Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, answered orally.

State Pension (Contributory)

Ceisteanna (6)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

6. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of cases due for review under the new total contribution system for assessing pensioners for contributory State pensions; the number of cases reviewed and finalised to date; the number of these cases that resulted in an increase in pension of between up to €10, between €10 and €20, between €20 and €30 and over €30 per week; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22847/19]

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 based 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. 

Reviews commenced from 13 February 2019, the day after I signed the necessary Regulations which, together with provisions in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registrations Act 2018, allows the increased payments to be made. 

Regardless of when a review is conducted, where an increase in payment is due, the person's rate of payment is adjusted without delay and arrears paid, backdated to 30 March 2018 or the person's 66th birthday if later.  Where a person's rate does not increase following review, the person will continue to receive their existing rate of payment.

As at 23 May 2019, 47,755 reviews - which is over half of all pensioners identified for review - have been completed.  Of these, 23,523 pensioners received an increase in their rate of weekly rate of pension and 24,232 are remaining on their existing rate of payment.  

The detailed breakdown requested by the Deputy is not readily available.  

However, based on a sample analysis of some of the increases awarded, the best estimate at this stage is that 13% of those who received an increase received a weekly increase of €30 or more; 36% received a weekly increase of between €20 and €30; 7% received an increase of between €10 and €20; with the highest proportion, 44%, receiving an increase of up to €10 per week.  Importantly, most of those who received less than €10 following their review achieved maximum personal contributory pension rate, which cannot be further improved upon. 

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Data Protection

Questions Nos. 8 and 9 answered orally.

Ceisteanna (7, 33)

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

7. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she or officials from her Department discussed the issue of the publication of the full final report of the investigation by the Data Protection Commission into the public services card with the commission since the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on 3 April 2019; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22995/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

33. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will consent to the publication of the full final report of the investigation by the Data Protection Commission into the public services card following the comments by the Deputy Commissioner at the Oirechtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on 3 April 2019 that the DPC has no objection to the publication and that it is the legal position of the DPC that the commission must get the permission of her Department to publish the report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22994/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 33 together.

My Department received the Data Protection Commissioner's draft investigation report in respect of the Public Services Card in August 2018.

The draft report contained a number of provisional findings and requested further information and clarifications on certain matters.  The Department was specifically asked by the office of the Data Protection Commissioner not to share the draft report with any other party and it intends to abide by that request.

My Department was also given an opportunity to make submissions on the draft report so that the Commissioner could take account of such matters in their further considerations and in finalising their report. Those detailed and comprehensive submissions were provided in late November 2018.  A response from the Commissioner is now awaited.

I can confirm that neither myself nor any of my officials have discussed the matter of the publication of the full final report with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner since 3rd of April last. 

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Questions Nos. 8 and 9 answered orally.

Child Poverty

Questions Nos. 11 to 15, inclusive, answered orally.

Ceisteanna (10)

Gino Kenny

Ceist:

10. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on the statistic that 132,000 children here are growing up in consistent poverty; her further views on whether this is unacceptable in a wealthy society such as Ireland and is indicative of policy failure in view of the fact the number continues to rise; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22692/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I am committed to reducing child poverty levels in Ireland. My Department is currently working on a new Roadmap for Social Inclusion which includes concrete commitments, policies and strategies in to reduce child poverty.  The Roadmap will include targets designed to address poverty and social exclusion including specific targets in relation to child poverty.  I expect to bring the Roadmap to Government for approval in the near future and to publish it prior to the summer recess.

The existing National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, called Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, includes a target to reduce, by two-thirds, the number of children in consistent poverty from its 2011 level of 106,000 to no more than 37,000 by 2020. Given the impact of the deep recession this target is extremely challenging.  In fact the number of children recorded as being in consistent poverty increased to just over 148,000 during 2013.

