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Social Welfare Bill 2012: Committee Stage (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton] It was challenging to draft this and get the agreement of the Office of the Attorney General because, of course, people have to agree to an arrangement for payment. My impression during previous discussions was that the Deputy was quite in favour of this. Almost everyone in this Chamber, including myself, has formerly been a member of a local authority and is very aware of the problems that arise for families when large rent arrears build up. This is actually meant to be helpful to families and I am not quite clear why Deputy Ó Snodaigh would have a problem with it.

On the question of overpayments, I have a disagreement with Sinn Féin. At the moment it is often possible to recover only €2 per week in arrears from the basic primary social welfare payment of an individual. The amendment I am proposing is to increase that to up to 15% of the primary social welfare payment of the individual who is in arrears. Therefore, if an individual is claiming jobseeker's allowance, for example, with an income of €188 and is also entitled to claim for a dependent spouse and children, the only payment that the arrears would be taken from is the primary payment of €188. The other payments relating to other people in the family would not be affected. Most Deputies know of situations in which people have been involved in significant abuse of the social welfare system. The money they owe can only be recovered at €2 per week and compliant people up and down the road in a local authority estate or on a landing in a flat complex find it deeply unacceptable that they are paying their rent and doing everything right while other people who have scammed the social welfare system only have to repay €2 per week. Furthermore, if such people repay extra, they can then go to their local community welfare service and recover any amount they have paid in excess of €2. This amendment aims to change that situation.

Where overpayments relate to errors or mistakes on the part of the Department, leeway is provided. The 15% referred to is the upper limit. I am anxious to send out a message that if people owe money to the social welfare system, they will have to repay it at a reasonable rate. I believe that a rate of up to 15% of the individual's primary payment, but not any other payments in respect of children, dependent spouses or other adults in the household, is a reasonable arrangement. It would max out at about €26. This would send out a strong signal. At the moment, the Department of Social Protection is owed, according to the recent report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, somewhere in the region of €350 million because of fraud, overpayments and so forth. I do not think it is realistic to expect that we will be able to recover most of that but if we could recover even half of it over a three- to five-year period, it would take the pressure off other areas of the social welfare budget. It would mean that the pressure regarding payments to carers, about whom many Deputies have spoken tonight, pensioners and others would be eased. If we could recover €175 million over three to five years, we could recover anywhere between €20 million and €30 million per year. Also, as overpayments occur and we become aware of them in the future, we will be able to recover the money in a timely manner. Deputies will know of situations in which the build-up of arrears plunges families into deep difficulties, but if we are able to recover the overpayments in a timely fashion, this will reduce problems for families. If money has been defrauded from the system we need to recover as much of it as possible, if not all. Where money has been overpaid by mistake or in error, we also need to recover it so that it can be used in other areas such as those of carers and pensioners, about whom Deputies spoke so convincingly tonight.

Deputy John Halligan: Information on John Halligan Zoom on John Halligan I wish to make a suggestion related to the issue of arrears. In my constituency, if people get into arrears with Waterford City Council, after a few weeks they are obliged to go to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, which stops arrears from building up over a long period. Perhaps the Minister could place such an obligation on those who run into difficulties. I understand that there is fraud within the social welfare system, and I do not condone that, but there are many people who have difficulties with money management. I propose that the Minister recommend that all local authorities encourage people to contact MABS at an early stage when they run into arrears. I also urge her to revisit the MABS budget because it does tremendous work. The number of people using the service has quadrupled in recent years and it could do with extra funding. The valuable work it does in terms of money management could stop arrears from building up. It would be simple to instruct the councils to meet those who get into arrears at a very early stage and make an appointment with MABS on their behalf. MABS would be delighted to get involved and the Department would save a lot of money in the longer term by preventing arrears from building up.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Zoom on Aengus Ó Snodaigh I did not expect to be dealing with these amendments so early in the proceedings but seeing as the Minister has elaborated on them-----

Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea I was just about to make the same point. I thought we were dealing with Deputy Ó Snodaigh's amendments.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Zoom on Aengus Ó Snodaigh I think the Minister was responding to me on the issues I raised.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton My apologies; I was a bit confused. I thought the Deputy was raising a substantive amendment.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt For the record, we are dealing with amendments Nos. 1, 23 and 24, which are related and may be discussed together.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Zoom on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Yes. They relate to the insertion of the phrase "Pensions and Miscellaneous Provisions". I accept the Minister's argument about the inclusion of the word "pensions" but redundancy payments do not relate to social welfare. They are dealt with in the Redundancy Payments Acts, which are not referred to in the principal part of this Bill. That is part of the argument here and, as I have said, a range of issues have been included. I am not too pushed about the amendment being accepted because the Bill has the same effect regardless of whether it is called the Social Welfare Bill or the Social Welfare, Pensions and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill. Either way, it is a draconian Bill.

On the points raised by the Minister, I did not say I was opposed to the household budgeting measures. All I said was that I would prefer a longer period to discuss them.

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