Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill 2015: Second Stage 17 July 2015

[CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY]

Welcome Minister.

While I appreciate the desire to have certain pieces of legislation passed through the Houses before the summer recess, it should never be at the expense of the democratic process.

You are aware Minister as are my Seanad colleagues that our agenda has gone from meagre at various stages over the last few months with (let’s be honest) thinly veiled time fillers…to the scenario we have now where there is insufficient time to scrutinise this Bill properly and fulfill our legislative duty.

I was unable to follow the Bill’s conclusion in the Dáil yesterday afternoon due to the Health and Children Committee session, legislative briefings and various meetings throughout the day.

There wasn’t even an updated version of the Bill reflecting the Report Stage amendments from the Dáil, when this speech was put together.

Only for a briefing late yesterday afternoon by your Department Officials, which was extremely helpful, I wouldn’t have known and been able to welcome the fact that the Bill has been amended to repeal the relevant provisions of the Enforcement of Court Orders Acts 1926-2009, which was preventing the Bill from truly abolishing the imprisonment mechanism for non-payment of civil debts.

As you know Minister I strongly support extending the recognised principle of detention as a last resort for children to adults and with urgency for the 18-24 year old cohort.

I accept imprisonment is unavoidable in certain circumstances, particularly in the case of violent offences but our rates of committal to prison under sentence and the increasing number of committals for less than three and six month periods, means that Ireland has one of the most punitive criminal justice systems in Europe.

I was interested to know what kind of numbers we were looking at in terms of imprisonment for non-payment of debt and according Irish Prison Service Annual Report, 23 debtors were subject to a period of custodial sanction in 2014.

This was compared to 8,979 committals for non-payment of court ordered fines, the vast majority of which were for periods of less than three months, but nonetheless at significant cost to the State.

Minister, when will the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014 be commenced? While not completely removing the possibility of imprisonment for non-payment, the Act provides much needed alternative such as the payment of fines by instalment, by attachment and recovery orders if appropriate, and by the substitution of community service orders for the fines.

It is now simply absurd that 5 years after the first Fines Act (2010) introduced a payment by instalment mechanism that the Court Service is still unable to progress the facility and there are nearly 9,000 committals a year as a result.

I have a number of concerns about the Bill before us, which echo many of the same concerns flagged by FLAC in their submission.

I had a chance to discuss some with your Department Officials at yesterday’s briefing.

Assessment of ability to pay issues:

 Why is there no statutorily enshrined guidance for the District Court in determining a debtor’s ability to pay their debt or the amount to be attached or deducted over a given period?

Minister, I put it to you that there will undoubtedly be unequal assessment depending on the court.  This already happens in relation to family law maintenance where orders can vary extensively depending on the court in question.   There is a need for guidelines. The guidelines exist.

Guidelines on reasonable standard of living, reasonable living expenses for debtors:

I suggest the Bill would be greatly strengthened by specific reference to the “reasonable living expenses” guidelines that the Insolvency Service of Ireland and the Official Assignee in Bankruptcy must consider in accordance with section 23 of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 to ensure a debtor’s income doesn’t fall below an acceptable minimum standard.

The guidelines have their base in objective, academic work principally of Michéal Collins at Trinity College working with the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice who in turn used a well-established model developed by the University of Loughborough in the UK and are used for debts big and small in the insolvency service including assessments for Debt Relief Notices where the maximum reference debt is €20,000 but can be much smaller.

If it’s good enough for insolvency and bankruptcy deliberations I don’t see why it isn’t good enough in the context of civil debt?

I cannot help but wonder if the reason it isn’t included in the Bill is that many social welfare recipients, if not all, subject to its assessment would fail to reach the threshold and the truth is that this Bill, while necessary and welcome in many ways, has a special interest in ensuring that outstanding water bills can be collected from the “refuse to pay category” in receipt of social welfare.

Social Welfare:

Is the point of social welfare not to provide the minimum of what people who are not in employment need to survive? How then can any deduction (even where as low as the €1 and €5 per week as mooted in the briefing) not cause additional hardship to those already experiencing poverty?

Apparent contradiction in that there is no provision for the deduction of fines from social welfare payments under the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014 and plans to introduce such arrangements.

Proceedings in Open Court:

I am really concerned that the civil debt proceedings will be taking place in open court.

At least with family law maintenance hearings only the parties to the case will hear all of the details of income and expenses.

