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1 Debates: Poverty and social protection

The Seanad held a two-day debate on the future of social protection in Ireland (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 18th October 2012, 22 – 50; 24th October, 67-76).  The debate was introduced by the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, who emphasized  that she was anxious to see the incomes of people who relied on a weekly payment, like pensioners, protected in budget 2013 like in the previous year.  She promised there would be no reduction in the number of places under Community Employment (CE).  There were now 22,300 places, with 1,400 supervisors in 1,136 schemes.  The financial review carried out earlier this year has been presented to the Oireachtas library.  CE was the largest labour market programme funded by her department, with a 2012 budget of €340m.  Of those who went into CE, 23% had primary or no educational qualification, while 53% had the junior certificate, but in 2011, 17,000 got FETAC accreditation and 37,0000 got learning components.  19% of those who left CE went into employment and 7% into further education, a positive outcome taking into account the qualifications profile and the current economic environment.  Following the review, the materials and training budget was increased by €9.5m to €20.5m.  No scheme had ceased to operate.  The savings that could be achieved in the area of insurance, bank and audit fees were estimated in the order of €3.5m.



New Intreo service

She spoke of how earlier that week in Sligo she had opened the first office of the new social welfare configuration, Intreo.  This would mean that people coming into receive the jobseeker’s payment will not only get a payment, but be introduced to a pathway to work.  If they could not find work in the current climate, they would be facilitated through education and training.  This would be for all jobseekers, especially young people and those at risk of long term unemployment.  This would be rolled out in ten different locations this year, the first four in Sligo; King’s Inn st in Dublin, Tallaght and Arklow; and then Ballymun, Finglas and Buncrana.


Paschal Mooney (FF,  agricultural) agreed that CE had been a lifeline for many.  He especially drew attention to the situation of people with disabilities, who were excluded from activation programmes.  A recent survey had found that two-thirds of young disabled people were willing to work.  The consistent poverty rate of people with disabilities had risen from 8.8% to 13%.  He drew attention to recent figures published on food poverty, such as the fact that 450,000 people found it hard to put food on the table.  What kind of country are we becoming? he asked.  There was a growing volume of criticism that austerity alone did not work.  Fianna Fail was opposed to cuts.  Barnardos had warned that a third cut in a row to child benefit would worsen the situation of 90,000 children living in poverty and such a proposal would hit poorest families hardest.


Fidelma Healy Eames (FG, labour) asked why people were not asked to work for their welfare.  This would be purposeful and meaningful work, with the people concerned out and about and their contribution visible.  Fr Sean Healy had put this concept to people before and costed the scheme at €150m.  There was good support for the minister’s proposed two-tier scheme for child benefit.  She had spoken to 21 families, all of whom stated that it would be fair to cut child benefit by €40/month, provided the savings were put to good use.  Child benefit was a universal tax-free payment – but ‘since when did people come into the world equal?.  When did incomes become equal?  Universal payments amount to unequal payment’.  The key issue here, she said, was deciding where would be the dividing line between those who lost €40 a month and those who kept it.  She argued that jobseeker’s allowance should be calculated by the hour rather than by whole days, so that they could do more part-time work.  Youth unemployment here was 30%, but 8.5% in the Netherlands and 14.3% in Denmark where they had such flexibility.  


CE was targeted at over 25s and were focussed on the older, low-skilled job seeker, according to Kathryn Reilly (SF, industrial & commercial).  Perhaps something could be done for those under 25, now that we had so many young unemployed people, many of whom had been on the live register for some time.  What can be done to modernize the CE scheme to include young people and make it relevant to them?  she asked.


Heart-rending stories of fuel poverty

Katherine Zappone (ind, Taoiseach nominee) spoke of how she was hearing heart-rending stories of how people in middle to low income brackets were finding it impossible to feed families nutritiously.  10% of people were in food poverty in 2010, food poverty being defined as not having a substantial meal for at least a day during the previous fortnight.  One middle-aged woman had stated that there were weeks when she could not put food on the table.  A man on low income pleaded guilty to stealing groceries so that he could get milk for his children in the morning.  This should motivate the minister and colleagues to reconsider the adequacy and correctness of their macroeconomic policies.  Austerity policies in advanced countries from 1978 to 2009 had been followed by economic contraction and higher unemployment.  Likewise, David Norris (ind, Dublin University) said he had never thought he would live to see the day when 10% of Irish people were experiencing food poverty.  Aideen Hayden (Lab, Taoiseach nominee) said that she wanted to give a sharp warning to the government against cutting rent supplement any more.  Last year’s cuts had left vulnerable people in grave situations, with a cohort of people completely pushed out of housing and now homeless or at high risk of homelessness.  She foresaw a significant increase in the problem of homelessness unless they were protected.


Thomas Byrne (FF, cultural & educational) told of how the government had knocked whole swathes of people off the welfare rolls entirely by disqualifying people on dodgy grounds in applications for disability rights.  Applications for carer’s allowance were being delayed: tens of thousands of people had either been refused their allowance or their payments delayed.  These people were getting nothing and were being sacrificed on the political altar of a political promise not to cut welfare.  The departmental mantra was ‘we did not cut welfare’ but they did.  It cut the household benefits package, affecting the most vulnerable in society, while the fuel allowance had also been cut.



Why are our streets not full of people on crutches?

Similarly, Paul Bradford (FG, agricultural) made the suggestion that rather than remove some schemes and take 20% from some payments and 5% from others, it might have been better to make a modest 2% to 4% cut across all payments, which would have been very straightforward from an administrative point of view.  It might not have been entirely fair, but nothing in politics or life is ever fair.  He drew attention to the figure that 250,000 people were on disability, invalidity or injury benefit.  He wondered how really accurate was that figure: if that many were unfit for work, our streets should be full of people in wheelchairs and on crutches.  He did not believe that a quarter of a million people were physically unfit for work.    He did not believe that these people were frauds or criminals but that they may have been coralled into a lifestyle by society, by lack of income or lack of education in some cases.  Others may become trapped in a vicious cycle of  of being injured at work, or falling ill, signing on for injury benefit and ending up on an invalidity pension. 


Pat O’Neill (FG, agricultural) gave an account of how in England there were three generations of families who had never worked and relied on social welfare.  It was down to educators and administrators such as us to make sure that people had proper opportunities in education and training schemes.  Would the minister consider, he asked, a cap on the amount of going into social welfare in some houses?  This issue was raised by him by people who had neighbours with five people in a house all on welfare while they were out working.


The minister, Joan Burton, agreed that the numbers on the three disability schemes were high, 300,000 people or 16% of the working population.  Some 100,000 extra people had gone into various illness benefit schemes during the celtic tiger people, which no one had explained to her.   She pointed out that countries that we regarded as having a good, reformed social welfare system, such as Holland and the Scandinavian countries, had changed from a passive system, where one qualifies for a payment and is left forever alone, to an active system where we try to encourage people back to work.  The other side of the contract was that people receiving income support are obliged to do their best to get themselves back to work and become financially independent: ‘that is the cultural change we require’.  The worst poverty outcome for children was to be in a jobless household.  As for the criticism of the delay on the carer’s allowance, the delays occurred because of the enormous volume of applications.  


Separately, Ivanna Bacik (Lab, Dublin University) welcomed the report on fuel poverty, but not its findings, nor did anyone (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 16th October 2012, 4).  Reading the figures, it appeared that the numbers in food poverty rose by 3% in a year to 10% in 2010.  There had to be targeted interventions by the department and others to tackle the issue and ensure those groups most at risk were provided for.