Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Employment Data

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

60. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on the decline in the unemployment rate in the south-east region between the first quarter in 2017 and the first quarter in 2018; the amount of the reduction that can be attributed to job creation; the amount of the reduction that can be accounted for by persons leaving the region’s labour force through migration or retirement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38847/18]

The unemployment rate in the south east between the first quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018 fell from 7.7% to 7.2%. I would like to know how much of that reduction is down to job creation and how much is down to individuals leaving the region's labour force through factors such as migration or retirement. Does the Minister know if the number of people who are working in the region increased or decreased in that period, and if so by how much?

I love it when I can answer a question exactly the way the Deputy wants me to answer it.

At its peak the unemployment rate for the south-east region was estimated at about 19%. The most recent official data from the labour force survey show that at the end of the second quarter of 2018 to the beginning of August, the Deputy is correct, that unemployment in the area is now at about 7.2%. As compared with the same period last year employment in the south-east region had risen by 6,100. The labour force in the region had increased even faster, by 8,400, so that unemployment rose by about 2,400 over the year, with the unemployment rate rising from 6.4% to 7.2%.

The figures for a single quarter at the regional level can be volatile and the labour force survey is a sample survey and therefore subject to sampling error. Over the longer period since the recovery began in mid 2012, employment in the south east is up by almost 33,000, with the labour force increasing by 15,000 and unemployment decreasing by 18,000.

Migration estimates are published at State level only, so it is not possible to identify the impact of migration on regional labour force and unemployment levels specifically in the Deputy's county. The data quoted indicate that the reduction in unemployment is not attributable to a reduction in the labour force.

The Government's primary strategy to tackle unemployment since 2012 is twofold. First, we have the Action Plan for Jobs, which is led by my colleague the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, and we also have regional action plans that are yielding results through working with IDA Ireland and the local enterprise boards. Second, we have Pathways to Work, and my Department ensures that as many new jobs and vacancies as possible are filled by people from the live register. We have a tremendous relationship, which is growing, particularly because employers cannot find people when they have their stands at jobs fairs or through recruitment agencies. Our relationships are growing and there are more piloted and targeted projects being worked on and developed, not least of which is Project Yes being launched this week. Things are getting better. The employment numbers are not matching the rates for people in employment. The rates for people in employment are higher in most of the regions around the county than the drop in numbers on the unemployment register.

I thank the Minister. There are always issues about figures in here, such as those we heard about housing in the last while. Is the Minister aware of the South East Economic Monitor? I do not know if the Minister reads it but the latest edition was published a couple of months ago. This publication provides an analysis of the regional economy carried out by independent non-politically affiliated academics. It is independent of the Minister's Department interpretation and independent of my interpretation of what might be happening in Wexford or the south east. One of the points made by the monitor is that between the first quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018 the number of people in work increased by 62,000 nationally, but in the south east the monitor maintains that the number actually decreased. There were 2,400 fewer people working in the south east in that period, and therefore the so-called reduction in unemployment is accounted for primarily by individuals leaving the region's labour force. If that is true it is pretty worrying. I do not know if the Minister is familiar with those statistics but I am interested to hear what she has to say about them.

I am not but I will make myself familiar with those statistics later on and I will come back to the Deputy to either refute them or, if they can be substantiated, say that we have more work to do. My figures show that the amount of people taken off the live register is less than the amount of new people employed in the county. This means that people who were not on the live register actively seeking jobs decided to take up the jobs that were being created or that people are moving to Wexford to take up the jobs. Either way I will come back to the Deputy later this afternoon with clarification on the report he has just cited.

While the south east makes up 9% of the population of the State, only 3% of IDA Ireland jobs that were created over the last seven years have been in the south-east region. Only 2.2% of the Ireland 2040 capital investment in higher education is due to be spent in the south east. I am aware that Wexford is different again; the live register figure for Wexford in July was 15.5%. Wexford is by far the worse off of those counties in the south-east region. I honestly believe that the statistics bear out the fact that we are one of the top three most deprived counties in the State currently. There is a real need for cross party co-operation to address this. There is a need for some really proactive work across the Departments to change that. Wexford has been a deprived county for a long time and this is directly linked to the fact that we have the highest suicide rate in the State for the last three years. The Minister will be aware that mental health challenges and deprivation are very strongly linked. Might there be an appetite for cross-party co-operation to look at the realities of the situation in Wexford? It did not start with this Government: umpteen Governments have failed to do this. It would be a powerful exercise on the part of the Minister's Government if it were to do this.

