Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Public Services Card

Willie O'Dea


1. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to challenge the findings of the report from the Data Protection Commission on the subject of the public services card; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38825/19]

I realise that we are having a debate later this afternoon on the public services card. I want to get a preliminary view on the Government's current thinking on the matter and on where we are.

The public services card, PSC, was provided for in legislation in 1998 when it was introduced alongside the personal public service number, PPSN to replace the previous revenue and social insurance, RSI, number and the social service card, SSC. The clear and stated objective, as articulated in the Oireachtas at that time, was that the public services card was not to be confined to welfare services, as has been reported in recent weeks, but to act as an identifier for access to a broad range of public services. Successive Governments have reaffirmed this policy both in Government decisions and through legislation. The Attorney General’s office advises that the legislation is clear and provides a strong basis for the existing and continued use of the PSC across the public service.

The PSC provides citizens with the convenience of having to submit information only once to verify their identity. As an example, about 70,000 people use the PSC to apply for passports each year; we pay more than 600,000 people approximately €150 million through our post offices each week using the PSC as the identifier in each case; 600,000 free travel journeys are made using the PSC each week; about 400,000 PSC users use the MyGovID service to access online services with the Revenue Commissioners, Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, the National Driving Licence Service, NDLS, welfare and, shortly, the national childcare scheme, NCS.

The PSC has strong public support, and approaching 90% of the adult population hold a PSC. Research indicates that they overwhelmingly value the card, are fully aware of and agree to the sharing of data required to enable its use across the public service, believe they have more than enough information about the purposes of the card, understand why their data are being retained, and do not object to their data being retained.

In October 2017, the Data Protection Commission, DPC, commenced an investigation into the SAFE PSC process and delivered its final report to the Department on 15 August 2019. On 17 September, the Department published the report of the DPC together with a summary of its own response to the findings of the report, and related correspondence between it and the DPC.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As stated earlier this month, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and I informed the Government that we were satisfied that the processing of personal data related to the PSC did, in fact, have a strong legal basis, that the retention of data was lawful, and that the information provided to users satisfied the requirements of transparency. This opinion was arrived at following very careful consideration both of the report and of the strong legal advice of the Attorney General’s office.

The DPC had requested that the Department implement a number of actions on foot of the publication of its statement on Friday, 16 August, within a very short timeframe. Based on the strong legal advice received, however, we believe that it would be inappropriate, and potentially unlawful, to withdraw or modify the use of the PSC or the data processes that underpin it, as has been requested by the DPC.

The Department sought to meet the DPC on two occasions since receipt of the report with a view to outlining the basis for its conclusions and seeking to clarify a number of matters of concern relating to inconsistencies both within the DPC's report and between the report and the accompanying letter from the DPC. The request for a meeting was declined on both occasions.

The Department wrote to the DPC to advise it of the decisions taken and understands that the DPC is in the process of preparing an enforcement notice. To date, the DPC has not issued an enforcement notice. On receipt, the Department will consider the scope and terms of the enforcement notice and respond appropriately at that time. It should be noted that the findings in the DPC report do not have the force of law until such time as they are formalised in an enforcement notice. In the meantime, the Department will continue to conduct SAFE registration and issue PSCs. It will also retain the supporting documentation collected as part of the SAFE process. The reason for this is that it is not sufficient, in the case of a dispute over any decision, simply to record that decision was taken. It is also necessary to produce the documentation on which the decision was grounded. Other bodies, for example, credit unions, public utilities and banks, similarly retain documentation submitted in support of applications for their services for as long as the person concerned is a customer of their organisations.

My Department is committed to ensuring that data relating to individuals are securely held and used only for relevant business purposes. The Department’s commitment to safeguarding data is reflected in its use of advanced data processing and storage technology hosted in secure, State owned and operated data centres, and is reinforced by a range of legislative and administrative provisions that are designed to protect the rights and interests of individuals. Neither the PSC nor the underlying public service identity data set contains any information relating to the holder’s use of public services.

The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, restricts the sharing and use of the public service identity, PSI, data to a number of specified bodies set out in Schedule 5 to that Act and only relating to a transaction a person has with that specified body. It is important to note, contrary to statements by some commentators, that the sharing of the PSI data set does not involve sharing information regarding use of public services.

