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Social welfare Bill, 2010

‘In line with international experience’
The Social welfare (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, 2010 was introduced in the Dail by the Minister for Social Protection, Eamon O Cuiv (Dail Eireann, Debates, 16th June 2010, 409 – 424, 449-468, 513-534; 17th June, 641-671; report and final stage 30th June, 64-83). He explained that the purpose of the Bill was to make targeted changes to the jobseeker’s allowance and supplementary welfare allowance, reducing the rate to €150 a week when job offers or activation measures were refused. The government’s aim was to ensure that despite the high numbers now on the live register, long-term systemic unemployment and welfare dependancy would not take hold. The Bill provided changes in the one-parent family payment, which would be made until the youngest child reached 13. Changes would not affect current lone parents with new children until 2024. The cut-off point would only come into effect for existing recipients six years from now in 2016. The cut off point of 18 years will remain for 2011-12, 17 in 2013, 16 in 2014, 15 in 2015 and 13 in 2016. Internationally, there was a general movement away from long-term and passive income support. A large proportion of lone parents and their children were still experiencing poverty. The child of a lone parent was four time more likely to be in consistent poverty. In general, the best route out of poverty was through employment. The minister said he recognized that work, especially full-time work, might not be an option for parents of young children, but he believed that supporting parents in participating in the labour market once their children had reached an appropriate age would improve their economic situations and their social well-being.

Olwyn Enright (FG, Laois Offaly) explained that Fine Gael had concerns about the legislation. She believed in the principle of activation but did not believe that the minister was approaching it from the right angle. He had proposed sweeping changes that would have a profound impact on people’s lives, but without the backup of necessary supports. She welcomed the legislation but at the same time questioned it. Lone parents seemed to have been singled out for activation, without opportunities being given to them. It was now four years since the report on one-parent families had been published, yet no work was done in the four years to facilitate the orderly provision of the range of supports needed to ensure that the people who would lose the payment had the chance to participate in meaningful work, education or training. The minister did not have a real plan to achieve this. She had no faith in the tangled web of education and training currently on offer and wondered how the system could cope with additional people. ‘Activation’ encompassed interviews and advice, education and training, skills for financial independence – yet she did not see a plan that would do that. In other countries, the building blocks were in place. ‘They did not start with a cut and then work downward. Where was the plan to create jobs for these people? The National Youth Council had voiced real concerns about the provisions and the lack of availability of education and training places.

For Roisin Shortall (Lab, Dublin NW), the problem was not about activation, it was about cutbacks and the optics of doing something about long-term welfare recipients. How could one call it activation when there were so few jobs of any description available? That was the big issue: the jobs were not there. Or was this about the minister wanting to look tough, rather than do anything meaningful? A lone parent with huge family commitments was competing for work with 430,000 other people. For those who did manage to find work, the main problem was who would mind the children while they were out. Most would not be able to afford to pay someone. What were lone parents to do during the summer months when his or her child was out of school? Was it government policy for 13-year olds to have no parental supervision and to be left to their own devices for the three months of the summer holidays? Research by the Vincentian partnership showed that it cost substantially more to raise a teenager than a younger child. For some parents, the cost of after school care would become a poverty trap.

Changes in appeals system
She also objected to §15 and 20 of the Bill which undermined the independence of the social welfare appeals office. What was the point of having one if the minister could challenge a ruling? The previous minister had strangled the Combat Poverty Agency and was now muzzling the appeals office, while §20 allowed him to appoint any person at his discretion. This was open to croneyism while instead the office should be put on a statutory basis to guarantee its independence. Kathleen Lynch (Lab, Cork NC) told the house that she had been involved in more oral hearings than she had eaten hot dinners: the deciding officers were better versed in social welfare law than any High Court judge and she did not understand why the minister was trying to usurp their power.