The Deputy can correct me if I am wrong but I would have thought that the southern region Action Plan for Jobs and the task force around that could be the body or mechanism to feed into. If not then maybe we will have to look at it and I will come back to the Deputy on it. I can only take responsibility for my Department. There are tremendous amounts of supports available in Wexford and in recognising it is lagging a little bit behind the rest of the country. There are 40 case activation officers looking at the people in the region on the live register. There are a number of training initiatives that have been developed with the Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board with a wide variety of courses to go to. The Turas Nua offices there are helping people to find the real jobs that are being created. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation may need to focus in specifically on that area and come back to the Deputy. If there are blackspots or real deficits then perhaps we can sit down together and work on something in the future. I would be happy to do that.

Pension Provisions

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

61. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to amend legislation regarding the contributory State pension with particular reference to persons whose insurance contribution records were interrupted due to periods in receipt of farm assist; if the periods that persons were on farm assist can be credited for insurance purposes; if this issue will be considered in the context of the social welfare Bill 2019; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38785/18]

The Minister is aware that there is a cohort of people who have reached, or who are about to reach, pension age who were paying the insurance contribution towards a contributory pension. Their insurance record was broken when they availed of the farm assist scheme. Will the Minister assure me that the plight of those people will be considered in the consultation process that is under way, or which may be well advanced, in the calculation of entitlements to contributory pensions?

The farm assist scheme was introduced in 1999 to provide income support for low income farmers. I think the scheme was introduced by Deputy Brendan Smith's party-----

It was introduced by former Deputy Michael Woods.

It replaced the former smallholders’ unemployment assistance payment. In line with the then existing arrangements for unemployment assistance, including the smallholders and pre-retirement allowances, the income of farm assist recipients was exempt from class S pay related social insurance, PRSI, for self-employed workers. Recipients of farm assist who had previously paid class S social insurance had the option of paying voluntary contributions to maintain their social insurance record, provided they satisfied all of the qualifying conditions. Since 1 January 2007, the exemption from class S PRSI has been removed and those receiving jobseeker’s allowance and farm assist are subject to class S PRSI as self-employed contributors on their self-employed income, provided their annual income is €5,000 or more.

There are currently no plans to amend legislation relating to the State contributory pension to award a maximum rate of payment to pensioners who had a period between 1999 and 2006 when they were exempt from paying PRSI contributions. However, a person aged over 66 with limited PRSI contributions over the course of his or her life may claim a State non-contributory pension if he or she has an income need and this entitlement is not based on the payment of social insurance contributions but on the basis of need. The maximum weekly rate is €232 which is over 95% of the maximum contributory pension rate. While it is means tested, there are significant disregards which are to the benefit of claimants and a significant majority of such pensioners are paid at the full rate. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She referred to the fact that farm assist was introduced in 1999. At that time Deputies O'Dea, Durkan and I, as well as most Members of this House representing rural constituencies, were very strong in our advocacy for replacing the smallholder's allowance with farm assist unemployment assistance. The Minister's predecessor at that time, Dr. Michael Woods and the late Joe Walsh, the then Minister for Agriculture and Food, were to the fore in introducing the new scheme which took account of present income circumstances, unlike the smallholder's assistance payment, which was very much based on historical income for the previous 12 months. As we all know, farm incomes can change very suddenly if there is an outbreak of disease and a total or partial depopulation of a herd, for example.

In the instances I have come across, those farmers who took up farm assist for a short time continued to make tax returns but were not informed by Revenue or by the Department that they needed to make a contribution to maintain their insurance record. There was always an understanding that if one was in receipt of a social welfare payment, one's social insurance record was maintained but that did not happen in this instance. The cases with which I am dealing all involve people who did not employ an accountant to file their tax returns because they were not in a financial position to do so. They made their returns themselves and were not aware that their insurance contribution record was being broken. They had always hoped, through making their insurance contributions, that on reaching pension age they would be entitled to a full contributory pension. Unfortunately, that is not happening now.

