Order of Business, 19 February 2013

Tuesday, 19th February 2013

I thank everyone who attended a joint briefing I organised on the Magdalen report with Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Justice for Magdalenes. I hope we will debate the issue at the earliest opportunity, and I hope that today is day one of justice. When we have the debate I ask for appropriate time to scrutinise any proposed redress scheme; there should not just be reflection of the past but also consideration of how to restore into the future.

I welcome the publication yesterday by the Children’s Rights Alliance of its report card for 2013, which is a really comprehensive report on the Government’s promises to children. Overall, the Government got a C grade, and I will refer to Senator O’Brien’s comments with regard to child poverty. I do not know if it is “the” Mangan report but the first report of the Mangan group was put online today, and it is dated March 2012. I would like to see clarification on the report and its content. I am concerned by the leaks we read over the weekend. As a legislator, I cannot believe I must speak about leaks of a report. We have had debates on the Social Welfare Bill and we have been asked to act responsibly but we have not been provided with the relevant information.

In the Children’s Rights Alliance report and relevant to child poverty, the Department of Social Protection got an F grade. Rarely does the Children’s Rights Alliance hand out an F grade. We have seen increasing child poverty figures in Ireland and if child poverty is left unaddressed, the issue can continue into a person’s teenage years and cause significant life poverty risk.

Reading the reports at the weekend on whether we should means-test or tax child benefit, as well as what the Mangan report would come out with, it felt like it was Groundhog Day. It was first mooted in April 2009 by the then Minister, the late Brian Lenihan, that we should examine this issue and I recall when debating it that I used the same speaking points that I am using now. I have not had to change them. The debate should be moving on. I ask for a debate on the matter in this House.

Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice and Equality for clarity on when the family leave Bill will be published and the consultation process on it with the social partners is envisaged? As the EU parental leave directive needs to be transposed into law by March 2013, the clock is ticking. I know the Bill is on the legislative list, but when will it be published in order that we can uphold our obligations?

Social Welfare Bill 2011 – Committee Stage and Remaining Stages

15th December 2011

I thank Senator Mooney. I am of the view that the Minister’s presence in the Chamber may be influencing the true gentleman’s approach.

This is one of the two sections to which Senator Zappone and I are opposed. As an Independent Senator, it is difficult to deal with the Social Welfare Bill because one’s heart must be ruled by one’s head. I want to oppose all cuts but I feel I must highlight those relating to child benefit and the lone-parent allowance above the others that are being made. I welcome the Government’s decision not to reduce the basic rate of child benefit of €140 for first and second children. I am, however, greatly concerned regarding the decision to cut the rates for third and subsequent children. I am also concerned about the decision to discontinue the once-off grants relating to multiple births.

My objections in respect of this matter are twofold. First, I am concerned that what is proposed will increase the exposure of larger families to poverty. The loss of €19 per month for a third child and €17 per month for the fourth and subsequent children equates to a total loss of €432 per year for a family with four children. On the face of it, this figure might not appear overly disturbing. However, it represents a loss of financial support for larger families. The effect the cut in child benefit will have on the 23% of families in Ireland with three or more children cannot be viewed in isolation. It must, therefore, be considered in conjunction with the cumulative impact of the raft of other cuts made across budget 2012 that have specifically affected families and, more particularly, already vulnerable families on low incomes that are reliant on social welfare. In this regard I refer to the cut to the one-parent family payment and the fuel allowance and the increase in health and education costs.

Recent CSO statistics indicate that among those whose consistent poverty rate rose from 6.3% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2010 were families with three or more children. These statistics also attest to a widening gap between the haves and the have nots in Irish society. I wish to provide some examples in this regard. In addition to the €432 families comprising two parents and four children will incur as a result of the cut to child benefit, those eligible for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will lose a further €310. This will lead to a total loss of €472 per year. If these families live in rural areas, they will lose €1,612 per year as a result of the cuts to which I refer and the increases in respect of school transport. A family consisting of a lone parent and two children will lose €537 per year as a result of cuts to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, the fuel allowance and the increase in the minimum contribution towards rent supplement. As already stated, the cut to child benefit cannot be viewed in isolation.

The State is constitutionally obliged to protect the unit of society that is the family. However, there is genuine and growing concern among the organisations which deal with struggling families that these new cuts will push many over the edge into deprivation, poverty and despair and will further compound the misery for those who have already crossed that threshold. Children are the most vulnerable members of any family unit and any hardship visited upon that unit is most acutely felt by them.

On Second Stage the Minister compared the rate of child benefit in this country to that which is paid in Northern Ireland. I remind her that while the rate of payment in the latter jurisdiction is lower, in order to compensate for this the system which obtains there provides a raft of other child-related benefits for those who qualify. I refer to free school meals and transport, a preferential maternity allowance, a national health services allowance, access to the start strong health scheme and the sure start maternity grant. I could also provide examples from France and Sweden — I do not want to take up the House’s time in doing so — in order to show how other jurisdictions offer additional child-related benefits which compensate for lower baseline rates of payment. When making comparisons, we must ensure that we take all aspects into consideration.