The latest data from the 2017 Survey on Income and Living Conditions, or SILC, show a significant reduction in the consistent poverty rate for children, which decreased from 10.9% to 8.8%, a reduction of just over 2 percentage points, the second highest reduction in the rate since the collection of SILC data began in 2004. In terms of numbers, there were on average 105,000 children in consistent poverty during 2017 - a reduction of  30% on its peak level in 2013; so contrary to the proposition set out in the question  the number of children in poverty is falling, not as much as we would like or as fast as we would like but still we are making progress.  We have yet to receive the up to date data for 2018 and 2019, however, if this rate of reduction continues (and given the continued recovery in our economic fortunes, we expect that it has) we should get close to the national target by the end of 2020.

We will be helped in meeting that target by changes I made to child related welfare payments over the past two budgets the impact of which have yet to be reflected in the SILC data.  These include the first increases for many years in payments for child dependents, the introduction of a new higher rate of payment in respect of children over 12 and increases in income thresholds and disregards for the Working Family payment and the One Parent Family payment. I have also provided increased funding for free school meals and launched a new Hot School Meals pilot programme this year.  In making these changes I have, together with other colleagues who have, for example, extended free GP and affordable child care services, specifically targeted the issue of child poverty and we expect that these changes will bear fruit.

The new Roadmap for Social Inclusion takes a whole-of government approach, and will collect in one place the range of policy measures across government Departments that are designed to address the different aspects of poverty and social exclusion. This Roadmap sets out our ambition to significantly reduce poverty levels and identifies a specific set of commitments to help deliver on this ambition for different groups, including children. It also identifies the Departments repsonsbile for delivering on these commitments and the timeline for delivery of these commitments.  In this way I, as Minister, intend to hold all of Government agencies and Departments to account for ensuring that we become the most socially inclusive State in the EU.

Questions Nos. 11 to 15, inclusive, answered orally.

Farm Assist Scheme Administration

Ceisteanna (16)

Charlie McConalogue

Ceist:

16. 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. [22789/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Farm assist is a means-tested income support scheme for farmers.  The annual Farm Assist review form is designed to ensure that the correct level of payment is made to the customer, taking into account any changes in circumstances that may have occurred in the past year.

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 Direct Payments, 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.

Farm Assist was audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2014 and one of the recommendations from that audit was to enhance the annual declaration review form. The annual review process for Farm Assist has been comprehensively changed to incorporate several elements of means which had not previously been sought and examined during the annual review stage. This revised annual declaration process requires all recipients to make a return to the Department with supporting documentation as to income and expenditure over the preceding year.  In line with the recommendation of the C and AG the review form now encompasses 4 pages of information that the customer is requested to provide to my Department. Because the scheme is means tested, these questions focus on possible changes in farm income as well earnings of the partner, if any.

In addition, the form also makes provision for the customer to set out in some detail changes in their outgoings related to the farm expenses. This was introduced in 2016, following discussions with the Farm Representative Bodies who considered that customers should be able to outline the impact of these expenses from year to year.

Given that the form now complies with recommendations from the C and AG and takes account of suggestions made by the Farm Representative Bodies there is limited scope for any further revision. However if the Deputy has specific suggestions he would like to make my Department will be pleased to receive these suggestions and will consider if they can be implemented.

Pensions Reform

Ceisteanna (17, 31, 40)

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

17. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her plans to introduce an auto-enrolment pension system; the progress made to date in this regard, in particular, changes she is considering to the Strawman proposal and the proposed date for introduction; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22986/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

John Curran

Ceist:

31. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the progress being made to introduce an auto-enrolment pension scheme; the timeframe for the development and introduction of such a scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23013/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

40. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the consideration that has been given to women, young persons and minorities earning below €20,000 as part of her plans to introduce pension auto-enrolment; if auto-enrolment for this cohort will be considered with the option to opt-out; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22915/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17, 31 and 40 together.

As stated in the 'The Roadmap for Pensions Reform', the Government proposes to begin implementation of a supplementary retirement savings system, known as Automatic Enrolment, by 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.

I was pleased to launch 'A Strawman Public Consultation Process for an Automatic Enrolment Retirement Savings System in Ireland' last August as the basis for a national public consultation.  I have said that the Strawman should not be construed as a confirmation of what form this system will ultimately take.  The Strawman is a high level draft intended to generate and prompt discussion and improve ideas. 