I cannot speak to how - or even whether - the Department or the Revenue Commissioners imparted the information that would have been valuable to the people to whom the Deputy refers. I can only look into the matter on the Deputy's behalf. I can relate to the fact that their contribution record having been broken has resulted in them getting a lesser pension payment now. The options that would have been available to them were to make those contributions or, just before retirement, to buy credits to supplement their annual contributions over their lifetime of work. Is the Deputy speaking about a large cohort of people?

My own constituency work suggests this affects a relatively small number of people.

I must ask a favour of the Deputy. I would like to arrange a meeting with him at which he can give me examples of the cases in his constituency so that I can follow through to see how many people have been impacted, while also determining if the Department or Revenue informed people of the options available to them. What the Deputy has just brought to my attention seems unjust. I will ask my officials to call the Deputy later today to arrange a proper discussion of the matter.

I thank the Minister and would be very glad to take up her offer of a meeting. In many instances there was a dramatic change in farm income due to issues like depopulation of a herd or adverse weather conditions. Many of the people involved were filling out their own forms because they were not in a position to engage an accountant to do their paperwork. They often did not read the forms in full. I have gone through this with the people involved and am satisfied that they were not informed by Revenue or the Department of the break in their insurance contributions record. I would be very glad to take up the Minister's offer of a meeting and hope that we can progress this matter in the context of the review of entitlements to contributory pensions.

It is not just farmers who do not read documents in full. That is a charge that can probably be made against every single one of us. The situation he Deputy describes does not sound fair to me, so let us meet and talk about it further.

I thank the Minister for her understanding and commitment in this regard. Given the size of the next grouping of questions, I ask both the Minister and the Deputies concerned to abide by the ruling of the Chairman with regard to time. I invite Deputy Heydon to introduce his question.

State Pension (Contributory)

Martin Heydon

Ceist:

62. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the timeline for payment of revised pensions to those in receipt of contributory pensions post-2012, following reviews to be carried out in 2018; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38866/18]

Martin Heydon

Ceist:

63. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when she expects the reviews to commence for those in receipt of contributory pensions post 2012 who are on reduced pensions due to years spent caring for family; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38865/18]

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

73. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will report on the proposed legislation to be brought forward to correct the anomalies in relation to contributory pensions post 2012; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38863/18]

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

80. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when she expects to be in a position to address the issue of pensions for women who leave employment to rear their families and subsequently find themselves without a pension or who may have sufficient contributions but when the current criteria is applied throughout their working life, they have no entitlement to a State pension (contributory); when she expects the new regime to emerge to address these issues; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38849/18]

Peter Fitzpatrick

Ceist:

90. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the progress made on the commitment to address the anomaly caused by rate band changes in 2012; if the solution of a total contributions approach and home caring credits is on target; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38820/18]

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

91. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her plans to re-examine the situation for women who lost out on a full State pension (contributory) due to leaving the workforce to rear their children; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38660/18]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

93. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when legislation will be brought forward to enact new proposals on the State contributory pension scheme; when claimants will have their current contributory pensions reviewed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38852/18]

The Minister relieved the concerns of many pensioners and families last January when she announced changes for those in receipt of reduced contributory pensions post-2012 due to some anomalies in the yearly averaging system. On behalf of those due to be reviewed, I ask for confirmation that the process as outlined last January is continuing and that the reviews will be completed later this year, with adjusted payments beginning early next year.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 62 and 63, 73, 80, 90 and 91 and 93 together.

I thank Deputy Heydon and all of the other Deputies who submitted questions on this matter. On 23 January last the Government agreed to my proposal that would allow pensioners affected by the 2012 changes in rate bands to have their pension entitlement calculated on a total contributions basis, including a provision for up to 20 years of a new home caring credit. Legislation will have to be enacted to enable the implementation of these arrangements and a number of options regarding the best approach to passing that legislation are being considered. In addition, a new information technology system must be developed in line with the legislation. My Department is currently working on both of these projects and both are at a very advanced stage. We must then design the procedures with which we will work. We are currently recruiting some temporary staff who will conduct the reviews. Once recruitment is completed, we will start carrying out the reviews.

