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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 2

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Live Register

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

74. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Social Protection when she expects the live register figures to fall below the pre-pandemic level; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24441/22]

More than a year ago, the live register increased by in excess of 1 million due to the Covid pandemic. When does the Minister expect the live register to fall below its pre-pandemic level?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Prior to the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020, the labour market was performing strongly and the live register, which measures people claiming standard jobseeker's payments, stood at just over 183,000. By May 2020, this number had increased to just under 226,000. At its peak, the combined total of people in receipt of jobseeker's payments or pandemic unemployment payments, PUPs, reached 820,000 in April 2020. Including the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, the number reached 1.25 million in May 2020.

The lifting of remaining health restrictions earlier this year, and the subsequent welcome economic recovery, has allowed the PUP and EWSS to be gradually unwound. On 29 March, the PUP scheme wound down, with the transition to full jobseeker's terms for all remaining recipients. The EWSS scheme is also in the process of closing. The live register now includes all eligible PUP recipients who transitioned to jobseeker's terms. I am pleased to report that, including all of these transitions, as of this week, the live register stands at approximately 174,200, which is below its pre-pandemic level. This is an extremely welcome development and signifies the strong and vibrant recovery of the labour market. This recovery reflects the value of the very strong State supports, not just PUP and EWSS, but schemes such as the Covid restrictions support scheme.

While current live register trends are extremely positive, we need to continue to provide appropriate employment supports to those who remain on the live register. Through delivering the pathways to work employment services strategy, we will continue to work to ensure that we have a balanced labour market recovery post Covid-19, where no one is left behind.

The figures speak for themselves. They show a clear reopening of our economy and significant growth in employment. Indeed, the European Union is predicting our gross domestic product will rise by 5.4% this year, which is the second highest in Europe. Does the Minister agree that Government policies are working? The figures are accurate. In fact, a record 2.5 million people are now in employment and in 2021, notwithstanding the Covid pandemic, we have added 229,000 new jobs.

It is very clear the intervention we took during Covid worked. The economy was able to bounce back and businesses got back again. The EWSS was particularly successful in keeping employees linked to their employers so when the Covid restrictions lifted they were ready to go. The PUP was absolutely essential. It is encouraging to see many, if not all, the people on the PUP are back at work. A small number have transitioned to the jobseeker's payment but that number continues to reduce.

We are now in a position where unemployment is lower than it was pre-pandemic. We have the lowest live register figures in more than a decade. Some 174,000 people are on the live register, yet we have a significant number of job opportunities in the economy at present. I want to address how we work with those people through retraining or upskilling. I want to help them get back into the workforce because there are still about 170,000 of them.

I again welcome the Minister's comments and the facts she has given us. This is not necessarily her responsibility, but the question that arises is that of our skills shortage in the economy. We need specific skills that cannot be met by the European Union. We ought to consider increasing the capacity of our economy to bring people in from outside the European Union who can meet those specific skills shortages. Otherwise, our economy will not be able to continue to grow.

I welcome the Minister's latest update on the live register figures, which shows a far more positive outlook as unemployment rates continue to fall. I will raise the issue of the continuing challenges faced by our hospitality and tourism sector that is struggling to fill significant numbers of vacancies ahead of the tourism season. Long delays in getting work permits and personal public service, PPS, numbers are slowing down recruitment of restaurant, hospitality and tourism workers. In some instances, it is taking up to six weeks to get new PPS numbers for workers from EU countries. While I understand some welfare offices are experiencing high levels of demand for PPS numbers, will the Minister outline what efforts are being made to reduce wait times for issuing PPS numbers for this crucial sector?

We have increased resources in the area of PPS numbers. There is huge demand at present, which the Deputy will appreciate, since we have just issued almost 32,000 PPS numbers to Ukrainians who are coming to this country. We have increased the resources in that area.

Deputy O'Dowd talked about skills shortages. I was at the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, VFI, conference last week. We know the hospitality sector is experiencing staff shortages so I was pleased to see yesterday that the VFI has launched a new bar management course in conjunction with SOLAS. That is showing people who choose that sector there is a career path in it for them. We have to get people interested in sectors because we know there is a demand for workers out there. For example, two weeks ago I launched the future building initiative with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. We will drive recruitment in the construction sector where there are major opportunities in retrofitting and housebuilding. My Department is working with SOLAS, the education and training boards and employers to show there is a career path in the construction sector. I will be at a jobs fair this Thursday morning, which will be again around the construction sector. We want to try to help people get back into work.

