is a need to change policy in that regard rather than just to treat it as an individual hard case. At this stage, I am not prepared to accept the amendment but I hope Deputy Naughten will accept the good intentions I have expressed in terms of dealing with the issue in the manner outlined.
I do not articulate the individual case outlined as an individual hard case because I wish to focus on the broader issue. I am flabberghasted that the Department has taken the attitude outlined to the case raised by Deputy O'Dea because I have personal experience of other cases where the Department has averaged payments and has also done so following appeals. Will the Minister of State get the details of the case and speak to the officials involved because I have found the staff in Longford to be very amenable both in terms of carer's allowance and family income supplement where there is a threshold? Both of those allowances are operated from the Longford office and the staff have been quite flexible in that regard. I hope the matter can be resolved in terms of the case outlined but it flags the broader issue.
It is the broader issue we intend to deal with. I took a note of the case raised by Deputy O'Dea and if he wishes, he can forward the details to me. Flexibility is available in terms of averaging payments over two weeks. I was quite surprised by the case Deputy O'Dea articulated but without knowing the detail, I could not respond. Deputy Naughten is speaking more about general policy and he used the case he raised as an example. Deputy O'Dea was talking about a particular appeal and I am talking about the policy issue.
Amendment No. 3 is out of order.
Amendment No. 4 has already been discussed with amendment No. 2. Is Deputy Naughten pushing the amendment?
In light of the Minister of State's comment, I withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 9, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
“(2) The sum of the difference between €135 and €140 will only be paid to those already in receipt of social assistance and/or social insurance payment.”.
I speak on behalf of Deputy Thomas Pringle who wants to introduce this amendment. His idea is to try to target the increase at those most in need of an increase. It retains the universality of the payment by not cutting it to the better off but by ensuring that the increase goes to those in receipt of a social welfare payment, it means that those in most need will get the increase. If the Government accepted the amendment, it would also mean that in the future, increases could be targeted, which is in line with the recommendations of most of the social justice groups. It would not be administratively difficult because all of those people would already be known to the Department by having a primary payment or they would be a dependent adult on their parents' payment. The only possible difficulty would be the family income support and that would simply require the person to identify who was claiming the child benefit through their PPS number.
The idea of paying every woman the children’s allowance is not such a bad one because, generally speaking, to do otherwise has huge administrative costs. I agree that the best form of taxation is direct taxation. Giving child benefit to everybody provided that those who can best afford to pay do so through direct taxation is the best model. Research was done by Michael Taft of TASC on the abolition of the universal social charge. He made the point that it was probably the most direct form of taxation we had. He said it was the best anti-avoidance tax we had and that the truly comfortable classes can drive a coach and four through income tax with all the reliefs, allowances and exemptions but with the universal social charge they could hire an army of accountants but it would not do them much good. He said the universal social charge attaches itself to gross wages with very few and mostly minor reliefs. He went on to point out that more than half a million people in this country earn less than €15,000 a year and the majority of them were not paying the universal social charge anyway and, accordingly, budget 2016 did not change anything for them. He pointed out that the biggest beneficiaries were the top 20% households and, on average, they would get nearly twice the benefit of the squeezed middle. I agree with him that it was probably a retrograde step in terms of the progressive nature of direct taxation.
In terms of Deputy Pringle’s amendment, if we are not going to increase direct taxation for those who are better off, in terms of an increase in benefit, rather than give €5 to everybody, perhaps we should examine how much the State is prepared to spend on this measure and give it all to those who most need it, who happen to be already in receipt of a social welfare payment.
There is an error in Deputy Pringle’s amendment which reads: "The sum of the difference between €135 and €140 will only be paid to those already in receipt of social assistance and/or social insurance payment". Accordingly, if someone gets a social assistance or social insurance payment tomorrow morning, he or she would not be able to avail of it because it is only for those already in receipt of the payment. The word "already" needs to be deleted to meet the terms of what Deputy Pringle seeks.
I disagree with Deputy Pringle because from my experience of clinics, many of the people who are struggling are those who are just over the threshold for social assistance or social insurance payments. They are not in receipt of a social welfare payment.
