Other Questions

Question No. 31 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Staff Training

James Browne

Ceist:

32. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will ensure that all of his staff, departmental staff and all civil servants who fall under his Department undertake training with respect to mental health first aid; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8368/17]

I ask the Minister for Social Protection if he will ensure that all his staff, Departmental staff and all civil servants who fall under his Department undertake training in mental health first aid and to make a statement on the matter.

My Department fully recognises the need to support staff and promote positive mental health. It has been very active in the provision of training and supports in this area in recent years with a very positive response from staff.

In conjunction with Mental Health Ireland and the Civil Service Employee Assistance Service, mental health awareness workshops have been held in a variety of locations. Since 2014, 250 staff have attended these workshops, which include presentations, discussions, case studies and group activities. The workshops provided tools and strategies to enhance mental health and well-being, increase awareness and understanding and promote the range of formal and informal supports and resources available.

In response to identified needs, stress awareness training was also delivered with the aim of giving staff confidence and control in managing stress and increasing coping strategies. The training is provided on request, with over 1,100 staff participating since 2014.

With assistance from the National Office for Suicide Prevention, my Department also provides SafeTALK training to staff. This programme helps prepare participants to identify people with thoughts of suicide and connect them to suicide first aid resources. Over the past three years, 640 staff have participated in this programme.

The National Office for Suicide Prevention also provides access to staff from my Department to the more advanced applied suicide intervention skills training, ASIST, workshop conducted by the HSE. Thus far, 150 staff have attended this two-day programme, which trains participants to reduce the immediate risk of suicide and increase the support for a person at risk.

My Department also continues to promote awareness among staff by publicising dedicated awareness days such as World Suicide Prevention Day and World Mental Health Day.

I acknowledge the significant moves forward by the Department in this area. I ask the Minister to encourage further advancement in the area, particularly as we know that in the area of social protection, staff members very often deal with people who have faced economic crises or are in poverty. It is in the interests of the staff to be able not only to self-identify and identify their colleagues as suffering from difficulties but also to identify people, including their clients and constituents who come to see them, as being in such positions. I know from my own experience as a Deputy that the vast majority of staff members in the Department of Social Protection are very understanding. However, I ask that, aside from the present voluntary work being done, the Minister ensure a programme be put in place similar to physical first aid programmes whereby in every section there would be somebody who has the necessary training to be able to identify that somebody is suffering a difficult situation or condition.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. Mental health and mental well-being are important for both staff and clients. Many of the clients are very vulnerable and very stressed and can encounter staff in very difficult situations. Staff members need to be trained to deal with this and can often be subject to abuse and very bad experiences. I have heard of many such experiences while visiting Intreo offices and talking to staff members there. They also need to be trained in resilience, coping strategies how to deal with these issues. As the Deputy heard in my initial reply, much of this training is available, and thousands of staff members have participated in it already. However, I am conscious that I have 6,000 staff members and that the numbers I gave the Deputy would indicate that most have not participated. We do not have any plans to make such training compulsory at this stage, but I will talk with the HR people in my Department to see if there is more we can do in this area and if we can make sure that we have done everything reasonable to give staff members access to such training.

I welcome the Minister's interest and appreciate his understanding in this area. Sometimes the difficulty is probably that the people who get training are probably the most understanding, compassionate people and very often the very ones who do not need it. I appreciate there are 6,000 staff members and that this will not happen overnight but I ask the Minister to consider the situation and try to speed up and catalyse the training for people both for the staff's own interest and for the interests of the clients.

In addition, we have given consideration to training all staff members in mental health first aid. This is costed at €350 per participant, so it would cost approximately €2 million to train all staff members in basic mental health first aid. However, perhaps it is something we could do for all new staff or all staff over a number of years. That probably would not be prohibitively costly. I am also advised that the Civil Service Employee Assistance Services makes available to staff members a range of publications on various topics. These include advice on managing stress, bereavement, suicide, good mental health in the workplace and building personal resilience.

Poverty Data

Gino Kenny

Ceist:

33. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will report on the findings of the survey on income and living conditions, SILC, report; if he will make changes to the one-parent family payment as a result of this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8441/17]

Will the Minister for Social Protection report on the findings of the SILC report and make changes to the one-parent family payment as a result of those findings?

The Central Statistics Office, CSO, survey on income and living conditions, for 2015 shows that for lone-parent households, the consistent poverty rate is 26.2%, up from 25% in 2014, that the deprivation rate fell from 58.7% in 2014 to 57.9% in 2015 and that the at-risk-of-poverty rate is essentially unchanged at 36.2%, compared to 36.5% in 2014, a slight fall but not one that is statistically significant. The figures show that the consistent poverty rate for children fell by 1.2 percentage points to 11.5% in 2015. This means that 13,000 children were lifted out of poverty in 2015. The latest SILC statistics also show that being at work reduces the consistent poverty rate for lone parents by three-quarters to 6.7%. This demonstrates beyond doubt that the best way to tackle poverty among lone parents is through employment and that remains our policy.