Cost of Living Issues

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

75. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will increase social welfare rates in line with increases in the cost of living; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24512/22]

In the most recent budget the Minister increased social welfare rates by a measly 2.5%. Over the past year we have seen inflation at 7% or more. Does the Minister intend to immediately increase social welfare rates to at least keep pace with the spiralling cost of living so that those on low fixed incomes are not compelled to fall deeper and deeper into poverty?

On an ongoing basis, and as part of the normal budgetary cycle, my Department actively monitors key economic indicators and also takes account of research data, including data on the minimum essential standard of living from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. The social impact of budget measures is also assessed using the SWITCH model developed by the ESRI.

It is through this evidence-based approach that, over the past ten years, budget measures have both exceeded inflation and have also been targeted to support those most at risk of poverty. This is evident in the recent results of the survey on income and living conditions which showed welcome reductions in the number of people at risk of poverty or deprivation.

Having said that, I am very aware that, mainly due to external factors, the recent increase in consumer prices, especially the increase in fuel and other energy prices, has exceeded even the highest forecasts. In response the Government acted early to address these challenges. To help mitigate the effects of these rising costs, the Government announced a package of measures in February, which will have a positive impact on the incomes of all households in the country. This package included a lump sum of €125 to all households in receipt of the fuel allowance payment which was paid to social welfare recipients in March. This week, a further lump sum payment of €100 will be paid to these households. Taken together with the €5 increase in fuel allowance introduced as part of budget 2022, this means that low-income households will see an increase of 55% in fuel allowance support provided during this fuel season compared with last season. In conjunction with the electricity costs emergency benefit payment, such households will receive over €600 in additional energy supports this year. Deputies will also be aware of the measures taken by the Minister for Finance to reduce duties on fuel and retain the low level of VAT on hospitality services. The Minister for Transport has also reduced public transport fares by 20%.

These measures are in addition to others introduced as part of budget 2022, including the largest social welfare budget package in 14 years, and are more expansive than measures introduced in most other countries.

The Government likes to talk a lot about the cost of living being caused by factors outside its control but let us look at the factors that are in the Government's control. Social protection is set at poverty levels. That was the case before the huge inflation we are seeing but it is getting worse. The crumbs being offered to people are not good enough. When their bills are soaring by thousands of euro giving them a few hundred euro is not enough. In 2021, 19% of people unable to work due to long-standing health problems were living in consistent poverty. That was before this year's price increases. The poverty line in 2021 was €286 per week, while the standard rate of social welfare is only €208. The cost of housing was out of control before Covid or the invasion of Ukraine. Some 59% of people dependent on rent subsidies such as HAP were at risk of poverty. What is the point of paying out almost €1 billion a year to landlords if that is the end result?

Data from SILC in 2021 are the official poverty data for Ireland. The survey was undertaken in 2021 and refers to 2020 income. I will give the Deputy a few figures from it. The rate of consistent poverty reduced from 4.7% in 2020 to 4% in 2021. The number of people at-risk of poverty reduced from 13.2% to 11.6%. The deprivation rate reduced from 14.3% to 13.8% in 2021. Social transfers resulted in a reduction in the at-risk of poverty rate from 38.6% to 11.6%. In 2021, Covid-19 income supports reduced the at-risk of poverty rate from 19.9% to 11.6%. Consistent poverty among children reduced from 7.2% in 2020 to 5.2% in 2021 and consistent poverty among lone parents reduced from 19.3% to 13.1%.

I will give the Minister some other statistics from the same report. After paying their rent, one in two people living in local authority housing is at risk of poverty. It is even worse for those reliant on HAP or rental accommodation scheme, RAS, of whom 59% are at risk of poverty after paying their rent. More than one in ten of the population is living in enforced deprivation. Almost one person in two of the population is not able to afford to replace worn-out furniture. Almost one in ten cannot afford new clothes. Almost one in ten cannot afford to have family or friends over for a drink or to meet for a meal once a month. That was before the price rises kicked in and affected people. Unless the Government acts now to raise the pitiful levels of social welfare payments, there will be a huge crisis for these people. These are precisely the people who are making the choice between heating or eating. It is why the cost-of-living coalition has come together and is organising our first protest at 1 p.m. this Thursday outside the Dáil. It will be the first protest of many to build a mass movement on the streets to force action from the Government on this issue.