They are paying through the nose for mortgages and in trying to make mortgage repayments and while it is only an additional €5 per month, many families already have calculated how they will spend it. This amendment would exclude many people. They are defined as the squeezed middle but many working families, the working poor, would lose out were this amendment to be accepted and consequently, I am opposed to it.
On a related matter, the broader issue being articulated in this amendment is that the savings to be made from this measure would be targeted at the more vulnerable. As the Minister of State is aware, I am blue in the face from stating in this Chamber there are potential savings of up to €80 million per annum in respect of child benefit that could be targeted at some of the most disadvantaged children. While no one has disagreed with me, the Tánaiste has indicated it is not her responsibility but is a matter for the Departments of Education and Skills and Children and Youth Affairs. The Department of Education and Skills has indicated it is an issue for the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Social Protection whereas the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has stated it is an issue for the other two Departments. I seek a small element of joined-up thinking that would save somewhere between €70 million and €80 million in child benefit. This is money that is being paid out each year to children who do not exist or who are not resident in this country and have no legitimate or legal claim to child benefit. I do not refer to cases in which EU residents reside here and the payment is being made abroad as under EU law, that cannot be interfered with at present. While I have a suggestion in this regard, it has been knocked down. I refer to the point that each year, the Department of Social Protection issues approximately 300,000 letters to parents - I received one myself a few months ago - to justify that the children are in the country and are attending school. One fills out and returns the form to the Department, which is getting a significant return from those 300,000 letters in that it identifies between €70 million and €80 million of payments - it varies from year to year - that are being issued to children who are not entitled to them. These are children who may have emigrated or who perhaps do not exist, as there have been numbers of fabricated personal public service, PPS, numbers, particularly in the past.
What I seek is the tying in of that money with school attendance. This is because rather than the Department trying to catch people out, it is known who is in this country and is residing here from the time when a child starts school at the age of five. Under the law as it stands at present, if a child who has started in and registered with a school misses 20 days, the school must report this to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The education welfare officers must identify whether there is a legitimate reason for such an absence and all I ask is that in circumstances in which there is no legitimate reason for the child to be absent, the Department of Social Protection be contacted and informed this child does not exist or has left the country and therefore, child benefit should not continue to be paid.
The other aspect of such a measure is it would act as a huge tool in assisting welfare officers in ensuring that parents encourage their children to go back to school. I have given an example previously in this House of a six-year-old girl from County Cork called Jenny, who had missed almost 40 days between September and Christmas. The national education welfare service was contacted by the school and engaged with the family in question over the following months. It threatened legal action and eventually brought the mother and father to court where the father and mother were fined €300 and €200, respectively. Since that couple were brought before the courts, Jenny has had an exemplary record in school but the difficulty for her is she missed a full year of education. In addition, the resources of the welfare service were tied up in dragging a family through the courts. It would have been far better, had the welfare officer in question been able to approach that family in September or October to tell them that unless Jenny was sent to school, the welfare service would contact the Department of Social Protection. The family could have been told that under the law as it stands at present, people are not meant to receive child benefit unless the child is at school and that the welfare service would ask for that law to be enforced until Jenny returned to school. It would have made far more sense to have done this than to have dragged that family through the courts, thereby tying up the resources of the welfare officers in dealing with that issue when those resources could be better targeted at dealing with children with real and genuine social problems.
The Government could use some of the €80 million that would be saved to put the resources into school attendance programmes. There are some excellent programmes that have been a huge success, some of which are under financial threat at present because the resources are not available in Tusla to continue with them. Not only would this measure yield savings in respect of ensuring the children attend school and improving the efficiency of the education welfare service, it would also save the Department of Social Protection a significant amount of money in the long term because a child who gets the chance of education is less likely to get into trouble, to end up in prison or to end up on the live register in the future. Such children have better opportunities and are more likely to contribute to the economy in the long term. I am merely asking for something simple, namely, that the Ministers for Education and Skills and Children and Youth Affairs, together with the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, would agree to share information across the board.