The second matter to which I wish to refer is the importance of supporting and encouraging a high birth rate in Ireland. The decision in respect of the once-off payments for multiple births displays a lack of strategic thinking. This is the very time when we need to think outside the box. We need to encourage and support a healthy birth rate in Ireland because this will, in turn, support and sustain economic growth. Ireland is in the enviable position of having the highest birth rate in Europe. In July of this year, it stood at 16.5%. The next highest ranking country is the UK, with a rate of 13%. However, Europe as a whole has an increasingly ageing population. The Oxford Institute for Ageing estimates that within 20 years, Europe’s largest population cohort will comprise those over 65 and that the average age will be 50. An ageing population has significant implications for the labour force, the health service, the education and welfare systems and also in the context of technology and development.

I am of the view that child benefit payments reflect the values of our society. It universally demonstrates that children are cherished and that the Irish public wants to support their well-being. I am not stating that we should provide support through benefit payments. I would be happy if we were to support families through the provision of services. At present, however, we do not provide support in this way. As a result, removing the payment is not acceptable.

There is a collective responsibility in respect of this matter. In an economic context, children are what might be termed “merit good”. In other words, they have value to others beyond their families. As future taxpayers and workers, their contributions will assist in the payment of State pensions. Mr. Frank Field, a British MP, is credited with saying “I may not have children but I need someone to have them if my pension is going to be paid”. The State must send out a signal to the effect that it supports and encourages childbirth. The children of today are essential to our future economic recovery. I, therefore, urge my colleagues to oppose section 8. Cutting child benefit and discontinuing once-off grants in the case of infrequent multiple births is not the way forward.

Budget 2012 – Statements

6th December 2011

When I was speaking earlier this morning, I should have wished a happy St. Nicholas day to my colleagues in the Netherlands, for whom today is gift-giving day. I do not think the same can be said for here. I can understand now what people mean when they say that something was a game of two halves. There are many aspects of the budget about which we can speak positively, and there are some good initiatives, but due to the time constraints I am going to highlight the areas in which I have concerns and which I feel need more considered attention. Also on the subject of the time constraints, we need to consider having a debate in which Senators have an opportunity to make statements, because in this debate, the Minister, whom I greatly admire, took up a quarter of the time Senators had to give their statements.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, said yesterday in the Chamber that we need to ensure the burden of our economic recovery is shared fairly. Sometimes I wonder about this. We talk of Ireland having experienced four years of hardship, which conjures up a notion that before that, everything was all right. Unfortunately, it was not. For many of the groups we are discussing today things were not just fine. The painful process of adjustment that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform spoke about yesterday impacts overwhelmingly and disproportionately on those who are and were already vulnerable. At the same time, there remain significant numbers of Irish citizens who are insulated and largely unscathed by this afternoon’s and yesterday’s announcements.

I understand it is unrealistic to expect that everybody should have the same standard of living, but we should be striving for greater equality of opportunity. The foundation for that must be protection from poverty, hardship and despair. Can the Minister confirm that the VAT increase of 2%, which will absorb 1% of the disposable income of the bottom 10% of earners but only 0.35% of the disposable income of the top 10% of earners, is an example of every effort being made to ensure that the burden of economic recovery is being shared fairly?

The budget was announced in two segments but it is actually split into multiple pieces. We still have a situation where each Minister is producing statements and I am still trying to work through all the details. Reducing the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance has a severe impact on families. The Minister for Education and Skills hinted that he might examine directly off-setting that towards school uniforms or books. I would have liked that announcement to have been made. I also urge caution to my colleagues and the Minister for Social Protection. Yesterday, she compared child benefit rates with those in other countries. If one wishes to compare, one must compare like with like. While child benefit rates in Ireland are high, other countries provide free child care, free school books, free uniforms and free health care, so we should compare like with like.

This morning I raised the issue of the disability allowance for young people. The rationale is that we do not want young people with disabilities to be dependent on an allowance. However, many of these young people have profound and multiple disabilities. They are not going into training schemes or work placements, irrespective of their desire to integrate and participate fully in society. I realise that many people are getting allowances which might be questionable, but I am referring to the people with multiple and profound disabilities. There is no rationale for this and I urge that it be reconsidered. In addition, there is confusion about to whom the cut in disability allowance will apply. Will the Minister of State confirm that nobody currently in receipt of the allowance will have the payment reduced?

On the Order of Business this morning I took the opportunity to raise a number of questions and I am disappointed that I received no answers in the Minister of State’s opening statement today. Lone parents are very fearful at present. I talked to a number of them today. The budget introduces a number of measures which will have a severe impact on parents. There were a number of measures last year and they expected more, but they did not expect the drastic changes to come upon them so quickly. I looked at the figures in an attempt to justify the decisions, because I am trying to consider these decisions and their justifications fairly. I cannot find the rationale for this. We put questions to the Department of Social Protection but there are no figures to justify the decision. Again, there is a lack of clarity about how the cuts are to be implemented and what the transitional arrangements will be.

Budgets are about choices. The Minister can say it is easy for me to make these remarks but the Government decision to keep excise duty on alcohol at the same slashed levels as previous Governments, for example, means it has lost the opportunity to generate €178 million. If it had generated that amount, it would not have been necessary to make the changes to the lone parent, disability and fuel allowances or to student fees.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”