Child Maintenance: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— there are 218,817 lone parent families living in the State (Census 2016);

— Ireland’s level of lone parent families is amongst the highest in the European Union and growing;

— lone parent families have suffered disproportionately during the economic recession and in the subsequent period of economic growth;

— according to the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, in terms of the impact of social welfare supports, lone parent families are in deep income inadequacy;

— lone parent families experience consistent poverty at a rate five times that of households headed by two parents; and

— according to the latest Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) undertaken by the Central Statistics Office, 39.9 per cent of lone parent families live at risk of poverty (up from 39.4 per cent the previous year) and 44.5 per cent experience deprivation;

further notes that:

— lone parents are obliged to seek maintenance payments from the non-custodial parent as a condition of receiving the One-Parent Family Payment (OFP) and Jobseeker’s Transitional Payment;

— there is no State body or agency in place in Ireland to support or assist lone parents in seeking child maintenance for their child(ren);

— many lone parents have to go to court in order to seek child maintenance;

— the use of courts increases stress and conflict within families;

— an order to pay maintenance as determined by a judge does not guarantee the payment of said maintenance;

— child maintenance payments are included as household means in the assessment of social welfare supports for lone parents regardless of whether it is actually paid or not;

— a recent survey by the One Family organisation found that of the 1,068 respondents, 42 per cent of lone parents receive no child maintenance at all; and

— figures from the Maintenance Recovery Unit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which pursues non-custodial parents to cover the costs of the OFP, shows that this Unit is ineffective;

acknowledges that:

— the 2017 Indecon report entitled ‘Independent Review of the Amendments to the One-Parent Family Payment since January 2012’, concluded that changes to this payment led to an increase in the percentage of lone parents who could not afford basic items such as a warm waterproof coat, two pairs of strong shoes, or turning on the heating at home;

— lone parent organisations, One Family and SPARK-Ireland (Single Parents Acting For Rights of Kids) have highlighted major concerns with the current arrangements in place for lone parents seeking maintenance;

— the 2017 report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended that Ireland ‘Consider establishing a statutory maintenance authority and prescribing amounts for child maintenance in order to reduce the burden on women of having to litigate to seek child maintenance orders.’;

— research has also concluded that in countries where maintenance is paid, it plays a role in reducing poverty; and

— research also shows that where maintenance payments are seen as a private family matter alone, without guaranteed maintenance support systems in place, the number of lone parents receiving child maintenance is low;

regrets that:

— Ireland has failed to meet its targets to date on reducing child poverty; and

— citizens can be imprisoned for not paying their television licence, yet parents who neglect their responsibility for maintaining their dependent child(ren) do so without repercussions;

and calls on the Government to:

— fund research into examining best international practice when it comes to determining, collecting, transferring and pursuing child maintenance payments;

— engage and include all stakeholders in this funded project from point of design and establishing terms of reference, to implementation; and

— establish, based on that research, a statutory child maintenance service with sufficient enforcement powers and links to Revenue.

I will be sharing time with my colleagues.

Three weeks ago, I met domestic abuse survivor and campaigner, Jessica Bowes, a lone parent to three children. Jessica, like many lone parents, took her former partner to court to pursue maintenance payments, having been directed to do so by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. One week later, Jessica was violently assaulted by her former partner. The assault was nearly fatal. That was the price she paid for taking her former partner to court to seek maintenance. That was her experience of seeking maintenance.

For Jessica and many other lone parents, I am delighted to bring this motion before the House this evening. I hope we will have a healthy debate leading to consensus on the need for a child maintenance service. I move this motion with the support of both lead lone-parent organisations, One Family and SPARK, which have consistently highlighted major difficulties with the current process which requires lone parents to take their former partner to court in order to seek maintenance payments, something no parent should ever have to do. I commend both organisations on the excellent work they do every day for lone mothers and fathers, and their children. I am delighted that some of them are in the Gallery this evening.

There are many reasons for the urgent establishment of a child maintenance service. The main reason is that courtrooms are no place for child maintenance payments to be determined. That is the bottom line. More important, the current process involving the Courts Service does not work. I will set out the current process to the House. A lone parent who applies for the one-parent family payment must prove that he or she has sought maintenance from the other parent in order to receive and retain this social welfare support. In essence, in order to receive a payment specifically for lone parents, lone parents are not entitled to this payment unless they can show that they have sought maintenance. This leaves lone parents with no option other than to take their former partner to court to seek that maintenance.

A court summons for maintenance cannot be issued by the court unless the lone parent can provide an address for the other parent, which is not always known. There are no statutory guidelines on how the rate of payment for maintenance should be set and instead it is left to the discretion of the judge of the day. Naturally, different judges make different determinations. If a maintenance order is put in place by the courts and the non-custodial parent does not comply, the lone parent is back to square one and left to issue enforcement proceedings.

If the non-custodial parent fails to appear at court proceedings, a bench warrant is issued. This typically sits on a desk in a Garda station gathering dust, adding further delay. At the end of it all, the lone parent is no better off. In many cases, lone parents are worse off because once a maintenance order is granted, it is taken as household means, reducing other social welfare supports regardless of whether the maintenance is paid.

In every country in the world where statutory maintenance arrangements are in place, child maintenance plays a role in reducing poverty, something the Government has failed to do. The rate of consistent poverty among lone-parent families is five times higher than in families headed by two parents. Some 39.9% of lone-parent families live at risk of poverty. By its own admission, the Government will not come anywhere close to reaching its target of lifting 95,000 children out of poverty by 2020. Establishing a child maintenance service would help to lift children out of poverty. More than that, a statutory child maintenance service would protect women who have to seek maintenance. It would support them and provide them with advice and assistance. It would put children first at long last.

I commend the motion to the House and I hope that we can work together to make it happen because lone-parent families deserve nothing less.

I welcome the people in the Gallery and I know many others are watching this debate at home. I thank the many women - they were mainly women - who contacted me to encourage us to push for this and to let me know that it means an enormous amount to them and that they want to see action.

For some time, Sinn Féin, in particular my colleague Deputy Brady, has been pushing the need for the State to establish a child maintenance agency. The current process requires lone parents to take their former partners to court to seek child maintenance payments. I know of countless lone parents, most often mothers, who have attended my clinics to get advice about how to get child maintenance payments from partners who have refused to contribute. When I tell them that their only recourse is through the courts I can see the fear in the faces.

It is not lost on them or me and, I am sure, it will not be lost on the Minister of State, that earlier today an apology was issued to women over how they were treated by the State. In the statements that followed, numerous contributors mentioned that women were dragged through the courts and how adversarial that process is. Collectively, we have agreed that the courts are not always the most appropriate place to go. Nobody wants to go through an adversarial process. Even when people are in the right, that prospect is very daunting.

In budget 2020, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, announced funding to establish a judge-led group to determine, based on best international practice, maintenance guidelines and regulations which can hopefully be put on a statutory footing and which will achieve better outcomes for families. Guidelines are not good enough, not even guidelines that will, hopefully, be placed on a statutory footing. That does not give much hope, even though the word "hopefully" is used.

