Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Community Employment Schemes

Paul McAuliffe

Ceist:

28. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Social Protection if she has considered the long-term sustainability of services provided by community employment schemes (details supplied). [24342/20]

Community employment is used by organisations across the country to support communities, deliver services and maximise community facilities. Is the Minister's Department committed to reforming the community employment scheme to ensure the long-term sustainability of these services, bearing in mind the people who work in them?

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for raising this matter.

Community employment, CE, is an employment support programme targeted at the long-term unemployed. Prior to the recent Covid-19 emergency the number of long-term unemployed on the live register fell steadily as the economy gradually returned to full employment. While this was a positive development, it meant a reduction in the number of suitable candidates available for onward referral to employment support schemes, including CE.

During the period of the Covid-19 emergency, my Department introduced a series of measures, including contract extensions, for all existing CE participants to maintain CE participant levels.

Since 6 July, my Department has steadily increased its activation activity across all of the employment supports to ensure the increased number of jobseekers in the Covid environment have the necessary access to the full range of opportunities available, including to CE schemes.

Department case officers continue to work closely with CE sponsoring authorities to ensure they receive the necessary referrals for existing vacancies and new vacancies that arise. Those availing of Covid-19-related payment supports will also become eligible to participate on employment support schemes including CE if, unfortunately, they continue to be unemployed for 12 months or more.

I am aware of the positive benefits derived from schemes like CE. Communities benefit from the skills and talents of CE participants who, in addition, are provided with the opportunity to improve existing skills or develop new skills, while performing valuable work in their local communities. I know that Deputies in this House are well aware of the many excellent schemes across the country. Furthermore, many CE schemes provide vital community services across the country, all of which are well embedded in the communities.

As the Deputy will be aware, as part of the July stimulus package, the Government announced 3,000 additional places on State employment schemes, including the CE scheme. This will provide opportunities for existing CE schemes to expand participants' numbers and services provided.

While the service is used to provide much-needed community facilities, the real problem is that the CE scheme is funded by the Minister's Department to provide a training opportunity for people exiting long-term unemployment with the hope they would progress into the job market. I have supervised some of the people involved in these schemes and there is no doubt they benefit greatly from the opportunity. However, those positive stories mask what I believe to be a system with massive governance funding and structural problems. We are all familiar with the issue of the pension payment for CE supervisors, on which I expect the Government to move quickly. I have met local CE supervisors. They are reasonable people who, after a lifetime of service, ask only that the Government honour the Labour Court recommendation to give them, they are mostly women, something which they richly deserve.

I have also met many of the CE scheme supervisors. For several years now, they have sought through their union representatives the allocation of Exchequer funding to implement a 2008 Labour Court recommendation relating to the provision of a pension scheme. CE sponsoring authorities are the legal employers of their CE supervisors, CE assistant supervisors and CE participants and the Department's role continues to be that of a CE funder. However, the issue was examined by a community sector high-level forum chaired by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. A number of Departments, including my own, were represented on this group, as were the unions and Pobal. Officials from my Department held a series of meetings with CE supervisor union representatives to consider a range of proposals, mindful of the wider environmental and financial implications of any such proposals. Discussions were also undertaken with my Department officials and their counterparts in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and these are ongoing. I will also engage with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, who has also met the CE supervisors.

On a wider point than just the CE pensions, the real problem with the CE schemes is the nature of them being independent limited companies. In many ways, it is a little bit of a corporate governance black hole. The Department is effectively the shadow director, the funder and the real decision maker and CE supervisors are often one-man or one-woman shows. They have little support and the board of directors is often there in name only.

Equally, some schemes are used by large charities to do vital fundraising work. These charities, however, do not provide CE supervisors with the same terms and conditions as their other workers.

Finally, and more crucially, many CE schemes simply provide what I believe to be State services, such as meals on wheels or crèche places in disadvantaged areas. These people are effectively public servant employees using manufactured limited companies to reduce employment costs and the sad thing is, they are providing them at a fraction of the cost that a public or private sector provider would. The least they deserve is the odd pay rise and a decent pension gratuity or pension scheme to which they can contribute.

