Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Ceisteanna (71)

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

71. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will consider taking steps in the next budget to begin increasing core social welfare payments to meet the minimum essential standard of living to ensure that those relying on social welfare supports are protected from poverty; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26487/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Social)

Ahead of the budget, which is not too far away, I wish to ask the Minister about the core social welfare payments. Will she consider increasing them in budget 2022 to start the process of getting to the minimum essential standard of living, which is so important? Any social welfare system should at the very least protect those who rely on it from poverty.

The measures taken by this and previous Governments ensure that social welfare payment rates in Ireland are among the highest in Europe and considerably higher than in the UK. Social transfers contribute very significantly to reducing poverty rates in Ireland.

According to the Central Statistics Office, in the absence of social transfers and pension income, the at-risk-of-poverty rate would be 41.4%. After social transfers, the rate is 12.8%. This is a poverty reduction effect of 68.5% for all social transfers and pensions, one of the highest in Europe.

The most recent data from the CSO's income and living conditions survey show poverty rates are falling and Ireland is one of the very few countries where the overall level of income is increasing and where income inequality is also falling.

Notwithstanding this progress, we should all acknowledge more can always be done, but what we do must be informed by the evidence. Towards this end, the Department funds a large body of research, including the work of the Vincentian Partnership, to develop and calculate the minimum essential standard of living. My officials work closely with Sr. Bernadette and her team and I find this work very useful in informing policy. The outputs from this research complement data produced from other analyses such as the survey on income and living conditions produced by the Central Statistics Office.

The Vincentian Partnership research provides an estimate of the income requirements of different family types in both urban and rural locations. It provides a comparison of welfare payments against these calculated requirements to identify what the Vincentian Partnership terms adequacy gaps. In 2020, the study concluded that pensioner couple households have no adequacy gaps but other households demonstrate gaps of various magnitudes.

The work of the Vincentian Partnership also highlights issues that may also be addressed with improvements in services. In this regard, improved services, such as the extension of GP-visit cards for children and the affordable childcare scheme, can result in significant reductions in the minimum income standards needed by households.

While the minimum essential standard of living is met by the State pension in certain circumstances, that is just one tiny cohort of people when we consider the range of social welfare supports provided. I acknowledge that social welfare rates play a role in lifting and keeping people out of poverty. However, many of today's rates are set below the poverty line and are nowhere near the minimum essential standard of living.

The Minister spoke about evidence, but there is no evidence used in the debate we have every year about a fiver for this group, a fiver for that group and nothing for the other group. It is not evidence-based and that is the problem. Therefore, we have this political football ahead of the budget every year and people are left with no certainty. That is why we need the core social welfare rates to be set against that minimum essential standard of living for evidence. I accept we have some of the highest social welfare rates in Europe, but we also have one of the highest cost of living rates in Europe.

In last year's budget, my priority was to target resources at the most vulnerable, which was why we increased the qualified child payments, the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance as well as making changes to the one-parent family payment. I also extended the hot school meals programme to an additional 35,000 children with 189 new schools benefiting. This year's budget will be framed as we continue, we hope, to emerge from the pandemic.

The total expenditure on all Covid supports to date is more than €28 billion. Because of the sound economic decisions made by the previous Government, we were able to pump money into the economy during the pandemic. During the financial crisis, we needed to take the money out and it has been the opposite this time around, but that is also borrowed money and ultimately we will need to pay it back.

The survey on income and living, SILC, data for 2019 are the latest data available on poverty. The Minister did not mention that deprivation increased in 2019, which is alarming given that was all pre-Covid. I appreciate the previous budget contained targeted measures, but we need to start looking at core social welfare rates that have not moved in the past two budgets.

A few weeks ago, representatives from Society of St. Vincent de Paul appeared before the social protection committee. They raised the issue of the increase in food poverty. They have received a 20% increase in calls for help for families. That increase in food poverty is of serious concern. This will be more of an issue as we emerge from the pandemic. I have not heard the Minister say she wants to start to align social welfare rates with the minimum essential standard of living, rather than increasing by a fiver and this political football. It is not evidence based and it is not good enough.

I will certainly be making the case to my colleagues in government for increased expenditure on social protection so that we can build on the progress we made last year. We will face several competing demands, but I will certainly make the case. The Deputy will appreciate it is only May and I cannot give her commitments on what will be in the budget at this stage. However, the good work carried out by the Vincentian Partnership will be central again this year when making our decisions.

The ESRI report, published last week, also shows we are making progress. It found that income inequality is at its lowest recorded level. In fact, that report stated Ireland is one of the few European countries to have experienced broad-based growth over the past three decades. Disposable incomes rose by more for lower income people than for higher income people, leading to big declines in income inequality between 1987 and 2019.