The Government has taken significant action which I have already listed. It includes a lump sum of €125 and a further lump sum payment of €100 this week; a €200 energy credit; excise reductions on fuel; public transport fare reductions of 20%; and the retention of lower VAT levels in the hospitality sector. On top of that, we introduced the largest social welfare package in 14 years last October. All of this has been done on the back of over €9.2 billion being paid on the pandemic unemployment payment over the past two years. Yesterday, we had record export figures. Child poverty is falling. The number of people at risk of poverty is falling. Incomes are up and inequality is down. The European Commission forecasts that Ireland will have the second highest growth in the EU this year. The unemployment rate is lower now than it was before the pandemic. The number of people on the live register is at its lowest for over a decade. We want to do more, however. My Department, along with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation, Research and Science, is developing more apprenticeships and training and education courses because the way out of poverty is employment.

Employment Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

76. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will outline plans regarding redundancy provision for local employment service, LES, and job club staff who lose employment as a result of the ongoing tender process; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24492/22]

What are the Minister's plans to provide for the staff in local employment services and job clubs who will, in some instances, lose their jobs in the weeks and months ahead? Will redundancy payments be provided?

My Department has been designing a new model of externally provided public employment services since 2019. This is required to comply with the legal obligation to ensure such services are procured through a competitive process. For almost three and half years, extensive consultation with existing providers and representative bodies, including the Irish Local Development Network and trade unions, has taken place. My Department has worked to ensure that existing providers are in a position to compete for the provision of these new employment services. This involved a two-phase approach. The first phase involved running a limited competition in four geographic areas that did not already have local employment services. Then, using the lessons learned from this process, we fine-tuned the request for tenders in phase 2. Having taken on board the lessons learned, phase 2 includes an increase in the number of lots, greater emphasis on community linkages and, most important, a substantially increased minimum level of referrals for each lot. The increase in referrals means the annual income under the new model should exceed the existing cost base of all LES and job clubs operating in each lot. Therefore, any existing provider which successfully bids for a service should at least match and in some cases exceed its current income. The need for redundancies in such circumstance would clearly not be warranted.

The procurement for the new Intreo partners local area employment services will take time to conclude. My Department has therefore offered an extension of contracts to existing LES and job clubs until the end of August. To date, the vast majority of providers have accepted this offer. However, a very small number of providers have declined the offer, which is at their discretion, and they will communicate their decision and rationale to their staff. In circumstances where existing providers choose not to bid for these service or are unsuccessful I would expect that, as a first option, providers should look to redeploy any staff affected to other functions within their organisations.

However, where this is not possible, and if these employers are unable to finance redundancy payments, then my Department's redundancy and insolvency service will, in accordance with the governing legislation, be able to make provision for statutory redundancy payments.

Statutory redundancy will be made available, as it is to most workers, albeit it will be limited. I am speaking about redundancy beyond the statutory redundancy because some of these workers have given 20, and in some cases, 25 years of dedication. During that time they have educated themselves and retrained and they are highly skilled workers who deserve better. The tender has gone ahead and the second phase is well under way.

I refer to those four areas that were tendered in the first phase and which the Minister referenced. Can the Minister outline what number of staff we are looking at in those four areas and what number of staff will be retained? I acknowledge that in some cases the new provider will offer employment to the staff who are currently there but where they do not want to take up that employment will they impeded in redundancy and in access to the likes of the jobseeker's benefit and allowance?

I do not have the figures for the four areas in phase 1 to hand but there had been engagement and in some of the instances the staff involved took up employment with the new contract providers. We are in phase 2 and the procurement phase is ongoing, as the Deputy knows. I am not the employer, nor is my Department. I cannot come in and promise enhanced redundancy terms for anybody because that is not something that is in my gift and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform probably would not take too kindly to that either. My focus from the start has always been on the jobseeker. I want to help people get into work and give them the supports they need. There are more people working than ever before, the live register is at its lowest level in over a decade and unemployment is lower than it was pre-Covid, as we know.

I mention the roughly 388 people who work in local employment services and job clubs. When a new provider like Turas Nua or Seetec Ireland comes in, some of those workers who have given 20 to 25 years of work to not-for-profit and community-based employment services will not want to take up a role in an organisation that is run for-profit, that provides payment by results and that is not within the ethos of a community-based and not-for-profit body. The 40 jobs clubs across the State are more or less being wiped out. Some local employment services will be successful in the second phase of the tender but there will be a situation where a number of workers will not want to take up employment under the new private model. I ask the Minister to look at enhanced redundancy for those workers who have given years of service to their communities. They deserve to at least be considered for that.