My Department will write to the 67,000 impacted customers in the next number of weeks to explain to them what is happening and how the review process will work. As I have stated previously, it is still planned to commence these reviews before the end of this year, with the first payments being made in the first quarter of 2019, backdated, where relevant, to the end of March 2018, or later where a person attained his or her 66th birthday after that date. I wish to reassure people that it is not necessary for them to contact the Department on this matter. Once the legislation is enacted and the systems and processes are ready, my Department will write again to the people impacted and provide them with the opportunity to have their pension recalculated. Once they are presented with the recalculation, they will then have the option of continuing on their old pension payment or moving to a new pension payment. I have been asked on a number of occasions if there will be winners and losers in this recalculation process, as has happened on different occasions in the past but I can absolutely assure Deputies and those listening that there will be no losers. Those whose pension entitlements are recalculated and are found to be smaller than their current payment will obviously choose to stay on the current payment. That said, the anticipated outcome of the process is that the majority of the 67,000 people who were adversely affected will be positively impacted by the recalculation and will be moved to a new, higher payment.

I will now invite Deputies to respond in the order in which their questions were submitted. All Deputies have one minute and Deputy Heydon is first.

I thank the Minister for her response. I am glad to hear her reiterate that the details of the plan which were originally announced in January are on track. Some of those affected by this issue have begun to think that it may not happen because there has not been much recent media coverage of the matter. After many years of campaigning, they are almost afraid to believe that the issue will finally be resolved. Great credit is due to the Minister not alone for the announcement last January, but also for the work since then by her and her officials in order to be in a position to undertake what will be a very significant review. I welcome her statement that the letters will issue in the coming weeks.

The Minister is aware that the issue has caused upset, frustration and hardship for many of those affected by the changes in 2012. The payment of a reduced weekly pension reinforced their feeling that their work caring for family members over the years was unrecognised. Addressing those feelings is a very important step.

Can the Minister confirm that an allocation will be set aside as part of the budget to make the necessary repayments next year? She mentioned that 67,000 people have been affected. Is that the total number of people in receipt of contributory pensions post-2012? Will people who are not covered by the review receive letters about it? Will all 67,000 letters issue at once or will it take a couple of weeks for that to be done? It is a large number of letters but it may cause confusion if some people receive a letter and others do not. How quickly does the Minister expect the letters to be issued?

I ask Members to keep to their allocated time.

There was great satisfaction when the announcement regarding the correction of the 2012 anomaly was made earlier this year. People are very keen to see progress in that regard. It was understood that legislation would be advanced in the earlier part of this year with a view to the letters issuing approximately now and through the autumn and payments issuing at the beginning of next year. Has such legislation been advanced? I understand that it has not. People believe that the timeline is not being adhered to. Are things still on schedule? When will the letters issue? Will it be this side of Christmas or thereafter? People need reassurance. Those affected by the 2012 cuts are very conscious of time and hope that this will be addressed as quickly as possible. The Minister indicated that temporary staff will be recruited. How many will be taken on and when will they be in a position to carry out the reviews?

I appreciate the comprehensive nature of the Minister's reply. Given the number of people who will qualify for two levels of pension and are likely to opt for the higher of two, I ask for an indication of the extent to which provision is likely to be made to ensure that the system will work in the way it is intended for the benefit of all. Are those who have made contributions in this jurisdiction and other jurisdictions likely to be affected?

The Minister was very co-operative in her first reply in terms of time. On the basis that each Deputy has a further contribution to make, I ask her to keep this reply similarly brief.

I will be brief. I am very pleased to reiterate that there is no delay on this issue, nor any change of mind or tactic. We are in the position envisaged at the time of my announcement in this Chamber several months ago. The Cabinet decided to address the anomaly and legislation in that regard is well advanced. The only thing that must be decided is whether it will be addressed in the social welfare Bill or in stand-alone legislation. I make that point not to confuse or conflate the issue but, rather, in view of the particular timelines of this House.

I appreciate the comments made by Deputy Heydon. I was lucky to be the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection at a time when a large number of pensioners had mobilised over an unfair, unjust and discriminatory issue by which they had been affected since 2012. I pay particular tribute to the pensioners who persistently attended weekly clinics and to Age Action Ireland for its co-ordination of that campaign. I am happy to say that this is one of several instances when people have shouted loudly and the Government has heard them and is able to allocate money to the matter in the budget.

A total of 67,000 people have been impacted. To answer the question of Deputy Durkan, not all of them are in Ireland, with some 9,000 living outside the State. All those affected will be contacted in the coming weeks, well in advance of Christmas. I hope and assume that the assessments will be completed by then.

