I, too, thank the Minister and her officials for their co-operation in advance and during the debate and hope the co-operation will continue. I remain concerned about the cuts to the maternity benefit and the jobseeker’s allowance, a concern shared across the House.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to come here to discuss the Irish plan for the youth guarantee. She ably shared the information with us on how she showed leadership at European level on the issue. We are clear that she is committed to ensuring that the youth guarantee is a good plan.
Having listened to the debate, particularly on section 9, some good ideas were expressed from all across the House. We could add and give our support to the youth guarantee in order to ensure that it is successful for young Irish people.
They are actually from the Department of Social Protection.
I remind the Senator that we are speaking on the amendment. I have given her a bit of latitude in her response but we have had quite an extensive debate on this issue.
We are speaking on the amendment. I have given the Senator an extreme amount of latitude on this.
To the amendment.
I remind Senator Harte to speak to the amendments. We cannot revisit the discussion on section 9.
I remind Senator Harte that this amendment proposes that reports be laid before the House. I ask him to confine his remarks to that topic.
Amendment No. 3 has been ruled out of order because it poses a potential charge on the Exchequer. Amendment No. 4 proposes the insertion of a new section. Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I ask the Senator to confine her comments to the amendment.
Much of what the Senator is saying relates to the debate we had on section 9. I was listening very carefully and I am very involved and I ask the Senator to confine her comments to the amendments that have been tabled.
Will the Senator keep to this section? In the first round there was a good deal of latitude on the sections, so can we keep to the section?
I am encouraging the Senator to pursue that.
Senator, let us keep to the section.
The Senator should speak to section 9.
Yesterday on Second Stage I highlighted the fact that this is a critical issue. I believe the cut is regressive and is likely to exacerbate the difficulties that these young people are already experiencing in getting back into employment and training. I noted yesterday that during the boom times young people were at the top of the list for getting into employment. Therefore, there is nothing to support the narrative being spun that young people are sitting on sofas at home or whatever. That is not the experience I have had.
I wrote directly to the Minister and I received replies. We did a follow-up overnight and I am awaiting the subsequent replies. I was talking to the Minister’s officials and I will take them at their word when they say they will come back to me with detailed replies in respect of the questions. Therefore, I will not use my time today to go through each of the questions. However, I am concerned about these cuts because of the overall message we are sending to young people. We are cutting the jobseeker’s allowance but not enough appropriate training places are available. I will discuss the youth guarantee shortly but we have cut funding successively to youth work organisations. We should consider all of these things as a cumulative package.
I welcomed the Minister’s commitment yesterday in the Seanad to the effect that she would come back for a debate on the youth guarantee. It is critical that we have the debate before the Irish plan is submitted to the European Commission.
According to the Department’s briefing note on the youth guarantee scheme, this will take place before the end of December. I seek clarification on the commitment made to have the debate by then. The timing of the debate should factor in when the plan becomes available to us and the plan should be the basis of the debate before it is submitted to the Commission. That would allow time for us to play a role in ensuring that we get buy-in and include all the people that need to be included in the plan. It is critical that we get this right.
This should be a joint initiative between the Department of Social Protection and the Departments of Education and Skills, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Children and Youth Affairs because labour and activation issues are not in a vacuum. From my own experience of youth work organisations I believe they can play a critical role.
I saw a little of the Oireachtas committee earlier today. We heard it eloquently described how youth work organisations were getting at some of the hard-to-reach young people and how the organisations were able to engage them into the workplace. Youth workers have a real insight and trust with young people. If we think about it, most adults in a young person’s life are not there by choice. We do not choose our parents, teachers or doctors. However, traditionally a youth worker or someone involved in a young person’s life in that way can have a significant role. I am conscious that there were excellent presentations made on the youth guarantee today and therefore I will not speak to it too much. However, I am concerned about the original or initial allocation of €14 million earmarked for it. In reality, and if we are serious, the figure should be approximately €100 million in the first year because a total of €66 million of that sum would be reimbursed from the EU. We have to spend the money first and then it is reimbursed. Therefore, the cost to the State will be €34 million. We need more clarity on the numbers, places and the budget available. Let us consider the €46 million figure. What are the costings for the 1,500 JobBridge places? What are the costings for JobsPlus for young jobseekers? What are the costings for the 1,000 extra places on Tús? What are the costings for the 750 new places on the momentum scheme?