The full impact of the recovery is not reflected in these 2015 statistics. Unemployment has now fallen to below 7% and long-term unemployment is below 4%, its lowest level in eight years. The positive impact of recent budgets on lone parents and the full impact of the increase in employment are also not reflected in these figures.

Continued economic recovery - together with these budget measures - is likely to have impacted positively on poverty rates since 2015 and this improvement is expected to continue over the coming years.

My Department's social impact assessments of budgets 2015, 2016 and 2017 are an indicator of this improvement. These showed a cumulative increase of 4% in the average household income of employed lone parents and 6.9% for unemployed lone parents, comparing favourably with an average household increase of 3.3%.

I am also committed to delivering the independent report on the one-parent family payment reforms as quickly as possible so that it can help inform budget 2018 discussions. This report will, among other things, take into account the poverty rates of those impacted by the reforms.

I have raised this issue numerous times with the Minister and I do not think he is for turning. The finding of the EU SILC report is quite explicit. One parent households in Ireland have suffered immeasurably. Two points in particular are damning for this country and previous Governments. In 2008 consistent poverty for lone parents was 17.8%. In 2015, that shot up to 26.2%. The latter was compounded by budgets from the Minister’s Government between 2012 and 2014 which took 3.5 times more from the bottom 40% of the population than from the top 30%. This is ideological warfare by the Minister’s party and Fianna Fáil. I want the Minister to comment on that.

We have not been in government for the past six years.

Fianna Fáil caused so much damage it has serious questions to answer.

It attacked single parents while in government.

It has serious questions to answer. I am asking the Minister to comment on the-----

Deputy O'Dea should refrain.

The Deputy's party bankrupted the country. He even has a nerve to come back here.

If we followed the Deputy's policies we would be bankrupt.

Fianna Fáil bankrupted the country.

The Deputy quoted two years. Anyone can use statistics for two years and compare them. I will take a different year, 2006, when the boom was getting "boomier", when consistent poverty rates among lone parents were 33%. Consistent poverty rates for lone parents are lower than they were in 2006 - ten years ago - when we were in the middle of the Celtic tiger boom, when Fianna Fáil was in power and when consistent poverty among lone parents was much higher than it is now.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are the same.

The most important fact to take away from this and the quarterly national household survey is the powerful effect that employment has on poverty rates. There is a three-quarters reduction in poverty if a lone parent is at work. One can play around with the welfare system but welfare is not the answer. If employment can reduce poverty by three quarters, that should be the main part - although perhaps not the only part - of the answer.

The budget that I can take most responsibility for is the one I helped craft, namely, that for this year and, in particular, the welfare package relating thereto. As the Deputy knows, because of that package the budget benefited those on the lowest incomes the most. It was unfortunate that the Deputy could not vote for that budget.

I know the Minister likes spouting facts and he is selective but I will give him a fact that there is no denying: in 2015, two years ago, the richest 300 individuals in this country increased their wealth from €50 billion to €85 billion while lone parents suffered a cut of 18% in their very small incomes. If that is not ideological warfare, I do not know what is. The Minister and his party stand for that and the same is true of Fianna Fáil. Even today, the Children's Rights Alliance has given the Government a D grade in respect of children's rights. This Government is failing children. It is failing working people. It is particularly failing lone parents who have been discriminated against for the past seven or eight years, particularly by Fianna Fail and the Labour Party, unfortunately. Deputy Burton has a lot to answer for.

I do not know how the Deputy can say that is a fact.

These are facts.

We do not actually have-----

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Yes, they like to interrupt the facts.

They are facts.

We do not have a register of wealth in Ireland so I am not quite sure how the Deputy can know that as an absolute fact. There may be a survey or an opinion on it but that is a different matter. More importantly, we do not have a register of debt in Ireland and it is quite facile to calculate somebody’s wealth and not deduct the debts from that. There are some very wealthy people in Ireland who-----

Central Bank reports take out debts.

There are some very wealthy people in Ireland who people think are wealthy but when their debts are deducted, they are not wealthy at all.

They are poor.

They are in negative wealth. One thing I hope the Deputy would welcome from the SILC report - I did not hear him mention it although I know he has an interest in economic equality, particularly in income inequality - is the most interesting fact that our Gini coefficient has gone down and that income inequality in Ireland is at its lowest since 2009. Ireland is becoming more equal and I hope the Deputy will accept that and include it in his speeches because that is what the survey says. Using the Gini coefficient, we are the most equal English-speaking country in the world bar, perhaps, a few small islands somewhere.