The motion calls on the Government to research best practice to find the best statutory child maintenance service model that we can establish here in consultation with key stakeholders. We need sensible workable proposals. Sinn Féin published these proposals in January 2018 and published a revised version this month showing Government exactly how a child maintenance service can be achieved.

We bring forward this motion with the full support of both lead lone-parent organisations in the State, One Family and SPARK. They have been very clear that they do not want guidelines; they want a statutory child maintenance service. It is time for the State to step up to the plate at long last and support lone parents.

Yesterday in my constituency office, and not for the first time, I met a lady who spoke to me about child maintenance payments. As Deputy O'Reilly said, when I explained to her that she would have to go to the courts or get in contact with her partner again, a look of absolute terror fell over her face. Unfortunately, I have seen that occur many times. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.

I commend Deputy Brady on tabling the motion. The current system for lone parents seeking child maintenance is totally unacceptable.

Forcing lone parents to ask former partners for child maintenance before they can receive social welfare supports puts many people in a terrible situation. It often places them in danger if they have left violent partners. The same occurs when a person is forced to bring a former partner to court to try to get child maintenance. The court process results in an immediate escalation of the situation and often causes hostility between the two partners. Going to court is a very stressful experience and the cost alone can be a barrier to many. Waiting for support to go to court can take ages too. In addition, the reality of facing a former partner in court is something many individuals do not wish to do for many personal and private reasons. This blocks many parents from seeking child maintenance. I have heard people say they would prefer not to go to court and I have met people who chose to forgo child maintenance even though they are desperately in need of it just to ensure they do not have to face their former partner in court. This is a terrible situation and it has been raised on several occasions in the Dail. We brought people to the audiovisual room three years ago when we were first elected in order that we might discuss it. The matter needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Should a lone parent eventually get over all the hurdles put in front of him or her, a judge then has no guidelines on how the rate of child maintenance should be set. This affords no certainty to a lone parent and results in varying types of orders for child maintenance. This system is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed urgently. Our motion sets out solutions to do just that.

The Department has a liable relatives unit. This is used to contact the absent parent not to collect maintenance but to get him or her to contribute towards the cost of the one-parent family payment. In simple terms, it results in the recoupment of money for the State but not for the lone parent or their children. However, the Department cannot even manage to do that effectively. From the beginning of 2018 up to August of this year, this unit examined 18,078 cases. In 2,174 of these, a liable relative started making contributions. However, in the majority of cases, 15,904 to be exact, nothing happened. Nothing was done, despite the Department insisting that it has enforcement powers. This is a ridiculous situation. According to data received via reply to a parliamentary question, the Department has submitted just 19 cases to the Chief State Solicitor's office since 2016 for the purposes of obtaining orders directing that the liable relative comply with the determination. This is truly pathetic. The Government is not dealing with this issue.

I am not sure which is worse, that the Department does not see fit to assist and support lone parents in seeking maintenance for their children or that it choose to pursue the non-custodial parent, not to benefit the children involved, but simply to cover its own costs. This system needs to be done away with, and replaced with a proper, robust system that ensures the needs of children are to the fore. Sinn Féin has put forward such a solution. I hope the Government gives proper consideration to our proposals. I told the woman I spoke to yesterday that I would raise this matter in the Dáil today. There are others like her. All of our colleagues have met them and I am sure the Minister of State has met them. This needs to be addressed.

It is worth reminding the House that it has been four years since the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, cut payments to lone parents. Of all the attacks on people during the austerity years that one ranked as one of the most vicious and worst cuts. At the time, I described it as slash and burn politics but I was not on my own. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, described it in similar terms. He very robustly opposed the Government policy at the time. He was very vociferous in this Chamber at that time but, as with many other issues, he seems to have lost his voice now.

I do not see him, as a Minister of State supporting Fine Gael, showing the same level of urgency or robustness as he did when he was in opposition. We warned then, as did the Minister of State and campaigning groups, that the measure would impoverish lone-parent families. However, our efforts were to no avail. The Minister was not for turning and the cuts are still in place. The Minister of State is facilitating and allowing them to remain in place by supporting a Government that simply does not care.

We are debating a measure that should have been brought in instead of those cuts. Campaigning groups, in particular One Family and SPARK-Ireland - and I welcome those who are in the Gallery – called for this measure at the time but they were ignored. Instead, the Government attacked lone parents. Sinn Féin is calling on all Deputies to support the motion it has tabled. The motion is part of our campaign to see the establishment of child maintenance services. Lone parents in this State need this service to be put on a statutory footing. Guidelines are not enough. This was one of the Minister of State’s policies when he was in opposition.

For far too long, lone parents have been left to seek child maintenance payments from an ex-partner with no support or guidance from the State. This issue has been ignored for too long by successive Governments, which have been happy to leave it to parents to battle it out in courts. The court system is a direct barrier to abused parents and their children accessing child maintenance. I know that and the Minister of State and officials in the Department know it, which is why we need change. The Courts Service received almost 9,000 applications for maintenance orders during 2018. More than a quarter of these cases remained unresolved by the end of the court term. Delays are an inherent part of the proceedings. In cases of coercive control, domestic violence and abuse, child maintenance court cases can heighten hostilities. The outcome, unfortunately, for many women in particular is fear, intimidation and sometimes outright physical attack. It is time to end this out-of-date system and to use child maintenance as one means of lifting children and lone parents out of poverty. A legally enforceable child maintenance service would be a life-changing development in the way lone parents are treated by this State.

I appeal to the Minister of State to do in government what he said he would do when he was in opposition, namely, support the women who need support.

I always do. There have been no cuts on my watch.

There can be no doubt that in debating policy relating to children we are shaping and affecting the future. I am disappointed that the Government has indicated its opposition to tonight's motion, as it is a clear opportunity for a step change in the Government's outlook on providing for the most vulnerable in society. Much like the motion on home care that Sinn Féin brought to this Chamber in June, the value of providing adequate supports early on can lead to savings in the future if they are available to all those in need of them. People provided for at home incur less cost to the State and are more likely to remain out of hospital beds longer. More importantly, these patients and their families experience a much better quality of life.

The motion sets out how statutory provision for the payment of a considered and stable amount to lone parents can lead to far better outcomes for children and their parents. Children who are properly supported are far less likely to be in need of State intervention in the future. They are less likely to present with illnesses associated with poor nutrition or inadequate living conditions. Lone-parent families were hit particularly hard in the austerity years of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. While many sectors of society suffered during that period, some groups have not seen any measurable recovery at all. It is no surprise that lone parents remain among the groups yet to see any benefit from our supposed recovery. According to the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, which examines the adequacy of social welfare supports and reports annually, lone parents are one of three groups in deep income inadequacy right now. Latest figures from the survey on income and living conditions show that one-parent families are now five times as likely to live in consistent poverty as two-parent households. The same report also shows that lone parents have the lowest disposable income. Lone parents have the highest levels of deprivation and are most at risk of poverty of all households with children in the State.

We know that Government policy has worked to make life more difficult for lone-parent families. A 2017 Indecon report concluded that the changes made by Fine Gael and Labour to the one-parent family payment eligibility, reducing the cut-off age to seven years, led to increased deprivation. The reality of experiencing deprivation means not being able to turn the heating on, not being able to afford a warm coat or to provide a strong pair of shoes for children.

