Issue 32

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Social welfare and pensions Bill, 2012: focus on lone parents

The principal debate in April was the Social welfare and pensions Bill, which gives legal effect to the welfare decisions of the 2012 budget announced last December (Dail Eireann, Debates, 18th April 2012, 583-609; 19th April, 119-141; 24th April, 336-357; 25th April, 17-37; 66-97; 117-123; 26th April, 224-274; Seanad Eireann, Debates, 27th April, 1109-1147, 1159 – end; 30th April, 1-55). Proposals to change the regulations governing payments for single parents were challenged.

Introducing the Bill, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton told the Dail that 40% of government spending was now on social welfare, but the government was doing its best to protect the most vulnerable in society. The evils of unemployment and debt, which 70 years ago had laid the basis for the welfare state, still had to be tackled today. She first addressed the issue of the high proportion of poverty among lone parents. The best route out of that was work, so supporting parents in participating in the labour market would improve their economic situation and social well-being. This Bill contained changes in payments to be made when the child reached the age of 12 this May, 10 in 2013 and 7 in 2014. For existing recipients, there would be a tapered phasing out period.

 

Many of these concerned had said that seven was too young and obviously there was concern about leaving a child alone without adequate child care. She agreed that seven was too young without a system of safe, affordable and accessible childcare in place, similar to that found in Scandinavian countries. She had undertaken that she would only proceed when she got a credible and bankable commitment to deliver such a system by the time of this year’s budget and if she did not get that, the measure would not proceed. She would engage with her ministerial colleagues to establish a coordinated, cross-departmental approach to ensure the required level of service. She would bring proposals to cabinet to open up JobBridge, the national internship scheme, to lone parents.

 

She outlined the other proposals in the Bill and in later amendments that she would make to the Bill, such as to delay mortgage interest supplement for the first 12 months of arrears while expecting 12 months’ forbearance by the bank during this period; to recalculate the basis for jobseeker’s benefit; the requirement for photographs for the public services card; and strengthening the power of social welfare inspectors especially at airports for people flying in so as to claim benefits when they must be resident (1,400 had made such claims in the past two years, costing €13m). She was providing a new power of inquiry into landlords to ensure that rent supplement was correctly paid.  

‘An attack on women’

Sean Fleming (FF, Laois Offaly) described the increase in paid contributions to qualify for the old age pension, from 260 to 520, as ‘a bad step and harsh on women’, but went on to describe the main element of the Bill as ‘an attack on one-parent families’, which, moreover were normally headed by a woman. That they would become pawns in the pre-budget negotiations in the autumn and used as bargaining chips did nothing for their dignity. Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) likewise described it as a ‘disproportionate‘ attack on them. The jobs simply weren’t there for them and he quoted European Union statistics that in Ireland there were 300,000 people out of work for 6,000 vacancies, or a ratio of 1:50, while childcare services were sparse. The National Employment and Entitlements Service was not in place and there was no commitment to the additional staff that would be required.

Joan Collins (PBP, Dublin SC) described the minister’s decision to reduce the age of entitlement to seven, with the proviso that there must be Scandinavian provision, as maintaining the commitment to the troika cuts while covering her back with Barnardos, the National Women’s Council and OPEN. She considered it to be almost the abolition of the one-parent allowance. She criticized economist Jim Power’s ‘stupid, ignorant and offensive’ remarks about lone parenting being a choice, coming from someone educated through our state-supported education system, demonstrating an attitude among some of the better off that people in receipt of welfare were too lazy to work and milking the welfare system. These attitudes were reinforced by ministers talking about lifestyle choices or claiming there was widespread fraud. In fact, 60% of lone parents were working. The reasons why lone parents were poor was because their employment was low paid, it was difficult to get affordable child care and there was a lack of family-friendly work arrangements. The cost of childcare here was twice the European average. She had attended a meeting today of the National Women’s Council, Barnardos and OPEN, a highly disgruntled, angry group, who believed that they had been completely disregarded.

Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin C) spoke of how social welfare must be guided by fairness and social justice. The needy and the vulnerable, though, were suffering disproportionately, but they were looked on scornfully by certain sections in society and the media who had not been unduly affected by the cuts. Were the State to have a fairer system of taxation, then it would not be making these demands on people dependent on social welfare. She cited the 12.5% corporate tax rate, but it was a sacred cow and one could not even consider a slight increase in this rate, which would realize significantly more income. The new poor were now entering the social welfare net. She drew attention to the fact that 700,000 people, including 200,000 children were living in poverty and contrasted the average income of €210 of the poorest 10% with the average €2,276 of the richest 10%. She asked, when it came to lone parents, how representative were the membership of the Dail and Seanad and how many officials in the troika were lone parents? Those who had massive support systems in place were not obliged to deal with the predicaments of lone parents. We could not maintain the dignity of the lone parent allowance while paying obscene salaries to bankers and directors.

Clare Daly (SP, Dublin N) quoted the figure that 65% of lone parent households experienced one or more forms of deprivation, compared to an average of 29%. 44% of lone parent households experienced two or more forms of deprivation and 98% were women – it was not possible to quote these figures enough and we had to see the Bill in that context. This Bill actually made things worse and represented the most dramatic shift in social policy in the treatment of children. It was astounding that such a group should bear the brunt of the effects of the cuts. People were finding this very hard to take.

Social welfare fraud ‘having a major effect’

Tom Hayes (FG, Tipperary S) spoke of how social welfare fraud was having a major effect on the economy. People in legitimate businesses could not compete with those operating in the black economy. Non-nationals were engaging in major abuses of the social welfare system, flying in and out again. The minister needed to put together a team of investigators. People should be obliged to sign on three or four times a week to bring this type of fraud to an end, because otherwise we would never be able to pay genuine claimants.

Pascal Donohoe (FG, Dublin C) described this as a sensitive area. It was not anyone’s ambition to deepen a person’s poverty and leave people where they could not look after themselves. They did not want to create a situation in which people took up a low-paid job, even more so after tax was taken and then have to pay child care costs, if they could find such a service. More often than not, they would have to turn down job offers because child care facilities were not available. He had looked at the figures for different types of welfare payments from the 1990s onwards and it was evident that the numbers claiming lone parent benefits hardly changed, even at a time when the labour market expanded and contracted. 

The minister’s predecessor, Eamon O Cuiv (FF, Galway W), described the changes proposed in the Bill as a concerted attack on women, especially those who had not built up sufficient averages for social welfare pension payments. He used to have an informal group, in his department, of pensioners and lone parents, with some well-heeled pensioners able to make a great deal of noise, but he had to impress on the them the statistics showing that lone parents were a disadvantaged group. He himself had been persuaded that lone parents were too distant from the workforce, that you did not need to baby sit a 20 or 21 year old and he had begun to reduce the age at which lone parent payment ceased and had proposed to reduce the age to 13. He acknowledged the level of concern that had existed at the time, but people agreed that it was workable, especially if he honoured the commitment on child care. The reaction of bodies this time, though, was quite different. The minister would be better served by withdrawing the proposal until she got the agreement of the one-parent family organizations on childcare costs. He also questioned if the proposal, which could oblige women to work outside the home out of economic necessity, was constitutional.

‘We cannot afford this bill any longer’

The Irish social welfare system was generous, said Catherine Byrne (FG, Dublin SC) and some of our main payments were considerable in comparison to Britain. Many people in low income jobs felt aggrieved in comparing their take-home income to their neighbours who were not working. That was why it was important to promote work and end dependency. Most people in the country wanted to work, had a genuine work ethic and did not want to be dependent on benefits. The restructuring of age limits for one parent families was welcome, a difficult but necessary decision. One parent payments cost the state €1.1bn ‘and we cannot afford this bill any longer’. We had been exceptional in paying lone parents up to 22, but in Britain and Northern Ireland the age of was seven. We did not want to see people live in poverty and parents whose entitlement to one-parent family payments ceased could apply for jobseeker’s allowance. She was critical of exceptional needs payments and cited €1.9m in her own constituency in the first six months of 2011, with €22,617 on buggies and prams, €211,193 on communion and €211,193 on adult clothing. She reared five children, using the same pram for all of them in turn and did not understand how in the constituency, the one with the largest number of single parents, a new pram was bought every time a baby was born. We had to continue to reform the system and not commit another generation of young people to a life of dependency. Tom Barry (FG, Cork E) cited the case of a woman on welfare who was getting married and they were off to Las Vegas for it: ‘I have never been to America. Social welfare schemes are not meant to pay for flights to Las Vegas’.

