Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Employment Support Services

Richard Bruton

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Social Protection the level of take-up of initiatives which have been put in place to help persons get back to work given that the economy has reopened; and if gaps in the range of supports are emerging. [47853/21]

Everyone in the House appreciates that the economy has gone through massive change. Not only do we still have more than100,000 people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, many sectors have been changed beyond recognition and will not come back to where they were. The supports for people getting back to work will be crucial. I would be interested in hearing what the take-up is and whether the Minister has identified gaps that need to be addressed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he will be aware, this country faced an unprecedented shock to the labour market as a result of the pandemic. Under pathways to work, the Government's new employment services strategy which was launched last July, my Department has put in place a wide range of measures to assist those who are out of work in finding new jobs. Pathways to work sets out 83 commitments on a whole-of-government basis. The strategy is in the early stages of implementation, with progress expected to accelerate as the final stages of public health restrictions are lifted and the phased transition of PUP recipients to jobseekers' payments starts from next month.

The latest data on the take-up of programmes in my Department are as follows: 90,037 participants in community employment; 5,017 in Tús; 2,594 on the back to work enterprise allowance, including the short term enterprise allowance; 2,771 in receipt of the back to education allowance; 1,921 people availing of the training support grant; and 567 employers funded to support 673 employees via JobsPlus. The new work placement experience programme has been launched and 102 individuals have started or are due to start in the near future. In further delivering on pathways to work, my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and I assigned more than 2,600 places on community employment and Tús schemes nationwide at the end of August.

In addition, I am working closely with my colleague, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, to ensure that jobseekers can avail of sustainable training opportunities to assist them in accessing the skills needed to make the next step in their career. Under pathways to work the Minister's Department is committed to providing 50,000 additional education and training places, supporting the delivery of actions set out in the apprenticeship action plan and supporting 50,000 long-term unemployed persons in further education and training by 2025.

It is clear that the commitment is there. The real issue is what is happening to the take-up of those places by those who need them at this time. Specifically, do we need to look afresh at the waiting times for some of these schemes? There are waiting times for many people to participate in back-to-education, back-to-enterprise, start-up and other schemes. Also, we need to see whether there is a network of employers engaging with programmes such as apprenticeships, where work experience and working on the job are crucial. Could some additional effort be put into mobilising both employers and people who need placement over this tricky period, before people go at risk of becoming long-term unemployed?

As the Deputy said, people are getting back to work more quickly than we expected. A few months ago the projections were telling us that we would still have well over 100,000 on the PUP at the end of the year. In fact, we will now fall below the 100,000 mark next week, which will be significant and a important milestone. Some 500,000 people have come off the PUP since the peak. It is our plan in the Department of Social Protection to have job fairs - we had them in the past - at which we will link people who are looking for work with employers. I saw that work very well before. We have a number of different initiatives. We will have a campaign to make employers aware of what is available to them and then, through our job activation measures, we will work with people who are unemployed. The time people spend on the PUP will be counted towards any scheme or training they go on. It is important to say that time spent on the PUP will be taken into account when they are trying to get onto some other scheme.

One category is self-employed people, who have been very disrupted. I know there is a restart support for them, but I think we will have to look closely at those people to see whether they can survive financially and whether a second fillip can be given to that really important part of our workforce.

You had the whole minute, Deputy Bruton. Deputy Lahart may come in now.

I am grateful for that. It is a really good question from my colleague, Deputy Bruton. Has the Minister any figures as to what skill sets people who are left claiming the PUP have? I am particularly interested in hospitality. Does the Department have details on that? Dublin is full of half-empty restaurants not because people do not want to book but because of the lack of capacity of the restaurants in question to meet the demand in respect of their kitchen staff. That is why many of the restaurants throughout the city and in the suburbs have vacant tables. It is because they simply cannot get staff. Can the Minister break down how many hospitality people are still claiming the PUP? I presume that is one of the gaps to which Deputy Bruton referred. How can we fill those gaps, encourage those people to return and facilitate employers to take them on?

I do not have those figures to hand, but the biggest number of those who remain on the PUP are in the hospitality sector. Also, the last time I looked there were approximately 10,000 from the construction sector, which is quite a lot when you think about it. As I understand it, however, what the construction sector is looking for is higher skilled workers, and those on the PUP are probably the lower skilled workers or general labourers. This is what pathways to work is about. It is about upskilling and reskilling people, getting them back into the workforce and training them to meet the demands in the jobs that are now available. I have had people from the hospitality sector speak to me about the issue that they cannot get staff. The only problem is that I think many people have returned to their own countries and are no longer here, and I think some of them are not coming back, which creates more difficulties.