Research shows that, when paid, child maintenance plays a role in reducing poverty. It also shows that in the neighbouring island there was a 30% reduction in the poverty gap as a result of child maintenance payments. A child maintenance service will reduce poverty and, therefore, make growing up in Ireland a better, happier experience for so many children than it is today.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to this Private Members' motion on issue of child maintenance. The issues regarding maintenance are generally a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality, who has responsibility for the family law Acts, which govern maintenance requirements. Existing 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 or with the assistance of supports from the Department of Justice and Equality, such as the family mediation service and the Legal Aid Board or, ultimately, through the courts. The enforcement of the obligation on parents to maintain their children is a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality.

The social welfare Acts provide that where certain welfare payments are in place, specifically one-parent family payment, OFP, an assessment may be made against a liable relative requiring him or her to make a contribution towards the cost of the one-parent family payment. In every case where one-parent family payment is awarded, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection seeks to trace the other parent or liable relative to ascertain whether he or she is in a financial position to contribute towards the cost of the payment. All liable relatives who are assessed for the maintenance liability are issued with a maintenance contribution assessment setting out the amount assessed. The amount assessed can be reviewed where new information comes to light regarding the financial or household circumstances of the liable relative. The liable relative can either commence or increase the current payment to a one-parent family payment recipient or can make the contribution directly to the Department. Decisions on the amount assessed can be appealed to the social welfare appeals office. The liable relative provisions cease once the youngest child reaches seven years of age and the one-parent family payment claim ceases. However, the legal obligation under the family law Acts to maintain children does not cease.

Lone parents have consistently been one of the most vulnerable groups in Ireland, a point made earlier, which I accept. Even during the period of high economic growth and employment, the rate of consistent poverty for lone parents remained very high in comparison with two-parent families. The 2013 survey of income and living conditions, SILC, data show that the consistent poverty rate for lone-parent households was 20.7% compared with 3.9% for two-parent households. The current policy approach for supporting lone parents through the one-parent family payment and jobseeker's transitional scheme is to provide tapered income supports as children get older while at the same time increasing the employment and educational supports that the Department offers.

A recent analysis by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, of differing household types shows that the employment rate of lone parents is increasing steadily as the economy grows, but it also shows that the gap between coupled and lone mothers' employment rates remains relatively large. The employment rate of female lone parents increased from 48.5% in quarter 2 of 2012 to 60% in quarter 2 of 2018. This is a positive development but there is evidence that the rate of in-work poverty among lone-parent households is high in comparison with coupled families.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection operates three schemes to support lone parents, namely, the one-parent family payment scheme, the jobseeker's transitional scheme, and the jobseeker's allowance. The appropriate scheme that a lone parent can avail of is generally determined by the age of the youngest child claimed for, subject to eligibility requirements. One-parent family payment is available where the youngest child is aged under seven, while jobseeker's transitional payment may be claimed where the youngest child is aged between seven and 13 years of age, inclusive. Once the youngest child reaches 14, standard jobseeker's allowance applies.

This progression from one-parent family payment to jobseeker's transitional payment to jobseeker's allowance was a fundamental element of the reforms of the one-parent family payment scheme undertaken since 2011, as until then income support for lone parents was passive in nature and involved limited engagement by the Stale with lone parents. One-parent family payment was originally available until the youngest child was 18. The non-conditional nature of the one-parent family payment coupled with its very long duration had over time engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among many lone parents and their children. Research has shown that being at work reduces the at-risk of poverty rate for lone parents by more than half.

The purpose of the one-parent family payment scheme reforms is to maximise the opportunities for lone parents to enter into and increase employment by providing them with enhanced access to a wide range of education, training and employment supports that make up the Department's Intreo services. In 2004, at the height of the economic boom, lone parents were over four-and-a-half times more at risk of poverty than the rest of the population. In 2017, the latest available SILC data show a significant improvement, although lone parents are still almost two-and-a-half times more at risk of poverty than the rest of the population.

It is important to take this opportunity to set out the range of measures put in place by the Government to support children and their and families, including lone parents, in budget 2020. There are no cuts in social welfare payments. These supports include payment of a 100% Christmas bonus in December 2019 to recipients of long-term social welfare payments, including one-parent family payment; extension of the hot school meals scheme from September 2020 to 35,000 additional schoolchildren; a €3 increase for qualified child dependants aged 12 and over in all weekly payments; a €2 increase for qualified child dependants up to the age of 12 in all weekly payments; an increase in the working family payment threshold by €10 per week for families with one, two or three children, benefiting 55,000 families at a cost of €19 million from January 2020; and increases in the earnings disregard for working lone parents in receipt of the one-parent family payment or jobseeker's transitional payment by €15 to €165 per week from January 2020, benefiting 16,900 families.

There are a wide range of supports for children and families, including lone-parent families, across other Departments and beyond the social welfare system. Extra funding of €54 million has been allocated to childcare services for the introduction of the national childcare scheme to meet the continuing cost of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme, to fund the access and inclusion model, and to support the introduction of a sectoral employment order setting the statutory minimum pay and conditions in the childcare sector. The maximum hours under the national childcare scheme for preschool children will increase from 40 to 45 hours per week for working parents and from 15 to 20 hours per week for low-income parents not working or studying. The maximum hours for school-aged childcare for low-income parents who return to work will increase from 17 to 22 hours per week with effect from September 2020. Additional funding of €29 million is allocated to Tusla to continue its work to reduce the number of children awaiting the allocation of a social worker and to address costs pressures in residential and foster care.

The Government also plans to extend free GP care to children under the age of eight and to provide free dental care for children under six with effect from September 2020. Stakeholders have highlighted that child maintenance poses serious personal and administrative blocks within the social protection and legal systems.

Delays in legal proceedings due to cycles of agreement, default and pursuits clog up the Courts Service and cause unnecessary delays and hardships for the parents and their children. I accept that argument. Requirements for seeking maintenance and liable relative provisions may also cause issues between the parents over and above the difficulties and hardships they already face. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shares some of the concerns, as do I, expressed by stakeholder groups about how the maintenance system currently operates and she believes that it is timely to review these arrangements to see what can be learned from international best practice. The Minister has already held meetings with some of the stakeholder groups and will continue to engage with them on this matter in the future.

As part of budget 2020, €150,000 has been allocated to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to examine international best practice in respect of maintenance payments by liable relatives and how Ireland can achieve better outcomes in a proactive manner for families. The Minister is currently making arrangements to establish a judge-led group to progress that work as a priority. The Government is taking on board the concerns of the stakeholder groups regarding child maintenance and the wider issues for lone parents. The motion before the House does not give sufficient recognition to the substantial work already done to support lone parents and the significant commitments set out as part of budget 2020, nor does it recognise that the Minister is already consulting with stakeholder groups and has secured funding to undertake research in this area as part of a judge-led group.

No one party has a monopoly on caring about remedying the challenges regarding maintenance and my colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, has already moved to find effective solutions. On that basis we will not be opposing the motion, we will be abstaining.

