Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Tá an Teachta a chuir síos Ceist Uimh. 6 as láthair ag an am seo. Bogfaidh muid ar aghaidh go dtí Ceist Uimh. 7. Deputy Wallace has other things on his mind at this stage.

Questions Nos. 6 and 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Jobseeker's Payments

John Brady

Ceist:

8. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to extend the duration of jobseeker's payments in line with the increase in pension to 67 years of age; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23002/19]

Deputy Brady is in luck today, as he is getting to ask a few extra questions.

I am glad to see that we are getting a bit of luck. The pension age will increase to 67 years in 2021 and there are further plans to increase it to 68 years in 2028. In that context, what are the Minister's plans for extending the duration of jobseeker's payments?

The Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2011 provided that the State pension age would increase to age 67 years in 2021 and 68 years in 2028. The purpose of these changes was to make the pension system more sustainable in the context of increasing life expectancy. This has significant implications for the future costs of the State's pension provision, which are increasing by approximately €1 billion every five years.

Social welfare legislation states that jobseeker's payments may be made until a person reaches pensionable age. The legislation also provides that the definition of "pensionable age" will increase as the State pension age increases. In that regard, the duration of jobseeker's payments will naturally adjust in line with increases in the State pension age.

Any person who retires before reaching pension age may apply for social insurance contribution-based jobseeker's benefit or the means-tested jobseeker's allowance, subject to him or her satisfying the rules of the schemes. Arrangements are in place to provide that jobseekers whose benefit claims expire on their 65th birthday can generally continue to receive benefits until they reach the pensionable age of 66 years provided that they satisfy the required contribution conditions.

The plans were introduced with no consultation of any organisation and have had a detrimental impact. The goalposts have changed in terms of the increase in the State pension age to 66 years, 67 years in 2021 and 68 years in 2028. We are moving faster and further than any other OECD country. This has caused serious problems. Due to their employment contracts, some people have been forced to retire at 65 years of age. At that point, they must sign on for jobseeker's payments until they reach 66 years of age. It is done on a nod and a wink. The Intreo offices know that these people will not go out to get a job but that this is all they can do for the year. That situation will grow come 2021 when the pension age increases to 67 years. There are serious problems. People are being forced to retire and move onto jobseeker's payments. We must re-examine the increases in the State pension age.

It must be noted that there is no legally mandated retirement age in the State and I do not think that is true of any other state. The age at which employees in Ireland retire is therefore a matter for the contract between the employer and the employee. While such a contract may have been entered into when the retirement age was 65 years, this is in the context of previous State pension arrangements. There is no legal impediment to any employer or employee agreeing to increase the duration of the employee's employment for either one or two years, depending on when he or she plans to retire, if both parties wish to do so. In that regard, the Workplace Relations Commission has produced a code of practice on exactly this position on longer working hours. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has also published guidance material for employees and employers who use fixed-term contracts beyond what used to be the normal retirement age of 55 years. The reason this was changed - I bow to the wisdom of Deputies who were around before Deputy Brady and I were - is that people are living longer and healthier lives. This is a great thing and we should not diminish it or make it out to be bad. Many people want to work longer in their careers, and we must do whatever we can to help them to do so.

While I agree with the Minister on one thing, that people are living longer, some people want to retire at a certain age and do not want to be forced to continue to work. It is about giving people choice. The Minister may be aware that I introduced legislation a couple of years ago - we are still waiting on a money message for it - to do away with mandatory retirement because it is still in existence and is causing serious problems. The change to the State pension age was brought in with no consultation whatsoever. It is having a huge impact and the Minister knows this. I deal with people week in, week out who are forced to retire at 65 years and to sign on for a jobseeker's payment for the year-long period until they reach State pension age. This period will increase once the State pension age increases to 67 years. The Minister will be aware that recently I introduced legislation to put in place a task force to look at State pension ages and the increases to them. We need to stop the increase in State pension ages. It is causing serious problems. We need serious consultation, which has not happened up to this point, with all the stakeholders to look at all these issues and not to cause serious problems, which is what these issues are doing, for people once they reach State pension age and are ultimately forced onto a jobseeker's payment.