The civil debt situation is in open court (District Court-often really full) where the debtor must file details of their finances or face prosecution and where the creditor can question the debtor in open court.

If the reasonable living expenses guidelines I have suggested were used, then a debtor’s affairs would only be opened out for the general public in cases where the expenses were above what was considered reasonable.  And the expenses would be the same throughout all the courts of the land.

Employment Protection Issues:

There is no protection in the Bill for the debtor against adverse or unfair treatment by his or her employer owing to there being an Attachment of Earnings Order against them.

This situation is different to a maintenance attachment in a family law context, which is regarded as a family matter/familial dispute/nobody’s business. In a failure to pay a civil debt context I am worried that an employer might infer that the employee is untrustworthy/unreliable.

FLAC Recommendation: Amend the Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977 to 1993 to specifically prohibit dismissal on the grounds of being subject to an attachment of earnings order.

Can the Minister explain why the Bill allows an attachment order to be obtained and notified to a person’s employer without any prior steps being taken to recover the debt?

Surely an Attachment of Earnings Order should only follow the debtor’s failure to meet the terms of an Instalment Order and where the varying of an Instalment Order downwards has been considered?

-END-

 

Statements on the Youth Guarantee

February 5th, 2014

Senator Jillian Van Turnhout speaking on the issue of Youth Guarantee: Statements. Seanad Éireann

I welcome the Minister and thank her for keeping the commitment she made during the debate on the social welfare legislation to accede to my request for a discussion on this plan. I also thank my colleague, Senator O’Donnell, for her very informative report.

I welcome the plan. This is the first occasion since the advent of the financial crisis that a comprehensive plan bringing together all the elements to tackle youth unemployment has been produced. We should acknowledge the role the Minister has played in this regard, both in terms of her brief and in the context of her personal commitment to youth employment. It is extremely positive that a concerted effort will now be made to support young people from unemployment to education, training and work experience.

During the debate on the social welfare legislation, we engaged in a lengthy discussion on youth unemployment. As a result, I will use the time available to pose some very specific questions on the youth guarantee. I fully support the decision to commence the engagement process relating to the youth guarantee with the 22,000 young people who have been on the live register for 12 months or more. This makes sense. May we take it that these young people will be offered quality and appropriate educational, training or work experience placements by the end of 2014? If that were made clear, it would send out a great message to people.

I welcome the personal progression plans and the focus and early intervention for young people with a low probability of exiting the live register, PEX, score. There is a need for a two-way process between case officers and young people. Will there be a commitment to changing focus from needs of education and training providers to those of the unemployed and local labour markets? A greater number of and more intensive engagements can only happen if sufficient case workers are available. Is the Minister in a position to provide details with regard to the number of case officers and hours that will be assigned to the youth guarantee in 2014 and 2015? It is not clear from the youth guarantee implementation plan how much of the education-training provision is existing and how much will be new. This is important because it is clear, in view of demand, that merely rearranging the existing provision will not be sufficient. Will the Minister indicate, particularly in the context of education and training, where new provision will be available? I welcome the changes to schemes such as JobsPlus, particularly as these will allow employers to take on young people and obtain the wage subsidy for those under 25 who are on low to medium PEX scores and who have been unemployed for four months rather than being obliged to wait for 12 months. This is a welcome initiative and I thank the Minister for putting it in place.

The Minister correctly pointed out that some of the targets are ambitious. I was very happy when I discovered that the expected number of new JobBridge places for young people is set at 5,000 for 2014. Given that 6,000 young people under 25 have participated on the scheme since July 2011, however, this means that the Department proposes to almost reach in one year a target it previously took two and a half years to achieve. Will the Minister provide further information in respect of this matter and on the proposed JobBridge scheme for disadvantaged youth? I am interested in the latter but I would welcome additional detail in respect of it. I welcome the strong focus in the plan on disadvantage. Those in this category are often missed by plans of this nature because we tend to go for the low-hanging fruit and forget about that which is difficult to reach. I am disappointed that the opportunity to harness the capacity of the youth work sector in the context of supporting the implementation of the guarantee has been missed. I know the Minister has had some very positive meetings with representatives from the National Youth Council of Ireland and other youth work organisations on this issue. The reality is, however, that it will be challenging for State agencies to reach and engage with young people who are most disadvantaged. This is because those agencies lack the connections into the community that those youth sector already have in place. As already stated, the plan represents a missed opportunity and this regard and perhaps it might be possible to review the position that has been adopted.

