Questions Nos. 1 to 24, inclusive, answered orally.

Questions Nos. 25 to 43, inclusive, resubmitted.

Questions Nos. 44 to 54, inclusive, answered orally.

Illness Benefit Payments

Ceisteanna (55)

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

55. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to review the impact of the six-day waiting period for employees to access social payments in view of the fact that many do not receive sick pay entitlements from their employers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8005/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Illness benefit is a short term payment made to insured people who are unable to work due to illness.  The payment is funded by the social insurance fund (SIF) through the payment of PRSI contributions by workers and employers and, in the event of a shortfall between contributions received and benefits paid, the Exchequer.  The fund is central to Ireland’s system of social protection and the Government needs to ensure that it can provide adequate and sustainable social insurance pensions and benefits for a growing and ageing population.

Current arrangements provide that payment of illness benefit begins from the seventh day of the illness.  No payment is made for the first six days, known as “waiting days”. 

Waiting days have been a long standing feature of the social insurance system and are a feature of similar social security schemes in many other countries.  In other countries the waiting period can be greater than that which applies in Ireland and is often accompanied by a requirement for the employer to pay what is known as statutory sick pay during this waiting period.  In Ireland many employers pay sick pay during this period without any statutory obligation to do so.  Where employees do not have an occupational sick pay scheme they can avail of the supplementary welfare scheme during the waiting period.

In 2014 when the current waiting day arrangements for illness benefit were changed six days from the previous three, it was projected that the full-year annual savings would amount to €22 million per year.  

My Department regularly reviews its supports and payments schemes to ensure that they continue to meet their objectives.  There are no plans at present to change the number of waiting days for illness benefit.  Given the cost implications, any change to the current arrangements would have to be considered in a budgetary context.

Social Welfare Benefits Payments

Ceisteanna (56)

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

56. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her Department is withholding payments in circumstances in which a person entitled to same declines to register for a public services card; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8092/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The primary legislative provisions for SAFE registration and identity verification are set out in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, 2005 (as amended).  These provisions require a person to satisfy the Minister as to their identity and allow for disallowance or disqualification from receipt of a benefit in the event that it is not done. 

Given that my Department spends over €19bn annually on supports and services, we need to be sure that people who access these services are the people who are entitled to receive them.  Accordingly, it is reasonable to ask people to verify their identity to a substantial level of assurance which is what the SAFE 2 registration process is about. Once a person has completed the SAFE 2 process, a Public Services Card (PSC) issues to a person.  

Where a person is invited to satisfy the Minister as to their identity in the manner prescribed in law, the person is required to engage with that process.  My Department makes it clear to people in receipt of social welfare payments or free travel entitlements that they do need to complete a SAFE 2 registration to access, or continue to access, payments and entitlements.  In the main, people are invited to a scheduled registration appointment but they may also book a different time/date to suit them, either online via www.mywelfare.ie, by contacting the Department’s offices, or by walking in to ask for the next available appointment.

The Department does not collect data on the number of individuals who currently -  or who at any point in time - have had a payment stopped by reason of failing to complete the SAFE 2 registration process.  This issue had not arisen when the current IT systems were being designed and to no separate category was included for this purpose. in any case, this data would be fluid in nature given, for example, that people who have a payment or entitlement suspended or stopped may subsequently decide to complete the SAFE 2 process and will, therefore, have their payment or entitlement reinstated, within a relatively short period of time in some cases.

The decision to stop a payment is never made lightly.  However, where a person does not satisfy the legal requirements in relation to identity, a payment can be disqualified.  In advance of any such disqualification, my Department makes every effort to engage with the person to explain the legislative basis for the SAFE 2 registration process and the consequences of potential disqualification.  Where a payment has been disqualified and the person  subsequently successfully completes the SAFE 2 registration process, their payment will be reinstated by the Department,  assuming they continue to meet all qualifying criteria for that payment.

I hope this clarifies the matter for Deputy.

Pensions Reform

Ceisteanna (57)

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

57. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to introduce an auto-enrolment scheme in view of the fact that the proposals put forward by her Department were criticised during the public consultation process; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8050/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

As previously announced the Government intends to introduce Automatic Enrolment  by the end of 2022.  It will see employees without personal retirement savings automatically enrolled into a quality assured retirement savings system, with freedom of choice to opt-out.