The temporary staff will all be in place by the end of next week and will then begin training. Thereafter, the letters will issue and the assessments will commence. By the end of the first quarter of next year each of those 67,000 people who choose to move to a new increased payment will have received their backlog in the form of a little lump sum and will be on the new payment.

I ask Deputies to be as brief as possible.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She is correct in her remarks on pensioners. Those with whom I dealt in Kildare on this matter were very persistent, and rightly so. This was one of the few issues on which there was no counterargument to those who raised the matter at clinics. There was an inherent unfairness in the measures and that cut people to the bone because they felt their contribution to the State, the role they played and the choices they made throughout their lives were being questioned. I welcome that this is being addressed. I welcome the confirmation that the 67,000 letters will be issued as closely together as possible because, notwithstanding the size of the undertaking, it will cause consternation if some people receive letters but others do not for three or four weeks thereafter.

I ask that consideration be given to one of the bugbears for those affected, namely, that announced increases in the pension - of €5, for example - do not apply to their pensions in full because they are on a reduced amount. If there is to be an increase in the pension announced in the forthcoming budget, I ask that the full amount be given to all those in receipt of a State pension because that anomaly has driven home the inequality of the system to date.

The Minister has provided a significant amount of very useful information on the matter. I am pleased to note the outline of the timeframe for dealing with it because those affected by the 2012 changes wish for matters to be advanced as quickly as possible. The Minister indicated that she has not decided whether this will be provided for as part of the social welfare Bill or in stand-alone legislation. Will that decision impact on the timeline for implementation? When will she know when such legislation will be advanced?

We should acknowledge that this change is very welcome and of huge benefit to many people who made contributions and worked extremely hard for the State or caring for others throughout their career and got no recognition for that. Will those persons who made contributions in Ireland and overseas receive the same treatment as everybody else such that there would be no balancing of the situation whereby they might have a higher level from the United Kingdom? Will it be adjudged on the basis of achieving a pension of a particular amount in this jurisdiction?

The Minister is in everyone's good books.

I wish to temper expectations somewhat. The 67,000 letters will not issue on one day because we have not taken on 15,000 temporary staff to facilitate such a feat. Rather, they will issue over several weeks. I ask Deputies for their assistance in terms of assuring their constituents who have received a letter when others have not that the letters will be issued to all. Assessing and addressing this anomaly had to be provided for out of the staffing fund for this year. Through certain savings, we have managed to secure funds for temporary staff but not a huge number thereof. There is a sufficient number to enable the Department to carry out the reviews, issue the letters and stick to the timeline set out, namely, that each of the 67,000 people affected will receive their little backlog and move onto their new payments before the end of the first quarter of next year. Nothing has changed. Timelines have not slipped. The decision on whether the legislation is included as an amendment in the social welfare Bill or progressed as a stand-alone Bill will not impact on the timelines. It might be easier to progress as a stand-alone Bill and we are considering that but the decision will not impact on the dates for the payments. However, aspects of this will be done on a phased basis because a significant number of people are affected and the staff of the Department, although great, are not wonder women and men.

Given the common travel area agreements and the reciprocal arrangements between Ireland and the United Kingdom in particular, the arrangements will be identical for those living outside or inside the State. We want to give people the fullest possible payment based on the contributions they made in Ireland or any state with which we have reciprocal arrangements.

I wish to comment on how we do business.

Could I clarify something?

No, the Deputy cannot come in again.

I am seeking clarification from the Minister on the number of staff.

Only two minutes are allowed.

I do not know how many we have taken on.

I genuinely do not know. I think it is enough.

There was a reference to 15,000 and I thought that could not be possible.

I was being facetious.

The Minister said she did not have the money for that.

The whole Department is working.

Is Deputy Moynihan happy with that?

The Deputy would have heard about that on the news anyway before now.

I thank the three Deputies and the Minister for their co-operation. It shows how we can do business when everybody works together. I very much appreciate that.

I thank the Chairman.

