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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Family Support Services

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

69. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection when she will publish her response to the recommendations of the child maintenance review group; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24489/22]

I want to ask the Minister about the report that has, I hope, been finalised by the child maintenance review group. I understand she was to receive that report at Easter. Will she outline when she will publish it?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Under family law, parents and certain categories of guardians or those acting in the place of parents are obliged to maintain their children. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply. Child maintenance arrangements can be agreed directly between the parties themselves, with the assistance of their solicitors, private mediators or supports such as the family mediation service and the Legal Aid Board or, ultimately, through the courts.

In line with the programme for Government commitment, the Government established a child maintenance review group to examine certain issues in regard to child maintenance in Ireland. The group was chaired by a former Circuit Court judge, Judge Catherine Murphy, and included legal, policy and academic professionals as well as officials from my Department and the Department of Justice. The group's terms of reference were to consider and make recommendations on the current treatment of child maintenance payments in my Department, the current provisions regarding liable relatives managed by my Department and the establishment of a child maintenance agency in Ireland. As part of its work, the group conducted an extensive public consultation process and examined the international position.

I am pleased to advise that the group has completed its work and its report was submitted to me on 22 April. I thank the chair and the group members for their detailed consideration of these important issues. I am currently giving the report the careful consideration that such an important and complex issue deserves. Given that the report relates to a broad range of issues that are beyond the scope of the social welfare system, I am also consulting Government colleagues. Once the report has been fully considered, my intention is to bring it to Government, at which time a decision regarding its publication date will be made.

This report has been long-awaited by many Members of the House, who had asked for many years for child maintenance to be examined. The establishment of this review group was very welcome, and I am glad it has reported and that the report is with the Minister. With regard to bringing the report to Cabinet when the Minister has gone through it, and I appreciate that she will have to engage with the Department of Justice and so forth because it is not just a social protection issue but involves a number of Departments, does she envisage bringing proposals to the Cabinet on the back of what is outlined in the report? As I presume there are a number of recommendations, how does she foresee going about that? Organisations such as Single Parents Acting for Rights of Kids, SPARK, and One Family have asked for a long time for this type of work to be done. There are massive issues and complications for lone parent families when it comes to child maintenance. It can put a lot of lone parents in a really difficult situation, so we must get this right. Will the Minister outline the process after she brings it to the Cabinet?

In fairness, I am aware that the Deputy has a strong interest in this matter and she has raised it with me a number of times in the House. I have the report now. It runs to a couple of hundred pages. The group and the chair, Judge Catherine Murphy, took approximately 18 months to examine this. They asked for a time extension and we gave it to them. It is clear from the report that they looked at all the various issues, and there are many issues both in the social protection area and in the Department of Justice. It gave those issues very detailed consideration. Having received the report, it is only right that I take a few weeks to consider the recommendations carefully. I want to consult with my Cabinet colleagues as well, particularly the Minister for Justice, because there were officials from the Department of Justice in the group as well as officials from my Department.

I welcome that this report has been published and I acknowledge the hard work of everyone who took part in that work. It will be extremely important for the future. We have put forward proposals on many occasions for a statutory child maintenance service. That is what we would like to have, and to see it taken off the shoulders of lone parents who end up having to go to court in some cases where maintenance is ordered by a judge, but it is not necessarily paid, and then it is back on the lone parent to go back to court again. The whim of the judge of the day is not the environment to determine child maintenance payments. It should not happen in that way, and it is not fair on lone parents. I hope we will move to a statutory service.

There is one issue the Minister can deal with immediately with or without the findings of the report. Child maintenance should not be treated as household income for means tests for social protection payments. I cannot understand why that is done. It should not be treated as household means but as a payment towards the upbringing of the child or children. I ask the Minister to examine that in time for the next budget.