The Government will be sitting on its hands.

That is not supporting it. As I said, they are not supporting it.

It is standing, it is not rolling over. The Deputy is wrong.

I am sharing time with Deputies Butler and Rabbitte. The Minister of State recognised in his speech that poverty among this cohort is endemic. All the statistics point to that. Research done by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the figures in the survey on income and living conditions in Ireland, SILC, illustrate that a lone-parent family is five times more likely to be living in consistent poverty than a family headed by two parents. The levels of deprivation for lone parents are now running at over 45%. Almost one in two lone parents cannot afford the basic necessities for the very minimum standard of living. That is a disgraceful statistic.

There are a number of reasons this has turned out to be the case. On the so-called reforms of 2012 to which the Minister of State referred, introduced by the former Minister, Deputy Burton, we warned the Minister at the time and subsequent Ministers that they would have a devastating effect on the income of lone parents and this has proved to be the case. This effect manifests itself right to this very day. I refer to a number of reports, such as the 2016 report by Millar and Crosse, which was extremely critical of the impact of those so-called reforms. The Indecon report of 2017 was a damning indictment. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul study published last March showed that the level of in-work poverty among lone parents had doubled since the introduction of the so-called reforms of 2012. The response of the Minister and subsequent Ministers has been to try to alleviate the impact of those changes by adding little provisions here and there, adding extra pieces of a patchwork onto what is already a gigantic patchwork, thereby making the social welfare system even more complicated. This is their approach rather than simply reversing what was done in 2012 because it was so clearly wrong. The result of all this is that the whole system of social welfare law concerning lone parents is now riddled with anomalies.

Another reason for the increase in poverty and the pitiable status of lone parents lies in the fact that a relatively small percentage of Irish lone parents, compared with those in other countries, actually get maintenance. The reason for that, as has already been outlined, is that it is a condition that someone who is married or in civil partnership will not get lone-parent allowance until he or she seeks maintenance from the other party. If people are living in a non-marital, non-civil partnership relationship, they can get lone-parent allowance but in order to hold on to it they have to apply for maintenance subsequently. The only way a single parent can apply for maintenance in this country is through the courts system. In most of these cases when the relationship has broken up, it is usually the woman who is living in abject poverty. She has to face the adversarial system of the courts. The vast majority of lone parents I deal with do not have the resources to employ private solicitors so they have to depend on the free legal aid system, which is not completely free. The Minister herself has acknowledged on a number of occasions that this places an enormous emotional and financial burden on people who are already suffering enough and already have enough on their plate. That is the simple reality.

There should never be a system in which lone parent's allowance depends on chasing a partner for maintenance through the Irish courts system. I know single mothers who have been in and out of the District Court ten, 12 or 15 times because some of those people against whom orders are made are very adept at avoiding payment. There is this constant carousel of people in and out of court, all at the expense of the legal aid system. From that point of view, something along the lines of what is proposed here would be self-financing. In fact, the State would finish up better off, judging by the impact and the burden on the civil legal aid system of the present arrangements. I have also come across cases where a woman has had to flee the family home because of violence. The last thing that individual wants to do is bring herself to the attention of her violent partner and give him her address by lodging a summons for maintenance. It is insupportable. There is also a daft provision in the social welfare legislation that if the court orders maintenance for a person, whether he or she gets it or not, it is counted as part of his or her means. That is insupportable.

I would not agree with many of the things that have been done in Northern Ireland but one thing they have done right is establishing a statutory agency to which lone parents can present themselves and the agency will seek the maintenance on their behalf. That relieves the emotional and financial burden on the lone parent enormously. It has been proved to be very effective. In any jurisdiction where there is a similar arrangement, we will find that the level of maintenance paid rises dramatically. Surely that should be our aim to combat poverty among one of the poorest groups in society. There is also a very interesting report done by the Gingerbread group in the United Kingdom. It was a very extensive study which found that if people are involved in paying maintenance for their child, however that comes about, whether by direct court case or through an agency, they tend to take a greater interest in the upbringing of the child and that is to the child's benefit.

I know the Minister of State is not opposing the motion and he has mentioned various figures for research and so on. However, this is very urgently needed. If the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, was to establish such an agency here it would be a very significant legacy of her period as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. She would want to get on with it because we have been speaking about this for the last four or five years and time is running out rapidly for the Minister and the Minister of State.

I call on the Minister of State when responding to be clearer rather than making vague assertions about thousands of euro being allocated to research here and there and saying we are talking to somebody else. How far are we from establishing something like this? I take from the fact the Government is not opposing this motion that it is in favour of creating such an agency. Let us have a little more concrete information as to when it will happen.

I thank Deputy Brady for bringing forward this motion, which is calling on the Government to establish a statutory child maintenance service with enough powers and to link it to Revenue. The current mechanisms available to parents to seek maintenance orders, and their subsequent enforcement, rest with those who are seeking the payment, namely, the single parent in many cases, which places a considerable burden on them.

There is a legal responsibility on parents, whether married or unmarried, to maintain dependent children. As we all know, this is not always the case. A recent study by One Family found that while 42% of primary carers are raising children without a financial contribution from the other parent, no support at all from the other parent makes life extremely difficult for the primary carer. According to census 2016, 25% of all families with children are lone parent families, so one in every four families in Ireland is a single-parent family who may be separated, widowed or divorced. That is the reality of the Ireland we live in.

There are more than 350,000 children living in lone-parent families, where 86.4% of the parents are female and 13.6% male. As we can see from the statistics, the mother is generally the carer of the family. Some 58%, or three fifths, of parents are resorting to a court order to agree on child maintenance. Establishing a statutory child maintenance agency would ease the financial and emotional burden on lone parents; improve outcomes for lone parents and their children; and provide financial stability and go some way towards reducing the appalling poverty rates experienced by lone-parent families.

Some couples with children break up and it can be amicable. Maintenance can be sorted voluntarily and this can work well when both parties are reasonable and fair. However, it is difficult to assess informally the correct amount of maintenance that should be paid and when it should increase, whether at different times of financial strains during the year, whether it be Christmas or back to school time.

If the parents cannot agree on maintenance, either party can apply to the courts for a maintenance order. As my colleague said, however, this can prove very difficult, because some women, mothers, are afraid of allowing their partner to know what their address is. When a parent refuses to pay it becomes very messy.

I recently spoke to a mother of two who receives maintenance and she explained how her ex-partner is very difficult to deal with, questions every euro spent on the children and a row results whenever there is an extra request, maybe for swimming lessons in school, sports gear and school trips, at Christmas time, etc. It can be very traumatic for the lone parent, 86% of whom, as we know, are women.

A report published by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in March 2019, entitled Working, Parenting and Struggling, found that lone parents as a group are at risk of poverty in Ireland. Lone parents represent the largest group seeking assistance from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It is this society's members' experience that one-parent families have been hit hardest by the recession and the austerity measures that followed and have been unable to take advantage of the recent economic improvements.

Almost 60% of lone parents reported that they could not access childcare services due to cost which is the second highest rate in the EU15 countries, just after Spain. Employment rates are three times higher among lone parents with third level education but one in five lone parents reported that he or she could not access formal education for financial reasons.

