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 Header Item State Pension (Contributory) (Continued)
 Header Item Social Welfare Rates

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 981 No. 5

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Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea I appreciate the Government's ambition for 2020 but I am getting constant queries, as, I am sure, are other Members, from constituents as to when the new system will be put in place. I cannot tell them definitively, on the basis of the Minister's reply, that it will be next year, but that is the Government's ambition. Did the Department receive submissions in the consultation process regarding the baseline figure of 40 years, which is 2,080 contributions? It was originally envisaged that it would be 30 years rather than 40.

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I would be very comfortable if the Deputy said to his constituents what I say to mine, namely, that our intention is to introduce it in quarter 3 of 2020. That intention and the roadmap for pensions have not changed since we drew up that roadmap in 2018. There were many submissions on the topic referred to by the Deputy. However, things have changed over the years. The original formation looked at a 30-year span but only ten years' credits. We all recognise that people, particularly women, who stay at home to mind their children do so for a hell of a lot longer than ten years. They should not be discounted. There is no final outcome yet. I have to finalise the position in the next couple of weeks. I want to ensure that everyone's contribution inside and outside the home is recognised equally.

Social Welfare Rates

 2. Deputy John Brady Information on John Brady Zoom on John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty if she will consider the proposals put forward in the Social Welfare Commission Bill 2018 in order to ensure the adequacy of social welfare payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15742/19]

Deputy John Brady: Information on John Brady Zoom on John Brady Last October, I introduced the Social Welfare Commission Bill 2018. The intention behind it is to ensure adequacy in social welfare payments across the board. Has the Minister had an opportunity to look at the Bill and will she make a statement on it?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty The Social Welfare Commission Bill 2018, sponsored by the Deputy, seeks, among other things, to establish a commission to monitor and make recommendations on social welfare rates at least once a year.

The Deputy will be aware that ideas of benchmarking and indexation of social welfare rates are not new. For example, previous studies were conducted by the Commission on Social Welfare in 1986, long before the Deputy and I were Members, and by the social welfare benchmarking and indexation group in 2001.

In our roadmap for pensions reform, which was published on a snowy day last March, the Government committed to examine and develop proposals to set a formal benchmark target of 34% of average earnings for the contributory State pension and to institute a process whereby future changes in rates of pension payment will be linked explicitly to changes in consumer prices and average wages.

My Department is currently considering options to implement this commitment by examining previous studies on benchmarking and indexation, international experience and a range of potential benchmarks and indices. It is worth noting that the current rates of payment mirror closely already the benchmark levels proposed in previous reports, including those proposed by the social welfare benchmarking and indexation group of 2001 which is usually relied on by advocacy and other groups.

In terms of the wider application of indexation of social welfare payments generally, section 19 of the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Act 2018 provides that, as Minister, I will arrange to "consult with stakeholders on examining ways in which social welfare rates are increased with the aim of ensuring adequacy for all recipients and shall do so in quarter 1 of 2019". From recollection, albeit the Deputy can correct me if I am wrong, that provision was proposed in an amendment which he tabled and we all supported.

In this context, my Department met with numerous interested stakeholders during quarter 1 of 2019 to solicit views on how the adoption of benchmarking and a system of indexation might work for social welfare rates more generally. The feedback from this consultation is currently being considered and will help to inform the development of what will hopefully be a collective approach to benchmarking and indexation.

In addition, I propose that the issue will be considered at my Department's pre-budget forum on an official basis in July. The forum includes representatives from the community and voluntary sector, ICTU and IBEC, among others.  I have the Deputy's views, which are welcome, and would welcome also the views of those in other political parties who are interested in this area and who might make submissions.

Deputy John Brady: Information on John Brady Zoom on John Brady I thank the Minister for her reply. It was the top priority at last year's pre-budget forum meeting in July that there would be adequacy in the setting of social welfare payments right across the board. There have been reports in the last while that the Minister is looking at linking payments to the consumer price index, CPI, only. If that is true, it would be a retrograde step and would fail to ensure adequacy, which is what is needed. We have to get this right. It is the top priority for all NGOs. The Minister stated that the process of engaging with those organisations - as committed to in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Act 2018 on foot of an amendment which, as she correctly indicated, I proposed - has started. I welcome the fact that the process has begun. If the groups involved are completely opposed to linking payments to the CPI only, will the Minister listen and set the idea aside? I also wish to ask her about the proposed national action plan for social inclusion, which is also critical. That plan is long overdue and was supposed to be in place by January. It is now April but there is still no sign of it. The action plan is critical from a cross-departmental perspective. Where is it?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty It never ceases to amaze me when I read things in the newspapers which I am supposed to have said or done but which are nowhere close to anything I have said or done at all. They either fail to accord with what I said or did or they are completely made up. I do not know where the idea that the Department is considering indexing against the CPI came from but it certainly did not come from us. Someone is being mischievous. The only reason this is on my agenda is that it was advocated for so strongly at our forum last July. This is what NGOs and advocacy groups want, namely, to ensure that we have an adequate payment which meets people's needs. It is why I did the tender on the total cost of disability this year. I need to know what different levels of need apply for different cohorts of people who are solely reliant on a fixed income from the Department every week. When we started the consultation, or thought process, last year, it was on the back of what NGOs and advocacy groups had asked for. I cannot do it without their co-operation and I certainly cannot do it without the co-operation of the House. The only way to achieve what we want, namely, adequacy in payments for people on jobseeker's allowance, widow's pensions, pensions and payments for persons with disabilities, including people who are blind, is through consultation. To answer the Deputy's question, a wide variety of views have been put forward and they will all be assessed before we make a proposal.

Deputy John Brady: Information on John Brady Zoom on John Brady I thank the Minister for that. In the context of the Bill I introduced last October, I carried out an extensive engagement with all of the groups involved, including Social Justice Ireland, the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the European Anti-Poverty Network. I consulted across the board and I note that there is a broad consensus in support for my Bill. That is because it is critical to protect our most vulnerable citizens through social protection. It is also essential to remove the setting of rates from use as a political football, regardless of whether it is €5 here or there or €5 for everyone. That fails to deal with the need for targeted increases to deal with abject poverty. That is what is needed here. There is broad support for my Bill and I am eager to sit down with the Minister to discuss it. The way forward is to establish this commission to set rates. I asked the Minister also about the national action plan for social inclusion. Can she provide a definitive timeframe as to when the action plan will be implemented?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I apologise for that. I was talking too much and ran out of time. The launch of the national action plan for social inclusion is pencilled in for 22 May 2019. The Taoiseach is going to launch it. The reason it has been delayed is that, as the Deputy suggested, it involves a multidisciplinary and, more importantly, cross-departmental approach. If it only involved the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, I could have launched it myself last year. However, it would not then have been a robust document. That is because to be effective, the plan must also include the Departments with responsibility for children, education, healthcare and housing. I am adamant that it will not just be a document we all read and say "That is grand". It will be a living document. While the Deputy might slag me, there will be an action plan to go with it and people will be assigned specific targets and the dates by which to achieve them. As long as I am here, I will ensure that we look at those targets on a quarterly basis to ensure they are achieved.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl I call Deputy Brady for a final intervention.

Deputy John Brady: Information on John Brady Zoom on John Brady Is it a strategy to launch it a few days before the European elections?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty If it were, I would be leaving it very late at 22 May. People will have already made up their minds by then.

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