I intend to bring a memorandum to the Government with the full report and our proposed response. I can assure the Deputy that this report is not going to sit on a shelf anywhere in the Department of Social Protection. I am coming to this with an open mind, as I have said previously. My priority in all this is the mothers and the children. The Deputy and I have discussed this on a number of occasions. I want to move it along. It is my intention to get this to the Cabinet before the summer recess, and the report and the Government's response will be published in full at that stage. It is important that we move it along, but it is a complex and important issue so I do not want to rush it either. I want to give it careful consideration along with my Cabinet colleagues. As I said, I will not be putting it away on a shelf or anything like that. I will act on it.

Social Welfare Code

Seán Sherlock

Ceist:

70. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Social Protection if her Department has engaged in research in respect of the need to devise a disability-related payment to deal with the effects of long Covid. [24811/22]

Has the Minister's Department engaged in research in respect of the need to devise a disability-related payment to deal with the effects of long Covid? I acknowledge the existence of the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit payment and that it will be in place until the end of June 2022. My reason for raising this is that we seek clarity as to whether there will be continuity of that payment and, second, given that there is now a clinical recognition of the effects of long Covid, whether the Department is responding to that.

I thank the Deputy for raising this.

My Department provides a suite of income supports for those who are unable to work due to an illness or disability. Entitlement to these supports is contingent on the extent to which a particular illness or disability impairs or restricts a person's capacity to work. It is not dependent on the nature of the illness or disability. As a result, I do not believe there is a need to research and devise a specific payment for long Covid as it is covered, like all other conditions, by the range of disability-related payments provided by the Department which are not condition-specific.

In March 2020, the Government introduced an enhanced rate of illness benefit for persons who had been diagnosed with Covid-19 or who were a probable source of infection with Covid-19. This temporary measure has been extended a number of times by the Government. The rate of €350 for the enhanced payment is higher than the normal maximum personal rate of illness benefit. The focus of this payment was to enable people to comply with medical advice to isolate while having their income protected and to limit the spread of the virus. Where persons continue to be ill beyond the ten weeks of receiving enhanced illness benefit they can apply for the standard illness benefit, which is the primary income support provided by the Department to those who are unable to work due to illness of any type and who are covered by PRSI contributions. Illness benefit is payable for up to two years.

My Department keeps the range of income supports under review to make sure they meet their objectives. Any changes to the current system would have to be considered in an overall policy and budgetary context. I trust this clarifies the matter.

I thank the Minister for her response. If I interpret her correctly, I can understand her retaining the status quo because the nature of the illness benefit is clearly defined in terms of what a person must do to meet the criteria. However, what is happening now in this country, and there is robust clinical evidence for this, is that hospitals such as Cork University Hospital, CUH, in the South/South West Hospital Group have set up or are in the process of establishing long Covid clinics. That will be replicated throughout the country. If somebody moves from the enhanced illness benefit onto the illness benefit, that is for a period of two years. The issue is the period thereafter. Some people will not qualify for an invalidity pension. The presentation of the illnesses they present with, even though it has been determined that they have long Covid from a clinical point of view, may not be a presentation that is prescribed under the terms of the Department's policy. That is why I am raising this. It is the long game I am playing here-----

Please do not play the long game on the question.

-----because there will have to be a recognition of long Covid as a qualifying condition.

Stick to the time.

I appreciate the point the Deputy is making. I recognise that Covid-19 impacted people differently. Some people who had it felt it was just like a bad cold and there were others, particularly those with underlying conditions and older people, on whom it impacted very seriously. All the measures the Government took over the last two years, including the various restrictions and so forth, were to protect our most vulnerable people until the vaccine programme was rolled out in full. Thankfully, we are at a stage now where the economy is fully reopened, society is returning to normal and we are not seeing a major spike in hospitalisations. That is down to the high vaccine rates in this country. They are way ahead of those of many other countries. That said, however, Covid-19 has not gone away. There are people with long Covid who are impacted more severely. Not long ago, I met somebody who had Covid in March and who is back at work, but there is no doubt that the person is very tired at times.

The answer to my question is "No"; that is the short answer the Minister is giving. I acknowledge that but I will continue to bang the drum on this. I am worried that there is a statistically significant cohort of persons who ordinarily will go from the enhanced payment to illness benefit, the clock will tick down the two years and then they potentially will fall off the cliff if they are not eligible to move onto an invalidity or long-term payment, as devised by the Department. The worry I have for those people is that the Department might be too stringent in how it applies rules and the criteria that they must meet for illness benefit payment.