Jobseeker's Allowance

Catherine Connolly

Ceist:

34. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons of 65 years of age who are in receipt of jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit; the steps being taken to resolve the issue of these persons who, on retirement, are required to sign up for jobseeker's allowance or jobseeker's benefit before they receive the State pension; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8453/17]

Could the Minister clarify how many men and women have been forced onto jobseeker's benefit having been forced out of employment at age 65? The question is very specific but it has more general implications regarding circumstances where these individuals have worked all their lives and are forced to retire at 65, go down to what is known as the dole office and sign on for jobseeker's benefit. Can the Minister clarify the steps he is taking to rectify that situation?

The total number of 65 year olds currently in receipt of jobseeker's allowance is 2,583, a further 2,635 are in receipt of jobseeker's benefit and 3,193 were signing on for jobseeker's credits at the end of January 2017.

There is no statutory retirement age in the State, and the age at which employees retire is a matter for the contract of employment between them and their employers. There is no legal requirement that people cease working. They are free to work into their 70s and many do. The core answer to the Deputy's question is zero. Some, however, are required by their contracts to retire from that particular employment. Where people exit the workforce before reaching State pension age they may apply for either the jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance. Jobseeker's payments are paid to eligible jobseekers aged between 18 and 66 years and all recipients of a jobseeker's payment are subject to the rules of the scheme.

People in receipt of a jobseeker's payment must engage with my Department's activation measures and can face sanctions if they fail to do so.

However, from January 2014 these criteria were eased for people aged 62 and over. They are still able to voluntarily avail of an array of supports, which are available from my Department if they wish to return to work, training or education. Furthermore, the majority of these individuals will have to register with their local office only once a year and their payments will be paid directly into their bank accounts.

People claiming jobseeker's benefit from a date after their 65th birthday continue to be eligible for that payment until reaching State pension age. While the State pension age is currently 66, this approach will continue to extend their entitlement when the pension age rises to 67, and indeed a further year when it rises to 68 in 2028.

These provisions have enabled these individuals to ease their transition into one of the jobseeker's schemes until they become eligible for a State pension on turning 66.

I thank the Minister for clarifying the matter. I can see from his previous replies that he has been consistent in his clarifications. I ask him to comment on the treatment of men and women who have worked all their lives in private and public bodies and are being forced to retire even though they do not want to do so. They have to go down to the dole office to sign on. While I welcome the Minister's statement that they will have to sign on just once and will not face any sanction, he is ignoring the contradiction in this respect. These people do not want to leave work. The Government has a role in introducing policy and legislation. Many countries, including the United States and New Zealand, have decided to ban mandatory retirement. The Government is asking workers who do not want to leave their jobs to do so. In an earlier response, the Minister referred to work as the way out of poverty, but in this case he is forcing people into jobseeker's allowance or jobseeker's benefit with reduced payments. If they worked, they would have more money and would pay more back into the economy. Instead, they are being forced into jobseeker's payments. This is the complete opposite of what the Minister spoke about in response to a previous question.

I reiterate that there is no mandatory retirement age in Ireland. Other countries have had a mandatory retirement age and have abolished it. Some people are required to retire from particular jobs at a certain age. The Deputy is right when she says that some of them do not want to do so. Quite frankly, I do not think they should have to. Many people in their 60s who have lots of skills and experience would be happy to work until they are in their 70s. They should be allowed to do so.

What is happening about it? This is one of the matters being discussed by the Government and the trade unions. The retirement rules that are in place for public sector employment can be changed by statute. This is one of the items under discussion between the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and the public sector unions as part of the review of the Lansdowne Road agreement. The Workplace Relations Commission is developing a code of conduct for people who are in this situation in the private sector. Essentially, it is moving towards a position in which employers would have to justify a retirement age. It could not be an arbitrary age; it would have to be justified. That code of conduct would be statutory and therefore legally binding.

I welcome the Minister's clarification. Some progress is being made by looking at the retirement provisions in both categories. The current position makes an absolute nonsense of the Government's policies on positive ageing, smarter ageing and the employment of older people. Age Action Ireland has responded to all of this in a very rational document, in which it points out the total incoherence between one Government policy and another. I welcome the progress that is being made in this regard, according to the Minister. I would like to know what timeframe is envisaged for a change to be made. Some of the workers at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, which is a public body, have to leave their jobs at the age of 65 and go down to the dole office. It is not acceptable. It encourages the use of deceitful language by Government bodies. Like all jobseekers who receive State assistance, people in this category have to be actively seeking work. However, the Minister has said the State will not go too heavy on this cohort. There is no legal basis for doing that. This means the treatment of one cohort of people in receipt of jobseeker's assistance differs from the treatment of another cohort receiving the same payment. The Minister needs to look at the matter on this basis.