As I said, we are engaging with the supervisors and, in fairness, my Department works very closely with them. I am aware there were a number of issues in one scheme in the midlands only a couple of weeks ago and we had direct involvement. We were able to give them the necessary support and information and bring clarification to a number of issues.

We want to continue to work with them because they provide an absolutely vital service. It is not just all about job activation, it is also about social inclusion. They provide a really wonderful service in other areas of society. That is something we need to look at in terms of the overall CE schemes because they are performing a dual purpose at present. I am aware there was a review a number of years ago and good changes have been made in terms of older people who may be allowed to remain longer on these schemes. Having said that, however, it is an opportunity to have another look on how we can improve them. We are all about how we can do things better here.

Question No. 29 replied to with Written Answers.

Rental Sector

Catherine Connolly

Ceist:

30. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Social Protection the amount paid out by her Department in rent supplement each month from January 2020 to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25104/20]

Is ceist shimplí dhíreach í, a Aire. It is a very simple, direct question. How much money has been paid out by month in rent supplement from the Minister's Department?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Rent supplement continues to play a key role in supporting families and individuals in private rented accommodation, with the scheme currently supporting 19,600 recipients.

The scheme provides short-term income support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. The scheme ensures that those who were renting but whose circumstances have changed due to temporary loss of employment or income can continue to meet their rental commitments. In order to assist those whose income and employment has been affected by Covid-19, my Department introduced increased flexibility to facilitate easier access to rent supplement.

This has ensured that rent supplement could be provided in a timely manner for those households struggling to meet rent commitments during the pandemic. Since March 2020, rent supplement has been awarded to over 8,000 households. Of this number, over 1,700 have since closed their claim as they have returned to full-time employment. This flexibility is being extended until the end of March 2021.

Since the beginning of August, rent supplement is more easily accessible to victims of domestic violence. Arrangements are now in place to enable victims of domestic violence to get immediate access to rent supplement for a three-month period to ensure that they are not prevented from leaving their home because of financial or accommodation difficulties.

The revised forecast cost for supporting the rent supplement scheme to the end of the year is €133 million, an increase of €36.6 million, or 38%, on the original provision of €96.4 million for 2020. The €36.6 million forecast increase is due to an increase in those availing of the support during the Covid-19 pandemic. The monthly outturn for 2020 for the scheme is provided in a tabular statement that follows this reply and that I will forward to the Deputy.

Tabular Statement: Amount Paid by Month for Rent Supplement: Jan 2020 to Aug 2020

Month

Euro

January

€8,891,071

February

€8,209,296

March

€8,654,764

April

€11,476,784

May

€13,487,642

June

€12,794,964

July

€12,305,023

August

€10,534,638

Total

€86,354,182

I welcome the flexibility from the Department regarding this matter. I also welcome the flexibility regarding victims of domestic violence. I have no difficulty with any of that.

I look forward to looking at the detail of the Minister's answer but rent supplement was to be abolished, is that not right? It was to be phased out and was only supposed to be there in temporary emergency situations. Applicants were to move on to the housing assistance payment, HAP. I have added up a rough estimate of the HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, payments and the rent supplement payments and we are at €600 million.

We are at more than €600 million and rising in relation to direct benefit to the private market while the housing crisis intensifies. I realise that is not the Minister's direct responsibility, but she is part of a Government that is actively promoting higher rents in the private market while we fail to provide public housing. What assessment has the Department done on this matter?

The strategic policy direction of my Department is to return rent supplement to its original purpose of being a short-term income-support scheme. Under the HAP scheme, responsibility for the provision of rental assistance to those with a long-term housing need is transferring to local authorities. HAP has been designed to simplify the current system of housing supports. It allows people to engage in full-time employment and remain in the scheme, whereas rent supplement is not generally payable where the person or his or her spouse or partner is in full-time employment, that is for 30 hours or more a week.

