Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, answered orally.

State Pensions

Question No. 14 answered with Question No. 6.

Ceisteanna (13)

John Curran

Ceist:

13. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of single persons living alone who are in receipt of the State pension (contributory) and the State pension (non-contributory); the number of couples in receipt of the State pension (contributory) and the State pension (non-contributory); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38744/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

There are almost 425,000 State pension contributory and 95,000 State pension non-contributory recipients. It is not possible to accurately categorise pension recipients into either single persons living alone or couples.

Both state pension (contributory) and (non-contributory) recipients may claim an increase for qualified adult where their spouse, civil partner or cohabitant is being wholly or mainly maintained by them and where that qualified adult’s means are below a weekly means test limit. Over 60,000 state pension contributory recipients and over 3,000 state pension non-contributory recipients are getting an increase for qualified adult payment.

In the case of state pension non-contributory, qualified adult increases are only paid in respect of dependants under pension age, as once they reach pension age they are entitled to claim pension in their own right.

For both pension types, a couple can comprise of two people in receipt of their individual personal pensions. It is not possible to provide statistics on the status of these relationships, or where any change of status occurs such as separation, divorce or widowhood.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Question No. 14 answered with Question No. 6.

Departmental Reports

Ceisteanna (15)

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

15. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the cost of disability research being undertaken by her Department; when she expects the research to be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38831/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

As part of Budget 2019, I announced my intention to commission research into the cost of disability. This is the first step in reaching an in-depth understanding of this complex issue. I hope that this research, when complete, will inform policy direction in relation to the provision of adequate supports to meet the needs of people with disabilities from a whole-of-Government perspective.

Following a procurement process, Indecon International Consultants have been commissioned by the Department to carry out this research into the cost of disability. This work is currently under way.

The research will look at three main items. Firstly, the conceptual underpinnings of a “cost of disability” will be examined. Secondly, it will analyse what would be a reasonable estimate of a “cost of disability” in varying circumstances for people living in Ireland. Thirdly, the implications for public policy and service delivery will be teased out.

It is envisaged that the research will provide quantitative estimates of the cost of disability using a number of approaches. This will include data based on the direct experience of people with disabilities.

This is an important piece of work which I understand is progressing well and I look forward to the completed report in due course.

I hope this clarifies the position for the Deputy.

Public Services Card

Ceisteanna (16, 19)

Thomas Byrne

Ceist:

16. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the recent report by the Data Protection Commission into the use of the public services card. [38845/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Collins

Ceist:

19. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will comply with the legal directions issued to her by the Data Protection Commission regarding the public services card. [38795/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 and 19 together.

The Public Services Card (PSC) was provided for in legislation in 1998 when it was introduced alongside the PPSN to replace the previous Revenue and Social Insurance number (RSI) and the Social Service Card (SSC).

The clear and stated objective as articulated in Oireachtas at that time was that the Public Services Card was not to be confined to welfare services but to act as an identifier for access to a broad range of public services. Successive Governments have reaffirmed this policy both in Government decisions and through legislation.

The Attorney General’s office advises that the legislation is clear and provides a strong basis for the existing and continued use of the PSC across the public service.

The PSC provides citizens with the convenience of only have to submit information to verify their identity once. As an example about 70,000 people use the PSC to apply for passports each year; we pay over 600,000 people approximately €150m through our post offices each week using the PSC as the identifier in each case; 600,000 free travel journeys are made using the PSC each week, about 400,000 PSC users use the MyGovID service to access online services with Revenue, SUSI, the National Driving Licence Service, Welfare and, shortly, the NCS.

The PSC has strong public support – approaching 90% of the adult population hold a PSC and research indicates they overwhelmingly value the card, are fully aware of and agree to the sharing of data required to enable its use across the public service, believe that they have more than enough information about the purposes of the card and understand why, and do not object to, their data being retained.

