It is welcome that many welfare payments and supports are awarded in a week or two, but the Minister told me a couple of weeks ago, I think, about the waiting times for some important pensions and allowances. The average waiting time for a non-contributory State pension, for example, is still ten weeks; for carer’s allowance, 13 weeks, or three months; for carer’s benefit, 12 weeks; for disability allowance, 13 weeks; and for domiciliary care allowance, nine weeks. What efforts is the Minister making to reduce these waiting times for the processing of applications? This is without even going into appeals, which are a whole other ball game.
I read a report where the Minister talked about index linking welfare payments. I do not know whether she was talking about the cost of living index or average earnings index. I think that when the Taoiseach was Minister for Social Protection, he floated that idea. It has been discussed for a long time. Dr. Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland has advocated strongly for social welfare rates to be linked to average earnings. First, we have to establish that social protection rates would be above the poverty line and that they are linked to average earnings. What is the Minister thinking on this and what kind of work has the Department done on it?
On Monday, I put the final touches to a Private Members’ Bill on Housing that I have been working on and hope to introduce in the near future. Opposition Deputies are not allowed to bring forward legislation that will have a cost to the Exchequer so you have to try and come up with alternative ways to help our citizens.
On Tuesday afternoon, I attended meetings of the Budgetary Oversight Committee and the Seanad Reform Implementation Group. I also represented my group of Independents at the Ceann’s dinner for Polish parliamentarians who were visiting Leinster House. All week I was studying in detail the proposed amendments to the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancies) Bill 2018 and voted according to the research that I had done on each. This debate is expected to continue into next week before moving to the Seanad.
This is an amendment to section 201 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, which states:
The Executive or deciding officer may, in any case where the Executive or deciding officer considers it reasonable, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, so to do, determine or decide that supplementary welfare allowance shall be paid to a person by way of a single payment to meet an exceptional need.
I want to add the words “which is not necessarily unforeseen”. In 2017, the Minister informed me that, under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, “the Department may make a single exceptional needs payment, ENP, to help meet essential, once-off and unforeseen expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of his or her weekly income”. She also told me the scheme was demand-led and was costing €32 million in 2017.
Budget week is always an interesting week. On Tuesday morning, I took part in an Oireachtas TV interview on the work of the Budgetary Oversight Committee and then went in to the Dáil chambers to listen to Minister Paschal Donohoe announce another Budget to benefit the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil elites. Of course, there are some welcome measures including the €5 per week increase in Social Protection payments, €25 increase in the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance, the increase in the earnings disregard for working lone parents to €150 and the full restoration of the Christmas Bonus. Resourcing for Housing, Health, Disability and Education however was desperately disappointing and included no measures to address the urgent needs these sectors have.
It was another busy week in Dáil Éireann and Dublin Bay North. On Monday morning, I attended a Board Meeting of the Coolock Development Council, of which I am a founding member. On Tuesday morning, I attended a briefing with the excellent Kilbarrack Coast Community Programme (KCCP) on Greendale Road and it was great to meet members of KCCP staff providing vital service to our community. That evening, I held a meeting with a group of friends and supporters from Dublin Bay North in Leinster House about my current Dáil and constituency work and plans for 2018. It was an opportunity for active members of communities around Dublin Bay North to highlight areas of importance to them such as Housing, Health, Pensions and Employment.
As the Minister of State will be aware, the exceptional needs payment fulfils a very important role in society. The amount of money involved amount to only a tiny fraction of the total budget for social protection. On 7 November, the Minister indicated that the total budget for single exceptional needs amounts to €31.5 million. I note that 9,400 payments were made in November 2016 and 9,100 payments were made in December 2016. The number of applicants who secured an exceptional needs payment averaged roughly 8,000 or 9,000 per month in 2016. However, statistics are not kept on the number of people and families whose applications for a payment were refused. As a result, we cannot take a global view of the payment and identify what percentage of applications are approved and rejected. This is a lacuna because the payment gives us an insight into the stresses suffered by citizens and families, particularly in the pre-Christmas period when they face additional stresses such as cold weather, additional payments for heating and clothing and so forth.
In February of this year, Deputy Broughan questioned then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny on the Age Action report ‘Towards a Fair State Pension for Women Pensioners’ by Maureen Bassett MSc which examined the changes to the State Contributory Pension introduced in Budget 2012. At that time, the PRSI Contribution bands were expanded from four to six and these changes have negatively impacted tens of thousands of pensioners since September 2012. Almost two-thirds of those losing money each week (approximately between €19 and €30 per week) are women meaning that those who took time out of the workforce to raise their children are being disproportionately penalised.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly on the Social Welfare Bill 2017 before us today. There are some welcome measures in the Bill which will give legislative effect to the changes announced in budget 2018 and in order to effect those changes the Social Welfare Acts, the Maternity Protection Act 1994 and the National Training Fund Act 2000 will be amended and extended. The Government decided to continue with its partial restoration of social protection payments for next year with €5 increases across most payments. Disappointingly, and in keeping with last year, these partial restorations will not come into effect until the end of March 2018.
Deputy Broughan received replies to Parliamentary Questions today regarding young adults in receipt of Jobseeker’s payments for more than 12 months and also on the number of 18 – 24 year olds signing on at Dublin Intreo offices. At the end of September, there were 10,548 under 26’s in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than 12 months and 6,799 under 25’s are signing on at Intreo Offices around Dublin. 413 of these are in Coolock and 283 are in Kilbarrack which are both Intreo Offices in Deputy Broughan’s constituency of Dublin Bay North. The PQ reply stated that “It should be noted that the Live Register is not a definitive measure of unemployment as it includes part-time workers, and seasonal and casual workers entitled to Jobseeker’s Benefit or Allowance.”