In excess of one hundred written submissions were received in response to the Strawman from employer and employee representatives, pensions industry bodies, advocacy groups and interested individuals.  My officials have met with many of these groups.  I also chaired a number of public consultation seminars held in Dublin, Galway and Cork.  Most recently, in March, a series of focus groups was held with the target population for automatic enrolment.

Overall, the responses to the Strawman have been positive and constructive.  In the vast majority of cases, our proposals were welcomed and nearly every stakeholder agreed with most of the design features.  However, there have been diverging and conflicting views from stakeholders on some of the specific aspects at a more detailed level. 

My Department is continuing to analyse the substantial material collated from the consultation process, in order to determine how the feedback received may assist with the design process.  Furthermore, my Department is continuing its research and consultation with experts from around the world.  

My Department has also commissioned the ESRI to examine the potential macro and micro-economic impacts of automatic enrolment.  Part of the analysis being undertaken by the ESRI includes the impact of reducing the earnings threshold on the composition of the target population for automatic enrolment, including the gender impact.  Any decision on the earnings threshold for automatic enrolment will need to balance the benefits of enrolment with concerns regarding affordability.

It is anticipated that reports of findings from the consultation process - including how it impacts on the Strawman proposals - and the research being undertaken will be brought to Government in the coming months.  These reports will assist the Government in making decisions as to the next steps for implementation to enable the scheme to commence, as planned, in 2022. 

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputies.

Departmental Programmes

Ceisteanna (18)

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

18. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason the new national action plan for social inclusion has not been published; the definitive date for its publication; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22985/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

My Department is currently finalising a new Roadmap for Social Inclusion for the period 2019-2025.  It will have a ‘whole of government’ approach which recognises the shared responsibility across Government to achieve improved outcomes for the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.

I am bringing the Roadmap for Social Inclusion to Government very soon and expect to publish it in the next few weeks.  This roadmap will state a clear ambition to achieve the long-held, but as yet unrealised, target of reducing consistent poverty to 2% and aspires to go beyond that by making Ireland the most socially inclusive State in the EU.  Towards this end, it sets a number of specific targets to be achieved across various sectors of Government and identifies commitments to be delivered by each Department with a timeline for delivery.

It has taken some time to develop this roadmap - both to ensure that it is based off the most recent data and to enable stakeholders to contribute through a focused consultation process. The most up to date data from the 2017 Survey on Income and Living Conditions was released by CSO in mid-December 2018.  This data was examined and is being incorporated into the draft document which is now the subject of consultations with other departments.  The outline approach which was developed following a prolonged consultation process was also discussed at the Social Inclusion Forum hosted by my Department last week and feedback from that forum will also be incorporated into the final draft.

With regard to the SILC data, this shows that the consistent poverty rate has decreased to 6.7% in 2017, from a high of 9% in 2013 and from 8.2% in 2016.  The percentage of the population experiencing deprivation also significantly decreased, falling to 18.8% from a high of over 30% in 2013 and 21% in 2016.  These figures, which do not include the full-year impact of budget changes in 2017 nor any impact from the 2018 and 2019 changes, demonstrate that the Government’s approach to tackling poverty through the provision of income supports, access to quality services and supports for people in taking up employment is working.

It is my intention that the Roadmap will be published at the earliest opportunity, most likely during June.

Social Welfare Appeals

Ceisteanna (19)

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

19. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will take the necessary steps to ensure a speedy processing of appeals in respect of various payments administered by her Department with a view to the elimination of hardship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23015/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Social Welfare Appeals Office functions independently of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and of the Department and is responsible for determining appeals against decisions in relation to social welfare entitlements. 

All claim decisions taken by the Department’s Deciding Officers and Designated Persons are appealable to the Chief Appeals Officer.  In any year about 85% of all claims are awarded by the Department and just 1% are appealed.  Nevertheless, the Department is concerned that these cases are dealt with as quickly as possible.  