Neither issue is directly under my remit. Public sector employment is a matter for the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. Employment law and employment equality law are matters for the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Fitzgerald. We are all part of the same Government. We need to join this up better. I think this matter should have been dealt with when the State pension age was increased to 66. We are changing the rules of public sector employment law now, after previously having changed the social welfare rules. I accept the criticism that they should have been changed at the same time. I am told that the Workplace Relations Commission will have completed the code of conduct in a matter of weeks or months. I do not know when the public sector unions and the Government will come to an agreement on the public sector side. I imagine it will be done when the Lansdowne Road agreement is up for renegotiation later this year. It is subject to agreement. Other knock-on effects need to be borne in mind. If people work later and longer, there will be fewer job opportunities for new entrants and younger people and there will be fewer promotional opportunities.

That is not accurate.

That is not factually correct.

Obviously, it is correct. The Deputies should think about it logically.

I have thought about it logically.

If somebody stays in a senior post in a school or a hospital for an additional five years, somebody else will have to wait longer to replace him or her. I do not think that matters. We do not disagree on this. I do not think people should be required by contract or by law to retire at 65. The age of 65 is not old any more and it is a long time since it was. We need to get to grips with this issue this year.

State Pensions Payments

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

35. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will provide a detailed report on the impact of the changes to contribution requirements for the State contributory pension made over the austerity years, including the numbers of men and women who are no longer eligible for the full contributory pension in each of the years since the changes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8443/17]

I want to warn the Minister that he is sitting on a ticking timebomb of anger among pensioners. The changes in entitlement to the contributory State pension that were introduced by Deputy Burton in 2012 represented one of the most sneaky, nasty and covert cuts of the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government. Some 36,000 pensioners have already been affected by these cuts and changes. As this number grows exponentially every year, thousands more will find to their shock and horror that their entitlement to the contributory State pension has been cut significantly. Will the Minister rectify this nasty cut?

The overall concern in recent years has been to protect the value of weekly social welfare pension rates. Annual expenditure on pensions is approximately €7 billion and is increasing at an approximate rate of €200 million, or €1 billion every five years. Maintaining the rate of the State pension and other payments is critical in protecting people from poverty in old age. A number of changes in recent years had an impact on whether a person could qualify for a contributory pension, based on his or her paid contributions, and on the rate bands for new pensioners with a yearly average of less than 40 contributions. The changes to the rate bands have had no impact on the position of people who would have qualified for a full-rate contributory pension prior to the introduction of these changes, as long as they meet the minimum number of 520 contributions required. Such people continue to qualify for the full-rate pension. The changes to the rate bands affected the rate of pension payable to some new pensioners who qualify for a reduced rate contributory pension. It is important to note that no pensioners have had their pensions reduced, but some new pensioners receive pensions at rates less than they would have received prior to the changes.

That is a reduction.

According to the most recent figures available to me, 43,609 recipients of the State contributory pension are in the rate bands affected by the changes introduced in 2012, 57.8% of whom are women and 42.2% of whom are men. I do not have data on how many people are on alternative payments as a result of these changes. It would be difficult to estimate such a number with accuracy. More detailed data will be made available in the context of the consultation phase of the total contributions approach reform later this year. Someone who does not qualify for a full-rate contributory pension might qualify for an alternative payment. If his or her spouse has a contributory pension, he or she might qualify for an increase for a qualified adult amounting up to 90% of a full-rate pension. Alternatively, he or she might qualify for the means-tested non-contributory State pension, which can amount to 95% of the maximum contributory rate.

In the spirit of the sneaky, clandestine and disgraceful cut that was imposed by Deputy Burton, the Minister has answered this question by attempting to baffle people with figures. He has sought to obscure the nastiness of the pension apartheid that was introduced by Deputy Burton in 2012. As a result of the changes that were made at that time, people who are now coming into their pension entitlements in the expectation of getting all or at least 98% of those entitlements could lose 15%, 35% or even 60% of the pensions to which they would have believed they were entitled before these cuts were made.

The Minister mentioned the requirement to have made 520 contributions, but I remind him that this number used to be much lower. As a result, some people who believed they were entitled to the contributory State pension because they made contributions at the level that would previously have given them such an entitlement will not get a pension at all. I do not have enough time to go through the cases of this type with which I am familiar. A person in these circumstances might be entitled to apply for the means-tested pension, but the means test means they might not even get the non-contributory pension.

I apologise if I baffled the Deputy with my answer but I thought it entirely clear and factual.

It was misleading as to the impact of the 2012 cuts.

The way we calculate the contributory State pension is very odd. If a person has 520 contributions, or approximately ten years of contributions, he or she could potentially get a full pension. If a person works for nine years and 11 months, he or she could get nothing. There is an averaging system that is very odd because it works particularly against people who started work early but who have a big gap in contribution records. We should move to a new system with an approach taking in total contributions. That would be similar to how the Deputy's pension or a public service pension is calculated, with a link to the number of years contributed. If a person works for 20 years, he or she would get 20 fortieths and if a person works for 40 years, he or she would get 40 fortieths. It is something like that and it is the way every other contributory pension is calculated. The way we have done the State contributory pension has been very odd for a long period.