The tenant's rent contribution to the local authority under HAP is calculated using the local authority differential rent system. HAP has been rolled out on an incremental basis since 2014. As of 1 March 2017 it has been available in all 31 local authorities. Some 57,890 HAP tenancies are in place of which about 10,540 have been recorded as transferred directly from long-term rent supplement, representing 18.2% of HAP tenancies. As part of the rent supplement HAP transfer process, people in receipt of rent supplement for more than 18 months are being requested to contact their local authority to have their housing needs assessed.

I fully agree with the Minister that rent supplement should be a temporary emergency measure. I fundamentally disagree with the Government's policy since 2014 of moving people into HAP, which is blatantly unjust and is bolstering the private market. Some €600 million and rising is going straight into the private market. The Minister talked about the HAP scheme being designed simply. It is unacceptable to put it like that. Somebody who qualifies for HAP gets differential rent which is capped at a certain level. They must then come up with the money to pay the landlord, while the State funds go straight into his bank account. It is not sustainable. It is utter madness to go down this road of continually bolstering the private market.

Galway has an emergency task force on housing, which I welcome. The minutes are not even available from the June meeting. There is no recognition that there is a problem here.

In reacting to Covid, the important thing is for people to be able to remain in their houses. As the Deputy knows, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government introduced protections through the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 which became law on 1 August. That includes protections for tenants facing rent arrears and as a result are at risk of losing their tenancy. My Department's focus has been to support people to ensure that during these difficult times they receive sufficient income to allow them to pay their rent and remain in their premises. That was rightly the overriding concern. Naturally people who lost their jobs were very concerned about how they might pay their rent. We were able to give them the flexibility they needed by providing them with the income support to ensure they could pay their rent and not have a big legacy bill which nobody wants them to have.

Free Travel Scheme

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

31. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will engage with the private bus operators and the National Transport Authority with a view to applying the free-travel scheme on all publicly licensed bus routes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25065/20]

For many decades the free-travel scheme has been of great benefit to a substantial cohort of our population. By and large persons in receipt of a pension payment are eligible for free travel on public transport and in more recent years on the LocalLink services. Unfortunately in too many instances, customers of transport services operated by private carriers are not able to avail of the free-travel pass and that needs to be changed. In many cases more services could be provided in rural areas if those operators were able to avail of the free-travel scheme.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The free-travel scheme is currently available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over, to carers and to customers under 66 who are in receipt of certain disability-type payments. Approximately 978,770 customers are in receipt of free travel. However, over 1.6 million people currently benefit from the scheme when companion and spousal passes are taken into account.

The scheme allows those eligible to travel for free on most CIÉ public transport services, Luas and a range of services offered by up to 80 private operators.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, requests by transport operators to join the scheme were received periodically, with payment rates negotiated based on surveys of free-travel passengers.

Due to the continuing impact of Covid-19 measures and restrictions on transport service provision, the uncertainty around numbers opting to travel and the consequential lack of reliable survey data, it is a difficult time for operators to enter the scheme. Survey outcomes in the current operating environment are unlikely to reflect true free-travel passenger numbers in more normal times. The situation is kept under constant review and it is expected that as restrictions ease and services return to more normal levels, new operators will join the scheme.

Over the past ten years the annual cost to the Exchequer of the free-travel scheme has risen by 29% to €95 million. Of this, €1.5 million is provided to the rural transport programme, improving links between local or rural services and scheduled bus and rail services.

Any decision to extend the free-travel scheme to include all publicly licensed bus routes would have cost implications for the Exchequer and would have to be considered in the context of overall budget availability.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I am glad she said it would be kept under constant review. While I recognise that with the Covid pandemic additional services will not be coming on stream because of uncertainty over the use of services, the Minister's answer clearly demonstrates the importance of the scheme. It is a very good €95 million investment in people, in human resources. With 980,000 direct customers and 1.6 million able to avail of the scheme, it is clear how important it is.