Departmental Schemes

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

7. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Social Protection if she plans to extend the flexibility on rent supplement for victims of domestic violence; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48443/21]

I welcome the support the Minister is providing in her Department to victims of domestic violence, particularly on rent supplement flexibility. The facts are that, since 1996, 209 women and 16 children have died as a result of domestic violence. Women's Aid tells us that last year over 29,000 contacts were made with the organisation, an increase of 43%. Serious and absolutely appalling crimes are being committed and the Minister's support must continue. What does the Minister intend to do about increasing flexibility for victims of domestic violence in respect of rent allowance?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue.

In August of last year I agreed a protocol with Tusla on a pilot basis to make rent supplement more easily accessible to victims of domestic violence. This seeks to ensure that victims of domestic violence are not prevented from leaving their home because of financial or accommodation difficulties. The arrangements in this protocol are additional and complementary to, and not a substitution for, the range of other supports already in place for victims of domestic violence.

The co-ordination of the services addressing the needs of these customers is managed by the Child and Family Agency, Tusla. The accommodation needs of victims of domestic violence are met through this joined-up service delivery model provided by Tusla with close involvement of the various housing authorities nationwide.

Under the protocol, access to rent supplement can be provided on referral from Tusla or by a prescribed Tusla-funded service provider. Rent supplement is provided for an initial three-month period without the standard means test being applied. Financial assistance can also be provided to assist the customer with a rent deposit or towards the cost of rent in advance. After the initial three months have passed, a further three-month extension can be made under the protocol subject to the standard means assessment and eligibility criteria of the scheme. Under the protocol, after six months of support, it is expected that the customer will, if eligible, be able to migrate to the housing assistance payment or other social housing supports, supported by his or her local authority. A total of 140 recipients have availed of support under this protocol since August 2020. There are currently 52 victims of domestic violence being supported with rent supplement under these arrangements.

In line with the national economic recovery plan, these special arrangements for victims of domestic abuse will remain in place until the end of 2021 at least. A review of the pilot is under way. It is a good scheme. We need to support women who become homeless because of domestic violence, and I want to see the scheme continued.

I welcome the Minister's comments on her commitment to continuing supports. The facts are absolutely shocking. Women's Aid tells us that 24,800 women contacted the organisation last year about emotional, physical or sexual abuse. It is absolutely appalling. I know from its annual report that three women died violently last year as a result of domestic violence, 709 women were faced with the threat of murder, 148 pregnant women were abused and there were 28 miscarriages. This is an appalling situation, and we cannot do enough to help these women. Women's Aid requests in its annual report - and I appreciate that this request has been made of the Department of Justice and other Departments - that there be more places of safety, appropriately funded and supported, for women and children to get safety when vile, evil people are trying to kill them or abuse them in the most appalling, unacceptable, criminal way.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Department of Justice is consulting on a third strategy for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The Government has taken significant action in tackling the scourge of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It has provided additional relevant supports during the pandemic. As we know, victims have been particularly vulnerable at this time. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, allocated €30 million to Tusla, the highest allocation for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services to date. This includes €28 million in core funding and an additional €2 million to address Covid challenges. As Minister for Justice, I fully support all the supports we give to this initiative. We have provided €4.1 million in funding to support victims of crime and some €3 million for raising awareness of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The Department of Justice continues to provide Covid-specific funding for organisations.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to this issue. Earlier, I heard a discussion on "Morning Ireland" about a regional rape crisis centre that is looking for a significant increase in funding. It is well worth supporting people in that situation. Indeed, we cannot do enough to help those voluntary organisations. I appreciate ad fully respect the work the Minister is doing. We must all act together in a stronger and more cohesive way to support all the people in these terrible and appalling situations. Last year alone, I understand that more than 290,000 people accessed the Women's Aid website looking for information. There is much pain, trouble, hurt and anger out there. We must continue the supports the Minister outlined.

The Deputy is absolutely right that we need to continue to support the women who are victims of domestic violence. The work to implement all the recommendations of the O'Malley report, as set out in the Supporting a Victim's Journey strategy, continues to be a priority. As part of the implementation of Supporting A Victim's Journey, the Department of Justice reviewed the supports and funding it provides to civil to society organisations offering front-line services. This was done to map the journey that faces victims and identify the gaps in available support. Work is now under way with NGO partners to fill the gaps identified, which mainly relate to training and supervision issues. This falls under the remit of the Department of Justice and there is a lot of work going on in that regard. We have written to all Departments to see how we can have a cross-government approach to this issue and what they need to do to feed into the strategy.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

John Lahart

Ceist:

8. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Social Protection the breakdown of the fall in the number of persons in receipt of the PUP since the peak in May 2020, by county; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48637/21]

When we cast our minds back, we did not anticipate that we would have Covid vaccines until the end of this year. In fact, 90% of our population is now vaccinated. The Minister mentioned earlier that she expects the numbers in receipt of the PUP to fall below 100,000 for the first time next week. Will she update the House on the breakdown of the fall in the number of persons in receipt of the PUP, by county, since its peak in May last year?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he is aware, the PUP is an income support provided for employees and self-employed persons who lost employment as a direct consequence of the public health restrictions introduced in March 2020 to address the adverse health outcomes from the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 870,000 workers have received a PUP payment in the intervening period. The number of people in receipt of the payment peaked in May 2020, when it reached in excess of 605,600. The scheme closed for new applications on 7 July. This week, just over 101,400 individuals remain in receipt of payment under the scheme, representing an 83% reduction compared with the peak. During 2020, the number of people in receipt of PUP dropped from June, once restrictions eased and as people returned to their work, to approximately 206,000 by the end of September. Experience from last year showed that some 400,000 people closed their PUP claims once the economy partially reopened. This is clear evidence that the vast majority of people returned to their employment, once it was available to them. The number in receipt of the PUP rose again when restrictions were reintroduced at the end of 2020, reaching a new high in early February 2021, when 481,000 were in receipt of payment. The number in payment has decreased every week since 9 February 2021, with approximately 380,000 individuals leaving the scheme. This again demonstrates that people are returning to employment as it becomes available.

The detailed statistics requested by the Deputy, showing the figures at their peak for each county and making a comparison with the number in receipt of payment this week, are set out in a table that forms part of the reply to this question. In May 2020, for example, Dublin had 174,939 people in receipt of PUP; this week, the number is 38,513, which is a 78% reduction.

Table: PUP Numbers by County

County

May 2020

This week

% decrease

Carlow

7,134

891

88%

Cavan

10,014

1,336

87%

Clare

14,979

2,319

85%

Cork

62,858

8,834

86%

Donegal

22,726

2,951

87%

Dublin

174,939

38,513

78%

Galway

33,338

5,178

84%

Kerry

22,352

3,250

85%

Kildare

26,900

4,587

83%

Kilkenny

11,573

1,562

87%

Laois

9,794

1,424

85%

Leitrim

4,067

556

86%

Limerick

22,075

3,375

85%

Longford

4,434

690

84%

Louth

17,114

3,088

82%

Mayo

16,499

2,165

87%

Meath

26,830

4,809

82%

Monaghan

8,342

1,248

85%

Offaly

9,124

1,233

86%

Roscommon

7,646

984

87%

Sligo

7,786

1,056

86%

Tipperary

18,627

2,288

88%

Waterford

13,764

1,895

86%

Westmeath

11,414

1,591

86%

Wexford

20,620

2,494

88%

Wicklow

18,629

2,978

84%

Unknown

2,095

175

92%

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. It cannot be said often enough that we owe thanks to the staff and officials of her Department for responding with such flexibility and agility as each crisis phase of the pandemic demanded and ensuring people got money in their pocket quickly, which was very reassuring. The Minister, in her reply, has helped to put a lie to the notion that there were many people scamming the system. There is strong evidence to show that people went back to work as soon as their employment became available again.

She referred earlier to people returning to their home countries and not coming back to Ireland. Are there any statistics showing whether a portion of those people continued to claim the PUP after returning to their home countries and, if so, is there any indication of whether they intend to come back? Gaps have opened up in some places in the employment market and data in that regard would be helpful.

I do not have figures as to how may claimants have returned to their home countries. It is my understanding that a huge number of people have not gone back to their previous sectors; they have gone into other jobs. This is one of the reasons that some sectors are finding it difficult to recruit staff. Employees have moved on and taken jobs in other areas. I can get the Deputy the figures in that regard. My understanding is that some 40% of people who have come back into employment have taken jobs other than their original roles. I will check that figure, however, as I am not certain about it.

I thank the Deputy for his recognition of the work done by the staff of the Department of Social Protection during what was a very difficult time. To give some figures, almost €9 billion has been paid out under the PUP scheme, with more than 27 million payments issued. It was an unprecedented support provided by the Government at a time when it was needed. It was the right thing to do and I take this opportunity to thank the staff again.