Sandra McClellan (SF, Cork E) formed the conclusion that the government believed that a child did not need parental care and supervision beyond the age of seven. The Bill was trying to ensure that people would go into full-time employment – but there were not 90,000 full-time jobs available over the next three years. 35% of lone parents were in that situation because their marriage or relationship had broken down, but unlike other countries, we did not have a statutory maintenance scheme, a huge mistake which must be addressed immediately. There was legislation in place but it had not been done, so the government decided to attack lone parents instead.

Aodhan O Riordain (Lab, Dublin NC) told the Dail that the minister had already agreed that seven years was too young, which was why it would only happen when there was a credible pathway to childcare. The minister had already achieved a minor miracle by taking €300m out of the social welfare budget while leaving the basic rate untouched. We must now launch a war on child poverty, one issue we had consistently failed to tackle effectively. Brendan Ryan (Lab, Dublin N) believed that this Bill could be one of the most influential pieces of social welfare legislation if it led to better outcomes for single parent families, but it was not easy to change the ethos of a whole system. The best way out of poverty was a return to paid employment.

 Bernard Durkan (FG, Kildare N) criticized the myth that people deliberately wished to be unemployed to apply for a social welfare payment. He had not seen the ready availability of payments that other people had. He particularly wished to draw attention to the dismantling of the housing system and the decision not be build any more local authority homes. Now we had 100,000 people on waiting lists, with 10,000 not allowed onto the lists by the new application forms.

 

‘Austerity making us poorer’

It would have been much better to raise the money through higher taxes on the less well-off, according to Mick Wallace (ind, Wexford). There was little doubt but that one-parent families had taken the severest brunt. He cited examples from his own constituency of single mothers who had lost their jobs, one of whom took eight months to get benefits even though she had paid social insurance and the other who was still waiting. Austerity was making people poorer. In 2007, the proportion poor in Ireland was 23%, against a European average of 20%. Now the European figure was up 0.2%, but ours had risen to 29.9%. Now 62.7% of single parent households were at risk of poverty, an incredible figure for a developed country.

Ming Flanagan (ind, Roscommon – Leitrim S) spoke of how he had relied on social welfare once and the worst part was the constant digs and nagging from ministers and politicians telling people on welfare that they were useless. That does not encourage anyone to get a job. If the minister thinks that beating people over the head because they are on the dole will get them off the dole, then she is wrong. It was like a mother in Africa slapping a child for not eating its dinner when there was no food. No matter how many times you do it, there is still nothing to eat. There is nothing that people on the dole can do, because there are no jobs. He objected to the term ‘headline rates’: what difference did they make to people if they were not cut, but fuel and rent allowances were? He had met people on some of the new courses the minister had put on, but they felt that they were an utter waste of time. The person giving the course told him that he had to make it up as they went along, but they did it to reduce the numbers on the dole. It might have looked good for the government, but what good did it do for people on courses? What good would it do to force people onto a course that was not worth a dam or into a job that did not exist? Our childcare system was starting from such a low base that it could not happen within the timeframe outlined by the minister. If it was not going to happen, it was irresponsible to say that it would. It took the Scandinavian countries decades to get it right. Instead, she was closing down community facilities.

  

‘Where are the new childcare facilities?’

On the committee stage, Richard Boyd Barrett (PBP, Dun Laoghaire), pointed out that there was nothing concrete about the child care facilities. The government strategy was hoping that people would resign themselves to this nasty cut and would forget about the Scandinavian model. The work in reducing entitlement was amazingly intricate – but where was the intricate engineering to put in place the childcare facilities?

 

The minister, Joan Burton, spoke of launching an ESRI report that morning on poverty and children. This had again showed the high risk to poverty of lone parents and how the solution was to get them to return to education or training and then to enter financially independent work. She pointed out that the country was spending more than €1bn on these payments and criticized him for having no consciousness about how much people contributed through taxation. Countries that did well did not put lone parents into a separate category for long periods of their working life. Social welfare was supposed to be a hand-up not a hand-out. We had to ensure that all people of working age were encouraged, empowered and enabled to work from education to retirement. Germany, Italy, Sweden and Norway ended the lone parent category when the child was three; four in Finland; five in the Netherlands; six in Canada and seven in Britain. We had a social welfare system that was often described internationally as passive, owing to the fact that once people took up a payment, they were forgotten, rather than assisted getting back into employment. We must, she said, offer assistance to people whose education was interrupted and she made no apology for helping people with a pathway to resume their education and training.