Some time ago I read documentation in which Irish Rural Link and other organisations that are strong advocates for development in rural areas estimated that up to 80% of the people living in rural areas who qualify for free travel are unable to use that free-travel pass because the services are not available. We need to achieve a broadening of public transport to ensure that at least some limited services would be available for people living in remote areas and that they should not be denied the opportunity to use their free-travel pass when a public service is available.

The Minister knows as well as I do that some services would not be viable if they did not have access to the free-travel scheme. It needs to be expanded and we need to eliminate the discrimination against the rural population.

I thank the Deputy. He made a valid point about rural transport. I would be standing for a long time at the end of my lane before a bus would go past - there is no bus.

The rural transport programme provides services to people whose travel needs are not met by scheduled bus or train services. I think the Deputy will agree that the LocalLink company covering Cavan and Monaghan is one of the best in the country. It has continually added to the service it has provided over the years. It is a top-class service that provides transport to people in remote rural parts of Cavan and Monaghan and helps bring them into the towns.

The Deputy is right in saying the rural transport programme plays a major role in combatting rural isolation and it acts as a catalyst in creating models of partnership at all levels where key sectors actively engage in transport provision to ensure equality of access for all. Services funded under the programme complement rather than compete with existing public transport services provided by CIÉ companies or private transport operators.

There are currently 400 operators in the rural transport programme providing transport services under direct contract with the NTA.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I agree with her last point. I know of one operator that operates a substantial service covering a very large rural area, including a number of smaller towns and villages. The owner told me that were it not for the fact that he was deemed eligible to offer customers the free travel facility, his service would not be viable. I understand that the conditions applied by the NTA and the Department are too restrictive for private carriers seeking access to the scheme in respect of a particular route. As we prepare for a post-Covid future, there must be a greater acceptance of the value of the private carrier operating a public service and we must ensure those operators have access to the free travel scheme. The scheme can make the difference in whether a service is provided or not provided. Unfortunately, we may face a situation in rural Ireland where services are lost in some towns and villages and people have to travel further, whether for medical appointments or routine business. We want to ensure that people living in remote areas who do not have their own private transport and may not have immediate family members to take them a distance for shopping or other business have the opportunity, within reason, to avail of a public transport service.

The Deputy is absolutely right that the free travel scheme is hugely important to people in many communities. I see it often in Cootehill on a Friday morning when the Local Link bus service brings people into the town to do their shopping and meet up with friends. Unfortunately, that type of activity is somewhat changed in the Covid environment.

The extent and adequacy of public transport service provision, both urban and rural, fall under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I will be glad to bring the Deputy's concerns regarding rural transport to the Minister's attention. Like Deputy Smith, I am very much aware of instances where people cannot use their free travel pass on services run by private operators which pass by their own home.

Public Services Card

Seán Sherlock

Ceist:

32. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of the data compliance of the public services card. [25009/20]

Will the Minister indicate the status of the public services card?

I thought the Deputy was going to look for a free travel pass.

Not yet. I do make good use of my Leap card and I would like to see that facility extended throughout the country if possible. I am asking the Minister for a status update in respect of the public services card.