One in every five lone parents was in consistent poverty in 2017. Two in every five lone-parent households were at risk of poverty in 2017. These are shocking statistics but I am not surprised. During the last Government, Fine Gael and the Labour Party targeted lone parents and their children by introducing punitive reforms to the one-parent family payment. These reforms had a detrimental effect on Ione parent households. Even though changes has since been made, significant issues remain and the effects of their punitive changes to the one-parent family payment are still being felt.

Fianna Fáil supports the establishment of a statutory child maintenance agency which could create a more transparent and simplified process for lone parents seeking maintenance; help provide more financial stability for lone-parent households and reduce the high rates of poverty, deprivation and social exclusion experienced by lone parents and their children. That is why I am delighted to support the motion.

Fianna Fáil will be supporting this motion. I thank Deputy Brady for bringing it forward and for giving us the opportunity to speak on it. It is one of those issues that sometimes does not get enough attention and is not highlighted enough. I thank Deputy O'Dea for sharing his time with me.

I would have liked to hear the Minister of State's response had it not been scripted by the Department. His clinic can be no different from mine. Surely single parents come into him on a regular basis telling him how difficult it is, how a maintenance order has not gone through, how a standing order was missed the previous Friday or where someone cannot get their partner into court, where there is a backlog, and that they need to go through the clerical system and to fill out the standing order form once again.

I worked in a bank for 25 years. People came in on a weekly basis to check to see if the standing order had gone in, and they were the lucky ones who had a maintenance agreement in place. They waited for it and then had to wait another six weeks for it to catch up. It was a vicious circle for these women who I met in my professional career as a banker. Since I have become a politician, I meet them regularly. They are totally and utterly frustrated at how they are tied up in the system.

I will correct the Minister of State on a number of points, which I do not like doing, and I will refer to his contribution as Fianna Fáil spokesperson for children and youth affairs. Of course, there is a wide range of supports for children and families, including lone-parent families, across Government and beyond social welfare. Some €54 million was allocated to childcare. The Minister of State talked about the access and inclusion models, AIMs, and the sectoral employment order. We have only 5,000 registered members in childcare. We are a long way from having what is required to have that sectoral employment order. Believe it or not, many of those women working in childcare are on the basic minimum wage. We are struggling very hard to keep them in employment.

The Minister of State talked about the new affordable childcare scheme. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was in the House earlier and myself and Deputy Funchion asked how lone parents would fare under the new affordable childcare scheme. The new affordable childcare scheme has changed for this cohort of women. Currently, they can have 40 hours of childcare. When the new arrangement comes in, they will be brought back to 15 hours. This is what those women who want to return to employment or into education face. The change in the budget was from 15 to 20 hours. That is the extension that has been granted.

It will really hit the lone parent in respect of the after-school sector. Until now, it was €15 per week but now it will be €45. However, the cost for most after-school schemes is between €120 and €150. These lone parents feel they will be forced out of that sector completely and will be trapped in a social welfare existence because of all the wonderful things the Minister of State said in respect of supports for the lone parent. These are the facts as to what the affordable childcare model is about and the sectoral employment order for the childcare worker.

The One Family study earlier this year found that 58% of parents are forced to go to court to secure child maintenance. The same study also found that in 91% of cases a child's need was required to determine the amount paid. It is important to remember the child is at the centre of this motion. Regardless of the family structure in place, it is unfair to children to be robbed of their childhood due to conflict between parents. Such a service would help provide families with stability. These families are often the most vulnerable, as all speakers said.

Last year One Family noted that children living in one-parent families are living in the most socially and financially deprived homes in Ireland.

Lone parents have the highest rate of consistent poverty, the lowest disposable income and the highest rate of deprivation. The 2017 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that Ireland should consider establishing a statutory authority and prescribing amounts for child maintenance in order to reduce the burden on women of having to litigate to seek child maintenance orders.

Our court system is already overburdened, yet we force parents through what can be costly exercises to ensure they can get by and are not forced into poverty and homelessness. Without any statutory footing, it is at the court's discretion what shape the payments take. This leaves parents in a very precarious position. This is all avoidable. Having an agency on a statutory footing would prevent additional strain on courts in addition to ensuring lone parents receive payments they deserve.

Following the introduction of the compliance-related child maintenance payment in the UK, there was a 30% reduction in the poverty gap. We could have similar results here if our Government were serious about establishing a child maintenance service. Cuts introduced by Fine Gael and the Labour Party in budget 2012 saw lone parents hit. This was when the parties reformed the one-parent family payment. This has fed into an already dire situation for lone parents and it is creating more instability.

If the Government supported this proposal rather than abstaining, it would show real intent to support lone parents. While the Minister of State gave a rehash of the budget speech, which is welcome, what we really want to see is the establishment of the agency and serious intent from the other side of the House.

I welcome to the Visitors Gallery the representatives of One Family and SPARK-Ireland and commend them on their excellent work with their communities. A woman who contacted me said she is just living on her nerves from day to day. She has been divorced for nine years and has been in and out of court with her ex-partner trying to sort maintenance. He has a court order. When the two leave the court, he will not pay until the next court date. The woman has sought help from Deputies. We cannot give her any because there is nothing legally requiring the partner to pay the maintenance, even with a court order. The woman lives in Donegal and has contacted me and other Deputies to look for assistance.

The figures are all in the Private Members' motion. There are 218,817 lone-parent families living in the State. The proportion is among the highest in Europe. The most recent figures from the CSO's Survey on Income and Living Conditions shows the at-risk-of-poverty rate among lone parents is 39.9% and that there is a deprivation rate of 44.5%. Lone-parent families are five times more likely to be living in consistent poverty by comparison with two-parent families. Poverty among lone parents with a job doubled between 2012 and 2017. So much for being in a job. While work might pay, it has not paid for lone parents.

In March 2017, the United Nations published its report on the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, making a number of recommendations for Ireland. One such recommendation was to consider establishing a statutory maintenance authority and prescribing amounts for child maintenance to reduce the burden on women of having to litigate to seek child maintenance orders. The Joint Committee on Social Protection produced a report on the position of parents in Ireland in 2017. Chapter 4, which covers maintenance, states:

- (4.2) Ireland has no state agency with responsibility for child maintenance payments

- (4.3) Parents are forced to seek payments through an adversarial and costly court system.

- (4.4) Maintenance, when obtained, is deducted at a rate of 100% from rent supplement and 50% from other social welfare payments

- (4.5) Lone parents in receipt of OFP are required to seek maintenance from the second parent

- (4.6) In Ireland, 35% of lone parents are in receipt of child maintenance payments

- (4.7) In other jurisdictions such as Sweden, New Zealand and Canada, the state is involved in facilitating the transfer of maintenance to parents

- (4.8) In Sweden, if the parent fails to or cannot pay maintenance, the state provides the payment and recoups the money from the liable parent subject to their ability to pay

The report recommends:

- (7.18) No lone parent should ever have their Social Protection payment threatened or reduced due to non-receipt of maintenance from a third party e.g. a former spouse. The obligation to pursue the liable adult should be removed from the lone parent.

