I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The main purpose of this Bill is to provide the legislative framework for the implementation of the social protection measures contained in budget 2019. These include the €5 increase in the maximum rate of all weekly social welfare payments as well an important reform of the increases for qualified children to allow for a higher rate of payment in respect of children age 12 and over, as well as a significant increase in both payment rates. The Bill reflects the ongoing strong commitment of the Government to restoring and maintaining the value of core welfare payment rates. Equally, the Bill demonstrates our commitment to introducing changes that can deliver an impact in the alleviation of poverty for those groups most at risk. That is why we have again increased all core weekly payment rates by €5.
Crucially, we have also focused on measures for families with children. Provisions are included in the Bill, which provide for the continued payment of the domiciliary care allowance, DCA, for three months in cases where the child being cared for passes away and for increases in the weekly earnings disregard for recipients of the one-parent family payment. While some budget measures are not covered by legislation, they will also have an important impact. These include the increase of €25 in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, for instance, as well as the introduction of a disregard for maintenance payments for the working family payment. These measures will provide a great deal of help to families. Other important measures announced in the budget, including the extension of jobseeker's benefit to the self-employed and the introduction of a paid parental benefit scheme, will be legislated for next year and prior to their formal introduction before the end of 2019.
Some other matters are also being legislated for in the Bill. The most significant of these concerns changes which will have a positive effect for many of those who were awarded less than the maximum rate of the State contributory pension following changes to the rate bands introduced by the Oireachtas in 2012. It is a project we call T12 and a great deal of work has been undertaken over recent months on it. My Department has begun to issue letters to more than 70,000 resident contributory pensioners and plans to issue a further 8,000 letters to non-resident pensioners in December. The letter will explain the review process and inform pensioners that the Department will contact them directly with the outcome of their individual pension review.
The House will recall that the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill was published in May 2017 and contained key measures relating to defined benefit pension schemes. These measures will act to support existing provisions in the Pensions Act and will provide for further protection for scheme members' benefits and enhance employer responsibilities for their schemes. The defined benefit pension provisions are technical and involve complex policy issues. With a view to ensuring we end up with a solution that is resilient and effective, it has been necessary to carefully consider various aspects of these policies. When these matters have been resolved and amendments approved by the Government, an early date for Committee Stage will be requested. In the interim, we are providing in the Bill before the House for the essentially technical issues covered by the earlier Bill to progress them.
An important amendment to the Pensions Act is being provided for, which I expect will be welcomed by all Members. Section 20 contains provisions to provide a right of entitlement to spousal pension benefits in certain circumstances to same-sex couples where the scheme member could not have entered into a legally recognised relationship such as marriage or civil partnership, with his or her partner because the relevant legislation, namely the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 and the Marriage Act 2015, had not been enacted. The purpose of the provisions is to deal with an issue highlighted in a case brought by Dr. David Parris to the Labour Court, which was then the subject of a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union. Dr. Parris retired prior to same-sex relationships being legally recognised within the State as the relevant legislation to provide for legal recognition of such relationships had not come into force. I take this opportunity to thank publicly Dr. Parris, the members of the Pensions Equality group and Members for their work in highlighting the position of same-sex couples in this regard.
The Bill also includes some largely technical changes, which had been provided for originally in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017. The amendments provide for the implementation of administrative efficiencies within my Department. I stress that I remain committed to proceeding as soon as possible with that Bill.
I turn now to a brief outline of each of the provisions contained in this Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, its construction and citations and the commencement provisions.
Section 2 provides for definitions of terms used in Part 2 of the Bill, which relates to amendments of the Social Welfare Acts.
Section 3 provides for an increase of €10, from €376 to €386, in the reckonable earnings threshold for employees where employer PRSI contributions are paid at the lower rate of 7.8%. This change reflects the increase in the minimum wage from €9.50 to €9.80 per hour from 1 January 2019 and will ensure that the same proportion of employers’ contributions is paid at the lower rate.
Section 4 provides for the necessary changes in respect of PRSI collection to reflect the introduction in January 2019 by the Revenue Commissioners of a real-time system in place of the current monthly-annual return system. Under the new system, a return to Revenue will be required on each occasion a worker is paid. The amendment will take effect from 1 January 2019.
Sections 5 to 7, inclusive, provide for the increased weekly rate of maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and paternity benefit with effect from 25 March 2019.
Section 8 sets out the proportionate increases in the rates of jobseeker’s benefit which are payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings are less than a prescribed amount. The new rates take effect from 21 March 2019.
I mentioned that the Bill contains the necessary legislative basis to allow us to proceed to apply an alternative method, entitled the aggregated contributions method, for determining entitlement to the State pension (contributory) for persons who attained pensionable age on or after 1 September 2012, and who, under the existing yearly average method, are not entitled to a State pension (contributory) at the full rate. These are set out in section 9 of the Bill. I will be introducing a minor amendment to the provisions of section 9 to ensure that these positive changes can be applied to those in receipt of mixed insurance records, that is, people who have worked in both the private and public sectors. This amendment is currently being finalised with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
Sections 10 and 11 address a gap in the current legislation to ensure that a person who was in the care of the State on attaining the age of 18 is fully exempted from the age-related reduced-rate payments of jobseeker’s allowance or supplementary welfare allowance. Currently, the exemption expires when the claimant concerned attains the age of 25, while the age-related reduced rates continue to apply until age 26.