We cannot jump the gun because there are no redundancies yet. We need to await the outcome of the procurement process. Some have said that the community and voluntary sector will be wiped out due to the procurement process but we should wait and see who wins it and, as I said, it is ongoing. All contracts are extended until the end of August, unless the companies have decided not to extend themselves. If they have decided that then they will need to explain that to their employees. My Department has a primary focus for this procurement process, with 80% of the marks awarded for the quality of the service offered and the local connections. Some 20% relates to cost but there is a minimum cost below which bids will be accepted. If new providers come in, there might be opportunities there because we are talking about highly skilled staff. We know the situation with the labour market and there are a lot of employers out there looking for staff. The process is still under way and I do not want to anticipate the outcome of that yet. Their contracts are extended until the end of August.

Departmental Reports

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

79. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Social Protection the date she expects to publish the child maintenance review group report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24645/22]

Glaoim ar an Teachta Gannon.

I do not think it is me next.

Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan is next.

Ach níl sé anseo.

I am taking No. 77.

Deputy Calleary is taking No. 77 and I am taking No. 78.

I am just reading what I have in front of me and I have received no notice of substitutions.

It has all been done. We have got the confirmation back from-----

I will take Deputy Gannon. Perhaps we can check the order but I had no notice of that. There is no problem if the Deputies have done it but there is nothing before me.

We will take Deputy Gannon's question in the meantime.

My question is brief. I want to ask the Minister the date she expects to publish a child maintenance review group report and if she will make a statement on the matter.

In line with the programme for Government commitment, the Government established a child maintenance review group to examine certain issues in relation to child maintenance in Ireland. The group's terms of reference were to consider and make recommendations on the following: 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 a public consultation process. Submissions were received from members of the public, as well as from Members of the Oireachtas, non-governmental organisations and professional bodies. These valuable submissions were given detailed consideration during the group's deliberations. The group also examined the international position where there are a variety of different approaches taken to these matters.

I am pleased to advise that the group has completed its work and that its report was submitted to me on 22 April. I would like to thank the chair and the group members for their detailed consideration of these important issues. I am 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 the publication date will be made.

I am mindful that lone parents continue to be a group with a high risk of poverty. Budget 2022 included a number of measures of benefit to lone parents as follows. For example, personal rates of payment were increased by €5 per week. The rate of increase for a qualified child was increased by €2 to €40 per week in respect of a qualified child under age 12, and by €3 to €48 per week in respect of a qualified child aged 12 or over. There was a €10 weekly increase in the working family payment income limits and the level of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance was increased by €10 to €160 for each child aged four to 11, and to €285 for each child aged 12 and over.

I thank the Minister and I welcome getting some degree of insight to the report. In her next response I ask the Minister to give an estimated date for publication of the report. Would it be before summer, for example? It would be helpful if we had some degree of knowledge of the timeline. We both agree that it is abhorrent that lone parents and their children continue to be one of the groups that is among the most, if not the most, at risk of experiencing poverty in Ireland. Despite this we continue to see child maintenance as a private matter. Data from the Growing Up in Ireland survey shows that: 50% of non-resident parents provide no maintenance payments; 30% regularly pay maintenance; and 14% pay maintenance on a required basis. The system of having to rely on the courts for pursuing maintenance also adds unnecessary stress and makes seeking maintenance an adversarial pursuit by default. For parents who go to court the award of maintenance for the court varies vastly. In a recent survey published by Spark, 154 respondents showed the average court award per child was €53.93 and down as low as €3.85 per child. Will this be factored into the Minister’s report? Can she give us some indication of the date when we will see it please?

As I said, the report runs to a few hundred pages and the chairperson of the group was Judge Catherine Murphy. A huge amount of work was put in, they asked for extra time so that it could be given the attention it deserved and I want to thank the group for the work they put in. There are a lot of issues here; it is not just social protection but there are other issues as well that cross into the Department of Justice.

I have an interest in it and I have discussed it with Deputy Kerrane. We need to ensure we get this right. We cannot keep doing what we are doing and expect a different answer. I am very aware of situations where people do not meet their commitments to pay maintenance. It is very difficult for mothers to rear children when they are not getting that support from the fathers. I am sorry, it could be the other way, but usually that is the way.

I thank the Minister for her response. I fully appreciate this is a matter that crosses many Departments. I also appreciate the urgency behind it. A report from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul some months ago indicated many one-parent families are choosing between having meals and paying their electricity costs. These issues will not be addressed through the report. The report might give some indication of the urgency of Government to tackle it across Departments. That is why I would like to know when we will see the report. Notwithstanding how comprehensive and detailed it is and the level of engagement, we need to know when the Minister will publish the report and outline what she will do about it. Given the level of poverty and deprivation and that some parents are skipping meals, we need to say what we are going to do about it quickly.

