Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Public Services Card

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

40. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the public services card and the findings of the Data Protection Commissioner on same; if enforcement proceedings have been issued by the Data Protection Commissioner; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43652/19]

My question to the Minister is more or less self-explanatory. It follows on from our discussion on this matter on the last occasion we had parliamentary questions to the Minister.

The public services card was provided for in legislation in 1998 when it was introduced alongside the personal public service, PPS, number to replace the previous revenue and social insurance number, the old RSI number, and the social service card, the old SSC. It acts as an identifier for access to a broad range of services. Successive Governments since have reaffirmed this policy both in Government decisions and through legislation.

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

On the basis of strong legal advice from the Attorney General's office, I am satisfied that the processing of personal data related to the PSC does, in fact, have a robust legal basis, that the retention of data is lawful and that the information provided to users satisfies the requirements of transparency.

I am advised that the findings in the Data Protection Commission report do not have the force of law until such time as they are formalised in an enforcement notice. To date, the Data Protection Commission has not issued an enforcement notice, although I understand one is being prepared by the Data Protection Commission. On receipt of it, the Department will consider the scope and terms of the enforcement notice and we will respond appropriately at that time.

In the meantime, the Department will continue to conduct the SAFE registration process and issue PSCs. It will also retain the supporting documentation collected as part of the SAFE process. I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for her response. Basically the position is that she has not got an enforcement notice as yet but when she gets one she will consider it. Is she saying she has not definitively made up her mind yet to contest or resist this by having recourse to the courts? Is that the position? There is no final definitive decision on that.

Is the Minister aware the Data Protection Commissioner is currently doing a study on the biometric implications of the public services card? Does she have any comment to make on that?

With respect to the Minister's statement, which she has made a number of times, that to comply with the instructions of the Data Protection Commissioner would be unlawful, could she elaborate on that?

The Deputy is correct in saying we have not received an enforcement notice. Therefore it is very difficult to tell the Deputy, with 100% clarity, what we would do until we see that enforcement notice but I can reiterate the legal advice we have, which is numerous, tells us that the legal basis for conducting the safety registration pass, the production of PSC card, the retention of the data and the transparency of that entire process is entirely legitimate with regard to the various pieces of legislation and amended legislation that has been passed by successive Government over many years. Therefore, if the enforcement notice comes in line with the findings, then I think that legislative basis obviously will still stand. However, as I said, we have not seen an enforcement notice despite it now being some months later but we will look at the scope and the terms of that enforcement notice and react depending on what is in it.

We are very much aware there is a second part to this. The Data Protection Commission chose to put its investigation, which was started some two years ago, into two parts. What we have received is the findings from the first part of its investigation, which is around the PSC and SAFE 2. The second part of its investigation is around biometrics and to date we have not received anything from it with regard to that.

Regarding the unlawfulness of this, we have a legal basis to do exactly what we are doing. That is why we are strong in our commitment to continue doing what we are dong. Where we would not have a legal basis is to change the current law to try to provide a safety registration process in a different way from what the law prescribes. Therefore, we will carry on doing what we are doing until the enforcement notice comes and we react to it.

Is the Minister familiar with the conclusion of the Data Protection Commissioner that in some cases the public services card makes access to a service more difficult, for example, when one must artificially produce the card when identify verification was not required in the past with respect to, say, school transport appeals. Has that practice been discontinued? Would the Minister like to comment on the decision taken by other Departments and other public bodies to abandon insistence on the production of a public services card to get access to their services?

The intention from the inception of this project, for want of a better word, was never to make accessing public services more difficult. It was always to try to make it more efficient and, in the main, I believe it has done that. I would regret if anybody finds it more difficult to access public services by the use of electronically communicating or using the public services card as an identifier.

I am not sure where school transport appeals came into the narrative. A public services card has no place and never has had a place in school transport appeals. It does not form part of that process whatsoever. I believe that just developed over the last number of weeks or months as an example but it has never been used. The production of a public services card is not a requirement for anybody to make an appeal of a school transport decision that has been made. As I have always stated, this is an overarching Government policy to try to make public services easier and more efficient to deliver on behalf of each and every Department but every Minister is responsible for making the decisions on how they deliver those efficient services entirely for their own Department.

Departmental Staff

John Brady

Ceist:

41. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the details of her plans to implement a new front office-back office model in Intreo offices; the effect the changes will have for existing offices and staffing levels in the offices; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43654/19]

Will the Minister set out the details of her plans to introduce a new front office-back office model in Intreo offices and the effect those changes will have for existing offices and staffing levels within those offices?