My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, cannot be here today, unfortunately, but he has asked me to raise with the Minister the situation for professional actors who are currently in receipt of the jobseeker’s allowance. They have been told they must go on Tús programmes for one year. The result of this will effectively mean that they must put their profession on hold for that time. The reason is they are not seeking full-time employment according to the Department of Social Protection. The Department sees their acting as a sideline hobby. Senator Mac Conghail sent me correspondence he received which detailed how a young actor was told that he cannot take up part-time work. By its very nature, acting is about short, part-time work. The person at the Intreo centre said everyone would like to be famous but that when an actor is not working he is not an actor, he is unemployed. The official insisted that the actor should go on a one-year training course with Tús if he wanted to continue to qualify for the jobseeker’s allowance. This individual has said he is happy to do part-time work to supplement his income and he is only seeking the half-time jobseeker’s allowance. There is something about understanding the nature of acting because it tends to be short work unless one gets a job in a soap opera. Even then, one is at the discretion of the writer.
The difficulty is that the Tús programme involves working for 19.5 hours per week, which is great when the employer will give actors the flexibility to do acting jobs. However, if not, ultimately, they cannot take up the work that they are keen to do. This applies not only in the case of actors. I have heard from many young people about the need for flexibility and the opportunity to take a chance when a chance comes upon them. A person could be offered a three-month placement. If a person takes a three-month work placement or a job it is fantastic but the transition to get back onto jobseeker’s allowance is so long that we must question whether it is worth it. Naturally, it is worth it to have a job but what if it represents a detrimental decision financially? We need to consider how people transfer in and out of jobs. We are in a far more flexible workplace now. If a person takes a three-month opportunity, often a job will come out of it. However, it is a leap of faith and it is a case of trying to find the flexibility and ensure that people can transition.
Yesterday in her speech on Second Stage the Minister referred to JobsPlus. She stated, “I want to tell Members here, many of whom are actively involved in employment or familiar with many employers, that on 1 January, young jobseekers aged under 26 will qualify for JobsPlus if they are without employment for more than six months”. My understanding was that this was for people aged under 25. Will the Minister clarify that she meant under 26 years? Was that correct? It would be welcome news if this was the case.
We have discussed flexibility and training places and the issues I have outlined in my questions. Let us consider the figures and leave aside the quality of the places, which is one of the arguments. Let us consider the increase in payments if a person goes back on an education programme and the differentials that arise. A person aged 25 years on jobseeeker’s allowance gets €144 up to a maximum of €160 per week if she goes on the back-to-education allowance scheme. The incentive in that case is €16 per week. Likewise, a young person aged 18 to 24 years will get €100 on schemes such as JobBridge with a maximum of €150. This is a low income to live on, especially if people have to pay the costs of getting to their place of internship, lunch, clothes and all the things that come with it. Can we consider working towards having a basic rate for all those in education or training and having the same rate across the board? It could be an allowance of €188 or something that would represent an incentive, something we could look at in time to work to such that not every scheme is different.
I agree that every young person is different and for some, the back to education programme or the JobBridge scheme is the right choice at present. For the sake of €10 or €20, I would not like young people to make a different choice that is not in their best interests on a purely monetary basis. Members do not want that as they want such people to get back on the pathway to the right place to which they wish to go. Consequently, streamlining should be considered and a way found to have all young people on the same rate. I will leave it there for the present but these are some of the issues I have with regard to the cuts.
I endorse what the Minister said about surrogacy. The case I was citing to her is just one case, but we know there are other cases. I welcome the briefing note that we received on the Family Relationships and Children Bill 2013. I look forward to it being debated in this House.
I will not rehearse the discussion we had on section 5 but I endorse it and it is related to this issue. Has the Minister given consideration to providing surrogacy leave? The Equality Authority has advised on this; I refer to the Ms Z case. A teacher with a rare medical condition preventing her from carrying a pregnancy, although she had healthy ovaries, arranged for a surrogate to give birth to herself and her husband’s genetic child using IVF. The child was born in April 2010. The woman applied to the Department of Education and Skills for paid maternity leave and was refused. She was offered unpaid parental leave by her employers. She took a case to the Equality Tribunal and it ended up before the European Court of Justice. One of the court’s advocate generals suggested that since adoptive parents are entitled to maternity leave under EU law, the national courts could assess whether it is illegal to apply different rules to adoptive parents and parents through surrogacy while another advocate general said that where surrogacy is allowed in a country, the mother taking care of the baby was entitled to leave to ensure the unhindered development of the mother-child relationship. The Equality Authority has advised the Minister for Justice and Equality to provide support to the small number of families availing of surrogacy similar to that provided to adoptive parents. Has that been considered?