I merely ask the Minister to carry out some early stage research, perhaps with the Department of Health and the HSE, for instance, to see how long Covid is affecting people who ordinarily would be back in the workplace, but who, for very valid clinically indicated reasons based on a determination that it is due to long Covid, will not be back in the workplace any time soon. Those are the people I am thinking of.

I do not have a specific scheme that depends on one's medical condition. The scheme we have covers all medical conditions. They Deputy said that if somebody is looking for invalidity pension, he or she may have to reach certain criteria. I am open to looking at issues but, as it stands, I cannot say that somebody who has long Covid should get a different payment from somebody who has long-term cancer. I cannot treat them differently. However, as the Deputy will be aware, when people got the PUP payment, we allowed them to continue to accrue their PRSI credits. If there is something wrong, I am happy to talk to him offline about it.

It is the medical certification. If the medical certification says long Covid, then that should suffice.

I will look at it.

I thank the Minister.

Pensions Reform

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

71. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection when she will publish her response to the report of the Commission on Pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24490/22]

The question is to ask the Minister when she will publish her response to the report by the Commission on Pensions, which published its report last November and her response was due by the end of March. She might please advise when the response will be published.

The pensions commission's report was published on 7 October 2021. It contained almost 250 pages of analysis, consideration and recommendations. The report established that the current State pension system is not sustainable into the future, and it set out a recommended approach for the Government. In the interests both of older people and future generations of older people - the young people of today - I assure the Deputy that the Government is considering the comprehensive and far-reaching recommendations in the commission's report very carefully and holistically. My officials are examining each of the recommendations and consulting across the Government through the Cabinet committee system. The views of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands and the Commission on Taxation and Welfare are also being considered as part of these deliberations.

Following detailed consideration of all these inputs, and taking on board the views of my ministerial colleagues, I intend bringing a recommended response and implementation plan to the Government in the coming weeks. I accept that this is somewhat later than planned, but I am sure that the Deputy will understand that the issues raised, and views expressed by the Oireachtas joint committee and others, require careful consideration. In addition, as she will also appreciate, the Government and my Department have been centrally involved in the response to the crisis in Ukraine and other important matters in recent weeks.

The State pension is the bedrock of the pension system in Ireland. It is extremely effective at ensuring that our pensioners do not experience poverty. The Government is committed to ensuring that this remains the case for current pensioners, those nearing pension age and today's young workers, including those who are only starting their careers. I hope this clarifies the matter.

I love the term "in the coming weeks" because it really narrows it down. In fairness, I appreciate the work that was done. I understand that it is a massive report and the area of pensions is hugely complex with many different aspects to it. As the Minister outlined, the report is more than 250 pages long. However, it has been published for almost eight months and we need a response from the Government. People need to know if there are changes coming, and what they are, so that they can plan for their retirement and, most important, when they will be able to access their State pension.

I appreciate that the Minister mentioned the report compiled by the Oireachtas joint committee. That report sought flexibility, which I hope we will see in the Government's response. It should not be a one-size-fits-all approach and that everyone should get their pension at a certain age. We need to have flexibility built into the system given the range of sectors and workers. One size does not fit all for those workers.

In fairness, it has been a busy few months and the Department has been dealing with the situation in Ukraine. We issued 32,000 PPS numbers in recent weeks, put income supports in place for the Ukrainians coming here, and we have worked with them to help them get into employment. Some 2,500 are already working. Today, the Department will administer the new €400 recognition payment. I am working with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, on that.

We have also been responding to other issues such as the cost of living. We have paid the lump sum of €125 and also a lump sum of €100. It has been a busy few weeks, but the pensions work is ongoing and discussions are continuing. In fact, it was discussed at the Cabinet committee again this week. I will be working with my colleagues to bring forward a response to the pensions commission's recommendations as soon as I can. It is fair to say that there are no easy decisions here. Whatever we decide will have far-reaching consequences for many people.

