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 Header Item Child Benefit Payments (Continued)
 Header Item Pensions Reform

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 981 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty] It is a universal payment, which I very much support. It is paid in respect of all qualified children up to the age of 16, or to the age of 18 if they are in full-time education or have a disability. It is paid monthly to more than 630,000 families in respect of more than 1.2 million children at an annual cost of €2.1 billion of taxpayers' money. Safeguarding the child benefit budget is a priority and in this regard the Department takes a proactive approach to ensuring it is only paid to eligible families.

The scheme operates a control programme aimed at ensuring that payment of child benefit is made where there is an ongoing entitlement and payment stops once this entitlement ceases.  Some 300,000 eligibility reviews are undertaken annually for this purpose.

The Deputy refers to a commitment in the programme for Government to reform the monitoring of child benefit payments by amalgamating the two existing school attendance monitoring systems, currently run by the Department of Education and Skills and Tusla, in order to address poor school attendance within some families.  Considerable legal, technical and data protection issues are presented by the exchange of information between schools and my Department.  There are particular issues concerning the disclosure of sensitive personal information regarding a child's circumstances which may not be relevant to the parent's entitlement to child benefit.  In the meantime, I am satisfied with the existing control and review policy pertaining to the child benefit scheme. I believe it ensures payment is only made to families with an ongoing entitlement.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I thank the Minister for her response. Every year, 900 children disappear from primary schools and the Department of Education and Skills does not have a clue where they have gone. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection pays €1.5 million to the parents of those children and the State does not know where they are. As the Minister knows, this country's law on school attendance states that children have to attend school up to the age of 16. In order to be eligible for child benefit up to that age, children must attend school. The Minister has said that this money is only paid to eligible families. If children are not attending school, claimants are not complying with the law as it stands. We need to link up the systems within the Department of Education and Skills, Tusla and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure that we identify these families and children and provide the proper supports to ensure they get a chance in life.

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I have already outlined the legal and data protection issues with regard to sharing data that prohibit doing what the Deputy has suggested, which was originally suggested in the programme for Government. I can absolutely assure the Deputy that we take a proactive approach to ensuring that child benefit is paid only to people who are entitled to it. The fraud and error surveys the Department carries out are an integral part of its overall approach to controlling and tackling welfare fraud. The latest survey results confirm the Department's view that child benefit is an exceptionally low-risk scheme. We conduct some 300 inspections every single year, a regime which genuinely results in some payments being stopped. However, the reason for most of those stoppages is not that children are not attending school. Rather, the mother in the house does not see the letter or it goes in a drawer. Parents do not realise the payment has been stopped until it does not arrive in the post office or the bank. They then call the Department and assure it that their children are still going to school. It is a very robust control system and there is an exceptionally low level of fraud. From my own discussions on non-attendance with the department within Tusla that used to be the National Education and Welfare Board, NEWB, I can confirm that we do have a problem. The number of children not attending school is growing. These are the very families that need more supports from us, not just educational supports but mental health and social inclusion supports also. We need to provide robust support to Tusla in identifying those kids and ensuring their families get holistic supports.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I thank the Minister. She makes the point that most payments are stopped because parents have put the letter in a drawer and fail to respond to the Department. Have there been any cases where child benefit has been suspended because parents are in breach of the law on school attendance? Is the most appropriate way to deal with this situation to use tools from 140 years ago and to drag vulnerable parents and families through the courts in order to ensure children access education? Is the Minister aware that one primary school child in eight misses more than 20 days in school? The number is increasing rather than decreasing. In many cases this leads to disruption for the whole class, not just for the child concerned. This has a knock-on impact on adult literacy. One in six adults in this country is unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give a child from the information printed on the package. How can those adults actively engage with employment or with society if they do not have basic literacy skills? Is it not the case that tackling this must start in primary school?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I totally appreciate the result the Deputy is trying to achieve, I just do not think this is the right method to do so. He is right; a phenomenal number of children, especially young boys, are absent from school for more than 20 days, particularly recently. However, it is certainly not their parents' fault and penalising them through child benefit will not fix the problem. We have a real difficulty with young adults growing up in this country facing a substantial amount of social difficulties that we did not face when we were in school. We need to support Tusla so that it has the capacity and resources to work with those families so that we can put other schooling offerings in place to prevent the literacy problems the Deputy describes.

The answer to the Deputy's original question of whether child benefit has ever been stopped because of non-attendance at school is "Yes". The forms that are issued as a control measure must be brought to the school for signature to ensure that little Johnny or Mary is still in school. If he or she is not, the school does not sign the forms, they cannot be returned to my Department and the payments are stopped. We must recognise that there are problems beyond the normal attendance issues the Deputy describes. Putting resources in place to help the families is the proper way forward.

  Question No. 10 answered with Question No. 6.

Pensions Reform

 11. 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 the status of her plans to introduce auto-enrolment; the stage plans are at; the next steps; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15638/19]

Deputy John Brady: Information on John Brady Zoom on John Brady I wish to ask the Minister about the status of her plans to introduce auto-enrolment. The consultation period ended last November. What are the next steps? I call on the Minister to make a statement on the matter.

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty As stated in the roadmap for pensions reform, the Government proposes to implement a supplementary retirement savings system known as automatic enrolment, AE, by 2022.  This will see employees without personal retirement savings automatically enrolled into a quality-assured retirement savings system with freedom of choice to opt out.

I launched a straw man public consultation process for an automatic enrolment retirement savings system in Ireland, which is a bit of a mouthful, last August as the basis for a national public consultation.  I have said that the straw man should not in any way be construed as a confirmation of the form this system will ultimately take.  Thankfully, it has not been. The straw man is a high-level draft document intended to generate and prompt discussion and improve our ideas.  Thankfully, that is exactly what it has done.

In excess of 100 written submissions were received in response to the straw man from employer and employee representatives, pensions industry bodies, advocacy groups and genuinely interested individuals from whom I was very keen to hear.  My officials have met with many of these groups.  I chaired several public consultation seminars held in Dublin, Galway and Cork.  Most recently, a series of focus groups was held in March to garner the views and ideas of the target population for automatic enrolment.

Overall, the responses to the straw man have been very positive and constructive.  In the vast majority of cases, our proposals were welcomed and nearly every stakeholder agreed with most of the design features.  As is human nature, we all have different views on how to improve things. There were diverging and conflicting views from stakeholders on specific aspects. These diverging views depended on which body they represented.

My Department is continuing to analyse the substantial material collated from the consultation process in order to determine how the feedback received can assist with the design process.  Furthermore, my Department is continuing its research and consultation with experts from around the world who have already implemented improvements to their own systems.  My Department has also commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, to examine the potential macroeconomic and microeconomic impacts of automatic enrolment.  It is anticipated that reports of findings from the consultation process and the research currently being undertaken will be brought to Government in the coming months. These reports will assist the Government in making decisions on the next steps for implementation to enable the scheme to commence in the first quarter of 2022.

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