- (7.19) A state body, similar to that in other countries, should be put in place to appropriately seek and pursue maintenance payments.

The Minister recommended the development of the child maintenance agency on 15 February 2018. It is now a year and a half later. I am supporting this motion because there is a need for urgency. I understand from SPARK-Ireland that the budgetary funding for research has been allocated. The motion calls on the Government to fund research and establish, based on the research and including the stakeholders, a statutory child maintenance service with sufficient enforcement powers and links to the Revenue Commissioners.

I always wonder why the Government continues to target lone parents as if they had wronged the State in some way. Why are there no support services or State agencies to intervene when child maintenance is not paid, even when it is one of the strongest determinants of child poverty and even when child poverty persists despite the so-called economic upturn? The only conclusion I can come to is that the State has not come to terms with its shame in respect of lone parents, shame that lingers from the time of the Magdalen laundries, from when divorce was illegal and from when children outside marriage were shunned. We should now address our sense of shame about nearly 250,000 people in this country once and for all. Not only would lone parents be worthy of this but so too would the children in their families. Responding to the calls in the motion would be a good starting point.

I refer to a One Family survey carried out this summer. It found that more than half of parents must pursue child maintenance payments through an adversarial court system while 42% of primary carers are raising children without a financial contribution from the other parent. A resulting 58% of parents end up resorting to a court order to agree to child maintenance. The Department puts them under pressure and threatens to reduce their payments, which is an absolute disgrace. What struck me most about the survey’s findings was that a child’s needs do not determine the amount paid in 91% of cases included in the study. That is an incredible figure considering that child poverty remains persistent, with over 230,000 children at risk of poverty today. Many of those come from lone-parent families. According to a report of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, entitled Working, Parenting and Struggling, the rate of in-work poverty among lone parents more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. In fact, in 2012, one in 11 working lone parents was living below the poverty line. By 2017, this increased to one in five. That working lone parents are living below the poverty line is a sad indictment of the Government.

Let us not forget how targeted lone parents were when the Labour Party was in government and introduced the so-called reforms to the one-parent family payment. These were subject to much criticism, particularly as they were introduced during a period of recession and high unemployment. What has occurred has been in the absence of good-quality, affordable childcare and without recognising the additional practical and financial challenges of parenting alone, not to mention the fact that lone parents are obliged to seek maintenance from a non-custodial parent as a condition of receiving the one-parent family payment and jobseeker's conditional payment. The effects of the cuts during the recession will now affect an entire generation of children. It is a shameful history we must face up to. Addressing the high rate of non-payment of child maintenance would be a good start, as would proceeding from a children’s rights perspective and establishing an agency to adjudicate on child maintenance cases, especially adjudicating on the child's behalf.

We also need what One Family has called for, namely, a future-proofed, independent, child-maintenance service reflecting the fact that families and work patterns are changing rapidly. According to One Family, the independent agency would integrate all the requirements of families and children accessing family law courts and social services.

The statutory child maintenance agency needs to form part of a wider comprehensive court welfare service that could determine the appropriate levels to be paid in a child-centred way. We need to move away from an adversarial court system towards one that would still ensure children and families actually receive the maintenance. I agree profoundly with One Family that child maintenance should be seen as an independent, ring-fenced form of security directly for children.

Just as with the Government's approach to child benefit, child maintenance should not be taxed or means tested, as is the case in the UK.

Having the State adjudicate on child maintenance payments is not about so-called interference with the private domain of families. Rather, it is about protecting and advocating for a child's right to an income that supports and protects him or her while offering equal opportunities in his or her life ahead. It is time to act to end this child poverty.

I am sharing time with Teachtaí Michael Collins and Danny Healy-Rae.

The Deputies have a total of eight minutes.

I am happy to speak on this important motion and I salute Deputy Brady for moving it. However, I am surprised. Cá bhfuil Páirtí an Lucht Oibre? Tá sé imithe. It is supposed to be the party of the working people and ordinary people, but it is missing more time in the Chamber. This beggars belief. That has a knock-on effect on us because we are watching what time we are due to be on and could easily miss it if people are not interested. Are the famous heroes of People Before Profit not interested in this issue either? It beggars belief.

The motion reads as an excellent proposal. Anything that moves the struggle for maintenance out of the courts system and into a more relaxed and constructive mediation environment is a good idea and should have been done long ago. The motion reads: "fund research into examining best international practice when it comes to determining, collecting, transferring and pursuing child maintenance payments". It is not rocket science, only very positive. It also reads:

— engage and include all stakeholders in this funded project from point of design and establishing terms of reference, to implementation; and

— establish, based on that research, a statutory child maintenance service with sufficient enforcement powers and links to Revenue.

These are vital components, given that there have been scams in which people have got away with evasion. I am not referring to ordinary people. Often, this is being done by clever white-collar people. I see no reason for each of these proposals and requests not to be acted upon. If problems emerge, the research will reflect them and suggest strengths and weaknesses. This is important.

The current arrangements are not working. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, na Teachtaí from Fianna Fáil, an tAire Stáit and everyone else knows it. What people are getting away with is a joke. It is not a joke for the people who are suffering because they are not getting payments. Every Deputy will have dealt with cases where people, usually but not always mothers, have struggled to get their agreed maintenance payments. This can lead to lasting adverse effects and drive young children into poverty. If a parent is due maintenance and is in receipt of a social welfare payment, he or she will be assessed as having a certain level of income even if the maintenance is not received. This means that a single parent loses out on the double. That situation should be rectified.

We need to research what is best practice. We need alternatives. That is why I will support the motion, and I hope the Government will accept and act on it.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. For far too long, the Government has been content to let parents battle it out through the courts to enforce child maintenance payments. The Courts Service received almost 9,000 applications for maintenance in 2018. With no State agency in place to support one-parent families, the Government is forcing lone parents who are already in financial hardship to fork out even more money in order to pursue child maintenance. This is unacceptable.

Of the more than 200,000 one-parent families living in the State, 39.9% are at risk of poverty. Some 40% of primary carers are raising children without any financial contribution from another parent. Almost 60% of parents are having to resort to court orders to agree child maintenance payments. A national survey found that a child's needs do not determine the amount paid in 91% of cases. Surely a child's needs should be considered in all cases. Once maintenance payments are made, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection can cut people's social welfare payments according to how much maintenance they are awarded through the courts. This is outrageous. Lone parents must endure the financial and mental burden of going through the court system only for the Department to then turn around and cut their social welfare payments. This is very much in line with robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I acknowledge that the budget has provided funding for research on this topic, but I want to see progress by the Government to show that it is not just another box-ticking exercise. The Government can do this by committing to the establishment of a State agency. According to SPARK-Ireland, international research has shown that removing child maintenance cases from the courts has resulted in greater child-parent relationships with the non-custodial parents. SPARK-Ireland has called on the Government to examine the Swedish model closely. Under that model, child maintenance payments are taken directly from the non-custodial parent's source of income. This would avoid a situation where the lone parent has to take the non-custodial parent to court to get the payments only for them to stop again after a few weeks, with the lone parent then needing to return to court. This causes a merry-go-round of suffering and stress for parents and children, and it cannot continue.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important matter. I thank Sinn Féin, and specifically Deputy Brady, for moving this motion.