 

Aengus O Snodaigh re-iterated that he did not have a problem with the age of seven if the relevant supports were in place – but they were not. They were in place in the other countries she mentioned, but where was the promise of investment here? The money to do so had been given away to Anglo Irish Bank and the government was taking money out of the education system and Community Employment. All these cuts, which were listed in OPEN’s Seven is too young, pushed lone parents away from pathways to work.

‘Legalizing an increase in poverty’

In the Seanad, Terry Leyden (FF, labour panel) appealed to the minister to be open to amendments on the Bill and suggested to her to remove the ‘seven’ provision from the Bill. Fidelma Healy Eames (FG, labour) spoke of how people living in a dependency culture for 15 years became embedded in it. 14 years was too long to claim the one-parent allowance, for there was no incentive for a woman to consider changing her circumstances and changing herself. She commended the minister for reducing the upper limit. The lead-in time was critical and each lone parent should be given a facilitator to help with the transition.

Katherine Zappone (ind, Taoiseach nominee) introduced her comments by saying how inspired she had been by the minister’s approach and wanted to support her in implementing necessary reforms. But in the end she had supported the Seven is too young press conference of OPEN, the National Women’s Council and Barnardos because she was convinced that the Bill would have the effect of erecting barriers against lone parents working and could well legalize an increase in poverty. The stated conditions on the availability of child care were not part of the Bill. Moreover, after the age of the child passes 14, there were many complexities to seeking part-time work and social welfare assistance. She had seen figures for the numbers affected, but questioned their methodology and was concerned that they were on the low side. Katherine Zappone also questioned the commitment to a Scandinavian type childcare system: ministers knew we did not have such a system. ‘We failed families during the boom years when we had the resources’ and we did not have them now. Would they come in the next budget? 

Marie Moloney (Lab, labour) spoke of how she did not envy the minister in her task. Once cuts are made to social welfare, someone will always get hurt, she said. She had been approached by many women finishing their terms of one-parent family payments: ‘they really are lost. They do not know where to turn, what income they will have, or what they will do for the rest of their lives’. Jillian van Turnhout (ind, Taoiseach nominee) said she could not believe that we were debating something so regressive, counter-productive and detrimental to the well being of children. 90,000 women did not choose to belong to the family group that was most at risk in society and to suggest that they did was insulting, granted that many had left dysfunctional or unhealthy relationships or been deserted and it fed into the notion that lone parents were a legitimate target of welfare cuts. Everyone agreed that this was the group most at risk of poverty in Irish society. Why did we not remove this section of the Bill and bring it back when the supports outlined by the minister were in place? Why the haste? Where were the 90,000 jobs for them to take up?

Jillian van Turnhout asked what was to happen in 2014 when the new limit kicked in: what will they do with their 7-year old? School happens for 183 days of the year and at that age finishes at 2.30pm – but there are not enough childcare or afterschool services to suit and are unlikely to be delivered in three years. As it was, the capital grants for the child care sector were €6m, but requests for €60m had been received. There had been no significant investment in afterschool.

Concluding the Seanad debate, the minister, Joan Burton attacked Sinn Fein for opposing the cut-off age at seven here, but that was the same in Northern Ireland, where they were in government. Our welfare levels were better than north of the border. Seven was the age selected in many countries because it was at that age that children were well settled in the education system and there was good provision available. Why should we not get better value for the money we were spending? The savings here were not large – €11.9m in 2015, but with the development of after school services, it will be spent in a different way. In the 1990s, when she was a minister of state, she had changed the rules to enable single parents to stay in education, because until then they had to stay at home and do nothing. The requirement to develop childcare was demanding, but it was not beyond our capacity to develop afterschool care facilities. She was confident that we would be able to expand and develop in a way that was hugely positive for lone parents so they could become full participants and financially independent.

 

Summer stakeholder seminar on Community Employment

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told Sean Fleming (FF, Laois Offaly) and Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) that this June or July she would convene a stakeholder seminar on Community Employment (CE) (Dail Eireann, Debates, 25th April 2012, 40-2). This would follow completion of the two reviews currently under way on CE – one of them a review of labour activation schemes generally and the other a finance review of CE to achieve savings. The financial review was now nearing completion, as was the review.

