I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I apologise for being late. The Ceann Comhairle is like Speedy Gonzales this evening.
The main purpose of the Bill is to provide the legislative framework for the implementation of the social protection measures contained in budget 2020. The House will be aware that the budget was necessarily an exercise in prudent management of the public finances given the risks that Brexit poses to our economy. I hope Deputies will appreciate that, as a consequence, the scope for increasing welfare rates was limited. That does not mean, however, that we can fail to be innovative in ensuring available resources are used to effect the best possible changes for society. I am pleased we have provided for measures that will offer support to those who are reliant entirely on the support of the State, and that these measures will improve the lot of as many families and vulnerable people as possible.
The social welfare budget package for 2020, of €212 billion, includes €171.2 million in additional social welfare expenditure that specifically targets those most in need. More than 200,000 older people and people with a disability living alone will receive increased payments, with an increase of €5 per week to their living alone allowance payment. An important change in this budget is that increases to the weekly payments will take effect during the week beginning 6 January 2020 rather than the end of March, as had been the case in recent years. The increases to the living alone allowance, for example, will take effect from the week beginning 6 January 2020, benefiting more than 160,000 pensioners and 40,000 people with disabilities who are living alone. From the week beginning 6 January 2020, those receiving weekly social welfare payments with dependent children will get an increase. Families with children aged 12 and over will receive a weekly increase of €3 for each child, and those with children under 12 will get a weekly increase of €2 for each child. This builds on the increases introduced in last year's budget and the change I introduced in last year's budget legislation to provide higher rates of support for older children.
Working lone parents will see the earnings disregard increase by €15 to €165 per week from January, allowing them to earn more without affecting their one-parent family payment or jobseeker's transition payment. There will be an increase in the income thresholds for the working family payment of €10 per week for families with up to three children, ensuring that more low-income families qualify for the payment. It ensures that the families availing of this employment support will benefit from an additional €6 per week.
Jobseekers aged 25 will receive an increase of €45.20 in their weekly payment from January, bringing them up to the maximum rate payable, thereby discontinuing the reduced payment currently in place for 25 year old jobseekers. The jobseeker's allowance payment made to jobseekers who are under 25 will be increased to the maximum rate where they are living independently and in receipt of State housing support, for example, rent supplement or any of our housing assistance payments.
Some of the measures contained in the budget do not require primary legislation and, therefore, are not reflected in the Bill. These include an increase in the fuel allowance by €2 per week to €24.50 from January; extending the household benefits package, that is, the gas and electricity allowance and free TV licence, to people under 70 who have another adult living with them; €2.5 million that is being provided specifically to target job activation and training supports for groups who are most distant from the labour market or have challenges entering the workforce; the extension of the hot school meals programme; an increase in the number of hours for which a carer can work per week from 15 to 18.5; funding for important research into a question that has exercised most Deputies, namely, how best to address difficult issues around maintenance payments; and an increase in the earnings disregard for those in receipt of the jobseeker's transition payment.
I am pleased to have received Government approval for the payment of the social welfare Christmas bonus at a rate of 100% again this year. It will be paid in early December. It will benefit all recipients of long-term payments, including carers, those with disabilities, pensioners and lone parents.
I will outline the contents of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, its construction and citations, and its commencement provisions.
Section 2 provides for definitions of terms used in Part 2, which relates to amendments to the Social Welfare Acts.
Section 3 is a technical amendment that brings the definition of "confinement" for maternity benefit purposes into line with the definition used in the Civil Registration Acts.
Up to this point, a mother can qualify for maternity benefit once the child has attained a gestational age of 24 weeks. By bringing the definitions into line with each other, we will ensure that where a child is unfortunately stillborn and has a birth weight of 500 g, the mother will qualify for maternity benefit irrespective of the child's gestational age. While this is a very small change, it is a very important one for the mothers who are already dealing with a very difficult situation.
Section 4 provides that the reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance for claimants aged 18 to 24 will no longer apply where the claimant lives independently and is in receipt of housing supports. The full rate of jobseeker's allowance will be paid to these persons with effect from 1 January 2020. Section 5 provides that, from 1 January 2020, the age-related reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance will no longer apply to younger claimants once they have attained the age of 25.
Section 6 is a technical amendment and updates the legislative provisions governing entitlement to carer's allowance. The amendment confirms that the definition of a "relevant person", that is, a person who requires full-time care and attention, means, in the case of a person aged under 16, a person in respect of whom a domiciliary care allowance is in payment.