The purpose of raising the State pension age was not to force those people who are 65 years of age or over onto jobseekers' payments. Rather, the then Government - we continue to believe this - sought to encourage workers to remain economically active for longer in recognition of the fact that they are living longer and healthier lives. We wish to promote the implications of their increased life expectancy for personal sustainability. In most cases, it is hoped that workers will continue to work up to the State pension age, and indeed longer if they wish. We all know people who want to continue to work longer and in some cases cannot. As a consequence, we wish to encourage people, through wages or self-employment, to continue to have higher incomes that they would not have if they were to retire and live solely on payments from the Department.

The reason the Deputy's Bill has not been given the green light, or whatever way he wants to put it, is that there is no statutory requirement for retirement in this country. By law, we cannot stop something that is not happening in the first place.

Social Welfare Benefits Waiting Times

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

9. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection further to Parliamentary Question No. 481 of 14 May 2019, the reason the average number of weeks taken to award payments (details supplied) are between nine and 13; the measures she is taking to reduce the waiting times for the award of these payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22787/19]

It is welcome that many welfare payments and supports are awarded in a week or two, but the Minister told me a couple of weeks ago, I think, about the waiting times for some important pensions and allowances. The average waiting time for a non-contributory State pension, for example, is still ten weeks; for carer's allowance, 13 weeks, or three months; for carer's benefit, 12 weeks; for disability allowance, 13 weeks; and for domiciliary care allowance, nine weeks. What efforts is the Minister making to reduce these waiting times for the processing of applications? This is without even going into appeals, which are a whole other ball game.

The Department is genuinely committed to ensuring that claims for its schemes are processed as quickly as possible.

In April 2019 new claims for non-contributory State pension, carer's allowance, carer's benefit and domiciliary care allowance schemes were processed within their respective target timeframes. Depending on the scheme, targets for awarding claims are set between ten and 12 weeks. Disability allowance claims took an average of 13 weeks to award, which is a week outside of our targeted timeframe.

There is more complexity attached to the processing of applications for the means-tested schemes. Schemes relying on medical evidence also require greater time to process than some of our other claims. In disability allowance claims, for example, in addition to providing evidence of habitual residence in the State and of the income and assets the applicants may hold, they must provide details of their medical conditions and the extent to which they restrict them from taking up employment. The information provided is then assessed by a qualified medical assessor, and this takes some time. In many cases, where a medical assessor deems that the person is not restricted in his or her capacity to take up work, the person concerned then submits additional information in the hope of supporting his or her claim. The time taken to receive and then assess this additional information is also reflected in our processing times. Likewise, for carer's allowance, details of the income and assets of the claimant, together with medical certification identifying the care needs of the person being cared for on a full-time basis, also need to be provided and assessed.

I reassure the Deputy that claim processing is kept under - I will not say "daily" - weekly review because not only is the matter raised here all the time by all parties and none, but it is also something to which we strive. No one wants to set out to frustrate people who are only coming to us because they have genuine needs or are at low periods in their lives or to make the process more difficult than it is. The reflections on how we are approaching our new carer's payment application - we have done extensive work with the Carers Association and other carers' representative bodies to try to make that application process simpler for those who apply - is only one of the small ways in which we are trying to improve the way we do things.

We have all been on the doorsteps, around DART stations and so on in recent weeks. We hear many horror stories in particular about waiting times for carer's allowance and even at times for carer's benefit, which Deputy Penrose and I worked on in earlier Dáileanna to get it introduced. I think the Minister told us there is a very high number of applications for carer's allowance. I think there were something like 15,500 applications and nearly 18,000 for disability allowance between January and September last year. Is the number of applications more or less consistent in demographic terms or is the Department tending to get more and more applications for the key allowances I mentioned? The Minister made the point to a number of us in response to an earlier question that about 85% of claims, I think, are awarded and appeals are made by just 1% of those refused. At the same time, though, some of the waiting times for oral appeal hearings are incredible. In the case of carer's allowance, one must wait 28.4 weeks for an oral hearing and 24.3 weeks for a summary decision. The position is very similar in the case of carer's benefit and disability allowance, at 17.1 weeks and 23 weeks, respectively. It was our ambition in previous eras to have an independent statutory process for appeals. The Minister has again told us that one can appeal to the High Court and so on-----

The Deputy will have a further minute.

-----but, generally speaking, that does not happen.

