Social Welfare (Miscellaneous) Bill 2015

Ós rud é go bhfuil Seachtain na Gaeilge ar siúl faoi láthair, tosnóidh mé as Gaeilge. Ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Tánaiste as ucht an sár-jab atá déanta aici sa Roinn. In ainneoin na gciorruithe riachtanacha, bhí sí ábalta na bunrátaí a choimeád. Bhí sé deacair é sin a dhéanamh, ach d’éirigh leis an Tánaiste agus an Rialtas an cur chuige cóir a chur i bhfeidhm. Chomh maith leis seo, tá béim nua ar chabhair a thabhairt chun fostaíocht a chruthú. Tréaslaím leis an obair fhiúntach atá ar siúl ag an Tánaiste, ag an Aire Stáit atá in éineacht linn inniu agus ag an Rialtas. Is sampla eile é an Bille seo den jab iontach á dhéanamh acu. Molaim é don Teach.

We currently have the best live register figures since 2008. There are more people at work in this country than there have been since the previous Administration left office in 2011, when this Government inherited a country in complete meltdown. There is no doubt that there is still a long way to go. The national rate of unemployment has fallen from a high of 15.1% to marginally above 10%. There was an annual increase in employment of 1.5% in the last quarter of 2014. This represented an increase of 29,100 in the number of people in employment, bringing the total to 1,938,900. I expect a net return of emigrants over this year and next year.

The back-to-work family dividend scheme is introduced in section 6, which inserts a new Part 7A into the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. The intention of the new scheme is to help families to move from social welfare into employment. That is the whole philosophy behind the Bill and behind the work of the Government. I am especially pleased to see that the new section 238A of the 2005 Act provides that people who receive the one-parent family payment are eligible for this scheme. This is a very good incentive for people on this payment who are making the transition from welfare to work. Under the new scheme, lone parents will be able to retain their increase for a qualified child payment, which is €29.80 per week. I was pleased to hear that the new scheme will not have an impact on the family income supplement if an applicant is claiming a payment under this scheme. That is important.

The most recent census, which was taken in 2011, found that 92,326 people were receiving the one-parent family payment. This represented an increase of 59,000 on the previous census, which was taken over ten years ago. There are approximately 2,700 lone-parent households in County Cavan, with lone-parent families making up to 11% of all households in the county. A study undertaken by onefamily.ie found that most lone parents perceive considerable personal benefits from taking up work or training. However, many of them feel there are barriers that prevent participation in this area. The study found that the impact of the withdrawal of secondary benefits and allowances, such as the family income supplement, would have a negative effect on the lives of lone parents and their families. The fear of losing social welfare benefits is a huge obstacle and disincentive to those who might attempt to go into the workplace. This Bill is a further effort to remove that fear, which acts as an invisible and psychological deterrent for many parents and prevents them from contemplating paid employment.

Almost one in four lone parents works within the home taking care of children. It is startling that over a quarter of adults and children in single-parent households are at an increased risk of poverty. The figure is actually 28.4%, which is almost twice as big as the number of those living in two-parent households – 14.6% – who are at the same risk. As legislators, we have a duty not to ignore these figures. In light of these startling figures, I commend the Tánaiste for introducing this legislation, which will actively and responsibly support single parents who want to return to the workforce or enter it for the first time.

I welcome the decision to continue to pay the qualified child increase in full during the parent’s first year in work after returning to the workforce. A half-rate payment will be made for the second year of work. I was pleased to learn that if a claimant’s employment comes to an end before the two years is up and he or she finds himself or herself back on welfare, he or she will be able to re-enter the back-to-work family dividend scheme.

I wish to raise the question of child care costs with the Minister of State and the Tánaiste. I would be grateful for a response when one of them is replying at the end of this debate. I am aware that the Tánaiste addressed this important point over the weekend. It is unnerving that almost 52% of the net income of a lone parent is spent on providing child care outside the home. We should be doing something in this regard. I am very attracted by the idea of a second year of early childhood education. We have a wonderful exemplar of it next door to where I live. This great initiative, which is universally available, has significant effects on children. There is an ongoing debate on whether we should use tax incentives or a second year of child care for these purposes. Regardless of how we address it, we must do so because child care costs are a huge issue in contemporary society. I would like to see something done in this regard.

It is important that the proposed new section 238A of the 2005 Act provides that a “qualifying scheme” is one of the community employment, Tús or rural social schemes or any education, training or employment scheme. It is important that people are encouraged to go on those schemes and are able to come off them in a cushioned fashion without feeling they are acting to their detriment in so doing.

This legislation is about maintaining the dignity of vulnerable people by supporting them as they make the transition into the workforce. When it was introduced, jobseeker’s allowance was intended as a short-term financial support for vulnerable people who found themselves out of work. The vast majority of welfare recipients receive the payment to which they are entitled and no other payment. Sadly, some people act wrongly in this area and engage in what is described as welfare fraud. In September 2011, the Minister launched the Department of Social Protection’s fraud initiative. While we should be proud to note that some €669 million had been saved by the end of 2012, we should not be complacent. The Minister has set a target for 2015 of €510 million, which is staggering. There are progressive steps in this regard. I would be aware of anecdotal evidence of that. When people go to the post office to collect a payment, they have to provide proper identification cards. This is a welcome initiative.

While I welcome the fraud initiative and the support given to people on jobseeker’s allowance and the one-parent family payment who are trying to get into employment, I would not want the Chair or any other Member of the House to misunderstand my position and that of the Government. When we talk about eliminating fraud, we are not trying to get at people who deserve social welfare assistance. It should be a proud priority of the Government to support people who are in need. I refer, for example, to people who are unemployed through no fault of their own but are making genuine efforts to go through training, etc. It is important to support people who have various forms of disability and to support carers. All of these supports are vital and should be increased. I would like to see the carer’s allowance increased and the respite care grant restored to where it was. I would like to see improvements in all of our welfare payments. We cannot do that unless we eliminate fraud and encourage people to work.

Ultimately, we do not want a paternalistic welfare system like that which seemed to be perpetuated in the past. We want a person-centred welfare system that is supportive of need but is not paternalistic or patronising. Such a system should give people the dignity of being allowed to break out of it. The way out should always be accompanied by a safety net. That is what we are now achieving very neatly and with subtlety.

It is important for us to advertise this scheme in the national media. I appeal to the Minister of State to take this on board. We must advertise it because many people will be unaware of it. A lack of awareness may perpetuate the fear of going into employment. It is a great scheme. We need more of this kind of thing. We need to support those who are in need in the fullest way possible. We should provide for a transition into work for those who can work.

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