Community Employment Schemes Supervisors

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

64. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of community employment supervisors employed; the cost of providing pension entitlements to community employment supervisors from 1 January 2019; the additional supports which will be provided for community employment sponsoring community organisations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38654/18]

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

72. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when community employment supervisors will receive their pension entitlements in accordance with Labour Court Recommendation No. 19293 of July 2008 and the Dáil Éireann motion of April 2018; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38653/18]

John Brady

Ceist:

75. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the steps taken to honour the pension claim of community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors as per a 2008 Labour Court recommendation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38816/18]

It is sad and funny to hear the Minister talk about anomalies given the amnesia that affects her and the Fine Gael Party generally, and Fianna Fáil.

Could the Deputy ask a question please?

The Minister changed those bands and inflicted suffering on the women concerned pre-2012.

I wish to ask the Minister about another anomaly, namely, the Labour Court Recommendation No. 19293 of July 2008, in respect of pensions for the 1,250 CE supervisors and assistant supervisors who manage 25,000 staff who are carrying out wonderful work in parishes and communities throughout the island. Several commitments have been made that we would address this other anomaly but the Minister has done nothing to date.

The conceit of the far left never ceases to amaze me. It considers it has a monopoly on compassion.

I do not want a second preamble. Could we move on with the reply?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 64, 72 and 75 together.

CE scheme supervisors are employees of private companies in the community and voluntary sector that receive public funding. They are not employees of my Department or public servants. There are currently 1,346 supervisors or assistant supervisors employed with CE sponsor organisations. My Department funds wages and training costs in respect of CE participants and supervisors. It does not, and has not, provided provision for funding for CE supervisor pensions.

Employers, including CE sponsoring organisations, are legally obliged to offer access to at least one standard personal retirement savings account, PRSA, under the Pension (Amendment) Act 2002. I am sure the Deputy is well aware of that. On foot of the Labour Court recommendation, the issue of CE supervisor pensions is currently being examined by a community sector high-level forum, which is chaired by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. A number of Departments, including mine, are represented on this group, as are the unions and Pobal.

A detailed scoping exercise was carried out with input from the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, on the costs of providing Exchequer support for the establishment of such a pension scheme for employees across the community and voluntary sector. The exercise clearly illustrated that this matter presents significant issues for the Exchequer, with a potential cost to the State of €188 million per annum in respect of funding to enable an employer pension contribution in State-funded community and voluntary organisations, excluding any provision for immediate ex gratia lump sum payment of pension as sought, which could, depending on the size of the sector, entail a further Exchequer cost of up to €318 million.

I am very conscious that while the issue relates to CE supervisors and assistant supervisors, such individuals comprise just one small group within the wider community and voluntary sector. Any provision of State funding for such a scheme in respect of those employees could potentially give rise to claims for similar schemes on the part of those in the broader sector, thus crystallising the level of liability. Any solution to this issue will require careful consideration, in particular the implications for scarce Exchequer resources.

The final few points the Minister made are reminiscent of a familiar old mantra. When community employment and later, job initiative, JI, schemes were set up - Ruairí Quinn initially set up the social employment scheme, SES, in the mid-1980s - people did not realise they would become such a fundamental part of society in terms of local development, training, caring and childcare. I am a director of a number of such community companies. I was involved in them before I became involved in politics and have been all through my political career. Wonderful work is carried out that benefits both the individuals themselves through the training provided and their work in communities. That must be recognised.

The Minister referred to the Lansdowne Road agreement and the high-level forum chaired by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We expected an outcome from that in late 2017. We had a Private Members' debate on a motion tabled by our Sinn Féin colleagues. The Minister quoted the potential cost put forward by IGEES of €400 million to €500 million but we estimated the cost to be much lower in budgetary terms and the issue must be revisited as a matter of urgency.

We are all deeply aware of, and grateful for, the work being carried out. Local groups are valiantly trying to support supervisors and assistant supervisors for the brilliant work they have done over decades. The issue is similar to a previous question on women's pensions pre-2012 and the Minister should acknowledge the situation and begin to move on it.

The programme for Government states that the Government will respect the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court and ensure that both bodies are supported to fulfil their roles. Does the commitment still stand? When we were dealing with the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the Minister cited legitimate concerns about the implications of proposed amendments on the working of the WRC and the Labour Court and those concerns was addressed. There was a clear ruling by the WRC in 2008, which has been ignored by successive Ministers and Governments, affecting 1,250 CE supervisors and assistant supervisors. The Minister hides behind the scoping exercise that is being carried out, brings in the community and voluntary sector and comes up with the figure of €188 million, which was not part of the WRC ruling from 2008. The WRC was categoric in what was being proposed, namely, that pensions should be provided for CE supervisors and assistant supervisors. Could the Minister provide an exact figure on the cost to provide a pension scheme solely for CE supervisors and assistant supervisors, who are individuals doing exceptional work across communities in this State?