Accordingly, significant efforts and resources have been devoted to reforming the appeal process in recent years.  As a result, appeal processing times in respect of all schemes improved between 2011 and 2017 from 52.5 weeks for an oral hearing in 2011 to 26.4 weeks in 2017 and from 25.1 weeks for a summary decision in 2011 to 19.8 weeks in 2017.  The corresponding processing times for the year 2018 were 30 weeks for an oral hearing and 24.8 weeks for a summary decision.  The figures for the first four months of 2019 show some improvement with 27.9 weeks taken to process an oral hearing and 23.6 weeks taken to process a summary decision.

The time taken to process an appeal reflects a number of factors including that the appeals process is a quasi-judicial process with Appeals Officers being required to decide all appeals on a ‘de-novo’ basis.  In addition, appeals decisions are themselves subject to review by the High Court and decisions have to be formally written up to quasi-judicial standards.  Other factors that influence appeals processing times include the quality of the initial decision – in this respect the Department has changed the decisions process in respect of medical schemes, in order to provide more information to the claimant.  I am advised by my Department that this will help to reduce the number of appeals over time.

In addition, a number of new Appeals Officers have joined the Appeals Office over the past 12-18 months, to replace staff leaving on retirement.  Additional staff have also been allocated to the office in recent weeks.  Given the complexity of the appeals process it takes some time for new staff to be trained and develop expertise and this has led to somewhat longer processing times during this period.  The Chief Appeals Officer has advised me that appeal processing times continue to be a priority for her Office.

Finally, where a claimant has been refused a social welfare payment, regardless of the scheme involved, and is appealing that decision, if their means are insufficient to meet their needs it is open to them to apply for supplementary welfare allowance in the interim.   

If their application for supplementary welfare allowance is refused, they can also appeal that decision.  The supplementary welfare allowance appeal will be prioritised for attention within the Appeals Office as soon as the appeal file and submission is received from my Department.   

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Carer's Allowance Review

Ceisteanna (20)

John Brady

Ceist:

20. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when the last review of carer's allowance took place; if she will consider reviewing the criteria in place particularly in relation to the 15 hour rule and the means test in order to make it easier for carers to qualify; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23006/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Carer's Allowance (CA) is a means tested payment, made to people who are providing full-time care and attention to elderly people or to people with disabilities and whose income falls below certain limits.  The principal conditions for receipt of the allowance are that full time care and attention is required and being provided and that the means test which applies is satisfied.

It is important to note that my Department continually reviews its schemes and consults the sector.  Consultation is undertaken through, for example, the Annual Carers Forum organised by the department each year (the most recent of which was held on 21 May and was attended by over 70 participants who were individual carers  or representatives of carers organisations) and through the department's Pre-Budget Forum, held each year as part of the budgetary process.   

The full-time care and attention condition is moderated by legislation allowing the carer to work or engage in training outside the home for an aggregate total of 15 hours per week.  Any further changes to this condition would need to be considered in a budgetary context and would also need to maintain a reasonable balance between the requirement to provide full-time care for the care recipient and the needs of the carer.

The means test for Carer's Allowance is one of the most generous in the social protection system in that €332.50 of gross weekly income is disregarded in the calculation of means for a single person; the equivalent for someone who is married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting is €665 of combined gross weekly income.  A married couple with 2 children could have weekly earnings of €734 net of PRSI, superannuation and union subscription costs and still qualify for the full rate of Carer's Allowance.  This is equivalent to over €38,000 per annum.

At the end of December 2018, there were 79,914 people in receipt of CA.  The projected expenditure on CA in 2019 is approximately €840 million.  Combined spending on all my Department’s payments to carers in 2019 is expected to exceed €1.2 billion. 

Finally, there are currently two reviews relating to Carers Allowance being undertaken.  The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are conducting a spending review of Carer’s Supports (including Carer’s Allowance, Carer’s Benefit and Carer’s Support Grant) and, as the Deputy will be aware, as part of the debate on the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2018, I agreed that the Department would carry out a review on the Carers Allowance payment.   