Yes, but all this was made very considerably worse as a result of what was done in 2012. The average and number of contributions that had to be made for the entitlement were changed in 2012. Huge numbers of people who would have been entitled to most or all of the contributory pension before 2012 now find themselves getting considerably less. The Minister has acknowledged there is a problem and he should have acknowledged that there was a dramatic change because of cuts imposed by the Government in 2012. What is he going to do about it and when will he do it? Pensioners are getting letters from the Minister's Department when they reach 66 and they are shocked to discover they will either not get the contributory pension when they have worked for many years and believed themselves entitled to it or they are getting significantly less than people who have made fewer contributions or worked for fewer years but happened to get their pension entitlement before the Government's cuts were made. That is the point so what will the Minister do about it?

There are a couple of issues. Anybody who has made 520 contributions or worked ten years from a working life of 40, 45 or 50 years is entitled to a State contributory pension. Those who did not work for that time may not be. What we had previously and we still have is a position where there is very little correlation between the contributions made and the pension that one gets at the end. That is the problem and it must be changed. We must introduce a new system involving total contributions that gives a person a State pension based on the amount of contributions made. If a person makes many contributions in a working life, that person would get a higher pension than those who made very few. Within that we must make provision for a homemaker's credit to recognise the fact that people take absence from work.

It should be made retrospective.

If we do so, we must cost the option. All of these issues have a cost but that is the approach we are taking.

State Pensions Reform

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

36. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Social Protection the measures he is taking to gender-proof any changes to the State pension schemes; his views on a universal state pension; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8371/17]

I asked the Taoiseach about this earlier but I still find the answers supplied to my colleague, Deputy Boyd Barrett, a bit dispiriting. The 43,000 pensioners referenced will still be at a loss as the months and years go on. Has the Minister made any attempt to begin costing and ensuring we can have a gender-proofed universal pensions with a move to a system of caring credits?

The State pension system is very effective in ensuring that pensioners have a decent standard of living and results in more gender-equal outcomes in Ireland than in most European countries. The gender poverty gap for those over 65 in Ireland, using European Union, EU, figures, is 2.1%, compared with 4.2% across the EU as a whole. There are a number of reasons for this. First, other EU state pension systems generally relate the pension to lifetime earnings and ours does not. Second, our non-contributory pension is paid at 95% of our contributory pension rate. Finally, we have better provisions for widows in Ireland than in most EU countries. These factors result in the average payment to men over 66 being 2% higher than for women, despite lower average contributions into the Social Insurance Fund. This, combined with the targeted nature of the non-contributory pension, means Central Statistics Office poverty rates for men and women over 65 are both low and effectively at parity.

A universal State pension, paid at full rate to everyone over 66, regardless of their contributions or their means, would either be very expensive - costing an estimated extra €1 billion per year - or, if introduced on a cost-neutral basis, require a 14% reduction in the current rate of the State pension. This would be difficult to justify given that those with significant additional incomes would benefit most from the Deputy's proposal. Work is under way to replace the "yearly average" system, as I mentioned earlier, with a total contributions approach. The impact of this reform on gender is being considered very carefully and it will be assessed on its respective impact upon men and women.

In the summer of 2011, the Minister's Department gave a strong warning on this, according to the Irish Examiner, which did some research in the area. It indicated the Department should not have proceeded with these effectively massive cuts to the cohort of pensioners born from the late 1940s onwards and who had irregular and incomplete contributions. They are now suffering year after year. At the time, Deputy Burton stated there was a choice between €475 million in cuts or €665 million in cuts. If one considers the cumulative effect of the change that took place, it may well run into hundreds of millions of euro in terms of the cost to the people themselves. The figure for those affected has been put at 43,000.

Does the Minister agree a universal tier one pension should be his first priority as a Minister before we start thinking about tiers two and three? There are massive tax expenditures on private pensions, amounting to approximately €2.5 billion that far outweigh the €1 billion mentioned by the Minister. Should we be trying to get justice at long last, particularly for the cohort of women pensioners?

I do not have a principled problem with there being a universal tier one pension paid to everyone in the way child benefit is, with a tier two pension - a top-up, if one likes - based totally on contributions made by a worker. Were one to design a pension system from scratch, one might very well do that and it would be a very good approach. As I mentioned, the difficulty is we estimate it would cost €1 billion to do this or, if we did it on a cost-neutral basis, we would have to reduce existing State pensions by 14%, which is not viable.

Has the Minister considered the tax breaks for private pensions?

Professor Alan Barrett of the Economic and Social Research Institute, to whom I referred earlier, has argued that in 2011, the rules of the game were changed in the middle of the game for the people born from the late 1940s onwards. That was a fundamental and grave injustice and the Minister should make it his business, while he is in the Department, to address that. I also referred earlier today to the important Age Action Ireland study by Ms Maureen Bassett, which clearly attempted to estimate the kind of losses that those 43,000 pensioners - the majority of them women - have suffered. Has the Minister read the report and case studies and does he believe it should be a policy initiative to be addressed?