As I said in reply to Deputy Kerrane earlier, I will not leave this sitting on a shelf. This report will be acted on. I will bring a memorandum to Government with the full report and our proposed response. I want to move it along. I would like to get it to Cabinet before the summer recess. We will publish the report and the Government's response at that stage. We want to provide ample time to give it due consideration. It is a long report, considerable work went into it and I do not want to rush it. However, I will not leave it sitting there because we need to do something about it and I am committed to doing that.

Social Welfare Payments

Christopher O'Sullivan

Ceist:

77. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons who are applying for assistance with energy costs, including boiler repairs and replacements, under the exceptional needs payments scheme by applications, grants and refusals by county in tabular form. [24681/22]

I am going back to the question in the name of Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan. Unfortunately, the fact that Deputy Calleary was substituting for him did not filter up here. I cannot leave the desk so we have double-checked.

For the record of the House, I received an email at 11.30 this morning confirming it.

I know that. It is no fault on the Deputy, but there is no fault on us either. It did not arrive up here.

No problem. I wish to know the number of people who are looking for assistance with energy costs, including boiler repairs and replacements, either through the exceptional needs scheme or otherwise, to alleviate the major crisis that will affect households experiencing fuel poverty.

Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, my Department may make a single exceptional needs payment to help meet essential, once-off expenditure that a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of his or her weekly income. The scheme is demand-led and payments are made at the discretion of the officers administering the scheme, taking into account the requirements of the legislation and all the relevant circumstances of the case. This ensures the payments target those most in need of assistance.

Statistics are maintained on the number of payments awarded under the exceptional needs payment scheme by county and are provided in the table in this reply. Statistics are not currently maintained on the number of applications made or applications refused by county. However, provisional details recorded indicate that 1,224 applications registered related to household bills and heating costs made between 1 January and 30 April, of which 138 were disallowed. The main reasons for disallowance on these applications were that either the need was not established or the applicant had sufficient means available to him or her and could meet the need from his or her own resources or from an alternative source. My Department is currently compiling more extensive statistical analysis on applications for exceptional needs and urgent needs payments and will revert to the Deputy, if required, when this has been completed.

The table in this reply details the number of payments awarded to assist with household bills and heating costs by county. While payments are categorised under the scheme, it is not possible to identify payments specifically made in respect of boiler repairs and replacements.

Anyone who wishes to make an application for a payment under the supplementary welfare schemes should contact the community welfare service at their local Intreo centre. There is a national Intreo contact centre in place that will direct callers to the appropriate office.

Table 1 - ENPs for household bills and heating costs 2022 (to end of April)

County

Payments Awarded

CARLOW

19

CAVAN

23

CLARE

25

CORK

103

DONEGAL

63

DUBLIN

70

GALWAY

36

KERRY

51

KILDARE

16

KILKENNY

38

LAOIS

14

LEITRIM

37

LIMERICK

54

LONGFORD

37

LOUTH

35

MAYO

29

MEATH

44

MONAGHAN

3

OFFALY

32

ROSCOMMON

22

SLIGO

47

TIPPERARY

104

WATERFORD

24

WESTMEATH

34

WEXFORD

24

WICKLOW

15

Grand Total

999

The Minister is aware the major shock through the increase in energy costs is only beginning to happen. By the time we get to next winter, this will be a major crisis and not just an issue for many people. I acknowledge the €200 to help with electricity bills and I acknowledge the extra €125 paid this week to 371,000 household in receipt of fuel allowance. The restrictions on fuel allowance mean many people who are in poverty do not get fuel allowance and need to use fixed incomes or low-wage incomes for these additional fuel bills. Many of them are making applications for exceptional needs payments to try to pay their fuel bills on an ongoing basis. What interaction does the Minister have with the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications regarding the better energy warmer homes scheme? Is there much co-operation between the two Departments to encourage people to avail of the scheme and give them the chance to apply for it?

The exceptional needs payment and the urgent needs payment are available. They are their demand-led schemes, and if people run into difficulties, they are encouraged to apply for that payment. I have been trying to highlight it. We have introduced a number of measures to help alleviate some of the rising costs, as the Deputy has acknowledged. Nobody is excluded from applying for this payment if he or she needs it. We should be making people aware that support is available. That is the State's safety net for people who hit hard times and cannot pay their bills. I encourage anyone in difficulty to go to his or her community welfare office. We are here to help. It is important that people do that and are aware of that.