The Government would save €80 million immediately that is being paid out to children who do not exist or who no longer are resident here. This first saving would be made rapidly but it also could be used as an additional tool to support the education welfare service in ensuring that children attend school. I do not seek anything new here, as the systems for measuring this and the law already are in place in this regard. The only request I make is that under some of the agreements made with the trade unions, when coming across a case in which the child does not exist or has disappeared, education welfare officers should send an e-mail to the Department of Social Protection's control section in Carrick-on-Shannon in order that the child benefit can be suspended. This is what the Department does anyway if a letter is sent out and a response is not received. Why must the system wait for the Department to send out the letter proactively and to wait for an non-response before this happens?
While I can understand the motivation behind the proposal tabled by Deputy Pringle, it is a blunt instrument and is not the proper place to address the issue to which he refers. In addition, the amendment's wording contains a contradiction because child benefit is a social assistance payment in any event and consequently, this provision would contradict itself in that it provides that one cannot be paid this increase unless one is in receipt of child benefit, which everybody is getting in the first place. I have argued it would be more useful that with any recovery, those who are poorest and most vulnerable in society are the people who should be targeted with any available increase. Members have debated, both in this Chamber and on Committee Stage, on social transfers and the benefits therefrom, that is, the money the Department pays out to those who qualify for whatever the payment might be. Although the restrictions mentioned earlier prevent Deputy Pringle and me or anybody else from raising such a measure, it would be more useful to suggest an increase in the dependent child allowance. Were the Government to do that, those who are in receipt of another social welfare payment, be it a jobseeker's allowance, carer's benefit and so on, would get the additional €5. That would be a more targeted approach although I acknowledge there are problems with it, just as there are problems with this proposal.
One of the problems with the social assistance payment is that it is often the man in the household who receives the primary social welfare payment, while the wife or partner who is deemed to be a qualified adult receives the child benefit payment of €135 or €140 per month. If, as suggested by Deputy Thomas Pringle, we were to provide that the additional payment of €5 in child benefit be made only to mothers in receipt of social assistance or social insurance payments, mothers who are qualified adults but not in receipt of these payments would not benefit from the increase. Members will be aware that it is always the mother who applies in her own right for child benefit. There are complications around what is proposed, although I understand Deputy Thomas Pringle is trying to ensure the money is targeted at those who are most vulnerable in our society, particularly lone parents and children. This legislation does not address the retrograde changes made by the Government for young unemployed people and, in particular, lone parents who are the most disadvantaged in our society by every stretch of the imagination, as highlighted in each report compiled on those at risk of poverty and those who are living in poverty, in which lone parents score highest.
It is a pity the amendment was not tabled on Committee Stage, at which time we could have had a proper debate on what Deputy Thomas Pringle has in mind, following which we might have been able to put together an amendment to better address the Deputyis positive intentions. Acceptance of the amendment, as drafted, would lead to more problems than benefits. In particular, it would end the universality of the child benefit payment. I have always agreed with its universality because if not applied in that way, the scheme could be undermined. I have always argued that the issue of people having too much money would best be addressed by way of direct taxation. If that meant the introduction of an additional tax rate, so be it. That is the way to address the issue of extra income, taxes on which would provide the Government with additional moneys to enhance the social assistance and social benefit payments which are dealt with slightly in the Bill by way of a reference to the schedule of payments, including the qualified child payment of €29.80. While other payments increase or decrease, depending on a person's circumstances, the qualified child payment under each of the schemes with which we are dealing remain the same. If the payment were to be increased by €5, it would make a substantial difference to those who are totally dependant on social welfare payments.
I would not be in favour of the amendment, as drafted. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I can recollect, the cost of child benefit this year is in excess of €2 billion. There are questions around how we should proceed in the future and whether some of the current allocation should go towards direct child care provision, but, obviously, that is an argument for another day.
I understand the thinking behind Deputy Thomas Pringle's amendment, but there is also a case to be made for the means-testing of child benefit payments. Why should fathers and mothers who are millionaires and have occupations such as tribunal lawyers and so on be paid the same amount as those fathers and mothers who are in receipt of social welfare payments? If memory serves me correctly, a committee established by the Minister for Social Protection, the report of which was discussed by an Oireachtas committee, proposed recasting the system in such a way that higher rates would be paid to persons on lower incomes. If memory also serves me correctly, the net result of that recommendation would have been that the higher one's income the lower the rate of benefit received. The report has obviously been gathering dust somewhere for the past two or three years. Whether it will ever be resuscitated, I do not know. Even if we were to agree that child benefit should be means-tested or recast in the way suggested in the report, I would not be disposed to a reduction in child benefit for persons who are working and on the minimum wage or an amount slightly in excess of it. That would be the effect of the amendment, although quite unintentionally I am sure. It would hurt a lot of poor people. The solution is much more complex. As Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh said, the amendment would be a blunt instrument and, obviously, we cannot support it. However, this is an issue to which the next Administration, whatever its composition, will have to give its immediate attention.
