Social Welfare Bill 2014: Second Stage 11.11.14

Social Welfare Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate

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  7 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Paul J. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul ConnaughtonHelping jobseekers get a foothold on the employment ladder is an important element in addressing unemployment, but so too, where necessary, is upskilling and reskilling. Providing jobseekers with a structured path back to work has proved successful to date in many instances, and the newly created Intreo centres are key to this success, providing a one-stop-shop for jobseekers looking to re-enter the workforce.

While the idea of having a case worker for every jobseeker is laudable, the current practice means that case workers are simply overwhelmed with the number of jobseekers they are dealing with, and the experience in many cases is not a positive one for the jobseeker or the case worker. A ratio of case worker to jobseeker of 500:1 is unworkable. The plan to decrease the ratio to 200:1 is more workable, but it still leaves case workers in a difficult position, given the volume of people leaving and joining the live register each month. I hope the positive trend of decreasing numbers on the live register in recent months will continue. It should result in a reduced workload for case workers and a more positive experience for job seekers.

Studies have been conducted in recent months on the financial impediments for those returning to work. The new back-to-work family dividend is a common-sense approach to addressing this, providing €29.80 per week per child for 12 months after the person’s return to work, reducing to 50% in the second year. JobsPlus is designed to help those who are long-term unemployed return to work through providing incentives to employers, and 3,000 unemployed people have benefited from this to date.

Young people seeking to access employment have experienced great difficulty in recent years, because while they have had the necessary skills for the task, the required experience was not available. To this end, the Youth Guarantee initiatives are an important step in helping young people to access either further training or employment at a crucial time in their lives.

Many young school leavers are willing and anxious to work and often the lack of some crucial skills, be it health and safety permits such as Safe Pass, ECDL qualifications or food hygiene certification, prohibits them from entering the workplace. It makes sense to provide them with the skill set needed for the jobs they are most interested in. Often their parents are willing, but financially unable, to help them access the additional courses or qualifications needed.

Helping families with young children through this most difficult time is a core objective of the Government and that is why the Bill contains measures increasing child benefit and the provision for school meals. More than 600,000 families will benefit from the increase in child benefit, while the increased allocation of €2 million for school meals will see approximately 6,000 children benefit. I note that 10% of DEIS schools have not yet signed up to the scheme of free school meals and I would urge them to consult further with parents on this issue as I have seen to date a positive reaction from parents whose children are benefiting from this initiative.

In recent weeks I have spoken to many who live alone and find it difficult to cope financially. I refer to the elderly living alone struggling to heat their homes and also younger persons on allowances, such as disability allowance, who may have decreased mobility and a greater need for heat in their homes. I welcome the increase in the living alone allowance. While it is a small amount weekly, it is a step in the right direction and an acknowledgement of the difficulties faced in single person households, where costs cannot be pooled and home maintenance and other bills must be borne by one person.

Overall, the measures in this Social Welfare Bill build on the Government’s work to date, continuing our commitment to help those of all ages access the world of work, while at the same time seeking to reduce child poverty and the poverty prevalent in single income households. The numbers on the live register continue to be much too high, but each week now we hear increased job announcements and, thankfully, an increasing number of those are in areas outside the main cities. We must ensure that as the country emerges from recession the benefits are felt nationwide, and I believe that the measures in this Social Welfare Bill seek to do just that.

Deputy John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan I echo the sentiments of the immediately previous speakers on the measures contained in the Social Welfare Bill. The Bill is an annual event to give effect to the changes in social welfare announced on budget day. This year is the first time in five or six years that we have seen not alone significant increases in existing schemes and payments but also the introduction of a couple of new changes. That is reflective of the fact that the country is in a better place economically than it has been for the past five or six years, especially now that the pressures on the social welfare budget have eased with a quicker than expected reduction in the number on the live register. I do not like taking exception with Deputy Tom Fleming, but he spoke about the unemployment rate being 13%. It was announced last week that the unemployment rate is now down to 11%, from a height of 15.4% at its highest point, which is a significant reduction. Obviously, there are still far too many out of work but the unemployment rate has moved significantly in the right direction continuously for more than two years. In fact, each month, for as many months as I can remember, there has been a reduction of 0.1% in the number on the live register. That is reflected partly in the social welfare measures announced in the budget in that there was some more freedom for the Minister for Social Protection to make some changes.

In that regard, I also welcome the increases in the living alone allowance, the partial reintroduction of the Christmas bonus of one quarter and the changes, mentioned previously, to JobsPlus and the school meals programme. I also welcome that the Minister, on budget day, was in a position to announce a €100 subsidy for those in receipt of the household benefits package and who would be in most difficulty upon the introduction of water charges.