A person is required to undertake a SAFE 2 registration process only once. When the PSC reaches its expiry date, a new photograph is taken to update the new card and the PSI dataset. A person who is SAFE registered can update the other elements of his or her identity data set as these change, for example, when changing address. In some of these circumstances a new PSC may also be required. For example, a person reaching the age of 66 will automatically be issued with a new card with the free travel functionality, enabling him or her to avail of free travel on public transport services.

We will come back to the question of the 1998 legislation when we will debate this matter later today. Has the Minister fully read the report of the Data Protection Commission? Will she agree that it is carefully researched, detailed and analytical? On the face of it, it seems extraordinary that the Office of the Attorney General, which spent much less time considering it, was able to come to a diametrically opposed conclusion. In the circumstances, will the Minister agree that it is only right and proper that we should see the legal advice on which the Government’s position is based? Is there some rule, of which I am not fully aware, that precludes the Government from showing us the legal advice received? It is only fair that we should receive a detailed analysis of how the State’s law officer came to a diametrically opposed conclusion. Is the Minister aware that several public bodies, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Road Safety Authority, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, have backed off from demanding an individual be compelled to produce a public services card to avail of services they offer? Does that indicate that they do not have as much faith in the Office of the Attorney General as the Minister appears to have?

I would love to tell the Deputy that I had the pleasure of reading the report on several occasions. However, I am not sure I would describe it as a pleasure. I have, however, read it several times. The Deputy is right that it is a comprehensive document which runs to some 170 pages, plus an annex. It is significantly different by some 40 pages and four findings from the draft report we received a year ago.

As the Deputy knows having been a Minister in the Cabinet, the sharing of advice from the Attorney General in the public realm is not an established practice. The Attorney General has advised me and other senior Ministers on this issue. He has been involved in the process since 2017. To suggest they just got together several weeks ago to come up with some response is not a true reflection of the amount of work which went into the submissions, as well as the engagement between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Data Protection Commission. This is a comprehensive report on the back of a compressive review carried out by the Data Protection Commission. As I have said before, I have respect for the office and the individual who holds that office. I respect the position she holds. We just have a different opinion on the set of legal circumstances underpinning the legislation. There is a brief available to the Deputy who has been invited by the Secretary General on several occasions to attend the Department. That offer is still open.

Whatever about the Attorney General, the Taoiseach did not seem to require much time to read it. He stated that even a cursory glance - perhaps while he was in the car travelling between functions - of the different sections, subsections, miscellaneous provisions, etc., would readily lead one to conclude that the Data Protection Commission was completely wrong in its two year’s research. What is the Minister’s position now? Will she accept and follow up on what the Data Protection Commission has recommended and directed? Is she going to allow a situation to occur where she will be dragged to court to do so at further expense to the taxpayer?

We will have the final response from the Minister. She has one minute.

The response is in the written reply I would have read if I had been allowed to do so.

It is not that the Minister was not allowed to do so.

I did not mean by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Those who are preparing briefs know that the time allowed is two minutes, not five.

This is a comprehensive issue.

The Minister has one minute if she wants to read it.

In October 2017 the Data Protection Commission commenced an investigation into the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE, and public services card process. It delivered its final report to the Department on 15 August 2019. On 17 September the Department published the report, together with a summary of its own response to the findings made in the report.

As I stated earlier this month, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and I informed the Government that we were satisfied that the processing of personal data related to the public services card did, in fact, have a strong legal basis, that the retention of data was lawful and that the information provided for users did satisfy the requirements of transparency. This opinion was arrived at following careful consideration of both the report and the strong legal advice of the Office of the Attorney General.

The Data Protection Commission had requested the Department to implement several actions on foot of the publication of its statement on Friday, 16 August within a short timeframe. However, based on the strong legal advice received, we believe it would be inappropriate, as well as potentially unlawful, to withdraw or modify the use of the public services card or the data processes which underpin it, as requested by the Data Protection Commission.

In short, we will continue to act in the lawful manner we believe we have been acting since 1998.

We are going to court then.

Child Maintenance Payments

John Brady


2. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if a working group with officials from her Department and the Department of Justice and Equality will be set up to examine procedures in place for child maintenance and explore the possibility of establishing a statutory maintenance agency to guarantee fairness and efficiency; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38978/19]

Will a working group with officials from the Minister's Department and the Department of Justice and Equality be set up to examine procedures in place for child maintenance and explore the possibility of establishing a statutory maintenance agency?