Delivering on a commitment made in the Government’s Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-2023, I launched a ‘Strawman Proposal for a new Automatic Enrolment (AE) Retirement Savings System in Ireland' last August as the basis for a national public consultation process on AE. 

I have said that the Strawman should not, in any way, be construed as a confirmation of what form Automatic Enrolment will ultimately take. 

It is a high level draft intended to generate and prompt discussion and improve ideas.  Given AE represents a most complex public policy reform, it is to be expected that we will hear a diverse and often competing range of views as to how the system might be delivered.  Overall the responses to the Strawman have been positive and constructive.  In the vast majority of cases our proposals were welcomed as a strong first step in the reform process of developing an AE system.  

In excess of one hundred written submissions were received in response to the Strawman from employer and employee representatives, pensions industry bodies, advocate groups and interested individuals.  My officials have met with many of these groups.  I have also chaired a number of public consultation seminars held in Dublin, Galway and Cork.

My Department continues to analyse the substantial material contained within the submissions.  It is anticipated that a report of findings from the process will be brought to Government over the coming months.  This report will assist the Government in making decisions as to the next steps in terms of the implementation of AE to enable the scheme to commence in 2022.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

National Carers' Strategy

Ceisteanna (58)

Bobby Aylward

Ceist:

58. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the steps she has taken to ensure that all family carers can avail of access to adequate support services for respite, individual support, training, networking, information and advocacy to ensure they do not lack training or confidence in their individual roles; the steps she has taken to deliver access to core support services for carers nationally; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8087/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Government acknowledges the crucial role that family carers play and is fully committed to supporting carers in that role. This commitment is recognised in both the Programme for a Partnership Government and the National Carers’ Strategy.

The Department of Health has responsibility for the National Carers’ Strategy which sets out the strategic direction for future policies, supports and services provided by Government Departments and agencies for carers.

The primary responsibility for providing respite care facilities and services rests with the Health Service Executive.

My Department provides a range of supports to those who are caring for family members, friends or neighbours.   These measures aim to recognise the needs of carers through the provision of appropriate income supports, to enable carers to remain in touch with the labour market to the greatest extent possible and to empower carers to participate fully in economic and social life.

These income supports include the following:

- Carer’s Allowance

- Carer’s Benefit

- Carer’s Support Grant

- Domiciliary Care Allowance

Spending on these payments in 2019 is expected to exceed €1.2 billion. 

In December I approved funding of over €1.7 million to provide a range of training and supports for family carers under the Dormant Accounts Action Plan 2018. The scheme is being administered by Pobal on behalf of the Department and 13 projects were selected to deliver training, information and related support services for family carers. 

These projects are:

- Family Carers Ireland, Dublin

- St Munchin’s Community Centre Company Limited by Guarantee, Limerick

- IRD Duhallow Company Limited by Guarantee, Cork

- Galway Autism Partnership Company Limited by Guarantee, Galway

- Irish Foster Care Association Company Limited by  Guarantee, Dublin

- Carebright Company Limited by Guarantee, Limerick  

- Irish Heart Foundation, Dublin

- National Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Ireland Ltd, Dublin

- Care Alliance Ireland (in collaboration with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland)

- ABAILE Autism Support Company Limited By Guarantee, Louth

- Peter Bradley Foundation Company Limited By Guarantee (t/a Acquired Brain Injury Ireland), Dublin

- St Francis Hospice, Dublin 

- The Rehab Group, Dublin   

Finally, as part of its commitment under the Carers’ Strategy, my Department also hosts an annual forum for carer’s groups which affords an opportunity for carers to engage with the relevant state agencies on an ongoing basis.

Community Employment Schemes Supervisors

Ceisteanna (59, 63)

John Brady

Ceist:

59. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the way in which she plans to avert further strike action by community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7991/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

James Browne

Ceist:

63. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the position regarding contractual, pay and pension concerns raised by community employment scheme supervisors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7654/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 59 and 63 together.