Thomas Byrne (FF, Meath E) took the view that the minister was trying to encourage work. The problem with one-parent families was that the parent was not working or could not work for whatever reason. This might be due to a poverty trap, lack of motivation – which he was not sure about – or lack of child care. Countries like the United States, which did not have fantastic social services or child care, recorded that only 23% of lone parents did not work, half the Irish rate. His colleague John Browne (FF, Wexford) described the cut-off age of 13 as a bit too young. The minister had made the point that childcare was less needed, but a youngster of 13 still needed some form of childcare rather than coming home and finding his or her parent out working. The age should be increased to 15 to 16. He was struck by the statistics of lone parents in poverty, despite significant state spending. Still, the latest EU figures showed that 17.8% of lone parents experienced consistent poverty, compared to 3% of two-parent households and 4.2% of the population as a whole. Mary O’Rourke (FF, Longford Westmeath) took the view that social welfare payments were supposed to be active, rather than passive in nature. People were not meant to just accept such money week after week and do nothing in return. Doing nothing was undignified and sapped people’s confidence and their ability to do something about the circumstances. Having said that, it was not always possible to adopt a get-up-and-go approach to life, especially in the light of the current economic difficulties. She cited other European countries were the age limits were four to five. She accepted that the age here would be 13, but questioned if childminding services were necessary at that age.

Back to the glory days of AnCo and the bananas
James Bannon (FG, Longford Westmeath) described the decision to time such policies with recession as debatable. The Bill reminded him of the expression ‘the deserving poor’ from the poor law of 1838. Where were the provisions for job creation, he asked. We were seeing doubtful welfare reforms, but the government was ignoring the need for a focus on job creation. Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) described the Bill as mean spirited, nasty and counterproductive. The minister’s approach was not activation but compulsion and it was penal. It was all stick and no carrot, because there were no jobs, too few educational courses and fewer still training courses. The purpose of the Bill was to punish the unemployed for the government’s failure to create jobs. They would be punished for refusing to take up non-existent jobs or courses. Was the minister telling us that all these courses, training opportunities and jobs would be in place by the time the Bill was passed? There was not a hope in hell that half a million job opportunities, courses or training opportunities being created by July when he hoped to ram the Bill through. We would have a repeat of the glory days of AnCo when the long-term unemployed sat in classrooms learning telephone skills with bananas because they did not have enough telephones. Living in poverty was a daunting prospect, but the minister would condemn more to that reality.

Cyprian Brady (FF, Dublin central) said he understood that many parents found themselves in very difficult financial circumstances at present and we had to be fair and equitable in the new Bill. Issues such as accessibility, child care and family circumstances must be taken into account. He agreed that incentives must be given to people, especially young people, to make the effort to seek employment and it was very easy to full into the rut of having nothing to do and have no reason to get up in the morning. In parts of the country and his own constituency, there had been generations of unemployment and no incentives and that was passed down from generation to generation. Chris Andrews (FF, Dublin SE) described the Bill as tough, imaginative and fair. The changes would bring Ireland more into line with international provision. As for the section on appeal officers, this allowed the minister to appoint people other than serving staff and allow the temporary employment of retired appeals officers to clear the huge backlogs.

The Minister for Social Protection was a ‘very compassionate, understanding and decisive man of great courage and responsibility’, according to Mattie McGrath (FF, Tipperary S). We had to protect the neediest and try ensure that all citizens had a reasonable standard of living. At the same time, they wanted to avoid long-term welfare dependancy so we must make choices about how to direct supports. The provisions for one-parent family payments were fair. Margaret Conlon (FF, Cavan Moanghan) spoke of how there will always be a level of unemployment, even when the maximum number of people were working. This was regrettable but it was important to recognize that such people deserved to be supported and the government was committed to providing that support. The other side, though, was that there were people who made a full time occupation claiming welfare and were masters at it. They never had and never will have any intention of working and we could not continue to support such people. Taxpayers were providing them with money and this must stop. There must be benefit reforms to ensure that there is always a more attractive option. The government must do everything to provide support and incentives for those entering the labour force or wishing to avail of further education.

O’Connor speaks of worries of his constituents
Charlie O’Connor (FF, Dublin SW) expressed the hope that the new proposals would help one-parent families out of the poverty cycle, which many were in and was detrimental. Despite state spending, results had been poor in tackling this form of poverty and this was something about which we should be deeply concerned. But lone parents were asking who would look after their children. The minister must engage with them and give them clear assurances that they would be assisted. He had always taken the view that when boats were rising, we must look after the little boats and people were struggling in these hard times and must be looked after. He had received calls from worried and concerned constituents, who wanted to know what would be done for them. Even though the minister had explained that the changes would not take effect for many years, they were still worried. One wanted to know who would look after her teenage child and her point was a fair one. People did not want to stay on welfare – they wanted employment, education and schemes. There were 11,000 unemployed people in Tallaght, including many young people and we needed to give them hope. He spoke of the new poor who were doing well six months or a year ago – they had jobs, were able to go regularly to Manchester United, had no difficulties with their bills or mortgages and it came like a bolt from the blue for them to have to struggle now. He hoped that the minister would be flexible over reducing jobseeker’s payments, because if no jobs were available, one cannot penalize or punish people who could not find work.