I reinforce that message to the staff in the Department and in offices throughout the country. I would be very interested in the data the Minister referred to, including a granular breakdown of the numbers who returned to work but not to their previous occupation. In the case of the hospitality sector, anecdotally, the story around Dublin, including in my constituency of Dublin South-West, is that a good proportion of staff returned to pubs and restaurants but, in addition, a significant number, because of the uncertainty right through the lay-off period and the continued uncertainty arising from ongoing lockdowns, decided they had enough of hospitality. They could not be sure of what the future holds for the sector and they need certainty in regard to their profession, career progression and income. What steps can be taken to offset that? Those people are clearly lost to hospitality and that is manifesting itself in restaurants, where a casual observer might think that empty tables means an establishment is not busy. When we delve into it, however, the reason the tables are not occupied is that the kitchen does not have the capacity to serve customers at those tables. This will be an issue as tourists return to the country. What plans does the Government have in place to deal with that?

Pathways to work includes a number of measures to get people into new jobs. The most important thing they have to do is reskill, which requires training opportunities. That is why my focus, together with that of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, is on making sure people have the skills and confidence to take on new roles. We will be holding employment and recruitment fairs around the country to match jobseekers with job opportunities that arise. As public health restrictions ease, my Department is starting to ramp up its engagement with jobseekers. We contacted all PUP recipients by telephone and, arising from that process, a number of webinars on employment supports were held. We will see more of that in the coming weeks and months. It was encouraging to see the number on the live register fall to just below 170,000 this week.

Those are all good signs that people want to get back to work. The most important thing is that we give them the tools to do so, whether that is financial support via the back to work allowance or upskilling and training. In May, one in four people on the PUP was under the age of 25. That is now down to one in ten, which means that young people are getting back to work. That is good news.

Questions Nos. 9 and 10 replied to with Written Answers.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

11. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Social Protection the supports that will be available for workers when the plan to transition PUP recipients to jobseeker’s payments is implemented in order to ensure that they will have supports for as long as they are needed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48617/21]

All present accept that we are in a different and better place at this point. I add my voice to the voices of those who have commended the people working in social protection and the necessity of making sure those payments were made. However, there are still certain sectors which, although they are reopening, will not do so to the degree necessary. It is about making sure we have all the connectivity and protections that are needed. There are certain skill sets in event management and so on that we would not like to be diverted into other work because that is an issue with which we would need to deal. It is about making sure that the entire system is working holistically in order to deliver.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. To date, more than €8.7 billion has been spent supporting workers impacted by the pandemic through the PUP. Since the lifting of restrictions and the success of the vaccine roll-out, the numbers on the payment have fallen dramatically - to 101,470 payments this week from a peak of more than 602,000. It is important, therefore, as the economy reopens and in the interests of equity and sustainability, to restore standard social welfare payments.

In line with the Government’s economic recovery plan, the PUP is gradually being wound down using a tapered approach over a six-month period from last month until February 2022. As PUP customers move to the €203 rate, they will be transitioned to standard jobseeker terms. The process of moving to a standard jobseeker’s term for the first group on the €203 rate of payment was due to begin in early September. I deferred this process until after all sectors start to reopen in line with the recent roadmap, Reframing the Challenge: Continuing Our Recovery and Reconnecting. This means that affected customers will continue to receive their PUP payments until 26 October, when the process of their transition to jobseeker’s payments will begin.

The Department has written to all affected customers to outline the details of the transition and the options that will be available to them. Customers entitled to jobseeker's benefit will be automatically transferred to this payment after 26 October. Where an application for jobseeker's allowance is submitted, the person will remain on PUP until their entitlement to jobseeker's allowance is determined and their application is processed.

Unfortunately, not all people in receipt of PUP will be able to return to their former employment. Even though we know that the economy is recovering and employment is growing strongly, some people will need support to move into new jobs or different sectors of employment. Under the pathways to work strategy, my Department will be working to ensure that people on PUP receive all the support they need.

Obviously, I welcome this move. It is logical that the Minister cannot remove the PUP until, at least, all sectors are open. However, there will not necessarily be a big bang after which every sector will have opened. We need to avoid certain cohorts and people falling into gaps. Similar to Deputy Lahart, I would be interested in getting granular information in respect of those who have moved sectors and so on. That is necessary information from which we should probably learn. All Members know that a cursory audit of the jobs that will be needed in the future would show the gaps that exist. We have to ensure that the training provided looks in that direction. We need to keep this under consistent and constant review to ensure that we can maintain the skill sets that are necessary in those sectors and to allow people to transition, where necessary, into new types of employment.

I will supply the figures in respect of people who have gone into different sectors. Those figures provide us with important information to allow us to plan and help people to go into sectors where there are vacancies. It is also important that we work with the sectors and that each sector is investing in making itself an attractive place in which to work. That comes into the equation, and employers have to consider their situation.