I recognise the work of the Department on the refugees and the level of support they have needed, both in regard to PPS numbers and emergency income supports. I am sure the staff have worked long hours in that regard, which must be acknowledged.

I wish to mention one cohort in particular in regard to pensions, namely, family carers. For a long time they have been promised a solution in respect of the State pension. It is a real shame that in this day and age we have family carers who have given years of support to a loved one at home, who will retire in some instances on a reduced State pension. They deserve nothing less than a full State pension. Many of them are working and caring 24-7 in their homes and they need a solution to the issue once and for all.

I know the commission made a number of recommendations, which I presume are being looked at, but we really need to see moves in this direction ahead of the budget because every month this is not addressed family carers are retiring on a reduced State pension and it is not good enough for them.

There is a recommendation in the pensions commission's report on family carers and we will take that into consideration in totality with the other recommendations in the report. I am confident that the Government will agree a response to the commission's report. We will do so in order that people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s can retire in the knowledge that there will be a State pension for them when they do so. In the past, people retired and claimed the pension for ten or 12 years, but now it is probably closer to 30 years. The reality is that people are living a lot longer, which is a good thing, but it is does present its own challenges. If we do not make the system more sustainable now, the young people of today, who are in their 20s and 30s, may not get a State pension. We must look down the road. It is not a challenge that is unique to this country. Governments all over the world are dealing with this issue. It will be addressed. I am consulting with my Cabinet colleagues, and I will bring a recommendation to the Government.

Social Welfare Schemes

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

72. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will meet with an organisation (details supplied) to discuss the issues that are facing disabled artists particularly related to the recently launched basic income for the arts pilot scheme. [24938/22]

My question is to ask the Minister if she will meet with an organisation, Disabled Artists & Disabled Academics, to discuss the issues facing disabled artists in particular regarding the recently launched basic income for the arts pilot scheme. The Minister will be aware of the pilot scheme, which was launched by the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport, Gaeltacht and Media. It is a welcome move towards acknowledging the often unseen and unpaid work of artists trying to work in society, but there is a genuine concern among disabled artists that through participation in the scheme they will risk losing their social welfare payment or having it cut.

The pilot basic income scheme for artists, which the Government launched in April, is a matter for my colleague the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport, Gaeltacht, and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. Her Department is leading this project, including the associated stakeholder engagement, and any requests for meetings to discuss the pilot should be directed accordingly. Officials from my Department have met with the group concerned in that context and have dealt comprehensively with the issues raised. It is important to stress that a payment under the pilot basic income for artists is not a social protection or income support payment. Rather, it is a payment in recognition of the valuable contribution of the arts community and an incentive to encourage people to remain actively employed in the arts rather than seeking employment elsewhere.

Payments under the pilot scheme are income, and will therefore be reckonable as income for the purposes of taxation. I understand that recipients will be required to make annual self-employment returns to the Office of the Revenue Commissioners on that basis. Similarly, the Department of Social Protection will treat income from the scheme as income from self-employment for the purpose of its various means tests. The extent to which this income will have an impact on a person's social welfare payment will depend on the means test for the scheme and the person's individual circumstances. For an artist who is on disability allowance and has no other employment income, the payment of the basic income for the arts would result in a 113% increase in their income, without the loss of any secondary benefits.

Since my appointment as the Minister for Social Protection, supporting people with disabilities into employment has been a key priority for me. I want to assure the Deputy that there is full engagement with the disability sector on their issues of concern. Both my Department and I have regular dialogues with disability groups. My Department has a long-standing disability consultative forum, and it is a member of the national disability inclusion strategy steering group, which I addressed recently.