In my own name I have tabled a question about the availability of community welfare officers. I got some information last week that shows many people do not have access to a community welfare officer within their area. The service is being centralised. People do not have access to transport to get to the central service. It makes no sense to do what the banks are doing and tell people to go online because many people do not have the capacity to go online or do not have the availability to go online to engage with community welfare officer.

Will the Minister increase the number of community welfare officers available? They do fantastic work and their commitment to their job is immense but we need more of them. They need to be out and about in communities more and have the capacity to do that. These schemes are useless without the community welfare officer being actively available to people. A number of charities have highlighted the difficulty in getting access to a community welfare officer all because of the burden of work on the existing community welfare officer service. If that is not expanded, we are going nowhere.

Before the Minister responds, two more Deputies wish to speak.

I have said many times that it is totally unacceptable that statistics are not collected on the number of people who are refused exceptional needs payments. If we do not know how many apply for it and are refused, then we have a problem. We need the data. The Department collects data on many things and this should be one of them. I welcome what the Minister has said on collating statistics. I presume those statistics will only be collected from now on. How is that being done?

I agree with what has been said. I am getting many calls from people who cannot access the community welfare officer. They used to be in local health centres. It is very hard to access them. It seems to be an issue across the board and it needs to be addressed because people, sometimes in situations of real emergency, need to be able to access the community welfare officer when they have no one else turn to.

I agree with the previous speakers. I am concerned that the figures the Minister has given for exceptional needs payments are extremely low. In my area I have met people who find it very hard to get that payment to purchase a boiler, fridge or washing machine. That needs to be looked at seriously.

We all know that places were closed during the pandemic. Accessing welfare became a burden for people. This needs to be addressed. I am finding that people are not getting their payments and we must ask why that is the case. The people who apply for it are the most vulnerable in our community. A fridge, washing machine and freezer are a must, like heating. The figures are low and I am worried about that. Can we get the correct figures, or whatever figures are available?

We paid out €13.5 million in supplementary welfare payments between 1 January and the end of April this year. If the Deputies are aware of a case where somebody did not get support, I ask them to bring the details to me and I will raise the matter with my officials. I have raised this matter on a number of occasions and have been reassured that a community welfare officer is only one phone call away. We do not talk about an online option or anything else. Anyone who picks up the phone should get the support he or she needs. If people are not getting that service, I want to hear about their specific cases and I will deal with them individually myself. That is not what I want to see. We are here to help people and I want the State to be there to support people in times of difficulty. That is our job and I want that to happen. If any Deputy knows of a particular instance, I ask him or her to come to me and I will deal with it.

The guidelines are issued to the staff who administer the scheme. However, they do not affect the discretion available to officers in issuing exceptional or urgent needs payments to assist an individual.

Parental Leave

Joe Flaherty

Ceist:

78. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of those availing of parent's leave and parent's benefit, by county, since the extension was announced on 1 April 2021, in tabular form; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24685/22]

This question intends to find out the number of those availing of parent's leave and parent's benefit, by county, since the extension was announced on 1 April 2021 and asks the Minister to make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Government has committed to the continued support of working parents to achieve a better work-life balance. Parent’s leave and benefit falls into this category and encourages the sharing of parental responsibilities equally between couples. The Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 introduced two weeks of paid parent’s leave for each parent of a child born or adopted after 1 November 2019. In budget 2021, this leave increased from two weeks to five weeks. Since these changes came into effect in April 2021, parent’s benefit is paid at a weekly flat rate of €250 for five weeks to employed and self-employed people who avail of parent's leave and who satisfy certain PRSI contribution and other conditions. The rate of parent’s benefit is the same as the rates of paternity benefit, adoptive benefit and maternity benefit. A total of 51,400 applications for parent’s benefit were awarded in 2021 compared with 16,700 in 2020, representing an increase of more than 300%. Since the start of 2022, the total applications awarded to the end of April stands at almost 22,000.

The number of parents who have availed of parent’s leave and benefit, by county, since the expansion of the scheme from two to five weeks on 1 April 2021 is set out in tabular form. The counties with large populations, namely, Dublin and Cork, tend to have the most claims, with some 14,200 and 7,300 applications respectively. My officials regularly review county statistics to look for emerging trends across all schemes administered by the Department.

From July 2022, parent’s leave and benefit will further increase from five weeks to seven weeks. The additional two weeks of parent's leave will apply to parents of children who are under the age of two in July 2022 or adoptive children who have been placed with their parents for less than two years in July 2022.