I have read the Age Action Ireland report but I cannot recall the author. I intend to deal with this by moving from a system of calculating a contributory pension that is unfair to a system that is simple and fair and based on contributions. Pretty much anybody with a contributory or occupational pension has it calculated based on the number of years at work or in which contributions were made. It is a simple and understandable way of doing things but it is not what we have now. That is the approach I want to go for. I will bear in mind there will need to be provision for home carers' credits to recognise the fact that some people must take time out of work to look after children or disabled relatives. That must be integrated into any change.

Rural Social Scheme

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

37. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Social Protection the uptake to date on the new rural social scheme, RSS, places announced in budget 2017; and his plans to amend the terms of the scheme to open it to other areas. [8423/17]

Could the Minister provide an update on the uptake in respect of the expanded RSS, which he recently announced, and indicate if there are plans to amend the scheme so as to widen the category of people who might be in a position to participate?

I have allocated an additional 500 places on the RSS as part of the social welfare budget package for 2017. This is the first increase in places since 2006 and will expand the overall number of participants from 2,600 to 3,100. I also announced a €5 increase in the weekly personal rate of payment for RSS participants from March this year.

The 500 additional RSS places have been allocated with effect from 1 February 2017 to the 35 local development companies and Údarás na Gaeltachta, which deliver and administer the scheme on behalf of my Department. The additional places were allocated taking into account a number of factors including the number of places already allocated, the demand for places in particular areas and the numbers of farmers and fishermen in receipt of income support.

As the Deputy will appreciate, the phasing in of these additional places only commenced in the past two weeks but it is worth noting that, by the start of this week, there have already been 11 new entrants to the scheme. The remaining places will be filled as quickly as possible in the weeks and months ahead.

The objective of the RSS is to provide income support for farmers and fishermen, and all participants must be actively engaged in farming or fishing. In allocating the additional places, the Government recognises the benefits the RSS provides for participants and their families, as well as the valuable contribution the scheme is making to the provision of services in communities across Ireland. I have seen this at first hand when visiting schemes around the country, including in Galway and Roscommon.

The question of further additional places will be considered in the context of future budgets.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is very encouraging to see the increase in the numbers that he has allocated. There could be a requirement for another 500 to 1,000 in those areas. It is less restrictive than some of the other schemes. Could the Minister extend the same broad eligibility criteria into the community employment, CE, schemes? Other community groups are finding it extremely difficult to recruit participants so as to ensure that schemes continue. Significant work they have been doing in communities may suffer and the whole system may collapse if they are unable to operate due to the significant constriction in eligibility. Thankfully, given that unemployment is below 7%, the cohort of people available is smaller. However, the CE schemes are vital for many people from a rehabilitation viewpoint. They give people somewhere to go and an opportunity to contribute to the community and feel the satisfaction and vindication of being in a position to work for their communities.

The RSS is very different from the CE schemes. People on CE schemes are supposed to be looking for regular employment. People on the RSS already have regular employment as farmers or fishermen. Given that they cannot derive an adequate income from their regular employment, RSS is an additional top up to the income they make from farming or fishing. They are very different schemes for very different purposes.

Many CE supervisors are having difficulty filling their schemes and I am considering a number of measures to widen the pool of people from whom they can choose. There are people timed out due to a rule in 2000, and I am considering lifting it. Although I cannot afford to do it now, in the next budget I would like to increase the amount of additional money a person on a CE scheme receives. It is only approximately €20, and some people, particularly in rural areas, are almost worse off as a result of participating.

More lone parents and people with disabilities would be more likely to take up a CE scheme if they received €30, €40 or €50. That is my opening pitch for the budget.

That is extremely positive and encouraging. The Minister has hit the nail on the head. Particularly in rural areas people may have to travel five miles to the schemes and €20 is eaten up in a day or two. The Minister must examine the three-year and five-year rules. A person who is aged 60 or 61 may not be able to return to full-time employment and this would be an opportunity for such people to see out their working lives. The Department would not be losing anything, given that these people would otherwise be in receipt of jobseeker's allowance or disability benefit. The Minister is bang on. Hopefully, unemployment rates will continue to decrease to allow the Minister to reinvest in this important area. Communities, individuals and families are gaining, as are groups such as GAA and hockey clubs. There is also great satisfaction for the individual participants and many of them are learning and progressing to work. However, there is a cohort of people for whom it is very essential.

I have an open mind on it and the issue of older workers arises frequently in this context. It is also an issue for younger people. I always get Tús and CE mixed up on the minimum age criteria. The minimum age is 25 for one of the schemes and 21 for the other. We have young people who have spent a year on JobPath and have not got a job. It would make more sense for them to move to CE after this than to return to JobPath. I am considering this as a possible change. Perhaps this is not true, but I am sometimes told in some parts of the country that people who would have had small businesses fixing locks, doing odd jobs around houses or cutting grass have lost some of their business to RSS and CE. I have no numbers to quantify the extent to which this is a real problem. However, if we massively expanded these schemes, we would have to bear it in mind.