I will give the Deputy some new statistics since the last time he asked a question about this matter. There are currently 81,652 people in receipt of carer's allowance providing care to 89,679 recipients with 49,704 qualified children. There are some 2,770 people in receipt of carer's benefit giving care to 3,185 people. The average processing time for carer's benefit is 11 weeks. The average processing time for carer's allowance was 17.3 weeks and as of the end of April this year it is down to 12 weeks. I will give the Deputy all these statistics instead of just standing here and reading them out to him. I know how frustrating this is but it is equally frustrating to us. We will potentially have staff freed up from illness benefit, for example, arising from the extra staff we allocated to that section. When we have staff freed up from certain schemes, we put them in the areas that are most in need. I hope people can see that the numbers are coming down. The waiting times for domiciliary care allowance, DCA, applications have reduced drastically. The waiting times for carer's allowance and carer's benefit are reducing. Even 12 weeks is probably sometimes a little long, but we set the targets for a reason: we want to achieve them. I hope the Deputy can see that the numbers are coming down.

Staffing levels for hard-pressed staff in social protection offices are critical.

That is a very important aspect of this matter. Earlier this year, I asked the Minister about vacancies in social welfare offices in Kilbarrack and Coolock in the constituency of Dublin Bay North. She informed me that the Department was actively working to fill one executive officer post in Kilbarrack and one clerical officer post in Coolock. She stated that she anticipated those posts being filled quite soon afterwards. Were they filled? Is the Minister happy with the level of support for her Department vis-à-vis the national budget? We will be getting the stability programme update,, SPU, from the Minister for Finance very shortly. It will indicate the level of additional resources that will be needed by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

I also asked the Minister about the number of complaints against the Department. I asked all of the Departments to provide data for complaints from the public. In 2016, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection received 1,100 complaints, while it received 1,000 complaints in 2017. However, in 2018 the number of complaints rose to 1,800. While I acknowledge that the Department processes a vast volume of claims, that is the largest number of complaints against any Department.

I do not know the answer to the question on the two vacant posts. I will revert to the Deputy on it later today. With my tongue in my cheek, I assure him that the Department of Finance does not know what my expected want is for next year but it will know fairly soon. I will do my very best to ensure we get what we want.

Is the Minister going to introduce any new support?

Will she seek additional resources?

I have ambitions to do certain things. I hope we will be able to work together to get the support to be able to do them. Again, this is not about my ambitions but about the need to reflect on the two or three areas or groups of people who are most marginalised. I would like to make sure that we set in train a process in the next few years to improve their lot significantly.

The issue of complaints is an odd one. The Deputy knows how disruptive the changes to the illness benefit scheme that were introduced last year were and I have no doubt that is the reason for the increase in the number of complaints. I do not know that for sure but I suspect that is why we saw a significant increase in complaints last year. We have 6,500 people working in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. They are an incredible bunch. I have never met people with more empathy and understanding of people's plights when they are down on their luck. While people are entitled-----

Maybe we need a few more of them.

Yes, and any assistance in that regard would be gratefully received.

Question No. 10 replied to with Written Answers.

Local Employment Service

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

11. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of plans for the local employment service, LES, including the tender process for the service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22984/19]

As the Minister will be aware, the Indecon report reviewed the LES and jobs clubs and made a number of recommendations that we have already discussed at some length. I tabled this question in order to obtain an update on the position.

The LES and job clubs contracts are reviewed on an annual basis to ensure they are fit for purpose in the context of the Irish labour market, as well as providing value for money for taxpayers.

Indecon, in its reviews of LES and job clubs published in January recommended that the Department consider the introduction of multi-annual contracts and a competitive procurement process for future provision of these services. The Department has also received legal advice to the effect that renewing the LES and job clubs contracts annually without any movement towards competitive procurement is no longer sustainable.

Accordingly, a new process for procuring the public employment services currently provided by the LES and job clubs is in the early stages of development. My officials are working to design a procurement model that will balance the need for value for money for taxpayers with the importance of preserving high-quality employment advisory and counselling services. Officials will engage with and consult practitioners and stakeholders to gather their views on an appropriate tender design.

I am on the record in recognising the valuable work performed by the LES and job clubs and it is my view that the tender criteria should give due recognition to track records in delivering high-quality, locally-based services. That is really important.

It is in everyone's' interests, including jobseekers, service providers and the State, to ensure, insofar as is possible, that experienced employment service providers with a strong community ethos continue to form a core part of this and previous government's strategy for the delivery of employment assistance services.