In October 2017 the DPC commenced an investigation into the SAFE / PSC process and delivered its final report to the Department on 15 August 2019. On 17th September, the Department published the report of the DPC together with a summary of its own response to the findings of the report, and related correspondence between it and the DPC.

As stated earlier this month, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe T.D. and I informed Government that we are satisfied that the processing of personal data related to the PSC does in fact have a strong legal basis, the retention of data is lawful and that the information provided to users does satisfy the requirements of transparency. This opinion was arrived at following very careful consideration both of the report and of the strong legal advice of the Attorney General’s Office.

The DPC had requested that the Department implement a number of actions on foot of the publication of their statement on Friday 16th August, within a very short time frame. However, based on the strong legal advice received, we believe that it would be inappropriate, and potentially unlawful, to withdraw or modify the use of the PSC or the data processes that underpin it, as has been requested by the DPC.

The Department sought to meet with the DPC on two occasions since receipt of the report with a view to outlining the basis for its conclusions and seeking to clarify a number of matters of concern relating to inconsistencies between both within the DPC's Report and between the report and the accompanying letter from the DPC. The request for a meeting was declined on both occasions.

The Department wrote to the DPC to advise it of the decisions now taken and understands that the DPC is now in the process of preparing an enforcement notice. To date, the DPC has not issued an Enforcement Notice. On receipt, the Department will consider the scope and terms of the enforcement notice and respond appropriately at that time. It should be noted that the findings in the DPC report do not have the force of law until such time as they are formalised in an enforcement notice.

In the meantime the Department will continue to conduct SAFE registration and issue the PSCs. It will also retain the supporting documentation collected as part of the SAFE process. The reason for this is that it is not sufficient, in the case of a dispute over any decision, to simply record that decision was taken it is also necessary to produce the documentation on which the decision was grounded. Other bodies, for example credit unions, public utilities and banks, similarly retain documentation submitted in support of applications for their services for as long as the person concerned is a customer of their organisation.

My Department is committed to ensuring that data relating to individuals is securely held and used only for relevant business purposes. The Department’s commitment to safeguarding data is reflected in its use of advanced data processing and storage technology hosted in secure, State owned and operated, data centres and is reinforced by a range of legislative and administrative provisions that are designed to protect the rights and interests of individuals.

Neither the PSC, nor the underlying Public Service Identity dataset, contains any information relating to the holder’s use of public services.

The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 (as amended) restricts the sharing and use of the Public Service Identity (PSI) data to a number of specified bodies set out in Schedule 5 of that Act and only in relation to a transaction a person has with that specified body. It is important to note, contrary to statements by some commentators, that the sharing of the PSI dataset does not involve sharing information regarding use of public services.

Carer's Allowance Review

Ceisteanna (17)

Bobby Aylward

Ceist:

17. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if increasing the financial thresholds for carer’s allowance will be investigated; if the introduction of discretionary assessments in cases of extreme extenuating circumstances similar to the discretionary system utilised in the medical card application process will be investigated; the position regarding the measures taken to reduce the waiting times for decisions on applications for carer’s allowance and other payments across the social welfare spectrum; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38807/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

Carer's Allowance is a means-tested payment for carers who look after people in need of care and attention on a full time basis. It acts as an income support for those who cannot work due to their caring responsibilities. The means test is one of the most generous in the social welfare system, especially in respect of spouse’s income. The income disregard is €332.50 per week for a single person and €665 per week for a couple. This means that a couple can earn in the region of €37,500 and qualify for the maximum rate. A half-rate Carer's Allowance may be payable with other welfare payments.

The means test has a critical role in determining whether or not there is an income need for a payment and that resources are targeted to those with greatest need. Any changes to qualifying criteria for schemes, including income disregards, would have to be considered in an overall budgetary context.

Decisions on claims are made by Deciding Officers of the Department in line with provisions set out in legislation. This ensures that rules are applied consistently and transparently to all applicants.