JobPath Implementation

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

38. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Social Protection his views on whether the best interests of jobseekers are advanced by allowing JobPath operators the right to stop jobseekers from accepting placements with, for example, the Tús initiative and other schemes, even in circumstances where they applied for such placements in advance of being selected for JobPath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8458/17]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

43. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will re-examine the authority of JobPath operators that are able to overrule the placement offers to jobseekers on various community employment schemes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8457/17]

I want to ask the Minister's opinion on the disadvantage to people who are applying for Tús or CE schemes who are randomly selected by JobPath at the same time they are offered a CE scheme or Tús position and who are blocked from taking up those positions by the private operators which run JobPath. Could the Minister respond with what he thinks is in the best interests of the jobseeker?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 38 and 43 together.

Many CE schemes are run by private companies. I am not sure what the Deputy referred to. The activation supports and services which are available to those who are long-term unemployed include the JobPath employment activation service and work experience and training schemes such as CE and Tús.

The JobPath service procured by my Department provides additional resources to enable it to provide a high quality, case managed employment support service for people who are long-term unemployed and those most at risk of becoming long-term unemployed. The companies contracted to provide the JobPath service have no role or authority regarding referrals or placements for any other activation schemes or programmes such as CE.

The aim of the JobPath service, which is provided for jobseekers only, is to assist them in finding sustainable, full-time paid employment by providing intensive individual support and assistance. It is distinct from the CE scheme, which provides part-time employment and training opportunities in local communities as a stepping stone back to employment for people in receipt of a range of social welfare payments, including those in receipt of long-term unemployment payments. I should emphasise that CE does not, nor is it intended to, provide full-time sustainable employment.

Jobseekers can participate in only one activation scheme or service at a time. This is to ensure that the best use is made of the available places and to allow the scheme and service providers time to work with the participants. However, people who, on the date of their referral to JobPath, have a written offer with a start date within four weeks for CE or Tús will be facilitated to take up the placement rather than participating in JobPath.

The referral period for the JobPath service is typically for a year. At the end of the 52 weeks, jobseekers who have not been successful in finding suitable employment may, subject to an assessment by an Intreo case officer, apply for other activation supports such as CE or Tús.

I take issue with what the Minister said in respect of how we see employment schemes. Previously, he stated that job schemes are not necessarily proper employment.

I refute that because many community employment, CE, and Tús schemes are very valuable employment in the community. Tús schemes provide short-term, quality, work opportunities. They are not just training and people are not just sitting on their hands and having a great time. People are engaged in services in the environmental, caring, community, para-education, heritage and cultural areas, to describe what Tús stands for.

I have a letter about a constituent of mine. It is from an official in the Department of Social Protection in Intreo. The constituent was randomly selected for a Tús initiative in November and interviewed for a Tús placement for January, at which point he went onto a panel. He was interviewed again in January for a placement with a host company and was Garda vetted. Prior to taking up the Tús placement he was then randomly selected for JobPath. I contacted Intreo and the official got in touch with the JobPath centre to inquire if the selection for JobPath for this person could be deferred to allow the individual to take up the Tús offer. He was told "No", that this could not happen and that JobPath would not defer the offer. This is not the only case. I have had many situations like this. It needs to be investigated because it is a private company interfering with the services delivered by the Minister's Department and the advice given by the Department.

CE schemes and Tús do not constitute regular employment. It is not to say they are not valuable. They are very valuable and I have many such schemes also in my constituency. I know their value and they do involve a lot of real work. It is, however, a different thing to say the Tús scheme is real employment. It is not. It is an employment activation scheme where the State provides a form of employment for a person on a part-time basis. I know that the People Before Profit Alliance has been critical of the live register figures and the unemployment statistics produced by the Government, on the basis that it does not include people who are on CE and Tús. Even in the Deputy's own party there must be a view that it is not regular employment.

To answer the other part of the Deputy's question, we do not want people to chop and change between services and schemes. That does not work for us administratively and it is not the right way to approach labour activation. If a person is on a scheme or with a service, they should stick with that and not change to another one until they have completed it. If somebody has a start date within four weeks with CE or Tús, then they can take that up, even if they are referred to JobPath.