First, I wish to acknowledge the valuable and dedicated service that Community Employment supervisors provide in running Community Employment Schemes all over the country.  We simply could not sustain a lot of our local community services without their work and it is, of course, a concern to me that the Supervisors felt compelled to take the action they took yesterday.

As the Deputy is aware the action taken by Community Employment (CE) scheme arises from a claim for the provision of a pension scheme.

Given the complex issues involved, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform established a high level community sector group as a forum to explore potential approaches.  As part of the work of this group it was established that the provision of a pension scheme for CE supervisors and others in the Community and Voluntary sector presents very significant issues for the Exchequer, with a potential cost to the State of up to €347 million p.a.  It is important to note that this cost excludes any provision for immediate ex-gratia lump sum payment of pension as sought, which could entail a further Exchequer cost of up to €318 million.

Social Insurance

Ceisteanna (60, 98)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

60. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will request an independent review of the decisions with regard to the errors in the historic PRSI classification of a person (details supplied) and the resulting entitlements or lack thereof to payments from her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7977/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

98. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will request an independent review of the decisions with regard to the errors in the historic PRSI classification of a person (details supplied) and the resulting entitlements or lack thereof to payments from her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7976/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 60 and 98 together.

I understand the Deputy has provided details of two cases.  Both of these cases concern  public servants who were employed in a permanent and pensionable capacity and who were  determined to be paying the wrong class of PRSI for a period of time.  They were paying the standard rate class A PRSI when they should have been paying the modified rate Class D. 

People paying the Class D rate of PRSI pay a lower contribution and have access to a reduced range of benefits - in particular they do not accrue entitlement to the State Contributory Pension during the period in which they pay Class D but do instead accrue entitlement to a  public sector occupational pension scheme. Similarly people paying Class D do not have access to Illness or Invalidity Benefit schemes but rely on the public sector occupational schemes.

In both cases the people concerned were made permanent and formally admitted to the superannuation or occupational pension scheme by their employer in 2006.  In 2012 in one case and 2013 in the other, following a request by the employer for an insurability decision, a Deciding Officer within the SCOPE section of the Department determined that the correct class of contribution effective from 2006 was PRSI Class D.  Prior to that, the employees were correctly insured at PSRI Class A.  The consequence of this decision is that the employees will not accrue entitlement  to the State Contributory pension or to State Illness and Invalidity schemes in the period since 2006 pension but do like all other established public servants, accrue  occupational pension and illness entitlements.

The Deputy has asked if I can arrange for an independent review of the decisions. I can in fact advise that the decision in respect of one employee was appealed to the Social Welfare Appeals Office.

As the Deputy is aware, the Social Welfare Appeals Office (SWAO) is an independent office established to provide an appeals service to persons who are unhappy with decisions of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection on questions with regard to entitlement to social welfare payments and insurability of employment under the Social Welfare Acts.

The Social Welfare Appeals Office having considered the arguments put forward both by the Department's deciding officer and the employee upheld the decision of the Deciding Officer as being correct.

Under Section 320 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005  an Appeals Officer’s decision can only be revised where new facts or evidence have been provided which were not before the Appeals Officer when he or she made their decision.  If the people concerned have new facts or evidence I would invite them to submit it to the Chief Appeals Officer.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Community Employment Schemes Operation

Ceisteanna (61)

John Curran

Ceist:

61. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the opportunities given to locally based community employment social inclusion schemes to participate in the review by the interdepartmental group set up to examine the future of such schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7729/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Community Employment (CE) placements are categorised into two strands, Social Inclusion and Activation.  The Social Inclusion placements are generally taken up by adults who need additional supports: for example, people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, people with mental health issues, refugees, those requiring drug rehabilitation and ex-offenders.  CE schemes with a number of social inclusion particpants tend to be engaged in significant levels of local service support.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government agreed to establish an Interdepartmental Group (IDG) to explore how these social inclusion/social services schemes might best be organised into the future including which Department should hold lead responsibility for sponsoring CE schemes focused on social Inclusion / social services.  As part of the deliberations of the Group it is intended that consultation will take place with key stakeholders and community groups.