Does the Minister accept that, with a public procurement process, the playing pitch is not even in terms of the State sector, as represented by the LES and jobs clubs, and the private sector? What steps will the Minister take to ensure the LES which she acknowledges is doing a marvellous job, with which we all agree, will be in a position to compete on equal terms with any bids that may be received from the private sector?

Given that we have not yet designed the tender process, I do not know how Deputy O'Dea can make the assumption that it will be unfair or that the playing field will not be level. The design of the tender process, involving officials in my Department and the stakeholders, is currently in the very early stages. When that design is completed, we will publish it.

Is the Minister aware that there is strong legal opinion to the effect that EU law on state aid indicates that the State can provide this type of service without having the requirement for public procurement? There is legal opinion which holds that actions by the Government which protect services of general interest do not require to be put out to public tender. General interest services include services provided directly for the person such as social assistance services, employment and training services and so on. That seems to run directly contrary to the legal advice available to the Minister. Will she publish the legal advice that she received which compels her to put these services out for public procurement?

The Deputy already knows the answer to his last question. Lawyers are a bit like doctors in that they all have differences of opinion. The legal advice that I have been given is contrary to the advice referred to by Deputy O'Dea. As a dutiful Minister, I will adhere to the legal advice that has been given to me.

Did that advice come from the Attorney General?

That is who gives us our legal advice.

The next question is also from Deputy O'Dea. It is his lucky morning.

It is my lucky day.

We are on a roll.

Community Employment Schemes Supervisors

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

12. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her planned engagement with community employment, CE, supervisors; the proposals she plans to bring forward to address their entitlement to occupational pensions; if there is a timeline in place for the discussions to be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22987/19]

For the benefit of the House, I indicate that I was approached by a person on behalf of CE scheme supervisors and have been informed that negotiations are in train. That person did not want me to rock the boat, as it were, by pursuing this matter too assiduously. I will bow to that request but I ask the Minister to provide an indication of where matters stand.

I thank the Deputy for the question because it gives me an opportunity to set the scene in terms of what has been agreed. I met unions and CE supervisors on a number of occasions before their planned strike. We had a genuine and decent conversation. The Deputy will be aware that the strike was called off with a view to us establishing a planned engagement in the coming weeks and months.

A first meeting has already taken place and at that meeting we agreed that we would not speak about what we are going to discuss in the coming months. We agreed to respect the process. I know that everyone wants to have an input, to express a view and to reach an expected result. Those sitting around the table include myself and my officials, representatives of both unions and representatives of the CE supervisors. We will continue to meet in the coming months in an attempt to resolve outstanding issues but we will not be making any further comment for now. The Deputy might get a different answer to a formal parliamentary question, which will be much more precise and official, but we have agreed to respect each other within the confines of the conversations that we will have and try to find a happy outcome.

I accept what the Minister says and will leave it at that. I wish to ask an ancillary question. One of my colleagues reminded me that he asked the Minister some time ago if the Department would review the Tús scheme in order that people could remain on it while still engaging with JobPath. The Minister indicated at the time that she would look at that issue and come-----

That was resolved in July 2017.

I am referring to a recent proposal that Tús scheme participants would be able to continue to engage with JobPath. Is that the actual position?

Yes. We made changes on foot of being told that Tús and CE schemes could not find applicants.

We also made them in light of the lobbying done for many months by the good Deputies present, including Deputy Brady. We provided that people on JobPath could be available to go to Tús to see if that was what they wanted to do. That has been the case for some time.

There are no restrictions on it.

People lose their income under JobPath though.

Yes, that is because we want to activate people and get them real jobs. That is the ambition.

Is Deputy O'Dea satisfied with the reply?

Pension Provisions

John Curran

Ceist:

13. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to outline the progress being made and the associated timeframe regarding the introduction of a total contribution pension scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23012/19]

Will the Minister give the House an update on the new total contribution pension scheme, the work being done on the scheme and the associated timeframe? What further consultation will take place before the scheme is implemented?

The introduction of a total contributions approach to establishing the level of entitlement for all new State pension contributory claims was signalled by the then Government in the national pensions framework in 2010. At that time, it set a target date of 2020 for the implementation of a total contributions approach, TCA. More recently, the Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-23 targeted implementation of the TCA from quarter 3 of 2020. This is subject to the necessary legislation passing both Houses and being enacted as well as supporting structures being put in place.