The processing times for all claims is constantly monitored, with steps taken to improve processing times within existing resource allocations when though necessary. These measures may include the assignment of additional staff, where available, and reviewing business processes to ensure the efficient processing of applications. The average processing time for the award of a Carer’s Allowance between January and August 2019 was 14 weeks.

I hope this clarifies the position for the Deputy.

Carer's Allowance Waiting Times

Question No. 19 answered with Question No. 16.

Question No. 20 answered with Question No. 9.

Ceisteanna (18, 26)

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

18. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the steps she plans to take to shorten the period taken to process applications for various social welfare payments such as the carer’s allowance, in which hardship can be caused to persons caring for a prolonged period notwithstanding the basic supplementary welfare payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38897/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

26. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the improvements and efficiencies into the processing of carer's allowance applications; the additional resources that are being applied to this matter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38895/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 and 26 together.

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

Processing times vary across schemes, depending on the differing qualification criteria. Social welfare schemes such Carer’s Allowance (CA), with a number of complex qualifying conditions can take longer to process. Before a decision can be made on entitlement to CA, evidence must be provided in respect of the care recipient’s care requirement, the level of care the carer provides and the carer's means. It is also the case that in order to register their claim and establish an early entitlement 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 the time taken to subsequently submit, receive and then assess this additional information is also reflected in the processing times.

The average processing time for the award of a Carer's Allowance claim from January 2019 to August 2019 was 14 weeks. I wish to reassure the Deputy that claim processing is kept under active review, with all possible steps taken to improve processing times. This includes the assignment of additional resources, where available, and the review of business processes, to ensure the efficient processing of applications. As an example, additional staff have been temporarily assigned to the Carer's Allowance area to work on claims processing and changes have been made to the operational processes to maximise processing capability and assist in improving processing times. As the Deputy points out, in the event of need, supplementary welfare allowance is always available to avoid hardship.

I hope that clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Question No. 19 answered with Question No. 16.
Question No. 20 answered with Question No. 9.

Social Welfare Benefits Eligibility

Ceisteanna (21)

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

21. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to review capital assessment for entitlement to social welfare payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38833/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The Department provides income supports through contributory payments (which are based on a person's social insurance record) and 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 or partner, if applicable) applying for the relevant scheme. Income and assets include income from employment, self-employment, occupational pensions, maintenance payments as well as property owned (other than the family home) and capital such as savings, shares and other investments. Various disregards apply across the schemes, reducing the amount of means assessed.

In this regard, for most social assistance schemes, the first €20,000 of capital is fully disregarded, the next €10,000 assessed at €1 per thousand, the next €10,000 assessed at €2 per thousand, with the remainder assessed at €4 per thousand. The first €50,000 of capital is disregarded in the disability allowance means test.

The assessment of capital reflects the fact that there is 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 property to support themselves without having to rely solely on a means-tested welfare payment. The family home is not assessed.

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

Social Welfare Benefits Payments

Ceisteanna (22)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

22. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she has considered that not increasing social welfare payments is in effect reducing the payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38847/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

This Government has committed to making the needs of families a priority, especially lone parents, children and those on lower incomes.

Over the last three Budgets, the maximum rates of all weekly payments have increased by €15. We have also increase the payments to qualified children for the first time since 2010 and provided for higher payments to children aged 12 years and over.

In addition, we restored the Christmas Bonus to 100%. This is paid to over 1.2 million long-term social welfare recipients to assist people with the extra expenses incurred over the Christmas period.

Recent budgetary changes have resulted in real increases to the rates of payment. Increasing the standard rates of payment is, however, only one approach the Government has taken to improve the living standards of social welfare recipients. We have also introduced measures which target those most at risk of poverty such as increasing the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, extending the fuel allowance season, increasing funding for school meals, increasing income disregards for lone parents and low income families and strengthening the provision of employment supports.

As part of Budget preparations, as well as assessing developments in the economic environment, my Department examines the impact of potential Budget measures on income and poverty rates and a social impact assessment is carried out. This is an evidence-based methodology which estimates the likely distributive effects of changes on household income using the ESRI’s SWITCH model.

