Contribution to the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015: Second Stage

March 4th, 2015 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: Like other speakers, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill, the main purpose of which is to give effect to the back-to-work family dividend scheme flagged in budget 2015. The Bill also addresses a number of other issues and clarifies the circumstances in which a person is considered as requiring full time care in respect of the application of the carer’s benefit, carer’s allowance and respite care grant. It also deals with the legislative basis of the means test and its application for students grants, on which I hope to comment later during the course of my contribution, time permitting.
[Deputy Pat Breen: ] Approximately 250,000 people lost their jobs in this country at the height of the recession. The key priority for this Government was to fix our finances and create a pro-jobs environment which would drive job creation. The improvement in our economic fortunes has not been by accident; it is a direct result of the policies which this Government is pursuing. Our unemployment rate now stands at 10.1%, down from a high of 15.1%. The positive indicator from these figures is the fact that our long-term unemployment rate has fallen. In the first quarter of 2012, 204,000 people were defined as long-term unemployed but the figure had decreased to 139,000 by quarter three of 2014, a very significant drop of 32%.

Making work pay and protecting supports has been a key priority for this Government. I commend the Minister for Social Protection on the various initiatives which she has introduced. It is important that nobody is left behind as our economy recovers. If a further reduction in the long-term unemployed figures is to be achieved, it is important that so-called welfare traps are removed. That is why the introduction of this back-to-work dividend is so important. It will help families move from social welfare into employment by providing them with financial support whereby they will receive a weekly payment for two years after they return to work. This dividend will be available to those in receipt of jobseeker’s benefit, jobseeker’s allowance, jobseeker’s allowance transitional arrangements and one-parent family payments, as well as those in specified education, training, supported employment or work placement schemes, including community employment schemes and rural social schemes.

However, there is no mention of those who are in receipt of carer’s allowance. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that matter in her concluding remarks. I have come across cases several involving constituents whose time as a carer had come to an end, sadly in a number of cases due to the death of their loved ones, only to meet with road blocks in their efforts to get back into work. For example, if a person who was in receipt of carer’s allowance wants to participate in the momentum programme, time spent in receipt of that allowance is not considered and they are deemed ineligible. Carers make an invaluable contribution and they should not be penalised for something that is no fault of their own. They should be supported to get back into the workforce and I ask the Minister to consider including time spent on carer’s allowance in the qualifying criteria for access to this payment.

Part 2 of the Bill provides clarity on the operation of the carer’s benefit, carer’s allowance and respite care grants. Under the current system, a person requiring full-time care is assessed and medical evidence is provided from a registered medical practitioner to the Department. The deciding officer makes a determination on the basis of all the information which received, including all relevant medical evidence and if the application is refused there is a system of review and appeal. Section 3 changes the current system so that the deciding officer will have regard to an opinion provided by the Department’s medical assessor as well as the medical evidence submitted by a registered medical practitioner. I ask the Minister to clarify this section and the implications the change could have for existing applications or in cases deemed unsuccessful by the deciding officer. What will it mean in terms of appeals? At present further medical evidence is usually submitted with the appeal but if the deciding officer will now take into account the Department’s medical assessment and the medical evidence submitted, who is going to review the appeal and will the appeals format change? I am dealing with a number of cases for constituents who have submitted carer’s allowance applications last year and are still awaiting a decision on their cases decided. This is a difficult situation for the applicants, as well as time consuming for the secretaries in our constituency offices and staff in the Department. I am concerned that if the deciding officer has to wait for the medical assessor to make a determination, there will be further delays in processing times.

Sections 12(2) and 1(2)(b) specifies the various types of income regarded as assessable means for the purpose of calculating means for social assistance. In the area of student grants, given the changes in the family types which now exist there is an anomaly in the current system in the assessment process for cohabiting couples in the assessment for third level grants. When a cohabiting couple apply for a top-up grant for their child, their reckonable income must include an eligible long-term social welfare payment. The problem arises in cases where the social welfare payment for the entire family unit is in the name of the partner who is not the legal guardian. They will not qualify for the top-up grant because the social welfare payment is not actually being claimed in the name of the parent with whom the partner and child resides even though the parent is receiving a long-term unemployment payment in the form of a qualified adult payment. I raised this last week in the context of the Child and Family Relationships Bill 2014. A change in the criteria is required in order for SUSI to be able to award a grant in these cases. I ask the Minister here today to facilitate these genuine cases.

The thrust of this legislation is well intentioned. The saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats” is still true. Overcoming the obstacles that prevent the long-term unemployed from getting back into the workforce is critical if everybody is to share in our economic recovery. Other speakers have referred to issues such as child care, which is a prohibitive cost for many people trying to return to work. While time does not permit me to speak in detain on that issue, I hope something is done to address it in the budget. I understand the issue was raised at the Labour Party conference last weekend.

The introduction of the back-to-work dividend is an important step in supporting families to get back into work and in time I have no doubt that it will contribute to a further decrease in our long-term unemployment rate. This Government’s goal is to achieve full employment by 2018. We are heading in that direction. There was great news today in that regard, with our unemployment rate down to 10.1%. The news will be even better when we get it down to single digits. I commend the Ministers and Ministers of States in the Departments of Social Protection and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on their efforts in this regard.