Antrim

11

Armagh

42

Carlow

648

Cavan

966

Clare

1271

Cork

7263

Derry

47

Donegal

1636

Down

99

Dublin

14246

Fermanagh

48

Galway

3348

Kerry

1683

Kildare

3070

Kilkenny

1193

Laois

890

Leitrim

440

Limerick

2134

Longford

452

Louth

1369

Mayo

1568

Meath

2567

Monaghan

891

Offaly

827

Roscommon

736

Sligo

804

Tipperary

1875

Tyrone

29

Waterford

1383

Westmeath

1190

Wexford

1634

Wicklow

1563

Total

55923

I thank the Minister. I welcomed last year's extension of parent's leave and benefit to all eligible parents of children born or adopted after 1 November 2019. Those five weeks' leave must be used within two years of the child's birth or adoption. These are important payments and help parents to take the time needed to support their children and to help meet the cost of living.

As children grow, another benefit that is of great importance for parents is child benefit. We know it is a crucial payment for many parents and families. I am frequently contacted by parents in difficult circumstances as they are finding it hard to access the payment for their children who are over 16 and may have left school but cannot find a job or training. Perhaps the Minister could come back to me on that issue.

As I said, we are going to increase parent's leave and benefit to seven weeks this year. I think parent's benefit, to which the question related, is very important. It is important for parents to be with their children in their most formative years. They need that quality time. It is not easy when parents are out working and both parents have to work these days. It is good that this support is available for parents.

To give the Deputy some statistics, 648 parents in her own county of Carlow received the parent's benefit, as did 1,193 parents in the neighbouring county of Kilkenny.

On the question about the children's allowance payment, which has a new name I have forgotten, I do not know the specific case about which the Deputy is talking. I am happy to hear about the individual case and I will take it up on the Deputy's behalf.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate what she has said and will come back to her with those details. Are parents aware of enhanced supports under last year's announcement for parent's leave and parent's benefit? Does more need to be done in communication of that? We have talked about social welfare and the needs assessment office with our social welfare office, which is doing its best. The Minister has spoken about people not getting their payments. Sometimes the problem may be a lack of information. Different offices kept different hours during the pandemic. Communication is essential. Are we considering enhanced communication on the issue of child benefit? Are there any plans to review the upper age threshold for that payment? One of the biggest issues I have been facing recently is the limit to child benefit when the child concerned turns 16 and has left school.

From July 2022, parent's leave and benefit will increase from five weeks to seven weeks. I and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, who has responsibility for policy in this area, will undertake to do a communications campaign at that time to make sure people are aware of it. This is an important support for parents and it is something we want people to take up. I am delighted there was such an increase in the numbers of people availing of the support in 2021. I hope that in 2022, that figure will grow further. Some 55,923 parents availed of the support in 2021, at a cost of over €50.8 million in total. That money is well spent because it gives parents the time to spend with their children.

Departmental Schemes

David Stanton

Ceist:

80. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Social Protection the measures being taken by her Department to support low-income farmers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24565/22]

David Stanton

Ceist:

85. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will outline the recommendations of her Department in the technical review of the farm assist scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24590/22]

My questions relate to the technical review of the farm assist scheme, which I understand was finalised last October and which the Minister published in April. It contains a number of interesting recommendations, facts and figures. Will the Minister outline the recommendations? What are her views on them, six months after they were finalised? What action does she intend to take?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 80 and 85 together.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. Farm assist is a statutory income support specifically for farmers on low incomes. There are approximately 4,800 claims in payment at present. The Government has provided €53.9 million for the scheme for 2022. The means assessment under farm assist is generous when compared with the means test applied under jobseeker's allowance for other self-employed individuals. Farmers also retain the advantages of jobseekers, such as access to activation programmes.

Further to the commitment in the programme for Government and in the Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, my Department recently reviewed the means assessment disregards for farm assist. The report is available on my Department's website. One of the key recommendations of the report was to provide for an extensive expansion to the list of agri-environmental schemes that qualify for a disregard. I introduced this measure as part of the Social Welfare Act 2022 and it will be implemented from next month, four months earlier than had been previously announced.

If a farmer is in receipt of one of these grants at the average payment of €2,132, this measure could provide for a weekly increase in his or her farm assist of up to €28.70 depending on individual circumstances.