The original plan was to start the transition of people from the PUP to jobseeker's payments at the start of September but, as I stated, I postponed that until after 22 October, when all sectors will have reopened. As the emergency phase of the pandemic recedes, it is important, from a fairness perspective, that we begin the transition of people from the PUP to the normal social welfare payments. The Department has written to all those who are due to transition at the end of October and outlined the options available to them in terms of applying for jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance, whichever is more favourable. It is important to state that persons moving from the PUP to a jobseeker's payment will have the same criteria and rules applied to them as are applied to those who are already on the live register having lost their jobs pre pandemic or since the PUP closed for applications on 8 July.

The main thing is that protection has been provided and will be maintained for those who deserve it or need it in the relevant sectors. I agree with the Minister that the sectors have to make themselves attractive places to work. Members are aware of the difficulty caused by the fact that families cannot get home care packages because there are not enough home carers. That is a sector we have to facilitate. An element of work is being done by the Government in that regard, but these are the gaps that need to be filled from an employment point of view and a societal point of view.

I will digress slightly, and I apologise for doing so. All Members know the difficulties relating to local employment services. They look after people who are not necessarily low-hanging fruit or ready for the job activation schemes that grab the low-hanging fruit. What information does the Minister have from the Attorney General regarding local employment services? We need to see what leeway there is in respect of the tendering process. It may be necessary to have a conversation with the European Commission on the matter. We have seen that the European Union has been able to bend rules during the pandemic. That might be necessary in the context of delivering a service for people.

The Deputy's colleague, Deputy Kerrane, raised the issue of local employment services earlier, and I responded to her. I will come back to that.

Time spent on PUP will count towards eligibility for various employment supports, which is very important. Activation measures include training, work placement programmes and employment schemes. The time spent on the PUP by recipients allows them to qualify for all of the support schemes that are available. As people move off the PUP, we will give them that option and suggest that they may wish to try a particular road. We are here to help.

As regards local employment services, the Deputy knows the story. We expanded the service and put it out to tender. I hope to announce the results of that tender shortly. The truth is that I have the legal advice. If I could leave this alone, I would quite happily do so but, unfortunately, the legal advice is that the procurement process cannot continue in its current format as it is against the rules. We have to do it. We have had significant engagement with the local employment services and will continue to do so in the context of this process.

We need to get the maximum amount of leeway in order to deliver.

Question No. 12 replied to with Written Answers.

Domestic Violence

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

13. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Social Protection the measures taken to assist domestic violence victims to access rent supplement; the number of persons accessing the payment, by county; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48639/21]

I am standing in for Deputy Niamh Smyth. A protocol to assist victims of domestic violence has been established between the Department of Social Protection and Tusla. Under the protocol, victims of domestic violence will be able to apply for rent supplement or referral by Tusla or Tusla-funded service providers. What measures have been taken to assist victims of domestic violence access rent supplement? How many people are accessing this payment, particularly in my area of Carlow-Kilkenny?

I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor for raising this issue. In August 2020, I agreed a protocol with Tusla on a pilot basis to make rent supplement more easily accessible to victims of domestic violence. This seeks to ensure that victims of domestic violence are not prevented from leaving their home because of financial or accommodation difficulties. The arrangements in the protocol are additional and complementary to, and not a substitution for, the range of other supports already in place for victims of domestic violence.

Currently, 52 victims of domestic violence are being supported with rent supplement under these arrangements. Under the protocol, after six months of support, it is expected that the customer will, if eligible, be able to migrate to housing assistance payment, HAP, or other social housing supports supported by their local authority. In line with the national economic recovery plan, these special arrangements for victims of domestic abuse will remain in place at least until the end of 2021. A review of the pilot is currently under way, involving key stakeholders, to determine whether the provision of rent supplement to victims of domestic violence should be extended and to take on board any lessons learned. The service has been successfully delivered and is available nationally with active tenancies using the protocol in nearly all counties.

I thank the Minister. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have all seen that there were - and continue to be - issues for those experiencing domestic violence. Indeed, in counties Carlow and Kilkenny, there has been an increase in the number of reported incidents of domestic violence. I have worked with victims in my clinic. I have seen their eyes. The increase in the number of reported incidents of domestic violence is not exclusive to my area. More than 3,000 extra incidents were reported during the pandemic. It is important, therefore, that supports are made available across the board. Having access to cash is an essential lifeline for victims of domestic violence, as well as having a place where they feel safe. They must be provided with the means to afford the essentials. We must ensure that support is there for families. I have found that sometimes there are barriers to accessing this vital support. Some of the barriers are administrative in nature. I would appreciate it if the Minister could look into the matter.