Front office-back office is a new operating model currently being introduced which seeks to make the best use of our resources by balancing workloads across our Intreo office network. The new model utilises recent ICT developments that have removed the location constraints of the previous paper-based system. Those constraints meant that the majority of claim-related activity had to be physically performed within the local Intreo centre. Under the front office-back office model, the core front office functions in which the majority of staff are engaged, including claim reception and registration, identity verification, employment services, community welfare services and control activity, continue to be performed in local Intreo offices.

Once a claim is registered, however, it can be processed and decided by an appropriately-trained deciding officer in any one of a number of back office units that can be located anywhere in the country. This enables the efficient utilisation of available staff resources and facilitates greater standardisation and consistency in the decision-making process. It also adds significant flexibility to the Department’s ability to balance workloads across available resources nationwide and to handle unexpected spikes in demand. This has been evidenced by the prompt processing of all claims arising from the recent meat industry dispute.

The new operating model was successfully piloted in late 2017 and early 2018. Following evaluation, the model has now been implemented in 55 of the Department's branch offices and in eight Intreo centres. The roll-out of the new model across the remainder of the Intreo network is being discussed with staff representative organisations and, subject to those discussions, is planned to be completed in 2020. Back offices currently process decisions arising from approximately 35% of the total Intreo claim load.

The introduction of the front office-back office model does have some impacts for staff, as the nature of individual jobs and the organisation and distribution of work may change. Staff representatives have, therefore, been fully involved in the project over the last two years and will continue to be involved as and when the project progresses.

It is concerning that this process is being undertaken so quietly. No information has been given on this subject. The Minister has not ruled out any prospect of job losses in Intreo offices. She needs to put on the record a clarification of whether there will be job losses because of this new model and she needs to state that clearly. I state that because concerns have been expressed about potential reductions in staff numbers. I would like a yes-no answer from the Minister to that question.

There is also concern regarding a reduction in standards for customers. At present, someone can go into an Intreo office, make an application for a payment and, in some cases, get a decision there and then. The application is processed on the day. Under these new proposals, the back office could be anywhere and the processing of applications could take any length of time. That breakdown in communication with the customer is a cause of concern and that matter also requires a response from the Minister.

Just because the Deputy might not know something about an issue does not mean that we have done something quietly. There has been a full and ongoing consultation with staff and unions during the development, piloting and implementation of the new model. The Fórsa trade union supplied detailed feedback to us for consideration of the pilot evaluation. That feedback was included, in its entirety, in an appendix to the pilot evaluation report. There have, however, been some industrial relations difficulties, with Fórsa issuing non-co-operation instructions to their members on two separate occasions, resulting in implementation days. My Department responded by engaging intensively with Fórsa to produce an agreed document covering all of the concerns raised. My Department and Fórsa have also put local operational and national structures in place to deal with any issues that may arise in the future.

Although the front office-back office model will generate efficiencies in claims processing, those efficiencies will be used to help organise and adapt our Department as more staff retire. They will also provide the basis to enable staff take on higher-value work, such as additional employment services and control work.

The Minister will have another opportunity to respond.

The Minister alluded to the concerns of Fórsa, the representative organisation of the staff. Did those concerns emerge on foot of any reviews of the initial roll-out undertaken by the trade union or the Department? That roll-out encompassed some 52 branches across eight different Intreo centres. Will the Minister address some of the concerns identified and outline what plans are in place to address them? She did not answer the fundamental question regarding redundancies. A simple yes-no answer will suffice. It is intended that the entire roll-out will be completed by 2020. The issues identified by Fórsa are genuine and need to be addressed and I hope the Minister will elaborate on those issues now.

I call the Minister for a brief reply.

The simple answer to the Deputy's question is "No". To reiterate, the Fórsa trade union was entirely involved in our pilot project. It supplied detailed feedback for consideration during the assessment of the pilot and all of its suggestions and recommendations were taken on board. There were incidents involving the union on two occasions. We engaged intensively with Fórsa and agreed documents covering each of the concerns to a happy and conclusive resolution.

Fuel Allowance Data

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

42. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the way in which her Department has calculated that an increase in the fuel allowance as announced in budget 2020 will compensate for the increase in carbon tax; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43653/19]

I raise this question because, to the best of my recollection, in his budget speech the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, linked the fuel allowance increases to the introduction of carbon tax. He suggested that the reason fuel allowance was being increased was to compensate people for the imposition of carbon tax. I would like the Minister to elaborate on this matter.

