Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 19 Jun 2014

Vol. 232 No. 6

Adjournment Matters

One-Parent Family Payments

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

The Minister of State is most welcome. I thank her for being present to hear what I have to say on the issue I have raised on the Adjournment. It reads:

The need for the Minister for Social Protection to explain why she plans to press ahead next week, on Thursday, 26 June, with measures that will disincentivise up to 9,100 one-parent families from working and in so doing act counter to stated Government policy.

This measure was introduced in the budget for 2012. I voted for it, but when we debated the provisions of that budget, the Minister accepted that one-parent families were a group at risk of poverty. I am not a lone voice in saying this and there is substantial evidence to support it. At the time the Minister said she would not implement the measure until a Scandinavian style child care model was in place. That model is not in place, yet this measure is due to be put in place next week. Some 9,100 one-parent families in receipt of the one-parent family payment will have their payments ended and will be placed in the new jobseeker's assist payment scheme, a basic requirement of which is that a person must be available to work part time. I support this in principle. It is absolutely fine in theory, but from what I have heard - I have met a number of one-parent families - it is not working in practice.

The recipients of one-parent family payments are men and women who are parenting alone due to separation, divorce, the death of a partner, relationship breakdown and, in some cases, domestic violence. Only last week the Minister of State and I both knew that as a national collective we were wringing our hands at our social history. We experienced remorse and anger over the thousands of babies of single mothers who apparently had been discarded cruelly and largely against their mothers' wishes. This time last year we celebrated because the women who had been in Magdalen laundries were finally being awarded compensation having been submitted to a lifetime of torture and punishment for having a child outside marriage. Today, however, single parents are about to be plunged into an ever more complicated and restricted regime of double binds and increasing poverty. Single parents who have been out of work for a minimum of seven years are expected to gain ready access to work in the current jobs market which largely favours interns under the JobBridge and JobPath programmes. A new lone parent whose child is already seven years old is not entitled to the jobseeker's assist payment and must receive the jobseeker's allowance straightaway. The person concerned will be required to take part in activation measures, while not having access to child care. That is the crux of the matter. How can it be truly said that parents are available for work if they do not have access to free child care? There must have been an assumption that people who were parenting alone had parents or friends available for free child minding. We all know that is not the case. People who are parenting alone are still waiting for the Scandinavian style child care model, promised in budget 2012 and for which I voted on the basis that it would be in place. What we voted for has not been put in place.

Let me give some examples of cases in which a supposition will be made that a lone parent has managed to find a real job, not an internship. In my first example a lone parent who will be in receipt of the new jobseeker's assist payment, being introduced next week, is working 15 hours a week. That person's income will be down €19 a week, from €324 to €305. The payment of €324 includes the one-parent family payment and the jobseeker's scheme element, in addition to a child allowance of €29.80.

Yes, the person concerned is working 15 hours a week spread over three days. A mother who works 20 hours a week will receive family income supplement. Her take home pay will be down €70 a week.

I am obliged to ask why these people should work. Lone parents who work will be financially disadvantaged by new legislation which is due to come into effect next Thursday. This runs counter to Government policy. The Minister of State did not vote for this and neither did I. We voted to put in place a measure to enable lone parents – mothers or fathers – to work. Now they will be disadvantaged if they work. Where is the incentive to work here? Work is vital but we still do not have an affordable child care programme available. The position in rural areas is quite bad. In one instance a child care place was available only if the parent was willing to drive 45 miles each way from the workplace. That is a joke. Another lone parent who contacted her local social welfare office regarding the after-school scheme was sent away twice with no information. On the third attempt she was told that the person in charge was out of the office. After a lengthy exchange of e-mails, the parent was advised that she was not eligible for the scheme, even though - following six years of unemployment - she had re-entered the workforce just as the scheme commenced.