The Family Law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply. Relevant maintenance payments can be arranged either directly between the parties themselves, or with the assistance of support from the Department of Justice and Equality such as the Family Mediation Service and the Legal Aid Board, or, most times unfortunately, ultimately through the courts. When any one of the parents applies for a one-parent family payment from the Department, a contribution towards the cost is sought from the other parent of any children of the relationship. The liability to maintain the family scheme is managed and administered by the Department. Its role is to determine on the basis of income information supplied whether the liable relative is in a position to contribute to the Department; to determine the amount of contribution due by the liable relative; to monitor and enforce payment of the contributions due; and to engage with both parties to ensure the requirements of the legislation are met.

As the Deputy is aware, the system is not really working the way intended in the best interests of both the State’s finances and the families we serve. I have had several discussions with stakeholders, experts and the ordinary people affected by the current regime. Having listened to the points raised, it seems clear that the current system is not working. There is much we could learn from what has been achieved in other jurisdictions. While many of the concerns relate to wider issues of family law, several points have also been raised with me specifically about the set of people I represent and look after within my Department. We have engaged with the Department of Justice and Equality. I do not believe, however, that we have the luxury of waiting for a year or two. We kind of know what needs to be done. I will carry out some research in the short to medium term. When it is completed, I will come back to the Deputy with some proposals.

I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgment that the system in place is not working. My party has stated this consistently for several years. Last year I published proposals for the establishment of a State family maintenance agency based on similar models abroad. Across the water in England and in the North, there are systems in place which work well. The proposals I have brought forward are based on these models. They have worked in addressing the core problems. More importantly, they have helped to reduce child poverty through the collection of child maintenance payments. The Minister has rightly alluded to problems in the system with payments not being received such that people have to go to court to chase payments and have payments assessed. This is causing significant problems. I will touch on the review of the effects later.

The Deputy will have another opportunity to ask a supplementary question.

The review expands on the concerns I have expressed. Will the Minister zone in on the review?

The proposal Deputy Brady made last year was fairly well received by everybody affected by this. It forms the basis of a good start. When I look at international best practice, the UK comes in fifth place. I am surprised by that given that its legal set-up is so similar to our own. We are looking at Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Finland, all of whose agencies achieve very good outcomes. Not all of these agencies, however, are statutory maintenance agencies. I want to enact change in the fastest way possible. That might not mean a statutory agency; it might be something else. I am conducting the research. I tasked my officials to start looking at the issue quite recently. I will come back to the Deputy as soon as I have anything to work on.

I thank the Minister. I would certainly be interested in being kept up to date on that. We need to look at this with a view to the long term as well as the short term. Whenever I have raised this issue with the Minister she has said that her hands are tied because the issue crosses into the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. It is critical that the Departments come together to look at this for the long term. The review that was carried out was the result of an amendment I secured to the Social Welfare Act. That is why we are here. More importantly, that report shows that the liable relatives unit is clearly not working. The Minister has to acknowledge that, and I believe she has. One of the interesting statistics in the report is that, of the 18,078 cases examined by the liable relatives unit in 2018, in just 2,174 cases did liable relatives begin making a contribution. Only €269,949 was collected by the liable relatives unit in 2018. That shows that the system is not working. I costed the proposal I brought forward. For a small amount of money, we would have a statutory child maintenance service. I welcome the Minister's comments but we need to move on this issue because it is causing serious problems.

I believe we are on the same page so I will not split hairs. What the Deputy has just put on the record of the House, however, is not a true reflection of our decision on liable relatives. In the vast majority of those 18,000 cases the people pay maintenance directly. They do not come through us, so it is not a fair reflection of the work of the people in that unit that only 2,400 or thereabouts make payments through it. The unit tries to have family members engage with each other rather than sticking its nose in the middle and acting as an enforcer. Where an arrangement is made between two parents, that arrangement is monitored by the unit. It only steps in and issues an enforcement notice where there is no such arrangement. That is why the number is so low. In the first instance, we try to keep those in the family unit as amicable as they can be despite their separation.

