Social Welfare Bill 2014 (Second Stage)

Deputy Joe O’Reilly: I am happy to speak in the presence of the newly appointed Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. We have had a friendship for many years based on my association with an educational institution on the south side of this city, Ringsend Technical Institute. I am delighted to congratulate him on his appointment and to welcome him here in his official capacity. I would like to address two aspects of the Social Welfare Bill 2014. First, I draw attention to the degree to which the Bill recognises the sacrifices and huge efforts made by ordinary people in keeping faith with this Government’s correct economic strategy, which has clearly worked across all measurements and criteria. I refer, for example, to fiscal management, job creation, consumer confidence and inward investment. The people kept faith with it and made great personal sacrifices in very difficult times. The wonderful thing about the Bill before the House is that it rewards and recognises the people’s effort, sacrifice and faith for the first time.

I would like to mention some of the headline features of the Bill. The increase of €5 in the rate of child benefit will increase the monthly payment from €130 to €135. This is a recognition of the submission made by the Children’s Rights Alliance, which reported that 18.8% of children and young people under the age of 18 are currently at risk of poverty and 9.9% of them are currently living in poverty. The incremental restoration of the Christmas bonus – this year’s increment is a significant 25% – is another great recognition of the sacrifices made by the people over recent years. It means a great deal to old people who want to buy presents for their darling grandchildren and their other family members at Christmas. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, and the Tánaiste to ensure this wonderful initiative continues next year in order that we can get back to the full bonus. That would be good.

I would like to applaud the Tánaiste on a remarkable achievement of this Government that is being continued. I refer to the retention of core social welfare rates in the middle of the deepest recession – our Great Depression. I also recognise the increase in the living alone allowance, which is another new thing in this budget. The increase of 3,000 in the number of people participating in the JobsPlus initiative will bring the total number of participants to 6,000. Some €12 million is being provided for the introduction of a new employment service to be known as JobPath, which I will discuss in a minute.

The provision of an additional €2 million for the school meals initiative is a hugely important piece of social engineering and social justice. Although it might be missed by many people because it seems trivial, it will have an impact. I am a teacher by profession and I have taught in all types of schools and areas. I am aware that the school meals initiative needs expansion and should be expanded. As we address this Social Welfare Bill, I commend to the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, and the Cabinet in general the extension for a second year of the early childhood education initiative, which is a wonderful thing.

I want to address the Government’s big achievement in the Department of Social Protection since it came into office. In addition to retaining core rates and maintaining the dignity of vulnerable people by supporting them, it has changed what was known paternalistically in the past as the dole – a handout to mollify people and keep them quiet – by introducing job activation measures that give jobseekers an opportunity to seek work.

The great success has been JobBridge and the number of people who have found employment and returned to dignity through it. While there are little aberrations and malpractices, there are also supervisory dimensions. JobBridge has been a great Government initiative.
When we entered into office, 7,000 jobs were being lost per month. Now, 5,000 jobs are being created per month and unemployment has decreased to 11%. We have moved from the concept of unemployment to one of job activation. The back-to-work family dividend that will come into play in January 2015 as a consequence of this legislation will assist families in availing of employment opportunities and moving off social welfare. They will be able to retain their increases in qualified child payments of €29.80 per week for up to two years after leaving social welfare. This is a great initiative. I am also gladdened by the number of extra people on JobsPlus.

I would like to have developed my next point further, but I must recognise the constraints of time. I am keen for us to work hard on the job activation front, including training and interviewing people in a supportive rather than aggressive or intimidatory way to find their strengths and give them opportunities to return to the workforce and regain their dignity and self-confidence. This is critical.

I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence. This Bill is great legislation and we should be proud of it. The Bill’s hallmark is how it tells the people that, having made sacrifices, now is the time for payback. We have begun the process of restoring the fortunes of people who made great efforts for our country.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website