Sections 7 and 8 mirror the amendments in sections 4 and 5 by providing that the age-related rates of supplementary welfare allowance will no longer apply where the claimant lives independently and is in receipt of housing supports and that age-related rates generally will no longer apply to those who attain the age of 25.
Section 9 provides for an increase of €10 in the weekly income thresholds which determine the level of working family payment for families with up to three children. This change will take effect from 9 January 2020. Section 10 is a technical amendment to make it absolutely clear in the legislation that the payment of guardian's payment to a guardian in respect of an orphan does not affect the right of the guardian to claim welfare payments in his or her own right.
Section 11 is a technical amendment which updates section 247 of the Act to set out the payments which may not be paid concurrently with the working family payment. Section 12 is another technical amendment which brings the legislative provisions relating to social welfare payments after the death of a claimant fully into line with long-standing policy and practice. In particular, it makes it clear that such payments are made to the surviving spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the deceased.
Section 13 provides for the repeal of section 282 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 which currently provides for reduced cost life event, namely, birth, marriage or death certificates. This is a matter which is more appropriately dealt with under civil registration law and equivalent provisions in the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014 will be commenced in parallel with this repeal. The provisions will allow regulations to be made by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the purpose of setting the fees, if any, for the provision of life event certificates.
Section 14 provides for amendments to the provisions in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act relating to the recovery of certain benefits where a compensator, typically an insurance company, is also paying compensation in respect of the same injury, accident or disease that gave rise to the claim for a social welfare payment in the first instance. First, it adds supplementary welfare allowance to the list of specified benefits which may be recovered and second, it adjusts the period within which a request for a statement of recoverable benefits must be issued to a compensator from four weeks to 25 working days.
Sections 15 and 19 are perhaps the most important sections of the Bill, since they provide for a €2 increase in the rate of the qualified child increase for children aged under 12, from €34 to €36 per week, and an increase of €3, from €37 to €40 per week for children aged 12 and over. These sections also provide for an increase of €5 per week in the rate of the living alone allowance. Depending on the scheme involved, these measures come into effect on dates between 1 and 10 January 2020.
Section 16 provides that the blind welfare allowance, a payment that is currently made by the HSE, will be disregarded in the means test for certain social assistance payments, and in particular for disability allowance payment. This measure comes into effect from 10 January 2020. Section 17 provides for an increase in the earnings disregard for one-parent family payment from €150 to €165 per week, with effect from 9 January 2020.
Section 18 is another technical amendment which updates references set out in the means-testing provisions contained in table 2 of Schedule 3 to reflect both changes in structures, for instance with the establishment of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and changes in practices, by recognising that certain payments may be made by agencies contracted by the HSE, as well as being made directly by the HSE itself.
Part 3 provides for amendments to the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 and the National Training Fund Act 2000. First, section 20 amends section 10D of the National Minimum Wage Act to provide that, where the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission has not been implemented, the Minister of the day may nonetheless subsequently issue an order. This amendment is designed to cater for situations such as the current uncertainty surrounding the timing and effects of Brexit. Second, the final section of the Bill, section 21, provides for a 0.1% increase from 0.9% to 1% in the National Training Fund levy payable by employers in respect of reckonable earnings of employees in class A and class H employments with effect from 1 January 2020.
Finally, I wish to advise the House that I intend to bring forward amendments to address issues raised in a Supreme Court judgment which found that provisions of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act relating to the entitlements of prisoners were unconstitutional. To put it simply, the court has found that the automatic disallowance of entitlement to benefits for prisoners is unconstitutional since it represents a secondary or extrajudicial punishment. Again, the issues involved are quite complex but need to be addressed. Work is under way at present on drafting the necessary changes to the Act and, if they are ready, I hope to introduce them as amendments to the Bill.
I wish to re-emphasise that the Bill before us today demonstrates our commitment to providing a better deal for families, as reflected in particular in the increased rates of payment for qualified children and the enhancement of the working family payment and the one-parent family payment. We have also paid particular attention to older people living alone. Even in the context of a budget which had to be constrained due to the potential consequences of Brexit, I hope we have built on the significant increases of recent years and maintained the focus on the groups in society who are at most risk and are most vulnerable. I commend the Bill to the House.