Community Employment Schemes Review

Willie O'Dea


3. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the interdepartmental review into community employment schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38826/19]

In January of this year the Minister announced her intention to set up an interdepartmental group to examine the future of the community employment social inclusion schemes with a view to ring-fencing social inclusion places and allowing services within communities to be maintained. What is the up-to-date position in that regard?

As the Deputy will be aware, community employment, CE, schemes deliver on a number of our objectives. They provide a means for people to gain valuable work experience as a stepping stone to full-time employment, they deliver valuable services in our communities, towns and villages, and they help people who are genuinely long-term unemployed, are far removed from the workforce, and who have very high barriers to employment, to overcome social exclusion. As the labour market has recovered and the profile of people available to take up places on CE schemes has changed, at my request the Government established an interdepartmental group to explore how the social inclusion aspect of CE schemes might best be organised into the future. This included considering which Department should hold lead responsibility for sponsoring CE schemes focused on social inclusion, the rural social scheme and the job initiative scheme and whether there is any need to modify participation arrangements for individuals on these schemes.

Many meetings of the group have taken place, along with bilateral meetings between officials from my Department and other appropriate Departments. There has also been a consultative process with relevant stakeholders. Submissions were invited and were received in large numbers. These were considered as part of the deliberation process. I am advised that a final draft of the report will be given to me very soon. We will be setting a date for the final meeting of the interdepartmental group either today or tomorrow.

It is encouraging to see the group's work progressing. The Minister has acknowledged what a fantastic success CE schemes have been and the benefits they have yielded both to individuals and to communities. She has said that she expects the final report shortly, which is precisely what she told me last July. Is the Minister giving the House a commitment that the final report will be available within this Dáil session, perhaps in the next couple of weeks? I have two things I would like the Minister to confirm. Will the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection have ample opportunity to debate the report and to have input into it? Has any decision been taken as to the appropriate Department to run these schemes? As the Minister knows, at the moment community employment schemes are under the aegis of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Will that continue to be the case? If not, why not?

The date for the final meeting will be set in the next day or two. I know that I said "shortly" in July, but this "shortly" is different. I expect the last meeting of the interdepartmental group to be held in the coming weeks, if not earlier. It is at that meeting that decisions will be made on the recommendations, so I cannot tell the Deputy now what will be decided. It will be decided at that meeting. From there, the report will have to go to a senior officials' group, then a sub-Cabinet group, then Cabinet.

I would be very pleased for the Oireachtas joint committee to hold a lengthy discussion of the report at that stage so that it can tell me whether it agrees with it or whether there are parts of it with which it disagrees. It should be remembered that it was the submissions that came from our CE hosts and CE participants and supervisors that carried the most weight for me. I am very mindful of the value of the schemes. To be honest, I do not believe we recognise their value as much as we should. I would like to establish some method of formally recognising the value of community employment schemes throughout the country during the coming weeks.

To answer the Deputy's question, I expect all of this to be done long before the end of this Dáil session. This is a 14-week session and I would like to wrap this up in the next few weeks.

CE schemes have traditionally been categorised in one of two ways: social inclusion or activation. I agree with the Minister that, as levels of unemployment fall and levels of employment increase, there is less need for activation. The Minister should bear in mind, however, that we face a number of threats on the economic front. There is one in particular, of which we are all aware, which could lead to a sharp increase in unemployment. Will the Minister ensure that, in its final deliberations, the committee is conscious of the fact that CE schemes need to be adaptable so that they can quickly be changed to accommodate that situation should it arise?

I am sorry if I misheard. Is the Deputy asking about the ramifications of a hard Brexit?

CE schemes are established to help people who are unemployed for the long term. Anybody unfortunate to lose his or her job as a result of a hard Brexit, which we all hope does not occur, will not be unemployed for the long term if our plans for the next year can move him or her into one of the new jobs being created. I am mindful that CE schemes exist to do a particular job. I am not sure it was traditionally segregated into classifications before 2015. I now think it was unfortunate that we segregated the schemes. People need to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of whether they are travelling at the same speed as others. Everybody going into a CE scheme should come out prepared for full-time employment, even if that employment is classified as sheltered employment. The aim and objective of everybody coming into a CE scheme is to leave it with the skill set, self-confidence, and dignity he or she needs to enter the workforce. I want to ensure that is what we achieve and, more importantly, that we publicly value these schemes.