I trust that this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Treatment Benefit Scheme

Ceisteanna (21)

John Brady

Ceist:

21. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will review the hearing aid grant available under the treatment benefit fund in view of the health inequality when it comes to the affordability of hearing aids for those without a medical card; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23004/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Department’s Medical Appliance scheme, which provides grants to assist in the purchase of hearing aids, is available to those who have the required number of PRSI contributions and their dependant spouse / partners.  The numbers claiming under the scheme over recent years and the payments made by my Department bear testimony to the important contribution the scheme is making for PRSI contributors and their dependant spouse/partners who are experiencing hearing loss.

In 2018, some 14,689 grants, at a cost of €12.74m were provided; this represents a 53% increase in the number of grants provided since 2016 and a 95% increase since 2009.  The increase in 2018 over 2016 is due in large part to the extension of the scheme to the self-employed for the first time in March 2017. 

The grant available under the Treatment Benefit scheme covered approximately 30% of the cost of the average hearing aid supplied under the scheme and is a valuable assistance to those who need it.  The Department regularly reviews the variety of devices and price ranges on the market to ensure the grant amount reflects the cost of hearing aids.

The parallel HSE scheme provides digital hearing aids, at no cost to the customer, and is available to those of all ages with medical card eligibility, which would include the vast majority of the over 70’s age group.

Any increase in the grant or variation in the percentage contribution towards hearing aids can only be considered in the overall budgetary context.

Disability Allowance Eligibility

Ceisteanna (22)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

22. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she has examined the negative social effects of the method of assessing capital for means testing purposes for those in receipt of disability allowance; if she is satisfied that this is not acting as a poverty trap; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22848/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Department operates a range of means-tested social assistance payments.  Social welfare legislation provides that the means test takes account of the income and assets of the person (and spouse / partner, if applicable) applying for the relevant scheme. 

The assessment of capital reflects an expectation that people with reasonable amounts of capital and property are in a position to use that capital, or to realise the value of the property, to support themselves without having to rely solely on a means-tested welfare payment.

Disability allowance has the most generous capital disregard of any scheme operated by the Department.  A recipient can have up to €50,000 in savings and still receive the full rate of payment.   

This is compared to €20,000 for most social welfare payments.  A recipient can also have about €112,000 means from capital and still claim the minimum rate of disability allowance.

People receiving disability allowance may also be eligible for secondary benefits such as free travel, fuel allowance, the household benefits package, living alone allowance and the telephone support allowance. 

In addition, disability allowance recipients may also work and earn up to €120 per week without their payment being affected.

Data regarding capital means tests for disability allowance customers is available from 2012 onwards, which covers 70% of current customers.  Of these customers, about one fifth have capital.  Of those that have capital, 98% of customers have means below €50,000 which results in no means being assessed.  Less than one per cent of the disability allowance customers analysed are impacted by the capital means test and, of these, the average amount assessed as means is €49.

Any proposals to change the capital means assessment for means-tested social assistance schemes would have to be considered in the overall budgetary context.

Labour Activation Measures

Ceisteanna (23)

Pat Deering

Ceist:

23. Deputy Pat Deering asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the steps she is taking to further tackle long-term unemployment; her views on the recent CSO labour force survey report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23045/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Government policy to reduce unemployment is twofold.  The policies set out in the Action Plan for Jobs have created an environment in which business can succeed and has led to the creation of more than 400,000 jobs since the economic low point.  Secondly, 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, particularly the long-term unemployed.

Activation Policy continues to focus on support measures for the long-term unemployed.  My Department's Intreo service offers a range of education, training and employment support measures during the activation process to help jobseekers secure and sustain full-time employment. 

The Pathways to Work strategy prioritises long-term unemployed people, most notably through targeted wage subsidies under JobsPlus; and through reserved places for long-term unemployed jobseekers on employment and training programmes.  Furthermore, activation services provided by, or on behalf of my Department through contracted services, provide appropriate activation services for jobseekers in a one-to-one case managed way.