Section 12 of the Bill responds directly to an issue which was raised with me at the pre-budget forum some months ago. It provides that domiciliary care allowance will continue to be paid for three months in those cases where the child in respect of whose care the allowance is being paid passes away. We already have a similar provision in the case of the carer’s allowance and I am pleased to be able to extend that approach to recipients of domiciliary care allowance under the Bill.
Section 13 is one of the technical amendments which we are lifting from the 2017 Bill and simply provides that decisions to award a social welfare benefit or payment which is to the benefit of a claimant, that is, a positive decision, may be made by an automated information system. Just as importantly, it also provides that decisions which deny entitlement to a benefit or payment may only be made by a deciding officer.
Section 14 provides for the formal repeal of the prescribed relative allowance, a legacy scheme which has been closed to new applicants since the introduction in 1990 of the carer’s allowance scheme. The last claim for this payment closed in 2017.
Section 15 and Schedule 1 provide for the necessary amendments throughout the Act to cater for the introduction of separate rates of the qualified child increase for children aged under 12 and those who are 12 years or over. This approach reflects the fact that research has consistently identified that older children have additional and different needs to children in younger age groups.
Section 16 together with Schedule 2 provide for new rates of social insurance benefits. All maximum weekly insurance-based pensions and benefits, including State pension (contributory), widow’s pension (contributory), widower’s pension (contributory), surviving civil partner’s pension (contributory), invalidity pension, carer’s benefit, maternity benefit, paternity benefit, health and safety benefit, adoptive benefit, illness benefit, injury benefit, jobseeker’s benefit, guardian’s payment (contributory) and disablement pension are to be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced-rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for, along with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 21 March 2019 and 29 March 2019.
Section 17 is one of the measures taken from the 2017 Bill and responds to a recommendation in the Make Work Pay report published last year under the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. In practical terms, the section dispenses with the practice of distinguishing between employment of a rehabilitative nature and work more generally for recipients of disability allowance, blind pension and some recipients of supplementary welfare allowance. In addition to making it easier for recipients of those payments to take up employment opportunities, this measure will also reduce the administrative workload for GPs and some staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
Section 18 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payment from €130 to €150 per week with effect from 28 March 2019. The effect of this measure will be to increase the amount of money that a lone parent will receive from employment without it reducing his or her social welfare payment.
Section 19, together with Schedule 3, provides for new rates of social assistance payments. All maximum weekly allowances, including non-contributory State pension, non-contributory widow’s pension, non-contributory widower’s pension, non-contributory surviving civil partner’s pension, jobseeker’s allowance, disability allowance, carer’s allowance, one-parent family payment, non-contributory guardian’s payment, farm assist and supplementary welfare allowance are to be increased by €5, with proportionate increases for those in receipt of reduced rate payments. Proportionate increases for qualified adult dependants are also provided for, along with an increase of €2.20 for children aged under 12 and €5.20 per week for children aged 12 and over in the qualified child increase. These measures come into effect on dates between 20 March 2019 and 29 March 2019.
Section 20, as I mentioned, provides a right of entitlement, in certain circumstances, to spousal pension benefits for same sex spouses and civil partners who are members of occupational pension schemes. These transitional provisions provide that where a defined benefit pension scheme has set as a condition for entitlement to a spouse’s pension that a scheme member must have been married or entered into a civil partnership prior to reaching a certain age or date of retirement, the scheme member will be deemed to satisfy that requirement where he or she satisfies certain specified conditions such as: the scheme member must have been in a committed relationship with the beneficiary at the time he or she reached the age or the date of retirement set out in the scheme rules; the scheme member must have entered into a civil partnership with, or married, the beneficiary within the specified period; and any contributions required for the purpose of obtaining entitlement to such benefits have been paid into the scheme.
Sections 21 to 23, inclusive, relate to the Civil Registration Acts and provide that the terms of office of the chief registrar and his or her deputy will be three years, renewable. These sections also provide that the chief registrar or his or her deputy may resign his or her office at any time.
Section 24 provides for an amendment to the National Training Fund Act 2000 to provide for a 0.1% increase, from 0.8% to 0.9%, in the national training fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in class A or class H employment from 1 January 2019.
The Bill will provide for an increase of €5 per week in social welfare rates for the third year in a row. It reflects the determination of the Government to ensure that the benefits of the continuing economic recovery should be shared by every citizen in the country. The additional resources being applied to the qualified child increase and the particular focus on the greater needs of older dependent children reflect my commitment and that of my colleagues to prioritise the needs of families, especially those on low or fixed incomes.
I hope and expect that the Bill will enjoy the support of Members on all sides of the House and look forward to hearing the contributions of my colleagues on it in the coming days. I commend the Bill to the House.