Sean Fleming expressed his disappointment, for the report was due at the end of March, but because of the work involved, it might not be completed for a couple of months and we could well be into the summer by then. Aengus O Snodaigh accused her of using the report as cover for the bombshell that she dropped on CE with the cuts last December. Now the report was weeks or months away and ‘perhaps it will never be produced’. The cuts had already had a devastating effect on CE and he asked her was another review under way on the foot of promises make to the troika? No, she said, the second review was the policy review of activation measures. This was not just because of the troika but because we were spending €1bn and need to ensure service delivery, good experience and value for money: we needed ‘an honest discussion about the costs involved’.

> Listing of Community Employment schemes: Dail Eireann, Debates, 18th April 2012, 900 (principally Dublin-based projects – ed).

 

> Further debates

> Human trafficking and prostitution: Seanad Eireann, Debates, 18th April 2012, 773-800.

> Rented accommodation in Cork: Dail Eireann, Debates,18th April 2012, 514-7.

> Equality mainstreaming funding: Seanad Eireann, Debates 19th April 2012, 864-7.

  

2 News

National Action Plan for Social Inclusion, Poverty Impact Assessments

Seanad appeal on children hungry

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told Micheal Martin (FF, Cork SC) that her department had recently concluded the third annual report on social inclusion (Dail Eireann, Debates, 24th April 2012, 608). This would outline progress over the period January 2009 to December 2010. It was being prepared for publication and would be publicly available as soon as possible. She told him that the government had undertaken a comprehensive review of the national poverty target to make sure that it was appropriate and achievable and she expected the review to be finalized shortly; and the government had recently published a policy on labour market activation, Pathways to work.

 

Asked by Stephen Donnelly (ind, Wicklow) about poverty impact assessments in general and the Social welfare Bill in particular, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told the Dail that her department undertook both Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) and Poverty Impact Assessments (PIAs) in accordance with guidelines issued by the Social Inclusion Division. An RIA had been carried out and published of amendments to the Social welfare Bill, 2012, but other measures therein arose from the 2012 budget and RIAs were not ordinarily undertaken of the budget. A PIA of the social welfare measures in the Social welfare Bill would, ‘in isolation, be out of balance’ (Dail Eireann, Debates, 24th April 2012, 598). She added that her department was preparing an analysis of the distributive and poverty impact on families of the 2012 budget and social welfare package: this was being finalized and would be considered by the cabinet committee on social policy, after which she would arrange for it be be published.

 

Meantime, in the Seanad, Mark Daly (FF, admin) asked for a debate on a report from the National University of Ireland Galway that 21% of children in the country were going to school or bed each day hungry (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 19th April 20123, 814). 344,000 children were not getting enough to eat, a shocking statistic, but one which attracted little interest from the media. He contrasted the way in which Irish Aid had reduced hunger from one child in six in Malawi to one in ten and although there might be different levels of hunger, he did not think he could explain that to a child here. Surely we could have a school meals scheme, as was done in other countries, with simple solutions such as breakfast clubs or dinner clubs ‘but at least we should not allow children to go hungry?’.

> Government policies against poverty, explanation of measurements of poverty: Dail Eireann, Debates, 25th April 2012, 173-5.

> Government policy to address child poverty: Dail Eireann, Debates, 18th April 2012, 817.

 

Disability activation project

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told Billy Kelleher (FF, Cork NC) that she had expanded the disability action project with a call for proposals closing on 13th April (Dail Eireann, Debates, 18th April 2012, 819). The programmne, co-funded under the European Social Fund, aimed to increase the potential of people on disability or illness payments to participate in the labour market, on a case management approach. She also announced that she had launched, in February the partial capacity benefit scheme; and that activation programmes for people with disability had now been consolidated under the EmployAbilty Service with wage subsidy scheme, job search, on-the-job training, disability awareness training support, employee retention grants and workplace adaptation grants.

  

Rent supplements to Environment for January 2013

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) that she had set 1st January 2013 as the date for the transfer of the rent supplement scheme from her department to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Dail Eireann, Debates, 25th April 2012, 135-6). A multi-agency steering group in that department was currently developing proposals and operational protocols for the transfer from her department of people with long-term housing need. There would be a detailed economic assessment of the proposal, the possibility of centralized management and reporting arrangements, consideration of an exchequer neutral mechanism for funding, as well as amendments to housing and welfare legislation if necessary.

  

> Further news references

> Tenants buying from social housing associations: Dail Eireann, Debates, 18th April 2012, 991-2.

> Resourcing of Money Advice Budgeting Service: Dail Eireann, Debates, 24th April 2012, 608-9.