I rest my case and look forward to the Minister of State's answer. I really hope we can resolve this anomaly together in the interests of people who are parenting and who also want to work. We must assist them in doing both.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection. The matter is not dealt with in my reply but, given that the Senator raised it, I must point out that 80% of the women who were incarcerated in Magdalen laundries did not have babies. They are always very anxious to make that point. While some of them did give birth, the majority did not do so. It is important to clarify the position in that regard.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The one-parent family payment, OFP, scheme has played an important role in providing income support to lone parents since its introduction in 1997. The payment was originally introduced, under a different name, by the late Frank Cluskey and was the main instrument and driver of Ireland's acceptance of people who are parenting alone. The number of OFP recipients stood at 77,209 in May 2014. The cost of the scheme for 2014 is estimated at €863 million. However, in the past the income support provided by the OFP scheme was passive in nature, with little systematic engagement being made by the State with recipients. This engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among one-parent families.

Despite significant levels of State spending on the OFP scheme, results have been poor in terms of tackling poverty - a matter on which the Senator and I agree - and social exclusion rates among lone-parent families, who continue to experience higher rates of consistent poverty in comparison to the population generally. The survey on income and living conditions figures published in April show that in 2012 some 17.4% of lone parents in Ireland were experiencing consistent poverty, as compared to 7.7% of the population as a whole. The reforms to the OFP scheme that were introduced in the budgets for 2011, 2012, and 2013 aim to address these issues by providing the necessary supports to lone parents to help them to escape inter-generational poverty and joblessness. The reforms in question will improve lone parents' access to education, training and employment programmes so that they can develop their skillsets with the aim of attaining financial independence for both themselves and their families.

The Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012 contains provisions to reduce, on a phased basis - from 2014 in the case of new entrants and from 2015 for existing recipients - the maximum age limit of the youngest child at which an OFP recipient's payment ceases to seven years. The next phase of the OFP age reductions will take place on 3 July 2014. It is expected that approximately 5,140 customers will leave the scheme on that date. The Department has contacted all affected customers and invited them to attend information seminars or one-to-one sessions in their respective social welfare local offices. The purpose of these sessions is to brief affected lone parents on the broad range of income and other supports, which the Department provides. Special arrangements have been introduced to assist affected lone parents in making the transition to other income support payments. For example, affected OFP customers who are also in receipt of family income supplement, FIS, will have their payments automatically adjusted to take account for their loss of OFP. The latter is one of the issues about which the Senator expressed concern.

Exiting OFP customers who are also in receipt of the half-rate carer's allowance payment will be moved to the full-rate version. Customers who do not fall into these two categories can apply for either the jobseeker's allowance payment or the jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangement. Applications for these income support payments are expedited for the customers in question. The jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangement was introduced in the Social Welfare and Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 in order to support customers who lose their entitlement to the OFP payment and who have a youngest child aged under 14 years. In recognition of their caring responsibilities, these customers are exempt from the jobseeker's allowance conditions which require them to be available for, and genuinely seeking, full-time work. Former OFP recipients who avail of a jobseeker's payment - including the transitional arrangement - are required to engage fully with the Department's activation process. These customers will be assigned case officers who will work with them to jointly develop personal progression plans. The aim of a personal progression plan is to increase the customer's skills and job-readiness and assist his or her entry into the workforce. As part of this process, customers will be advised on a wide range of educational, training, and employment programmes that may be suitable for their specific requirements. Depending on their circumstances, customers may also receive information on a range of wider supports including FIS and the subsidised child care schemes that are provided by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I hope I have answered at least some of the Senator's questions.

I thank the Minister of State. We are in agreement on a number of issues. I have no difficulty with regard to the age reduction and I want people to be active rather than passive. The Minister of State acknowledged that the members of the group in question are living in consistent poverty. The missing piece of the puzzle is a child care programme that will work. How can the Minister of State justify people's FIS payments being reduced by €70 per week because they work 20 hours? For a mother and child or a father and child, that €70 represents food on the table. That is the aspect with which I have difficulty and it is what prompted me to pursue this matter. Those to whom we are referring are contributors to society. They are the mothers and fathers who produce the children that we are glad are born. We do not want to push them into poverty. As the Minister of State rightly indicated, we want to get them back to work. We must provide a structure that will allow them to contribute in another way, which is what they want to do.

