I am pleased to have this opportunity to present the general scheme of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2017 to the committee. I thank the Chair and the committee for facilitating this early opportunity to discuss the content of the general scheme of this Bill.
I am joined today by Mr. Tim Duggan, assistant secretary general and Ms Helen McDonald, principal officer with responsibility for pensions, Ms Kathleen Stack, assistant secretary general with responsibility for fraud and control and Mr. Brian Duff, principal officer with responsibility for legislative and legal affairs. My colleagues and I will be pleased to address questions that committee members may have with respect to the general scheme of the Bill.
My statement has been circulated to the committee members prior to this meeting. Members will have seen that it includes an attachment that summarises and explains the background to each of the heads contained in the general scheme. In the interests of time I do not propose to read the detail of this attachment into the record. My colleagues and I will, with the permission of the Chair, refer as appropriate to the attachment along with the general scheme, in answering questions that committee members may have.
I will sketch out the broad parameters of the general scheme as I believe it will prove useful. The general scheme contains changes to three Acts, the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, the Pensions Act 1990, and the Civil Registration Act 2004.
The changes to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act contain provisions that can be categorised as being either broadly administrative or broadly policy focused in nature. The changes that are largely administrative in nature relate to the following: the clarification of the principle that payments to a guardian should not be conflated with payments to the orphan in guardianship; enabling citizens to voluntarily present their public services card as a means of establishing identity with service providers such as credit unions, banks and utility providers and, if they wish, to include their date of birth on the public services card; clarification of ministerial authority for the setting of reduced fees for the issue of life event certificates; enabling the Department to automate the award of benefits or payments; and the inclusion of supplementary welfare payments in the list of payments that can be recovered in personal injury insurance cases.
The main policy focused changes to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, as provided for in the general scheme, relate to the following: measures to deter and reduce fraud in the social welfare system, including the publication of names of people convicted in a court for social welfare fraud; the reduction, for a limited period, in the personal rate of payment to people so convicted; and the extension of the earnings disregard for people with disabilities to include earnings from all types of employment.
To address the Pensions Act, all of the proposed changes are largely policy focused and are designed to protect the interests of members and beneficiaries of occupational pension schemes. They provide for restrictions on the ability of employers to trigger the closure of a pension scheme without due notice and proper engagement; new powers for the Pensions Authority to set a schedule of employer contributions in certain circumstances; a deadline for the submission of funding proposals by trustees; and equal treatment of same sex spouses and civil partners with regard to access to a spouse's pension in certain circumstances.
All of the proposed changes to the Civil Registration Act are broadly administrative in nature. They provide for removal of the prescribed term of office for the Registrar General and deputy Registrar General in recognition of the fact that both positions are general Civil Service positions with the post-holders having the same tenure as other civil servants; bringing the arrangements for the registration of a death in cases where a coroner is involved broadly into line with those which apply when a medical practitioner certifies a death; sharing of the records of births, deaths and marriages with a body under the aegis of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; and recording both the country of birth and the country of citizenship of a deceased person in the register of deaths.
In addition to these changes, I refer to two other issues raised recently by Members of the Oireachtas as potential legislative matters. First, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív raised the issue of introducing a disregard of foster care payments received from the United Kingdom in the means assessment of claimants who are living in Ireland. While the Minister supports and wishes to give effect to this proposal, he must have regard not only to people receiving foster payments originating in the UK but also people receiving similar payments originating in other European Union member states. The Department is examining the issues involved and hopes to be in a position, if legislative change is required and with the indulgence of Members of the Oireachtas, to introduce this proposal as a Committee Stage amendment.
Second, it will be recalled that when the Social Welfare Bill 2016 was being debated towards the end of last year, a Committee Stage amendment was introduced by Deputies John Brady and Denise Mitchell which would have provided that, in cases where an employer was found under the Unfair Dismissals Act to have unfairly dismissed an employee, the employer would, in addition to whatever penalty was imposed by the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, also have to refund any social welfare payments paid between the date of the dismissal and the date of the decision by the WRC. At the time, the Minister indicated that he saw some merit in the proposal and would examine it closely with a view to potentially making the necessary amendments in this Bill. I understand that the Chairman has circulated a letter from the Minister which outlines the outcomes of a consultation process with the relevant stakeholders. As it is apparent that there is no support among stakeholders for the proposed change, the Minister has decided not to proceed further with the proposal at this time.
I hope this short summary has helped to clarify the content and objectives of the general scheme. My colleagues and I will be pleased to address any questions members may have and take any input or suggestions for consideration by the Minister in finalising the Bill.