The Minister mentioned arrangements in other countries. I could provide a list of other countries in which there are preferential arrangements in relation to maternity and paternity benefits. I want the record to show that Ireland is not a leader in the world in respect of maternity benefits and leave.
I echo and agree with everything Senator Power said. I spoke about this on Second Stage yesterday so I will not repeat myself but I am concerned because I know part of the narrative is that the payment is going up for some people while it is going down for others. The payment is going down for 95% while it is going up for 5%.
Ms Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council said a reduction of maternity benefit will force many women to go back to work earlier than they wish to. This is not in the best interests of women, their children or society as a whole. Senator Power has clearly outlined that some employers pay a top-up payment to women on maternity leave. In this case the employer may take a financial hit but some will not choose to take such a hit. We may see that significant classes and types of job will be directly cut by this reduction. Ms Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance has stated that Ireland is currently in the middle of a baby boom and to reduce maternity benefit at this time is economically counterproductive, counter-intuitive and will discourage women from having babies.
The difficulty is that the taxation measure came into effect from 1 July 2013, so it is beginning to hit now. That figure of €3,500 combined with this cut and the taxation measure sends out a damaging signal to women. I would like to see Ireland move to a combined system of maternity and paternity leave. In that way we could bring about greater gender equality because employers would regard men and women in the same way. However, it is a regressive step to reduce the amount.
It is not just NGOs who are warning about this. IBEC has also warned that some companies may have to review their maternity benefits as a result. Top-up payments to bring salaries up to normal levels during maternity leave are standard practice in most companies. For example, IBEC’s head of HR development, Ms Mary Connaughton, said the change could cost the typical large employer with 12 employees on maternity leave an extra €10,000 a year. That is something they would have to consider. That is why I have tabled an amendment to oppose these cuts.
The Senator is taking time from his colleagues.
Senator Zappone, without interruption, please.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is important to realise that this is the sixth in a series of cumulative cuts for many people. While we are discussing individual cuts in the Bill, I am very aware that many families and individuals have been hit six times in one way or another. It is my third time to discuss the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill in this House.
I feel slightly disillusioned because of the way the budget process is handled in Ireland. No matter how we cut and slice the Bill, it is about how we make political decisions. There is a strong public perception that the decision has been made to target vulnerable groups and hit already stretched families and individuals. I look at countries such as Denmark which has an open and transparent budget system. The Danish Government lays out the budget targets, debates in which people will get involved ensue and then the budget decisions are made. I question our processes, including the way we can invite groups to appear before committees, such as the Joint Committee on Health and Children without any real influence on the decisions that are made in the budget process. This is an issue for a wider debate on another day.
Today, I wish to discuss the aspects of the Bill on which I have particular concerns and have tabled three amendments. First I will address section 5 dealing with maternity benefit. I understand the rationale for the cuts and the argument that it will bring the level of payment up for some and down for others, but it will decrease the payment by €32 per week for 95% of the recipients. This reduction will affect the vast majority of recipients. Any parent will be able to articulate the significant costs associated with newborn babies. The cuts have a cumulative impact and this comes on top of the cuts in the 2012 budget, in which the maternity benefit was taxed and reduced the real value of the payment even further. The National Women’s Council of Ireland has calculated that in less than one year the cut to maternity benefit is nearly €3,500 per mother. I have the details of that calculation. We know from studies conducted internationally and in Ireland and Government reports that the first year of a child’s life is very important. I have major concern that over two budgets we have cut that payment by €3,500 per child. That is a matter of concern. I have similar concerns on the adoptive leave and the rate of payments to a person adopting a child as the same arguments will apply.
As the Minister will be aware from my e-mail last Tuesday, to which she responded with detailed answers, I have substantive issues with section 9 which deals with jobseeker’s allowance. I am extremely concerned as are others about these cuts to the payments to young unemployed people. I think it is regressive and is likely to exacerbate the difficulties these young people are already experiencing trying to get into employment and training. I am also very concerned about an urban-rural divide on this issue. It is easier for those based in Dublin to go for an interview, but the young people who are based in rural areas may have great financial difficulty in getting to the interview. Some young people who are offered a three month job placement face obstacles when going on and off social welfare benefits. This is a major issue because it is difficult to have one’s allowance restored after a three month placement.