Another concern I have relates to accommodation services for victims. Increasing numbers of women who are looking for accommodation are coming to my clinics. I have raised the issue with the Minister previously, but there is no emergency accommodation for victims in County Carlow. I acknowledge the work done by Carlow's local authorities, the local Women's Aid and all the different services in helping victims of domestic violence. However, this is an issue that needs to be looked at.

Many of the matters raised by the Deputy fall within the remit of the Department of Justice. The Department is leading the development across Government of the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. That strategy will place a priority on the prevention and reduction of such violence and will include a national preventative strategy. The new strategy is being co-designed in partnership with the sector. The Department is working with NGOs on that. It will be the most ambitious strategy to date and will radically improve services and supports for victims. In terms of the supports available, the Department of Justice will continue to have lead policy responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. However, there is an onus on other Departments to step up to the plate.

As far as the Department of Social Protection is concerned, we have made rent supplement more easily accessible to victims. That is only right and proper. The issue around accommodation likely falls within the remit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This is about joined-up thinking. The Government is taking this matter very seriously.

I firmly believe it is about housing, justice and health. We need to focus on those areas. A cross-departmental approach needs to be taken. We must work together to support the strategy.

I also wish to ask the Minister about victims of domestic violence who are seeking support. Perhaps funding could be provided for training through Tusla or Tusla-funded services. I have worked with victims. Sometimes there are language barriers. I have also worked with people who have, for example, an intellectual disability, a hearing problem or literacy issues. Are Tusla courses available or is training provided for these victims? It is important that we can deliver for whoever comes to our door looking for help regarding domestic violence. I stress again that it is important that the different Departments - namely, the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Justice and Health - work together. As the Minister said, the issue falls under the remits of a number of Departments. If we all work together and on a cross-departmental basis, our response will be stronger.

The Minister stated that 52 victims of domestic violence are being supported with rent supplement. In the grand scheme of things, is that a low figure? Are we doing enough to get information out there? Perhaps we need to look at providing more information through local authorities.

The Department of Justice is working on the issue in conjunction with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. As the Deputy will be aware, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth funds Tusla. A number of recommendations in the O'Malley report have also been introduced as part of the Department of Justice strategy entitled Supporting A Victim’s Journey: A Plan to Help Victims and Vulnerable Witnesses in Sexual Violence Cases. There has been an increase in funding for NGOs providing court accompaniment services, related information and support services. As part of the implementation of Supporting a Victim's Journey, the Department of Justice reviewed the supports and funding it provides to civil society organisations providing front-line services. This was done to map the journey that victims face in order to identify the gaps in supports available. Work is now under way with NGO partners to fill the gaps identified, which mainly relate to training and supervision issues. A lot of work is being done, and rightly so.

Community Employment Schemes

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Ceist:

14. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of community employment participants over the age of 62 who have participated, on a continuous basis up to the State pension age, on the community service support stream from 2016 to 2020 and to date in 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48648/21]

Sorca Clarke

Ceist:

26. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Social Protection if there are plans to allow persons on community employment, CE, schemes and who are approaching retirement age to remain on those schemes until they are eligible for old age pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48664/21]

I ask the Minister to outline the number of CE participants over the age of 62, who have participated in the schemes on a continuous basis up to the State pension age on the community service support stream from 2016 to 2020 and to date in 2021.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 and 26 together.

As the Deputy is aware, the CE scheme is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in meaningful work within their communities on a temporary, fixed-term basis to improve their prospect of returning to employment. There are graduated and more flexible rules for persons aged over 55 and, then again, for those over 62 on CE. Participants over the age of 62 can participate on a continuous basis up to the State pension age on the CE service support stream. Currently, up to a maximum 10% of CE places are allocated to the stream. There are 1,400 CE participants on the stream.

The number of participants who left CE on reaching retirement at age 66 on the service support stream since 2016 is as follows: 34 persons in 2016; 35 persons in 2017; 146 persons in 2018; 244 persons in 2019; 369 persons in 2020; and 329 to date in 2021.

In order to ensure that all employment and activation programmes have the best outcomes for participants, CE will continue to be made available to support those who are long-term unemployed and furthest removed from the labour market, including those whose employment has been impacted by Covid-19. At the same time, the eligibility criteria for CE and the length of time persons can stay on CE is kept under active review by my Department to ensure the best outcomes for individual participants and to support the vital community services delivered by schemes.