It is important to recognise from the beginning that while I appreciate that the minimum basic income for the arts is the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, this is a Government initiative and there is crossover, so I will address them both together. There is genuine concern that the scheme will not be worth the energy or the time required if it means that disabled artists will be under an increased level of scrutiny, having to repeatedly prove and prove again the existence of their disability to the Department of Social Protection. The Indecon report on the cost of disability showed that the average annual cost of living with a disability in Ireland is between €9,482 and €11,734. Although this is outside the Minister’s remit, it should be stated that it is hard to see how the additional financial costs because of a disability were not addressed within the basic income for the arts scheme. I know the Minister said that representatives from her Department are dealing comprehensively with this. She might go into the details of that level of comprehensiveness, into what they have established and into what they will seek to rectify.

The treatment of the income for artists with disabilities comes under the Minister's remit. An artist’s disability will not stop or disappear when they take part in this scheme. Why, therefore, should their social welfare payments and entitlements-----

I appreciate the point the Deputy is making. I will give him a few sums on this. As a result of the income disregards we have put in place, a person in receipt of a disability allowance payment of €208 who qualifies for the €325 basic income for the arts payment will end up with a combined income of €443. That is a 113% increase, which is more than double the €208 they had been receiving while on disability allowance.

I try to support the sector. We have put a range of supports in place during the pandemic. Indeed, the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland welcomed those supports. Almost 155,000 people are in receipt of disability allowance. That figure is made up of persons from all sorts of sectors and industries. The means test is there to ensure resources are targeted at the people who need them most. We always talk in this House about targeted measures. Let us look at it this way: if you are an artist, you can earn as much as you like, and we will not take account of it. However, if you are a person in wheelchair and you are working in a shop, the means test applies to you. That is not fair. That really is not fair. We have to be conscious of that.

I am conscious of it, but there are a couple of things we have to be conscious of in addition to that. An artist under the basic income for the arts scheme may be able to work 40 hours per week in applying themselves to the arts, but that may not be possible for an artist who has disability. They may only be able to apply themselves for ten hours a week, for example. That is very different. That should not mean they lose their blind pension or their disability payments. There is not one homogenous type of disability. We need to take into account that the basic income for the arts scheme for artists is a great thing, but when it is applied to a person with a disability we cannot apply the same standards.

I appreciate that representatives from the Minister’s Department are meeting with their counterparts in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, but we need to find a solution for this. Its consequences have been that people with a disability are removing themselves from the scheme. That is the opposite of what we should be encouraging people with disabilities to do. There is clearly a lacuna here that needs to be addressed. The Minister’s Department has demonstrated some goodwill in getting in front of it, but we cannot stop there. It has consequences for people with disabilities, who are removing themselves from the scheme and being treated unfairly.

We need to look at this more widely to improve the situation for all people with disabilities. Of course I want to do more. As part of the cost of disability report, my Department is looking at the whole area of disability payments and at how we can make the system fairer. One of the recommendations in that report is to move away from the flat rate of €208 towards a tiered payment system. For example, somebody who has a profound disability and might never be able to work would get a higher payment than somebody with a moderate disability who is able to work. Some of the issues the Deputy is raising are best looked at in the broader piece of work around disability payments more generally. There is a fairer way to examine this, rather than saying we are going to treat one cohort of workers differently from another. That would be quite divisive.

Social Welfare Payments

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

73. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the way she plans to ensure social protection payments meet a minimum essential standard of living, in review of the recently published results of the survey on income and living conditions 2021 and findings of persistent levels of poverty and deprivation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24491/22]

I have asked the Minister about the minimal essential standard of living, MESL, and about linking social welfare payments to it. I want to ask the Minister about that again, given the latest data from the survey on income and living conditions, SILC, which was recently published by the CSO.

I thank the Deputy for raising this. I welcome the recent publication of the 2021 survey on income and living conditions, which shows improvements across all key national poverty indicators. The data once again show that our social protection system performs strongly in protecting our most vulnerable citizens. Social transfers have reduced the at-risk-of-poverty rate from 38.6% to 11.6%. This represents a 70% reduction on the at-risk-of-poverty rate in 2021.

Ireland is consistently one of the best performing EU countries in reducing poverty through social transfers. Notwithstanding this progress, we should all acknowledge that there is always more that can be done. However, what we do must be informed by evidence. Towards this end, my Department funds a large body of research, including the work of the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, to develop and calculate the MESL. I find this work very useful in informing policy. One of the benefits of the work of the Vincentians is that it provides the different levels of income needed for a wide range of household types, including the different costs that arise for households in rural and urban locations.