My Department’s main focus in its role of providing essential income supports and offering a public employment service has to remain on supporting people from the Live Register to progress into paid employment.  In this regard, for us, the role of CE is that of a stepping-stone from long-term unemployment towards paid employment.  That is not to disregard the valuable role that CE plays in delivering community services or to disregard the fact that for some people CE may provide the best long-term outlet in the form of occupational activity.  That is why I strongly support the continuation of social inclusion / social services CE schemes.  However, I have to recognise that, with the welcome and ongoing reduction in the Live Register, we may not be able, in the years to come, to guarantee a sufficient flow of participants to sustain these schemes.  Accordingly, I sought and received Government approval to set up the interdepartmental group to examine this issue with a view to ensuring the continued viability of these schemes.

The IDG will comprise of officials from my own Department and officials at Principal Officer level or equivalent from the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform; Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Rural and Community Development; Children and Youth Affairs; Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; Health; Justice and Equality and Housing, Planning and Local Government.  

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Live Register Data

Question No. 63 answered with Question No. 59.

Ceisteanna (62)

Pat Deering

Ceist:

62. Deputy Pat Deering asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the fall in the number of persons on the live register in County Carlow since January 2018; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8104/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The latest available CSO figures for January 2019 record 3,409 people on the Live Register in County Carlow, its lowest level since early 2008.  This represents a year-on-year decrease of almost 10% (372 people). Over the longer period, the Live Register in County Carlow has fallen by almost 50% in the five years since January 2014, which is in line with national trends. 

This downward trend is welcome and reflects the impact of government policy to create more jobs and reduce unemployment.

The policies set out in the Action Plan for Jobs, which is led by my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, aim to create an environment in which businesses can succeed and create jobs.  This successful policy includes a specific regional Action Plan for the South East Region, which takes in County Carlow, that has seen over 21,000 additional jobs created in the region in the last three years.

Over the coming years, we must make sure that our citizens are equipped with the skills to take up jobs of the future.  Future Jobs Ireland 2019, a Government led initiative, will replace the Action Plan for Jobs to deliver policy reforms over the coming years to ensure that we can continue to build the innovative and competitive economy in a changing world of work.

Through the Pathways to Work Strategy, my Department ensures that as many new jobs as possible are filled by people taken from the live register.

I would like to point out to the Deputy that six staff are currently assigned to Activation Case Officer duties in the Intreo service across Carlow.  Almost 1,900 customer engagements were scheduled in the year to January 2019 to give real assistance to jobseekers on their way back to employment. Case officers are also engaging with employers across County Carlow to help locate job opportunities for jobseekers. 

This case officer capacity is supplemented by Turas Nua case officers provided under the JobPath service targeted at long-term unemployed customers. There have been over 1,800 referrals to Turas Nua since January 2018.

The policies being pursued by Government have been effective in reducing unemployment, both nationally and in County Carlow, and I am confident that they will continue to do so.

Question No. 63 answered with Question No. 59.

Rural Social Scheme Eligibility

Ceisteanna (64)

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

64. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if the means test applicable to participation on the rural social scheme will be amended (details supplied); her views on whether a reduction in the level of payment for the participant can act as a disincentive in relation to increasing farming output; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8109/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The rural social scheme (RSS) provides opportunities for farmers and fishermen / women who are currently in receipt of specified social welfare payments to work to provide certain services of benefit to rural communities.  Communities benefit from the skills and talents of local farmers and fishermen and participants have the opportunity to improve existing skills, or develop new skills, while performing this valuable work in their local communities. 

As the RSS is a supplementary income support scheme designed specifically for those whose income falls below a certain limit, an individual must continue to satisfy the qualifying criteria for the scheme to be eligible to participate on the RSS. 

The rate paid to a participant on the RSS is equivalent to the participants underlying social welfare payment plus a top-up of €22.50 subject to a minimum payment of €220.50.  RSS participants in receipt of a widow’s pension or disability allowance retain their payment and also receive a top-up payment which will bring the minimum weekly payment equal to €220.50. 

As part of the recent Social Welfare Budget package for 2019, I increased the weekly personal rate for participants by €5.00 with proportionate increases in weekly payments for qualified adult dependants with effect from March 2019. 