Every day the State delivers important and valuable services and benefits to the people living in the State. It is critically important that we can do so in the knowledge that the person in receipt of such services is who he or she claims to be. It is also important that we minimise the requirement for people to authenticate their identity each time they need to enter into a transaction with a public body. A key aim of the public services card and the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE, process that underpins it is to deliver on those objectives. The SAFE process is also key to the delivery of secure online services via www.mywelfare.ie, enabling people to claim and to safely and securely track their claim for benefits, such as maternity benefit, paternity benefit, jobseeker's benefit and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. More than 4 million public services cards have been issued. More than 600,000 people use the card to make free travel journeys each week, more than 600,000 use it to collect welfare payments each week and more than 800,000 use it to transact online services with the Department. Detailed research published by the Department in 2019 indicates a high level of satisfaction with the card, with the vast majority of users expressing the view that its use should be extended. In October 2017, the Data Protection Commission, DPC, commenced an investigation into the SAFE public services card process. The commission sent its final report on that investigation to the Department in August 2019. The report found that while the processing of personal data to authenticate a person's identity and issue a public services card for the purpose of providing services delivered by my Department is lawful, the same is not the case when a person is acquiring a card for use with the services of other specified public bodies. Having carefully considered the report of the DPC and having consulted the Attorney General's Office, the Department is satisfied that the processing of personal data for the authenticating of identity and the issuing of a public services card is, in fact, lawful in situations where the person is acquiring the card for use with another specified public body. The Department set out its position at the time it published the report of the DPC. Subsequently, in December 2019, the Department received enforcement proceedings from the DPC in respect of the August 2019 report. Given the strong public support for the public services card, the benefits it offers and the advice received from the Attorney General's office, the Department filed an appeal against the enforcement notice. As the matter is now before the courts, it would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this time.

I recognise that the matter is before the courts. My understanding is that the Government has appealed the decision regarding the enforcement notice to the Circuit Court. I merely wish to ascertain - I do not think this is a sub judice issue - where that process stands at present. Has there been a hearing or is there to be a hearing? If the latter is the case, when does the Government anticipate that such a hearing will take place?

As I have outlined, the matter is subject to a court case. The Deputy will appreciate that I do not want to pre-empt or in any way prejudice that court case. My understanding is that the matter may be coming for hearing shortly. That is as much information as I can give the Deputy in this regard.

It is important to note that, as the Deputy knows, many people ask their public representatives why they have to keep giving the same information to different Departments time and again. Removing that requirement was the purpose of introducing a public services card. All the information would be contained on one card and it could be used in one's dealings with a number of Departments. As things stand, the public services card can be used for dealings with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and it has proved useful in a number of areas. In the case of the PUP, for example, it was very useful in enabling verification of applications.

I welcome the Minister's answer. The word "shortly" can cover a multitude but I understand where she is coming from and I am not trying to be facetious. However, it would be good to have a more definitive position on this matter from the Government. There are issues regarding minors, in particular, and the very personal information held regarding people under the age of 18. It would be helpful to have the Minister's perspective in terms of accessing services in those instances. My understanding of the issue - I could be wrong and, if so, I will defer to the Minister - is that the question arises as to whether the requisite data protection impact assessment was carried out in respect of the card.

Finally, if the public services card is to succeed and to transcend its use only within the Minister's Department, consideration should be given, for instance, to its potential use as a form of identification for service users of credit unions.

The public services card was first provided for in law in 1998. The clear intention at the time was to replace the old social services card with one that could be used across all State services. That was the concept behind it. The overwhelming majority of users surveyed by a third-party research company support the card. In October 2017, the Data Protection Commissioner initiated an investigation into the service, which included a consideration of the legal basis for the processing of personal data and its compliance with the Data Protection Acts. This was prior to the general data protection regulation, GDPR, which gave effect to EU law relating to data protection principles. The Department co-operated fully with the investigation, including the provision of a detailed response to a draft report provided to the Department at the midpoint of the investigation process in 2018.

The DPC's report relating to legal basis and transparency issues containing eight findings was received on 15 August together with a letter from the DPC requiring the Department to take certain measures. At the time, the DPC stated it did not have legal powers to publish the report but issued a press release setting out the findings and the measures it also requested that the Department take. It also requested that the Department publish the report of its volition. In its report the DPC found the Department has the legal powers to require users of a service to authenticate their identity to SAFE standards, to issue a PSC to these users and to require them to produce it as a means of authenticating their identity when accessing the Department's services.