An additional €98 million in supports for families and children is provided for in budget 2016. Expenditure in 2015 on children is €1.9 billion, a significant amount.
I cannot read minds. As stated by Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, as this issue was not teased out on Committee Stage, I do not know the theory behind Deputy Thomas Pringle's amendment. The outcome of acceptance of the amendment, as drafted, would be that the children of the squeezed middle which includes factory workers, gardaí, teachers and so on would be excluded from the increase in child benefit. I am sure that is not Deputy Pringle's intention but that would be outcome if the amendment was accepted.
On the committee report referred to by Deputy Willie O'Dea, he will recall that the Government imposed an additional 1% universal social charge on earnings above €100,000 per annum and in the past four years has removed hundreds of thousands of low paid workers from liability for the charge. There have been significant changes in this regard. As pointed out, regardless of how many accountants a person employs, payment of the universal social charge cannot be avoided, which is good. Far too many people got away with not paying taxes of one kind or another because they were able to afford the best advice in that regard. I do not, therefore, propose to accept the amendment.
On the issue raised by Deputy Denis Naughten, I am not ignoring it. It is an old chestnut which we have debated many times.
I was not going to miss the opportunity to raise it again.
I expected the Deputy to raise it. I am only surprised he did not raise it on Committee Stage.
The problem was that the Minister of State was far too efficient on Committee Stage.
I will take that as a compliment. The Deputy's proposal would have unintended consequences. If Tusla and the Department of Education and Skills come to the Department of Social Protection with a viable scheme, it will be looked at. We are putting in place new infrastructure for appeals mechanisms. On Deputy's point about Jenny's family losing their entitlement to child benefit after she had missed 40 days at school, families who badly need the payment would, if they were to lose it, have to enter an appeals mechanism to have it reinstated. We have made significant changes in the Department in the past five years to tighten mechanisms so as to ensure those entitled to the payment receive it. The vast majority are so entitled, but we have a responsibility to ensure those claiming the payment are entitled to receive it. The Deputy will have heard the significant announcements made in that regard. As I said, I do not propose to accept the amendment.
Amendment No. 6 in the name of Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh is out of order.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 15, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:
"(b) a class or classes of saving schemes operated by a credit union in respect of which payments under this section are to be made,".
I welcome the Government amendment to provide for the inclusion of credit unions in the 15% scheme, whereby credit union loan repayments may be made directly from a person's social welfare payment. I hope the scheme is publicised widely once the legislation is enacted. It might encourage people to go to their local credit union rather than a loan shark in the run-up to Christmas. People are paying astronomical sums in interest on loans from unregulated lenders. They should be encouraged to use their local credit union where possible, particularly at expensive times of the year, such as a child's first communion, Christmas and so on.
There might be a need to examine the wording of my amendment to ensure it is legally sound but the Minister of State has the full resources of the Department behind him to do that. As I said, when this Bill is enacted, where a social welfare recipient takes out a specific type of loan with the credit union, the latter may, with the customer's agreement, set up a direct repayment from his or her social welfare payment. That is a very attractive scheme both from the point of view of the social welfare recipient and for credit unions because it makes it easier to collect the moneys. I am seeking something slightly different by way of this amendment, namely, that as well as facilitating loan repayments, credit unions should be enabled to operate a savings scheme which would involve taking moneys directly from people's social welfare payments. What I have in mind, in particular, is a seasonal scheme. Every autumn, for example, the Department begins issuing fuel allowance payments to eligible recipients. This year, the payment is €20 per week, increasing to €22.50 from 1 January. For many people on social assistance payments, it is a great boost to get this additional money but not all of them use it for the purpose for which it is intended. The Department, through the community welfare service, regularly has to issue payments to families to buy €100 worth of kerosene to ensure they can heat their homes. These types of situations arise because the fuel allowance is paid weekly and must be saved up over a period by the recipient before he or she can pay to fill the oil tank. Moreover, buying oil in larger quantities ensures one gets a better price, which also applies in regard to bags of coal. Many social welfare recipients use solid fuel because it can be bought on a weekly basis rather than in bulk. Indeed, the way in which the fuel allowance payment is administrated means there is an incentive to use solid fuel.