To date these policies have been effective in reducing long-term unemployment.  I welcome the most recent data from the CSO Labour Force Survey which shows that the rate of long-term unemployment in Ireland which peaked at 9.5% in 2012 has fallen to 1.7% by the first quarter of 2019.  Ireland has therefore already brought the long term unemployment rate below 2.5%, a target set out in Pathways to Work 2016-2020.

This downward trend is welcome and reflects the impact of government policy to create more jobs and reduce unemployment.  However, we can't be complacent.  My Department continues to review its labour market activation policies to ensure that they remain effective and aligned to labour market requirements.  For example, my Department is currently reviewing options to help long-term unemployed people in the over-50 age bracket for whom conventional approaches in the past have not worked.  

Over the coming years, we must make sure that our citizens are equipped with the skills to take up jobs of the future and avail of the opportunities arising from a modern economy.  Future Jobs Ireland 2019 has been launched by Government, replacing the Action Plan for Jobs to deliver the required policy reforms to build a resilient workforce and innovative and competitive economy in a changing world of work.  One of its five key pillars focuses on 'Increasing Participation in the Labour Force' and includes specific measures to address barriers to participation and develop a more equitable and sustainable workforce.

The policies being pursued by Government to create jobs and reduce unemployment have been effective and they will support further reductions in long-term unemployment and add to the substantial improvements that have already been seen over the last few years.

Employment Rights

Ceisteanna (24)

Joan Collins

Ceist:

24. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when discussions will commence with the relevant bodies to bring in a sectoral employment order to ensure that tips in cash and credit cards from customers to employees across the industry go directly to the employee; and when same will be introduced. [22792/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015, which comes under the remit of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, provides the legal basis for Sectoral Employment Orders (SEOs).  SEOs can cover a broad range of issues such as pay, pensions or sick pay schemes for workers in an economic sector.  

Separately, I have met with relevant stakeholders and industry bodies (including the Restaurants Association of Ireland, Irish Hotels Federation and the Vintners Federation) who have expressed their support for an agreement or code of practice in this area.  I appreciate the support of these bodies, and it may form a basis for progress in relation to addressing the issue of tips and gratuities more broadly.

In the short term, however, I would like to bring greater clarity and transparency around this complex issue.  I intend to progress an amendment to the Payment of Wages Act 1991 in order to distinguish between tips, gratuities and service charges and to place tips outside the scope of a person’s contractual wages.  I am currently awaiting legal advice on the proposed amendment.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Social Welfare Benefits Reviews

Ceisteanna (25)

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

25. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will make specific provision in order to ensure that persons whose welfare payments come under periodic review do not suffer a loss of another vital payment such as rent support or carer's allowance until such time that a final decision has been made; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23014/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Basic weekly supplementary welfare allowance (SWA) may be paid to customers awaiting the outcome of a claim or an appeal for a primary social welfare payment.  In certain circumstances, if a person is not eligible for other social welfare payments and their weekly income is below the SWA rate for their family size, a payment may be made to bring their income up to the appropriate SWA rate.  The Community Welfare Service (CWS) officer will engage with a claimant to establish eligibility as quickly as possible and limit any delay to payments.  If there is a specific risk of homelessness, this should be communicated to the CWS officer at the earliest opportunity.  

Staff in the Department are engaged with customers throughout the entire lifecycle of their claim, including on regular reviews for all schemes on an ongoing basis.  A person’s entitlement to a social welfare payment is reviewed on a continuing basis to ensure that they continue to satisfy the conditions of the scheme.  A person’s means may also be reviewed from time to time.  A customer may also request a review of their means in the light of changed circumstances at any time. 

Review decisions are not delayed unnecessarily once all the information requested from the customer at the time of review is made available to my Department.  Payments are not suspended unless there is a valid reason for doing so, for example the provision of insufficient information by the customer in response to a query, or no reply from the customer.  Undue hardship for customers should not arise if there is ongoing co-operation from the customer with the Deciding Officer / Designated Person in my Department.     