Carer's Allowance

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

33. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will consider allowing discretion on the 18.5 hours per week employment exemption under the carer's allowance scheme in circumstances in which it has no impact on the level of care provided; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25004/20]

The Minister has answered 28 Oral Questions since her appointment, not one of which has been in relation to carers. Carers are the backbone of our health and care system. There are over 4,400 full-time carers in my constituency of Roscommon-Galway and the vast majority of them have faced significant additional burdens as a result of Covid-19. It would be a terrible thing if their plight was not raised directly with the Minister in advance of the budget.

At the end of August 2020, there were 87,733 people in receipt of carer's allowance. The projected expenditure in 2020 is approximately €919 million. A primary qualifying condition for the carer’s allowance is that the applicant provides full-time care and attention to a person in need of such a level of care. However, to support a carer’s continued attachment to the workforce and broader social inclusion, carers may engage in some limited employment, education or training, while still being regarded as being in a position to provide full-time care. During this time of employment, education or training, adequate provision must be made for the care of the relevant person.

Carer’s allowance is a statutory scheme and both the full-time care and attention requirement and the 18.5 hour limitation are set out in legislation. The number of hours per week that carers may engage in employment, education or training has recently been increased substantially. As part of budget 2020 it was increased from 15 to 18.5 hours per week. This measure was prioritised in response to carers who expressed that they found 15 hours to be too restrictive, not only for work but for education and training purposes.

I consider that the current limit maintains a reasonable balance between the requirement to provide full-time care for the care recipient and the needs of the carer. While I will of course continue to seek to improve the position of carers and thank the Deputy for raising it, any changes to payment schemes would have to be considered in an overall budgetary context. I hope this clarifies the matter.

I must say at the outset that I am specifically talking about situations where the people who are being cared for are in day care, in a training centre or in school. I accept that the amount of hours per week has been increased. I welcome it and supported the Minister's predecessor, former Deputy Regina Doherty, on moving it from 15 hours per week up to 18.5 hours a week. That is to be commended. The Minister says the reason for doing that is to ensure the care recipient's requirement for full-time care is balanced against the carer's need to maintain contact with the workforce. Two other schemes from the Minister's Department, the community employment, CE, scheme and the rural social scheme, specify that the minimum number of hours that people need to be engaged within the workforce or in training in order to maintain that connection is 19.5 hours per week. As such, at a very minimum should that threshold not be increased to a minimum of 19.5 hours, where it does not have an impact on the care being provided?

As I said, this was reviewed and it was looked at in detail. The recommendation that came from that review was 18.5 hours for people who are doing this really important work. As I said it was only brought in this year in budget 2020. I take the point the Deputy is making about people on CE schemes getting 19.5 hours but these things are, as I said, always kept under review. In view of the fact that this has only just been changed, however, I do not know if the basis for changing it has in fact changed in such a short period of time. However, as with everything else in my Department we do keep these matters under review.

We need to address anomalies across schemes and this is one such anomaly where it is 18.5 hours for carers and 19.5 hours for the community employment and rural social schemes. Having said that, for the specific cohort of people I am talking about, the person who is being cared for is not in their home - they are in day care, a training centre or school. If one takes the example of a disabled child who is in primary school, the child is out of the home for a minimum of 5 hours and 40 minutes every single day. That is 28 hours per week. We are saying it is okay for that carer to remain at home and sit looking at four walls in order to draw down the carer's allowance but they cannot go out for 20 hours per week to work and to engage with people in their own community. There is something fundamentally wrong with that system. There needs to be discretion on the 18.5 hour threshold.

I hear the Deputy's point. As I said, it has only just been changed and in view of that fact I do not know why the situation he refers to was not taken into consideration when they were making this consideration. I will certainly look at the basis for the recommendation. We always keep these things under review.

Carer's Allowance

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

34. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will review the means threshold for the carer's allowance scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25005/20]

This question also relates to carers. The income disregard for the carer's allowance was consistently increased during the 2000s and there was a policy decision to try to make as many people eligible as possible. However, in the last 12 years that income disregard has not been altered whatsoever. The failure to expand the disregard means that families on the average industrial income are now precluded from accessing carer's allowance.