I am proposing that the credit unions be allowed to come to an arrangement with fuel companies whereby the credit union would collect a customer's fuel allowance each week and put it into a designated account. When that person requires a fill of kerosene, the fuel company would get the payment directly from the credit union. We need to be more proactive in this area rather than simply leaving people in a situation where they have to borrow money to fill their oil tank. Moreover, such a scheme would have the added advantage of encouraging an ethos of saving among those who participate. It might bring an additional cohort of people under the credit union umbrella who are not there now. I have spoken to a number of oil company representatives and they are very amenable to such a scheme. I had considered the advantages of the companies themselves setting up a scheme but there are inherent risks in that should a small operator, say, go to the wall. That would leave people in a very vulnerable situation and without access to fuel. We have had those types of problems in the past, even with organisations that were licensed by the Central Bank.
Rather than going down that road and creating another layer of bureaucracy, I am asking that the Minister facilitate the credit unions in coming up with a novel savings scheme such as I have suggested, without having to wait until we change the law next year to do it. As the Bill is currently drafted, the new arrangements for credit unions relate only to borrowings. My amendment seeks to introduce a savings element that could be tied in with the fuel allowance payment, the major benefit of which is that people would be able to buy fuel in bulk and thus get their fuel at a better price. Such a scheme would benefit people by offering security in terms of their ability to heat their home and it would also encourage an ethos of saving which will stand to people for the future.
There is great merit in the Deputy's proposal for a scheme that would give people the tools to develop an ethos of saving for life events and avoid the need to approach moneylenders. The scheme we have provided for in this Bill will be up and running this week and will operate initially on a six-month pilot basis. We have agreement with An Post to move forward on the basis the legislation goes through the House.
In regard to what the Deputy is proposing, there are problems in respect of competition law and other issues. It is a complicated area. I am, in principle, in favour of what he is proposing, and it certainly can be considered at the end of the six-month pilot in the context of the changes that need to be made to improve the scheme we are introducing. However, a savings scheme such as the Deputy has outlined might be more suitable to operate under the standard bank account where we would be able to allow jam-jarring of moneys within an account or accounts. A considerable amount of work has been done on this and related issues by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and An Post in the context of the Kerr report on the future of post offices. Time is being given to these matters by several Departments and my hope and intention is that, in some manner, whether through the standard bank account or an amendment to the pilot scheme, we might be able to review the legislation with a view to facilitating the provision of a savings scheme such as the Deputy has proposed through the credit unions. Consideration must be given, however, to any unintentional consequences that might arise out of such a scheme. The Deputy's proposal has merit but what he is suggesting might fit better, within the legislative framework, were it to apply to the standard account. Certainly, his intention is excellent in bringing forward this amendment.
Amendment No. 8 in the name of Deputy Willie O'Dea is out of order.
Amendments Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive, are related and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 15, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:
"21. The Minister shall, within 4 months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas, reviewing all expenditure reductions or the ceasing of payments in relation to the household benefits package, including the gas allowance, electricity allowance, telephone allowance since 2011, and setting out the options for restoring those payments to their previous levels.".
I did not press this amendment on Committee Stage for reasons I will explain presently. The House is well aware of the privations suffered by people during the years of austerity.