The other recommendations in the report, which include increases in the capital disregard and income disregarded from off-farm earnings, would have to be considered as part of the budgetary process. I have also agreed to carry out a review of how income from land leased out by farmers is treated in the means assessments for the State non-contributory pension and the farm assist scheme. This is being progressed within my Department. In addition, budget 2022 introduced a targeted package of social protection supports, including a €5 weekly increase on standard weekly social welfare rates, increases to the qualified child payment rates and the fuel allowance. I have a list of other schemes that we plan to examine. Apart from the extension to the agri-environmental schemes, the report states that we should consider increasing the daily disregard from off-farm income, increasing the capital disregard, streamlining the approach to depreciation and continue to work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to identify schemes included in the CAP strategic plan that will yield environmental benefits and could be disregarded under farm assist. We will examine these in the budgetary context. In the most recent budget we provided that all of the different agri-environmental schemes will attract a disregard in the means test. The first €2,540 is disregarded and after that, 50% applies. There are other measures in the report, which I have just listed. Indeed, having looked at the number of farm schemes on the list, I think there are more farm schemes than social welfare schemes. All the other schemes are going to be included in the disregards, including the beef exceptional measure, the beef data scheme, the beef environmental scheme, the dairy beef calf scheme, the results-based environmental scheme, the agri-pilot programme, the sheep welfare scheme, afforestation programme, ash dieback scheme, creation of woodland and public land scheme, the deer tree shelter and deer-hare fencing scheme, the forestry grants, and the premium schemes. There is a lot of them and they are all going to be included; that is the good news.

I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome the fact that she is bringing forward some of the payments to next month, which will make a difference for some. In respect of the other recommendations she outlined, when does she expect to bring those forward? I acknowledge there are budgetary constraints and so forth but I encourage her to get those on the table.

I ask her to comment on the fact that, in 2011, there were 11,000 recipients of farm assist whereas now there are 4,864 recipients, while the amount being spent on farm assist has dropped from €113 million in 2011 to €53 million now. Is there a reason for that? Is it that farmers are better off now, which is why people have dropped out of the scheme? We know that, in the main, an ageing group of smallholders is availing of the farm assist scheme. Given that the Teagasc national farm survey report of 2021 found that 33% of the 93,000 farm families are vulnerable and depend on this kind of payment, the statistics in the review that the Minister has published are very interesting.

Currently, approximately 4,800 farmers are in receipt of farm assist, compared with 5,500 in 2020, 6,000 in 2019 and 6,500 in 2018. This is a demand-led scheme and the numbers in receipt of a payment are falling, mainly due to the age profile of the customers. More than 70% of customers are aged 50 and over, more than half of the claimants are aged 55 and over, while 30% are aged 60 and over. I hope that the expansion of the scheme to include a lot of agri-environmental schemes means that more people will qualify. We also need to look at the means test for farm assist because I do not think there is anything more complicated than that test.

I agree with the Minister's last point. It is extremely complicated and if she could simplify it, that would certainly be very helpful. I again ask her to comment on the fact that the number availing of the scheme between 2011 and 2022 has reduced by almost two thirds. If the Teagasc national farm survey for 2021 is saying that 33% of farms are vulnerable, then there is some mismatch. Either the scheme is too complicated, people do not know about it or the disregards are wrong.

Finally, can the Minister give an estimate of the new farm assist claims that will be submitted if the list of disregards that she mentioned are included?

The farm assist scheme has brought significant benefits to farmers, including the ongoing entitlement for a family member to participate in the rural social scheme. However, one issue has cropped up in recent times in the context of the farm assist scheme. When some farmers inherit a farm, they inherit the original farmhouse. In some cases, a family member may continue to live in that house rent free and, in other instances, the houses are derelict. The Minister said that she is looking at streamlining the means test for the farm assist payment and, in that context, it is important that no capital value is put on something that is of no material value at all. If there is a house on the farm that a family member, an elderly parent or uncle, for example, lives in, that should be taken into account. There should be a mechanism within the Department to take that into account because that would reflect a lot of situations on the ground.

The other measures I mentioned, including the disregard for off-farm income, the capital disregard, depreciation and so forth, will be considered as part of the budget but obviously, there are constraints there. We definitely need to look at the means test. I never saw anything as complicated in my life, to be honest. I remember the late Seymour Crawford was an expert and a whizzer on them. People come in with a tin box full of receipts, not just for one year but for the previous three or four years and one tries to sift through them. Poor Seymour is not around now but he was a great man for going through those boxes and knowing exactly what they were entitled to. It definitely could be streamlined more and I am happy to look at that and to work with the Deputies on it.

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Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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