When the new conditions were introduced to CE schemes in July 2017, a two-strand approach was adopted, with all CE placements categorised into two strands: social inclusion, to acknowledge that not all CE placements were the same and to provide an opportunity for those who are distant from the labour market to work and deliver services in their local communities; and job activation, which was more directly related to job opportunities for long-term unemployed. I feel that over the years, the Government concentrated on the job activation element of the CE schemes and did not value or appreciate the important social inclusion element of these schemes and the vital work that they do. Indeed, I know that many stakeholders are interested in that strand, which involves retraining and expanding. The change to the standardised condition relating to the period for which a participant can remain in the CE scheme is most welcome. I am very aware of the social inclusion element, but what I want to know is what is the availability of places for those over the age of 62.

I thank the Deputy for her question. Currently, there are 1,400 service support stream participants on CE schemes. There are 500 places available for people over the age of 62 on the schemes. Up to 10% of CE placements are available under the service support stream.

That limit is set on a divisional basis so there is also flexibility between schemes in a particular area. This is important to note. For those aged over 55 there are more flexible conditions regarding the time spent on the community employment scheme. It can be up to three years. Those on the scheme prior to 2017 can be on it for six continuous years. We have flexibility to facilitate people in the cohort the Deputy has spoken about to stay on the scheme that little bit longer. I would say that it is, by characteristic, a job activation scheme at its core.

I thank the Minister of State. I believe there are more than 20,000 participants on community employment schemes but only 30% to 40% of these placements are categorised as social inclusion. I have come across facilities that rely on CE scheme staff for vital community operations. They have told me any participant aged 60 and over, and not aged 62 and over, should be able to remain on the CE scheme continuously until the State pension age, with an increase in the number allowed on each scheme. One centre in Carlow had two participants aged 60 who had to go back on jobseeker's payments although they did not want to do so. They wanted to stay on the scheme. They found it hard to get a job. It can be cruel and unfriendly when we get to that age. I ask the Minister of State to look at this.

As individuals receive approximately €20 per week for participating on a scheme, there should not be an added cost to the Exchequer by implementing these types of changes, while the community would benefit immensely. I know the Minister of State supports the valuable service and much needed opportunity it provides to allow individuals who may not work otherwise to contribute to their local town or village, particularly in many rural communities such as my own. I would appreciate it. It is all about community and this plays a huge part.

We very much value the community employment schemes, not only for what they provide for the individual involved but very much for the community services also. In recognition of this, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I will be involved in an operational forum with sponsors and other stakeholders from throughout the country. We will hear issues such as those outlined by the Deputy. This is the reality on the ground and we recognise it. We have introduced flexibility. It is also important to state that while initially we had flagged November as the beginning of the exit from placements, we have stretched it out to February.

I thank the Minister of State.

This will allow community employment schemes a little bit more time to fill the places. The good news is that in recent weeks, referrals are ramping up. We should be looking at a better situation on the ground for CE schemes over the coming months.

Social Welfare Eligibility

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

15. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Social Protection the plans she has to reform the criteria for the fuel allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48283/21]

One in four people in Ireland today cannot afford to heat or light their homes. Electricity prices are way ahead of what they were in 2019 as are gas and solid fuel prices. Families' heating bills have increased dramatically. This has been compounded by the increase in carbon taxes and the subsidisation of data centres. While we need to increase the fuel allowance we also need a longer term strategy to address fuel poverty.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The fuel allowance is a payment of €28 per week for 28 weeks, a total of €784 each year, from October to April, to 370,000 low-income households at an estimated cost of €300 million in 2021. The purpose of this payment is to assist these households with their energy costs. The allowance represents a contribution towards the energy costs of a household. It is not intended to meet these costs in full. Only one allowance is paid per household.

The criteria for fuel allowance are framed in order to direct the limited resources available to my Department in as targeted a manner as possible. All recipients of non-contributory payments are accepted as satisfying the means test for fuel. People who are in receipt of a qualifying contributory payment must also satisfy a means test.

A fuel applicant and members of his or her household may have a combined assessable income of up to €100 a week above the appropriate rate of State pension contributory and qualify for a payment. This ensures that the fuel allowance payment goes to those who are more vulnerable to fuel poverty, including those reliant on social protection payments for longer periods and who are unlikely to have additional resources of their own. Any decision to amend the criteria would have to be considered in the overall policy and budgetary context.

This year, funds raised through the carbon tax will again support targeted social welfare and other initiatives to alleviate fuel poverty and ensure a just transition. In this regard, in the forthcoming budget the Government will consider how it can support people on low incomes and those on social welfare payments. The outcome of these considerations will be announced on budget day.