Before the Minister responds, I make an appeal to both Deputies. Deputies Durkan and Murphy O'Mahony have both been sitting in the Chamber for a long time and I want to ensure they have an opportunity to have their questions answered before 12 noon. Could Deputies Broughan and Brady stick to the rules and regulations to which we all agreed on the running of this House? I urge all speakers to be brief so that we can accommodate those two Deputies who have been sitting here a long time.

The community sector high-level forum includes representatives of not only various Departments and statutory agencies but also union representatives. To be fair, the forum is chaired by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform but it includes the various Departments that have responsibilities towards the community and voluntary sector and not just the valuable organisations that provide CE schemes funded by my Department. All of the Departments recognise the valuable services provided in communities by people on CE schemes. That is why the high-level forum was established.

I am not sure whether Deputy Brady is aware of the history of this case and that the Labour Court made a recommendation. It did not make a ruling. The recommendation has been scoped with input from IGEES on the costs of providing Exchequer support to all involved in the community and voluntary sector. Unlike Deputy Broughan, who is an Opposition Deputy, we do not have the option of pitting one part of the community and voluntary sector against another. If one is going to do something, one must respect equally the contribution made by all those in the community and voluntary sector. That is why this is such a difficult task. If it was easy to fix, it would have been fixed.

We have not looked at individual costs for CE scheme supervisors because one cannot fix the problem without causing an additional problem elsewhere. We have learnt lessons from the past when we tried to fix issues in a piecemeal way by ignoring the outputs from advisory groups.

The Minister could make a start with the CE supervisors and assistant supervisors.

There is no question. We had this debate. On the IGEES figures I cited earlier, up to €500 million or whatever, that is obviously if we have an immediate big-bang approach. Given that Labour Court Recommendation No. 19293 is sitting there for ten years, whatever excuses could have been made in respect of the crash and the aftermath and the austerity period, there is no validity in them now. The matter is crying out for justice. The Minister herself has been floating the idea of the supplementary savings scheme, automatic enrolment and this plan for 2022-2023 to ensure that this will not happen again to any segment of our society where people have given very valuable service to communities. In this budget, in line with that, can she not as a start implement this recommendation at a very modest cost? The budget committee is meeting the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, this afternoon.

I am not asking the Minister to introduce anything piecemeal. I am asking her to introduce the full recommendation of the WRC from back in 2008. What that recommendation lays out would cost a fraction of the €188 million the Minister cites. We are not talking about doing things piecemeal. We are talking about the Minister following up on the commitments in the programme for Government, honouring and respecting the WRC and not being an impediment to its work.

A motion was passed in the Dáil before the summer recess, brought forward by the Minister's friends in Fianna Fáil with Sinn Féin's support. It called on the Government to implement the recommendations from the WRC. We are coming into the budgetary process and, in the next couple of weeks, we will have a negotiated budget presented between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Have there been any discussions about implementing that motion? Have there been any discussions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael about implementing the pensions for community employment supervisors and their assistants?

The Deputies seem to have forgotten that the high-level forum consists not only of people from a variety of Departments with responsibility to the voluntary and community sectors, but also representatives of Pobal, Fórsa and SIPTU, which are the people's representatives in those sectors. In terms of suggestions as to how we could magically find the €0.5 billion that is potentially needed, maybe Deputy Brady will come up with a great budget himself in the next couple of weeks and show us what he would cut or stop doing to provide that extra €500 million every year.

We have all done our own budgets.

If there was an easy solution to this, the high-level forum, including representatives of both unions, would already have found it. The meetings of the high-level forum will continue. The unions have met the Minister over the summer months and will actively continue to pursue ideas in an effort to resolve this issue. It is not going to be fixed until we all find a solution and we will continue to work towards that.

Social Welfare Appeals Waiting Times

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

65. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the average time taken to determine an appeal; if steps can be taken to speed up the process and ensure that persons whose payments have been cut off continue to receive a payment for the duration of the appeal period; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38848/18]

Would the Deputy forfeit his initial 30 seconds so that we will have time for Deputy Murphy O'Mahony's question as well?