The Minister may be able to answer some of the questions I have posed now. Perhaps she might respond in respect of the others at the earliest opportunity. I thank her for her vision, commitment and proposal to drive the youth guarantee forward. We are focusing on the right area and my questions are intended to achieve the results we all want to achieve.

Written Response

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013. All Stages 5-7 November 2013

 Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Fifth Stage (7 Nov 2013)

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.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Report Stage (7 Nov 2013)

They are actually from the Department of Social Protection.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

We are speaking on the amendment. I have given the Senator an extreme amount of latitude on this.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

To the amendment.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I remind Senator Harte to speak to the amendments. We cannot revisit the discussion on section 9.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I ask the Senator to confine her comments to the amendment.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Okay.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Okay.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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?

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

I am encouraging the Senator to pursue that.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

Senator, let us keep to the section.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

The Senator should speak to section 9.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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?

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Committee Stage (6 Nov 2013)

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.

 

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (5 Nov 2013)

The Senator is taking time from his colleagues.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (5 Nov 2013)

Senator Zappone, without interruption, please.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (5 Nov 2013)

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Seanad: Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013: Second Stage (5 Nov 2013)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Statements on Budget 2014

 

Seanad Éireann

Statements on Budget 2014

Minister of State for Public Service Reform and the Office of Public Works, Brian Hayes TD

Speaking Notes

Tuesday 15 October 2014

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Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will premise my statement by underscoring the importance of addressing today’s budgetary measures and fiscal adjustment, the sixth in line of extremely difficult budgets since 2008, and the context of their cumulative impact since this is the reality of the way they are being experienced by people.

As a Senator this is the third time I have made a statement on the budget and it is safe to say, and no doubt the feeling is shared by many members of the public, that my sense of disillusionment and powerlessness has been compounded on each occasion. It is a sense that nothing has changed about the way we do our business. I welcome what the Minister said about the European aspect but as far as we do our business, I do not believe anything has changed.

I have said on numerous occasions in previous statements on the budget and in response to various social welfare provisions that Ireland, while on the road to recovery, is still in serious financial difficulty and money must be saved and generated but how this money is saved, be it from cuts to existing provisions and services or exploring alternative revenue-generating measures such as tax increases and against whom the cuts are made, are ultimately political decisions. There is a strong public perception that the decision has been made to persistently target vulnerable groups and re-hit already stretched and hard-pressed families.

Accusations have been made that such decisions are made with political capital considerations in mind. There is a certain class of people that have remained largely unscathed by successive budgets. They are young employed individuals without children and without a mortgage. Effectively, that grouping has remained unscathed. I have spoken with many of those people in the course of my work and I have heard time and again that they are willing to shoulder their share of the burden more fairly. After each budget they are grateful they did not get hit.

I believe it is a mark of a decent and humane society to ensure that those with the lowest income and least resources are protected from further cuts. I recall when dealing in April 2012 with the impact of the provisions on lone parents in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012 feeling that anything I had to say was futile since the relevant decisions had already been made. It almost felt disingenuous to be kicking up a fuss knowing that whatever I said, nothing would change but I spoke to the groups advocating for lone parents on the ground and they convinced me of the importance of ensuring that their voices, and the voices of their constituents, made it on to the record.

The voices of civil society organisations and NGOs on the ground, which witness the impact of the decisions and cuts we debate in these Chambers, must be heard. We need to reconsider our mechanism leading up to the budget, to have a greater engagement with those organisations and not have a showpiece hearing where the relevant decision makers are not present. This is also why I feel so strongly about the move to restrict the access of the NGOs to the AV room to have political briefings. We need to be very careful about our decisions. We should not close off or close down dialogue and open ourselves to accusations that political decisions are being made in a vacuum.

Moving to today’s budget, I very much welcome the decisions made, particularly in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the additional funding of €6.7 million in 2014 to reform child protection. I know that money will go to the new child and family agency. It is really positive that it is being moved into the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I am very concerned at the talk that the new agency will start with a deficit. The agency will be taken out of the HSE and created, and there is talk of transferring a deficit. That will be regressive and I will watch it closely.

I welcome the implementation of the preschool quality agenda for which there is funding of €4.5 million. Additional inspectors will be recruited. There should be nationwide coverage. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of a preschool mentoring service. We need mentoring in that sector to bring quality up to a consistent level and not to see more scenes such as those we saw in the “Prime Time” programme entitled Breach of Trust. We need to support staff training.