It is an extraordinary situation that an official employed in the Department of Social Protection makes a recommendation that a person be allowed to take up a scheme, a decision that is in the best interests of the individual, and the recommendation is overridden by a private company such as Seetec. This company receives remuneration for taking people onto JobPath. It has a vested interest in keeping people on JobPath because it gets a payment for it: a registration payment when it brings a person onto JobPath and four retrospective payments if they keep them in a job for a longer period. Seetec has a financial incentive to keep many people on JobPath, whereas the Minister's Department was looking, in this and many other cases, at the best interests of the individual. In this instance I am talking about a person who is a bit older, maybe in their 50s, and it does not always suit them to sit around waiting for interviews that JobPath might send them on for God knows what kind of jobs. Here is a valuable, local community role they could fill and the Department of Social Protection is being overridden by a private company that has vested interests.

The Minister has said that they do not want people to be using different services to get a job. We have noticed on the north side of Dublin that the local job service of our partnership seems to be used less and less by the Minister's Department, which seems to prefer the route through Seetec, a much more inflexible route. The local job service would know about local job opportunities in particular in the wider economy of the north side and not just in CE or other job activation schemes. I am not sure if the Minister finds that this is also the case with the partnerships in Blanchardstown and Fingal but it is certainly the experience we have had.

I wish to clarify that referrals are made only by my Department and through the Intreo centres. The rules are also made by my Department and the rules are that a person cannot move from one scheme or service to another. If a person has a start date, however, within four weeks for a Tús or CE placement, then he or she can take it up. We would like to move to a position where people who are unemployed would go through JobPath first, but this is still in transition. If they were unable to secure employment on their own or with the assistance of JobPath after that, then they would become eligible for CE and Tús schemes. That is what we are moving towards, but obviously there is a transition piece under way.

Deputy Pringle is not present, so we will not address Question No. 39.

Question No. 39 replied to with Written Answers.

Homemakers Scheme

Gino Kenny

Ceist:

40. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Social Protection when he expects to have his report on the changes to the homemaker's credit that he committed to in the course of the Social Welfare Bill 2016; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8442/17]

Robert Troy

Ceist:

44. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Social Protection his plans to backdate the homemaker's scheme prior to 1994; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8412/17]

With regard to the pensions and the homemaker's scheme, when we were moving an amendment to the Social Welfare Bill, the Minister promised he would issue a report within six months on the question of social protection and the homemaker's credit. Perhaps the Minister would issue a statement on the matter. I know that the six months is not yet up, but the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is coming under a lot of scrutiny and pressure on this issue because many people are falling into the situation, as described by other Deputies, of being deliberately discriminated against with regard to their pension.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 40 and 44 together.

The State pension is a very valuable benefit and is the bedrock of the Irish State pension system as a whole. There are two State pensions. The non-contributory State pension is a means-tested pension and is funded by general taxation. The contributory State pension is not means tested and is paid from the Social Insurance Fund. Therefore, it is important to ensure those qualifying have made a sustained contribution to the Social Insurance Fund over their working lives. To ensure the individual can maximise their entitlement to a State pension, all contributions paid or credited over their working life from when they first enter insurable employment until pension age are taken into account when assessing their entitlement and the level of that entitlement.

The current homemaker's scheme makes qualification for a higher rate of contributory State pension easier for those who take time out of the workforce for caring duties. The scheme, which was introduced in and took effect for periods from 1994, allows up to 20 years spent caring for children under 12 years of age or caring for incapacitated people over that age to be disregarded when a person’s social insurance record is being averaged for pension purposes, subject to the standard qualifying conditions for the contributory State pension also being satisfied. This has the effect of increasing the yearly average of the pensioner, which is used to set the rate of their pension.

I believe that Deputy Gino Kenny's references in his question are to a statement I made in the course of the recent Social Welfare Bill 2016 that the issue of homemaker's credits would be considered in the context of the total contributions approach reform that we are planning. I expect a final paper to be available in the middle of the year, following receipt of data from the independent actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund which will be used to cost options in this reform.

My Department has estimated that the cost of extending the homemaker's scheme to allow people to avail of the full 20 years currently allowed under the scheme, encompassing periods prior to 1994, could cost some €290 million in 2017, and this figure would rise at a faster rate than the overall cost of State pensions. Such funds are not currently available to implement this measure.

Where somebody does not qualify for a full rate contributory pension, they may qualify for an alternative payment. If their spouse has a contributory pension, they may qualify for an increase for a qualified adult amounting up to up to 90% of a full rate pension. Alternatively, they may qualify for a means-tested non-contributory State pension which amounts up to 95% of the maximum contributory rate.

Deputy Broughan queried the existing Taoiseach about this issue - I understand that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is possibly the future Taoiseach - but the current Taoiseach answered by saying that some people did suffer badly under the austerity measures and that we would hope to give them some alleviation in the future. It is my argument that this is pure, out-and-out discrimination on two grounds: gender and age.

This Government is guilty on both counts of discriminating through this pension scheme. To me, it seems quite a simple question that a leader like the current Taoiseach or the Minister, as a possible future Taoiseach, needs to grab by the throat and deal with. The Minister and the Government are breaking the equality legislation. They are the law breakers, not the pensioners who are being discriminated against.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.