Discussions are ongoing in relation to the Budget on October 8th.

Social Welfare Benefits Payments

Ceisteanna (23)

John Curran

Ceist:

23. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will include the full Christmas bonus in the budget of her Department rather than the current situation in which it is part of a Supplementary Estimate (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38745/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

The payment of a Christmas bonus is a discretionary decision made by the Government in the context of the annual Budget process and available resources.

As is the case every year, a decision to pay the bonus at Budget time each year takes into account the current fiscal position and the achievement of our overall fiscal targets.

Social Welfare Benefits Eligibility

Ceisteanna (24, 42)

Martin Heydon

Ceist:

24. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the work ongoing in her Department to provide additional supports for self-employed persons who may experience difficulties in their businesses; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38892/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Fiona O'Loughlin

Ceist:

42. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her plans to extend jobseeker’s benefit to the self-employed; if illness benefit will be extended to the self-employed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38821/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 24 and 42 together.

It is my intention that the new scheme of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed, which I announced as part of the Budget 2019, will be introduced from November this year. This scheme will provide a social insurance contribution based benefit to the self-employed who lose their self-employment and consequently are not engaged in self-employment.

The Social Welfare Bill 2019 introducing the new scheme on a statutory basis was published on the 28th of June and has completed second stage in the Seanad. Once it has completed all stages in the Seanad it will be introduced to the Dáil.

I have also announced the introduction of a parent's benefit scheme to be introduced later this year. This support will also be available to the self-employed and will provide both parents with 2 weeks paid leave from employment to care for their children during their first year.

The addition of these new schemes builds on other significant improvements for self-employed people in recent years such as access to invalidity pension and treatment benefits in 2017. Access to invalidity pension provides the self-employed access to a safety-net of income supports if they become permanently incapable of work as a result of a long-term illness or disability without a means test.

These improvements are part of the Government's stated aim of creating a supportive environment for entrepreneurship, including providing an income safety net to both employees and self-employed people. Any further extensions of social insurance benefits to the self-employed would have to considered in a budgetary context having regard to the funding of the Social Insurance Fund.

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

JobPath Programme

Question No. 26 answered with Question No. 18.

Ceisteanna (25, 37)

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

25. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if contracts for the provision of the JobPath programme will be renewed; and when a decision on the matter will be made. [38806/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

37. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans for the future of JobPath; if winding down the scheme is being considered in the near future in view of the fact that only 6% of participants have achieved work for over one year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38797/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Employment)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 25 and 37 together.

JobPath is a service which supports people who are long-term unemployed to secure and sustain full time paid employment. Two companies, Seetec and Turas Nua, have been contracted by my Department to deliver the service.

The JobPath employment service commenced in 2015 and, under the terms of the contracts signed with the providers was to run for at least six years comprising two consecutive phases: phase one entailed four years’ of client referrals, while phase two entailed a ‘run off’ period during which time no additional clients were to be referred. Therefore client referrals were due to cease on 31st December 2019. The contract included an option to extend the term of referrals for a period no greater than two years.

This extension is important as it will ensure that the Government retains the necessary labour activation capacity to deal with any labour market uncertainty that arises as a result of Brexit.

In addition, it provides my Department with the opportunity review all contracted public employment services and to design and develop a comprehensive model that will incorporate various models of response and be fit for purpose for the Irish labour market from 2021 onwards.

As per the econometric review, JobPath has been and continues to be a successful service in providing a comprehensive and value for money activation service for the long-term unemployed. On this basis, my Department triggered the extension provisions of the existing contracts with the JobPath providers and secured agreement on the extension of these contracts on existing terms and conditions for a further twelve months.

This is not a renewal of the JobPath contracts but the execution of the extension clauses of the existing contracts.

In order to assist my Department in designing and developing an appropriate contracted public employment service model, external consultants are to be engaged and this procurement process is currently underway.

Question No. 26 answered with Question No. 18.