I also welcome the initiatives to tackle child poverty at a local area level. A cut of €3 million in youth work funding was projected for 2014, and we are supposed to heave a sigh of relief that it is only €2 million. This sector has been disproportionately cut. We know that for every €1 the State invests in youth work it saves €2.22 in the long run. Youth work organisations around the country are under huge pressure. The youth council proposed the introduction of a 1% social responsibility levy on drinks manufacturers. I notice in the budget that €145 million is saved in the excise duty added to alcohol. Why can youth workers not receive some of that additional money? They do not take funding from drinks companies. All too often we hear it said of the sports organisations “Oh dear, they cannot afford to let go of the drink sponsorship”. Youth organisations say “No” to drinks companies because of the ethos of their organisations. They work with young people, as do the sports organisations. Youth organisations say “No” and I do not see why a measure like that cannot be found for them. I welcome and note the increase in tax on tobacco.

If one is in the 18 to 25 year age category one had no hand in creating the situation in which we now find ourselves yet there is a disproportionate reduction in the jobseeker’s allowance. That is very tough on young people. Yes, they should be encouraged into education and training but the reality is that the places are not available for them.

Minister Hayes: There is a 100% increase as announced today in the budget in places for that age cohort.

Senator van Turnhout: The places are not there. There is an urban-rural divide. I hear all too often that young people are being forced back into the family home. Once again, there is a geographical lottery.

On the tax exemption for starting one’s own business, does someone need to wait to be unemployed for over 15 months? We know most businesses do not make money in the first two years. I wonder what this measure solves.

It is great that the €14 million youth guarantee has been announced. I am however a little concerned about the figures and I will study this more closely. It seems very low. Much of this is based on the Swedish model but the Swedes estimated that it would cost €6,600 per participant. They estimate that it will cost €273 million to implement in Ireland, based on their figures. That is phased over several years but €14 million seems very low, given that we need to spend it before we recoup it from the EU. While it seems like a large sum it is too low to implement the youth guarantee as it is envisaged—–

Minister Hayes: Is it not matching?

Senator van Turnhout: No. The Government must spend it first then recoup it. That is why I am concerned about the €14 million because we must spend it before we recoup.

I warmly welcome the free GP cards for children aged five years and under but we must ask ourselves about the discretionary medical cards. What children will lose out? In the Irish Examiner there is a very good case study profiling some of the cases that have lost out. It is excellent to have a rights-based approach to introducing the free GP card and they should not be confused with one another. I am concerned about this and I am hearing these concerns from parents around the country. I welcome the grant for the protection of the homeless.

I am concerned about the tax credit for the one-parent family. I want to explore it further to see what implications it has for families. I hear that the mental health budget has been reduced. We never seem to be able to spend the money.

 Minister Hayes: It has been increased by €20 million.

Senator van Turnhout: I hear that the overseas development aid budget has been reduced by €14.1 million. I have a difficulty with the kind of society we are creating. I have voted for tax increases. I voted for property tax.

Minister Hayes: It is not enough.

Senator Darragh O’Brien: Some 3% on those over €100,000.

Senator van Turnhout: Senator Mary Ann O’Brien and I have put forward ways in which the Department of Health can save a significant amount of money on children with life-limiting conditions. The Minister of State should not talk to me about solutions. I keep putting them forward.

Minister Hayes: It is not enough.

Senator van Turnhout: I keep putting them forward. The Minister of State has not even taken one step in the right direction on that issue. I have concerns about maternity and adoptive benefit. I ask the Minister of State to look at my record. I have put down solutions in this House. I have tried to be fair and equal in what I have said. Some of the measures are hidden. These small cumulative cuts will affect people.

 

Order of Business, 12 February 2013

Tuesday, 12th February 2013

It is six weeks since the new year. The Chinese new year was celebrated last Sunday. This is the year of the snake. My first question relates to a report that was promised in the new year.

I believe we have qualified on both counts that we are in the new year. I refer to the report of the Advisory Group on Tax and Social Welfare chaired by Ita Mangan. The Minister, Deputy Burton, challenged us to examine the facts of this report and gave an undertaking in this House to publish the report early in the new year. My question is when that report will be published. Yesterday a report from the Consumers’ Association of Ireland showed there has been a 12% rise in the cost of a typical basket of groceries. We have seen a very brutal cut across the board in child benefit payment. I am willing to take some tough decisions on child benefit but let us see this report and let the discussion begin. I do know why it has taken so long for it to be published.