There was no flexibility in this legislation, according to Joe Costello (Lab, Dublin central) and it did not provide for an appeals mechanism or flexibility. The Bill was another example of harsh medicine being applied by the government and the imposition of austerity measures on the less well off, the sick, the disadvantaged, unemployed and pensioners. It was entirely negative and did not contain a positive line or offer any incentives. It was all about targeting people at the lower end of the scale who would be made to suffer. They will have to pay for the decisions of those who had ruined the economy and the lives of so many people.

Time to stop fraud – Kennedy
Michael Kennedy (FF, Dublin N) spoke of how the British pension was £99 but ours was €230. Criticizing the Irish Fianna Fail – led government for having the highest level of state benefit in Europe was farcical. We are way ahead of Britain and Europe. From meetings in his constituency, the two concerns were fraud and child benefit for single parents. He had been told of daytrippers flying from Europe to collect their payments. The Department of Social Protection should put officials with laptops at airports to question people coming off planes to find out whether they are coming here on holidays or for a rip-off situation. It should be investigated so as to cut down on fraudulent payments. Our proposals are more than reasonable, for in Britain, lone parent benefit will cease in September at the age of 7, which came from a socialist government. This was realistic, reasonable and pragmatic, because keeping people at home, unemployed and drawing benefit was not the way forward. Statistics on poverty showed that children from single parent homes were four times more likely to remain in poverty and this must be a concern for any government in the future. The new rules would come in in 2024, which was a reasonable timeframe for a single parent to re-educate, upskill and retrain.

Martin Ferris (SF, Kerry N) disputed the minister’s claim that the changes were aimed at addressing the high number of lone parent households in poverty. He welcomed any steps to address this level of poverty, but sadly this Bill was not an anti-poverty measure, but an unscrupulous penny pinching measure directed against the less well off. It was moving lone parents from one welfare payment onto another less flexible, less supportive and unsuitable payment. The Proposals for supporting lone parents (2006) clearly stated that any move must be accompanied by ensuring that child care supports were available. Even the minister had admitted that after school and summer supervision support was patchy at best. Why pick 13 as the cut off age? he asked. What was the logic? Did the government expected all single parents to rush into marriage before their children reached 13? The minister was storing up more costly problems for society in the future. Thinking seemed to be completely absent on the government side, where the focus was on how to take more from those who had least. There seemed to be no understanding that by driving people further into poverty, overall society was damaged.

The importance of discouraging dependance
Peter Kelly (FF, Longford Westmeath) drew attention to the way in which the government had improved welfare rates, but that many lone parents were still in poverty. The cost of one parent family payments was €1.12bn in 2009. After all that investment and lone parents were still in a cycle of poverty, we had to change our way of assisting them and improving their quality of life. The current arrangement of payments to 18 (or 22 if the child was in education) without any requirement to engage in employment, education or training was not in the best interests of society, the parents or their children. He welcomed the phasing out period and recipients should not have anxiety about this change. There was a wide variety of education and training opportunities available and all lone parents using the FAS services were provided with one-to-one guidance interviews with an employment services officer, where they were advised on current job vacancies, suitable training or employment programmes and might be referred to other FAS supports. He spoke of the social inclusion model that helped people overcome barriers and involved a number of agencies including lone parent organizations, outreach information and recruitment and a paving your way to work programme. Niall Blaney (FF, Donegal NE) was extremely conscious of discouraging long-term dependance on social welfare, which can be a scourge in any country. We were not in the business of making any individual or family suffer hardship or poverty, but rather ensuring that our social welfare system took care of those in need. It was sensible to encourage lone parents to participate in education or training. The measure had been criticized, but our payments should be compared to other jurisdictions. The Bill was thorough, fair and forward looking.

Concluding the second stage, which passed 70-66, the minister, Eamon O Cuiv accepted that any proposed change would not work unless support services were provided. Many single parents were in full-time employment and he accepted that they faced a struggle each day. The changes were were designed to obtain the best outcomes for diverse groups of people and there was a need to engage in mature discussion rather than trade insults. Despite belonging to different parties, there was much agreement in principle about where we were going, despite argument about how to get there. There was more agreement about the shape of the society we would like to create than might be apparent from debates in the house.