In budget 2020, we increased the fuel allowance payment by €2 to €24.50 per week. That is an increase of just under 9% and that will increase the annual fuel allowance rate from €630 to €686, which is an increase of €56 for the year. The annual cost of this increase in the fuel allowance is €21 million and that is funded via a ring-fenced allocation from the approximately €90 million that it is expected will be raised from the carbon tax increase. This is the largest single allocation and it is directly aimed at protecting our most vulnerable citizens.

Last year, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, published its report, "The Economic and Environmental Impacts of Increasing the Irish Carbon Tax". This followed its detailed analysis of the impact of increasing carbon tax at various rates. It included a treatment of the effect on households at each income decile and shows that the increase in the carbon tax of €6 per tonne will cost the poorest households an additional €28.08 per annum, rising to €51.17 per annum for those in the third lowest income decile.

Accordingly, it is intended that the €56 annual increase in fuel allowance that we have announced will more than compensate the three lowest income deciles, the very people toward whom the fuel allowance is targeted. We hope this will ensure that the most vulnerable in society are protected from the increased carbon tax. It is also important to note that while the fuel allowance increases will come into effect from 6 January 2020, the carbon tax increase for home heating fuels will not take effect until May 2020. That will, hopefully, give such households additional headroom while we introduce that increase.

The Taoiseach referred to various studies on this matter which threw up similar figures. I presume those are the same studies to which the Minister is referring. Is it the Government's intention to continue in this vein? I ask that because it is anticipated that there will be further increases in carbon tax between now and 2020, as laid out in the budget speech. Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government's intention to compensate for those future increases by way of using the fuel allowance mechanism? Is that the case or is an alternative method being considered to compensate people in the poorest families?

The studies the Taoiseach referred to are the only ones of which I am aware. I refer to the ESRI impact assessments done on the worst affected and the people with the lowest incomes in society. I will check with the Taoiseach to see if he knows something I do not.

I state this tongue in cheek, but I cannot really answer the question as to the intentions of future Governments. If Deputy O'Dea and his party are willing to extend the confidence and supply agreement, and I am in this post this time next year, then it will certainly be my intention to protect the most vulnerable in society from any future increases. We all know, however, where we are in the cycle of life at the moment.

I genuinely believe that whoever is privileged enough to be in my position has a responsibility to protect the living standards and the livelihood of those who are totally reliant on the single income that they receive from the State and it is incumbent upon us all to make sure that happens regardless of who is in power.

The Minister is asking questions which are way above my pay grade. The point I want to put to the Minister is that not everybody gets a fuel allowance. For example, what about somebody on jobseeker's allowance? What about a pensioner who is not living alone and, therefore, will not qualify for the living alone allowance? What about those on invalidity pension, disability allowance, single parents etc.? They are not compensated for the increase in carbon tax by the fuel allowance increase. The Minister will be aware that because their rates did not rise, they are not compensated for inflation either and inflation for that group tends to be rather higher than the headline figure of inflation. Is it not true to say that those who are already living in poverty or at risk of poverty will be suffering from a double whammy? They have got no increase in their basic allowance and they cannot benefit from the increase in fuel allowance because they do not get it.

To answer the Deputy's question, as I noted earlier on, of the ring-fenced €90 million that will be raised through the carbon tax this year, the single biggest investment of €21 million is coming to my Department to try to shield those who are most vulnerable.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has the sole responsibility, with the Minister for Finance, for reducing energy poverty and introducing measures to improve the energy efficiency of Irish homes. In 2016, the Government launched a comprehensive strategy to combat energy poverty followed by extensive public consultation and that strategy is spearheaded by the Minister, Deputy Bruton. It sets out the Government's commitment to protecting vulnerable households from energy poverty through a combination of supports, investments in schemes to improve energy efficiency and energy efficiency awareness initiatives.

For my part, the best route out of poverty that we can help with the Department is to ensure that anybody who wants to get a job has the support and services to help him or her get a job. We have all accepted that in the past number of years there have been some successes in that particular project but there is still a long way to go, given that 4.8% of the people are on the unemployment register.