If a participant’s circumstances change, a means test is undertaken to determine their new rate of payment.  The means assessment for RSS includes income that the participant and their spouse, civil partner or cohabitant has in addition to any capital or property (except their own home).  Payment of RSS is not taken into account when assessing the weekly means.  If changes were made to the conditions to allow all participants receive the full rate of payment regardless of their means in the manner and for the reasons suggested by the Deputy, it would in effect change the nature of the scheme from that of a supplementary income support to farmers and farm families with low incomes to that of an investment support or grant.  That would be a matter for my colleague the Minister for Agriculture, and would need to be considered in the context of other payments and grants already available to farm enterprises.

State Pension (Contributory)

Ceisteanna (65)

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

65. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the review of pensions affected by the 2012 contributory pensions changes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8106/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Since late September 2018, my Department has been examining the social insurance records of approximately 90,000 pensioners, born on or after 1 September 1946, who have a reduced rate State pension contributory entitlement on post Budget 2012 rate-bands.  These payments are being reviewed under a new Total Contributions Approach (TCA) to pension calculation which includes provision for homecaring periods.  My Department has already written to these pensioners to explain the process.

Last week I signed the necessary regulations, which together with the provisions in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registrations Act 2018, allow the increased payments to be made on foot of the reviews.  The Department has already started issuing the outcome of reviews and the first increased payments will issue this week, in line with my previous commitments to this House. 

These increased payments will include arrears to the 30th March 2018, or the pensioner’s 66th birthday if later than that.  Where pension rates do not increase as a result of this review, they will continue to be paid at their existing rate of entitlement.  No one will be worse off as a result of this review. 

Where possible, my Department will use information already held to assist in the reviews.  In some, but not all, cases additional information is required from pensioners about unexplained gaps in their social insurance record to complete their review.  In January, almost 24,000 requests for additional information were issued.  These requests included details on how to provide the required information using the Department’s online services.  Provision has been made for those who do not have access to a personal computer, or the internet by providing a dedicated telephone number to request paper forms which will issue over the next two weeks.

Given the numbers involved, it will take my Department a number of months to complete the reviews.  Around 120 additional temporary staff have been recruited to carry out this work as speedily as possible.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Social Welfare Benefits Eligibility

Ceisteanna (66, 67, 97)

Pat the Cope Gallagher

Ceist:

66. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the further changes she plans to make to alleviate the difficulties part-time and seasonal workers have accessing social welfare payments once their seasonal and part-time work ceases; the issues which were highlighted to her in the report by her Department on the issue; if she will circulate a copy of same to those Members of Dáil Éireann who wish to receive same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7973/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Tom Neville

Ceist:

67. Deputy Tom Neville asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the impact which recent changes to jobseeker's benefit in seasonal, casual and part-time employment will have on workers particularly in rural areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8105/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Pat the Cope Gallagher

Ceist:

97. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the improvements proposed for seasonal and part-time workers since she received the report into the entitlements of these categories of workers compiled by her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7972/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 66, 67 and 97 together.

My Department’s main social welfare supports for people who are unemployed are the jobseeker’s allowance and the jobseekers benefit schemes. Both schemes are based on a day of employment or unemployment as the case may be.  This days based system provides significant income supports to jobseekers who are part-time workers or casually employed.  For instance an individual can earn approximately €20,190 per year and still retain a small jobseekers allowance payment, while the equivalent threshold for an individual with a qualified adult is almost €34,700 if they are both working. Where a person is fully unemployed they receive the full rate. 

I recently implemented a change to jobseeker’s benefit for workers with subsidiary employment to provide a fairer and more flexible system for people who want to work.

The new arrangement, which took effect on New Year’s Day, allows workers with subsidiary seasonal and casual employment to earn €7,500 a year without it impacting on their rights to jobseeker’s benefit when work is scarce.  This will allow for a greater degree of flexibility when assessing the earnings.

In parts of rural Ireland and remote communities in particular, the only work available for some may be seasonal – whether in agriculture, fishing or tourism – and it is only right that we update our supports to allow such workers continue in employment and to sustain seasonal industries.