Continued entitlement to a rent supplement payment from the Department is not linked to entitlement to other social welfare schemes.  However, the rent supplement claim may be reviewed following a decision to suspend or disallow a primary social welfare payment as there may be a change to the claimant’s circumstances that could affect eligibility.  During a review of a rent supplement claim, the CWS officers will engage with a claimant to establish continued eligibility as quickly as possible and limit any delay to payments. 

Any person in this situation is encouraged to contact the Department’s CWS office responsible for their rent supplement claim to discuss their circumstances.  Any persons who consider that they have an entitlement to a basic weekly SWA payment should contact the CWS at their local Intreo centre. 

If the Deputy has concerns in respect of a particular case, he should bring the details to the attention of the Department and my officials will follow up on them.  

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Local Employment Service

Ceisteanna (26)

John Brady

Ceist:

26. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans in relation to the future of the local employment service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23003/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Local Employment Services and Job Clubs contracts are reviewed on an annual basis to ensure they are fit-for-purpose in the context of the Irish labour market, as well as providing value for money for taxpayers. 

Indecon, in its reviews of LES and Job Clubs published last January, recommended that the Department should consider multiannual contracts and a competitive procurement model for future provision of these services.  The Department has also received official legal advice that simply renewing the LES and Job Clubs contracts annually, without any effort to procure competitively is no longer sustainable or legally sound. 

Accordingly a new process for  procuring the public employment services currently provided by the LES and JobClubs is currently in the early stages of development. 

My officials are working to design a procurement model that will balance the need for value for money for taxpayers with the importance of preserving high-quality employment advisory and counseling services.  Officials will engage with and consult practitioners and stakeholders to gather their views on an appropriate tender design.  I am on the record in recognising the valuable work performed by Local Employment Services and Job Clubs and it is my view that the tender criteria  should  give due recognition to track records in delivering high quality, locally based services.  

It is in this context that the process of procuring contracted public employment services for 2020 and beyond is being progressed.  While the precise format of any future contracts is still under consideration, there is no intention to exclude those with a strong track record of providing employment services from bidding for any future contracted employment service. 

State Pension (Contributory)

Ceisteanna (27)

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

27. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her plans to re-examine the situation for women who lost out on a full State pension (contributory) due to leaving the workforce to raise children; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22821/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

As announced in January 2018 pensioners born on or after the 1st September 1946, affected by the 2012 changes in rate bands, will have their state pension (contributory) entitlement calculated under an interim 'Total Contributions Approach' (TCA).  These changes also provide for up to 20 years of home caring periods in the pension entitlement calculation, for those who took time out of the workplace for parenting or caring duties.

The reviews relates to the pension payments of some 90,000 pensioners who reached pension age on or after 1 September 2012.  To date we have completed over 47,000 reviews with nearly half of those reviewed receiving an increase in their pension payment.  It is important to note that nobody is worse off as a result of these reviews, with pensioners receiving the same amount as they previously did if the reviews do not warrant an increase.

The Government intends to introduce a Total Contributions Approach (TCA) to establishing the level of entitlement for all new state pension contributory claims from 2020 onwards.

I launched a public consultation on the design of the full TCA on the 28th of May 2018 to which a wide variety of stakeholder groups were invited.  A number of workshops were also held on the day to elicit views and feedback.  All Oireachtas members were invited to a detailed briefing in Leinster House by my officials shortly afterwards.  The consultation was open for over 3 months and the Department received almost 300 responses from individuals and organisations.  Those submissions outlined the views of respondents on a number of issues, including the number of years required for a full pension, as intended as part of the consultation process.

Having carefully examined the outputs of the consultation process, my Department is now designing the scheme and I intend to shortly bring a proposal to Government setting out that design.  When the Government has agreed the approach to be taken, I will initiate the work required to introduce this reform. 

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

State Pension (Contributory)

Ceisteanna (28, 42)

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

28. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when the review process into those persons affected by the 2012 changes to the State pension (contributory) will be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23040/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

42. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of reviews which have been completed into those persons affected by the 2012 changes to the State pension (contributory); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23041/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 28 and 42 together.

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 based 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.