McFadden: only 63 facilitators
In the Seanad, Nicky McFadden (FG, administrative) contrasted the numbers of unemployed people, 450,000, with the fact that the department had only 63 facilitators responsible for the activation of over 90,000 one-parent families and 100,000 people receiving disability and illness payments (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 6th July 2010, 18-40). She quoted the policy and research officer with One Family, Candy Murphy, who argued that the reduced payments would make it increasingly difficult for lone parents to access employment and training. The head of the social justice division of the Society of St Vincent de Paul had also highlighted the combined effects of the cuts of the budget. Although the minister might have argued that single parents had to go back to work when their child reached three in Sweden, Germany and Norway, these countries also provided the best child care services in the world. The reality was that here, very few were available. Lone parents here who were willing to go back to work were unable to do so. What should a mother do now that her child reached 13? Should she remain idly on social welfare until her child’s 14th birthday? And then, will she have to compete with newly qualified graduates? Frances Byrne, the director of OPEN, had said that some of the activation proposals could and possibly will stigmatize certain sections of the population.

Lisa McDonald (FF, Taoiseach nominee) commended the action, energy and thought of the minister and described his department as an excellent and far-seeing move by the Taoiseach, brining a more holistic and joined-up approach to the area of social welfare payments and benefits, job activation, employment schemes and the national employment action plan. She asked opponents of the legislation why we should not empower women away from the lone parent allowance books and back to independence. The minister had said that homework clubs and holiday care would be provided as the need arose. It was to be hoped that a child of 14 would be involved in various other activities and the one thing he or she did not need was a mother mollycoddling him or her from 14 to 18. We had to be aware of young girls in certain areas who got pregnant and perceived it to be a path toward having their own house and moving out of the family home. Most young girls did not want to be pregnant but some did and if we ignored that, we would not be realistic about the need to tackle such dependency. She acknowledged the fantastic women who lifted themselves out of poverty and pursued further education. Support needed to be given to them because they more than anyone else wanted to get out of the poverty trap. Fergal Quinn (independent, National University) addressed the criticism of reducing social welfare for people who refused a job or training, but said it was worth noting the evidence, especially from America, that while many people began work in minimum wage jobs, they did not stay in them for long. Once in employment, people moved up the earnings ladder rapidly and the space below them were filled by new recruits. Taking up work was still the best route out of poverty.

It was not good enough that in 2010 we still had a largely Victorian model of social welfare in which people had to prove that they were living in poverty, said Dan Boyle (GP, Taoiseach nominee). He drew attention to the proposal by Social Justice Ireland for tax credits for the working poor and lower paid, a simple idea that had been opposed unnecessarily by the Department of Finance. It could easily be accommodated within our tax and welfare systems and he hoped it would now receive active consideration.

Phil Prendergast (Lab, labour) asked what employment creation did the minister envisage for single parents? We were told that unemployment would remain at 13% for the next 18 months. The types of jobs suitable for single parents included special needs assistants and home carers – the areas which had been subject to government cuts. Jerry Buttimer (FG, labour) likewise asked what happened to people when they did not have social welfare. Where did they go? ‘Do we want to become like America?’ Where were the afterschool service and the homework support clubs? Where is the money for these? Who will roll them out? This was the same government that was taking away the powers of the community development programmes. The government was creating latchkey children as a matter of policy.

Fiona O’Malley (independent, Taoiseach nominee) told of her depression to hear the Conference of Religious in Ireland constantly lament that the year-on-year increases in the budget were not sufficient. Why should someone on social welfare be allowed to believe that he or she was entitled to receive payments indefinitely? More was required of those in receipt of payments. She applauded the Bill because it recognized that people must be prepared for a lifetime of independent living. Many recipients of social welfare payments, especially lone parent families, remained in poverty indefinitely and the changes in the Bill asked why should this be the case. We must ask the reason why people remained in poverty, despite the comparatively generous supports offered. It was not simply a matter of money, but also of lifestyle, education and expectations. Nothing could be more depressing than preparing people to remain on social welfare indefinitely.

The Bill was approved 29-22 and went on to committee (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 13th July 2010, 445-489) where it passed 28-21.