As we all know, what starts out as a loving relationship between a young couple can often turn sour even before the birth of a baby. A young person can find himself or herself in a predicament very quickly, with a happy-go-lucky life turned into something onerous and tough as he or she tries to raise a child on his or her own. We need to do whatever we can for lone parents, who do Trojan work raising their children and are so protective. We know that, in the early years especially, the mother cannot go out to work because she has to mind the baby. She needs every support. That is what the motion is concerned with, namely, ensuring that lone parents get the support to which they are entitled.

Children are valuable. They are our future and we need to protect them. They are defenceless and cannot fend for themselves. In the cases in question, they are depending on a single parent. In many instances, there are not other family members to help. The grandparents are not around, for example, because they are too far away. A lone parent should not have thrown on him or her the requirement to prove legally the question of whether the other parent has the ability to pay. Proving that costs time and money, but lone parents do not have time when they are trying to mind their little babies and small children. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection should ensure that these lone parents are properly seen after. The one-parent family payment was cut a few years ago and has not been restored since. Many lone parents are struggling. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, not to oppose the motion. We must look after vulnerable young people, as they are our future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on Sinn Féin's motion on a child maintenance service. I thank my colleague, Deputy Brady, for moving it. I am glad that many Members have spoken in support of it.

I will start at the end of the speech by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and work backwards. It was ironic that he stated: "No one party has a monopoly on caring". No one said that anyone had a monopoly on caring, but everyone should be part of the monopoly on doing the right thing. This motion is about doing the right thing and assisting people. It does not matter what colour, class, creed or religion people are. When they are in dire straits, with poverty being one of the main factors, we must do the right thing. It is not about who wins the battle on the floor tonight. It is about who wins outside the Chamber, those being, the people who need our help.

Fine Gael Members are a bit disingenuous in saying that they do not oppose the motion but they will not support it. I do not know what colour they want. Is it black, white, blue or red?

I wish to focus on the importance of the motion and how effective it could be in helping everybody. Given my background in the mental health area, many lone parent families come to my office week in and week out. There is a perception outside the House that lone parents are all female, but there are as many males coming in with two or three young children and they are absolutely broken. Their jobs are being affected because they cannot afford childcare. They do not know how the system works. Nothing seems to be right. Many speakers referred to the Courts Service. That is another thing that is going to break down the family unit. Children can tap into what is happening. They know when their mother is hurting or their father is frustrated. They wonder why they are in their nanny's all the time. It is a minuscule move to do the right thing and I cannot understand why Fine Gael is not supporting it because it is about doing the right thing to assist people.

Another tsunami is coming down the road. Given the current crisis and the fact that people are living in hotels and other such places, children who have been born into such environments are now two or three years of age. They cannot eat properly because parents do not have the ability to cook in their accommodation. Those children are not on solids. They are on soft foods all their lives. One, two or three years on, they are not developing properly. We want to do the right thing to improve people's quality of life. Taking as much stress as we can out of people's lives will improve the situation. The benefit is that the future generations, although they are currently being damaged, will at least have a chance of having some quality of life.

Reference was made to the courts. I am very worried about the system because it is broken. A judge can make an order for maintenance in the court but that does not mean an individual will make the payments. Maintenance can be taken as means, which impairs people. The Government is taking money off people twofold if maintenance is not being paid and a lone parent does not get the full social welfare entitlement. That breaks down society. I appeal to Fine Gael tonight to think about that. It is not about scoring political points. It is about doing the right thing. That is what we came into this House to do. We have spoken many times in this House about the most vulnerable people. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, can correct me if I am wrong but the motion is a practical solution to improve people's lives, and if Members cannot support a measure to help the quality of people's lives when they are struggling, they should not be in the Chamber because they are not representing the people they should be representing.

The system for determining and paying child maintenance needs urgent reform. The Sinn Féin motion tabled tonight outlines a pathway and a means towards putting child maintenance payments on a statutory basis. That is something that is supported by several child maintenance advocacy groups. If the Government were to implement the proposals outlined in the motion, we would have in place a system that no longer would lead to anomalies in how child maintenance payments are determined or the ad hoc, unstructured way such payments are currently made.

Last July, One Family, a child maintenance advocacy group, published the results of an online survey it conducted on child maintenance payments. The results of the survey show starkly all that is wrong with the way child maintenance payments currently operate. It is a terrible indictment of the current system that just under 60% of separated primary carers of children said they received any form of maintenance payment. Of the parents who receive payments, 58% of those pursuing child maintenance payments had to resort to court orders, while 42% of primary carers are raising children without a financial contribution from the other parent. Of those receiving a child maintenance payment, approximately three quarters of primary carers said that they receive payments on time, leaving a quarter of primary carers getting their child maintenance payments late.

Advocates for statutory child maintenance are firmly of the view that many parents and children are more often financially worse off under existing arrangements. Additionally, the courts are being inundated with maintenance orders that the courts often cannot enforce. For example, in 2018, the Courts Service received almost 9,000 applications for maintenance orders and more than a quarter of those applications remained unresolved by the end of the court term. The Government is allowing that chaotic and unjust system to continue. It is clear that the system for determining child maintenance needs urgent reform. The break-up of a relationship that involves children is a very distressing and stressful time for all involved. We do not need to make it more stressful for the parents or the children. Our focus must be on the children and the implementation of a system that removes the entire issue from the courts. We need to put in place a system that is fair, balanced, consistent and child focused.

A range of important issues have been raised throughout the course of this debate, including the social welfare system for supporting families, the legal system and the Courts Service, and how they impact on family lives. We have heard about the people whom we are all here to help and to support.

The issue has been raised of creating some type of maintenance agency, but many countries have functioning maintenance systems without such an agency. It is the belief of the Minister and the Department that research is needed to see what form of maintenance provision would work best in our society.

The Private Members' motion fails to acknowledge the significant efforts made in recent years to enhance the position of families and children, including lone parents, across a range of Government initiatives, including social protection, childcare, health and education. The Minister has also outlined a broad range of measures provided for in budget 2020 to support families and children, including lone parents. These important changes have not been acknowledged in the motion, but I will refer to them now.

There will be a payment of a 100% Christmas bonus in December 2019 to recipients of a long-term social welfare payment, including the one-parent family payment. The Department will extend the hot school meals scheme from September 2020 to 35,000 additional schoolchildren. There is a €3 increase for qualified child dependants aged 12 and over and a €2 increase for qualified child dependants up to the age of 12 in all weekly payments. There will be an increase in the working family payment threshold by €10 per week for families with one, two or three children, benefiting 55,000 families, at a cost of €19 million from January 2020. There will be increases in the earnings disregard for working lone parents receiving the one-parent family payment or jobseeker's transition payment by €15 to €165 per week from January 2020, which will benefit almost 17,000 families.