Social Welfare Schemes

Mick Barry


4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on increasing social protection payments for 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38891/19]

Thomas P. Broughan


5. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her preparations for budget 2020, including meetings with stakeholders, reviews of the most recent research on family poverty, and estimates of Brexit impacts on persons and families in receipt of social protection assistance, benefits and pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38942/19]

What are the Minister's views on increasing social protection payments for 2020?

Are we taking Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together?

That is what is advised. Questions Nos. 4 and 5 are grouped, but Members will get sufficient time.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.

The Government has committed to making the needs of families, and achieving better outcomes for them, a priority, especially those under the aegis of our Department who are most at risk of poverty.

Over the past three budgets, the maximum rates of all weekly payments have increased by €15. Last year, I increased the payments to qualified children under 12 for the first time since 2010, thankfully, and increased payments for children aged 12 years and over to recognise that they cost more money. In addition, we restored the Christmas bonus to 100%, which was long overdue. This was paid to over 1.2 million long-term social welfare recipients in 2018 to assist them with the extra expenses incurred by all around Christmas.

Increasing the standard rates of payments is, however, only one approach the Government has taken to improve the living standards of social welfare recipients. We have also introduced measures that target those most at risk of poverty, such as increasing significantly the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance last year. We extended the fuel allowance season and increased funding for school meals. The latter is coming into its own. We increased income disregards for lone parents and low-income families while strengthening consistently the provision for employment services.

As part of preparations for budget 2020, I hosted my Department's annual pre-budget forum in July. Representatives from some 50 community, voluntary, trade union and business groups had an opportunity to present their budget priorities directly to me and my officials. In addition, my officials and I regularly engage with a wide range of stakeholders both bilaterally and through regular meetings, including with the community and voluntary pillar and the social inclusion forum, at which poverty research and other issues are discussed. I had four meetings on Monday of this week.

In addition, the Department's social inclusion division examines the impact of potential budget measures on poverty rates and a social impact assessment is carried out. This is an evidence-based methodology that estimates the likely distributive effects of changes on household income using the ESRI's SWITCH model.

Regarding Brexit, the convention on social security was signed on 1 February 2019 and the parliamentary ratification processes in Ireland and in the UK, where it took a little longer, were completed by March of this year. This means that, no matter what happens when the UK leaves the EU, recipients will experience no change to the reciprocal social welfare arrangements that have existed for a long time between Ireland and the UK. The rights and entitlements of both EU and British citizens to social welfare payments will remain as they were before Brexit, irrespective of what kind of Brexit materialises.

Discussions are ongoing on this year's budget. The current context will push us in a direction in which will be having a slightly different and more focused budget than we would have had heretofore. As is the norm in my Department, I expect the discussions to be ongoing right up to the day before the final budget is decided upon.

The Minister did not mention the word "pensions" in her reply. I want to zero in on the issue of pensions. Is it true, as we are reading in some newspapers, that the Government and Fianna Fáil, with which it is negotiating or framing the budget, are considering freezing the base pension rate in the budget? I understand there is a threat of a no-deal Brexit, which would present a challenge for any Government, but the Government could go after the rich, including the big landlords. Why is the Minister seemingly choosing to target the pensioners in this budget? Are they to be made the whipping boys for a no-deal Brexit, with the rents and insurance costs increasing? The Minister will ensure that their carbon tax goes up. It seems as though the Minister is preparing to freeze their pensions. I would like her to comment on that and not evade the issue as she did in her introductory comments.

I did not evade the question; I answered the exact question submitted to me, which sought an update on the negotiations. As I suggested to the Deputy, the only thing I put on the record publicly in any newspaper — I do not know where he is reading what he is reading — is that my job is to make sure that, in every budget, the limited funds I get, whether they are small or big, are targeted at those who need them most. That is exactly what I am going to do this year.

I am glad the Minister hosted the budget forum and has been meeting all the advocacy groups. We have also met them. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Barry, on pensions. There is a gender gap concerning pensions, in particular, that the Minister said she might address. Among the advocacy groups that impressed us were the Children's Rights Alliance and the No Child 2020 campaign. Many commentators and distinguished journalists, such as Mr. Fintan O'Toole, said we should have a children's budget this year, irrespective of anything else, because we know that over 100,000 children live in consistent poverty while 250,000 live in poverty. We clearly need dramatic action in this regard. So many families — nearly a quarter, according to the census — are headed by lone parents. There were disgraceful changes to the one-parent family payment under the previous austerity Government. There are considerable challenges. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has found money in every single budget, as did his predecessor at times. He has found additional money behind the sofa. There is at least €600 million. Is the Minister fighting to get most, if not all, of the €600 million for the most vulnerable families, particularly our children?