Wherever possible, reviews are processed based on information already held by my Department.  Where there are unexplained gaps in an individual's social insurance record, a written request for further information about time spent outside the workforce for parenting or caring reasons is issued.  Over 45,000 requests for information have been issued to date.  

Reviews commenced from 13 February 2019, the day after I signed the necessary Regulations which, together with provisions in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registrations Act 2018, allows the increased payments to be made.  Regardless of when a review is conducted, where an increase in payment is due, the person's rate of payment will be adjusted without delay and arrears issued backdated to 30 March 2018, or the person's 66th birthday if later.  Where a person's rate does not increase following review, the person will continue to receive their existing rate of payment.  Outcomes will continue to issue to individuals as soon as their reviews are completed. 

As at 23 May 2019, 47,755 reviews - over half of pensioners identified for review - have been completed.  Of these, 23,523 pensioners received an increase in their rate of payment and 24,232 are remaining on their existing rate of payment.

It will take a number of months to complete the reviews due to the numbers involved and the individual nature of social insurance records.  This work will continue until all identified pensioners have received their review outcome.  

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Social Welfare Benefits Waiting Times

Ceisteanna (29)

Charlie McConalogue

Ceist:

29. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the processing times for carer's allowance and carer's benefit applications; the reason for the backlog of applications; her plans to address same; if additional staff will be allocated in order to clear same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22790/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

My Department is committed to providing a quality service to all its customers.  This includes ensuring that applications are processed and that decisions on entitlement are made as quickly as possible.

Currently the average time taken to process new carer’s allowance (CA) applications is 12 weeks and the average time taken to process new carer’s benefit (CARB) applications is 11 weeks.

In general, social welfare schemes with a number of complex qualifying conditions can take longer to process.  For example, before a decision can be made on entitlement to CA, evidence must be provided in respect of the carer’s habitual residence in the State, the level of care they provide, their means and also that the person being cared for has such a disability that they require full-time care and attention.

It is also the case that in order to register their claim and establish an early entitlement or claim date many people submit a claim without first securing all of the necessary supporting documentation.  While this does ensure that people will be paid with arrears from an early "effective" date it does mean that claims take longer to process.

I wish to reassure you that claim processing is kept under active review, with all possible steps taken to improve processing times.  This includes the temporary assignment of additional resources and the review of business processes, to ensure the efficient processing of applications.  These steps have resulted in a significant reduction in the number of carers claims awaiting decision and the processing time continues to improve from an average of 17 weeks at the end of December 2018 to an average of 12 weeks currently.  It is intended that the current review of business processes will identify opportunities to implement further improvements and efficiencies.

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

State Pension (Contributory)

Ceisteanna (30)

Peter Burke

Ceist:

30. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of pensioners in counties Longford and Westmeath that will be positively affected by the change in pension rules for persons who took time out of the workforce to care for dependants; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22784/19]

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 based 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.

Wherever possible, reviews are processed based on information already held by my Department.  Where there are unexplained gap periods in an individual's social insurance record, a written request for information is issued.  Over 45,000 requests for information have been issued to date.  

Reviews commenced from 13 February 2019, the day after I signed the necessary Regulations which, together with provisions in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registrations Act 2018, allows the increased payments to be made. 

Regardless of when a review is conducted, where an increase in payment is due, the person's rate of payment will be adjusted without delay and arrears issued backdated to 30 March 2018, or the person's 66th birthday if later.  Where a person's rate does not increase following review, the person will continue to receive their existing rate of payment.  Outcomes will continue to issue to individuals as soon as their reviews are completed.  

As at 23 May 2019, 47,755 reviews, representing over half of all identified for review, have been completed.  Of these, 23,523 pensioners received an increase in their rate of pension and 24,232 are remaining on their existing rate of payment.  

The detailed geographical statistics the Deputy requests are not readily available at this time.  

Increases, where awarded, vary  depending on the nature and extent of a person's social insurance record.  The rate of increase awarded under this review is influenced by the extent to which a person benefits from the new calculation method, or the inclusion of new HomeCaring Periods, or both.    

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.