All decisions taken by the Department’s deciding officers and designated persons are appealable to the chief appeals officer. Approximately 85% of all claims are awarded and only 1% of all claims are appealed annually. It is a very small number. Nevertheless my Department is genuinely concerned that these cases be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Significant efforts and resources have been devoted to reforming the appeals process in recent years. As a result, appeal processing times improved from what was a staggering 52.5 weeks for an oral hearing in 2011 to 26 weeks in 2017 and from 25 weeks for a summary decision in 2011 to 19 weeks in 2017. The most recent figures, for the period January to August 2018, are at 30 weeks for an oral hearing and 25.2 weeks for a summary decision. This matter has been raised with me on a number of occasions. It is too long. We need to improve it. There are a number of reasons for this. One of the things we are going to attempt to do is simplify the carers allowance application form so that the process speeds up and people are not waiting four months to get a rejection and another four or five months to do their appeal. We are doing everything.

We have had some great successes with the domiciliary care allowance application. That was at one stage taking up to 26 weeks but, because of a redesign undertaken with DCA Warriors and other interested bodies that were using the forms and finding them complicated, we designed a new form. The application time for domiciliary care allowance is now down to five weeks. I have every expectation that we will have the same results when we introduce the new carers allowance form. I hear the Deputy's concerns loud and clear.

I was not referring to carers allowance only but to all payments that are means tested or tested on health grounds. The problem is that for the period of the review, the person may be cut off with no payment. That can cause very serious hardship to people in particularly straitened circumstances. In some cases, it can lead to someone losing his or her house due to rent arrears. That is a particular issue that I would like to see pursued further.

I will take that on board and will come back to the Deputy on it.

Irish Sign Language

Margaret Murphy O'Mahony

Ceist:

66. Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the action her Department is taking to enhance Irish Sign Language services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38861/18]

Will the Deputy forfeit her initial 30 seconds?

The Sign Language Interpreting Service, SLIS, is the national service for the development, promotion and delivery of sign language interpreting services to the deaf community in Ireland. As the Deputy is aware, it is funded by the Citizens Information Board, which comes under my remit. The Government and my Department in particular is committed to supporting the service which, it is recognised, is an invaluable support to people with hearing difficulties.

The 2018 budget for the Sign Language Interpreting Service is €676,000. This includes more than €300,000 to expand its activities in order to deliver on the commitments set out in the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017–2021, which include the extension of the operating hours and the availability of the remote interpretation service to evenings and weekends; the resourcing of the Sign Language Interpreting Service to increase the number of trained sign language and deaf interpreters; putting a quality assurance and registration scheme for interpreters in place; and the provision of ongoing professional training and development. Additional staff resources have been given to SLIS, which has facilitated the extension of the Irish remote interpreting service appointments to 6.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Saturdays. The Sign Language Interpreting Service is currently recruiting a quality information and development officer to develop a quality assurance and registration scheme for interpreters and to develop and deliver ongoing professional training and development.

In preparation for the commencement by the Minister for Justice and Equality of the Irish Sign Language Act 2017, the sign language interpreting service has drafted guidelines for the administration of a scheme to facilitate access to social, educational and cultural events and services by ISL users. There is no doubt that it is important for anybody who is deaf to live a full and supported life and this goes a long way to recognising the deficits that existed in the past and reinstating the services that should be available.

I thank the Minister for her comments. I welcome what has been done so far. Fianna Fáil has a particular interest in this as it was my colleague, Senator Mark Daly, who initiated the Irish Sign Language Bill 2016, which was passed by the Oireachtas last year. I commend the work he put into it. I will send the rest of my comments on to the Minister because we are caught for time.

It was remiss of me, and I apologise, but I should have given credit to Senator Mark Daly. It is because of his tremendous work that we were able to support the initiatives he put forward. I was very happy to be able to extend the extra €300,000 to services. I also commend him on the work he has done in having our national anthem signed for the first time at both national and local events. It is a real credit to him and his commitment to this group of people.

I will pass the Minister's remarks on to the Senator.

I express thanks to the Minister, the Deputies and the staff of the House. We got through quite a lot of questions this morning with everybody's co-operation.