Any further measures would have to be considered in a policy and budgetary context within the scope of the overall resources available for welfare improvements.

Social Welfare Offices

Ceisteanna (68)

Thomas Byrne

Ceist:

68. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on whether there is a need for more social welfare offices in County Meath. [7946/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Jobseeker claims for people living in County Meath are administered by the Intreo Centre in Navan, our Branch Offices in Trim and Kells, the Intreo Centre in Finglas and in Maynooth. Signing-on for the majority of jobseekers usually occurs no more than once in any 4-week period.

Customers can refer to www.welfare.ie for useful information on all services provided by the Department and they can also access a range of on-line services.  My Department is continuing to develop additional on-line services for customers through a myWelfare.ie application.  

The Department's service offering in County Meath is being kept under review so as to ensure the best level of access to our services by residents of the county.

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Child Benefit Payments

Ceisteanna (69)

Charlie McConalogue

Ceist:

69. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to extend the child benefit payment to children who turn 18 years of age and are in full-time secondary school education; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7868/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Child Benefit is a monthly payment made to families with children in respect of all qualified children up to the age of 16 years.  The payment continues to be paid in respect of children up to their 18th birthday who are in full-time education, or who have a disability.  Child Benefit is currently paid to almost 623,000 families in respect of nearly 1.2 million children, with an estimated expenditure of more than €2 billion in 2018.

Given the universality of Child Benefit, extending entitlement to parents of full-time students in second level education who are over 18 years of age would not be a targeted approach. 

Families on low incomes can avail of a number of social welfare schemes that support children in full-time education until the age of 22, including:  

- Increase for a Qualified Child (IQCs): paid with primary social welfare payments, Budget 2019 introduced a higher rate IQC for children aged 12 and over in recognition of the higher costs faced by families with older children; 

- the Working Family Payment (formerly Family Income Supplement) for low-paid employees with children;  

- the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance for low income families (paid at the full-time second-level education rate).  

These schemes provide targeted assistance that is directly linked to household income and thereby support low-income families with older children participating in full-time education.

Any changes to the eligibility for Child Benefit to those children over 18 years of age that are still in full time secondary education would have to be considered in the overall budgetary context.

Arts and Culture Capital Scheme Eligibility

Ceisteanna (70)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Ceist:

70. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if the arts scheme is open to actors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8045/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

A pilot initiative to exempt self-employed visual artists and writers from my Departments activation measures was introduced under the Creative Ireland Programme which involved collaboration between my Department and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, with the support and advice of the Arts Council.  It was decided after consultation that the pilot would apply to members of Visual Arts Ireland (VAI) and the Irish Writers Centre (IWC).

A commitment was given to review the scheme which my Department is currently undertaking and will be completed over the coming months. The findings of the review will inform any further decisions on the future of this pilot including extension to other disciplines.

While actors are not currently in a position to access this pilot, they can qualify for a jobseeker’s allowance payment provided they satisfy the conditionality and the means test. 

I trust this clarifies the position at this time.

School Meals Programme

Ceisteanna (71)

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

71. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the hot school meals pilot scheme; if it will be rolled out nationally; if so, the expected benefits of same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8103/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to some 1,580 schools and organisations benefitting 250,000 children at a total cost of €57.6 million in 2019 representing an increase of €3.6 million over the previous year.  The objective of the scheme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of good quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them. 

As part of Budget 2019, it was announced that DEASP would commence a pilot scheme from September 2019, providing Hot School Meals in 36 schools for an estimated 7,200 children at a cost of €1m for 2019 and €2.5m in a full year.

The Programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement by children.  

Research shows us the value of the provision of adequate and nutritious meals for a child’s health, learning, attention and educational achievement.  That is why I am providing funds to establish a pilot programme for a hot meals scheme in schools. 

It has been agreed that the pilot will only be for primary schools not currently participating in the existing ‘Hot Dinners’ School Meals Programme.  Schools participating in the breakfast and lunch component of the existing School Meals Programme will be eligible for the pilot, though the ‘Hot Meal’ will replace the ‘lunch’ option if selected. 