The Minister’s announcement in this budget with regard to the new back-to-work family dividend highlights a problem that many of us would have come across, in particular in recent years, namely, that the unemployed are often disincentivised to go back to work because in doing so, they lose some of the ancillary benefits that the unemployed enjoy. This new measure is to be greatly welcomed as well.

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with some of the previous Opposition speakers on the housing issue. I welcome very much that the budget contained a €2 billion announcement in relation to the construction of local authority housing throughout the country over the next number of years. The fact is local authorities have not been in the business of building houses for many years. Needless to say, the housing lists in most parts of the country are lengthy and the number in receipt of rent allowance is astronomical. In my part of the world in Kilkenny, there are more than 2,500 applicants on the housing list, and many of them have been on it for quite a considerable period. Despite the announcement in the budget, the position remains that many local authorities, not least the one in my area, do not own much, if any, suitable land for housing development, and any increase in housing output by local authorities will be delayed by the fact that they must acquire land on which to build. The housing area, along with the child care area, which was mentioned in the debate, are probably two areas on which the Government needs to focus in the next 12 months in the lead-up to the next budget. It is highly unsatisfactory at this juncture that those waiting for housing live in unsatisfactory conditions and often do not receive enough in rent supplement to allow them continue to live where they are. The Government needs to address the issue urgently.

Deputy Tom Barry: Information on Tom Barry Zoom on Tom Barry I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill. I welcome the balance that has been struck here. As has been mentioned, there is the increase in the living alone allowance, the Christmas bonus, the €5 increase in children’s allowance at a cost of €72 million – a lot of money – and the topical one, the €100 subsidy towards the water charge for those on the household benefits package.

In mentioning the household benefits package, we need to review it and ensure it has proper oversight because it has come to my attention that while the State pays significant ESB bills for those on household benefits, it has no oversight.

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Tom Barry: Information on Tom Barry Zoom on Tom BarryThere are cases where people are receiving cheques for their electricity allowance which make it clear that they are not living in the house. If they are not living there then it is the case that a social house is empty that someone else could use. Given that we are investing €2 billion in social housing, we must examine the current stock and ensure that claims are properly made. I do not take issue with the requirement by Irish Water for people to provide PPS numbers given the situation with the household benefits package. Previously, people who got an allocation of electricity units used them up and started again the next month, but now if one does not use them, one gets a cheque for the relevant amount. That is absolutely bonkers.

I welcome the increase, from 3,000 to 6,000, in the number of employees on the JobsPlus scheme. If the scheme is tied in with the JobBridge programme then a person could be employed for nine months, following which they would qualify for the JobsPlus scheme and they would be trained up for a small business that is trying to get some help to employ people. The change is valuable. The measure must be welcomed, as working for two years with a wage subsidy provides a chance for rural employment. That is evident in the increase in the number of people employed, which is approaching 2 million, yet criticism is coming from all angles of the Opposition. That is negligent. At some stage such Members will have to recognise the facts.

There are anomalies in the system. We must examine more closely the requirement for progression in terms of education courses in order to qualify for the back to education allowance. People should get a chance and there should be more flexibility in the system. I refer, for example, to a person who wants to do a level 5 course in a different area because he or she is aware that a job is available in the area. I accept that more flexibility has been introduced into the system but a little more would go a long way. People have come to my clinic who must become unemployed for nine months in order to qualify, and they would prefer to do a course rather than to collect unemployment benefit. We must tweak the system in one or two areas.

An article was published in The Irish Times today about the European Court of Justice ruling to the effect that economically inactive EU citizens who go to another member state solely to obtain social assistance may be excluded from certain social benefits. That is an extraordinary ruling. A member state must therefore have the possibility of refusing to grant social benefits to economically inactive Union citizens who exercise their right to freedom of movement solely to obtain social assistance in other member states. That is something middle Ireland feels very strongly about. We have no problem helping people who need our help but people who exploit the system are a different matter. One spokesman from the European Commission stated that it has consistently stressed that free movement is the right to free circulation. It is not the right to access freely a member state’s social assistance system. That will be an interesting topic of discussion in the House in future. We are good European citizens.

The budget is a very good one in terms of social welfare. I accept the following issue relates to finance rather than social welfare but I would have liked to see an extension of capital gains tax relief, even for another three months, because given the situation with rent, that would have allowed a lot of people to buy property and put it on the rental market which would make additional houses available to rent. It slipped by a lot of people who only have more money now and might not have realised what was happening. I will ask the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, to reconsider the matter if at all possible