I thank the Deputy for raising this specific issue which also relates to carers. As the Deputy knows, carer's allowance is a means-tested payment for carers who, on a full-time basis, look after certain people in need of full-time care and attention, where the carer's income falls below certain limits. At the end of August 2020, there were 87,733 people in receipt of carer's allowance and the projected expenditure is approximately €919 million.

The means test for carer's allowance is probably the most generous in the social welfare system, most notably with regard to earnings disregards. The amount of weekly earnings disregarded is €332.50 for a single person and €665 for a couple. A couple earning up to €37,500 per year can qualify for the maximum rate and a couple earning €49,750 can, due to the tapered withdrawal approach, retain a payment of just under half-rate. A single person may keep a full-rate payment while having an annual income of just under €19,000 and keep a payment of just under half-rate while having an annual income of €25,400. The means test conditionality for carer's allowance is consistent with the overall rules that apply to social assistance payments. The system of social assistance supports provides payments based on an income need, with the means test playing the critical role in determining whether or not an income need arises as a consequence of a particular contingency, be that illness, disability, unemployment or caring.

The application of a means-test not only ensures that the recipient has an income need but also that scarce resources are targeted to those with the greatest need. Any changes to the means for carer's allowance would have implications for overall spending and would need to be addressed in a budgetary context.

I am not comfortable with the phrase the Minister used about this being the most generous income disregard. It is but there is good reason for that. The reality is that every person, particularly an older person, who is kept out of a nursing home saves the taxpayer between €600 and €800 every week. If it is a child or adult with a profound disability, the savings are multiples of that on a weekly basis. If the income disregard was increased in line with the increases in the minimum wage between 2008 and today the income disregard for a single person would be €388 and the income disregard for a couple would be €776.50. Even keeping in line with the minimum wage this is falling well short of where it should be.

sI thank the Deputy. I understand the point he is making. This is part of a wider debate that crosses into health policy. He will understand that the key role of my Department is income support. We are charged with identifying where a person has an income support need and providing that support in the form, for instance, of a jobseeker's payment, a disability allowance or a carer's allowance. I agree we need to look at the wider picture. There are opportunities for people who could remain at home but the question is whether a carer's job is a full-time job. If so, it has to be rewarded as such. What I am providing is an income support. This is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed by the Department of Health.

I fully accept that the focus of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection is on income support. The reality is that carer's allowance was never designed solely as an income support because of the income disregard that was introduced and the need to try to support as many older people as possible to remain in their own homes and, of course, to support younger people with disabilities.

The Minister also has responsibility for rural and community affairs. A broader view needs to be taken of this throughout Government. The onus is on the Government as a whole to examine this rather than just kicking the can into the Minister's Department, which is the easy and soft option. We need movement on the income that carers receive for the work they do. Since 2009, the carer's allowance has decreased. If we look at it compared to the minimum wage, the rate of carer's allowance today should be €257.50 just to keep in line with the rate of increase of the minimum wage. This really needs to be examined in the context of the budget.

I am not taking away from the wonderful work that carers do throughout the country. They do the State a great service through what they do for people who need this support and assistance, whether elderly people or people with disabilities. They provide a vital service. The Deputy has hit the nail on the head as to whether it is about an income and paying somebody for a job they do or income support. I congratulate the Deputy, who is now the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands.

The Minister will be sick listening to me.

I will be happy to engage with him through the committee. It is not confined to one Department. There is a bigger conversation to be had and it is important that we have it.

Question No. 35 replied to with Written Answers.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Paul McAuliffe

Ceist:

36. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Social Protection when she expects the backdated pandemic unemployment payment to be paid to all recipients who incorrectly had their pandemic unemployment payment reduced. [25006/20]

When can we expect that those who had their PUP incorrectly reduced might receive the payment? Many of them include taxi drivers who incorrectly had their car repayments included in the assessment and this has been corrected on appeal. Some of them are being told they will not receive it for some time.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The PUP was introduced as an emergency measure to provide an income support to those who had lost their employment as a result of Covid. A flat payment rate was introduced to ensure that the scheme was simple and accessible for the unprecedented number of applicants.