I refer to the availability and appropriateness of training places and to the youth guarantee. I do not believe we are investing enough ,nor do I believe enough has been announced. Over the years, there have been successive cuts to youth organisations. I am interconnecting these issues because it is all about young people and the message we are sending to them. I listen to the narrative which is saying to young people that it is to incentivise them to go to work but the figures do not support that. During the boom times, the take-up rate among young people was the highest across the EU. Young people want to go out to work and want to be in education and training.
I am concerned the OECD report, Getting Youth on the Job Track, which was only published this September, clearly stated:
A comprehensive national strategy to tackle the very high unemployment rates among young people is lacking. Youth policy is fragmented, with several Government departments taking individual action. A more co-ordinated and tailored approach to the youth unemployment problem is required.
It is talking about Ireland. That is probably at the heart of the issue. We can debate the cuts but it is about the alternatives for young people.
In 2011, 40% of our young people aged between 16 and 24 were at risk of poverty. That is the highest rate in the EU and that is the group whose payments we are choosing to cut. It is at the highest risk of poverty but we are saying we might cut the payments.
I asked for details on the €32 million in savings on the basis of the cuts to jobseeker’s allowance. I also asked for the estimated number of recipients affected and I was informed that it would be 13,767 for 2014, which does not tally with the figures I worked out. The reply to a parliamentary question asked in September showed there were 20,853 young jobseekers aged between 21 and 24, the two years affected by the cut in 2014. That does not take into account any new entrants. If I take the €72 million saving to be made and do a simple calculation of the €44 per week, it shows 31,468 persons are affected. I will go back to the Minister’s Department because the sums do not make sense and I cannot work out these figures. I am trying to understand how many places and how many young people we are looking at.
The Minister highlighted the back to education allowance scheme, but a person must be 21 years of age to qualify for that scheme. There were 25,000 people on that scheme in 2013, of which 6,500 were under 25 years of age. That is approximately 26% of the people on that scheme. The Department said it was not possible to be precise when giving a number for the total of education places available for young people. Part of the problem is that we do not know the number of places available. We are saying to young people that we want to encourage and incentivise them to take up appropriate training and work, but I am hearing from young people that the places are not available.
In regard to the savings from the cuts, the Department said the cuts will affect 13,767 people. I estimate the figure to be approximately 20,000, but even if we differ on that, the reality is that the answers I have received show there are 5,250 places available. Where is the incentive? Young people are told that for every job for which they apply, there are 32 applicants. We are sending mixed messages to young people.
I mentioned the youth guarantee. The Department said it held consultations. There was a briefing on the youth guarantee on 14 October last and there was a general presentation by the Minister’s Department and some discussion in smaller groups. Organisations were invited to make submissions to the Department. The plan is being finalised by an interdepartmental working group but nobody, including myself, as a Senator, and organisations working with young people, has any idea what is in that plan.
An Oireachtas committee will meet tomorrow at which organisations such as the National Youth Council of Ireland will be represented but they do not know the detail of the plan. Will the Minister come to the House for a debate on the youth guarantee and the plan the Government will submit to the European Commission on labour activation measures for young people? All of us regularly consult organisations that represent the group to whom I refer and a debate would be healthy.
Seanad: Order of Business (5 Nov 2013)
I thank the Leader for ensuring that the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013 will not be guillotined. We need to have a very important debate. I have put down three amendments to the Bill and I tried to be constructive. I have also been in touch with the Minister’s office over the past week with several questions, so I look forward to the debate over the coming days and will make my decisions based on what we hear on the floor of this House.
I echo the calls for a debate on water supply in the Dublin area, especially with regard to the quality of the water as well as the communications issues involved. Communications issues also apply to the local property tax and medical cards and I wonder whether the State should use organisations such as NALA in communicating to people in plain English exactly what is happening and when it is happening.
The major issue I would like to raise is about what took place yesterday in the Hague in respect of child exploitation material. We have had some good debates in this House on the issue, and I have issued a report on it as well. I believe Ireland needs to bring in a system of filtering for child exploitation material. I do not believe that will be a panacea, but it has been proven to be a deterrent and that is what we need to do. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to clarify to the House the steps he will take in transposing the European directive into Ireland. That was one of the recommendations in the directive. We have had a considerable debate in the House, but we should continue to play a role in leading the debate and calling for action on behalf of children in Ireland who are being exploited in order to have images to upload to these horrendous sites.