We were also promised that the child and family support agency Bill would be published in the new year. Colleagues in the House will know that I have repeatedly asked for us to debate this new agency which has a budget of €545 million and a staff of 4,000, yet we have not had a debate on it. I have tried every angle to have a debate on it in this House but that has been blocked. When will the Bill be published? When will we see it? This is a very important agency. My fear is that staff are just being transferred from the HSE. I question whether any Member of the House would say it is a great idea to transfer staff from the HSE, with all the deals and practices they have, into the agency. When will that Bill be published?

A report was commissioned six years ago from the commission of investigation into the Death of Gary Douch. That commission of investigation was established in April 2007 following the attack and subsequent death of Gary Douch in a cell in Mountjoy Prison. I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality when that report will be published?

Order of Business, 11 December 2012

I will save my comments on the budget for next week, but I am very concerned about the cumulative cuts. We cannot just consider this year’s budget but must also consider previous budgets and how they affect children and families directly. Our group has tabled a motion for debate tomorrow on the value of youth work. Youth work organisations are being affected by the cuts and I hope we will have our colleagues’ support in that debate.

This morning the Supreme Court has handed down its full judgment, which was unanimous, in its ruling that the Government acted wrongfully by spending €1.1 million on its information campaign in the recent referendum. I call for this House to have a debate on how we hold referendums to ensure we have a fair and balanced debate.

While I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, last week’s budget announced €546 million for the new child and family support agency. The task force report was published in July. Nobody in this House could say what the remit and scope of the new child and family support agency entail, yet we have allocated a budget of €546 million. We urgently need a debate. We cannot wait for the legislation to be placed before us and then fine-tune the legislation. If the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is not available, I have suggested to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges three individuals of high calibre who could come before this House and discuss the new agency with us. I do not understand the reason for the delay.

I repeat the call I made during the debate on Senator Quinn’s excellent Bill on employment permits. We should have a debate on forced labour in Ireland.

I asked that the Minister for Justice and Equality publish the International Labour Organisation’s report on criminalising forced labour in Ireland. This report needs to be published, we need to criminalise this and there needs to be urgency on this issue. I repeat my call for that debate.

Senator Opposes Cuts to Lone Parent Support

In Seanad debates today and on Friday 27th April, Senator Jillian van Turnhout has strongly opposed the cutting of the One-Parent Family Payment as part of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012.

Until 2011, lone parents were entitled to the One-Parent Family Payment until their children are 18, or 22 if in full-time education. The age at which the payment stops was cut to 14 last year, and the current amendment proposed by the Government would see it slashed to the age of 7 by 2014.

Senator van Turnhout, an activist for children’s rights and former chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, argued that the children affected by this change are among the most at-risk in the State today: “One-parent families are the unit group in Irish society most at risk of poverty. Children in one-parent families are poorer than other children. This is not speculation. It is a fact.”

In the debate on the Bill, Senator van Turnhout outlined her disgust at the idea that lone parents are lone parents by choice: “More than 90,000 people, the vast majority women, did not choose to belong to the family unit group in Irish society most at risk of poverty.” Not only is this argument insulting to those who have left abusive or dysfunctional relationships, or who have been deserted and left with full responsibility for their children, “it feeds into a notion that lone parents are a legitimate or worthy target of welfare cuts.”

Tackling the idea that these cuts will break long-term welfare dependency and force recipients into employment, the Senator asked “If it was the case that none of the 90,000 lone parents in question are working, my first question would be; where are the 90,000 jobs for them to take up? However, it is not necessary to ask this question since 80% are either working or in education.”

Once the cut-off point for payments reaches 7 years in 2014, the State will face a crisis of childcare. The Senator said that, in spite of Government hopes, “I have grave concerns about the viability of such comprehensive and affordable childcare and after school care provisions being delivered within the next three years.”

These cuts are being undertaken without adequate consultation with experts and with those that represent lone parent families and children. While accepting that the money available to the State is tight and that welfare reform can be positive, Senator van Turnhout opposed the cutting of support for the most at-risk in society: “Reform is not about pulling the rug out from under already vulnerable people.”

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”