In Project Ireland 2040 I secured a budget of €4 billion to carry out deep retrofits and energy efficiency measures to take dirty fossil fuels out of our heating system by the middle of the next decade. The challenge is in physically achieving these targets. One of the main measures on fuel poverty is improving energy efficiency in our homes. There are 7,000 families in receipt of the fuel allowance who have been waiting 26 months to have these retrofits carried out. The Minister is aware that the Oireachtas joint committee, in its pre-budget recommendations, has asked the Minister to engage directly with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to fast-track the delivery of these projects and to introduce a half-rate fuel allowance for people who are just over the income threshold.

As the Deputy knows, my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communication, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has the role of reducing energy poverty by implementing measures to improve the energy efficiency of Irish homes. In 2016, the Government launched a comprehensive strategy to combat energy poverty following extensive publication. Deputy Naughten is very familiar with this as a former Minister who was involved in it. The strategy was spearheaded by the then Minister with responsibility for the environment. The strategy sets out the Government commitment to protecting vulnerable households from energy poverty through a combination of supports, investment in schemes to improve energy efficiency, and energy efficiency awareness initiatives. The Deputy is absolutely right that the best long-term approach is to make sure homes are warmer. We need to invest in energy efficiency. The Government is committed to supporting households with their energy costs through energy efficiency measures, with a total retrofit budget in excess of €280 million. The Deputy raised the issue of the delays. I expect that Covid has made the situation somewhat worse. This does not mean we should not be addressing it. I will raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, directly.

I am afraid the delays were also there at the time of the former Minister, Deputy Bruton. We need to increase the fuel allowance. We need to increase the rate and extend the period. This needs to happen in this budget. This will be a treadmill unless we take a long-term strategic approach to improving the energy efficiency of every home throughout the country. We need to target those who are fuel poor. We also need to develop clustered bungalow housing for older people in our towns and villages so they can sell up older large houses and move into far more energy-efficient homes closer to services. The Government needs to drive this. We also need to ensure those families over the income thresholds that cannot afford to put the capital investment along with the grant aid are able to access 0% loans to carry out the retrofits needed to their homes.

I thank the Deputy. He has raised a number of points that stretch over a number of Departments. He will appreciate I cannot announce the social protection budget here today. I can assure the Deputy that the Government is acutely aware of the recent energy price increases and their impact on households. It is also important to state we are doing a lot already to help people with their fuel costs.

Pension Provisions

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

16. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the fact that couples who are in receipt of the State contributory pension and a payment for a dependent adult are being penalised in cases in which savings and investments are put in joint names rather than in the name of the primary earner; if she plans to address this issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48301/21]

A situation has arisen for couples who have worked a lifetime, where one was the primary earner and the other stayed at home to rear families and perhaps care for loved ones, and who were in receipt of a contributory pension and a dependent adult allowance, or an increase for a qualified adult, IQA, as it is called in the jargon.

Let us take two couples who have saved money. Perhaps they have received a lump sum at the end of an employment or a legacy. The first couple puts this money into the primary earner's bank account, while the other couple puts it into joint bank accounts. In that situation, if the savings of a lifetime go over €150,000, the dependent adult allowance is decreased. If a couple puts the money into a single bank account, which nobody would recommend, they receive the whole amount.

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. Recipients of the contributory State pension can claim an increase in their pension in respect of a qualified adult, subject to a means assessment. A qualified adult is the spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the pensioner who has been wholly or mainly maintained by that pensioner. The means assessment reflects the fact that there is an expectation that people with reasonable amounts of income or capital are in a position to use these resources to support themselves so that social welfare expenditure can be directed towards those most in need.

Entitlement to the contributory State pension is based on a person’s social insurance record and the personal rate of payment is not subject to a means test. Only the spouse or partner of the claimant is means-tested. An increase is payable at the maximum rate of payment where the means of the spouse or partner are €100 a week or less, while reduced rates are payable where the means are over €100 or less than €310 per week. No increase is payable where the means of the spouse or partner are in excess of €310 per week. The means assessed include income from employment or self-employment, non-social welfare pensions and the capital value of savings, investments and property other than the family home. It should be noted that the value of the family home, regardless of who the legal owner is, is never taken into account in this assessment. Where savings, property or other assets are held jointly, the spouse or partner’s means are taken to be half of the total amount.

It is a matter for each couple to decide how their finances are arranged and the Department has no role in this. The current means-testing arrangements are based on the actual means of the spouse or partner at any given time.

I apologise to Deputy Ó Cuív but we have only 20 seconds left.

Society always recommends that where one partner is earning, a couple would share joint accounts and the primary earner would not control all the finances. We then say that is fine because the couple has followed our advice. However, we are now cutting their payments for doing what we advised them to do.

I apologise to the Deputy but the clock has overtaken us.