I have a difficulty with the Minister of State's reply. I welcome the fact that one-to-one sessions will be facilitated but I am of the view that they are not going to work.

This is not a debate.

The FIS payment of those who are affected will be automatically adjusted to take account of their loss. I accept that perhaps the detail with regard to what is going to happen is not as clear as should be the case. I do not believe that the loss will be significant because it is clear that FIS payments will be adjusted upward rather than down.

The evidence shows that they are going down.

Perhaps people are not yet fully au fait with the detail. The progression plans that will be put in place will ensure that the transition will not be financially prohibitive.

Medicinal Products Availability

I am raising this issue because the figures relating to it were brought to my attention yesterday by the Union of Students in Ireland. As Fine Gael's spokesperson on health in the Seanad, I thought it would be appropriate to seek a response in respect of it from the relevant Department.

The Union of Students in Ireland argues that the cost of the relevant medication can vary quite substantially, from €9 to over €45. If one is a medical card holder, one cannot obtain this medication without a prescription.

My argument is that one does not have to get a doctor to diagnose that one needs a prescription. It is a considerable waste of doctors' time if someone goes to see them in order to get a prescription. I am looking at the matter in that context also. There are doctors in universities. If a person has a medical card and they must go to a doctor; the doctor has to give a prescription and his or her time is being taken up. That is a matter I have been asked to raise. I said I would do so at the earliest possible date.

We have had brief discussions already on this matter, which I thank Senator Burke for raising. There are currently two emergency hormonal contraception products licensed for sale on the Irish market - Levonelle and NorLevo. Levonelle is a prescription-only product which is available to medical card holders under the GMS scheme, subject to the prescription charge – that everyone has to pay - once they have a prescription from their GP. The other levonorgestrel emergency hormonal contraception product licensed for sale on the Irish market is NorLevo. In February, 2011 the Irish Medicines Board announced its decision to allow the sale of NorLevo without prescription. This product may, therefore, be supplied from pharmacies without a prescription by or under the personal supervision of the pharmacist.

The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, PSI, has issued guidelines under section 18 of the Pharmacy Act 2007 to pharmacists requiring that the emergency hormonal contraceptive may only be supplied to a patient by the pharmacist personally, following a private consultation between the patient and pharmacist in order that the pharmacist can determine the appropriateness of the supply and to provide an opportunity to meet the appropriate patient counselling requirements. This consultation is required to take place in the pharmacy's patient consultation area. However, as NorLevo is an over-the-counter product it no longer complies with the applicable reimbursement criteria for the GMS scheme and the community drugs schemes, as a prescription is not normally required for its supply to a patient. Therefore, for all recipients of this product, the supply process is essentially a private transaction between the patient and the pharmacy. The HSE has statutory responsibility for decisions on pricing and reimbursement of medicinal products under the community drugs schemes in accordance with the provisions of the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013. In that context, one of the criteria which the HSE must have regard to when deciding whether a product should be added to the list of items reimbursable under the GMS and other community drugs schemes is that the product must be such that it is ordinarily supplied to the public on foot of a prescription. Therefore, over-the-counter products are not normally covered under the GMS and other community drugs schemes. Any change in this policy approach would have wide-ranging implications.

The central point is that there is a product which can only be used in emergency contraceptive situations and it is only available on prescription. Anyone who has a medical card can avail of it. I take on board Senator Burke’s point that requiring a prescription makes it a very expensive way to make the product available.

Could the Minister of State clarify whether the product could be supplied by a pharmacist without a prescription?

Is the Minister of State saying that if someone has a medical card a prescription is not required?

Is a prescription required in both cases?

In one case a prescription is required and in the other case the product can be bought over the counter.

Is a person entitled to get the product over the counter if they have a medical card?

No. That is not what we are saying.

Is it not covered by the medical card?

The drug is not available on the GMS scheme and therefore the cost cannot be reimbursed either to the pharmacist or the GP. Therefore, it is not covered by the medical card. One emergency contraceptive is covered by the GMS scheme and one does need a prescription for it. Anyone with a medical card can avail of that.

But they must have a prescription.

Yes, because it is only available on prescription.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.05 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 24 June 2014.