In recent years, my Department has used the study as a key input into the consideration of budget options. For example, MESL research has consistently identified families with children and older people living alone as being less likely to meet the MESL. In light of this, over successive budgets, qualified child payments have been significantly increased and a new higher rate for children aged 12 and over was introduced in 2019. The living alone allowance has also been increased by a total of €13 per week over the last three years in response to MESL and other research that highlights the higher risk of poverty and social isolation for those who are living alone. I assure the Deputy that my Department will continue to be guided by research, including MESL research, to target resources at those who are identified as being most in need.

The Minister pointed to a number of improvements outlined by the SILC data. The SILC data have once again shown consistent poverty among lone-parent families, which are four times more likely to be in poverty than households that are headed by two adults. In some cases, there were across-the-board increases. For people aged over 65, there were increases in those at risk of poverty, increases in deprivation and increases in consistent poverty. In relation to those who are unable to work due to long-standing health problems, there were increases across the board. Their at-risk rating for poverty is up, for deprivation is up and there is a consistent poverty rating at almost 20%. While there are some improvements, and many of those are at the higher levels, this is not the case for older people and for people with long-standing health problems. I presume that those with long-standing health problems include persons with a disability. It is a pity that they are not broken down separately. Poverty is increasing for a number of vulnerable households. That has to be acknowledged. The Minister said she was informed by evidence. The MESL research is telling her that social welfare rates are below the poverty line. We need to look at those rates.

We try to target the resources where they have the most impact. However, if we increased the rates to meet the MESL, it would cost €2.4 billion more in one year for working-age payments. That would be lot of money. It would be a considerable increase.

We have taken measures to address the cost of living. For example, €100 is being paid out this week for the fuel allowance on top of the €125 lump sum in March, and that allowance was increased by €5 per week in the budget. When one adds all those together, it is up by 55% to 60% this year compared with last year. We also have the €200 universal energy credit. Mr. Seamus Coffey, a respected economist, commented on the SILC report. He said that incomes are up and income inequality is down. The at-risk-of-poverty rate, levels of deprivation and consistent poverty are also down. That is positive.

The figures speak for themselves. In 2020, the consistent poverty rate for those aged over 65 was 1%. It is now 2.5%. Deprivation and at risk of poverty have increased. For those unable to work - I presume many of them are people with disabilities - deprivation is up to 39.6% and consistent poverty is at 19.2%. All those rates are up. There are no improvements or reductions. That is not happening. Lone parent households are suffering most when it comes to the composition of households. There is a massive difference in consistent poverty rates between two-parent and lone-parent households. What Mr. Coffey said is all well and good, but the figures speak for themselves.

We know many people living with a disability are living in poverty and experiencing deprivation. The cost of disability payment is what is most important now for that cohort of people. I hope matters are progressing in respect of that payment because that will be very important in lifting people out of poverty.

We have to acknowledge there are a number of different measures in the survey. Two of them have increased but everything else has reduced, whether it is consistent poverty, at risk of poverty, deprivation rates or social transfers. As I mentioned, Covid-19 income supports reduced the risk of poverty from 19.9% to 11.6%. Consistent poverty for children reduced from 7.2% to 5.2%, while consistent poverty for lone parents reduced from 19.3% to 13.1%.

However, the Deputy is correct. There is poverty among older people, which is up. As the Deputy said, the rate of consistent poverty has increased for older people. While it is significantly lower than other age groups, as a society we have worked to ensure that older people are protected against poverty. Many older people have incomes clustered above the risk-of-poverty threshold, which is defined as 60% of median income. As a result of incomes increasing across society as a whole, the at-risk-of-poverty threshold also increased.

On people with disabilities, as the Deputy knows the Government commissioned research on the cost of disability. The research has implications for many areas of public policy, including the delivery of care services, health, housing, education, transport and income supports. We have to look at that and we have to act on that report.

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