Following the success of the roll-out of free GP care to children under six, from September it will expand to children under eight and to the provision of free dental care to children under six. There was an increase of €54 million in funding for early learning and childcare to support the continued provision of two years of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme for all children. It is incorrect to say that nothing has been provided or there was no acknowledgement of the situation of lone parents, because that is simply not the case.

The motion also fails to acknowledge that the Government has put in place funding of €150,000 to undertake important research on child maintenance. The Minister is making arrangements to establish a judge-led group to progress that work, which is a priority for her. Finally, the motion fails to recognise that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection has had close engagement with stakeholder groups on child maintenance and on the approach to the research being undertaken. This engagement will continue into the future to ensure that whatever system is implemented will be fit for purpose and based on the best available international practice.

On that basis, as stated, we will be abstaining from the vote on the motion although I assure the House that the Government will continue the work that has been undertaken in recent years to support lone parents.

That work has been recognised and welcomed by stakeholder groups representing children and families. Society needs to move away from an adversarial, confrontational approach to one based on family law, mediation and alternative dispute resolution, parenting co-ordination, co-operation and collaboration for the benefit of all parties involved. The Government is already doing this. I stress that the Minister is already consulting stakeholder groups. She has secured funding in this area for research. For these reasons, we will abstain on the motion.

I had hoped that this motion would encourage the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to take action on child maintenance. It is unbelievable that the State is yet to establish a dedicated agency for child maintenance. The Government has made a big deal out of saying it will not oppose the motion. Is that not shockingly decent of it? It will be looking for a round of applause next. However, the fact that the Government is not supporting the motion speaks volumes. That we still do not have an agency is clear evidence of the Government's continued neglect and abandonment of people living in poverty, especially single women and their children. The system is inappropriate, ineffective and not fit for purpose. My colleague, Deputy John Brady, has a position paper on this matter and has made some excellent suggestions about how such an agency might operate. I respectfully suggest that the Minister take some time to read it.

There are more than 200,000 lone parent families in this State. Most of them are headed by women, as we know. The Minister, Deputy Doherty, spoke about the austerity cuts inflicted by Fine Gael and the Labour Party on lone parents in the previous Government. She should put her money where her mouth is and establish this agency. It would help many families who are living in poverty solely because a parent is shirking his or her responsibilities. Instead, she has announced research and guidelines on child maintenance in the budget. Only now, in 2019, has she said that she is starting to look into research on this. That speaks volumes. It is not anywhere near enough. We need a dedicated agency and this is the Minister's responsibility at the end of the day. Thousands of single-parent families live in poverty. They depend on her and this Government to take action.

Lone parents are obliged to seek maintenance to receive the one-parent family payment or jobseeker's transitional payment. The current system in the courts is completely inappropriate. The Minister knows this but has continued to turn a blind eye to it. It is expensive, time-consuming and can be very difficult for families, especially in cases where separations were acrimonious or there have been issues with domestic abuse, but why should the Minister worry about that? It also does not guarantee that maintenance payments will actually be made. Many parents do not pay court-ordered maintenance and the liable relatives unit in the Department is totally ineffective. This is a really important issue and it is a pity that the Minister does not see the importance and urgency of it. I hope she will listen to our proposals and the solutions we are putting forward. I also hope she will take action to reform the child maintenance system in the immediate future, rather than continuing to put it on the long finger and turn a blind eye while so many families live in abject poverty.

Lone parents make up a substantial demographic in society. There are almost 220,000 lone-parent families in the State. Child maintenance contributions are a vital financial support that is necessary to provide children with the best developmental opportunities. The current child maintenance system is not working for lone parents or for children in need of critical financial support. It is responsible for lone-parent families being five times more at risk of experiencing poverty than a two-parent household. The absence of a State body or agency to provide assistance to these families and ensure that child maintenance is being paid is hurting vulnerable children and lone parents. Lone parents have effectively been abandoned by the State. Forcing them into court to have maintenance paid is increasing stress and causes conflict between custodial and non-custodial parents. Even after court cases are heard, maintenance is still not being paid in too many cases. This damages all parties, especially the children involved, and proves that the current system is not working.

We need a child maintenance service. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection recognises the importance of child maintenance payments, which can determine whether welfare supports are paid or not and at what level. Some 220,000 families need a child maintenance service that will support them. This is one of a few western states that do not have this service in place. The United Nations has called on Ireland to establish such a service. Guidelines from a Minister are not good enough. This is a sensible, workable solution and those who need it, vulnerable lone parents and their children, as well as advocacy groups, are demanding that we introduce it.

I thank the Deputies who spoke in support of Sinn Féin's motion. It is really welcome. It is unfortunate that the Government has indicated it will abstain. That is a disappointment not just for Sinn Féin but, more importantly, for the lone-parent families who are looking on and hoping that some of the Minister's positive words recently would translate into positive actions. While the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, rattled off a range of benefits in his contribution, these are available to many parents in the State and are not limited to lone parents. The Minister of State failed to touch on the Thatcherite cuts to the one-parent family payment that the Fine Gael Government introduced with a Labour Party Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, and the impact those cuts have had on one-parent families. These measures are irrelevant to the motion because we are talking about the non-payment of maintenance.

The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, always opens any response when it relates to child maintenance by detailing the legal obligation under the family law Acts. I am disappointed the Minister is not in the Chamber to respond personally to the motion and the questions asked. This legal obligation clearly means nothing. We know that because the majority of lone parents are not receiving maintenance for their children. Instead, lone parents are left to struggle and to live in poverty. The Minister has a tendency to dismiss the issue of child maintenance as a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality, yet it is the policies of her Department, not the Department of Justice and Equality, that have condemned many lone-parent families to poverty. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is able to pursue the non-custodial parent to cover its own costs for the one-parent family payment but has no interest in collecting maintenance for the children involved. What about the cost of a lone parent raising children alone?

The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, also spoke about the liable relatives unit, but I note he did not share the figures outlined by my colleague, Deputy Quinlivan, because those figures are embarrassing. The liable relatives unit is wholly dysfunctional. It does not work. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, spoke about the actions of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, on the issue of child maintenance as if she has been tackling the issue for years. Until September 2019, not once did the Minister agree to examine the process currently in place in order to seek child maintenance. I spent more than two years asking her about it over and over again in this Chamber. Let us not pretend the Minister has been working hard to tackle this issue. She spent those two years trying to pawn the issue off on the Department of Justice and Equality. It has to be said the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, has done nothing to date to tackle the issues faced by lone parents with maintenance. That is a fact.

It is really disappointing that the Government has chosen to abstain on this critical motion. The Minister says money has been set aside in the budget and that is welcome, but we do not need guidelines. Lone-parent families need a statutory child maintenance service that has been shown will cost a very small amount of money to establish, about €7 million. That cost would be so important to the many families out there that are driven into poverty because of the failure of this Government and of successive Governments to put in place a maintenance service that would help to ensure those children are lifted out of poverty, using child maintenance as a means to do so. I ask and urge the Government again not to abstain on this, but to support it and work together collectively, because no one has a monopoly on this issue and no one wants to turn it into a political football. We can all work together on this, but abstaining sends out the wrong message to lone-parent families that desperately need this.

Question put and declared carried.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.32 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 October 2019.