Eligible primary schools will be issued with an invitation to submit an Expression of Interest to participate in the pilot.  Funding of €2.90 per meal will be provided and it will not be permitted to seek an additional contribution from families to provide the meals.  Schools will identify a supplier who will supply (prepare and deliver) the hot meals in line with HACCP and food safety regulations in compliance with the Healthy Ireland nutrition standards for school meals.

If successful, I would hope to work with the Department of Education and Skills (DES) in extending the scheme on a much wider basis in future years and establish the scheme on a permanent basis.

Farm Assist Scheme Administration

Ceisteanna (72)

Charlie McConalogue

Ceist:

72. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if the level of bureaucracy involved in the annual forms that applicants for farm assist are required to fill out and return will be reviewed; if the level of information required on an annual basis will be reduced; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7867/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Farm assist is a means-tested income support scheme for farmers.  To qualify for the payment, a customer must be a farmer, farming land in the State, aged between 18 and 66 and satisfy a means test.  The annual farm assist review form is a necessary part of the normal review process for these customers.

Following the Comptroller and Auditor General examination of the Farm Assist scheme in 2014 and the recommendations arising from that report the Department in response reviewed the annual declaration Farm 12  form.  The revised form provides for a detailed annual review process which includes seeking information regarding the income generated and the operating costs of the farm all of which are required as part of the annual review process.    

The means test for farm assist takes account of all income sources with certain disregards applicable to specific income sources.  Different rules apply to income from farming and other forms of self-employment.  Income from certain schemes such as the Green Low Carbon Agri Environment Scheme (GLAS), income from employment and income from property and capital are taken into account.  An examination of farm outgoings is also included in the assessment process.

Income and expenditure figures for the preceding year are generally used as an indicator of the expected position in the following year.  Details of any exceptional circumstances are also taken into account so as to ensure that the assessment accurately reflects the current situation. 

The annual farm assist review form is kept under ongoing review by my officials.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Treatment Benefit Scheme Data

Ceisteanna (73)

Pat Deering

Ceist:

73. Deputy Pat Deering asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of persons who availed of optical benefit through the treatment benefit scheme since its extension to the self-employed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8099/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Qualification for treatment benefit (TB), which includes dental, optical and medical appliances (hearing aids), is based on the person having paid the required number of PRSI contributions since starting employment and also having the required number of contributions or credits in the relevant tax year. The number of contributions required to qualify varies with age.

Eligibility was extended to the self-employed in March 2017.  Dependent spouse/partners of qualified persons can also qualify for the benefit.

It is estimated that 2.5m people currently pay or have paid the relevant PRSI classes (A,E,H,P and S), that can qualify them and their dependent spouse for TB.

The number of optical benefit applications processed from 1st April 2017 to 31st Dec 2018 was 635,745. Statistics of the uptake by the self-employed are only available from January 2018, in the 11 months to November 2018, of the 404,252 optical benefit applications processed, 70,438 (17%) were from self-employed contributors.

Rural Social Scheme

Ceisteanna (74)

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

74. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to amend the conditions applicable to the rural social scheme with particular reference to the need to remove the six-year participation limit; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8108/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Rural Social scheme (RSS) provides opportunities for farmers and fishermen who are currently in receipt of specified social welfare payments to work to provide certain services of benefit to rural communities.  Communities benefit from the skills and talents of local farmers and fishermen and the participants have the opportunity to improve existing skills, or develop new skills, while performing this valuable work in their local communities.

A six-year time limit was introduced for new entrants to the RSS scheme with effect from 1 February 2017.  Prior to this an RSS participant could spend their entire working life on the scheme, resulting in a very limited turnover of places and few opportunities for new entrants.  The new limit ensures that places become available to provide opportunities for others to take part in the scheme.  RSS participants who commenced on the scheme prior to 1st February 2017 will remain on the scheme, as long as they continue to remain eligible. 

In recognition of the crucial work undertaken in rural communities under the RSS and as part of my Department's budget package for 2018, the Government approved an additional 250 places on the RSS, increasing the overall number of places available to 3,350.  Overall this represents an increase of approx. 30% in the places available on the scheme in the past two years. 

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.