On 26 June 2020, the PUP moved to two rates of payment. This change more closely linked the rate of payment to the amount that individuals previously earned. For employees, the greater of their gross weekly earnings in either 2019 or January to February 2020 was used to determine the rate of payment. For self-employed people, a different approach was required, based on their average weekly income for 2018 as this was the latest tax year for which verifiable data on self-employed income was available. As the Deputy will be aware, I subsequently asked my officials to ensure that where self-employed income for 2019 was available, this was also taken into account. We wanted to make sure people received as much support as possible.

Those who felt that the assessment of their earnings, based on returns submitted to Revenue, was inaccurate could ask for a review of their case. To date, 1,064 individuals have had their rate of payment increased. In addition, a detailed examination of all cases was undertaken by the Department to take account of updated income details where these had become available. This identified a further 3,885 currently awarded claims where the rate of payment should have remained at €350 from 26 June 2020. Arrears will issue to these customers this week.

A further 11,815 claims, which are now closed, have been identified for examination as arrears may also be due in those cases if payment extended beyond 26 June. Once this examination is complete, the payment of rate change arrears will be addressed. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

The officials and staff in the Department have done Trojan work. They were faced with an avalanche of almost 600,000 claims for the PUP at its height. They worked diligently to try to get payments out as quickly as possible. I acknowledge there are some arrears but we are working our way through them to try to get them up to date as soon as we can.

I thank the Minister for clarifying today that the payments will be made this week. Initially, one taxi driver who spoke to me had been told he would not receive it until April next year, which would have been completely unacceptable. I appreciate there is a major workload for the staff in the Department. I also appreciate the huge frustration and sense of loss that many taxi drivers and other self-employed people have felt. I appreciate the Minister giving me the clarification that the payments will be made this week.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. As he said, we are working through them and we will try to expedite all these issues as quickly as we can.

Social Welfare Benefits

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

37. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social Protection the extent to which the processing of applications for various social welfare payments can be expedited; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25025/20]

I thank the Deputy for raising this question on the extent to which the processing of applications for various social welfare payments can be expedited. My Department is committed to providing a quality service to all its customers. This includes ensuring that accurate decisions on entitlements are made as quickly as possible.

Processing targets for my Department are set out each year in the Revised Estimates Volume for the public service and kept under review. Processing statistics show the majority of schemes offered by my Department are closely approaching, achieving or exceeding their processing targets for 2020. They also show that the overall volume of claims processed to date in 2020, excluding the pandemic unemployment payment, is similar to the same period in 2019. Given the impact of the pandemic unemployment payment where the Department's staff had to process over 1.5 million applications in a short period of time, it is important to acknowledge the performance of the Department's staff in maintaining this level of service.

That is not to say that individual claimants or claimants on particular scheme types will not experience delays. As a consequence of different entitlement criteria across different schemes, the time needed to establish entitlement varies across the schemes. Schemes with multiple complex qualifying criteria can take longer to decide than schemes based solely on a person's contribution record. In addition, given the complexity of some schemes, paper applications received by the Department may be incomplete. Such applications will, by their nature, take longer to decide. The movement to online claim processing via www.MyWelfare.ie means that it is now possible to apply online for a wide range of schemes. This has helped to improve the processing times of claims, as applications must be complete and include all requested documentation in order to be submitted online.

It is important to note that while an application is being processed, a person may apply for income support through supplementary welfare allowance. If a claim is decided in a person's favour after a delay, arrears will issue to the customer dated back to the date his or her claim was received.

There has been an improvement in the processing times. There were differences in the times taken to process claims. Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that it does not always apply that a payment will issue to a person while waiting? There are some circumstances where long delays take place. Due to the hardship this causes, I would be grateful if that were looked at again.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.