The consultation is an important part of the development of the new design. With that in mind, I launched a public consultation on the design of the TCA on 28 May 2018 to which a wide variety of stakeholder groups were invited. A number of workshops were also held on the day to elicit views and feedback. Shortly afterwards, all Oireachtas Members were invited to a detailed briefing by my officials. The consultation was open for more than three months and the Department received almost 300 responses from individuals and organisations. Those submissions outlined the individual views of respondents on the issues of most interest to them. Having carefully examined the outputs of the consultation process, we are now designing the scheme and I intend to bring a proposal to Cabinet shortly with the design for approval, please God. When and if the Government approves the approach, I will publish it and we will publish the legislation that will be required to bring in this reform.

As we are at the end of quarter 2 of 2019, it is an ambitious programme to start implementation in quarter 3 of 2020, especially in the light of the fact that the scheme requires underpinning by legislation. There is an amount of work to be done.

The Minister is right that there was extensive consultation but many people in the House do not know the outcome of that consultation in terms of policy formulation. I hope we get an opportunity to discuss the policy issue before the legislation appears. There should be a fairly substantial and detailed debate either in a committee or in the House rather than beginning with simply seeing the heads of the Bill. Policy issues of concern arise. I will mention two of them at this stage. One relates to 2010 when the idea was first mooted. There was a view at the time that the reckonable period would be 30 years. In more recent times, because of the interim arrangements from 2012, that has changed to 40 years. There needs to be a debate on the matter.

The other significant change is the minimum number of contributions required to qualify has increased from 260 to 520. These questions need to be discussed as policy issues before the legislation is produced.

The difficulty is Deputy Curran is asking me to give Deputies the policy before the Government has decided to give me the green light to proceed with the policy. I have to be honest and tell him that I will not be in a position to do what he is asking. However, I will certainly be in a position to give Deputies the heads of the Bill on the day they are published. At that point, I would very much value a conversation not only internally among the members of the Oireachtas joint committee but by bringing in the stakeholders so that Deputies can hear their views and provide feedback. I do not expect that the Deputy will be disappointed.

I appreciate there is a process and the Minister has to go to the Cabinet. I remind her that this is a substantial policy issue. We have a minority Government, which will require cross-party support to work this out. We are all looking to the long term and to the future. The policy issues I have identified are only some of the issues that we will need to resolve and build consensus on. I appreciate the process the Minister has to go through, including the need to bring a memorandum to the Government and obtain Government approval. However, before legislation is brought to the House, much detailed discussion is required to address those issues. I thank the Minister for her commitment to do so.

The heads of a Bill will go through rigorous pre-legislative scrutiny. As such, the legislation may be changed from the original offering. There are many rounds involved in getting legislation passed. Sometimes legislation does not end up looking like it did originally. Deputies will have ample input and I will value that input to get this over the line. That is what we want to do.

Social Insurance Fund

Deputy Penrose has tabled Questions Nos. 14 and 15. If we use the time efficiently, we may reach Question No. 15.

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

14. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to outline the status of the proposed expansion of the net eligibility for those self-employed persons who account for 14% of workers; her views on whether self-employed persons should contribute more in view of the differential between the 4% self-employed rate and the combined 14.95% for PAYE employees; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22916/19]

I acknowledge the developments and improvements that have been made for self-employed people to date. I am one of the self-employed. They provide an important safeguard and safety net for self-employed persons. The extension of a suite of benefits to people who provide thousands of jobs throughout the State and form the backbone of many small and medium-sized enterprises is especially welcome. I am keen to ascertain what further plans the Minister has for the self-employed sector.

The new scheme for self-employed persons, which I announced as part of the budget last year, will extend social insurance contribution-based benefits to those who are self-employed in circumstances where they become unemployed. This measure is only part of the Government's stated aim of creating what should be a supportive environment for entrepreneurship, including providing an income safety net to both employees and self-employed persons. The scheme will be introduced in November 2019. It builds on other significant improvements for self-employed persons in recent years, such as giving people access to invalidity pension and treatment benefits from 2017, both of which have been highly successful.

Many of the features of the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme will apply to the new scheme, such as its duration and rate of payment. Applicants will have to satisfy the qualifying conditions for the new scheme, including PRSI requirements. The statutory conditions for the scheme are being finalised by officials at this time as part of the legislative process.