We have had the removal of the free telephone rental allowance, the emasculation of household benefit schemes, the drastic reduction in treatment benefits, the abolition of the bereavement grant, the reduction in fuel allowance, as well as the slashing of home help hours, which had a particular impact on the elderly. Even the increase in VAT from 21% to 23% on essentials has had a disproportionate effect on the elderly. On top of these cuts, people have been forced to pay a raft of new charges, with no account taken of ability to pay, such as water tax and property tax. Home adaptation grants have been drastically reduced, which, again, has had a disproportionate effect on the elderly.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection has said on several occasions that she regards some of the cuts as temporary at least and intends, as soon as resources permit, to reverse them. I am not asking the Government to reverse any of the particular cuts today. However, it has four months to prepare a report outlining what priorities we should have, if we are in a position financially and economically to reverse some of the cuts. It could, for example, outline how much a 20% restoration of treatment benefits would cost. How much would an extension of the fuel allowance period from 26 weeks to 32 cost? This would then allow the Government to know where it was going in the forthcoming budget and prioritise certain measures. If it had the resources, it would be a good guide for it as to where to allocate them. The report should also encompass the effects of the poverty and deprivation suffered by people as a result of the cuts. This would act as a catalyst for the Government which could have immediate reference to it. It would ensure social expenditure was provided for in a more coherent manner and the Government could have a specific programme laid out.
The reason I did not press a similar amendment on Committee Stage was it wanted the Government to compile the report in one month. I have been more generous today and changed the amendment to require the Government to prepare the report in four months. That would give it plenty of time. If it accepts the amendment, the report will not be due legally until after the general election. The Minister of State should bear in mind that, if for some inexplicable and extraordinary reason the Government is not returned to office, it will be the first item on the agenda of his successors.
This is a reasonable proposal. For the purposes of debate, I will take the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection at her word that it is her intention, if she is still the Minister for Social Protection or a member of the next Government, to begin the process of reversing the cuts. The amendment has simply been designed to assist the Government. If it is its intention to reverse the cuts, it would have a blueprint and reference point for the forthcoming budget. The next Minister for Social Protection could then talk to his or her counterpart in the Department of Finance about it. It is a perfectly reasonable amendment and I urge the Minister of State to accept it.
I support this proposal. I would have gone further and called for reports on the terms of the changes introduced to the lone parent allowance and for young people in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance. Again, these were meant to be emergency measures, but we have not seen either being rowed back on.
The Government has announced there is a recovery and that we are in a different era. Accordingly, if the general election is held in February, the proposed reports would be finalised when parties are in the middle of discussions on a future programme for Government. It is important that any future Government look at the effects of various social welfare changes introduced in the past few years under this and the previous Government and see how quickly they cuts could be rowed back on. It is also important to look at how the cuts affected particular sections of society in receipt of these payments.
Inflation, since the Government took office, is running at about 5%. Even if all of the payments were to be restored, they would still be lower than what their true value would have been five years ago. We need to be mindful of this in any discussion on the matter.
I welcome Deputy Willie O’Dea’s confidence that the Government will be returned.
I did not say that.
He was referring to the Minister of State’s own confidence.
He was referring to Fine Gael.
It was tongue in cheek.
When the Deputy is looking at his ballot paper in the general election and wants the Government to be returned, he might consider voting No. 1 for the Labour Party since his own seat is so safe.
No. 1. I will give it my No. 2.
The Government is not taking it for granted for one minute that it will be returned. However, I thank the Deputy for his support. It is really heartening, coming from a Deputy such as him that there is an expectation that the Government will be returned.
Will the Minister of State, please, keep to the amendment?
Deputy Willie O'Dea is only trying to protect those who are almost extinct.
The information the Deputy is requesting is freely available by way of parliamentary questions. I am not going to waste the time of the House by going through every single cut introduced by the previous Administration because it crashed the economy.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh referred to the recovery. It has started, but, unfortunately, not for everybody. I welcome the unemployment figures announced yesterday which show that the rate dropped below 9% for the first time. The number in employment has increased by 56,000 in the past 12 months, while we have seen a drop in the number of those in part-time work as they move into full-time work. Over 1,100 people return to full-time employment every week, which must be welcomed. When somebody finds a full-time job, the recovery is under way. For the many thousands who have not been able to get back into employment, I accept that they are not feeling it. However, it is the Government’s determination to get back to a position where there is full employment.
I do not see the point of inserting Deputy Willie O’Dea’s amendment in the Bill. The information is available by way of parliamentary questions, as well as being available in pre-budget consultations. It is up to this and future Governments to decide how increased resources should be spent. I will not be accepting the amendment, but I thank the Deputy for his good wishes.