Carer's Allowance Eligibility

John Brady

Ceist:

43. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the fact that by increasing the hours carers can work outside the home and not increasing the income disregard at the same time, carers who work those additional hours may see a reduction in their carer’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43655/19]

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

44. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to increase the income disregard means test for carer’s allowance, which has not changed for 11 years further to her decision in budget 2020 to increase the number of hours that a family carer can work to 18.5 hours; the number of carers projected to have their allowance reduced in 2020 and 2021, respectively, if they work more hours; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43851/19]

Priority Questions Nos. 43 and 44 are grouped. Deputy Brady is to introduce.

With the increase in hours that carers can work outside the home, I ask whether the Minister's attention been drawn yet to a serious anomaly or issue that has arisen due to not increasing the earnings disregard.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 43 and 44 together.

Have I not an opportunity to introduce my question?

It is not in my gift. It is the Minister's office. The Minister has grouped the questions and should go ahead.

I have a right to give my introduction.

I will be clear. For a start, the Chair has no role in the grouping of questions. Standing Order 41(2) states, "Where Questions nominated for priority are grouped for reply, the total times allowed for the group and for the initial Ministerial reply shall be the aggregates of the times which would be allowed for the individual Questions."

Could I confirm that this gives the Deputy an opportunity to respond to my reply?

Is that okay with the Deputy?

There is only one introduction - I made it clear - and both Deputies will get due time in the same way.

I have to wait until the Minister replies.

In budget 2020, I announced that recipients of carer's payments would be allowed to increase the number of hours they can work, study or attend a training course, outside the home, from 15 to 18.5 hours per week.

Over 1,200 additional family carers are expected to qualify for payment as a result of this change at an estimated cost of €11.6 million. Also, any carer currently working less than 18.5 hours per week can avail of the additional hours.

I prioritised this measure in direct response to the carers I have met over the past number of years who have told me that they found the current number of 15 hours to be too restrictive. An increase to 18.5 hours will accommodate increased participation by carers in work or training to strengthen their connection with the labour force, while also serving the additional purpose of reducing the social alienation that we so often hear is experienced by many carers.

There have been calls to increase the disregard for carer's allowance from carers groups. In deliberating measures for budget 2020, I included an examination of the disregard for carer's allowance. In its pre-budget submission, Family Carers Ireland looked for an increase in the disregard for carer's allowance of €117.50 for a single person and €235 for a couple per week. My Department costed this proposal using the ESRI simulating welfare and income tax changes, SWITCH, model. Allowing for income tax and working family payment offsets, net expenditure is estimated to be more than €55 million per year.

Changes to schemes are considered in an overall budgetary and policy context and from an evidence based perspective. Some 92% of the current recipients of carer's allowance have no means or means of less than €7.60 per week and would not benefit by an increase in the disregard no matter how big. The overwhelming majority of carers can, therefore, benefit from the change in the working hours threshold.

The existing income disregard and means test for carer's allowance is also one of the most generous within the social welfare system, not only in Ireland but across the European Union, with the amount of weekly earnings disregarded at €332.50 for a single person and €665 for a couple. At 18.5 hours work per week, this amounts to €36 per hour for a person in a two-person household and €18 per hour in a single-person household. This indicates that there is significant scope for carers to increase their working hours without impacting their payment. In fact, only 0.1% of current carer's allowance recipients have means of between €250 and €300 per week and it is highly unlikely that any of them will have their payment reduced as a result of choosing to work additional hours.

Carers who would benefit from an increased disregard would be in higher income households. Given the need to target available resources fairly and equitably to those in most need, allowing an increase in the number of hours was the best use of the limited resources available to the Department in the budget. In this context, I have no plans to change the means test conditions for carer's allowance at this point.

In my question, I stated it was an anomaly. Clearly, it was not. This was a premeditated move and the Minister touched on that. The Minister did this in the full knowledge of the impact it would have.

There was a protest by carers outside the gates here last week. I spoke to a number of them and I have spoken to many since the budget. I disagree with the Minister when she states that this will have an impact on very few, given the evidence I have and the evidence the carers are giving.

The carers welcome the increase in hours that they can work outside the home to 18.5 hours but it was not to be done in isolation. In their submission to and engagement with the Minister, the carers had said that the increase in hours on its own would not be sufficient and there needed to be an increase in the earnings disregard. The Minister disregarded what they said and the impact will be significant. It will not impact on 0.1%, as the Minister referenced in her reply. The evidence from carers shows that this will have a real impact and be counterproductive. It will mean that this is a token measure and it will restrict them to doing 15 hours, as they had done previously.

I have spent my political life advocating for and highlighting the carers' plight.