The Deputy asked about the rates of PRSI. Self-employed persons pay a personal rate of social insurance that is exactly the same as that paid by people who are employed. There is, however, no equivalent to the employer contribution paid in respect of people in normal paid employment. The question, therefore, is whether a self-employed person, for example, a painter, electrician or carpenter, should, in addition to having to pay the personal rate, also pay the employer rate. My view is that introducing an additional charge of approximately 10% on self-employed persons is not a decision that anyone should take lightly. I am minded that most self-employed persons are not rolling in money. They are not high earners. Most only earn in or around the average industrial wage and are involved in trades or personal services, such as taxi services. On the other hand, I am also minded that the differential in contribution rates can give rise to unwelcome behaviours. Such behaviours were highlighted in the conversation we had about bogus self-employment. Therefore, while I have no immediate plans to apply an employer contribution to self-employed earnings, I am genuinely open to suggestions and to reflecting on how some other European countries and Canadian provinces have addressed this issue.

The question of how best to fund the Social Insurance Fund will be raised in a consultation paper. This issue will become more pertinent as the years go by. We know that if we do nothing, the Social Insurance Fund will run into trouble in the coming years. At the back of my mind is a contractors' tax, as implemented in Ontario or Portugal. That is something that would perfectly suit the environment.

The issue will have to be addressed. As someone who would benefit from it, I understand that. Employers may be looking at 14.9% and that will be something of a differential. Certainly a 10% levy could not be imposed. However, there has to be some view on how to extend the benefits. We know 6,500 individuals will benefit in November. The figures are significant and the benefits will be paid at the maximum rate of €203 for those who qualify under the dependant rate and the child dependant rate of €34. It is wonderful because until now only the jobseeker's allowance was available. We had vigilant inspectors. Many self-employed people were harassed to the point of giving up.

It was all about assets.

It was about assets, as well as things that disappeared like the snow last winter. People were looking for last year's money now. God bless us, asking people to account for last year's money now is crazy. Full access will be provided to the existing range of employment supports. I know the Minister will aim for that and there will be PRSI tests and access to payment. The issue is that in order to extend it the Government will have to find some other source of income and PRSI payment. A conversation will have to be had and we will have to examine other areas. I want to see every benefit extended but we will have to pay for it somehow. Let us be truthful about it.

I concur with Deputy Penrose on how difficult it was to satisfy the means test for the allowance that was made available some years ago.

That is why the new legislation relating to the new jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed is exceptionally simple. It should be simple. The arrangement should be exactly the same as that for employed persons. The question of how best to store up or secure the social insurance fund will be raised as part of a consultation paper the Department will release later this year. There are new and emerging models, such as a new PRSI charge payable in respect of dependent self-employed persons who are entirely different from a painter, plumber or taxi driver. These models should be considered when a dependent employee engages primarily with one end user. That should be relatively easy for us to do in the short to medium term. When the consultation paper is circulated later this year, I will value all the Deputy's thoughts and considerations.

I am very eager to see the self-employed covered. They had an horrendous time in the recession, when this all came into focus. I was advocating for and arguing the case of the self-employed for a long time and I did not make as much progress as I had hoped. Fair play to the Minister; she grabbed this ball, on which I compliment her.

I agree with the further extension of benefits to workers who are genuinely self-employed. I am concerned, however, that the extension of the suite of benefits and entitlements to which genuine self-employed persons are entitled to ensure they will never again have to face what they experienced previously might create further incentives for employers to falsely classify workers when there is little substantial difference in benefits. That is the issue. We have to be honest with one another and stop people going out saying there is an attack on the employed or self-employed; we have to make sure people are treated equally. The one thing we do not want to have is somebody who is employed and paying a lot saying he or she would be better off self-employed. We do not want those who are genuinely employed dumped into self-employment because employers do not want to pay their rate. That is what could happen. I am just sending a warning.

The Deputy is absolutely right but we need to strike a balance such that when we include the enforcement powers in respect of what we do not want people to do, they really work, in addition to our introducing employment rights and contribution payment rights for the self-employed. The Deputy is correct that there is a balance to be struck.

Child Poverty

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

15. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of children in poverty; the steps she is taking to tackle the problem; if she has held discussions with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to address the reported capacity problem within the childcare sector which is regarded as a key driver of childhood poverty; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22917/19]

Child poverty remains a significant challenge. It is clearly an impediment to many children making the progress one would anticipate and hope for them because it has an impact across a wide sphere of activities, including participation in education, health and nourishment. There is a clear obligation for us to act in an holistic and positive way at Government level to address this and, in particular, adopt a whole-of-government approach and policies that will eradicate the problem. Perhaps the Minister will outline what she has in mind.