The answer is "Yes". I am well able to do it. I hope that the last two budgets show the Deputy that we get relatively decent outcomes from the discussions.

I love the idea of a children's budget except that children are not the only people in the country who are very vulnerable. Included are their parents, who in many cases are lone parents. Some of the most affected are those with disabilities. I am loath to say that while there are many pensioners living in poverty in this country, there are many who are not. I am not going to chase votes like some others might do; my job is to make sure I get the biggest slice of the pie to look after the people who are currently living in the most vulnerable circumstances and who are at risk of poverty, as well as those who will be most vulnerable in the case of a hard Brexit. While I am mindful of all the knowledge I have, I am also very mindful that there are those in Ireland today who will potentially lose their jobs in the next six to 12 months. I have to be mindful of having a budget for them also.

Will the Minister have extra money for that?

At the moment, we are being told there is no extra money. Given that I do not have the ability to raise revenue in my Department, I am at the mercy of others. I am, however, very aware of what I need to do. I am certainly not shy about asking for what I want and I value the Deputy's support.

On the issue of freezing the pension, the Minister said she does not know which paper I read. I do not know which paper she does not read because it seems to me that every newspaper in the State is being briefed by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and by Deputy Michael McGrath in respect of expecting a freeze of the basic pension rate. Fianna Fáil's fingerprints are all over this one, too. I can safely say that a large majority of Fianna Fáil supporters will not support the idea of freezing basic pension rates in this budget. Ten years ago, the Fianna Fáil-led Government tried to take the medical card away from the over 70s. We all know what happened in that case. If I could question Deputy O'Dea, I would, but I am speaking to the Minister.

The Deputy knows the rules of the House.

I will address my question to the Minister. Is she concerned about a similar reaction from the grey panthers on foot of an attempt to freeze the basic pension rates in the upcoming budget?

Did the Deputy just say "grey panthers"?

I call Deputy Broughan. We will take the two together. Deputy O'Dea will have no right to respond although he may wish to.

To continue on the subject of children, one of the worst statistics we are presented with at pre-budget meetings, bearing in mind I am on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, is that almost 6,000 young people under 26 have been on jobseeker's allowance for more than a year. The National Youth Council of Ireland, in its pre-budgetary submission, A Fair Share for Young People and Youth Work, wants the Minister to start moving this year to reverse the low levels of support for the young people in question, who may be desperately seeking a job.

We are coming very close to the fuel allowance period, which I believe will start at the end of this week.

Has the Minister been consulted? The Taoiseach makes announcements in New York in regard to carbon taxation and it looks as if we will have a massive green tax increase in this budget in a couple of weeks. Has the Minister been consulted about whether there is going to be a universal payment, whether it is going to be tax and dividend, or whether we are going to take the hypothecated tax and the green tax and target it at the most vulnerable people, in particular those who are in fuel poverty? We know a very significant proportion of our people, perhaps 15%, are in fuel poverty. What input has the Minister had into that, given it is such a huge problem?

I have never heard of pensioners being called "grey panthers" before so that is a new one on me. What I want to put on record is that both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael manifestoes before the last general election committed to increasing the State pension by €5 each year for the lifetime of the next Government. It made it into the programme for Government and we have done that. With respect, I would love to see the Deputy's manifesto where he made the promise, given his sudden newfound interest in looking after pensioners.

The issue of those under 26 comes up at every single budget forum and it is under consideration every single time we sit down to our negotiations, so that is the best I can tell the Deputy at the moment.

A number of us have an input into how we are going to address any carbon tax gains to make sure the people who are most vulnerable and will be most hit will be able to absorb this and make sure they can be eased into new practices, as opposed to being hit with financial implications that will hurt them in their pockets. We are going to do our level best. My mindset is that the people I look after have single incomes and are some of the most vulnerable from a fuel poverty perspective. I will make sure I look after them.