I welcome the increase from 15 hours to 18.5 hours. It is long overdue. It has been called for. It has not changed since 2006.

The Minister cannot disguise the fact that there has been no increase in the income disregard for the carer's allowance to match. The Minister has, in effect, created a potential poverty trap. If they work those extra hours, is the Minister telling me that their carer's allowance will not be reduced proportionately?

Only one carer in four receives the allowance due to the means test. The Minister has a good system but 81,000 out of 355,000 is less than one in four. That is the point. It is closer to one in five.

This is a well-intentioned policy objective which the Minister has achieved but if the Minister does not follow through, she will defeat the purpose for which she brought it in. The Minister should review that.

Let the Minister not mind the SWITCH model. That makes lots of errors.

I am not sure why the Deputy called it an anomaly given that it was part of the carers' benefit system, which is enshrined in legislation. It was a decision made when we sat down with a finite amount and we had to decide who we needed to best look after. We had to see how thinly we could spread the money to reach the most people in the current economy. When I considered increasing the hours while also increasing the disregard, the amount that it would cost and the number who would have benefitted did not warrant the €73 million additional cost of an increase in disregards.

I do not pluck statistics or numbers from the sky. My figures are based on the carers currently in payment from the Department. Some 86% of those currently in receipt of carer's allowance have little or no means and an increase in the disregard would have zero effect. Had we increased the disregard, it would have had an impact on 0.1% of those currently in receipt of the allowance. I have to consider the €73 million and all the choices we had to make regarding lone parents, qualified children living in poverty and so on. It was a political decision at budget time but I would not classify it as premeditated in the sense meant by Deputy Brady, although we all get the gist.

I agree with Deputy Penrose that the Carers' Association is acting on behalf of all our carers. He is correct that one in four carers is receiving payments here so there are a hell of a lot of people who do a lot of loving and caring out of love and respect for those for whom they care. I appreciate that. They appreciate the increase in hours because they have asked this of many Governments. It is 11 years since any changes were introduced by way of the increased hours that people may study or work. I am happy to have been able to do that. However, I was unable to increase the €73 million as I have outlined.

I ask the Acting Chairman to indulge me briefly. I believe that we need to have a proper conversation about care in this country. No one can ignore it for much longer given we will have far more carers in future than ever. Collectively, we recognise that the State needs to change the way it works, supports and cares for our carers. That is why Ms Catherine Day is a very welcome appointment to the Citizens' Assembly.

The Minister will not be coming back in on this question.

I have asked to ensure that the Carers' Association is front and centre to any new Citizens' Assembly and, collectively, we should all buy into whatever recommendations emerge and the changes required to care for carers.

We have two minutes left on this question. I call Deputy Brady and then Deputy Penrose.

I agree that proper conversations are necessary. There is also an urgent need to review the means threshold for carer's allowance. It must be reviewed and I ask the Minister and Department to undertake that immediately. It is far too restrictive. Carers must often give up work to allow themselves to give care. The Minister said that she does not make up numbers but she gave two different figures for increasing the earnings disregard. In her first contribution, she said it would cost €55 million and, in her second, she said it would be €73 million.

It is the net family working payment and income tax.

Can we have clarity on that? There is an opportunity to address this. The social welfare Bill is coming up and if the Minister does not try to fix this, myself and others will table amendments to rectify this and ensure that there will not be winners and losers. "Winners and losers" is a phrase used all the time by the Minister and her Department. There should not be winners and losers when it comes to carers.

It is 50 years since I first advocated for the abolition of the means test for carer's allowance. It would be administratively simple. Millionaires will look after people without claiming it but it will suit people who are only €10 over the limit and all that nonsense. There is something wrong. Some 116,000 people are eligible for the carers' support grant. Only 81,000 are in receipt of the carer's allowance. That means 35,000 are only tipping around the margins. They must be brought into the carer's allowance scheme immediately. We have to tackle this once and for all. To be fair, the Minister is correct that we have had this on the cheap and we have collectively been skinflints. We have abused carers and given them 90 cent an hour. There is talk of a minimum wage. We have abused them. Let us be honest because most of them work 15 hours a day, 105 hours a week. They are being given 18.5 hours to do a bit of paid work, effectively to qualify them for pensions down the road or to get an education qualification. That is what this is about.

We have had their care on the cheap and abused them. It is time to stop the abuse. I think the Minister recognises that better than anyone.

The time has run out on this question. I call Deputy Curran on Question No. 45.