I have been speaking an awful lot about child poverty, lone parents and people living with disabilities in the two years in which I have been privileged enough to be in this position. They need the attention they would not have been given heretofore.

The national policy framework for children and young people, called Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, includes a target to reduce, by two thirds, the number of children living in consistent poverty by 2020. That was based on figures from 2012. Under the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures framework, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, in collaboration with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and other Departments, is taking a whole-of-government approach to tackling child poverty and also other forms of poverty. One Department will not be successful on its own. Meeting the target set means reducing the number of children in consistent poverty to 37,000 or fewer by 2020. The most recent available figures from the 2017 Survey of Income and Living Conditions, SILC, report show that there were, on average, 105,000 children still in consistent poverty at the end of 2017.

This 2017 figure is equivalent to 8.8% of children living in consistent poverty. It represents a significant reduction over preceding years, but it is still nowhere close to the original target. As unemployment decreases and the economy continues to grow, improvements in households occur. It also allows my Department and me to get a portion of the revenue generated by the improving economy to spend it on and direct it towards those most in need. As I said to the Deputy, they are children, particularly those living in lone-parent households. They also include those with disabilities. With the co-operation of this House, I have attempted to achieve this in the past two budgets. I hope and aspire to do exactly the same this year.

The Minister is absolutely correct that lone parents and those with disabilities are certainly vulnerable in this area. They are most susceptible to poverty of the level in question. It is appalling. We all have to adopt policies to address this issue. We all support the objective of reducing the number of children in consistent poverty by two thirds, to 37,000. There are approximately 120,000 or 130,000 children in consistent poverty at this point. This is an indictment of all the policies adopted. We have to refocus, recharge and change your ways to deal with this. What steps are likely to be taken to deal with this problem, particularly in the light of the costs that arise for people in consistent poverty?

It is difficult for new parents to secure child places, which are becoming increasingly expensive. Has the Minister had any discussion with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, on this issue, which has certainly proven problematic for many, particularly those in rural areas?

I will briefly outline some of the things we have done in the past couple of years that I hope will make a significant impact on the next body of SILC data that emerge, for the end of 2018 and perhaps 2019. The first thing I set out to do was decrease the income disregards for lone parents that had been introduced in 2012. I am happy to say they are all fully reversed. We can still go further, however, and maybe do so this year. We have made significant changes to the working family payment. We increased the qualified child payment for the first time in ten years last year, and did so again this year, particularly reflecting the fact that older children cost more than younger children. The NGOs I have been working with know and appreciate that I do listen to and heed their advice. We increased significantly the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance last year, again in recognition of the fact that the payment we were making before that did not come anywhere close to meeting the back-to-school clothing and footwear needs. There is also the child benefit, which is the universal payment. There is still a lot a lot more we can do. Arising from the extensive consultation we have had in recent months with NGOs, partners and stakeholders, I hope the national inclusion strategy we launch in the next couple of weeks will have a road map for recovery.

I look forward to the publication of the national inclusion strategy and all that goes with it.

The qualifying child payment was especially welcome this year. Are there plans to increase the payment in the October budget? Child benefit has not been increased in recent budgets. Are there plans to increase it? It is important that we elaborate on and set out our plans for child benefit. While its universality is important, it is especially important to those with large families, as the Minister knows herself. It is critical in addressing the level of consistent poverty, which we must eradicate once and for all. We must set out as a policy objective the eradication of such poverty once and for all. It will be a shameful indictment of us all in this House if, in the next three to four years, we do not get a handle on it and achieve our objective.

I slightly disagree with the Deputy. While I am 100% behind the fact that child benefit is a universal payment and should remain so, I believe that if we increase it, it will not address the needs of those living in poverty in a really targeted way. It would cost an extensive amount of money and this would, perhaps, stop us from addressing the needs of those living in poverty in a targeted way.

There is a lot of hidden poverty, though.

The Deputy is killing me now and I will be slaughtered for saying that if we have money this year - it will depend on Brexit, the budgetary context and all that good stuff - I would love to see it go specifically towards increasing the qualified child allowance and target specifically the needs of lone parents and the costs associated with disabilities. I refer to genuine targeting as opposed to giving an increase to those who may not need it. I acknowledge that this does not account for everybody who gets it.

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